Russia: A Genuine Reset

Outward To The World, Fabian Society

A new relationship can be established with Russia by truly understanding its history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives.

This should form the the basis of a new doctrine – ‘respect-based realism’ – through which two deeply damaging conflicts that can
only feasibly be resolved through dialogue with Russia might be tackled: Ukraine and Syria.

I remember that first flight to St Petersburg in May 2005 as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to take up my post as director of the British Council’s operations in St Petersburg & North-West Russia, and was feeling a palpable sense of hope, combined with a healthy dose of trepidation. I was looking forward to some language training and getting settled into my new life in St Pete, before formally starting the job in September. But I was also wondering what the coming years held in store for me, given the parlous state of the bilateral relationship.

Equally memorable, but for very different reasons, was that last flight out of St Petersburg, in January 2008. Relations between the British and Russian governments had gone into deep freeze following the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, tit-for-tat expulsions had ensued, and the British Council had become a political football in a truly unpleasant grudge match between the Kremlin and Number 10. A sustained campaign of various acts of intimidation by the Russian authorities eventually forced us to close our St Petersburg office. Although I was keen to stay on in order to oversee the orderly closure of our operations and the security of our Russian employees, British Council senior management felt that it was time for me to get out of town as quickly as possible.

In spite of the aggression and unpleasantness that came to dominate the relationship between the British Council and the Russian authorities, Russia will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s a fascinating country of contradictions, extremes, suffering and joy, and I will never forget my time there. A wise person once said that “you can leave Russia, but it will never leave you”, and I can certainly confirm the truth of that statement.

‘Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone’
– Fyodor Tyutchev

Being in the eye of this diplomatic storm enabled me to see at first-hand the extent to which Russian politics is underpinned
by emotion, instinct, psychology and history. Rational analysis and objective assessment of the facts are important, but they
almost always play second fiddle to more visceral impulses. Russia is a proud nation, and its people are deeply attached
to the concept of uvazhaniye – respect. The national psyche is rooted in a sense that no Russian should ever be treated
as second-rate, and anchored by the suspicion that Mother Russia is constantly being disrespected and destabilised by
malevolent external forces. This potent combination of pride and paranoia lies at the heart of every big political decision
that has ever been made in Russia: it is the iron thread that connects the Tsars to Stalin and Putin. Every Russian ruler,
with the genius exception of Gorbachev and the shambolic eccentricity of Yeltsin, has exploited it relentlessly 

‘The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything’ – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The identity, instincts and mind-set of the Russian people are shaped by geography. Inhabitants of a vast land mass with borders so long that they are almost impossible to defend, the Russians have always suffered from ‘encirclement anxiety’. Their world-view is shaped by the conviction that those who seek to exploit and undermine nasha Rodina – the Motherland – are constantly hovering on her doorstep, and their default position is therefore to strike first, subjugate their neighbours, and from this platform to build a sphere of influence. From the empire-building of Peter the Great, to the establishment and extension of the Soviet Union, to the Russians’ furious opposition to the expansion of NATO, through to Putin’s adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, the narrative of encirclement provides the backdrop to every chapter of Russia’s turbulent history.

It is absolutely essential that our approach to Russia is informed by an in-depth understanding of this Russian reality. It has long been recognised but too rarely applied in practice. We must acknowledge that we can keep shouting at the Kremlin about democracy, pluralism and ‘good’ international behaviour, but the fact is that the inhabitants of that iconic Moscow fortress will simply ignore us unless we demonstrate that we comprehend and respect the narrative of encirclement that defines the Russian political psyche. If we can make comprehension of this fundamental truth the new point of departure for relations with Russia, then it is possible that new channels of engagement can be created without deference or concession to Russian external ambitions, or compromising our values.

Having established some common ground for dialogue, the next step would be to reset our relationship with Russia on the basis of a new doctrine of respect-based realism, structured around the following three pillars:


Pillar 1: Commit to UK membership of NATO and support further sanctions against Russia in response to further aggression against Ukraine, but never promote the eastward expansion of NATO

Clearly, should the people of Ukraine (or any other country for that matter) wish to hold a referendum on possible membership of NATO, it is their sovereign right to do so. However, it should be unambiguously stated that the UK has no plans or desire to encourage such a development. The further expansion of NATO would not serve any military or strategic objective. Ukraine’s dilapidated military capability is certainly not going to add any tangible value to NATO’s firepower, and the strategic disadvantages of Ukraine joining NATO far outweigh the potential benefits. The Russians already know that NATO will step in to protect Ukraine if there were to be any further incursions by Russian forces into Ukrainian territory, regardless of the fact that Ukraine is not formally a member of NATO. Encouraging Ukraine to join NATO at this point in time would therefore constitute an
unnecessary and futile provocation.

Pillar 2: Respect the rule of law and conventions of international diplomacy and intelligence-sharing, as long as Russia does

London is the Russian elite’s destination of preference when it comes to keeping their assets safe and off-shoring their 
capital, with Cyprus and Latvia also attracting vast deposits. 

For a variety of reasons, existing EU regulations on moneylaundering are, however, inconsistently applied and policed in the UK. Those regulations must be tightened and enforced, and the capacity of HMRC rebuilt in the face of recent weakening by the government. Respect must be a two-way street, and we will simply not accept the exploitative way in which corrupt Russian officials and oligarchs are using the UK as a repository for their often ill-gotten fortunes.

Following the Metrojet disaster on 31 October 2015, David Cameron made a very public proclamation on 4 November that the British government had received credible information suggesting that the Russian flight out of Sharm El Sheikh was downed by an on-board bomb. His decision to make that public statement without first sharing that intelligence with the Russian authorities was a crass act of grandstanding. It was perceived to be deeply insulting to the families of the 224 people who lost their lives in that tragic incident, and the Russian government expressed “shock” at the failure to share information with them. This is the wrong way to behave and, in the event of such atrocities, information must always go to the most affected countries before public statements are made.

Pillar 3: Always practice what you preach

Russian politicians and opinion formers see the British as arch hypocrites, preaching the gospel of democracy, human rights and the rule of law whilst conducting illegal invasions of sovereign countries and selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, President Putin has no qualms about interfering in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, with the 2008 war against Georgia and the annexation of Crimea being the most salient examples. Moreover, the standards of democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and the operation of the rule of law in Russia are patently less than perfect. This is the context in which we should state clearly that we wish to establish a genuine reset with Russia. The left are not conscientious objectors, and we reserve the right to deploy military force as a last resort.

However, we will never mobilise our armed forces because of the superficial desire to be seen to be ‘doing something’, especially when NATO or other Treaty obligations do not require such deployment. Our actions will always be driven by long-term strategic aims rather than short-term tactics, and we will always seek negotiated solutions, secured through active diplomacy. Having made authentic efforts to re-set relations on the basis of respect-based realism, the next step will be to apply this new doctrine to tackling the crises in Ukraine and Syria, two deeply damaging conflicts that can only feasibly be resolved through dialogue with Russia.

Ukraine: pulling the economic levers

Russia’s geo-political influence and substantial military clout stand in stark contrast to the small size and fragile state of its economy. In 2013 Russia’s economy ($2.1tn) was roughly the size of Italy’s, and considerably smaller than Germany’s ($3.7tn). Russia is grossly over-reliant on hydrocarbons, with approximately 70 per cent of its GDP linked to the oil and gas industries. With the price of a barrel of oil plummeting to $50 – $60, the value of the rouble tumbling, sanctions biting and poor economic policy decisions compounding these problems, the Russian economy is facing a perfect storm.

It is against this backdrop that sanctions as a foreign policy tool are ultimately likely to have real effect. The sectoral sanctions imposed by the EU in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 by Russian-made missiles in July 2014 have certainly led Russia to tread more carefully in terms of incursions into eastern Ukraine, and there is some evidence to suggest that President Putin is not actively seeking to up the ante there.

The way forward is therefore to continue to support asset freezes, visa bans and economic sanctions against Russia, until such time as the terms of the Minsk ceasefire agreement have been fully implemented. Minsk is far from ideal, but it represents the only hope for stability and peace. If there were to be any attempt by Russia to ramp up hostilities in Ukraine, the UK should commit to support the training and equipping of Ukrainian forces.

A key source of tension is the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), but Russian concerns about the DCFTA are simply not credible and it should be implemented in full. Ukraine is a sovereign country, and therefore free to sign international agreements as it sees fit, and Russia is negotiating from a position of relative economic weakness.

Beyond this, the completion of the EU Energy Union is crucial. The EU’s fragmented energy market and infrastructure cause several EU member states (including Germany) to be more reliant than necessary on Russian oil and gas, which in turn gives Russia disproportionate influence in its dealings with the EU. By investing in inter-connectors and integrating the energy trading market, the EU would fundamentally re-balance its relationship with Russia.

Eastern Ukraine will eventually become a ‘frozen conflict’, joining Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh as troubled regions characterised by a perpetual stand-off between Russia and its neighbours. We may simply have to accept that outcome for the foreseeable future, but in doing so we must also strengthen our resolve to provide the strongest possible political and economic support to the government in Kiev, and we must also offer Ukraine a roadmap to membership of the European Union. Such a course would not be pursued to provoke or to offer false hope, but rather as a basic, rational response to the fact of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Syria: winning the game of shadows

Syria is a proxy war, with Iran and Russia supporting the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar backing the opposition. What all parties want above all else is stability, and in particular to avoid the contagious anarchy that would follow a forced regime change in Damascus. This pre-eminent desire for stability presents the only feasible opportunity for the durable resolution of the Syria crisis. It also offers the only possibility that Iran and Russia could potentially be prepared to abandon Assad in exchange for a stable Syria under a Government of National Unity. If this opportunity is to be exploited both Vladimir Putin and the Iranian regime must now be engaged in the co-creation of the roadmap to peace and stability, and both must be offered firm incentives to do so.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin recognises the limitations of its Syria strategy – and that those limitations are tightening. Militarily over-stretched by its campaign in eastern Ukraine, economically weakened for the reasons outlined above, and – because it is seen as revenge for Russia’s Syrian engagement – politically damaged by the downing of flight 9628 over the Sinai, it is starting to become apparent that the grandiose edifice of Russian foreign policy is built on decidedly shaky foundations. Interestingly, in a recent poll only 14 per cent of Russians expressed support for military intervention in Syria. These factors offer a real opportunity for some give-and-take that can lead to substantive diplomatic progress.

The 13 November atrocities in Paris have further strengthened the resolve of the international community, including Russia, to secure the comprehensive military defeat of Isis. It will be important to ensure that this strengthened resolve is combined with recognition of the fact that successfully securing the post-Assad transition plan has to precede the defeat of Isis. 

As a starting point, President Assad must bear responsibility for the vast majority of the 250,000 deaths and millions of displaced people that have been caused by this horrific war, and so it follows that the strategic aim must now be to secure peace and stability in Syria through the establishment of a post-Assad Government of National Unity (GNU) in Damascus. The first step in that direction would be a conference of all the parties, but moderate Syrian opposition groups will only come to the table for peace talks on the basis of a guarantee that President Assad will step down, as part of the transition to a GNU.

A roadmap to peace and stability is therefore required. President Assad must commit to stepping down at some point along the timeline, as a pre-condition for the conference of all the parties to take place. However, he should be invited to participate in the initial meetings, as this will facilitate the transition.

The GNU would have to be based on a balanced and equitable combination of the moderate opposition and the current regime, with ministerial appointments approved by both sides. The formation of the GNU must be pragmatic, and based on learning from the catastrophic attempt to de-Baathify Iraq.

Aerial bombardment may serve to hinder or disrupt the advance of Isis, but it cannot secure the defeat of the terrorising
insurgency. Isis can only ever be comprehensively defeated through a ground offensive by effective forces. Therefore it will only be possible to defeat Isis in Syria through a sustained military campaign that is led by the GNU and materially supported by an international coalition that should comprise the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, France and the UK.

The twin tragedies of flight 9628 and Paris have provided the international community with an opportunity to co-create a roadmap to peace and stability, in partnership with Moscow and Tehran. Let us hope that the chance to build something positive from these terrible events is not squandered.

Conclusion: engage with Russia as it is, not how we would like it to be

“I don’t think Russia will follow the United States’ way. I don’t think Russia will follow the French way. I’m sure that Russia will find its own way” – Anatoly Chubais

My abiding memory of my time in Russia was of a burgeoning sense of polarisation between society and state. I saw and heard the values, instincts and hopes of growing numbers of young, well-educated and internationally-minded Russians contrasting sharply with an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian governing elite. Support for Putin was (and still is) relatively strong and widespread, but it is also brittle.

He derives his legitimacy from the fact that people are prepared to trade the rule of law, pluralism, transparency and freedom of speech for security, stability and economic growth. However, when Russian holiday jets are being blown up in response to military adventurism, and when recession and inflation become the dominant features of the Russian economy, then many more Russians will start to draw the conclusion that their president is failing to keep his side of the bargain.

But change in Russia will not come any time soon. President Putin will probably run for a fourth term in 2018, and if he does he will almost certainly win. For the time being he can still count on the support of the majority of Russian voters, with the only notable exception to that general rule being the growing middle-class in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Let us therefore engage with Russia as it is, and not how we would like it to be. Let’s demonstrate through our words and deeds that we truly understand the history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives of this vast nation with its huge potential. And let’s also acknowledge that business as-usual is not working, and that a new approach is urgently needed if we are to achieve a transition from suspicion to comprehension, and from sabre-rattling to mutual respect.

Outward To The World