In a Westminster Hall debate I argued that Britain must engage with Russia as it is, and not how we would like it to be. We must understand the history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives of this vast nation, whilst also being absolutely clear, strong and resolute in the face of Russian aggression.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who made an excellent and powerful speech.
I remember my 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 there, and I felt a palpable sense of hope combined with a healthy dose of trepidation. I was looking forward to improving my Russian 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 my flight out of Russia in January 2008. The British Council had become a pawn in the stand-off that followed the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by two state-sponsored hitmen on the streets of London, and we had been forced to close our St Petersburg office. 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 is a fascinating country of contradictions, extremes, suffering and joy, and I will never forget my time there. A wise person once said: “You can leave Russia, but it will never leave you,” and I can certainly confirm the truth of that statement.
Being in the eye of that diplomatic storm for a couple of years enabled me to see at first hand the extent to which politics is underpinned by emotion, instinct, psychology and history. Russia is a proud nation, and its people are deeply attached to the concept of uvazhaniye, or 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.
The identity, instincts and mindset of the Russian people are shaped by geography. Inhabitants of a vast landmass, a country with borders so long that they are 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, to subjugate their neighbours and from this platform to build a sphere of influence.
From the empire-building of Peter the Great, to the establishment of the Soviet Union and its extension to the eastern bloc countries, the Russians’ constant and furious opposition to the expansion of NATO and Putin’s adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, the narrative of encirclement provides the backdrop to every chapter of Russia’s turbulent history and actuality. That 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.
Understanding the historical, cultural and geopolitical forces that shape Russian behaviour is by no means the same as excusing it. The Russian Government have literally been allowed to get away with murder for far too long. There are 10,000 dead in Ukraine, and 10 times that number in Syria. Alexander Litvinenko was brutally murdered by the Russian state, and at least a dozen more adversaries of Mr Putin died in suspicious circumstances on the streets of London. Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov were assassinated in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Now we have Sergei Skripal, his daughter and a British police officer struck down by a nerve agent on the streets of a quiet town in Wiltshire.
The Skripal attacks provoked a great deal of speculation about why the Kremlin would choose to carry out such a high-profile hit just a few short months before the World cup. In my view, the explanation is a simple one, encapsulated in two simple words: greed and self-preservation. The Putin regime has no guiding ideology. It exists to protect and further the financial interests of a narrow elite and to preserve its grip on power. It is a kleptocracy, turbocharged by hydrocarbons.
When oil is selling at more than $100 a barrel, there are rich pickings, and the nexus of government officials and mafia bosses who run modern Russia are able to live and co-exist in relative peace and harmony. A few years ago, the price dropped to near $40 a barrel, and although it has risen recently, it is still struggling to reach $70. The pie has shrunk, which has constrained the Kremlin’s ability to incentivise and buy loyalty. What does a Russian President do if they are no longer able to offer the carrot to their henchmen and cronies? They must deploy the stick. They must send the message, loud and clear, to all those who may know their secrets, and be thinking about betraying them, that retribution will be brutal, cruel and swift.
While assassination on the streets of Britain is Putin’s specific weapon of choice in securing the loyalty of the various clans and cabals that run Russia, he also knows that he must retain the broader support of the Russian people. He has done that through a series of cynical and ruthless foreign policy initiatives and military interventions. He knows that he needs to compensate for the abject failure of his Government to place the Russian economy on a sustainable growth footing, and he does so by seeking to unite his people against a range of common enemies. It is the oldest trick in the book. Thus the Russian threat to our security is not only through the Salisbury attack or the murder of Litvinenko. We see it in the invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate bombing of Syria. From 24 to 28 February, Russia conducted 20 bombing missions every day in eastern Ghouta. The month-long assault of eastern Ghouta alone is estimated to have killed more than 1,600 people, most of them thanks to Russian bombs. It has brought the death toll in Syria to more than half a million people. There are also 5 million refugees and more than 6 million displaced people.
As we have seen with the refugee crisis and the threat from Islamic State, the effects of Russian intervention have rippled directly on to our shores. President Putin deploys state-sponsored murder to retain the loyalty and discipline of his immediate entourage, and he uses military aggression to secure the broader support of the Russian people. Those strategies represent a grave threat to our national security and the security of our partners and allies. Both strategies must be tackled and defeated.
Russia’s geopolitical influence and substantial military clout stand in stark contrast to the small size and fragile state of its economy. In 2013, Russia’s economy was roughly the size of Italy’s and considerably smaller than Germany’s. Russia is grossly over-reliant on hydrocarbons, with approximately 70% of its GDP linked to the oil and gas industries. With the price of a barrel of oil plummeting, the value of the rouble tumbling, the demographic time bomb ticking, sanctions biting and poor economic policy decisions compounding those problems, the Russian economy is facing a perfect storm.
Against that backdrop, 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 a Russian-made missile in July 2014 certainly led Russia to tread more carefully in its incursions into eastern Ukraine. There is some evidence to suggest that President Putin is not actively seeking to up the ante there.
The UK Government must now build on the success of those measures by committing to the following things. First, we must ensure that the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 is implemented effectively. The Magnitsky amendment was a vital change to the legislation because it strikes at the hypocritical heart of the Putin regime, and makes clear to those with hidden assets in the west that Putin cannot protect them. For it to be effective, however, the sanctions list must be as accurate as possible, and the Government must therefore set out how members of the public, Members of Parliament and peers can suggest additional names to be added to the sanctions list and the visa bans.
Secondly, we must continue to support asset freezes, visa bans and economic sanctions against Russia until such time as the terms of the Minsk ceasefire agreement, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have been fully implemented. Minsk is far from ideal, but it represents the only hope for stability and peace.
Thirdly, we must continue to support sanctions that are specifically connected to the annexation of Crimea for as long as Crimea is occupied.
Fourthly, we must commit to supporting the training and equipping of Ukrainian forces in the event of any attempt by Russia to ramp up hostilities in Ukraine, for example through a new land grab.
Fifthly, we must press for full implementation of the EU-Ukraine deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. Russian concerns about the DCFTA are simply not credible. Ukraine is a sovereign country and is therefore free to sign international agreements as it sees fit.
Sixthly, we must argue forcefully for the completion of the EU energy union. The EU’s fragmented energy market and infrastructure cause several EU member states, including Germany, to be more reliant than is necessary on Russian oil and gas. That in turn gives Russia disproportionate influence in its dealings with the EU. By investing in interconnectors and integrating the energy trading market, the EU would fundamentally rebalance its relationship with Russia.
Seventhly, we must address the elephant in the room: the World cup. FIFA has handed Putin a propaganda coup, and in the wake of the Skripal poisoning, it was right for the Government to confirm that there would be no official UK representation at the Word cup. We must hold firm to that.
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 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 the security, stability and economic growth that he offers. 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, many more Russians will start to draw the conclusion that their President is failing to keep his side of the bargain.
Change in Russia, however, will not come any time soon, as evidenced by the recent election. President Putin can still count on the support of the majority of Russian voters, with the only notable exception being the growing middle class in Moscow and St Petersburg. Clearly, the assiduously developed propaganda that is pumped out by the state media machine plays a major role in maintaining Putin’s approval ratings, but my time in Russia also taught me that the Russian people are still traumatised by what they perceive to have been the chaos and humiliation of the Yeltsin years. The stability that Putin brought following that turbulent period continues to underpin his popularity today.
It is essential that we respect the will of the Russian people. Vladimir Putin has been their leader of choice for more than 15 years, and he will continue as President until 2022. Let us therefore engage with Russia as it is, not how we would like it to be. Let us demonstrate through our words and deeds that we truly understand the history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives of this vast nation with huge potential.
Let us also be absolutely clear, strong and resolute in the face of Russian aggression. That clarity, strength and resolution must start right here in this House. The Kremlin will constantly and consistently attempt to divide us, and we must not allow them to do so. That is why it is vital that my party makes it crystal clear that we support both the words and actions of the Government, the EU and our NATO allies in dealings with Russia.
This is not the moment for whataboutery. This is the time for a robust defence of our values, and clear recognition that if a bully is given an inch, he will take a mile. Let us therefore move forward together, across parties and communities, to forge an unbreakable and unanimous position on this issue of profound importance to our national interest. Let us send this message to Mr Putin, loud and clear: “The British people will no longer tolerate the brazen and reckless actions of your regime, and we will no longer tolerate the way in which you and your cronies use London as a laundromat for your ill-gotten gains.”
We will act rapidly and robustly to deliver the changes that are long overdue. We have the utmost respect for the history and culture of Russia, and we will never forget the tremendous sacrifices that the Russian people made when they stood shoulder to shoulder with us to defeat the Nazis. We also accept that Russia will possibly—perhaps probably—never be a liberal democracy, and we have absolutely no desire to impose our world view. Nobody in their right mind is talking about regime change, but we need to see radical behaviour change.
At the outset of my speech I mentioned the Russian word uvazhaniye, meaning respect, and underlined the importance that Russia rightly attaches to being respected by others. Respect, however, is a two-way street, and it has to be earned. If the current occupants of the Kremlin wish to earn our respect, they must radically change their mindset and behaviour, and they must do so now.