international analysis and commentary

Russia and Great Britain: a thaw but still no “reset”


David Cameron made a historic trip to Moscow on September 12th, marking the first time since 2006 that a British prime minister was received in the Kremlin by the President of the Russian Federation. Though Britain is one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia, recent relations between the two countries have been overshadowed by mutual suspicion and recurrent diplomatic rows. Hence, the visit was expected to be a pivotal moment in overcoming the stumbling block of disputes that still defines UK-Russia relations. Although the trip constituted a “thaw”, or “re-engagement”, many experts agree that the efforts fall far shorter of the reset button pressed by the US administration. The outcomes of the recent talks at the Kremlin are essentially based on economic pragmatism, while the political will to improve diplomatic ties and promote cooperation cannot be taken for granted yet.

The time when Tony Blair was “a fan” of Vladimir Putin, defending him from accusations of authoritarianism, is already history. It was before the war in Iraq, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. The past few years were characterized by an exceptional frostiness in UK-Russia relations, not seen since the Cold War. This tension is epitomized by the 2006 murder in central London of a former FSB (the new incarnation of the KGB) agent, Alexander Litvinenko. In November 1998, Litvinenko publicly accused his superiors of ordering the assassination of Russian tycoon and oligarch Boris Berezovsky. After periods of detention and several threats, Litvinenko fled with his family to London where he was granted asylum and continued his campaign against Putin. On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized as a consequence of what was declared a case of poisoning by radioactive polonium-210. He died on November 23, 2006. The Russian government refused to extradite the man British prosecutors suspected of having killed Mr. Litvinenko, Andrey Lugovoy. Mr. Lugovoy is now a Deputy of the State Duma, Russia’s Lower Chamber. 

The list of episodes underlying the strained nature of UK-Russia relations is still lengthy. Russia’s role in its near abroad, the rule of law, human rights and civil society: all cast a long shadow over any attempt of reconciliation. Surprisingly enough, none of these issues was tackled during the recent official meetings held in the Kremlin. David Cameron brushed aside questions from journalists about the Litvinenko case, saying “The issue has not been parked. The fact is that the two governments don’t agree does not mean that we freeze the entire relationship”. Likewise, President Dmitry Medvedev minimized the problem claiming the countries have more things that unite them than keep them apart, and that differences should not be “overdramatized.” In short, they both “agreed to not agree” and quickly moved on with the discussion.

Years of tensions were put aside by Mr. Cameron and President Medvedev, though the apparent reconciliation between the two countries is not based upon a political resolution of the contested issues but on limited common objectives in foreign policy and certain economic interests.

As The Guardian journalist David Hearst wrote in a recent article, with two elections and an important political transition looming, the political elite in Russia is entering a period of lockdown. Therefore, stability in foreign relations is only one of the main priorities set by the current Russian presidential administration. Russia perceives the UK as a crucial partner that can assist the country in promoting investment and technologies. And the same logic pertains on the British side. Considering the context of the turmoil of the Arab Spring, prospects of recession and war fatigue in Afghanistan, the time has come to thaw – at least formally – the recent rivalry with the Russian Federation.

Secondly, Cameron made clear that his historic visit to Moscow was necessary to revive economic ties thus reinforcing the position of the UK economy in Russia. Medvedev and Cameron focused, in fact, almost entirely on the economy. British investment in Russia exceeded $40 billion and British exports to Russia increased 63% to £2.1 billion ($3.3 billion) in the first half of 2011. Bilateral trade stands at almost $19 billion. Ultimately, Cameron’s main message in Moscow conveyed the necessity of “normal” relations between the UK and Russia as the interest in investment flows and cooperation in the energy sector has significantly increased over the past few months. 

By successfully reopening  a communication channel with the Russian government, Cameron also aimed at guaranteeing future British investments in the country as BP, the British oil giant, went recently through arduous times in Russia – culminating in the collapse last spring of a lucrative deal to explore tracts of the Arctic Kara Sea and raids by tax authorities. After cordial consultations in the Kremlin, Cameron and Medvedev signed five documents on economic cooperation, including the agreement between Rosneft and BP on strategic cooperation in the development of the Arctic shelf worth $16 billion. In addition, Rolls-Royce signed a memorandum of understanding about the joint production of computerized control systems for power reactors, part of Moscow’s efforts to capture a greater share of the global civilian nuclear power market. Amongst many other projects involving British companies in Russia, we count the project “Skolkovo”, World Cup 2018 preparations and the construction of a super high-speed rail line between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Shortly after the meetings, an article came out in The Moscow Times, entitled “Cameron sees past differences for $340m”. But Cameron denied that he was putting trade before human rights.

After consultations at the Kremlin with Medvedev, Mr. Cameron met five human rights activists and journalists of the dissident newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Only then, he finally met Mr. Putin for cordial, business-like talks. In many ways, Cameron’s visit was more symbolic than ground-breaking: this is an important step, but economic pragmatism can only go so far.