A new Cabinet should adopt a Russia strategy that makes sense

The United Kingdom’s relationship with Russia is virtually non-existent – an occasional barbed tweet from the Russian Embassy in London is about as far as diplomatic engagement goes these days. June’s General Election may well return a Conservative Government with an increased majority. A new Government and a new Cabinet could provide the ideal opportunity for a change in policy towards Russia that wouldn’t be seen as an embarrassing U-turn or at the behest of the White House.

A change of policy might be possible, but would it be worthwhile? The UK’s current approach of refusing to engage with the Russians has paid few dividends. The “silent treatment” has failed to change Russian behaviour, whilst hampering the UK’s ability to defend and promote its national interests. One area where that lack of influence is particularly obvious is in the field of human rights.

Defending universal values is in the UK’s interests, it protects UK citizens and it enhances the UK’s standing on the world stage. In that regard, Theresa May abandoning the  pledge to withdraw from the ECHR is a step in the right direction, although it would be far better for it to be unconditional and permanent.

Defending human rights in Russia should be a part of the UK’s relationship with the Kremlin. However, given that the level of engagement between the two is near nil, the UK’s ability to positively influence Russia is unsurprisingly limited. In recent weeks, allegations of the imprisonment, torture and even murder of gay men in Chechnya have underlined how vital that influence can be. The UK’s lack of engagement with Russia has meant that its official response has been reduced to little more than an official communication and a lacklustre tweet that has had no discernible effect on the Russian government.


Engagement necessary to influence values

It is a fundamental social principle that people are more likely to listen and be influenced by those with whom they already have a working relationship. The example of Angela Merkel’s Germany can be instructive in this regard. By taking the initiative and ensuring that relations with Russia do not deteriorate to the point of oblivion, she was able to raise her concerns about the issues in Chechnya with Putin in person, rather than in a hundred and forty characters. It may well be that Boris Johnson’s planned, but cancelled, visit to Russia was the beginning of a similar approach by the UK – hopefully following the election such an approach will be revived.. Of course, developing a working relationship is more complex than participating in official visits; it involves opening up channels for communication in a variety of spheres. This enhances each side’s institutional ability to understand one another and makes airing grievances easier and more productive.

Specifically with regards to human rights, it’s vital that we understand that abuses are not caused by a few rotten apples within society, but are the inevitable consequence of denying people their rights and failing to build efficient checks on official power. Real, long term change in Russia cannot happen until the Russian state changes its operating system in such a way that can provide oversight and transparency. Clearly this is a long-term challenge that must come from within, and while international pressure on specific issues may lead to action on particularly egregious abuses, it does little to increase the likelihood of a genuine wholesale transformation in Russia’s approach to domestic governance.


UK-Russian Engagement

Bearing this in mind, the UK should build on the success of events such as the UK-Russia Year of Science and Education 2017 and broaden the level of cultural, scientific and social exchange between the two countries. The influence of the UK’s cultural and literary heritage should not be underestimated in a country where being literate and being literate in the classics of English literature go hand-in-hand. Investing time, money and human resources into such programmes exposes Russian audiences and government officials to the values that the UK espouses, including human rights. These efforts should be undertaken in a way that recognises Russian sensitivities about “colour revolutions” and regime change, emphasising that the UK’s goal is to share its values and the benefits of liberal democracy, rather than impose them.

Aside from soft power approaches, other forms of engagement can be greatly beneficial. These include confidence-building measures related to UK-Russian military postures in the Baltic, cooperation in Afghanistan (particularly related to narcotics) and sharing experience when it comes to dealing with issues such as radicalisation. These measures are by themselves in the UK’s national interest, but also contribute to an environment of dialogue that increases the UK’s ability to help Russia deal with its human rights issues.

The Russian side often suggests that the sole way to improve UK-Russia relations is to abandon values and focus solely on interests (a strategy that it would appear the US are now looking to employ themselves). The UK does not need to choose between the false dichotomy of dealing with Russia effectively or defending human rights; both are realistic goals but only when the two complement one another, rather than cancel each other out. It’s important to bear in mind that it will not advance the cause of human rights in Russia, or the development of a dialogue, to bring up human rights qualms in every forum.

Not engaging with Russia has failed to deliver any benefit to the UK nor has it led to any improvement in the human rights situation in Russia. If the UK’s approach had paid some dividend in terms of enhancing the national interest in some other significant way, it would be defensible, but it has singularly failed to do so. Whoever wins the election in June would be wise to take the opportunity to innovatively remould relations with Russia in a more sensible and balanced direction.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
James Oates

James Oates is a Masters Student of Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He has a wide range of international professional experience, having worked for the EU Delegation to the Russia, a Moscow-based tech start-up, and a UK export consultancy.