The pall of the Cold War spread across the English Channel on Friday. The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, along with its escort battle group, sailed through with ships of the Royal Navy “man-marking them every step of the way”.
The language and the imagery the Kuznetsov generated as it passed within sight of Dover’s white cliffs were reminiscent of decades past when the UK and Russia stared at each other with mutual suspicion across the Iron Curtain, with their nuclear weapons poised for launch.
As the ships steamed by, Theresa May condemned Vladimir Putin for committing what she described as “sickening atrocities” in Syria, and called for a “robust” stance against Russian aggression.
For anybody hanging on to the faint hope that Britain and Russia were, if not friends, at least countries with some shared interests, the latest news was bad, and seemed to confirm that the diplomatic gulf was widening by the day.
“I’ve been watching relations going lower and lower for the past decade and a half, and just when you think they can’t get any lower they do,” one leading Russian foreign policy expert with good ties to the Kremlin told Scotland on Sunday on condition of anonymity. “They [the British government] are making themselves look like clowns by trying to make out as if the Russians are to blame for everything.”
But why are London and Moscow once again separated by bitter division? After all, the Cold War died years ago, swept into the history books by the torrent of revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a short time later. And with the Soviet Union went communism and the ideological divide that had set East and West apart since 1945. Russia then embraced democracy – to a certain extent – and opened up its economy to Western investment and free-market trade, all things that should have cemented the relationship between the UK and Russia.
At the same time Russia’s new rich elite developed a love affair with Britain. They moved in, snapping up property in London’s swanky neighbourhoods and sending their children to prestigious public schools. They also invested their fortunes in the tangle of financial instruments offered by the City and watched them grow, far from prying eyes and protected by a deeply appreciated, iron-clad legal framework the like of which is unknown in their native land. Back in Russia there was always the danger a disgruntled government could swoop in and relieve them of their cash, not so in London.
At a political level the two countries also shared a certain amount of common ground. The fight against terrorism, in particular Islamic terrorism, being one prime example.
Yet for all this, the UK and Russia began to drift apart, and the reason for that depends very much on which side of a widening divide you stand on.
On the British side, the UK watched with alarm as Russia’s relationship with democracy transformed from that of anarchic muddle to cynical exploitation, with elections appearing to provide little more than a veneer of legitimacy to an increasingly autocratic system dominated by Putin. The Russian economy, meanwhile, no longer provided the bridge between East and West as it became mired in corruption, and was used as a political weapon by the Kremlin to punish its enemies.
“We behave as if we are annoyed with the Russians because we thought they would become part of the European family and sign up to the European way of doing things. It is now clear they are not going to do that,” said Ian Kearns, a board member with the London-based think tank, the European Leadership Network, and an expert on East-West relations.
Along with dismay over Russia’s drift away from democracy and Western values, other factors began to weigh heavily on Britain’s relationship with Moscow.
In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer and fierce critic of the Kremlin, died in London in an assassination that a public inquiry would later conclude was “probably” approved by Putin. The Kremlin has always denied any involvement in the crime, but Litvinenko’s murder appeared to shatter any illusions British leaders might have had that Putin played by the same rules as they did.
The Litvinenko affair also led to Britain breaking off intelligence agency co-operation with Russia. This was understandable from a British perspective given that it was Russian agents who supposedly committed murder on British soil, but to Moscow it was seen as a snub that shrank the common ground the two countries shared.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2010 followed by the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and the deployment of ground troops and heavy military equipment in the war in eastern Ukraine also demonstrated to Britain that Russia now appeared to be a real threat to European security rather than an awkward neighbour you could just about get along with.
“The Russians are showing no interest in confidence building measures and arms control that might provide more stability in Europe,” explained Kearns. “If anything they are showing a desire to use their military to intimidate neighbours to get political effect, and far from looking for stability in Europe they are using cyber-attacks and the funding of extremist parties to destabilise the EU.”
The UK has responded by becoming a leading proponent and supporter of the sanctions regime put in place against Russia for its behaviour towards Ukraine, and by saying it will put troops into central and eastern Europe to counter any Russian threat to Nato’s eastern flank.
But talk to Russians about what is wrong with UK-Russian relations and you get a perspective that has little or nothing in common with Britain’s. They point to British obstinacy and the fact that its view of Russia has changed little since the end of the Cold War.
“Unlike France, Germany, Italy and a number of other countries, the UK has been a staunch critic of Russia on almost every issue with no hint of a desire to join those who are seeking ways out and finding compromises,” said Alexey Gromyko, an expert on British and European affairs at Moscow’s Institute of Europe. He added that the supposed threat from the East is a “delusion”.
Others are far harsher in their criticism of the British.
“They are still living in the black and white of Cold War times when the bad Russkies were threatening the West, preparing to launch their tank divisions on Berlin and bomb London,” said a foreign policy expert. “As long as the position of the British government is conceived by these stereotypes and political preconceptions about Russia, Vladimir Putin and Russian policy then there is no way we can get out of this rut.”
This view, fuelled by a never-ending stream of stories in the British press that paint Russia in a negative light, gets in the way of the pragmatic relationship with London that Moscow desires. This pragmatism is something of top priority for Russian foreign policy. It comes uncomplicated by such awkward details as principles and concerns over security and human rights, and, instead, accepts that Russia is a major player in the world, has its legitimate interests and will get along with anybody who understands this. In a way, it would like to be treated in a similar fashion to China, a country regarded as a partner by the West despite its poor rights record and democratic shortcomings.
The UK, from the Russian perspective, fails to place sufficient emphasis on pragmatism and as a consequence allows its foreign policy to be dictated by emotion and the allegedly Russo-phobic sentiment peddled by politicians and the media.
Recognising the crumbling state of UK-Russian relations, both countries have recently spoken of trying to improve matters. In August, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a phone conversation with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, said Britain must “normalise” its relationship with Russia after years of hostility.
Gromyko points to issues such as migration, North Korea and trans-border crime as areas that could pull Britain and Russia closer together as they require co-operation. Other commentators have speculated that even Brexit might improve Anglo-Russian relations. A Britain free of the EU and determined to explore its new-found trading freedom might see Russia as a potential partner to strike lucrative deals with, rather than a threat, they argue.
This view, however, fails to take into account that the UK’s departure from the EU will fail to diminish its unwavering commitment to Nato, and may also increase the importance of a transatlantic relationship with the US, which regards Russia with increasing suspicion and hostility.
In fact few see much room for improvement in ties between the two countries. And with Ukraine and Syria dominating geo-political affairs the relationship can, and probably will, get worse before it gets better.
For all his talk about “normalising” relations, Johnson has since called on the US and Europe to make Russia “feel the consequences” of its actions in Syria. He also triggered Russian ire, and fuelled suspicion that too many in the British government harbour a grudge against the nation, by calling for anti-war protests outside the Russian embassy in London.
The deteriorating relationship leaves both countries in a deadlock that could only really be relieved by a sudden and dramatic step, such as the UK calling for sanctions to be scrapped or Russia pulling out of eastern Ukraine.
The UK has little choice but to put pressure on Russia in the somewhat vain hope the giant will change its behaviour in Ukraine and Syria. It can also concentrate on building a practical relationship aimed at minimising the chances of accidental conflict, which is a real risk given that both countries’ armed forces now rub up against each other far more than they once did.
Russia, in turn, may try to keep communication with London flowing in an attempt to persuade the UK to soften its approach to sanctions and tame its eagerness to deploy troops close to the Russian border. Moscow may also take some satisfaction in the fact that, with Britain heading for the EU’s exit door, Brussels will lose one of its more strident critics, thus making the Kremlin’s life a little easier.
But it could well be that for some in Russia the relationship is beyond the point of saving. “In recent years in Moscow there has been a growing mood that we don’t want anything at all from London,” said one Moscow insider. “There was once a time when we thought we could build a mutual relationship based on trade, but those days are now gone.”