Brian Wilson: Russia is getting stronger, and the UK must begin engaging

The World Cup proves Russia has been transformed over the last three decades, writes Brian Wilson

The World Cup is leaving Russian fans overjoyed  and contact with foreigners could help to change attitudes there. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Well, that’s our quadrennial World Cup week over and we chose five memorable games. Mind you, it would have been difficult to find dull ones in this brilliant ­festival of football and friendship.

The sheer joy for ­thousands of ­Iranians after their last-gasp winner over Morocco was one to savour, supposing they go no further. So too was Iceland’s heroic resistance against mighty Argentina. And good to be in Nizhny Novgorod to see Celtic’s Mikhail Lustig in a ­winning Swedish side.

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The Iran victory was all the sweeter because they had to overcome American sanctions, including a craven decision by Nike to stop ­supplying boots, just a week before the event. It turned into a neat metaphor on the uselessness of sanctions as a substitute for diplomacy.

Iran’s Portuguese coach, Carlos Quieroz, said: “We struggle to travel, to have training camps, to bring opponents…. but these ­challenges helped me fall in love with Iran. These difficulties become a source of inspiration to the ­people, it makes them more united, to fight for their country. These boys deserve a smile from the rest of the world.”

So far, the big winner has been Russia itself. Not only have the home team’s performances exceeded expectations, spreading national joy, but the whole event is a triumph of organisation. Light-touch security and the warmth of welcome have confounded stereotypes.

“A propaganda exercise”, the worldly-wise will sneer. But is it not the ambition of every city or ­country to show its best face by ­staging such events, whether it is Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, London’s Olympics or Russia’s World Cup? One man’s propaganda is another’s justified pride.

The deeper question is whether hosting big events changes anything more fundamental than image. Though it is probably hopelessly optimistic, I would like to think this is possible with Russia and how the rest of Europe should relate to it.

Like it or not, this is a dynamic, self-confident society which is only going to become economically stronger, based on phenomenal ­natural resources. Its transformation over three decades is extraordinary and there is every reason to build bridges rather than blow up the ones established in that period.

One striking feature was the young generation’s language skills. A ­decade from now, will we still not be talking to them – even though it is in our own language? I hope ­Russia keeps its doors open since there is nothing like human ­contact for challenging prejudices and ­changing attitudes. We need more tourism and trade, not less.

The Russians, I hear you say, are up to all sorts of foul cyber-play. True, but then our own intelligence community are no slouches and I doubt if they have fallen behind on technology. Again, this creates grounds for engagement rather than a stand-off. If it was possible to negotiate the limitation of nuclear weapons, it should be within the wit of diplomats to stop the escalation of cyber warfare. That certainly won’t happen without talking to each other, firmly and frankly.

Viewed from close up or afar, a ­continuing descent into Cold War hostility makes no sense. The break-up of the Soviet Union removed ­ideological justification for conflict and it will be a 21st century tragedy if an alternative basis is created, whatever the short-term provocations and points of ­difference.

Between football matches, it was not necessary to watch ­Russia Today to discern that the world order is in turmoil. The US ­president is pouring scorn on his supposed allies – blatant lies about German crime rates linked to immigration while Canada now rivals Mexico in his disaffections.

A trade war appears imminent with China promising retaliation. In Europe, a disturbing number of countries are swinging to the far-Right, exploiting fears about migration driven by ill-judged military interventions, armed with the certitudes of Western democracy. And, of course, we have Brexit.

Where do foreign policy imperatives come from in these confusing circumstances? Britain has long been beholden to two doctrines. First, to do whatever Washington requires. Second, usually in accordance with the first, act on the principle of our enemy’s enemy being our friend. The least that can be said is that these have not yielded success.

Invariably, a factor has been that the Russians were on the other side. Perhaps a little flexibility could be allowed. Is Trump always to be ­followed? Who did we actually want to replace Assad with in Syria? In Yemen, should Russia not be a key player in ending a ghastly surrogate war? Diplomatic engagement is the ­prerequisite for sanity.

The decline in relationships has been recent and rapid, accelerated by the Skripal affair. I have found this odd from the start and the ­constabulary’s failure to ­apprehend a perpetrator makes it more so. Skripal was not “a ­Russian spy”, as the British media routinely describes him but a Russian who spied since 1995 – when the Cold War was ­supposedly over – for ­Britain.

In most societies, this is regarded as treachery. Skripal’s British paymasters found him a billet in Salisbury but it was allegedly possible for an agent of the Russian state to approach his door, presumably with collar raised and trilby pulled low, apply poison to the handle and retire without so much as a CCTV camera to inconvenience him.

As the football philosopher, Sir Kenneth Dalglish, might put it: “Mibbes aye, mibbes naw”. ­Perhaps this is what happened, but the absence of a conclusion makes it even less credible that it should be used as a platform for the new Cold War. To adopt World Cup parlance, a Video Action Replay is required.