Duncan Allan
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Russia’s leaders do not consider the UK to be their country’s equal in the global system. This creates problems for British policymakers – which Brexit is aggravating.
A London Underground train advertising the UK-Russia Year of Science and Education 2017 goes out of service. Photo: Getty Images.A London Underground train advertising the UK-Russia Year of Science and Education 2017 goes out of service. Photo: Getty Images.

UK–Russia relations are in a difficult place, ‘difficult’ being the default mode. Even when the relationship has been comparatively harmonious, tensions and significant differences have never gone away. Consequently, as recent history indicates, relations can rapidly turn bad. 

In June 2003 they hit a post-Cold War high: President Putin paid a state visit to the UK, and the TNK-BP oil deal was signed. Slightly more than three years later, following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, the relationship reached a post-Cold War low. Relations then steadied somewhat, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine have set them back again, almost certainly for years.

There are a number of reasons why the relationship with Russia is awkward for UK policymakers. First, relations are volatile because they are underpinned by few shared values and few convergent interests. Second, the relationship is moulded by forces beyond the control of UK governments. This is largely what happened between 2003 and 2006.

Few doubt that the US-led intervention in Iraq, in which the UK chose to take part, had a deeply negative effect on Russian thinking. Yet what really drove relations downhill were events over which UK governments had virtually no influence: a UK court awarding asylum to fugitive tycoon Boris Berezovsky; Russia’s slide into authoritarianism from late 2003 (marked by the ascendancy of the security services); deteriorating US–Russia relations; and instability in some of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours (in particular, ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine).

A third difficulty for Whitehall is the perception of Russia’s leaders that the UK is not their country’s equal. For the Kremlin, Russia was, is and always will be a great power.  Supposedly on a par with the US and China, it is at the heart of a ‘multipolar’ or ‘polycentric’ world. Seen from Moscow, the UK is not part of this oligarchy.

It is important: a permanent member of the UN Security Council; a nuclear weapons state; a leading member of NATO; historically a close partner of the US; and the sixth-largest economy in the world (bigger than Russia’s). Crucially, however, from Russia’s perspective, the UK does not have the capabilities needed to conduct a genuinely independent foreign policy. Lacking the geopolitical autonomy that, in this worldview, is the hallmark of a great power, it is in the second tier of the global system.

Such an outlook has far-reaching policy implications for the UK. To defend and promote its interests as effectively as possible when dealing with Russia, the UK must look for leverage from its alliances and its membership of multilateral organizations.

Enter Brexit. Brexit further diminishes the UK in Russian eyes. First, it is about taking the UK out of the multilateral body through which for years core elements of the UK’s Russia policy, for example Ukraine-related sanctions, have been delivered. Second, extricating the UK from the EU is proving to be hugely complex and highly controversial. It risks doing lasting damage to the UK’s relations with other member states, thereby undermining its long-term standing and influence in Europe.

Finally, Brexit has exposed deep splits in the UK – across and between political classes, regions and age groups. For Russia’s leaders it is an axiom that internal division brings external weakness.

In 2013, in the margins of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, Dmitry Peskov (Vladimir Putin’s press secretary) allegedly told journalists that the UK was ‘just a small island’ and that ‘no one pays attention to them’. This remark, which he reportedly denied making, may have been a mischievously exaggerated summary of official views in Moscow. It did, however, highlight a continuing problem for UK governments: the intrinsic difficulty of framing policy toward Russia when Russia’s leaders judge the UK to be a lesser power. By further weakening the UK in Russian eyes, Brexit makes that challenge even harder.

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