James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The UK Foreign Secretary faces the unenviable task of being sent into an unfriendly zone, during a particularly toxic period of relations, and needing to tread a fine line with a sophisticated opponent, who wants something he cannot give.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses the Chatham House London Conference, October 2017UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses the Chatham House London Conference, October 2017

Pity Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office briefing team this week. Following on swiftly from his hitherto unsuccessful diplomatic efforts in Iran to release British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison, the UK foreign secretary will have an equally difficult – in truth, fruitless – ‘away game’ with another stubbornly anti-western power this week in the form of Russia.

There is a strain of thought, particularly virulent among diplomats, that one should “always be talking”. This is outwardly reasonable – “jaw-jaw rather than war-war”. But what if the other side is doing both at the same time? What if war is being waged against you (using a variety of methods, none of which include the overt use of military force) at the very same time as words – smooth diplomatic words – are being exchanged? Then you end up looking foolish. Worse, you undermine your own country’s national security. 

The exaggerated importance of ‘always talking’ can be not just useless and deceptive, but worse: encouraging naive and well-intentioned domestic audiences in the other country (i.e. the UK) to believe that a diplomatic solution is possible, thus adding pressure for a more moderate, accommodating line.

Intelligent and cynical

Johnson has been in his post for 18 months, only occasionally having to work on the Russian challenge and largely distracted by Brexit. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, has held his post for almost 15 years. Intelligent and cynical in equal measure, as well shrewd and experienced at outmanoeuvring his transient Western counterparts, Lavrov has spent a great deal of his time in that office working on what he regards as the problem of the West. He is not diverted by anything. Lavrov will also be vastly better prepared than Johnson who is known to read his briefs only superficially. These men are opponents, but they are not equally equipped.

Mr Lavrov’s boss, Vladimir Putin, has held his post, de facto, for 17 years now – and is now asking for six more after a vote in March which he will ensure he wins. Putin will probably not meet Johnson this week as, to Russian eyes, that would not be a meeting of equals. Presidents should not ‘demean themselves’ by meeting foreign ministers, especially those of small states.

None of this is to argue that the British foreign secretary should not go to Moscow. He cancelled a visit in April under American pressure over Russia’s indiscriminate bombardments in Syria (although his American counterpart, Rex Tillerson, went that month). Not going this time would engender further ridicule from a Russian leadership that already lacks respect for the UK’s position and role in the world. That said, much as the Kremlin wants to dismiss the UK as marginal, it is well aware that it has helped preserve the EU consensus on preserving sanctions and that it has Washington’s ear on a range of security issues.

Not that Johnson ought to be under many illusions about Russia. If Theresa May ‘knows what Russia is up to’, to paraphrase her remarks at the Lord Mayor’s banquet last month, then so should Boris Johnson. The real difficulty comes in navigating the competing pressures on what to do about it. Knowledge is useless if it is not acted upon.

The corporate sector, for example, often pushes one way – there is money to be made in Russia and western sanctions over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine do not help. The Russian government agrees. It too is pushing for sanctions to be lifted in order to resuscitate a struggling economy. Other sectors argue the opposite - a much tougher approach toward the Kremlin.

NGOs point to a deteriorating human rights situation in Russia which, they say, needs to be discussed at these senior levels. Russia is prickly about that, regarding it as unacceptable interference in domestic affairs. More influentially than NGOs, the military also pushes for a tougher line – largely ‘playing defence’, but perhaps in the future something more than that, in order to see off what it sees as a threat to the realm.

So Johnson’s task is unenviable. He is being sent into an unfriendly zone, during a particularly toxic period of relations, needing to tread a fine line with a sophisticated opponent, which wants something he cannot give – essentially a Russian veto in major aspects of global affairs. America was reportedly offered a pact of non-interference by Russia last week. Maybe Johnson will be too. That is a trap, albeit an obvious one.

Therefore to get something from this Moscow visit, the British foreign secretary should take the initiative. If he is going to have to take some flak from an unhappy Kremlin claiming it is much maligned, then he ought at least to deliver some messages of his own as well.

The UK as a convenient haven

These might include a clear statement that if Russia is found to be interfering in British political processes then this will mean certain Russians of wealth and privilege will no longer enjoy visits to or residency in the UK, or find it such a convenient haven for their money. Another message might be that Britain’s existing rules and regulations will from now on be enforced more stringently.

For example when Russian state television breaches Ofcom rules on broadcasting standards, this should lead to a revocation of its license. Another regulation to be better enforced would see Russian companies whose sources of finance cannot be verified as clean will no longer being permitted to list on the London Stock Exchange.

And another still might be the simple but bald re-affirmation that Ukraine’s internationally accepted sovereignty and boundaries will always be recognized – backed up by a reminder of the strategic patience that saw the UK welcome back the Baltic states, and return their gold reserves, after 45 years of Soviet occupation.

These cause-and-effect policy responses by the UK, if clearly articulated, are deliberately non-provocative and thus minimise the risk of miscalculation and over-reaction by Russia. 

However, it must be said, they will not actually work – at least, not in the sense of changing Russia's course, or even its demeanour. That is only possible in a future Russian government looking for a way back. But at least they have the merit of honesty, so often lacking in our dealings with Russia...and of emboldening beleaguered Boris. 

This article was originally published at The Times

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