10 February 2011
James Sherr

James Sherr

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, will make his first official visit to the UK in a bilateral capacity next week. The UK's aims are modest: to review and diminish obstacles to a 'normal' relationship between significant partners. Yet even if the visit turns out this way, it is unlikely to alter the dominant motif of the relationship: irritation.

This was evident in the House of Commons last week after The Guardian's Russia correspondent, Luke Harding, had his visa to Russia annulled. That step, since reversed, was taken by individuals and security services more preoccupied with themselves and their secrets than with Russia's interests abroad. Nevertheless, Russia has interests abroad, and they diverge from British interests more than we care to admit.

Russia's Perspective

The Russian Federation, like the Soviet Union, has based its relationship with the West on two pillars: Washington and Berlin. As Moscow sees it, the UK seeks an influence out of proportion to its post-imperial importance; worse, it sometimes gets it. The UK is an Atlanticist power at the top table of the EU; Moscow wants a superpower relationship with Washington over the heads of Europe and a 'Europe for Europeans'. This makes the UK an irritant by definition.

The tenacity of this zero-sum perspective has frustrated the desire of successive British governments to shift the focus onto new ground: trade, investment and cooperation against common threats. Far from viewing British military and intelligence services as partners in the struggle against terrorism and organised crime, Moscow views them as mainstays of British influence in NATO and adjuncts of US 'hegemonic' policy. Moscow would like to transform British business into Russia's lobby and UK investment in Russia (15 per cent of the foreign total) into a security of 'good relations' as Moscow defines them. Issues deemed important to British business confidence - human rights and rule of law - are regarded by Moscow as 'vulgar' intrusions into domestic affairs.

These are differences of purpose and outlook, not obstacles to 'normality'. To many inside Russia, Britain is cast in a hypocritical, even devious light. It is not Russia, it is argued, but the UK that has halted anti-terrorist cooperation thanks to the Alexander Litvinenko affair; the UK has given asylum to 30 individuals who Russia wanted extradited for terrorism and organised crime; the UK-hosted Nordic-Baltic summit is not about 'economic growth, enterprise and job creation', but another anti-Russian project.

The UK's Waning Influence

By these remorselessly geopolitical standards, Britain's influence is shrinking, not growing. The Deepwater Horizon and Lockerbie affairs have damaged the special relationship with the US. The UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review has gutted the capabilities that monitor Russia's expanding naval and air activity in Britain's northern waters. And, the savaging of the BBC Russian and Ukrainian services has further diminished Britain's profile. Russians are acutely aware of their economic deficiencies relative to the UK. But they are increasingly less impressed by the UK's ability to convert economic strength into political influence.

Reform in Russia?

For all this, Lavrov's visit takes place at a time of mounting anxiety inside Russia. The country is both desperate for change and fearful of it. The fusion of money and power strangles enterprise and plunders resources. There is no strategy, let alone an exit strategy for the war in the north Caucasus. One day, Russia might be governed by those who are determined to address these problems and know how to do so. Until then, the UK needs a policy for Russia as it is.