On August 9, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May spoke for the first time since the UK Prime Minister took office and both expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of Russian-British relations.
In the phone call, which was initiated by Great Britain, both leaders agreed to develop a dialogue between security agencies on issues related to aviation security, and made plans for a face-to-face meeting in the near future. The Prime Minister noted the importance of the relationship between the UK and Russia, and expressed hope that, despite differences on certain issues, they could communicate in an open and honest way about the issues that mattered most to them. The President of Russia again congratulated Theresa May on her appointment to the highest office. In a further sign of a thaw in relations between Britain and Russia the new British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on August 12 and apparently called for «normalization» of relations.
His call provides definite confirmation that a concerted attempt by Great Britain to improve the relations with Russia is underway. In his articles published by the Daily Telegraph Mr Johnson has made it clear that he stands for the improvement of bilateral ties.
It could herald the start of improved relations between the two countries that have been strained during recent years, with the UK instrumental in pushing for economic sanctions against Moscow over Crimea becoming part of Russia in 2014. The divisions on Ukraine, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders and the differences over Syria have greatly deteriorated the relationship between the two countries. Although the UK and Russia both claim to be fighting the Islamic State, London is unhappy with Russia’s support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, while Moscow condemns Britain’s support for so-called «moderate» rebels in Syria.
It’s noteworthy that Mrs May confirmed the UK’s intention to participate in ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first British Second World War convoy in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk this month.
Princess Royal Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, is to attend a series of commemorative events in Russia in honor of the servicemen who gave their lives to provide the blockaded USSR with vital supplies on the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War.
The ceremonies will take place between August 30-31. Around 1,400 merchant vessels made the passage through some of the world’s most perilous waters, accompanied by ships of the Royal Navy, the US Navy and other Allied fleets.
It should be noted that this development of events was rather unexpected. Nothing indicated there would be steps taken to improve the relationship. It brings to mind the first appearance of Prime Minister in the House of Commons on July 18 when she spoke about «threats from countries like Russia and North Korea» remaining «very real».
Mrs Prime Minister also said she would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. Her reasons for sounding tough were quite understandable – she was doing her best to convince the parliament that it is necessary to replace Britain’s Trident programme and allocate £31 billion for that purpose. Theresa May was trying to bolster her reputation of a «tough cookie» able to dig her heels in, if need be.
There is something else that is important for analyzing the state of Russia-UK relations. As Home Secretary, Theresa May turned down a request to hold a public inquiry into the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after being poisoned with a radioactive substance. Russia has stated on many occasions that the «purely criminal» case of Litvinenko’s death was politicized with the inquiry conducted mostly behind closed doors, with classified documents and unnamed witnesses contributing to the result.
There is another aspect that has gone largely unnoticed by media. Many were surprised by Mrs May’s unexpected decision to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, citing his history of faux pas.
Russia was one of the few countries to give an upbeat response to the appointment. «The book of Russo-British relations has long been awaiting someone to turn over to a better page in the history of bilateral cooperation. If Britain’s Foreign Office, under its new leader, has a corresponding desire, we will support it», said Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova in a statement.
The Russian state news agency described Johnson as a «charismatic» man, with a «reputation for wit, capable of destroying his opponent with a single word».
There are reasons for shifting the British foreign policy. The Britain we know today is not the country it once was. The participation in the Iraqi war might come to be seen as the last sting of a dying wasp where British power projection is concerned. Since the British leadership tagged along with US illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 everything has gone south for the UK. Back then, London could reasonably claim to have the world’s second most capable military at its disposal. But the humiliating defeat at Basra in 2007 fatally damaged the illusion of continued British military might.
After the June 2016 Brexit vote the country faces a period of turbulence and instability. There is a possibility that Scotland will leave the kingdom. It’s quite possible that Mrs May’s successor will be known as Prime Minister of England and Wales, with Moscow developing a new relationship with an independent Scotland. Northern Ireland may reunite with Dublin and even London itself may become an independent city state.
Hard times are predicted for the British economy.
Some burning foreign policy issues need to be tackled urgently, for instance the status of Gibraltar, the British overseas territory, among others.
It would be naïve to expect a diplomatic breakthrough at the upcoming meeting of Mrs May and Mr Putin at the G20 summit of world leaders in China next month. It’s hard to imagine the new Prime Minister radically altering the British foreign policy, including the relations with Russia. Even if the country stays united, it will turn in on itself for a long period of time. Foreign policy in general will be put on the backburner. The relations with Russia will be, to great extent, influenced by the United States, probably even more than before, as NATO plays a bigger role than the EU in defining the UK’s foreign policy priorities.
With all that in mind, the Prime Minister has let know she wants the relations to be unfrozen. Russia has an important role to play in the Middle East with Great Britain deeply involved in the regional conflicts.
Russia has the potential to become an important asset during this transition period – not just as a trade partner but also as a bridge between East and West. During the last few years Moscow has been significantly increasing its sphere of influence in Eurasia, and today it is seen as a close partner of China and India. After the Brexit vote, London’s position as the financial center of Europe is in jeopardy as many European cities, like Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam, have started posturing to take over. Great Britain may face trouble if the negotiations with the EU do not run smoothly and Article 50, which outlines the right of EU member states to withdraw from the EU, is triggered. The EU may be willing to inflict economic damage on the UK during the Article 50 negotiations. Under the circumstances, Theresa May will evaluate the UK’s options to establish new bridges with new partners. Increased cooperation with Russia could potentially provide the needed counterbalance, displaying the UK’s ambition to open new trade routes. Russia and its main partners have the domestic consumer markets eager for the goods and agricultural products exported by the UK. Here lies a huge area of opportunity for cooperation.
Anyway, there is no unity on Russia neither within NATO, nor inside the EU, and the changes are on the way. There are growing signs that many in the West are fed up with the useless attempts to «isolate» Russia internationally and make it cede under the pressure of sanctions.
Besides, the win of Donald Trump in the US presidential race may lead to drastic changes putting an end to Russia-West standoff.