Russia aims to re-establish itself as an alternative power pole to the EU in Europe. However, Russia is a dangerous cocktail of power and weakness, allied to a strong sense of historic grievance and entitlement. Indeed, Russia is an oligarchy and in danger of becoming like Saudi Arabia or Iran; led by a small rich elite, difficult to predict, with immense political and social problems, and, at best, an irritant, rather than a serious systemic strategic player, albeit nuclear-armed. The re-emergence of Russian prickliness has gone hand in hand with the need for Russia’s abundant natural resources by much of Europe. President Putin has skilfully manipulated oil and gas revenues to boost Russia’s prestige both at home and abroad, even though price volatility has sobered Kremlin planners. In fact, Russian energy masks an uncomfortable reality for Moscow; Russia is a declining power with a declining population that must be governed over six time zones.
Britain has been the target on several occasions of Russia’s need to flex its strategic muscles, most spectacularly (and allegedly) with the November 2006 London murder of Russian émigré Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly by an individual close to the Kremlin. The focus on Britain by the Kremlin is paradoxically flattering and concerning. Like their Iranian counterparts, many of the so-called Siloviki (state security apparatchiks) around Putin tend to regard the British as the sophisticated architects of a Western anti-Russian strategy.
Furthermore, by targeting Britain, Moscow can send a message to Washington that is not directly injurious to American interests. Russian assertiveness is unlikely to change, so long as President Putin is in power and representative democracy remains weak. Indeed, the Kremlin will continue to have a love-hate relationship with Western powers, dependent on the rest of Europe economically, but occasionally resorting to traditional anti-Western reflexes to mask the inherent instability and weakness of the Russian state from the Russian people. The modernisation of Russia’s armed forces will also promote the seductive idea amongst Russians that Moscow can re-establish a sphere of influence over Russia’s ‘near abroad’, particularly in central Asia, the southern Caucasus and possibly even Eastern Europe, as evinced by the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
For all that, Russia does not pose a threat to Britain. Moscow has legitimate strategic and regional concerns of which Britain must be cognisant. Indeed, as one of three European outlier powers, Britain may share a convergence of interest with both Russia and Turkey if the EU integrates away from Britain. Britain needs to work constructively with Russia on the successor treaty for the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) treaty. However, Britain must never accept that Russia has ‘special rights’ in Europe or that Moscow could re-establish an extended sphere of influence over allies and partners. Sovereign choice by all states in the Euro-Atlantic security space is a fundamental principle underpinning both NATO and the EU which Britain must firmly uphold.
Therefore, whilst Britain must be sensitive to Russian concerns over future enlargements of both NATO and the EU, border disputes in its region, missile defence and the modernisation of NATO’s strategic defence architecture, Moscow can have no veto. Rather, Britain must emphasize that none of the West’s efforts to enhance security in Europe are aimed at Russia per se. And, Russia could still become a vital security partner in the fight against dangerous instability, in all its forms, if a new political accommodation can be established between Russia and the West. Britain should seek to corral North Americans, Europeans and Russians to transform the relationship with Russia into one of constructive engagement, built on mutual respect for international law, respect for sovereignty and the mutual pursuit of strategic financial and security stability.
To that end, Britain and its allies must also confront the many inner-contradictions in their collective approach to Russia. Americans and Europeans (and Europeans and Europeans) have different views of, and approaches to dealing with, Russia. There must be a strong common stance on Russian attempts to undermine NATO (which need no encouragement to undermine itself). Whilst Russian proposals to strengthen the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are to be welcomed, the 2010 Russian proposal for a New Security Treaty threatened to undermine NATO. Any attempt to marginalise NATO, or to interfere in the sovereign rights of states on Russia’s borders, will and must be resisted firmly by Britain.
Britain and the West must also avoid strategic irresponsibility. NATO cannot credibly extend an Article 5 collective defence commitment to potential candidates such as Georgia. Indeed, it would be extremely dangerous (indeed irresponsible) to extend a security commitment until an assessment has been made of how the Alliance would carry out such a commitment. In any case, there is no internal consensus within NATO about future enlargements. Britain should, therefore, promote caution and encourage NATO members to better manage expectations about enlargement, both within and without the Alliance and frankly be more honest about the level of commitment on offer from the Alliance.
Britain must also endeavour to help European nations develop a coherent, coordinated strategy toward Russia. To that end, British strategy should underscore the close and friendly relations Britain desires with Russia, but that these relations must be based on respect for international law and the UN Charter, as well as respect for the sovereignty and independence of its neighbours, especially those in the former Soviet space.
In formulating its strategy, Britain should be sensitive to the fact that Russia has long-standing political, economic and security interests in this region. However, the defining principle of British policy must be that all legitimate states have a right to decide their own political and security orientation, including membership in NATO and the EU (if they so wish) and should they meet the qualifications for membership.