Given the current leadership in the UK, it is quite possible that a new chapter in Russia-UK relations might be opened, much to the dismay of Britain’s traditional European partners.
Pictured: British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: AP
The first telephone conversation between UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Russian President Vladimir Putin resulted in a major surprise for the British media. According to both Downing Street and the Kremlin, both leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of UK-Russia relations and pledged to improve ties.
The continuation of the conversation will probably happen during the G20 Summit of world leaders in China early next month. A British government spokeswoman also confirmed that during the call the two leaders focused on the discussion of security issues. These include the terrorist threats that both countries are facing as well as aviation security.
There have been other signals as well that UK-Russian relations could be making a turn. On Aug. 11, after having a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson stated that Britain must ‘normalize’ its relationship with Russia.
Also read: "Britain and Russia: All's well that ends well"
Given that less than a month ago, during the debate over the modernization of the Trident nuclear weapon system, May described Russia and North Korea as a “very real threat,” the opening of a dialog is unexpected, to say the least.
Underneath the surface
One of the initial explanations of the change of Downing Street’s attitude towards Russia can be defined in one word: isolationism.
Since May assumed office on July 13, she has travelled to Germany and France to open dialog with her European counterparts. She encountered skeptical continental partners, which are apparently willing to apply pressure on the UK to trigger Article 50 (the Lisbon Treaty clause that will start the formal process of departure of the UK from the EU political and commercial bloc) and negotiate the terms of the country’s exit from the EU.
The skeptical reception from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande could be an attempt by Brussels to “make a statement.” For any other country thinking of leaving the EU, Germany and France provided clues that maybe the European Union could be willing to harm its own economies in order to try to avoid future dissidents following the UK example.
A paper recently published by the UK think tank The Bow Group stated that the estimated financial costs of the Russia sanctions to the West could exceed $700 billion. So in case the sanctions are lifted, increased trade relations between UK and Russia would be beneficial for both countries.
The role of the United States
One of the recent events that began to raise questions about the “special relationship” between the UK and the U.S. was the Iraq Inquiry (also known as the Chilcot Inquiry). This report uncovered the circumstances under which then Prime Minister Tony Blair took the decision to commit British troops to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The sensational report, which has largely been downplayed by the Western media, can be interpreted in one of two ways, both of them unfavorable for the UK. Either the UK was pressured to make mistakes by Washington, trusting completely U.S. reports on Iraq, or the UK deliberately decided to engage in a war with a country that represented no threat to it.
In late July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the UK where he held an awkward press conference with Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. During the visit, there was no mention on the Chilcot Inquiry. Kerry preferred to stick with the White House comments on the “need of the United Kingdom to remain united” and reaffirmed the “special relationship” between both countries.
Moreover, the current use of the “Russian card” by U.S. President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, senior defense and security officials in Washington, and the American media during the current U.S. presidential election just confirms the unsettled state of U.S. foreign policy and inability to engage Russia in a constructive dialogue. This trend will mostly likely remain if Clinton becomes the next U.S. president.
Terror and security
Russia’s experience in dealing with the domestic terrorist threat has been known since the conflict in Chechnya, a republic in Russia's North Caucasus. Russian security services have managed to avoid any major attacks in the country this year after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) made several direct threats.
Military and intelligence capabilities are paramount for Europe at the moment. It is been under increased terrorist threat from its own radicalized citizens as well as from external extremists, some of whom have infiltrated Europe with the refugee flow.
Given that the UK could lose its current access to the European Aviation Safety Program and its databases after Brexit, the establishment of a cooperation agreement with the Russian intelligence could become an extremely important step in the country’s ability to keep track of potential “unwelcome” visitors.
So, isolationism could become a key component that will make the United Kingdom change its attitude towards Russia. Moscow’s approach to the Syrian conflict has demonstrated so far Putin’s willingness to act strategically and his readiness for a dialog, which is essential in such circumstances.
No matter what the real motivations behind this shift are, the normalization of the relations between Russia and UK - as noted by Johnson - comes at a very opportune moment for both countries.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.