Russia-UK relations: prospect for improvement?

By Tita Aver | 25 May 2011

To quote this document: Tita Aver, “Russia-UK relations: prospect for improvement?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 25 May 2011,, displayed on 25 November 2020

Relations between the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom have traditionally been tense. At the root of this long-enduring antagonism, we can find deeply entrenched Cold War legacies and an accumulation of irritating events further tensing relations between the Kremlin and Downing Street. In this article, we will first present the evolution of relations between Russia and the UK since Blair to then understand the stance of contemporary interactions, that is since David Cameron became Prime Minister.

International context of UK-Russia relations

On an international stage, the United States plays a major role in UK-Russia relations, thus causing an original distancing of Russia from the UK, privileging other European capitals instead. Moscow also sees the UK-US special relationship negatively, consequently considering London a “Trojan Horse” in Europe. Despite this fact, Blair acted as a bridge between Russia and the US, easing tensions between the two former great powers.

Iraq has already long been a controversial topic, with Russia having strong economic interests in the country and favouring a diametrically different approach to the problematic situation in Iraq to that of the UK. Thus, Moscow tightened links with Paris and Berlin within the Triple Dialogue, setting a division between Russia and the UK from 2003 onwards.

Furthermore, numerous regional issues such as Chechnya (British criticism of Russian behaviour), Kosovo (Britain pushing for independence, Russia countering it), Iran (Russia providing a nuclear programme before accepting the IAEA’s restrictions) and Georgia (the UK promising NATO membership, collectively condemning Russia’s attack in 2008) further exacerbated relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

The EU has had quite opposite effects on London-Moscow links. The 1997 British chairing of the EU enabled the UK to be a new ‘friend of the Russian President’ as was the case during the 2005 British EU presidency. On the other hand, in 2007, tensions around the British Council in Russia caused Britain to call for a collective EU response against Russia.

Security relations

Security-wise, relations have been flourishing in areas such as weapons of mass destruction and nuclear submarines disposal or due to the Russian Resettlement Programme (a project aimed at smoothing the professional transition from a military to a civilian working environment) and the rescue of the Russian AS-28 submarine. The War on Terror also boosted cooperation that was unthinkable earlier with security services increasing the intensity of their communications.

However, counterterrorism cooperation has been tainted by the thorny situation in Chechnya and the different approaches to fighting terrorism. Security relations have further been stained by the abundance of spy scandals in both countries and the still prominent role played by Cold War legacies and perceptions. Finally, a climax has been reached with the Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Berezovsky cases. The death of the former Russian spy Litvinenko, the profusion of conspiracy theories that arose to explain the former, the lack of willingness of the UK and Russia to collaborate in each other’s investigations, the refusal to extradite the main suspects, all exacerbated relations, causing a standstill in other areas of cooperation.

Bilateral relations under Cameron: a new era?

Bilateral relations between Russia and the UK have fluctuated considerably under Blair, Brown, Eltsin, Putin and Medvedev. In Blair’s early days, Russia enjoyed an idealised relationship with the UK, seeing it as a bridge with the US and also as a major actor on the European stage, relying heavily on the personal relation between Putin and Blair. However, Putin rapidly gained confidence as a President and Blair lost his position as a specialist on Russia and as a favourite intermediate with the West. Gordon Brown followed downhill in the steps of his predecessor, despite sporadic efforts to establish better bilateral relations.

Since David Cameron formed his coalition government in 2010, there has arguably been a sharp transition in the Russo-British relationship. Hopes that relations would improve were high in Russia following the election of the Conservative Party and the formation of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. It was expected that bilateral links would progress. Cameron, however, had to fight with the image he created of himself during the war in Georgia in 2008. Indeed, he was known in Moscow as a vehement protector of the Tbilisi government, offering NATO membership and EU support. Quite successfully, and possibly guided by pragmatic reasons, the new PM overcame his past image and established positive, active and dynamic relations with Medvedev. Russian Ambassador Yakovenko acknowledged this development, which was further strengthened by the announcement of numerous bilateral visits. Indeed, William Hague and Sergei Lavrov first met in November 2010, declaring that they “agreed to adopt a more active approach to bilateral contacts at the highest level” and saw “a strengthening of the British-Russian relationship”. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs visited London in February 2011, leading to a normalisation of relations between the two countries.

Despite the heavy burden of the relics of previous PMs and Presidents, there is prospect for an improvement in relations between the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. Problems such as the Litvinenko case or the situation of the British Council in Russia, are not solved yet. Both countries recognize their differing opinions and the difficulty of overcoming the later to reach an agreement. Nonetheless, as Mineyev so soberly said, European leaders will “have to work with the … Russian leadership for the years to come”. Consequently, for pragmatic reasons, but without smothering our core norms and values, the UK ought to engage in good relations with Russia. Following the example of Berlin or Paris might be a wise strategy, considering the better state of their relations with Moscow.


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Photo: PM and Dmitry Medvedev, by Prime Minister's Office, on Flickr

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