UK aims to tighten diplomatic noose around Russia

UK aims to tighten diplomatic noose around Russia

Allied against Napoleon, enemies during the Crimean War, rivals in Central Asia during the Great Game in the late 19th century and then forced to unite to defeat Nazism, UK-Russian relations have long been tumultuous. The two countries, who also share a history of intense espionage activities against one another, seem to have entered a new, more hostile and concerning phase in their bilateral relationship.  As the British Foreign Office overtly seeks to internationally lobby against the Russian state and its networks, how recent events have severely affected relations with Moscow is all too clear. 

The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in March and the Kremlin’s callous involvement in apparent chemical attacks in Douma, Syria, last month have forced the UK to seek a more active role in encouraging containment of Russia. According to a report in The Guardian last week, Whitehall officials claim that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “regards Russia’s response to Douma and Salisbury as a turning point and thinks there is international support to do more.” In the context of both events, it seems the UK’s real issue is with systematic Russian distortion of the truth in regards to heinous international crimes, which the Kremlin seems incredibly comfortable glossing over. As London implements a comprehensive strategy to combat Russian disinformation over the narrative concerning events of international importance, it is keen to urge a rethink over the traditional diplomatic dialogue with Moscow.

Successive US presidents have put forward the idea that they would “reset” relations with Russia. In reality, these are now at their worst since the Cold War and continual US withdrawal from key international theaters has provided ample opportunities for Moscow to not only expand its foreign operations, but also to pursue a policy of directly destabilizing liberal democracies. From the Netherlands to Montenegro, from Germany to the US presidential elections, Russia has actively sought to infiltrate public opinion and destabilize established processes.

The poisoning of an individual on UK soil and the successive validation of the Assad regime’s chemical attacks in Syria reflect a nonchalance with basic global norms and humanitarian principles that has rattled London. The events are by no means isolated, but rather symptomatic of a growing trend in Russian policy. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 strained relations and, following the Ukraine crisis of 2014, they further soured. In July of that year, pro-Russian rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner, killing 10 British citizens amongst many others. It became obvious Russia intended to remain in Ukraine and was committed to changing an international border by force for the first time in Europe since the Second World War. The recent Skripal poisoning went some way to illustrating Russian confidence in conducting such operations overseas, and indeed to some extent highlighted that Western timidity would only encourage Moscow to behave in such a manner.

The poisoning of an individual on UK soil and the successive validation of the Assad regime’s chemical attacks in Syria reflect a nonchalance with basic global norms and humanitarian principles that has rattled London.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The UK is seeking to present its case to allied foreign ministries, exposing the need to cooperate in the midst of Russian foul play and, in some cases, concerted attempts to divide Western democracies. While only five of 28 NATO members are meeting the 2 percent of GDP pledge on defense spending, Russia is spending 7 percent as it invests in conventional, nuclear and electronic warfare. The UK seeks to draw attention to this, highlighting Russian willingness to provoke conflict to somehow rectify the post-Cold War order it has long taken issue with.

The UK, amongst others, has claimed that time after time, whether concerning the downing of MH17 or the Syrian government’s repeated use of chemical weapons, Moscow contests unchallengeable facts in an effort to propagate doubt and to encourage a lack of transparency around international events. The Russian record of mendacity in regards to major international incidents in which it has a role makes traditional diplomacy ineffective, with the EU in particular somewhat ill-prepared to challenge Vladimir Putin.

It is understood that British diplomats are to use four major international summits later this year as platforms to build a coalition with which to contain Russia. The G7, G20, NATO and EU summits will be used to strengthen the alliance that was struck in the wake of the Skripal poisoning. The UK has managed to encourage more than 20 states to expel Russian diplomats, however, what is being muted is a broader strategy of containment that will target the Kremlin’s ceaseless cyber maneuvers and disinformation, along with financial sanctions that will actively target the president’s retainers. 

The United States’ National Defense Strategy recognizes states like Russia as the principal danger going forward and, with Russian activity in the North Atlantic steadily increasing, the UK would do well to continue to raise the alarm so as to draw Moscow into diplomatic maneuvers as opposed to military ones. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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