London: The announcement that Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is to visit Russia in the coming weeks is a promising development. While substantial differences still exist between Britain and Russia, the fact that the two countries are engaging in talks can only result in an improvement in relationships. A spokesperson from 10 Downing Street emphasised that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made it clear that Britain’s policy to Russia is to “engage but beware” and the forthcoming visit is entirely consistent with this approach.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Western policy towards Russia has been haphazard and mostly misguided. For the three years I lived in Moscow after the Russian tricolour replaced the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin, I witnessed a nation stunned by the sudden collapse of everything they had believed in for 70 years. The economy was in a perilous state and morale was at rock bottom. The armed forces, once the pride of the nation, were in disarray, with soldiers openly selling their uniforms to the highest bidder among the tourists flooding into Moscow. To hear an American President boasting that the West had “won the cold war” merely rubbed salt into the wounds. In short, it was a stupid insult to a once proud nation, consistent with the sick mantra “don’t kick a man until he is down”.
For nearly 10 years, until the unexpected rise of Vladimir Putin, there was disarray in the country, with Yeltsin attempting to build democracy. A last ditch attempt in October 1993 by the hard-liners to re-establish a form of communism failed when, having barricaded themselves in the White House, the seat of the Russian Parliament at the time, Yeltsin ordered the encircling tanks to open fire, which brought the insurrection to an end. I was standing next to one of them (I’m still slightly deaf in one ear as a result) and was astonished to see the upper part of the building on fire. For months afterwards, we referred to the building as the “black and white house”. Yeltsin recovered with a dubious victory in the 1996 elections but the country remained on its knees.
This was the time the West should have developed strong and healthy relations with Russia. To be fair, some attempts were made to assist, but the feeling in the country was that it was too little and too patronising. NGOs flooded the country and unwanted clothing and donated food arrived. I arranged a ship visit to Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea twinned with the city of Plymouth in the UK. The ship delivered much needed medical equipment, a gift from the people of Plymouth, to the main hospital in the city. However, everything seemed to be on a small scale and on a people-to-people basis. At the same time, honest citizens found that the value of their savings had disappeared through mega-inflation. Valuable state infrastructure was sold to oligarchs for a fraction of their worth and mafia-style warlords grew unbelievably wealthy as corruption grew. What did the West do? Rather than being sensitive to the needs of Russia, it simply encouraged former Soviet Republics such as the Baltic States to join NATO, thus bringing the former enemy right up to the borders of Russia. There is some debate on whether this action was in contravention with the promise given by Ronald Reagan to Mikhail Gorbachev at the summit in Reykjavik in October 1996, but western leaders failed to see the glowing hypocrisy in this move, which contrasted with Kennedy’s reaction in October 1962, when Khrushchev planned to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, some 90 miles from the coast of the US.
It came as no surprise when a strong leader appeared in Russia at the turn of the century. Russia had endured nine years of humiliation at the hands of the West and the time was ripe for a renaissance of pride. In contrast to the aged, gasping members of the former politburo, Vladimir Putin’s arrival heralded a new image of a leader who meant business. Although the West sniggered at pictures of a bare-chested, horseback-riding President, the Russian people celebrated the resurgence of pride in a nation dragging itself back into world leadership. While the oil price boomed, enabling the rebuilding of Russian infrastructure, the standard of living of most citizens soared, with the shops full of goods their predecessors could only dream of. The armed forces were rebuilt to a world standard, although the level of Russian defence expenditure was and remains only a fraction of that of the US. Russian success at fighting ISIS has impressed the world, with Putin taking advantage of Barack Obama’s failure to act as promised when his “red-line” was crossed by the Syrian regime. National pride has been restored, a major reason why Putin’s approval ratings consistently hover around 80%.
It is five years since a British Foreign Secretary visited Russia and major obstacles remain between the West and Russia. As a source in the Foreign Office told the BBC, “this is not a return to business as usual and the Foreign Secretary will continue to be robust on those issues where we differ. This visit does not signal any shift in UK policy towards Russia.” Johnson, hugely critical of Russia in the past, has accused the Kremlin of “dirty tricks” and has argued that there is no case for the relaxation of sanctions against Russia until it kept to the Minsk Peace Agreement. Nevertheless, as Winston Churchill famously remarked, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war”!
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.