Britain and Russia’s history has been far from placid making compelling material for novels and spy movies alike. Russia expert Neil McFarlane provides insight into the essence of that relationship.
Washington DC (Brussels Morning) The relations between Russia and Britain has always received a lot of attention. The recent death of a British spy who defected to the USSR, George Blake drew attention to this relationship, not least because a former KGB agent, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, hailed him a “brilliant professional”.
The relationship is turbulent.
London is a favoured destination for Russian intellectuals as well as Kremlin insiders, members of the opposition, and oligarchs with an array political beliefs — or none at all. Capturing the essence of the relationship, we talk to an expert who is not a media personality.
Professor Neil MacFarlane is a lecturer of international Relations at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University, specialising in Russian foreign policy and the regional dynamics of the former Soviet Union. He is also an associate research fellow in the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and is in many respects an opinion leader in foreign policy thinking in the UK.
Ambassador Tedo Japaridze (TJ). While James Bond is part of the British national brand, it is the Cambridge circle, and George Blake that arguably left the biggest imprint in spy history. How important is that legacy for Russian-British relations?
Professor Neil McFarlane (NF). For some people in some generations in the UK, James Bond may be a national brand. But it is not, and to some Scots and Irish, has never been clear that a British nation ever existed.
As for George Blake and the Cambridge Circle, this is a Cold War artefact and has very little impact on Anglo-Russian relations now. We know that both sides messed around in each other’s business during the Cold War; it was a normal part of the game. A near-majority of the British population or our political class has no personal memory of these shenanigans anyway.
However, for those British people (a minority) who follow the dark side of the relationship between the UK and Russia (for example, the Salisbury/Skripal story, or the alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum), Russian interference is a real and present danger. In the former case, it is not normal for a foreign power to attempt to assassinate someone on our territory. It is also worth remembering that Skripal was one of several assassinations or attempted assassinations during that period. Concerning the latter case, covert electoral interference is disturbing to the body politic. I return to this theme later.
One final point. Legacy Cold War issues don’t have much impact on contemporary UK policy towards Russia. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and pressure on the UK’s Baltic allies are major factors in the relationship. Here, whether in the EU or not, the UK shares Europe’s rejection of these Russian behaviours. This leads to the conclusion that improvement in the relationship largely depends on Russia’s behaviour towards its neighbours.
TJ. For more than two decades, new money from the CIS poured into the UK and the Baltic States. Is this a case of “moral corrosion” or is the West an ally of the Russian oligarchy to some extent?
NM. Morality is an interesting way to frame the question. What morality and whose morality are we talking about? Bankers have one form of morality in their corporate transactions – the morality of profit. Priests have a different form of morality. The activist left has another still. Leaving aside this aspect of the question, and getting on to the suggestion that the West is an ally of the Russian oligarchy, alliance is not obviously relevant. These people, and these institutions, are employed to make money. That is what they do. They do so in the context of regulatory frameworks. When the legal framework was more relaxed, a lot of this money came our way. When the framework was tightened, the flow was reduced.
So I would add a third possible explanation to your question: the pursuit of profit.
TJ. It is often said that a return to the days of the Cold War is not likely because there is no ideological dimension to the current system of “multipolar encounters.” Do you agree? And if so, is the “Anglo-Sphere” a foreign policy alliance or an ideological construct?
NM. There are two questions here, so I’ll deal with them separately. On the first, the “end of ideology”, if it ever happened, has ended. At the end of the Cold War, it appeared to some that ideology was over. Then we had 9/11, which was to a degree the result of an ideological contradiction. Now we have another one: the contradiction between liberal pluralism and populist authoritarianism. This new one has been muted for the last four years because of the emergence of populist leaders in the West (e.g., UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump). I expect it will come back to an extent if and when Trump is replaced by US President-elect Joe Biden.
As for the Anglosphere, historically this has been a foreign policy cooperation between English-speaking states with a degree of historical, ethnic and value similarities, and with a shared geopolitical perspective. In short, the dichotomy you propose between ideology and alliance does not hold; it was both. Moving to the present day, there was no obvious ideological construction of this relationship during the illiberal Trump era. But many aspects of the prior foreign and security policy alliance continued to operate, with varying degrees of difficulty. For example, the intelligence communities retained comparatively close relations throughout the period. And the identity basis of the relationship endures. We “speak the same language” and there is a lot of social as well as political interaction between the US, the UK, and, for that matter, Canada and Australia.
If Biden is inaugurated, there will be problems in some aspects of the relationship, but I expect it will carry on none-the-less. As will NATO, which integrates Canada, the UK, and the US into a broader constellation. The “five eyes” will also go on, because it is mutually beneficial.
TJ. After Brexit the UK will see it influences over the continent diminish vis-a-vis traditional partners. Following a series of scandals covert attacks on British soil (with dangerous nuclear and biological agents), do you feel there is room to rethink London’s relationship with Moscow?
NM. It is not clear how far British influence on the Continent will diminish. The category of influence is too broad. It seems inevitable that the economic aspects of influence will decline, although the role of the UK in the financial services sector in Europe may remain robust. The security dimensions (e.g. NATO) will remain, and the UK will remain important in this sphere, because it has retained military capabilities that its continental EU security partners (other than Finland, France, and Sweden) have largely abandoned.
I don’t think there is much room on the UK side for rethinking the relationship with Russia. Russia messing around in our business is not welcome. In other words, as I said earlier, the answer to your question depends on Russia and not the UK (Putin and not Johnson).
TJ. Britain is about to apply for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with traditional allies in the Pacific. Is Russia a Pacific power?
NM. This is a curious question, since, geographically, Britain is not a Pacific power. It does not have sufficient military capability or economic capacity to project into the region. It is also not clear which traditional allies you refer to (other than Australia, Canada, and the US).
Since Russia is, in fact, a Pacific coastal state, and has substantial land, naval, and nuclear capability in the region, it is a Pacific power. It also has a fairly well developed relationship with the major Asian power in the region – China.
One of the peculiarities of the current strategic situation is that Russia does not focus as much as one might predict on regional policy in the Pacific region, other than bilaterally with China. I guess that is because, in their minds, Russian leaders remain focused on their west and their south, rather than the east. Likewise, the countries farther south in Pacific Asia are not sure where Russia is.
TJ. What are the implications of the Second Karabagh War for the wider Black Sea area?
NM. I don’t think that this conflict has many implications for the wider Black Sea area. On the other hand, it has deep and potentially disturbing implications for the Caucasus. I would suggest three. One is that many people interpreted the freezing of the conflict between 1994 and the mid-2000s as the result of a local balance of power.
The incidents from 2016, culminating in the war in 2020, suggest that, as Azerbaijan became more powerful it became more interested in reversing the 1994 outcome.
Second, Russia has a persistent pattern of using local conflicts to increase influence in the region. Russian leaders feel a sense of entitlement to predominant influence in the Caucasus and are resistant to Western policies that cut across that objective. After the Soviet collapse, Russians tended to favour Armenia. Turkey, after some engagement, basically left the game, as did Iran.
In the last decade, Russian policy has become more flexible, as their relations with Azerbaijan improved, and given Russian concerns about Armenian ambivalence on the Russia vs. Europe vector. For example, it sold substantial weapons to Baku, ending up as the major arms provider to both sides.
You probably remember the negotiations on a Karabagh peace-keeping force in 1994-5. That failed, in large measure because the Russians wanted to be the lead peacekeeper and Azerbaijan resisted the reinsertion of Russian forces into their territory. Now Russia controls the peace-keeping force and has its forces on Azerbaijani territory. The new cease-fire reverses Azerbaijan’s exclusion of Russian forces in its territory and deepens Russian engagement in that country. As Tom de Waal said recently in an RFE/RL interview, Russia now controls Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russians have long memories.
A second point is the lack of serious engagement in the crisis by Western states. They have shown that they are not willing to invest in the regional security of the Caucasus.
Finally, there is Turkey. Several issues arise here. One is that this is another example of Turkey’s seeming effort to extract itself from Western institutional influence. Another is the reincarnation of Turkey’s security role in the Caucasus. The role they have taken is clearly one-sided, the support of Azerbaijan and deliberate destabilisation of the region’s delicate balance of power through arms transfers and also the provision of Syrian fighters to the Azerbaijani side in the conflict.
That raises the question of Turkish-Russian relations. Their relations have improved as Turkey moves towards a more independent stance vis-à-vis the West, and given Russia’s provision of air defence missile systems to Turkey. However, the two countries have been at odds in Syria (and in Libya as well). That tension has been managed with difficulty. Now they are potentially at odds in the southern Caucasus, given Russia’s sensitivity to security engagement by other outsiders in regional security in the Caucasus.
One wonders how much pressure their bilateral relationship can take. If it is breached, that would have clear implications for Black Sea security, since Russia and Turkey are the two major maritime powers on the Black Sea littoral.