Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria will frustrate any attempts at a shift in UK policy on Russia.
In August 2016 the new British PM Theresa May assured the Ukrainian President Poroshenko that the UK will continue to support sanctions and the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. Then, in early September she met Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G20 summit in China. Both sides were interested in improving relations. The UK now seeks to find new international partners, especially in trade, and so the pressure to pursue a more interest-based policy will increase. However, Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria will frustrate any attempts at a shift in UK policy on Russia.
Secretary of State Boris Johnson’s strong reaction to Russian bombings of Aleppo suggests that in the weeks to come, Syria will play a greater role in shaping the UK’s stance on Russia. On Tuesday 11 October he stated that ‘intentionally attacking a hospital amounts to a war crime’ and that all incidents should be investigated. He specifically mentioned ICC procedures and called for anti-war demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy. Russians reacted quickly and angrily: Ministry of Defence called Johnson’s remarks ‘Russophobic hysteria’ while Putin’s spokesman demanded that Russian diplomats in London be protected. Theresa May can now be expected to bring Syria into the debate at the European Council.
Theresa May will certainly still try to be more pragmatic than her predecessor. David Cameron was very vocal, lambasted Russia for having ‘ripped up the rule book’ with its annexation of Crimea. He then spoke of a possibility to ‘take sanctions to a whole new level’ if Russia continued its incursions into Ukraine. May will not be so outspoken. However, she will remain committed to the Western sanctions regime. While Brexit negotiations are on the top of Theresa May’s agenda, foreign policy remains important. The UK does not want to be side-lined, is anxious to show that it wishes to remain a global player, or indeed a leader. It wishes to remain part of the larger Western strategic response to Russia that included NATO, G7 and other formats, all of them supporting sanctions.
UK policy towards Russia has been driven by four main factors that are not going to change short-term. First is the UK’s belief in a rules-based international order, which is not in line with Russia’s view of spheres of influence. Second is the recent experience of attempts to work with Russia, which has largely failed. Third is the values-based approach to foreign policy, including support for democratisation and human rights. Fourth is the need to engage with Russia, as we cannot wish it away and it does play an important role in crises. All these factors support the current sanctions policy, but also give some room for a more pragmatic approach. This is why we should not expect a drastic shift in UK policy on Russia – neither now nor post-Brexit.