Boris Johnson arrives in Moscow today to hold talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov the next day – the first visit to Russia by a British foreign minister in five years. International security issues are to top the agenda, including North Korea, Iran and regional stability in the Middle East as well as security for the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament in Russia. This time the bilateral relationship is at the lowest ebb due to the differences over Ukraine, Syria, and the allegations of Moscow’s meddling in the politics of various European countries. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has dramatically escalated attacks on Russia recently, accusing it of malign influence and hostile intentions.
Mr. Johnson gave an interview to the Sunday Times as he prepares for the trip to Moscow, in which he said that “Russia has not been so hostile to the UK or to Western interests since the end of the Cold War.” According to him, “In the Crimea, capturing a part of sovereign, besides, European territory from someone else’s country and holding it for the first time since 1945.”
But the Crimean War, in which the UK and Russia fought each other, ended in 1856. Crimea was reunited with Russia in 2014. How does this reunification hurt British interests and where are the examples of hostility Mr. Johnson is talking about?
Besides, the minister is off base here. The first territory captured from someone else’s country was Kosovo forcibly taken away from Serbia by NATO in 1999 and declared “independent” in 2008.
He also mentions Montenegro. “We literally have Russian fingerprints on an assassination attempt in Montenegro,” the top British diplomat states. Mr. Johnson says “we” talking about an independent state, not a part of British Empire. And how does this example illustrate Russia’s hostility toward the UK?
Then finally Mr. Johnson addresses something Great Britain has an immediate relation to, saying “Look at what they’re doing with cyber- warfare, with attempted disruption of democratic processes in the UK.” The foreign secretary says he has “seen no evidence” that Russian meddling affected the outcome of the EU referendum but adds: “There’s some evidence that there has been Russian trolling on Facebook.” It begs the question how much did Russian Facebook activity target the Brexit vote? The Russia's Internet Research Agency operatives placed three adverts on Facebook in the run-up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, spending just 97 cents to allegedly raise the issue of immigration. “We have determined that these accounts associated with the IRA spent a small amount of money ($0.97) on advertisements that delivered to UK audiences during that time,” Facebook said. And there is nothing else to confirm the allegation that Russia was involved in any meddling.
So, that’s what all the talks about Russia’s hostility boils down to: Crimea, where not a single shot was fired, Montenegro, a murky story, which has no relation to the UK anyway, and the $0,97 cents allegedly spent to prompt Brexit.
“When I was a kid, Russia was a very scary proposition. The idea of friendship with Russia seemed to be absurd because Russia was threatening us with nuclear warheads,” Mr. Johnson continues.
But it was the US, not Russia, who used a nuclear weapon. And it was nobody else but British PM Winston Churchill who urged to “wipe out” Moscow – the city Mr. Johnson is going to visit - with an A-bomb.
The minister made a historical allusion: “I was reading Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war. It was obvious to me that Athens and its democracy, its openness, its culture and civilisation was the analogue of the United States and the West. Russia for me was closed, nasty, militaristic and antidemocratic — like Sparta. There was an extraordinary moment of hope and change when the [Berlin] wall came down and suddenly everything felt very different. It now feels as if that was a total illusion.” The country he compares with Sparta is not the Russian Federation but the Soviet Union, which does not exist anymore. The territory and political system were different. The times have changed. It should be noted that the wars between Sparta and Athens weakened Classical Greece to make it vulnerable to the conquests of Persia and Macedonia.
Of course, Mr. Johnson could not leave Syria out. “We need to talk to Russia about how they see the endgame in Syria. They have managed to maintain their client Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus but they have not produced a political solution for Syria,” he says. Is the power of jihadists – the same people who commit terrorist acts in Europe - better that the power of President Assad? No political solution? But the only initiative that has brought tangible results is the Astana peace process with Moscow playing the first fiddle. Are the de-escalation zones, where cease-fire is established, worse than the battlefields, where fierce fighting seemed to last forever? Was it not Russia who organized and is going to host the meeting of “Congress of Syrian National Dialogue” in Sochi? Has the UK ever launched any diplomatic initiative of its own to stop the bloodshed?
Actually, there is nothing new in the views presented by Mr. Johnson in the interview. It’s the same old song and dance - whatever it is, Russia is behind it.
True, the divisions over Ukraine, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders and the differences over Syria have greatly deteriorated the relationship between the two countries.
Under the circumstances, it would be naïve to expect a diplomatic breakthrough at the upcoming meeting in Moscow. But as permanent members of the UN Security Council the UK and Russia have a special responsibility for global peace and security. Nothing prevents dialogue on specific issues where there is scope for at least partial alignment of the interests, such as Syria, Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, aviation security, the 2018 World Cup and business ties. As the Russian-British Business Forum 2017 held on 28−29 November 2017 showed, there are lucrative prospects for economic cooperation even despite the sanctions war. The two countries can fruitfully cooperate. Just a few days ago, Sir Alan Duncan, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, visited Moscow. The event showed that responsible dialogue is possible. According to him, it is “vital for the UK & Russia, as permanent members of UN Security Council, to engage. Especially where we disagree on international security issues.”
That’s the kind of approach that should prevail during Boris Johnson’s visit. It’s more beneficial to talk shop than exchange unfounded accusations emphasizing the divisions instead of concentrating on the areas where cooperation is vital for both nations.