In Context: Britain’s relationship with Russia

The British relationship with Russia has been subject to discussion over the course of the EU referendum campaign and subsequent reactions to the Leave result. President Putin was cited as being in favour of Brexit in some media reports during the campaign.

British relationship with Russia

What is known is that the British relationship with Russia has been rocky in recent years and even more turbulent over the previous two hundred. From much admired ally to feared and loathed opponent, Russia, or the USSR, has been at the forefront of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy thoughts for some time.

The Current Situation

Nowadays, the Russo-British relations are going through hard times. Whatever positive achievements of recent years, those have been substantially undermined by London’s projection of our differences over Ukraine, Crimea and Syria onto bilateral matters.

We have to admit that at the moment Russo-British political dialogue is non-existent.

Source: The Russian Embassy in London website June 2016

As The United Kingdom ponders its reaction to the Leave vote in the EU Referendum the exact relationship is probably a to little too ‘cloudy’ to outline as there are a lot of unknowns and negotiations to take place that will have a bearing on the short term future of the UK’s relationship with Russia.

In recent years the relationship has been tense due to EU sanctions against Russia. The British being viewed as a driving force for those sanctions, making the relationship awkward. The international communities involvement in the Syrian conflict also affects our relationship. Russia has backed the Assad regime and participated quite actively in the region from an early stage. The British, and European, view has been quite different.

As a result of the sanctions, trade has been limited in recent years. Diplomatic links have also been strained, especially so as a result of the death of Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was a former KGB Officer. He was granted asylum to live in the UK and whilst living and working here was poisoned. British investigations following this murder in 2006 led to requests for the extradition of a Russian politician, Andrei Lugovoy. Russia refused, which led to a diplomatic ‘tit for tat’ involving the expulsion of diplomats and the UK similarly refusing to extradite to Russia. Whilst a line has been drawn under this affair, it is still relatively fresh in the memories of diplomats of both nations.

Other issues have included the Russian deployment of it’s long range air patrols and nuclear submarines close to UK territorial airspace / waters. This has resulted in Russian lanes and submarines being escorted or shadowed as they near the UK.

The more recent issue relate to Russian involvement in the Ukraine and the response of the United Kingdom to these events. In 2014, David Cameron denounced Russia for it’s support of separatist groups in the Ukraine. The aftermath of a civilian airliner being shot down in the region led to sanctions being imposed by both sides and a halt to military co-operation.

Anglo-Russian relations.

A more detailed account of the recent history of relations between Russia and the United Kingdom can be found here.

Historic Changes to the Relationship

Some twenty years ago whilst studying Russian and Soviet History and Politics at University, my tutor summed up the complex history of the country and it’s international relations quite succinctly. Russian history and politics can be simplified into:

It’s Big and it’s cold; The leaders have been bald or hairy; Everything is very rough or very smooth

Of course this needs a little explanation, though as a simplified version goes, it’s one that has stuck with me for two decades. The ‘Big and Cold’ relates not only to the Geographical size of Russia but the resulting need to have good infrastructure and, in some cases, additional designs on land. The bald and hairy was the tutors method of summarising the types of leader that Russia has had: Reformers, Reactionaries, Revolutionaries. The Rough or Smooth, well that is the result, in this context, on foreign relations.

So, how has looked in real terms?

The earliest formal links between England and Russia were made during the reign of Queen Mary I. An envoy travelled to Archangel and a trade agreement was made that established a Moscovy Company that had a monopoly on trade between the two nations from 1555 to 1698. Trade between the two countries was not without dispute though, with the Muscovy company having it’s access to the Volga revoked in 1571 and Tsarist courts that were less than sympathetic to towards England at this time.

Diplomatic links between the two countries improved thereafter, until the outbreak of the Civil War in England. The war prompted a bar on English merchants entering Russia, with the exception of the port of Archangel. This stance did not change until Restoration when relations between the two countries thawed. However by this time, Russia had developed very strong trading links with the Dutch in particular.

Relations improved following the visit and three month stay of Peter the Great. Over time this led to commercial exchanges and movement of specialist workers between the two countries.

War has altered the relationship between Russia and the United Kingdom in several ways over time. During the Austrian wars of Succession, 1740–48, the two nations fought alongside one another as allies. However in just the following decade they took different sides in the Seven Years War: though they did not actually engage in battle against one another in that war.

From 1789 to 1799 the two nations combined to oppose French Republicanism. This ten year alliance coming to an end with a failed attempt at Military intervention in the Low Countries. To illustrate just how quickly the relationship between the nations can change, within months of the end of that campaign there was a Russo-French plan to assault British interests in the Indian sub-continent.

That latter plan never materialised into conflict but shows how rapidly things can change. Conflict did break out in the Anglo-Russian war at the beginning of the nineteenth century but again, a rapid change of heart followed as the two nations allied themselves against Napoleon.

An area that continues to pose political issues to this day rose to prominence in the middle of the nineteenth century. The fate of the Ottoman Empire was subject to demands and desires from several parties. In 1853 this led to the Crimean War which was fought for three years between Russia and an alliance of the Ottomans, British and French.

Britain was also concerned at this time about the safety of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ and took action to ensure that the Russians could not have an easy route of attack into India should they choose to. This led to keen interest in each others actions in and around the sub continent and across Asia as both sought to and enhance empires.

At the start of the Twentieth century an Anglo-Russian Entente and a separate Convention were signed. These became part of the alliance system, alongside the French, that would ultimately fight alongside each other in the First World War.

The Revolution changed the relationship. There was initially intervention on behalf of the White Army in the Russian Civil War, though this subsided once the First World War had ended. British troops remained in Russia for some time, the last leaving in 1921. At the same time an Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement was signed and the USSR was formally recognised by the United Kingdom in 1924. However, recognising the USSR did not mean that relations were warm. Indeed they were tense throughout the inter-war period. The Zinoviev Letter incident and an M15 raid led to relations halting from May 1927 to 1929.

During the period of appeasement the Soviet Union felt isolated from negotiations. The relationship was strained in the early stages of the war as the United Kingdom was sympathetic to Finland’s cause in their war against the Soviet Union but also aware that they may need to ally themselves with Stalin’s USSR at some time in the future. That, of course, is exactly what did transpire following the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

The public facing side of the relationship with the USSR during the war was one of warmth. The image of ‘Uncle Joe Stalin’ and his forces fighting on the Eastern front. Behind the scenes the relationship clearly had it’s cordial moments but was an alliance of necessity rather than desire. The period of the Cold War is perhaps best explained elsewhere as it isn’t exclusively a tale of the UK’s relationship with the Soviet Union: albeit there are interesting stories and sub-plots to delve into.

Even with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall much of the relationship is characterised more in terms of NATO or Western Europe developing a new relationship rather than just the United Kingdom. That being said, the UK as a major power within those organisations was heavily involved in fostering a warmer relationship, especially in the period from 1985 to the end of the USSR.

Further Reading

Wiki entry on Anglo-Russian relations.

UK Parliament current issues for debate.