Five tests for Cameron in Russia

by James Watkins

We missed a trick in 1991 – and David Cameron will know this when he visits Moscow in the New Year.

Back in the early 90s the then US president, George H W Bush and John Major,  hunkered down in Downing Street, may not have publicly crowed at the collapse of the Soviet Union, but their actions spoke louder than their words. Though Russia joined the G8 group of wealthy nations, the lack of assistance fully to buttress the Russian economy led to a dive in living standards – rubbing salt into Russia’s already wounded pride.

This chain of events has led to the nationalism we see today, with Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, saying that Stalin was not all bad and that the Soviet collapse was a “catastrophe” while Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, deliberately made a show of visiting islands that are a bone of contention between Russia and Japan.

All of this is not the best backdrop to the British prime minister’s visit, but there have been some developments that have recently boosted Russian confidence.

NATO and Russia agreed this autumn to work together on anti ballistic missile defence. In April, the United States and Russia agreed on a major nuclear arms reduction treaty. The Russian government was able to extend its lease for its Black Sea naval port – thanks to a pro-Moscow Ukrainian government. Russian troops still occupy parts of northern Georgia which – superficially – gives Russia the upper hand in the region. And, as we all know to England’s cost, Russia will host the World Cup.

But president Medvedev has spoken of the potential of rising tensions with the West:

“If we do not succeed in entering into constructive understanding there will begin a new arms race”.

This rhetoric may also stem from jockeying in advance of the 2012 Presidential election. Aides to Medvedev are already hinting that the president wants to stay in place while Vladimir Putin is known to want to return to that role.

So how should David Cameron guide himself through this minefield to advance British interests? Clearly the opaque nature of Russian politics has always been difficult to decipher. For instance, the late Boris Yeltsin claimed that he chose Putin as his successor because of his reticence:

“Putin did not try to strike up conversations with me. Rather, it seemed that Putin tried to remove any sort of personal element from our contact. And precisely because of that I wanted to talk to him more”.

Clearly, Putin’s links to the security-military apparatus may have been more of a consideration at that time. But with poor conditions in the armed forces, the black market economy, as vividly described by the leaked US diplomatic cables, may be more of a determinant when it comes to Russia’s future.

So, while David Cameron will consider the strategic implications of Russia as far as the future of Afghanistan and other critical issues are concerned, there are five broad themes that the Prime Minister should address on his visit to Moscow.

First is the issue of security. Though it now looks like the US congress will ratify the START arms reduction treaty, the new Republican dominated congress that will be convened in January shows signs of wanting to stifle the momentum president Obama began in moving forward on nuclear disarmament. Such a stance would be against British interests following the retrenchment of our armed forces as a consequence of Liam Fox’s defence review. The prime minister should privately make it clear that the British government will use its existing influence with senator John McCain and other leading Republicans to ensure that the disarmament process is not knocked off course.

Second, there is the issue of the economy. Russian business is making itself felt in Britain – with the Sunday Times 2010 Rich List listing four Russian businessmen in the top 100 places – with Chelsea FC owner, Roman Abramovich, holding the second place spot. As of 2009, British firms exported goods and services to Russia in the value of 2.3 billion pounds.

But the lack of transparency in commercial transactions has already led business secretary, Vince Cable, to tell Moscow that commercial law needs to be tightened up to ensure there is business confidence in this market that could benefit jobs here at home. This point must continue to be pressed.

Third is the issue of regional insecurity. Despite – or maybe because of – Russian troops in the South Ossetian part of Georgia, the tensions in the northern Caucasus, including Chechnya, are palpable. President Medvedev had declared this area to be his country’s foremost internal political problem.

As has been noted by Prof. Charles King of Georgetown University and Prof. Rajan Menon of City University of New York:

“A new upsurge in violence within and beyond the North Caucasus would also accelerate Russia’s drift from democracy by providing fodder for politicians who promise to avenge the victims and hammer the disorderly south”.

An unstable Russia is not in Britain’s interests and a push towards a more equal relationship for those provinces in the Russian Federation is crucial to overcome any slippage towards instability. The Russian government may object to such advice as “interference” but the need for a stable Russia means that Britain must raise these issues as well as fully support the council of Europe’s efforts to help move this area forward.

Fourth is the need for full democracy in Russia itself. Despite the campaigning of democracy activists such as from the former chess champion, Gary Kasparov, the political elite is largely from one party – United Russia. There do seem to be differences between Medvedev and Putin on the need for democracy, with President Medvedev seeming to be more disposed towards full democracy. A Medvedev supporter, Andrei Vorobyov, head of United Russia’s central executive committee, recently said:

“Competition in a modern democratic society is an indispensable precondition for development. The lack of competition is a threat”.

The trend towards nationalism is taking attention away from bread and butter economic issues – something that would not probably be so severe if there was a genuine pluralist democracy. Britain needs to continue its soft power work via the British Council in this area – despite Russian government tensions with the British Council over the last three years.

The fifth issue is particularly intractable – but must continue to be faced. Following the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, the crown prosecution service wanted to question Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian MP, in connection with the murder. The Russian authorities have refused to co-operate. Clearly, justice must be done when a crime is committed in Britain. Britain’s allies must continue to support us in this cause.

While talk of an alleged Russian spy working for a Lib Dem MP does not help with moving UK-Russia relations forward, it is – in fact – these five tests that David Cameron must begin to address in his visit to Moscow.

James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee and Labour housing group executive. He writes in a personal capacity.

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One Response to “Five tests for Cameron in Russia”

  1. Matt says:

    I’m no fan of the Labour party and certainly not of Unite. But someone with that level of Foreign Policy insight must surely be wasted in the latter, and probably in the former too.

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