‘Unrealistic’ to think UK-Russia relations can thaw while Putin in power – ISC

There is little prospect of the UK’s relationship with Russia thawing while Vladimir Putin remains in power, the Intelligence and Security Committee said.

Under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, engagement with Russia has been patchy, with awkward meetings at summits taking place in between diplomatic disputes.

Mr Johnson spoke to the Russian leader in the margins of a summit in Berlin in January, where he told him there would be “no normalisation” of the relationship unless Mr Putin changed course.

G20 meeting – Antalya
G20 meeting – Antalya

The ISC charted the troubled UK-Russia relationship in its report on Moscow’s activities.

“Following the election of Putin as president in 2000, the Russian government has increasingly shown itself instead to be actively hostile towards the UK and the West, and fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international laws and norms,” the report said.

“The Russian government is looking for engagement on its terms alone: paying lip-service to notions of better relations with the UK and seeking more economic co-operation, whilst flouting UK sovereignty and – in the Skripal attack – the most essential of international principles around the prohibition of chemical weapons.”

The committee noted it was important to differentiate between public statements and “back channels” of communication which are essential in times of crisis.

Following a break in relations in 2007 after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, communication channels with Russia were reopened in 2013 to allow for the exchange of information regarding the terrorist threat to the Sochi Olympics.

These were subsequently closed in 2014 after the games, but reopened in 2016 ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament and kept open in the run-up to the 2018 Football World Cup, to ensure the security of Russian citizens visiting the UK and UK citizens visiting Russia respectively.

But “relationship-building,has been frozen recently, as has planned ministerial engagement”.

The March 2018 Salisbury attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal plunged the relationship into the deep freeze.

At the 2019 G20 meeting in Osaka, a stony-faced Mrs May met Mr Putin and condemned the Salisbury attack as a “truly despicable act”.

The ISC said it was the cross-Whitehall Russia Strategy still mentioned of “proactive engagement and relationship-building with Russia, beyond essential communication”.

The committee said: “Whilst it is possible that an improved relationship between Russia and the UK may one day reduce the threat to the UK, it is unrealistic to think that that might happen under the current Russian leadership.

“It would have to be dependent on Russia ceasing its acts of aggression towards the UK, such as the use of chemical weapons on UK soil.

“The UK, as a Western democracy, cannot allow Russia to flout the rules based international order without there being commensurate

“Any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present would severely undermine the strength of the international response to Salisbury, and the UK’s leadership and credibility within this movement.”