13 June 2019
Dialogue With Russia
Putin’s olive branch.
By Robert Kilconner
In last week’s column, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornbury and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were both criticised for their aggressive comments about President Trump, not because those comments were necessarily wrong but because, as political leaders, they needed to think about the consequences of their actions and the damage their rather superficial remarks would do to Britain’s relationship with an important ally. I was a little surprised, therefore, to find articles in last Friday’s The Times which, taken together, raised a similar issue in very different context.
The first article was by Ed Conway, the economics editor of Sky News; it discussed the Chernobyl disaster and contained two startling facts. The first was that the immediate area of the explosion will not be inhabitable for 20,000 years. The second was that had there been a second explosion (and nobody knows why there was not), much of Europe would have become uninhabitable. Scary stuff indeed, especially in an article about how accidents will always happen.
The second item was a report of a speech by President Putin in which he said that Russia and Britain should “turn a page’” following the Skripal poisoning and that “we should forget all this, at the end of the day.” Needless to say there was no acceptance of responsibility but rather a comment that global cooperation was “more important than the games of special services”.
Mr Putin surely has a point and it raises a curious dichotomy. There are a number of areas such as the environment, the avoidance of nuclear accidents and resistance to Chinese expansionism where Russia and the West badly need to work together. In the event of another and worse Chernobyl it would be no consolation at all to reflect that our imminent demise was the result of our keeping Russia at arms length. Here cooperation should be paramount.
Then there are areas where a firm stance needs to be taken. The collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed what were Russian satellite states to join the West, and Russia’s annexation policy in the Ukraine shows that Russia is not at all easy with this. That means that the West has to show determination and if necessary aggression if it is to defend the fledgling democracies.
How then do you combine this firmness in some areas with cooperation in others? It is a subtle business and no doubt a great deal of thought is given to it in diplomatic circles. One thing seems clear, however. The more areas in which we can all cooperate the better and that friendly contact and respect should be enhanced. That is why it is disappointing to read that the Russians feel that their role in the Allied victory is under-appreciated and that Russia is contemplating abandoning nuclear arms control because of a perceived lack of engagement by the US. No doubt it is all rather more complicated than that but in this thorny land of mutual suspicions both parties should be working hard to keep each other comfortable. To hit the other side’s sensibilities unnecessarily is a failure of management.
Perhaps though this is where countries like the UK come in. Although the West may be dominated by the US it is not a single diplomatic unit but a grouping of many different countries. That can make it easier to pursue a diverse approach as individual countries build bridges which might be too difficult for the NATO alliance as a whole. Bringing Russia by degrees into the European club could do much to soften its relationship with the US without the latter having to weaken in those areas in which it needs to remain strong.
Seen in this context Mr Putin’s suggestion that we move on should be viewed as an opportunity to develop a relationship of friendship and mutual respect. We should avoid recriminations and take it seriously.