Can Britain and Russia be friends again?

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Can Britain and Russia be friends again?
Ah Britain, Russia’s been expecting you. Because, in recent years, the interaction between Moscow and London has been practically non-existent. And as two of Europe’s 'big four' nations, that clearly isn’t sustainable.

At times, the dialogue has been tetchy, bad-tempered and peppery. In 2013, for example, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov allegedly dismissed Britain as "a small island nobody listens to." Something he later denied after ex-Prime Minister David Cameron issued a rebuke about the British having "warm hearts."

This spat seemed positively polite when Prince Charles later compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. An impropriety that led to calls for his abdication from the opposition Labour Party.

Last year, the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee began an investigation into British-Russian inter-governmental relations, which have been effectively frozen for far too long. Over a series of hearings, from May to December, an eclectic group of academics, lobbyists and officials gave their views on how to manage bilateral dealings. Some Russians were granted their say, including representatives from RT, and a clutch of colorful anti-Kremlin activists also took the microphones.

The hope was that the deliberations would lead to a thaw between the two countries. Because right now things are glacial in the way an Arctic fisherman would understand. This, despite how Russia and Britain have far more in common than is generally realized, perhaps even by themselves, as peripheral European powers. Both in Europe, but not truly of it.

The Verdict

Now the final report is out, and while there’s much to admire in it, some of the conclusions are questionable, to say the least. That said, two particular points stand out as immediately valid. For instance, when the MPs note that “the UK is not Russia’s enemy.” This is undeniably true, and there is no need for the two countries to be at loggerheads.

The second stand out from the report is when the committee states: “The FCO’s (UK Foreign Service) Russia expertise has disintegrated since the end of the Cold War. This must be reversed.” A point as obvious as suggesting it rains quite often in England. Because the state of Russia knowledge across the UK is pitifully poor. Evidence of this sad reality can be seen in the appalling quality of guests repeatedly used by the London media to discuss the country or write about it. These chancers typically have no insider contacts at the Kremlin, delight in Cold War metaphors, and haven’t spent much time in contemporary Russia.

In fact, some didn't darken the door for years. A bunch of odious mountebanks posing as gurus on theme they view through a long-expired prism.
The problem is that policymakers absorb their misinformed diatribes, and the general public is hoodwinked by their ersatz authority. And this is often buttressed by fancy faux-academic titles garnered from think tanks, which are usually funded by external actors with a vested interested in maintaining hostility toward Moscow.

An excellent example here is CEPA, a rabidly anti-Russian club, paid for by Bell Helicopter, Boeing, the Chevron Corporation, FireEye, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon Company and Sikorsky Aircraft. All arms contractors who benefit directly from increased NATO spending, necessitated by the bogus 'Russian menace' narrative their hired hands promote.

Lobbyists employed by CEPA include Edward Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev and Anne Applebaum. All of whom are ubiquitous in the British press space warning against the normalization of relations with Moscow. Yet, their provenance and motivation are rarely, if ever, fully revealed. However, if a guest aligned to RT appears, the phrase “Kremlin-funded broadcaster” is usually employed in the initial breaths.

The Bigger Stage

Of course, this is not unique to the UK. Take the case of Evelyn Farkas, for example. A former principal adviser to Barack Obama who now lobbies for NATO’s Atlantic Council adjunct and devotes her time to damaging US perceptions of Moscow. Such as when she accused Russia of conducting war crimes in Syria, without offering a smidgen of evidence. Something the Foreign Affairs Committee report actually explicitly cautions against. 

This is important because it highlights how think tanks are undermining the noble (at least on paper) intentions of lawmakers and diplomats who want a safer, friendlier world. Because accepting advice from ideologues, especially potentially comprised ones, is always fraught with danger.

But the reason the think tank peril needs to be highlighted is that the report often feels like a thinly veiled cash call for these bodies and London’s RT analog, the BBC’s foreign news service. “(The) FCO must once again invest in the analytical capacity to understand Russian decision-making in order to develop effective and informed foreign policy. It should involve engaging with think tanks and universities that study Russia,” is the conclusion.

However, the problem with these concerns is that these think tank fellas, or fellows, spend little time contemplating, deliberating or exercising their gray matter. Rather they are sparsely camouflaged campaign groups. And taking counsel from these quarters, let alone directly funding them, would be a disaster. Unless, of course, parliamentarians are merely seeking expensive confirmation bias?

Difficult Course

When it comes to media, there is also a double standard here. Russian services are summarily dubbed “propaganda,” but when the ‘venerable’ BBC is funded directly from the defense budget to project British influence, it is presented as a benign activity. To be fair, the communique admits this to a degree, but still enthusiastically welcomes the sharp increase in funding. This is presented as follows: “in recognition of the reach and impact of the Russian Government’s information campaign, the BBC World Service announced its largest expansion since the 1940s in November 2016.”

At the same time, the fact the BBC is deemed somehow morally superior smacks of both orientalism and extraordinary arrogance. There is also no effort to see RT as something that could be useful in learning the Russian point-of-view, which seems an elementary mistake when it comes to understanding the country at the center of the report. Additionally, the establishment UK media campaign to put pressure on guests, interviewees, advertisers, and pretty much anyone who works with RT, is ignored. 

Despite some concerns, the transparency of the UK system deserves some praise. The very fact that the parliamentarians were willing to listen to a few, albeit limited, dissenting voices certainly marks them as more progressive than their US counterparts. Because, over in Washington, we continuously see the same invitees parroting the usual guff in what amounts to “nod-fests.”

Yet where it falls down is when it views British institutions as inherently superior to their Russian counterparts. If that sort of condescending - and at times downright hypocritical - attitude continues to fester, it’s difficult to see how the UK Foreign Office can work constructively toward constructive engagement with Russia, which the committee recommends. And, as a result, a diminished UK, cast out from Europe by its own hand, will become even further estranged from another former superpower which, in a rational world, should be its friend.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.