British foreign policy always a reflection of US stance – Russia’s ambassador to UK

Russia and the United Kingdom - these two powers, for centuries, have been tied into the most complicated relations: enemies at one time, and yet allies and cooperators at another. But now the temperature between the two is steadily going down, with Britain leading the anti-Russian sanctions and, just recently, coming out with allegations of Moscow’s involvement with a death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. What’s pushing London to make such statements? Does the Cold War-like vector of Cameron’s policy resonate with public opinion? How much is this public opinion is shaped by the voice of mainstream media? And, finally, is there a hope for a thaw? We ask the Russian Ambassador to the UK. Alexander Yakovenko is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, thank you very much for being with us today. It’s great to finally have you on the show, so - ambassador, the latest report that accused President Putin for the killing of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko was far from conclusive, only hypothetically pointing to Moscow’s direct involvement - and we heard words like “probably”, “possibly”, “allegedly”. I mean, they are dominant throughout this document. If this report was largely based on assumptions, why did it receive so much hype in the UK?

Alexander Yakovenko: Basically, the investigation lasted so many years, and the only thing that we read in the press, this is some thoughts about that without any facts. The concluding investigation was secret, it wasn’t for the public, and of course, not for the press. We wanted to take part in this trial, but unfortunately, we were refused. So, our representatives, the representatives of the Russian government couldn’t participate in these hearings. We didn’t have a chance to read the papers and listen to the witnesses. For us, it’s difficult to accept, because it was secret, as I said, and, of course, everybody wanted to know what was the reality with that. All of us know, and that was said by his wife, that he worked for the MI6 and some other secret services, but today, unfortunately, this is the case. You rightly mentioned that in the judgement, it was said “probably”, “maybe” and so on - and that means that the judge wasn’t sure on the conclusions. It was secret, but he wasn’t sure on the conclusions which were made by the court. From my point of view, it’s absolutely unacceptable and this is, probably, the first such kind of trial in Britain. From my point of view it's’ a shame.

SS: The British PM David Cameron said the UK would have to have some sort of relationship with Russia, but said it would be “now done with clear eyes and very cold heart”. Were relations at different before?

AY: After the Litvinenko case we had difficult relations for all this time. There was a sanction regime… There were two elements there: there were restrictions to the visits of the Russian officials to the UK, the Russian officials who were taking part in different events, they couldn’t get the multiple visas and the period of their stay was limited just for a few days - this is first. The second one is that the British, they closed down any cooperation in fight against terrorism, so anti-terrorist cooperation was shut down. From point of view, that’s a big loss for the relations between two countries, but this is just the fact of life. Later on, we had some other restrictions from the British side, but of course they’ve got the reciprocity, and this is just the fact of life and here we are. But, the British side wisely said that they want to keep all the channels open and of course, we support this, and we believe that Britain should drop this policy with Russia…

SS: How so? Do you feel like British officials and diplomats are even able to look at Russia with clear eyes? Without the Cold War perceptions?

AY: I don’t what they mean by “clear eyes”. I would prefer them just look at us pragmatically.

SS: Commenting on the Litvinenko case, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it “regrets the politisation of the criminal case”. Who do you think is responsible for that - the government or the media hype surrounding the case?

AY: Basically, the media was very hostile, and the media wrote different stories. Of course, the regular people in the UK, they are just reading this, and of course, the media created a very negative atmosphere around Russia. We tried to object, but of course, the overwhelming number of the stories, they were anti-russian. This is first, and, by the way, when I was summoned to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the Litvinenko case and had a conversation with a Deputy Minister, they just forgot about the words “maybe”, “probably”, they said that Russia did this. From my point of view, this is absolutely unacceptable and of course, we didn’t accept that.

SS: So you had the revival of the Litvinenko case, we have corruption allegations against Putin in the BBC news show, and a movie portraying the outbreak of the World War III, instigated by Russia, also a product of BBC as well - literally happened one after another. Some in Russia believe the timing was planned. Do you think there’s a chance this is a mere coincidence?

AY: I don’t think this is coincidence. This is part of the big campaign against Russia that we see for years. I think the reason for that is the differences that we have in some big political issues - first, on Syria, and of course, in Ukraine. This is sort of a pressure on Russian policy. It doesn’t work, but this is just the fact of life.

SS: So the film “World War III”, right, inside the War Room, it depicts Russian military action in Eastern Europe, which eventually puts the world on the brink of nuclear war. It all looks pretty realistic and it was aired on a major television channel in the UK; I mean, it looks like Britain is convincing its peers that this is the scenario that they should be prepared for. Why?

AY: This is an additional fact of demonisation of Russia. Those who watched this film, they would find that Russia used the nuclear weapons first - so, this is some kind of implanting of this is idea into the heads of the British. From my point of view, it’s absolutely unacceptable, it’s a wrong way of doing things, and yesterday I had meetings with the team from the BBC, and I told them very openly that they are creating wrong impression of Russia, first, and Russian people, second, and that’s creating unnecessary…

SS: So what did they say to that, when you said that they’re creating a really bad image of Russia?

AY: Well, they said that they just want to see different scenarios, how things will go on, the mentioned Ukraine, and this kind of things. I told them that it’s absolute fiction and this is not the way how the BBC should behave.

SS: So, Britain’s Trident nuclear system has been a decisive issue in the UK, with some strongly campaigning against its renewal. It also emerge it would cost around £183 billion to maintain it. Could ramping up the fear of nuclear war convince the British public that they need nukes, after all?

AY: It looks like every time, when the Minister of Defence needs money for their budget, this kind of things are happening. It’s not only in the UK, in also takes place in the U.S., when there’s need to increase the budget: always, you know, some kind of allegations going on. So, partly, this is also an answer to this question.

SS: Now, at the same time, you have the UK that’s running invasion drills in Jordan, with The Daily Telegraph reporting they’re actually practice runs for a potential war with Russia in the future. Do you see these drills as a form of provocation? I mean, is the British government being so paranoid about Russia, it’s actually preparing for the confrontation?

AY: We were just looking at that, and we asked the Foreign Office for the explanation of that. We didn’t get the answer yet, but we’re watching, we are tracking these, let’s say, “exercises” in Jordan.

SS: So does the embassy monitor the public’s attitude towards Russia in the UK? Or, on the backdrop of recent unfriendly rhetoric, do you know if the general feeling towards Russia is as hostile as the one the media and the officials present? Are the political elite in sync with the population on the topic?

AY: That’s the problem for the British government, because, first of all… By the way, I would say that RT is the second-watched TV today in UK.

SS: After what, BBC?

AY: After BBC news, that’s right. BBC is still number one, but I understand that, because through years you got used to this channel, but that’s a huge success for RT. Why? Because the people want to have a different opinion, different points of view, and I would say that a lot of people from the Foreign Office, from the Parliament, they are telling me openly that they watch RT as the second opinion always now. That’s a great success. But, speaking about the people, they don’t watch RT, maybe they watch less BBC, but some newspapers made polls, you know, how they feel about the Russian policy in Syria, and some polls show that around 60%, some show 65% - so, the attitude towards Russia is a little bit different among the people. This is a huge contradiction, and I think that the government feels it, and all the time they have, let’s say, convince the public that Russia is dangerous, and they have to explain their people why they put in the national security strategy the phrase, the point, that Russia is the major threat for the national security of Britain. It’s difficult to understand, and when we’re talking to the regular people, to business people - I am not talking about the politicians - they of course have absolutely different feelings towards the Russian policy and Russia itself.

SS: Do you think such confrontational rhetoric both in press and in government will become mainstay of Russian-British relations from now on? Or do you see this as a temporary phase?

AY: I’m optimistic, and of course, I’m working for the Russian-British relations and we know the limits of the British foreign policy, but it was always a reflection of American foreign policy. That’s why the British are so limited in their manoeuvres in the foreign policy… but, there’s some room for them.

SS: Can I ask you something: is Britain actually able to lead an independent foreign policy?

AY: Well, that’s a good question. We are dealing just with the facts, and the facts show that in most of the international issues, starting from UNSC and the gap on the resolutions and decisions that are taking place in different places on a different stages, Britain is always together with the U.S. So, make your conclusions.

SS: So what does Britain stand to gain from upping confrontation with Russia?

AY: I think, very little, because the absence of political dialog with the major power of the world, member of the UNSC, you know, puts Britain in a very peculiar position on the international arena. Trade, the trade dropped 50% this year, and the business is not happen, and business presses the government to do something with the sanctions. The scientific community is also looking for new opportunities with Russia,  because Russia is a very strong country from the point of view of the science, and the universities, they want a new agreement, the fresh one, for the recognition of the diplomas, because it’s very important for them to have British diplomas recognized in Russia. Of course, the people who are working in the field of culture - musicians and others, you know - the want to continue relations. By the way, that part of our relations is doing quite well, because this is part of the image of the UK. Without cultural ties with Russia, I think, London will be a little bit different. So, we have more minuses than pluses in their policy.

SS: So, UK and Russia vowed to fight Islamic State together and to cooperate to achieve peace in Syria. Can UK offer any real help to Russia in the fight against terrorism in Syria, or is London actually hindering Moscow’s efforts there?

AY: I don’t think they can do much on the ground, it’s clear, because their capabilities are limited, that’s what we saw in Iraq, but they could be very helpful with the targeting of the terrorists. Because, formally, Britain is fighting with ISIS, that’s why we proposed to look together at which targets, I mean, of ISIS, Al-Nusra and some other terrorist organisations, we could find together with the British. I had conversation on that with the Foreign Secretary Hammond, that was two months ago, and unfortunately, the British side refused to that. At that time we also wanted the additional contacts and information. Now we don’t need it, but at that time we wanted to have them, just to talk a little bit closer to the moderate opposition in Syria, with whom we could establish the contacts, maybe a little bit more explanations on their goals, so Britain also refused. So, Britain could have been helpful and I hope that one day they will change their mind, but time is passing by and we’re doing little things ourselves. For example, we established certain relations with the FSA, with other opposition groups that are helping us to fight ISIS. It’s good to have something in the right time.

SS: If they’re refusing to help you on some major points, then what kind of cooperation is really happening between the two countries?

AY: In Syria, there’s no cooperation, because anything that we want to transmit to the military, we are doing this through Americans. So, basically, we’ll be happy to have more cooperation, because, in this case, there will be less killings from the jihadists, more lives will be saved. So, we could be a little bit more efficient in that, but this is the choice of the British.

SS: Cameron said their goal in Syria is defeating terrorism and, at the same time, regime change. Can these two issues be tackled at once?

AY: Well, basically, we have two vectors of fighting terrorism: one vector is fighting the terrorists, and the second one is the political settlement, political process that was launched in Vienna. We believe that we could combine these two processes, and that’s why we are doing our best to restart the process in Geneva. I hope that the meeting in Munich would be helpful in that.

SS: So, if London is so serious in tackling terrorism in Syria, why has it so far flown so few airstrike missions there?

AY: I think London is talking, and that’s what I hear from the Foreign Office all the time, that they want a regime change. They want Assad to go. We’re explaining all the time that that’s not the point. The point is to build the secure state in Syria and for that purpose, we have to, first, to get opposition and the government at the negotiating table, then, make the government of the national unity, then the new Constitution, the elections - so basically everything what is settled, what is fixed in Vienna, and which was, basically, supported by the UNSC resolution. Of course, who will be in power in Syria - this should be decision of the Syrian people. That’s what we are explaining all the time, but unfortunately, the British side is just telling me that Assad must go. From my point of view, this is an absolutely outdated position.

SS: So, the Ukraine conflict, obviously, contributed greatly to the deterioration of ties between the UK and Russia. As Cameron pointed out, the UK led the argument for European sanctions against Russia. Is there a talk of putting an end to these sanctions? Has there been any success in this regard?

AY: Well, unfortunately, there’s no success, because we have different points of view on Ukraine, because our position is very simple: there are Minsk agreements and this are the agreements between Kiev and Donetsk and Lugansk. We can only support these efforts, and this is the job of the Kiev regime to establish direct contacts, direct links with Donetsk and Lugansk, and to work together, in order to change the Constitution and to do everything what is specified by the Minsk agreements. But, the position of Britain is a little bit different. They are blaming us that we are not fulfilling the Minsk agreements, and they are presenting this as if that agreements are between Kiev and Moscow. It’s an absolutely wrong approach, and it’s so difficult to convince the officials that they are just twisting the facts. But, this is the reality and I think that Britain is not ready to press Kiev to fulfill Minsk agreements. That’s why they are taking this stand.

SS: Ambassador, I know that you’ve recently met with members of the UK Parliamentary working group which is actually tasked with fostering better relations with Russia. Can they achieve this change? I mean, does the group has any power to change opinions in the parliament?

AY: It looks like that the Parliament is not satisfied with the level of relations that we have today between the two of our countries. In January the Committee for International Relations, they launched an investigation to check what we have in the Russian-British relations. They will be working on that for approximately 3 months, because they want to know, and probably they will even go to Moscow to meet their counterparts. We made a contribution to that process. I wrote a long letter to the Chairman of the Committee, presenting my view on how we see the level of the Russian-British relations and what’s the reason of where we are today. This is first. Then, we have quite an interesting move: just in January, the special group, I mean, this is the group of two parties that was created in order to promote the relations with Russia. I had a meeting with them a week ago and I know that they are concerned with the status of relations between our countries and they want to receive the information first-hand, and of course, I gave all the explanations about the Russian foreign policy, how we see the bilateral relations, what are  the benefits of that, and it looks that they got our arguments. So, the process, in the Parliament, is going on and the people want to know more about our relations, and it looks like that some of them are taking our arguments.

SS: So, also, I wanted to ask you, there were reports that were leaked, that are published, I admit, in the Daily Mail, but still, about some kind of a brawl that happened during the meeting in embassy… I don’t know if it’s true, but if it is, then what they were fighting about, Russian policy or desert?

AY: No, no, I’ll tell you: it has nothing to do with the reality and that means… this publication, from my point of view, is just a reflection of how much attention is paid to this kind of meetings. Could you imagine how many meetings are taking place with the Parliamentarians in London, and only that meeting was covered by the press. But, first of all, there was no press, and second, it was said that we’re drinking for Putin, or something like that - it’s absolutely wrong. There was a very good, interesting conversation, questions and answers, very pragmatic, and I expressed my point of view, and I got explanations from the British side, and everything what was published is not true.

SS: Alright, ambassador. Thank you very much for this interview, we wish you all the luck over there. Ambassador Yakovenko, we were talking to Russia’s Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko, discussing the latest lows in Russia-UK relations and how diplomacy can work its way around them. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next.