Friday, 30 October 2009

If visit improves UK relations with Russia, it will be in spite of Miliband.

At the height of controversy surrounding the Litvinenko affair, former dissident and adviser to President Putin, Gleb Pavlosky, accused David Miliband of imbibing anti Russian sentiment ‘with his mother’s milk’. He was indulging, undoubtedly, in a degree of hyperbole, and mining Miliband family history to impugn the current generation was an unfortunate mode of debate. However his comments reflected genuine anger at the British foreign secretary’s consistently hostile attitude to Russia and little has occurred, in the intervening two years, to reassure Russians as to Miliband’s good faith.

Nevertheless, this weekend, Miliband will embark upon the first visit to Russia by a UK foreign secretary in five years, when he visits his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. Notwithstanding his clumsy, carping, unnuanced interventions on behalf of Ukraine and Georgia, there is an appetite for partnership between the UK and Russia. RIA Novosti, the state news agency, reports Russian hopes that the visit will help ‘consolidate’ improving relationships. Echoing language which has accompanied regime change at the White House, Lavrov commented that ‘everything is ready for a reset’.

Miliband has personified a new Labour approach to foreign policy which prefers to posture and preach rather than employ the more subtle arts of diplomacy. He has pronounced on all manner of domestic and regional disputes which were, ostensibly, none of Britain’s business, and certainly did not affect its interests. Until William Hague takes over at the FCO, it will remain in the hands of a minister who wastes the knowledge and expertise of its staff and prioritises domestic politicking rather than an advancement of UK trade and influence.

It is unlikely that the current foreign secretary will consider carefully the advice which Tony Brenton, Britain’s Ambassador to Moscow between 2004-2008, offers in this morning’s Times, for his impending visit. It is certainly a subtler assessment of Russia’s current progress, and its recent history, than we are accustomed to hearing from Foreign Office ministers. Brenton advises,

“we should work with Russia where we can. Talk of a “new Cold War” is a grotesque exaggeration. Russia is not the revanchist troublemaker depicted in much of the Western press. Its foreign policy is based on a cautious assessment of its national interest. There is common ground that we should work to exploit. Russia is as keen as we are to stop Iran going nuclear and Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taleban. We have a joint contribution to make to cutting the world’s excessive stock of nuclear weapons. And there are vast gains to be made by expanding our mutual trade and investment.”

His article concludes,

“we should remain optimistic. Russia is a country that, in terms of both history and culture, knows itself to be profoundly European. As it looks around its borders, the least threatening one is that to the west. Its trade and investment links are heavily western orientated. The values to which it aspires are Western values. As its people grow more prosperous and more knowledgeable about the freedoms enjoyed by their Western neighbours, so they will grow less tolerant of the constraints under which they are forced to live.”

Whatever one makes of the totality of the former Ambassador’s analysis, his tone is cautious and realistic. I’d imagine it will be wasted on David Miliband. If British – Russian relations are advanced over the next few days, it will be in spite of the foreign secretary.

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