In Defence of UK-Russia Relations – A Shared Past & Future

I have always been a Russophile – the country, its culture and people as well as its rich history have always fascinated me.

With this in mind I packed off to university in the Autumn of 2002 to study Russian history and politics – for students of Russia at that time it was an amazingly interesting period, the country had emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union and was finding its feet in the world. Indeed at that time there was a genuine belief, and I for one believed it that the newly emergent Russia and its Western partners could develop a genuine partnership.

Fast forward a decade and a half and how things have changed… to state today that you are Russophile or to give a balanced view of Russian affairs engenders a number of reactions.

Just over two years ago I was delighted to take over the helm of the Westminster Russia Forum – my tenure of the Forum however has coincided with a remarkable period of bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Russian Federation – from Litvinenko and Crimea to the ongoing conflict in the Donbass & tensions over Syria the points of contention between London and Moscow are well documented.

Relations between states ebb and flow, this is a natural part of diplomacy of course but talk to decision makers in Berlin and Paris and they will naturally differ to the opinions of those in London – speak to those in Washington and they will differ even more.

In my role as Chairman of the Westminster Russia Forum I have been immensely privileged to meet a large number of senior politicians, business leaders, former civil servants and serving diplomats from both the UK and Russia.

During the course of such conversations  over the past few years a general thread has developed – namely that we would all do well to improve relations for the sakes of peace and stability as well as for bilateral trade but that ultimately there is a lack of understanding of the other’s position.

In theory I would say that the solution is a simple one – those who feel like I and many others that I know develop the courage to openly defend their views. Our two nations are at the forefront of global and economic affairs – we both have a deep cultural heritage and an entwined history. Both the UK and Russia are too important to ignore one another – what is required is the courage of conviction of many of those in business, politics and the media to state their willingness to engage in dialogue – that is all that is needed, nothing more and nothing less.

There will of course be immense differences of opinion, that is only natural given our historic developments but from a third party view what I see is needed is the willingness to engage as equal partners.

I can mention the rhetoric of well known Russia watchers and pundits as well as the wonderfully nuanced ‘Inside the War Room’ docudrama by the BBC last week but what I and many that I know feel is needed is a greater appreciation of the other’s viewpoint. Such commentary and media bias, on both sides is not only dangerous but wholly irresponsible – by themselves they are neither here nor there but coupled with strong arm political rhetoric contribute to a cocktail of mistrust that makes rapprochement difficult.

The Russia that I and many others see is not what I read and view in the media – the danger so far as I see it is the lack of willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue. The Westminster Russia Forum and organisations like ours exist to not only promote business, cultural and political cooperation but to help break down barriers – we do this through partnerships and debate, often heated but debate nonetheless.

What I find concerning is that despite the private conversations with those who have the ability to form the debate very few if any will put their head above the parapet to argue for dialogue – we need a robust debate between our two great nations but one based on mutual respect.

There are many positives to bilateral cooperation – there are a large number of UK businesses working in Russia and vice versa, a large Russian community in the UK as well as great cultural ties – in fact this year marks the official UK-Russia Year of Literature. We have the basis to improve relations but one thing we must not forget is our historic  ability to come together to face a common enemy – today that enemy is the murderous death cult that is ISIS, our governments have disagreements of the methods but the enemy remains the same – seventy years ago that enemy was fascism.

We are incredibly proud to have played our part in the campaign to recognise the work of the Arctic Convoys – arguably the harshest theatres of war, many thousands of young British servicemen of the Merchant Fleet and Royal Navy perished supporting our erstwhile ally – the Soviet Union. Having met a number of British and Russian veterans in recent years their struggle is essential to celebrate – we were allies in our time of great struggle and seventy years on we can cooperate once again to fight a common enemy – all that is required is a little focus not only on the problems of greater friendship but the solutions. Staying with Syria – before we discuss the methods we need to build the basis for cooperation – whether Moscow and London like it or not we are fighting a common enemy in a common airspace – the mitigation of potential accidents can only be brought about by dialogue and to do this we need to engage in a more constructive way that takes into account one another’s view based on an appreciation of our respective historical development.

I feel that I can speak for our members and supporters in this but we are willing and keen to help form the debate – I wish others would do so as well for all our sakes – with nuanced armchair pundits, an ill informed media and politicians who are more interested in approval ratings it is groups such as ours that are left to take up the slack.

Arguably aside culture, most matters that relate to Russia in the UK will evoke a reaction with one view or another – to question and to criticise on any number of matters is perfectly fine but to promote dialogue and debate or to be a critical friend should not be taken out of context. The easy thing to do would be sit back and criticise Moscow’s actions as ‘aggression’ and a threat to UK interests – the courageous thing to do however in my mind is to go against the grain and promote a greater dialogue.

Russia does not get it right all the time – neither does the UK but what is needed is a public debate based on fact rather than prejudice.

Nicholas Cobb

Chairman – Westminster Russia Forum

www.westminster-russia.org.uk / info@westminster-russia.org.uk