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A convoluted relationship

  • Published at 12:04 am December 8th, 2019

What would Russia prefer to happen in the UK election?

The UK election comes against the background of one of the worst periods in Russian-British relations since the end of the Cold War.

Badly shaken by the 2006 poisoning of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, relations spiraled further down in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

The poisoning of another former spy, Sergei Skripal, in March 2018 in Salisbury then killed off any hopes of a recovery in bilateral relations.

Throw in the British government’s failure to publish an intelligence report on Russia’s alleged involvement in British politics before the election, and the poll is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for Russia’s relations with the UK.

But what result does Russia want from the 2019 elections, and why?

The Russian government sees the UK as one of the more hawkish of EU states on Russia. 

The UK has been a strong supporter of tough sanctions on Russia for its behaviour in Ukraine, and it opposed Moscow’s involvement in Syria.

The UK is often allied with the so-called “anti-Russian fringe” of former Soviet bloc states. 

Chief among these are Poland and the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This Russian suspicion of Britain is reinforced by its “special relationship” with the US, with the British hard-line stance towards Russia often perceived by Moscow as a proxy for American views in the EU.

It’s all about EU

Although Russian diplomats and officials are always careful to stress that Brexit is an internal matter for the UK, the logic of international relations as seen from Moscow shows that a loss of British influence over the EU will be beneficial to Russia.

In that sense, a victory for the Conservative Party, which is committed to removing Britain from the EU, should be welcomed by Russia. 

Removing Britain from the EU kills two birds with one stone. It diminishes the UK’s influence in Russia’s largest neighbour and trading partner, and through it, reduces US influence. Without Britain, the EU will be less powerful, too.

Russia might even use its membership of the World Trade Organization as leverage over the UK, particularly if British negotiators fail to reach a deal on their future relationship with the EU by the end of the agreed transition period.

Russia’s dislike of the EU has two strands -- one is a practical realpolitik calculation. 

Russia has always been more comfortable dealing with individual states, than with an organization like the EU.

The other level is ideological -- Russia has long been a champion of nationalist right-wing political forces across Europe, from Marie Le Pen’s National Rally in France to Matteo Salvini’s The League in Italy. In the UK, key pro-Brexit donor Aaron Banks maintained close contact with the Russian ambassador in the UK around the time of the 2016 EU referendum.

Conservatives vs Labour

The Conservatives could have plausibly campaigned to be tougher on Russia -- something hinted at in their manifesto. 

Yet there is substantial evidence of Conservative exposure to Russian money and connections going back years.

The Conservative Party has been the largest recipient of money from Russian donors, more than £3.5m since 2010, according to an investigation by Open Democracy. 

Despite the bad publicity, the Conservatives refused to return Russian-linked money even in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in March 2018.

Were it not for Brexit, Russia might favour a Labour Party in Corbyn’s mould given his sceptical views on Nato, nuclear deterrent, or the UK relations with the US. 

Some of his past comments, for example, on the causes of the Ukraine crisis chime with Russia’s foreign policy attitudes.

Still, it remains an open question how much Corbyn could change the fundamentals of British foreign policy. 

Labour’s 2019 manifesto confirms, for example, its commitment to Nato defense spending at 2% of GDP and the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Yet on the fundamental issue of Brexit, it’s the Conservatives who are more in tune with Russia’s long-term foreign policy objectives than Labour, which is campaigning for a second referendum. Fundamentally, “getting Brexit done” is something that Russian foreign policy would stand most to gain from.

Alexander Titov is a Lecturer in Modern European History, Queen’s University Belfast. A version of this article previously appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted by special arrangement.