The title of this piece actually causes head-scratching for the very reason that this relationship has been anything but pragmatic over the years. Not because as a British person living in Moscow this relationship has been felt up close and personal and is hard to detach some emotional sentiments to this topic. The lack of pragmatism, in fact, stems from both countries’ statehood and sovereignty obsessions.
To step down from the British and Russian podiums and view this relationship from afar, what becomes apparent is the gap between the state and populations of both nations. When the British state viewed its Russian counterpart in a positive light, the population had negative assumptions about what the Russians were like. This can be applied to the court of Ivan IV (or terrible), Anglo-Russian relations up to 1914 and even the chaotic 1990s. On the eve of the First World War, British propaganda posters urging the population to support their Russian allies were plastered up in the underground behind the factory worker reading a copy of the Daily Mail depicting an unflattering cartoon of a Russian.
Many more examples could be listed, but the reason U.K. – Russo relations are so interesting is for the simple fact it is like looking at international relations naked. That is to say, there is no international relationship based on friendship; there are only national interests. When the UK government welcomed Boris Yeltsin and the oligarchs’ money to London, this was never based on Russia’s positive democratic development; there was none. Yet at the same time, the image among the common man of what one of our most notable authors dubbed ‘the puzzling east’, changed from vodka drinking communists walking next to bears on the street into a mafia state. The point was that Russia was a weak state and had lost the Cold War – now it was the West’s turn to become the norm maker.
The Soviet experience and experiment rattled the British state. The ideas of the Bolsheviks had the potential to spread inside Britain and its Parliament (which it did; the Communist Party of Great Britain had two MPs in its heyday). From ally to enemy, to ally in the Second World War, to an enemy once more as the battle for norm makers commenced. The post-war Labour government who disapproved of Stalinism as a model for socialism, combined with Harry Truman’s assertion that ‘Russia can go to hell’, began forty plus years of a Cold War. The breakdown of great powers into superpowers saw one emerge and the other decline.
The gap between state and populous and the ways in which both have approached Russia, and this is purely from a British perspective, it shows why British efforts to understand the Russian case and experience have been so futile. The Cold War experience made any praise of Russia unacceptable; in discussion of the USSR, there was no in between possible: you supported or opposed Soviet ideology.
The Putin turn point in this relationship further highlights this. The UK and Russia could have become ideal partners in fighting terrorism, curbing back Chinese influence and even strengthening European cooperation. Yet ever since the Iraq War, Britain went from being an idealised homestead for the Russian middle class to a flag bearer of US foreign policy. One scandal after another hampered the political relations. What’s more, the reset of Russo – U.S. relations received a barely an eyebrow raise in the UK.
Nowadays, few British / Russian exchanges take place at university level or otherwise. Concerning this relationship from below, British students do not learn Russian, the population does not access Russian media, let alone do they know many / any Russians. Moreover, the school system has its pupils study Nicholas II up to Stalin, if they cover Russian history at all. This allows for the state and media outlets a blank cheque to have its say prevail. There is a lack of information, knowledge and information warfare provided up front, so there should be little surprise that Russia is still not well understood. Often, and this is particularly true of university students, when myself or colleagues have outlined Russia’s geopolitical positions and policy justifications to students, even at the highest levels of study, it is often met with a blunt refusal to acknowledge such an argument can even exist.
The end of the Cold War also saw Russian studies at universities decline in popularity as well as the Civil Service drain resources from this department. However, this should be no excuse for a lack of knowledge, as people practically carry a library around in their bags and pockets every day. Russia is the world’s largest country that is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, not one of the world’s many problems can be solved without their involvement or co-operation. This alone should be enough of a reason for it to feature more prominently in British foreign policy discourse, particularly as it exits the EU on uncertain terms. Plenty of government ministers claim to want a global Britain, yet Russia seems to be largely off the radar.
In sum, there is a lack of patience, desire and perceived need for a UK now to understand or work with Russia in any productive or pragmatic way. On opposite sides of the continent, both could provide a balance and unique path for international relations to develop. Instead, as has been the case for centuries, Russia remains a nation to be suspected and cautiously interacted with. This looks unlikely to change is quite unfortunate.