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UK's relationship with Russia and China (269 KB , PDF)
Apart from a period of relatively cordial relations in the 1990s in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, relations between the UK and Russia have been on a downward trajectory for the last few decades.
Some of the source of the tensions between Russia and the UK stem from differing interpretations of events following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to the mainstream western narrative, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s “the West sought to integrate Russia progressively into the Euro-Atlantic community and pursued a vision of a strategic partnership”.
In Russia, however, the 1990s are seen as a period of domestic turbulence and international humiliation (pdf). From their perspective, the West took advantage of Russia’s relative weakness by ignoring its legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space and the western Balkans and by refusing to reorganise the Euro-Atlantic security architecture to include them.
The differing perspective over this period mirrors the West’s relationship with Russia more broadly, which is often described as one characterised by misconception and misunderstanding of each other.
Foreign policy frictions
Several international incidents have added to the severe distrust between the UK and Russia. The UK’s role with its NATO allies in the 1999 intervention in Yugoslavia, and its later recognition of the Kosovan state, was viewed by Vladimir Putin as a “direct affront to Russian power in its traditional sphere of influence in the Balkans”.
The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Russia’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war, and principally Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, have been some of the most consequential events that have added to that distrust.
The 2014 events in Ukraine led the EU, including the UK when it was a member, to impose a significant package of sanctions on Russia, along with the US and allied countries such as Australia and Japan.
Attacks on Russian dissidents
Attacks on Russian dissidents, including several based in the UK or with UK connections have also contributed to UK-Russia tensions.
Alexandr Litvinenko, granted asylum in the UK, was killed in London in 2006 by radioactive polonium-210. In 2016 a public inquiry concluded that the death was almost certainly caused by an operation of the Russian internal security service, the FSB, and that it was probably approved by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia refused UK requests to extradite two men identified by the police as their principal suspects, Russia says that to extradite Russian citizens would be unconstitutional.
The death in Russian custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer employed by the London-based Hermitage Capital, has also emerged as an issue in UK-Russian relations. Mr Magnitsky’s death led the US to impose sanctions on the alleged perpetrators of his demise, but then broadened into a movement to apply sanctions to gross human rights abusers anywhere. The US, Canada, several European states including Lithuania and Estonia all implemented such laws, and the UK created its own Magnitsky Sanctions legislation in 2018.
In March 2018, Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, and subsequently the UK authorities announced that the nerve agent Novichok had been used, leading them to conclude that Russia was responsible for the attack. In response the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats, saying it would degrade Russian intelligence capability. Many of the UK’s allies followed suit, with a total of 143 Russian diplomats being expelled. The UK also suspended all planned high-level contacts with Russia.
Intelligence and Security Committee Russia report
In July 2020 Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee published a report on Russia (pdf). The report concluded that “It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law” and argued that the Government had underestimated the response required to the Russian threat.
The Government argued in its response to the ISC:
The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks. As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government […]
We have shown in recent years that the UK takes the threat from Russia extremely seriously and will respond to and call out Russian aggression wherever it occurs.
The UK Government’s March 2021 Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy (Integrated Review), stated that in the UK’s “home region of the Euro-Atlantic” Russia “remains the most acute threat to our security”.
The Integrated Review observed that “the soft power landscape is changing” and “those who challenge the values of open and democratic societies increasingly do so through culture: systemic competitors like Russia and China invest heavily in global cultural power projection and information operations”.
The Integrated Review also stated that “The UK respects the people, culture and history of Russia”, however, “until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia”.
Ukraine crisis and sanctions
The Ukraine crisis has brought tensions between the Russia and the UK and its Western allies to their highest since the end of the Cold War.
As part of deterrence measures, on 31 January 2022 the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the Government would introduce legislation enabling “an unprecedented package of coordinated sanctions”, should Russia invade Ukraine.
The current economic sanctions regime is aimed “at encouraging Russia to cease actions destabilising Ukraine or undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine”. As such, sanctions can only be imposed on companies and individuals with a direct involvement in the destabilisation of Ukraine.
Under new measures, and in the event of any Russian invasion or incursion into Ukraine, the UK would be able to target the strategic interests of the Russian state more broadly, including Russian banks, the energy sector, and oligarchs who have close ties to the Kremlin. The Foreign Secretary stated:
We will be able to target any company that is linked to the Russian state, engages in business of economic significance to the Russian state, or operates in a sector of strategic significance to the Russian state. Not only will we be able to target these entities, we will also be able to go after those who own or control them. This will be the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we have ever had, and it is the most radical departure in approach since leaving the European Union. Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide.
The secondary legislation implementing these measures was laid before Parliament on 10 February and is being debated in the House of Commons on 22 February. As part of that debate, the Government announced its first set of sanctions against Russia, following the deployment of Russian “peacekeeping” troops into the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic on 21 February.
Prime Minister’s Munich Security Conference speech
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference on 19 February 2022. In his speech Mr Johnson stated that if Russia invades its neighbour:
[W]e will sanction Russian individuals and companies of strategic importance to the Russian state; and we will make it impossible for them to raise finance on the London capital markets; and we will open up the matryoshka dolls of Russian-owned companies and Russian-owned entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries within.
Mr Johnson said that every nation at this conference “shares a vision of a secure and prosperous Europe of sovereign states, deciding their own destiny and living without fear or threat”, he added “that vision of course extends to Russia, a nation whose cultural patrimony we revere, and whose sacrifice in the struggle against fascism was immeasurable”, and that Russia “has as much right as any other country to live in peace and security, and we should never cease to emphasise that Russia has nothing to fear from our vision, which threatens and marginalises no-one”.
Deterioration of relations
Over the last few years, the largely cordial relationship between the UK and China has deteriorated sharply.
In the previous two decades, regardless of the political make up of successive UK governments, the trend had been towards closer engagement and cooperation.
The high-point of UK-China relations was during the 2015-17 Conservative Government, when there was talk on both sides of a “golden era”.
However, growing controversy in the UK over the involvement of the Chinese multinational company Huawei in the UK’s 5G mobile phone network, along with mounting concern about the erosion of the “one country, two systems” status quo in Hong Kong, has dramatically changed the atmosphere between the two countries. Other important factors have been UK concern about Chinese secrecy over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s human rights clamp-down against the Muslim Uighur population in the Western province of Xinjiang.
In the Integrated Review, China was described as a “systemic competitor”.
The review said the UK will “do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes a more powerful in the world”. And that the Government will invest in “China-facing capabilities” allowing the UK to better understand China and its people, and improving the UK’s ability to respond to the challenge it poses to “our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners”.
However, the review also emphasised the Government’s intention to continue pursuing a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China, while also ensuring that national security is protected. It also acknowledged that cooperation with China on transnational issues such as climate change is a necessity.
In September 2021 the UK, Australia and the United States announced a new security partnership called AUKUS. The agreement will see the three countries collaborate on new nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy and work together on areas such as cyber and artificial intelligence. The three countries said the agreement “will help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” For the UK, it furthers the UK’s proposed tilt to the Indo-Pacific, articulated in the Integrated Review.
The agreement came as a surprise, and there has been mixed reaction from the Indo-pacific region, with some countries, such as the Philippines, believing it will help address the military imbalance against China. Others, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, fear it could spark an arms race or heighten the risk of conflict.
Responding to concerns about China’s response, Boris Johnson said the partnership “is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power”.
China was not mentioned in the Joint Statement released by the leaders of the US, UK and Australia. However, commentators are united in believing that it was in part created to counter growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region.
Russia and China have strengthened their ties over the last several years. In a joint statement published on 4 February 2022, the two countries pledged their support for one another and set out their shared foreign policy visions, declaring a “new era” in the global order.
The statement declared that “friendship between the two States has no limits,” and that “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”, but that their strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is “neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries”.
While the two countries have deepened ties, they have their own interests and are not aligned on all matters of foreign policy. China has not condemned Russia’s recognition of independence for two breakaway regions in the east of the country but has not endorsed it either. In January 2022, China’s ambassador to Ukraine, wrote an article emphasising that China has always supported Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Documents to download
UK's relationship with Russia and China (269 KB , PDF)
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