Russo-british relations: From prejudice to pragmatism

Are Russo-British relations going to improve under the new coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats? There’s no lack of optimists in Russia on the matter. There are some traditional stakeholders in the often uneasy Bear and Lion romance (such as the wealthy Russian business elite who are so attached to London they even preferred it to St Petersburg as the venue for the annual Russian Economic Forum). In the recent years, one could add to them a group of “Tory-philes” from the Russian foreign policy expert community.

What exactly is Toryphilia in Russia? Toryphilia is not exactly a theory, but a mindset among Russian foreign policy experts which favours conservatives in both the United States and the UK for being more “pragmatic” and “predictable”. That, the Toryphiles say, makes conservatives better partners for negotiations than liberals or leftists. This mindset (never proven by any serious research) was best summed up by Vyacheslav Nikonov, the president of Unity in the Name of Russia foundation, a semi-official think tank of the United Russia party: “They (conservatives) don’t have to prove their patriotism to anyone.” Citing such achievements of American conservative Republicans as the Soviet-American détente under Richard Nixon or the Reagan-Gorbachev dialogue, Nikonov expected the trend to work also with British conservatives and even with the Polish radical traditionalists centred around the party of the Kaczynski brothers.

The recent developments in Russian-American and Russian-Polish relations seem to dash Nikonov’s theory, putting it under the same question mark with numerous theories on sports statistics. “Patterns” of victories and defeats of some football team may explain just about everything to believers in sports statistics, especially to the inventors of this or that pattern. To non-believers, these patterns may not mean anything. The ongoing improvement of relations between Moscow and Washington under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama and a new start of Russo-Polish dialogue under the new centre-right parliamentary majority in Poland seem to signal some problems with “Tory-phile” theory. Even if there is some truth to it, this truth is by no means universal. But can Britain be a pleasant surprise, with the Toryphile theory avenging itself?

For a believer in sports statistics, there is no shortage of encouraging data. In the 1920s, our relations reached a low point in 1924 under the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, when the forged letter by Grigory Zinoviev, head of Communist International, was published by the Daily Mail . In the letter, Zinovyev called on prominent Labour party members to “apply pressure on the government” to make it ratify the already agreed treaties between Great Britain and Soviet Russia. The treaties were supposed to lift the ban on British loans to Russia, where Lenin’s government had refused to honour debt obligations to British bondholders. The result was the cancellation of Soviet-British negotiations. Two decades later, in the late 1940s, it was under the Labour government of Clement Attlee that Britain became a founding member of the anti-Soviet Nato alliance.

However, a small change in perspective provides a totally different picture. In 1924, MacDonald’s government was replaced by a Conservative cabinet which broke all diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1927, leading to rumours about a possible war with Britain among ill-informed Soviet citizens. These rumours were one of the reasons for the crisis in grain deliveries from Soviet peasants in 1927, which in its turn led to Stalin’s collectivisation with subsequent famines in Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. As for the start of the Cold War in 1940s, its first shot was fired not by Attlee, but by Conservative Winston Churchill in his famous 1946 speech on the “Iron Curtain”. Margaret Thatcher, another Conservative prime minister, may have been the first Western leader to believe in the seriousness of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist intentions, but her initial meeting with him in 1984 was preceded by negative rhetoric between Moscow and London in the early years of her premiership. As usual, sports statistics work both ways.

So, what is the key to improved relations? If one could reduce it to one word, that word would be “realism”. Relations between Russia and Britain improved or soured not because of a victory of this or that party at the elections, but because of the presence (or absence) of realists in this or that cabinet. In 1941, facing an threat of Hitler’s invasion, Conservative Churchill stretched his hand to Russia. In 2001, after 9/11 when the threat of terrorism appeared to be almost as deadly as the Nazi threat, Labour prime minister Tony Blair and the then Russian president Vladimir Putin promised their peoples a new relationship. The promise never materialised as a number of new “Zinoviev letters” were poured on the public by controversial figures from both countries. This failure should remind us of one more recurrent pattern: strengthened by realists in times of trouble, Russo-British relations are often ruined in times of peace by provocateurs capitalising on conspiracy theories. As is often the case elsewhere, conspiracy theories in Russo-British relations are a byproduct of ignorance. Treatment against this disease is to be found not in party headquarters, but rather in classrooms and newsrooms. Learn more and get real – such is the call of the day.

Dmitry Babich is a political analyst at RIA Novosti.

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