David Cameron’s call in Moscow for a “new approach based on co-operation” with Russia revealed the prime minister’s pragmatic side. Vladimir Putin is no Muammar Gaddafi, to be chased out of office as a matter of humanitarian principle, although the two men do share some unfortunate characteristics. And Russia, a strategic, geographical and energy giant, is no Libya, to be forcibly remoulded to western tastes. Britain needs the business. That’s why Cameron declared the “tit-for-tat” politics of the recent past must cease.
But Putin, Russia’s dominant, domineering leader for the past 10 years, its current prime minister and its most likely president after next March’s national elections, will not thank Cameron for his no-nonsense approach. Instead he will most probably interpret it as a no-trousers admission of political and economic weakness. He will find in Cameron’s trepidatious one-day venture a vindication of the hardball tactics he has employed since the 2006 murder in London of former spy Alexander Litvinenko.
Cameron’s role, in Putin’s eyes, as modern-day useful idiot may be further enhanced by the former’s cautiously oblique references to bilateral concerns including corruption, legal swindles encountered by British businesses and human rights issues. In Putin-land, where “democracy” is clumsily stage-managed, theft is institutionalised, free speech is largely illusory and the whole concept of civil liberties is viewed as suspect and potentially subversive. The mention of such matters by a visiting national leader who plainly has other, more pressing, priorities means they may more easily be discounted and pushed aside.
The de facto, unthinking legitimisation of Putinism, if this were indeed the result of Cameron’s foray, would be unfortunate in the extreme. It hardly seems worth the £215m in trade deals and 500 British jobs that Downing Street reckons it may get out of it. For the Litvinenko affair is but the tip of a rather large Arctic iceberg whose full, submerged extent is not widely appreciated in Britain or in other EU states, notably Germany, blinded by energy dependency and other unlovely manifestations of “realpolitik”.
It was only last Christmas, after all, that pro-democracy opposition street protests were repressed and leading campaigners such as Boris Nemtsov arrested. The crackdown followed last year’s expansion of the powers of the FSB secret police and Putin’s exhortation to the security apparatus to “crack heads with batons” if people protested without permission. All this against the backdrop of the show trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an arch-opponent of Putin, and other more recent abuses.
Nor is it that long since Britain was complaining about what officials called a “huge Russian intelligence operation in the UK” and the two countries were expelling each other’s diplomats. Is Cameron suggesting that this espionage problem, like the Putin regime’s human rights record, can now be safely ignored? Are Putin’s policies in the Muslim Caucasus, where his mishandling of Chechen separatism has kindled something akin to a region-wide conflict, now a matter for British silence or, worse, indifference? And what of Russia’s continuing obstructionism on Syria and its ongoing nuclear collaboration with Iran? It’s a lot to swallow for a handful of dodgy contracts.
To be fair, Cameron made some solid points in his Moscow speech. “Right now we both [Britain and Russia] face enormous challenges from providing for our ageing populations and securing sustainable economic growth to protecting our countries against a global terrorist threat … The countries that will be successful in the 21st century will not be those that hunker down, pull up the drawbridge and fail to overcome their differences with others … We are stronger together.”
The Russian and British peoples stronger together – yes, certainly, as memorably demonstrated by the second world war Arctic convoys supplying Britain’s Soviet allies. But Britain’s government should be ever wary of getting into bed with Putin’s autocracy, even with all the accompanying caveats and conditions. Root and branch democratic reform is necessary and unavoidable in Russia, just as much as it is in the Arab world. But it won’t come as long as Putin and his gang are effectively sustained in power by day-tripping pragmatists.
If the European Union as a whole took a stronger, unified stand on championing issues of democratic principle in Russia, perhaps the Kremlin might take notice, and perhaps Russia’s weak, pro-reform president, Dmitry Medvedev, and opposition groups might gain ground. But the trend is in the other direction, favouring the German and French collaborationist approach. Until now, Britain was more or less alone in making a stand against Putinism. Today Cameron shuffled into line.