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Getting along with Russia
Written by Alex Massie
21 January 2021
For the past four years we have become so caught up in our own interminable affairs that we have, I sometimes think, lost the ability to place matters in their proper context. Brexit, for instance, may well prove to be a diminishing experience. It leaves Britain a more sovereign, but also a smaller place. A welterweight that thinks itself a middleweight, if you like.
But while much time and energy has been spent pondering Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world, rather less has been expended on analysing the other end of the UK-EU relationship. Few things in politics are really zero-sum games; gains and losses are actually more often shared. Brexit – even Brexit – is a reminder of this. For if, as ardent remainers believe, Brexit leaves Britain a smaller, lonelier country, it must also have some impact on the European Union.
For the EU is also diminished by Brexit. It has lost an important country. Not, perhaps, one as vital to its interests or traditions as France or Germany, but one still more influential than any other member state. This is not just a matter of security policy or British contributions to EU funds. The UK’s departure leaves the EU a smaller, lighter, place too.
While Britain was a half-committed, questioning, member of the bloc, it served purposes beyond those of the UK alone. Britain acted as a check on some of Brussels’ grander schemes and there were, on plenty of occasions, plenty of other member states who were happy to shelter themselves behind British obstructionism. The British were a useful shield in that respect.
Now that Britain has left, countries inclined to take a sceptical view of further EU integration will have to fight their own battles. They may discover that Britain’s departure is a loss. While that will have an impact across a host of EU competencies, it may prove most significant in terms of security and foreign policy.
There are already signs of that and, if these pose questions for Britain, they also make demands of the EU itself. The EU has been in search of an international role for decades without quite finding it. One possibility, evidently in vogue in Berlin and perhaps Paris too, is for Europe to be a bridge between Washington and Beijing. Brexit necessarily weakens the road to Washington and, by doing so, subtly tilts Europe towards China even if the EU does not make any move itself.
Germany, as Europe’s economic centre, is naturally inclined to put economic interests ahead of security or strategic concerns. As always, this is a question of balance. Beijing can no more be wished away than Moscow can. And Germany does not lack allies. Emmanuel Macron is clear that engagement with Russia is necessary. But the question remains: engagement upon whose terms? Russia, having annexed Crimea, continues effectively to occupy eastern Ukraine.
And, as the arrest of the dissident opposition leader Alexei Navalny on his – remarkable, courageous – return to Moscow demonstrates, the Russian bear is unlikely to be changing its habits any time soon. Vladimir Putin runs a kleptocratic, gangster, regime. From that, all else follows. Engagement must be cautious and if Europe’s oft-proclaimed – and lofty – principles are to actually mean anything, policy towards both Moscow and Beijing must necessarily be stiffer than it sometimes seems to be.
In which light, the selection of Armin Laschet as the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany, and thus as its most likely candidate to succeed chancellor Angela Merkel this autumn, is a further indicator of where Europe sees itself. Laschet has historically taken a softer, more indulgent, line on both Russia and China than even Merkel. “We need Russia for many issues in the world,” he argues and, while correct, this easily slides into a knowing blindness to Russia’s actual behaviour. It is an implicit argument for replacing the sticks with twigs while doubling down on the provision of carrots.
The treatment of Navalny – who has already survived one Kremlin-sponsored assassination attempt – is both indicative of the real Russia and a test for European leaders. Since the new administration in Washington is also all but certain to take a tougher line with both Russia and China, Europe’s leaders have awkward choices to make. You can have your cake and eat it too is the current approach, relying upon American security guarantees while seeking a free economic hand in relation to both Russia and China. I am not sure how sustainable that approach will be.
British policy, meanwhile, continues to be refreshing and surprising. Millions of Hong Kong citizens will shortly have the right to resettle in the UK. The number that take advantage of this offer is less important than its symbolism. Equally, UK sanctions on Russia are hardening and, viewed from here, it seems problematic that Herr Laschet deplored the manner in which Nato member states were expected to act following the Salisbury poisonings. That was a marker not unnoticed in either London or Moscow.
None of this is easy or straightforward, and all of it is subject to the eternal realities of trade-offs. But it bears repeating that Brexit leaves the EU smaller and weaker just as it leaves the UK a smaller, more isolated, country. The prospect of differing worldviews, most notably in relation to other powers, is one that is likely to have consequences. I am not convinced these will be agreeable developments either, but I fancy divergence is likely to become an ongoing theme. If the UK cannot avoid some of these choices, we should not forget that nor can the EU.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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