Thursday, November 06, 2008

Europe view 106 Perfidy from Albion

Britain needs to stiffen its spine when dealing with the Kremlin

AFTER the Russian-Georgian war, Britain stood out as the only big European country willing to talk tough to the Kremlin. On August 27th in Kyiv, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, berated Russia for its “unilateral attempt to redraw the map” and spoke of “the moment when countries are required to set out where they stand”. Britain was a big part of a coalition—which also included Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states—that stiffened the European Union’s position on freezing talks on a new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia.

In London, the Foreign Office started a thorough review of Britain’s Russia policy, drawing on planners at the Ministry of Defence, the spooks of MI6, the spy-catchers of MI5, and other government experts. “Project Russia”, as the review was named, also invited selected outsiders (but not this columnist) to contribute. The process was secret and so is the result.

One aim was to nail down what motivates the Russian authorities: are they nationalists salving their country’s wounded pride, aggressive mercantilists, a criminal conspiracy of ex-spooks, or all, none or a mixture of the above? The other was to work out what Britain should do about it: contain, engage, counter-attack and ignore were among the options considered.

But hopes that the British establishment had finally decided to take a tough line have been dashed. Gordon Brown, the prime minister, wants above all to strengthen his alliance with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Both men want to launch a big global financial reform. Mr Sarkozy wants the Nice summit this month to be a success, where he can declare that the EU is ready to relaunch talks with Russia. So Britain has switched sides and backed him, infuriating its former allies.

Critics say that Russia is not allowing EU monitors to operate in Georgia’s separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has bolstered its military presence there to far above pre-war levels. The extra troops have not stopped the ethnic cleansing of many thousands of civilians from these territories.

So shouldn’t the EU at least maintain its modest freeze on relations with Russia until the end of the year? That might also give the West a bit more clout in efforts to persuade Georgia’s increasingly erratic president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to talk more to the opposition and less about a renewed military build-up. Those arguments apparently count for nothing with Mr Sarkozy—or with Mr Brown, who has flatly overruled his officials.

Britain is also neglecting its soft power in Russia. The BBC Russian service, already sadly diminished in listeners, transmitters, and editorial clout, is being pruned again, shedding eight staff (including, some fear, the journalists who are the sharpest critics of the Kremlin). Carefully crafted features will give way to cheaper phone-ins. A beefed-up website is some compensation—but most Russians, especially in the provinces, have no access to the internet. A protest letter from Britain’s best-known Russia-watchers is gathering signatures. Don’t get your hopes up.

And “Project Russia”? Its voluminous pages call for “robustness” and “resilience”. It recommends more British attention to countries threatened by Russia. That may be good news for Norway, for example, which feels its allies have failed to help in the “High North”.

The most interesting bit is probably the recommendation that Britain should actively seek out coalitions of like-minded countries to counter Russian mischief-making. But for this to work, Britain itself must look credible. Mr Brown’s cynical deal with Mr Sarkozy, and a sense of general squishiness on Russia lately, have created the opposite impression.

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