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To Russia with no love lost

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Six weeks ago I wrote in this blog that Russia is back - newly assertive because of the high prices it now gets for its oil and gas exports. Today, we have heard Russia threaten to retaliate for Britain's expulsion of four of Moscow's diplomats because Russia has not extradited one of its citizens suspected of murdering an opponent of President Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, in London.

The World TonightOn The World Tonight, we have been trying to answer the question - will the Gordon Brown premiership see a new direction in foreign policy? There has been a lot of speculation in the media that the new faces in the Foreign Office - including David Miliband and the former deputy secretary general of the UN, Mark Malloch Brown who fell out with Washington when he was at the world body – indicate that Mr Brown would seek to distance himself from the Bush administration and recalibrate the foreign policy of the Blair years.

So far the signs are that there will not be a dramatic change, which given the fact that the new prime minister was a central part of the Blair government and Mr Miliband and Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, were also ministers under Mr Blair, this is not surprising.

On last Friday's programme (listen here) we asked where relations with Washington and Moscow are headed.

We spoke to Gene Sperling of the Council on Foreign Relations, the man who hosted Douglas Alexander's speech in Washington that led many journalists to argue Mr Brown was distancing himself from Mr Bush. From an American perspective, Mr Sperling, told us there was nothing in the speech that Mr Blair would not have said - which seemed to answer that one.

And given that Gordon Brown is known to be an admirer of the United States and its economic and intellectual success, it was always unlikely he would make a significant break with his predecessor even if he did believe Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq soon - and so far he has not given any indication that he is changing the policy of staying as long as is needed by the Iraqi government.

The row with Russia is the first real foreign policy test of the Brown government and it has decided to respond in a traditional manner by expelling diplomats to express disapproval of Moscow's policies. And last Friday, our Moscow correspondent, Rupert Wingfield Hayes predicted yesterday's expulsions and analysed Russian policy towards the UK - the Russians regard the British refusal to accept that their constitution will not allow extradition of Russian citizens (and Russia is not unique in taking this approach to extradition) as political game playing.

We then spoke to the former Labour foreign secretary, Lord Owen and the former European Commissioner for external relations, Lord Patten, to get their assessment of the Brown foreign policy. They agreed that it is too early to say whether there will be a change in policy towards Washington, but they disagreed on what approach London should take to Moscow.

Lord Owen said the new government should talk to the Russians before taking action as there are other interests at stake - such as the need to keep Moscow on side to help Britain and the West over persuading Iran not to develop a nuclear weapons programme and not block the American and British plan to give Kosovo independence from Serbia against Serbian wishes, something Russia opposes. Lord Patten said the West has been pusillanimous in its relations with Russia and Russia needs Western investment in their oil and gas industry so Europe should deal collectively and more assertively with Russia.

On last night's programme (listen here) Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Putin accused the Foreign Office of playing politics and said Russia would respond and we're yet to see exactly what Moscow has in mind.

Clearly this story still has a little way to run, but one thing is already apparent - those predictions that the arrival of a new government would see a different foreign policy have yet to be borne out.


  • 1.
  • At 09:46 AM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

Brown is just following a populist path for his own electoral benefit. He should be leading moves towards creating a single European voice - ie: closer links within the EU - to face up to the rise of Russia and China. However, that will not suit the Sun readers, so he will not do it.

The compromise is to pretend to be moving away from the US to bring back the anti-war voters, but it is not real and as soon as a Democrat is elected to the White House in Nov 2008, it will be business as usual.

  • 2.
  • At 11:03 AM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • Sharad Sharma wrote:

Hi Alister,

Your column seems to evaluate what Brown and his team would do in terms of foreign policy rather than what needs to be done which is good for UK, Europe and the World.

Here I would not comment about Iraq as its a mess we have been discussing for years while the Iraqis and men in uniform are dying like flies. I don't see Brown of having the guts to change the policy and say enough is enough to Bush and withdraw the forces.

Anyhow, coming to the Russia, it is crystal clear that Russian constitution does not allow Russians to be extradited - so what are we talking about here?

Even if they have other motives, they offered a trial in Russian provided UK bring forward the evidence and Brown is making a big mistake in refusing this offer. This would have been the chance to put real deal on the Russian table and let the world see if they are serious about running a fair trial.

However, by politicizing the issue and putting unwarranted pressure on Russia, UK is only demonstrating its unfair pressure tactics and selectively undemocratic values.

We should also not forget that there are numerous Russians in UK whom Russians have demanded to be handed over to them for trials in Russia which has been denied by UK. So is it that UK and the west wants to use different stick when it comes to them and a different on when it comes to others?

We have to remember that the results of such actions by west have a short term effect and a long term effect. In the short term we have seen what is happening due to actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the support of Israel during Lebanon crisis. However in the long term, which the general public does not even suspect, this is putting big questions in the minds of other countries like Russia, China, India and Middle East etc, about the intentions of the west and slowly but surely this will make them unite as a force to counter suppressive western pressures.

Clearly the current western policies especially those of USA and UK are very hypocritical, on the one hand they talk about democracy, freedom and peace while on the other hand they bend the rules as it suits to them. In this process they are dragging their own countries towards anarchy, fear and instability.

  • 3.
  • At 04:00 PM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • Andrew Dundas wrote:

Britain's "special relationship" with the USA is neither owned nor controlled by political leaders on either side. Our mutual relationship is mostly between the large numbers of people in both countries who respect and enjoy each other's country's culture and ways of doing things. For that reason, the relationship of respect and affection is not determined by national leaders and is not threatened by slights that are either real or imagined.

Andrew Dundas well said. The same goes for Pakistan. The British media should be ashamed of its portrayals of the North West Frontier Province. Times are hard and troubles are escalating, but NOT everyone who lives in the NWFP is a terrorist. And many people in the region have strong family links to the UK. This culture, outside of the violence, should be respected, as should the culture of the US.

  • 5.
  • At 11:57 AM on 20 Jul 2007,
  • anish awasthi wrote:

i distinctly remember the time when sikh and tamil terrorists would find safe heaven in britain in the 1980s. britain would trumpet about civil rights of all groups. it was inevitable that britain would one day be a victim of those type of people it used to harbour. with what moral authority do u want the extradition of a russian citizen when you gave safe heaven to known terrorist groups in your own country.

Britain has enormous problems in terms of foreign policy.

Firstly, our relationship with the USA is hopelessly unbalanced - economically, militarily, technologically and strategically, Britain desperately needs the USA (not least because, in the final analysis and for good historical reasons, we don't trust France or Germany), but the USA doesn't need Britain. This makes a British PM's role as a Presidential poodle inevitable. The only real influence a British PM can have is in terms of how that role is presented - as an over-eager terrier, a la Blair, or as a feigned-aloof lap-dog, a la Major.

As to the EU, for a thousand years England has, for good reasons, schemed and fought to prevent a strong, united Europe, whether it be internally dominated, under France or Germany, or externally dominated under an Eastern power (e.g. Russia or Ottoman Turkey). Strategic imperatives such as that do not go away in a few generations - or indeed ever. So Britain's role in Europe, inevitably, will always be to undermine its unity, and therefore to be - sometimes more sometimes less, but always - isolated.

As to Russia, for thousands of years it has been a route and source of threat and invasion. Culturally, religiously and philosophically it has always been, and almost certainly always will be, distinct from western and central Europe. As an Asian country, Russia's strategic interests are, inevitably, significantly different from Britain's and every other European country's. Moreoever, Russia needs Europe economically, but doesn't need Britain. So Britain will always be vulnerable to Russian sanctions, especially at times when Britain is more isolated in Europe.

As long as Britain is influenced by its history and by its geography - which probably means forever - British leaders will have enormous problems in terms of foreign policy.

Why are the countries flexing their muscles?Is this a storm in a tea-cup? Or is there something really sinister, undercurrents which defy any sensible explanation.Souring relationships were characteristic of the cold-war but we are are supposed to learn lessons from history and evolve. But the leaders seem to have their own hidden agendas. What we need is more transparency and good common-sense, a very rare commodity these days.Technologically we are all coming closer but we do not seem to have a clue on how to treat one another with respect!!

  • 8.
  • At 06:07 PM on 21 Jul 2007,
  • Stephen wrote:

Very well said Sharad. And three cheers to the Russians for standing up and defending the Supreme Law of the Land...their Constitution.

It is beyond shame and despicable the amount of contempt and hypocrisy so called western "civilized" countries have for their citizens and their Constitutions.

No self-respecting country and her citizens should endorse or encourage "extradition" and as in all constitutions, law shall be public conscience. I very much doubt "extradition" of a citizen is public conscience and this is the real issue at hand.

Even if you dislike Putin, you have to give Jack his Jacket for standing firm on constitutional grounds and now it seems like we're the communists and they're the free ones. Strange times indeed.

  • 9.
  • At 09:21 AM on 22 Jul 2007,
  • John wrote:

I think there is too little reflection and comment on the hypocrisy of the UK position over extradition. Brown is complaining that ONE person wanted for trial in the UK is not being handed over by the Russians. The Russians reply that TWENTY ONE people are being sheltered in England rather than being handed over for trial in Russia - at least one of them in connection with very serious terrorist offences. There should at least be some questioning of the legitimacy of the UK's one sided position, after all many have questioned the one sided extradition arrangements with the US.

In Russian - UK relations, megaphone diplomacy is not a sensible foreign policy tactic at this time. Recently, a drunken Russian official drove his car onto a sidewalk here in Rockcliffe Park, killing one of my neighbours and severely wounding another and also one of the dogs they had been walking. The Russian embassy wisked him away to Moscow, put him in jail and asked our local police to provide evidence on the matter. The evidence was sent. This fellow was tried in Moscow and sentenced to a far longer prison term in Russia, than he would have received had he been tried here in Canada. And of course, compared to Russian prisons, Canadian minimum security prisons for first time offenders are like holiday camps.

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