Last Friday the House of Lords debated a report from its European Union Committee on Russia and the EU. Reading through the debate, all of which is available here, provides a very good overview of the many concerns that we might have about the Russian Bear.
Conservative peers made some particularly telling contributions.
Lord Crickhowell took a sceptical position on the issue of Russia and NATO:
"I feel bound to question whether expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, and the encouragement of Georgia to join, adds to the security of the countries which Russia identifies as its near abroad, or to the stability of the world. It is not clear to me what NATO would have done if Georgia had been a member of it when Russian forces advanced into South Ossetia and beyond."
Lord Hamilton of Epsom made an interesting demographic point:
"One of the witnesses quoted in our report said that the population of Russia is now 142 million and by 2050, it will be down to 110 million. That is a catastrophic drop in population. Putin has referred to it as one of the biggest problems facing his country."
Lord Sheikh called for a consistent approach from the EU:
"I reject the argument that in Russia we have witnessed the growth of a new authoritarian capitalism; rather, I believe that Russia lacks a clear ideological philosophy beyond populist nationalism. What has been most depressing in the engagement between the European Union and Russia, however, is the failure to establish and defend a consistent line."
Lord Astor of Hever, a Shadow Defence Minister, was robust:
"I believe that the disproportionate Russian response to Georgia must dramatically alter the EU’s view of its neighbour … Violating a neighbour’s territorial integrity must not translate into increased influence … The recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence is also unhelpful."
However, he also made clear that the EU cannot afford to give up on Russia:
"The EU certainly needs good relations with Russia. Last year the combined trade in goods between the EU and Russia was €232 billion, while the EU was by far the biggest investor in Russia, with €17 billion. The creation of a cyber-terrorism research centre in response to the attack on Estonia is one example where co-operation can help. Support for Ukraine from outside interference regarding its upcoming elections would also be welcome … Last year the EU imported almost €100 billion in oil and gas from Russia."
He additionally raised the importance of a review of energy security, and the need to diversify supply sources and transportation routes.
I’ve quoted rather extensively from the debate, but with good reason. There is a tendency – which I think is extremely unfair – for people to dismiss the House of Lords as a bunch of doddery idiots. Debates like this one show how disrespectful and inaccurate such a characterisation really is.