When Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia in March 2000, Tony
Blair hailed him as “a moderniser, with a focused view of what he wants
to achieve”. Eight years later, Britain harbours as political refugees
those who call for the violent overthrow of the Russian government, and
the Kremlin is blamed for the assassination of FSB defectors on the
streets of London. A range of disagreements between Russia and the
West on issues such as Kosovo, missile defence, and Iran’s nuclear
ambitions have prompted many to argue that we are now in the midst of a
new Cold War.
Tomorrow marks the end of the Putin era and the dawn of Dmitry
Medvedev. Mr. Putin may stick around for a few more years as prime
minister, but real power in Russia lies with the presidency, and we
should expect Medvedev to assert his authority quickly. He would be
wise to do so. Elements of the influential siloviki, a term used to
describe former KGB agents and politicians with a military background,
remain ill disposed towards him and suspicious of his apparent liberal
The Conservative Party should welcome Medvedev’s inauguration as Russia’s third post-Soviet president. His election may not have the drama of Clinton and Obama, and noisy – if unpopular and extreme – opposition figures may have been ostracised, but a Medvedev presidency offers the opportunity to resolve many of the difficulties which have plagued Anglo-Russian relations in recent years. Mr. Medvedev is likely to be more amiable to the West than Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s hawkish former defence minister and Medvedev’s main competitor for Putin’s blessing as his preferred successor until just a few months ago. Medvedev has sent signals that he would like to see an improvement in Russia’s relationship with Britain. He has hinted that he is willing to work with the British Council to enable it to resume its activities in Russia. He could even be persuaded to do a deal over the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, Scotland Yard’s chief suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
Whereas Putin’s main aim during his time in the Kremlin was to prevent a collapse of the Russian Federation by imposing a greater degree of centralisation and state control, Medvedev’s challenge in 2008 is to push Russia in the opposite direction. He has pledged to reduce the size of the state in Russia’s economy and stamp out corruption. He wants to create a stable currency and strong banking sector. A lawyer by background, he has emphasised the need to reform the judiciary and protect human rights. He has already spoken of his distaste for “sovereign democracy”, the underlying ideology of the Putin era which emphasised Russia’s desire to follow her own path at the expense of Western norms of behaviour.
The Anglo-Russian relationship is an important one, and the Labour government has been foolish to quarrel with Russia in the way they have. Russia’s economy is expected to equal that of Britain and Germany by 2050. Russian tourists spend as much money in Britain as their American counterparts, and London is the destination of choice for Russian companies wishing to float on the stock market. The European Union relies on Russia for more than a quarter of her gas imports, but the Kremlin has little interest in “energy blackmail”. It is more interested in making money.
There will be many disagreements between Russia and the West under Medvedev. He will, like his predecessors, resist further NATO expansion. He is against the installation of missile defence technology in Poland and the Czech Republic. He opposes American unilateral action in the Middle East and David Miliband’s brand of “liberal interventionism”. He will use Russia’s growing strength to push for reform of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russian rearmament will continue apace, but it would be irresponsible for a country which has suffered more than twenty terrorist attacks in the last eight years not to do so. This will all be inconvenient for the West, but is not in itself unreasonable. Such is the nature of international diplomacy.
Sadly, many in the Conservative Party have been too willing to talk tough with Russia whilst neglecting to listen. We have been quick to condemn the Kremlin for crimes in which her guilt has never been proven, such as April 2007’s “cyber attacks” against Estonia or the Litvinenko poisoning. Russia is an enemy Britain does not need. MI5 has already warned that the fight against Islamic terrorism is being hampered by the need to counter Russian espionage in London. It would be naive to think we were not up to the same tricks in Moscow. The most important security issues emanating from Russia are those we need to work on together, such as securing “loose nukes” and combating drug and people smuggling across her borders. The main threat from Russia still lies in her weakness, not her strength.
The Conservative Party already sits with United Russia, the party of Medvedev and Putin, in the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe. Mr. Medvedev has the record, the character, and the professed intentions to show he is a man we can do business with. Regardless of what direction he takes his country, we are going to have to live with the Russian medved (bear), so we should at least try to understand him.