Daniel Kawczynski is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.
As the first Polish-born British Member of Parliament, I have always taken a keen interest in our relations with our allies in Central and Eastern Europe. And if the last century has taught us anything, it is that we in Britain will never be secure unless the whole of Europe is free and democratic. The aberration that was the Iron Curtain has come down. It remains vital that we continue to build strong trading and political relationships with these countries post Brexit.
Tensions over Ukraine, tit-for-tat missile deployments and constant Russian probing of Nato capabilities have inevitably led to major disquiet in Central and Eastern Europe. This makes it essential that the United Kingdom, both as the leading European defence power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, takes the lead in supporting our allies, whilst at the same time working with Russia to de-escalate tensions.
Britain has the inestimable strategic advantage of being an island off north-west Europe. We are not susceptible to the raw emotions felt in countries right on Russia’s border. That is something I hear often when visiting the Baltic States and Poland. It is also why I believe that the United Kingdom is better placed to engage more directly with Russia with the aim of resolving the many outstanding issues Europe has with the country.
We need a two-pronged strategy: one that says yes to sending British troops to exercise with our eastern Nato allies, and that tirelessly encourages the whole of Nato to reach the two per cent defence spending target. But we also need to work with the Russians wherever possible.
I am delighted that our new Prime Minister has signalled an end to our disengagement with Russia by saying it is important to “engage but beware”. After eleven months work on Russian UK relations, the Foreign Affairs Committee is calling on the Government to step up its diplomacy with Russia in precisely this way. I also believe the UK needs to play a more active role in scrutinising, evaluating and enforcing the Minsk 2 agreements as a speedy resolution to the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine. It is this dispute which remains at the forefront of the tensions which exist between us.
There can be no doubt at all the Kremlin has acted in violation of basic international principles. Our two countries seem to have fundamentally different perspectives of recent history and international order. Above all, Russia seems unwilling to abide by the principles of law and human rights. We always need to persist in confronting it with its shortcomings in this regard. But Russia’s strategic weight remains formidable. It would be foolish and shortsighted not to talk and engage with it.
The Select Committee’s report, published last week, is very clear on this point: our bilateral relationship is at its most strained since the end of the Cold War. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and work with the country on as many levels as possible. Part of our problem is that Russian public opinion is moving against the West. The sanctions have not actually done what many thought they would. Vladimir Putin’s standing has been reinforced among the Russian people and his unacceptable behaviour in Ukraine is uncorrected. The sanctions have allowed Putin to blame the West for the country’s problems. By deflecting attention from the Kremlin’s real failings, sanctions have – perversely – only helped to strengthen Putin’s grip on his country.
That doesn’t mean that we should now simply roll back the sanctions. It remains vital we sustain a unified western position on Ukraine-related sanctions. Only if Russia is willing to fully comply in Ukraine can there be a route to normalisation with the West.
In the meantime, we should continue to co-operate in other areas. The United Kingdom and Russia have healthy cultural exchanges. It was a Russian spacecraft that took Tim Peake to space in 2015. This should continue and be encouraged. A people-to-people strategy is an excellent way of making sure future generations do not grow up with the ingrained suspicion we inherited from the Cold war era. And it may also be the best way of effectively convincing Russians that, in spite of what they are being told on TV, Western democracy and the principles of individual freedom are not their enemy.