The icy relationship between the UK and Russia is thawing

It is an unfortunate comment on UK-Russia relations that we have to resort to space flight and ballet

Mary Dejevesky
Wednesday 16 December 2015 20:43
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When the Soyuz rocket carrying Tim Peake blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on its way to the International Space Station, my awe at the spectacle was tinged with nostalgia. The superpower space race, won by the Soviet Union when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, spurred curiosity in all things scientific and Russian – to the point where the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, rather like today’s Chancellor with his enthusiasm for Mandarin, ordained that every schoolchild in Britain should learn Russian. I was among those who did.

My nostalgia reflected something else. Despite the Cold War, UK-Soviet relations for most of the 1960s were relatively benign. In that spirit, or so it seems, the ISS has remained remarkably aloof from earthly politics. Of course, if the Americans wanted to stay in the space game once their Shuttle programme had ended, they had little choice but to co-operate with the Russians, whose Soyuz rockets were still in use. The Russians never broke off the arrangement, despite the tensions of recent years. The ISS has remained, at once an anachronism and a mis-shapen satellite of hope.

Perhaps the ISS, with its capacity to transcend conflicts below, can start to thaw the ice that has trapped relations between Russia and the UK. Maybe it was my imagination, but the tone and volume of media coverage this week was mercifully devoid of politics. While British national pride was on display – witness those Union Jack bobble-hats – the Russians seem to have gone out of their way to be helpful.

Mr Peake’s wife, children and parents were at Baikonur for the launch; they were able to speak to him, including briefly by phone after he arrived at the ISS, and to the media. All this would have needed the agreement and practical assistance of the Russians. It also needed the UK side – the Government, that is – to see this space adventure as a diplomatic opportunity. It could hardly have come at a better time.

There have been hints for some time that moves may be afoot to improve what has seemed, in recent years, to be a uniquely jinxed relationship. Some of the fiercer rhetoric from UK officials – against Russia, President Putin personally, and Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine – has been dropped. While the visa process is always an expensive hassle (the Russians say the cost and bureaucracy are reciprocal), recent visitors have not had too many difficulties, despite economic sanctions and bans on senior named individuals.

Russia’s ambassador to Nato was due to speak in London a couple of weeks ago, though he cancelled after Turkey shot down the Russian fighter. The former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, did come, and he spoke to an audience at the Russian Embassy. Mr Kudrin broke with Mr Putin in 2012, but from what he said (and the fact that he was hosted by the embassy) it was clear he maintains ties with the president.

As is often the case in bridge-rebuilding, feelers are put out by semi-officials such as Mr Kudrin, just as cultural events establish contacts and offer pretexts for get-togethers. The Science Museum is staging Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, with exhibits never before allowed to leave Russia. The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra played at the BBC Proms. Russia did not obstruct the making of Bolshoi Babylon, a British/HBO documentary about the dark side of the Bolshoi, and the background to the 2013 acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin.

Perhaps the most surprising departure, however, was the announcement that the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee was launching an inquiry into UK-Russia relations. It will range widely, from Russia’s “increasingly assertive foreign policy”, via the “Foreign Office’s recent record in managing this relationship”, to economic and cultural relations. Some believe it could recommend an even tougher official stance. But the very fact of the inquiry suggests that the current state of affairs is judged unsatisfactory. Change – even positive change – could be afoot.

It is an unfortunate comment on UK-Russia relations that we still have to resort to the hoary old standbys of space flight and ballet, but this is how rapprochements happen. More unfortunate, however, is the record of such attempts in the past 15 years.

The UK’s decision to grant asylum to Mr Putin’s aide-turned-adversary, Boris Berezovsky, cast a long shadow. By 2006, the Blair government was just trying to turn the page when Alexander Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in London. In 2008, the Russia-Georgia war scuppered any new start with President Dmitry Medvedev.

In 2011, David Cameron became the first UK Prime Minister to visit Moscow in almost a decade, but any hope of improved relations was dashed by the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, which Russia saw as misuse of a UN Security Council Resolution. Then 2014 was meant to be the UK-Russia Year of Culture, only for the whole project to be derailed by events in Ukraine. Relations between Russia and the West were back in the deep freeze.

As ever, the temperature was coldest between London and Moscow. Pragmatism is a term successive UK governments reserve for their dealings with China.

Even now, as the UK prepares for a more realistic and mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, the stars may be less favourably aligned. The tentative rapprochement between Russia and the West over Syria could be scuppered, at least so far as the UK is concerned. Sir Robert Owen, who presided at the long-delayed inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, could table his report in Parliament next month. His conclusions about Russian state complicity, or not, will determine whether we can hope for a UK-Russia spring.

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