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The riddle of Theresa May’s Russia policy

It is just a week since Theresa May used her Mansion House speech to launch a broadside on Russia. During a wide-ranging survey of the international horizon, it was Russia she singled out for special criticism and it was her Russia attack that attracted (and was surely intended to attract) the headlines.

Just a reminder of what she said. Russia was ‘chief’ among those who seek to undermine ‘our open economies and free societies’. Not only had it annexed Crimea illegally, but it had fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and waged a ‘sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption’.

And this was the climax: ‘It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions. So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.’

All strong and stirring stuff, fully in the spirit of the ‘new Cold War’, the UK’s cheerleading for the post-Crimea sanctions and its warnings to the EU not to let its sanctions solidarity slip. A bit late in the day, perhaps, on the cyber accusations – which had MPs scrambling to set up inquiries, but on-message in a certain kind of way.


Which is why I found it passing strange to discover that at the end of this month – just two weeks after Mrs May’s tirade against Russia and all its works – London will be hosting a two-day event called the Russia-British Trade Forum, subtitle, ‘Synergy for Growth’.  It will be held just a stone’s throw from Downing Street, at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, no less. And among those with their logos on the promotion are Bloomberg, along with the Russian Embassy and trade mission, and a clutch of big Russian commercial names, whose executives, I assume, will not be encountering visa problems.

The promotional material for the conference says that ‘members of the British Parliament and UK business representatives’ will join Russian business leaders at the forum, and boasts that 2017 ‘actually saw an increase in trade turnover between Russia and Britain for the first time in the last three years’. ‘In fact,’ it says, ‘turnover grew by more than 20% in the first half of this year.’  So, er, what was all that from the British side about sanctions solidarity? Or are sanctions just for ‘the little countries’?

There are references, too, to the new trade opportunities that Brexit presents, including a hope that Brexit might be seen ‘as a source for transforming economic dialogue between Russia and Great Britain’.

The glaring contradictions here might explain why, although London is the venue for this get-together, and the choice of conference centre hardly suggests the visiting oligarchs intend to hide themselves away, there is no visibly official UK government involvement; no Foreign Office or Business Department logo; and none (thank goodness) of those cringe-making slogans about Creativity, Innovation, Exporting etc being ‘Great… Great Britain’.

There will, however, according to the blurb, be contributions from the head of the British-Russian Chamber of Commerce and a peer by the name of Lord Waverley, as well as a plethora of social and networking events. So it might just be that an MP or minister (or two) happens to wander by as a drinks party is getting underway or find themselves dropping in for a spot of lunch.

All of which poses a rather big question about what the UK’s Russia policy really is – and whether, in particular, the imperative to drum up trade, post-Brexit, is having – how shall we say? – a diluting effect on the ‘values agenda’ the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office would appear to be so keen on.

It is all very well for Mrs May to say, as she did in her Mansion House speech that ‘whilst we must beware, we also want to engage’. And tough talk in advance of the Foreign Secretary’s much-postponed trip might be defensible if it is designed to say ‘don’t mess with us’. But how are these different messages heard in Moscow? Do they inspire respect for our nuanced Machiavellian foreign policy, or rather mystification at the sharply contradictory signals being emitted from London, and a suspicion that the toughness might not be all it seems?


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