The poisoning by nerve agent of Sergei and Yulia Skripal has dealt a sharp blow to Russia’s relations with the UK, and with Europe NATO and beyond. And things could get even worse. With further measures being announced as we write, there is increasing talk of a new Cold War.
Yet the situation today is very different, and in some respects even more dangerous. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, both sides knew, and largely accepted, the red lines of the other. That is not the case today. Rather, a return to Cold War mentalities and habits of confrontation is taking place without clear rules of the road. New cyber capabilities, emerging space weapons, prompt concentional strike systems are offering unprecedented opportunities for aggressive behaviour, unfettered by rules developed in another age. International agreements that were painstakingly agreed in better times — for example limiting nuclear armaments — are now under threat.
Mutual isolation is not an option. We are simply too dependent on each other in economic and security terms. Russia needs access to foreign markets for its exports, and for the technologies needed to fuel its future economic development. The UK, for its part, has benefited from Russian investments, and from the contribution to its economy and culture made by many resident Russians. British and Russians fought shoulder to shoulder in the two great wars of the last century. Even if these interdependencies were now to fray and the history of our brotherhood in arms is nearly forgotten the reality of the nuclear age is that neither of our countries can be safe unless both are safe. For all the publicity given to new weapon systems, the fundamental technical reality of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) has not changed for the last half-century — between Russia and the US, but also between Russia and the UK. The odds are that it will not change in any foreseeable future.
Over the last two years, our two Institutes have been organising a dialogue for non-governmental experts on security issues, designed to discuss ways in which the relationship between our two countries can be better managed. We held meetings in both London and Moscow, with conversations focusing on practical ways to improve the security relationship. In order to avoid unrealistic suggestions or discussions, we conducted consultations with official interlocutors in London and Moscow prior to our meetings and tried to involve as many experts with previous government experience as possible. This helped to balance creative thinking with suggestions grounded in political reality. While the new realities created by the Skripal case have invariably rendered some of our recommendations impossible to carry out in the immediate term, their underlying logic remains.
Our joint experience confirms some of well-known observations about a dialogue on difficult matters. You will not make a lot of progress in such a dialogue, unless you try to understand positions, fears and claims of the other side, even if you consider these fears ungrounded, and claims — unjustified. You will not accomplish a lot, unless you demonstrate mutual respect and do not mix analysis with propaganda. You are not likely to come up with a mutually acceptable agenda, if your goal is not to find solutions to problems, but to inflict the maximum damage on the other side. These simple rules, unfortunately, are not always adhered to by our officials.
In the difficult period that now lies ahead, it will be vital to keep channels of communication open. Further crises are almost certain to occur. But each crisis — like each unhappy marriage — will be unhappy in its own way, and will bring its own dangers and perhaps, in some cases, opportunities. Maintaining routes through which countries can talk frankly with each other — both at a political and operational level — is most important when their relations are at their worst.
Reliable communication channels between the military forces of Russia and NATO have also become more vital now that they are facing off against each other more frequently. The hot line between the US and Russia in Syria is a good example in this regard. The UK and Russia recently agreed to renew and improve their Incidents at Sea Agreement, and this might be used as a model for new ‘Incidents in the Air’ agreements to reduce the risks of dangerous manoeuvres leading to major accidents. As the scale and incidence of major military exercises increases, more needs to be done to provide assurance that these could not be used as cover for more aggressive activity.
One of the casualties of the worsening of relations between our countries could be the further weakening of the major arms control agreements reached at the end of the Cold War — in relation to both nuclear and chemical weapons. The collapse of the INF Treaty, agreed by Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987, is now a growing risk. If it takes place, it would not only be profoundly damaging in its own right. It would also make it more difficult to renew the New START treaty on long-range arms, now the main cornerstone of bilateral nuclear arms control. The Treaty was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010 at a time when ‘reset’ appeared, for a time, to be working.
Recent events — both in Salisbury and in Syria — also show the vital importance that now needs to be given to restoring the credibility of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Beyond these specific agreements, both of our countries face a range of common threats, for example from international terrorism, growing instability in Afghanistan, and powerful criminal networks. Working together on these will serve our common interest in countering these problems and provide security for our peoples.
Relations between Russia and the UK have taken a hard knock from recent events. It is not going to be easy to repair the damage that has been done. Yet it is precisely in these circumstances that frank and honest dialogue is more important than ever.