There has been some, although not much, debate in the UK as to whether Russia has looked favorably on Brexit, given it represents another fracture within a European power bloc of which Russia is not a part. But compared to other states such as the United States or Germany, Russia seems far less interested in the potential geopolitical gains of undermining the UK’s political processes, and thus less hopeful of opportunities that Brexit might create. Moreover, the UK itself will more likely demonstrate consistency in its foreign policy, rather than divergence with the EU, in a bid to maintain relevance.  

No doubt President Putin would like a pro-Russian UK government, but in recent history there have not been too many political hooks to leverage influence. There are certainly business-political interests between the UK and Russia, particularly in the House of Lords, but this does not necessarily make up a coherent political bloc. UKIP may at one point have been a useful ally, but post-Brexit they have fallen into disarray, with the most vocal admirer of President Putin, Nigel Farage, stepping down as leader. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is the most promising figure, having previously appeared on RT while taking an understanding approach to Russia’s threat perception on issues like NATO. Yet divisions in the party and across the country provide a more complex dynamic beyond Corbyn himself.

Russia itself seems somewhat disinterested in the bilateral relationship. The 2013 Foreign Policy Concept specifically mentioned the UK as a country with which it saw the benefits of boosting mutually beneficial ties. The 2016 concept drops the UK reference, while continuing to highlight relations with Germany, France, Italy, and “other European” states.

The UK-Russia bilateral relationship has suffered from historical baggage even before the events in Ukraine. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned UK citizen who was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 by two Russian citizens in 2006, “probably” with state authorization, caused irreversible tensions. Tit-for-tat expulsions from both Moscow and London of diplomats and the freezing of bilateral communication between security services constituted the main fallout. The prosperity agenda has continued, but politically the relationship has tended to be cold.

Events in Ukraine broadly destabilized existing assumptions about European security and helped put bilateral relations into further deep freeze. The UK was a bold advocate of sanctions on Russia through the EU, no doubt enabled by the fewer economic and trade interdependencies Russia and the UK have compared to other European states. The UK has also taken a leading role in some of the NATO reassurance measures in Eastern Europe, leading a battle group of 800 troops in Estonia, contributing UK Typhoons to the Southern Air Policing Mission over the Black Sea, and in January 2017 commanding the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Despite this hardened stance at a time of crisis, the subsequent Brexit vote means that “Global Britain” will need new partners in the world. Could Brexit present any opportunities for rapprochement with Russia?

At the bilateral level, the new leadership that Brexit brought in did seem at first to offer some hope to the Kremlin that better ties were desirable. In their first call, President Putin and newly appointed Prime Minister Theresa May both expressed “dissatisfaction” with the state of current affairs and discussed establishing dialogue between security agencies on aviation security. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told counterpart Sergei Lavrov that they should try to normalize relations.

However, attempts at constructive dialogue have had some false starts, in part due to circumstance but also due to other more pressing priorities for the UK. The most notable is Boris Johnson’s double postponement of his trip to Moscow. The first was postponed due to a NATO foreign ministers meeting rearranged to suit the schedule of the United States. The second was cancelled in April (although the trip could still be rescheduled) due to Russia’s air strikes in Syria, but also to allow the recently appointed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the lead while Johnson attempted in vain to persuade the G7 to further punish Russia with sanctions.

These examples show that the UK will be more concerned about handling its own foreign policy standing among its allies rather than prioritizing restored relations with perceived adversaries. Ultimately, the UK’s future security relationship with the EU will be of the utmost concern in light of Brexit. This will likely mean consistency in its foreign policy approach to Russia. The UK government’s recent paper on Foreign Policy, Defence, and Development emphasizes its desire to maintain a strong security alliance with the EU, seeking a “deep and special partnership with the EU that goes beyond existing third-country arrangements.” Of course, this will not be solely for the UK to decide, given that such relations form part of a far more complex negotiation encompassing all aspects of disentanglement from EU law.

The UK will emphasize its defense cooperation with NATO even more now, given its exit from the EU. The UK’s strong stance on sanctions against Russia is unlikely to change, unless maybe EU policy changes. Although the UK will need to pass its own legislation and create its own processes for deciding on and implementing sanctions, the government has already acknowledged that it is in its interests to continue cooperation and coordination on this with European partners.

That is not to say that constructive dialogue is not a genuine shared interest, but it will be in small measure at first rather than any post-Brexit grand agreement. Although the very public failure of Boris Johnson to visit Moscow has damaged diplomatic progress, the UK is trying in more subtle ways to restore military-to-military meetings and dialogue on risk reduction and transparency, having cut such engagement in light of Ukraine. Russia has nothing to lose by engaging constructively in such dialogue at numerous levels, including with nongovernmental experts. Only after that might larger opportunities for constructive engagement emerge, should either side be interested. 

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Sarah Lain