What can Russia expect from Britain’s renewed foreign policy strategy?

Dmitry Trenin

At the end of March, the British government published the Comprehensive Review of UK Defense and Foreign Policy, a noteworthy and controversial document that describes what the country’s international course will be like now, after leaving the European Union. The published review, while emphasizing the importance of non-military instruments in foreign policy, provides for the most significant increase in Britain’s defense spending since the Cold War, as well as a significant increase in its nuclear arsenal.
The survey as a whole gives the impression that the important changes it envisions will have little impact on the overall direction of British foreign policy. Great Britain is described as a trading power, as it certainly was before. The document pays special attention – in the spirit of the times – to science and technology. The role of British soft power, as always impressive, is duly emphasized. The breakup with the European Union has not left Britain alone as its relationship with its key partner, the United States, both bilaterally and within NATO, has only grown stronger.
Geopolitically, Britain is isolating itself from the EU, but at the same time continues to consider itself a European state. It is in this capacity that it increases its relevance to the Alliance of Anglophone States led by the United States, known as the Five Eyes, which also includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In this close-knit global community, Britain serves as the European component. Under the current circumstances, Five Eyes is becoming more than just an intelligence-sharing mechanism. Rather, it is a key element of the US-led Western world, its inner circle.
It is no coincidence that the British survey is closely related to the US global strategy, the main provisions of which were recently published in the US National Security Strategy Guide. The authors of the British document adopted the motto of the Joe Biden administration, “We restore better than it was.” As in America’s Strategic Leadership, the British survey has a strong ideological dimension – the emphasis is on supporting offensive and counter-offensive against authoritarian China and Russia. The goal of these actions is to build an international order based on the ideas, norms, rules and standards of the modern Western community, led by the United States.
Moreover, the review does not, in principle, consider the possibility of maintaining the current status quo in international relations. The proclaimed task is to promote democracy, the principles of an open society and human rights – that is, to restore the dominant position of the West in the world. The way to this goal, as follows from the document, lies through the joining of efforts of Western countries under the leadership of the United States, whose closest ally is Britain. Despite a declared commitment to foreign policy realism and a willingness to compromise, realism and compromise cannot be more than tactical measures in the renewed foreign policy that London intends to pursue. It seems that in a systemic confrontation with authoritarian countries and their allies, the British are not ready to settle for anything less than complete victory.
The geopolitical focus of the review is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific region, where London intends to become the most influential European power. By supporting the United States and its allies, Britain is also seeking to secure its own economic interests in this fastest growing region of the world. She hopes to renew and rethink her old ties in the region, established during the empire, especially with India. Britain seeks to combine a common approach to China as the main rival of the West with a desire to cooperate with Beijing on a wide range of issues, all while maintaining profitable economic cooperation. The task is not easy.
Although the review calls China the main systemic rival, it assigns Russia the status of “the most serious threat to national security”. She fell into the company of countries hostile to Britain, such as Iran and North Korea. London promises its NATO allies to take a more decisive position in the face of the Russian threat, reaffirms its readiness to support the countries of Eastern Europe and plans to continue providing military assistance to Ukraine. Britain’s decision to build up its nuclear arsenal is also clearly directed against Russia.
The review makes repeated references to the Salisbury poisoning and Russian intervention. Not a word was said about possible cooperation with Russia on any issue – unlike China, not to mention many other countries. This has already prompted the Russian ambassador to London, Andrei Kelin, to state that political relations between Britain and Russia are de facto absent today. The authors of the review make it clear that there can be no talk of any cooperation with Moscow until the current Russian authorities make a fundamental revision of their course or until new forces come in their place with a completely different foreign policy agenda.
Most likely, Moscow takes the announced plans of Britain seriously, but does not show much concern about this: relations with London have been continuously deteriorating in recent years. The Kremlin believes that the British authorities are pursuing a policy hostile to Russia in close cooperation with the United States. In fact, Russian-British relations are as confrontational as those between Moscow and Washington. In practical terms, this means that Russia will have to closely monitor the actions of Britain in the entire post-Soviet space, from Belarus and Ukraine to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
This state of affairs has been established for a long time, and it cannot be called something new. The current situation in places resembles the times of the Great Game or the Cold War, but with important reservations. Today, it seems that the authorities of the two countries have no reason to interact, and London does not have the opportunity to play a mediating role between Moscow and Washington, as it did more than once during the Cold War. However, now Britain is not looking for such a role for itself.
Although bilateral political contacts are unlikely to be frequent and fruitful now, Russia and Britain should think about cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats on a number of global issues, such as combating climate change (especially on the eve of the UN’s autumn climate conference in Glasgow); non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (on the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal); health care; strategic stability (the summit of five countries – permanent members of the UN Security Council proposed by Russia) and so on. There is potential for interaction on some regional topics, for example, on the Middle East. We should not forget about the development of non-political, non-governmental contacts – in business, science, education and other areas, although the current confrontation imposes serious restrictions on them.