The UK Ambassador on love for Russia and the price of aggression
How football could improve relations between the UK and Russia, what should Europe expect from the Kremlin, and what's still on the table for negotiations? Laurie Bristow, the UK Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow, spoke with Tayga.info during his visit to St. Petersburg and explained whether it is easy for a foreign diplomat to get used to Russian reality and how the memory of the Cold War goes away.
Tayga.info: How would you assess the current state of UK-Russia relations? Is it worse than ever since 1991 or maybe even since 1920s, when our countries did not have any diplomatic relations at all? From the British government’s point of view, what will bring UK and Russia back to the relatively friendly relations the two countries had at the turn of the century, for instance?
— It is, I think, pretty clear, that the political relationship between the governments is very bad. There are specific reasons for that. The most visible, the most foremost of those, of course, is the attack in Salisbury last March. I don’t like to make comparisons with previous periods, because the context is different. But, you know, we have to be realistic — we are in a bad situation in terms of the political relationship. But that’s not the whole of the relationship. There is a lot more to UK-Russia relations than what goes on between the governments.
And what I’ve been doing today in Saint Petersburg is trying to develop some of the very important long-standing non-governmental relations that we have. So, I’ve met a cross-section of British businesses who invest here, in Russia. For example, I went to the Nissan plant — it’s the British subsidiary of Nissan that operates here and employs two thousand people in Saint Petersburg region. I met Saint Petersburg Mining University. And we are thinking about how to continue to develop the relationship with Saint Petersburg.
In terms of how we improve things with the Russian government, we are very clear, that we don’t want confrontation with Russia. If Russia attacks us, we will defend ourselves. And a part of the way we defend ourselves is by raising the cost of those attacks. But that’s not the relationship we want. The Prime Minister sent a very clear message in speech that she made in London, that if Russia changes the way it behaves towards us, then a more productive, a more mutually beneficial relationship is possible. And that’s what we want.
We have taken a number of measures over Skripal case. We expelled 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers. 27 other countries acted with us, so over 150 Russian intelligence officers were sent home. This is important, because it’s not only an act of solidarity. It’s important because everyone of those countries felt threatened by what Russia has done. And they are trying to send a message: if you continue to do this, the price goes up, so don’t do it.
The other thing that we’ve done here is around strengthening the Chemical Weapons Convention. What we’ve seen in recent years is that the legal and moral taboo against the use of chemical weapons is breaking down because of the Salisbury attack, because of the attacks by the Assad regime in Syria, and attacks elsewhere. What we are trying to do here is to strengthen that moral and legal taboo. We acted with a very large number of other countries in OPCW to strengthen the mechanisms for attribution, to identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons. 82 countries voted with us to strengthen the attribution mechanism. 99 voted with us on the budgetary consequences. This should be sending a message to Russia and others that there is widespread anxiety in the world about what’s happening on the chemical weapons front.
Tayga.info: How has the attitude towards Russia and Russians changed after the Skripals’ case? I have heard an opinion in the UK, that people are now looking for 'Russian trace' almost in any problem, and the tabloids are actively exploiting this.
— First of all, we have a very vigorous and free media. The debate about Russia, as about everything else, is quite open, quite robust. And that’s normal, that’s a part of our society. The point about the Skripal case is that as a government we have to follow the facts. It is a fact that the attack took place. We know what material was used, we know who developed it, we know who the suspects are, we know where they came from, we know who they work for. That really shapes our response.
But I think it would be a mistake to use words like Russophobia. The Russian State does some things that we find deeply dangerous and threatening. So we are going to respond to those to protect ourselves. But that really is not the whole of the relationship. And I don’t really accept that there is a general fear of Russia in the UK. For example, when big Russian exhibitions come to London, like 'Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age' a couple years ago, there is enormous public interest. Russian culture is something that British people find fascinating.
The football! Last summer, tens of thousands of British citizens came to Russia, almost all of them for the first time, and had a fantastic time during the World Cup. These are really important things, they illustrate my point that there is much-much more to the relationship, that the disagreements between the governments. Though the disagreements are very serious and very important.
Tayga.info: So, you can divide political relations and relations between people?
— The division is between the political relationship between the governments and the ordinary people-to-people relationships: I don’t see any general hostility between British people and Russian people. Actually, I see the opposite-I see a huge interest in Britain, British culture, travelling to Britain, for example. We see a lot of interest in the tourism sector in the UK. We are issuing more visas to Russians — 147 thousand this year. By the way, the visa issuing processes have not changed since March, the time taking to get a visa has not changed, the cost and approval rate have not changed. 98% of Russian applicants are given their visa.
Tayga.info: Let’s return to the Skripals’ case. What are the chances of extradition and court trial of the alleged perpetrators, let’s call them 'Petrov' and 'Boshirov', of the poisoning by Novichok, in your opinion? What do you expect from Russia?
— Our position is, and will remain, that there was a very serious crime committed in the UK: attempted murder and murder (in the case of Dawn Sturgess) using a chemical weapon. We are very clear that the police have collected huge amounts of evidence: 11 thousand hours of videotape recordings, hundreds of witness statements, huge amounts of scientific work. And they are clear, that they have enough evidence to charge these two individuals with attempted murder. We intend to put them on trial in the UK, if they ever arrive. That position will not change. We have repeatedly invited the Russian state to explain, how its chemical weapon came to be used in the UK. And so far we have had no cooperation at all. It remains open to the Russian state to cooperate.
I have to say, that our experience over the Litvinenko case is not encouraging, where in the end judge looked at the all of the evidence and wrote a report, setting out in very great detail what had happened, who was responsible for it… And the suspects are still free in Russia.
Tayga.info: What sectors do you still see as the opportunities for UK-Russia cooperation? What programmes do our countries still run together? Were any new programmes launched this year?
— In the non-governmental area the trade and investment relationship is going quite well. It was effected by the economic recession in Russia after 2014. At the moment the trading relationship is about £12 billion year. We export a lot of services to Russia. Our economy is very heavily based on services, so we provide a lot of economic, financial, legal services to Russia. And the investment relationship is very important. Our companies invest a lot in the Russian economy — in things like oil and gas. GSK, AstraZeneca — this two very-very large global British pharmaceutical companies are major investors and major researchers in Russia, developing the drugs for tomorrow. The science and education sphere is very important.
You know, we have excellent relations between a number of universities in the UK and Russia. We are seeking to develop that. I’m hoping next year to bring to Russia essentially a trade mission of university rectors to try to deepen and progress those links.
There is an interesting point also about the government relationship. It’s made difficult by the disagreements, but actually we have some important areas of common interest. We both are Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, which means we both have specific responsibilities towards upholding international peace and security.
For example: we disagree on a lot of things, but one thing we agree on is that there needs to be a lasting settlement of the civil war in Syria. We don’t agree on what this settlement looks like, but we agree that international community has to support that. The UK and Russia both agree on the Iran nuclear deal, we both support it. We have the same interests here.
Tayga.info: Speaking of educational cooperation, do you think there is a chance that the British Council will renew its activity in Russia? Could this topic become a subject for a top level discussion?
— I think it’s a great pity, that we were required to close the British Council in Russia, I think it’s a great pity we were required to close the Consulate General here in Saint Petersburg. But what I am more interested in is the fact that we do the work rather than how we do it. So, it’s a very important part of our longterm approach of our relations with Russia — to support cooperation in the educational sector, to support cultural exchange, science and technology exchanges. We are still doing it. I have staff in my Embassy, who do that, and we will continue doing it.
Tayga.info: Do you believe that the sanctions imposed by the UK against Russia or possible restrictions of them actually work? What kind of results they have already achieved?
You need to distinguish between the European Union’s sanctions and the US’ sanctions. We, of course, for now are the member of the EU, so we follow its sanctions policy. It’s important to be clear why the sanctions were brought in and what they are trying to achieve. They were brought in because Russia attacked Ukraine, annexed Crimea, which is clearly illegal in international law, and continues military destabilization of Donbas. Frankly speaking, everybody would be very happy indeed, if the reasons for these sanctions went away. It would enable us to lift the sanctions. That hasn’t happened yet. As regards their effectiveness, the purpose of bringing the sanctions is to raise the price, raise the cost of aggressive and destabilizing actions.
Tayga.info: Let’s talk more about trade cooperation. Can you predict what changes are going to happen after Brexit? Do you think UK-Russia bilateral trade turnover may grow?
— There are debates what Brexit we will have, what sort of relations we’ll have with other members of the European Union in the future. That’s the most important. I can’t predict today, what will come out. Of course, our future relations with the EU will affectour trade and other relations with third countries. In the case of Russia, I don’t expect it to have a dramatic effect. A bigger effect would come from developments in the Russian economy — so, the Russian economy coming out from recession, continuing improvements in the business climate, and, frankly, more business development on both side. The private sector in both countries, are developing business opportunities with each other. That’s what we do anyway. That’s what I hope will continue to happen over the next few years.
Tayga.info: From early 2000s, London has been a popular destination for the Russians leaving their country due to political or financial reasons. Is it a desirable process for the UK? How does the UK accept this 'Russian' London, including in business and culture? What is the future of the assets of the Russian oligarchs- Abramovich, Mamut and so on?
— In general, the most important thing for us here is that Russians working, living, visiting the UK are benefit to our country. They bring ideas, vigorous cultural life, they support our economy, they enrich our cultural life. This is good for us and we welcome it.
I’m not going to discuss individual cases, but there are very small number of them, where we have concerns — about who this person is, where their money came from, what their intentions are. And this is true for many countries, we’re not solely focused on Russia. What we focused on is behaviours. If we have doubts about the origin of somebody’s money, for example, we have an instrument called the unexplained wealth order. We ask where did money come from? And if you can’t demonstrate that they came from a legitimate source, we don’t want you and your money.
Almost all Russians in the UK, I think, are private citizens, and they have their own views. It would be really wrong to say that all Russians are the same as the things that the Russian state does. That’s nonsense.
Tayga.info: What do you think about the impact of the Russian and British cultures on each other? Is there anything 'Russian' you would like to import more to the UK? And on the contrary — something that you don’t want to import. Same about anything British in Moscow.
— This is one of the most important parts of the relationship, because it’s an area that really deeply matters to ordinary people. For example, when there are big art or historical exhibitions in the UK, it can be really hard to get a ticket, because people are interested. There is a huge interest and a huge liking for Russian culture in the UK. In my experience, the same is true here, in Russia, for Britain. British consumer brands are popular in Russia. This is a part of the cultural relationship, it’s very-very important. Football — it’s the thing we were all talking about earlier this year, it brings people together. Popular culture, things like restaurants, sense of humour… Seriously. One of the great thing I find as a Brit living in Russia is that the sense of humour is very similar. That’s why people connect.
Tayga.info: You’ve worked in the Embassy in 2007–2010, and then returned in 2016. What has changed in Moscow since that time? What was the most difficult to get used to? Did you get any new habits in Russia?
— A lot has changed in 10 years in any country. Probably the most interesting point in answering that question is that I increasingly find I’m dealing with Russians, with British people who are not old enough to remember the Cold War. They don’t remember the world before 1991. They don’t remember Russia as it was in the time of the Soviet Union. They don’t remember the UK as it was in the Cold War.
In my job this is really important. We are working in two time scales. One is 'this week’s business': what are the things or crises we need to manage this week, next week, the week after? Meanwhile more important thing is where do we want to get to in the long run — in 10-20-25 years. And if you are thinking in that time scale, you are thinking about young professionals, students, the people with whom we want to have a working relationship over 20–30 years. So I try to think of my job, what is it like to be a foreign ambassador in Russia, in that perspective, as well as what we are doing this week.
Tayga.info: And what about everyday life?
— Well, of course, the traffic is very hard as it is in lot of big cities. What I like about Moscow is the cultural life. It’s just incredible! The opera, concerts, theater, the art galleries. One of our favorite places in the world is the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val; one of my other favorite places in the world is the Conservatory. We do a lot of work with 'Novaya opera'. I spend a lot of time in the Bolshoi Theatre. Moscow is one of the world’s great cultural capitals.
Tayga.info: What kind of classical music do you prefer, what artists do you like in gallery?
— The reason I like the New Tretyakov is because I’m interested in the art and the history of the end of 19thcentury and the first half of 20thcentury. In music, the Russian composers I come back to again and again are Shostakovich and Stravinsky. There is an interesting connection between Shostakovich and the UK — it’s the artistic relationship with Benjamin Britten. Two of the world’s greatest composers: one — absolutely Russian, one — absolutely English. Between them they really developed the musical language of 20th century.
Tayga.info: What Russian regions have you visited already? What were the most memorable ones?
— First of all, the essential part of the job of an ambassador — is to understand the country they are in. You cannot do that in Russia, if you simply sit inside your Embassy. We have a program of travel, we travel to the regions regularly, my staff and I. In my time in Russia, for example, I come to Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg regularly, I’ve been out to Sakhalin, where we have big economic interest because of Shell’s huge investment in liquefied natural gas plant. We’ve been in Kazan and the region on trade missions, in Sochi and Krasnodar.
Besides, I also travel for pleasure. I like Russia. I came here, because I wanted to. And there were two expeditions I’ve done for completely personal reasons. 18 months ago we took the train from Moscow to Beijing. So we went all the way across the whole distance, stopped in Irkutsk, visited Baikal, stopped on the other side of Baikal, in Buryatia. This summer we drove upthrough Karelia on the Kola Peninsula. Completely different part of Russia.
Tayga.info: Do you like it?
— Yes! Karelia is filled with one billion mosquitoes in the summer. So we had a great time. We travelled all way up to the north, put our toes in the Arctic Ocean, in the Barents Sea, visited Valaam, Solovki.
Tayga.info: It was a part of the GULAG in Soviet times, by the way. Have you been to the GULAG History Museum in Moscow? A new permanent exhibition opened there in December.
— Yes. To understand Russia you have to understand its history — the good bits and the tragic parts. The GULAG is particularly tragic part of the soviet history. To understand modern Russia, I think, you need to know what happened and why. We visited Solovetsky Islands for the same reasons.
The other museum I find interesting is the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg. I always recommend my visitors to go there. Everyone has their own opinion on Yeltsin, on the 1990s, but to understand Russia you need to understand what happened to get us here. This is very important for a foreign diplomat.