What Should Russia Expect From Britain’s Next Government?
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James C. Pearce

Cultural historian of Russia.

The UK goes to the polls later this year. The Conservative Party, which has been in power for fourteen years, is going to lose badly. Britain’s next government is likely to be headed by the Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer. Labour will enter power as the world is on fire as the special military operation in Ukraine grinds on. At some point, Britain’s next government will have to change Britain’s stance towards Russia – which has the upper hand. The question is how.

The good news is it is hard to imagine relations getting worse. Anglo-Russian relations are already at their lowest point since the late Stalin era. Diplomats have recently been expelled from both countries and, currently, 80% of Britons support Ukraine in the conflict.

Starmer is untested in foreign affairs and he will enter 10 Downing Street with much bigger problems on his plate. There is a growing war fatigue paired with a struggling armed forces and population crying out for radical domestic change. Despite a tense international picture, foreign policy will be a lower priority for Britain’s next government.

Since losing power in 2010, Labour has suffered from a major credibility issue. The Iraq War, financial crisis of 2008, growing immigration and political spin had all taken their toll. If it was to win another election, Labour had to demonstrate better honesty and competence to the British public. That was hard with the three leaders it chose. Two of Labour’s recent leaders came from the left of the party. As the elections of 2015, 2017 and 2019 showed, Britons were not in the mood for socialism – be it the half-hearted embrace of Scandinavian social democracy from Ed Miliband, or Trotskyism-lite policies of Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet, both leaders also suffered from something else. Neither was ever seen as a global leader who could represent Britain. Miliband was deemed weak and a pushover. A TV presenter mocked him as someone who President Putin would ‘rip to pieces’ behind closed doors. Corbyn was anti-nuclear, sceptical of NATO and could not explain away his support for terrorist groups, from Ireland to the Middle East. Corbyn also refused to blame Putin for the Skripal poisoning, which went down poorly (whether he was right did not matter). Britons made it clear they would not feel safe with either man in 10 Downing Street.

Starmer does not suffer from a ‘weakness’ image, but Britain is facing mounting problems at home. The next government will have to rebuild Britain’s crumbling health service, grow a stagnant economy, tackle immigration, create more affordable housing, fix the sewage crisis and restore its broken relationship with Europe. On top of that, Britain’s military leaders are crying out for more investment and men. The UK’s own armed forces are in a desperate place, to the point where it too needs more military equipment and possibly the creation of a civilian army. Doing nothing is simply not an option.

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Many of the above mentioned things require the deep pockets and direct intervention of the government. Taxes will inevitably have to rise. But that is not even Starmer’s biggest problem: he is notorious for policy flip flopping. He has made 28 U-Turns since becoming Labour leader and is oftentimes vague. Unlike Miliband and Corbyn, most of Britain is unaware of what Starmer’s principles and policy positions are. When it comes to foreign policy positions, that is even worse; you could not locate Labour or Starmer’s foreign policy agenda with a jeweler’s eye. It is even worse with Russia; since Labour left power in 2010, the party has avoided talking about the world’s largest country altogether.

This poses an obvious dilemma for world leaders. What can they actually expect of Britain’s next Prime Minister? And what about Russia specifically? Can Russians and the Kremlin expect any sense of relief or betterment of relations? 

Starmer is a former human right’s lawyer. He is likely to offer strong criticism of President Putin, particularly concerning the military operation and his handling of Russian domestic affairs. However, this will largely be empty rhetoric playing to a domestic audience. It will not result in policy changes or worsening relations.

Pushing for more sanctions on Russia is unlikely – but removing some is. Put simply, there is little to gain from more failed sanctions as Russia’s military is advancing and Ukraine is running out of men and weapons. There will come a day when Britain’s next government has to be honest with the British public: Ukraine cannot win and will have to negotiate a peace with Russia. Starmer will have to prioritise Britain’s military restructuring and modernisation first. He will have to explain to the British public why Britain’s support did not yield better results. And what is more, the Conservative Party, responsible for that, will lambast him severely for it.

As part of any negotiations, certain sanctions will be lifted. There will be little outcry over this at home and companies will be able to resume business at normal. Both Russia and Britain should be grateful for this. But Britain will also want to be a part of those negotiations as much as possible given its support for Ukraine and need to remain a global power after Brexit. How that will work is unclear.

Labour’s historically good relations with the Kremlin might give us reason to hope things will improve. Britain was the first country to recognise the USSR. The socialist wing of the Labour Party always kept an eye on its economic policies and anti-imperialist foreign policy. Indeed, even after the Soviet collapse, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown enjoyed relatively positive relations with Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Starmer is unlikely to meet with Putin personally for a while. It is hard to see what both have in common. However, Britain will be keen to bring energy prices down, and, as such, might allow Russian gas and oil to leak into Britain on the quiet. Bringing the high cost of living down would be a huge political win.

Moreover, Britain has been very welcoming of Russian citizens even during the special military operation. Russian citizens received the second highest number of ‘talented persons’ visas, and discrimination is actually very low (just five cases were recorded by the Metropolitan Police in 2022). Russians will continue to receive UK visas for work and study. There are employment gaps, such as in the IT sector, that Russian citizens are good at filling. Britain’s universities are also going bankrupt, so money from abroad in tuition fees is most welcome – as university education is one thing Britain continues to do well. Labour will be happy to welcome more Russian students.

Anglo-Russian relations might start to get better, little by little. Yet, with all the issues Britain’s next government will face, its population will be expecting Labour to deliver. Foreign policy unconnected to the EU will not be a priority. That is deeply regretful. Few Britons really understand Russia and Ukraine, let alone how this conflict is affecting both sides. Britain has also not prepared for a Ukrainian defeat. Starmer is not to blame for this – that would be Boris Johnson who derailed the initial negotiations of 2022 – but he will have to fix this problem, too.

The UK and Russia are powerful nations with representation on the UN security council, not to mention nuclear stockpiles and soft power influence well beyond their respective borders. But as history shows, the world is safer when Britain and Russia are allied. The two sides should look for ways to mend the relationship as soon as possible.

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