Information appeared in the domestic media that Russia and Britain are negotiating a partial restoration of diplomatic staff at the two countries' embassies. After the Skripal spy scandal, when London groundlessly accused Moscow of poisoning retired military intelligence colonel Sergey Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury, the British authorities branded nearly half of the Russian Embassy staff “intelligence officers”. Shortly afterwards, in March this year, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the country.
Back then the total number of Russian diplomats in the UK was 58. Thus, the diplomatic corps decreased by about 40%. Russia responded to this hostile action by declaring 23 British diplomats persona non grata and expelling them from Moscow. After that, diplomatic missions in London and in Moscow have not been able to function properly.
Apart from reducing the Russian diplomatic mission staff, London suspended all bilateral contacts with Russia in the spring and canceled the upcoming visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Among other restrictive measures official London strengthened control over private planes flights, tightened customs procedures for Russian citizens and freezed "doubtful" assets that could threaten the life or property of UK nationals.
However, there was neither a clean break of diplomatic relations between Moscow and London nor a dialogue termination on other levels. As British Prime Minister Theresa May explained, "It would not be in the best interests of Britain." But the level of bilateral relations has reduced significantly with no contacts at the highest level at all. As President Vladimir Putin noted earlier, he did not talk to Theresa May at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires, although they "have seen each other, of course."
And now Russia and Britain are reported to have begun negotiations on the partial restoration of diplomatic missions in London and Moscow. How successful are these negotiations going to be? So far, they are pending "with moans and groans". In particular, the Russian Embassy in London complained that the British side is not very actively involved in this process and continues to slow it down at the expense of its own interests. This is especially noticeable as regards the period for issuing entry visas for Russian citizens by the British authorities.
This December the Russian Embassy in London noted that under a Conservative government British foreign policy should cease to be a policy of missed opportunities. Also, the Embassy said that foundations of interstate relations are being destroyed and provisions of international law are being deliberately ignored "in favor of the narrow domestic political interests of the British government".
At the same time, there is no doubt, especially in Moscow, that both sides should be seeking to normalize relations that were seriously undermined after the mysterious poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom has missed the point. And the foreseeable future is apparently not going to witness any positive shifts in this direction.
This can be partially explained by internal problems associated primarily with the challenging withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Brexit), which may take another couple of years. However, the upcoming resignation of the current British Prime Minister Theresa May, who claimed not to run in the next general election in 2022, may change the balance of political forces in the country and, consequently, the foreign policy of the new British Cabinet. Which means that a chance will appear to improve London's relations with Moscow.
By the way, this is what Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Alexander Yakovenko recently drew attention to: British "divorce" with the European Union after Brexit can create momentum for building new economic relations between the two countries and both sides feel like expanding ties.
Indeed, British business, despite the generally negative relations between Moscow and London, as well as anti-Russian sanctions, has long realized benefits of cooperating with Russia. Thus, suffice it to say that in 2017, the trade turnover between the two countries increased by a quarter and amounted to 13 billion dollars as compared to the previous year. Although today it is still early to summarize the results of the current year, the upward trend will obviously survive. And that is good news.
From the perspective of the British business community, Russia remains an attractive partner with its huge market and effective demand. An additional ace up Russia's sleeve is its membership in the CIS and the EAEU, an enormous economic space through which trade routes go further to Asia.
In this regard, we believe that time has come for the official London to discard prejudices and ambitions and give serious thought to improving political climate with Moscow. At the same time, the British leadership should recall a statement by sir Winston Churchill, who once defined our country in the following way: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia... but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
The former British Prime Minister's quote is, in our opinion, monumentally relevant to the official London's approach to modern-day Russia: they should consider not only their own interests, which Lord Palmerston spoke of in the 19th century, but also the national interests of Russia with due regard for the country's geography and geopolitical objectives. And then Russian-British relations will certainly get off the dime.