Monday 29th May 2017
Daniel Kawczynski, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham
As the first Polish-born British Member of Parliament, I have always taken a keen interest in Britain’s relations with its allies in Central and Eastern Europe. And if the last century has taught us anything, it is that we, in the UK, will never be secure unless the whole of Europe is free and democratic. It remains vital, therefore, that we continue to build strong political and trade relationships with those countries in a post-Brexit world.
Tensions over Ukraine, tit-for-tat missile deployments and constant Russian probing of NATO capabilities have inevitably led to major disquiet in Central and Eastern Europe. That makes it essential that the UK, both as the leading European defence power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, takes the lead in supporting our allies, whilst at the same time working with Russia to de-escalate tensions.
Britain has the inestimable strategic advantage of being an island off northwest Europe. We are not susceptible to the raw emotions felt in countries right on Russia’s border. That is something I often hear when visiting the Baltic States and Poland. It is also why I believe the UK is better placed to engage more directly with Russia, with the aim of resolving the many outstanding issues Europe has with the country.
We need a two-pronged strategy, one that says yes to sending British troops to exercise with our eastern NATO allies, while at the same time tirelessly encouraging the whole of NATO to reach the 2 per cent defence spending target. But we also need to work with the Russians wherever possible.
I am delighted that Prime Minister Theresa May has signaled an end to our disengagement with Russia by saying it is important to “engage but beware”. After eleven months of work on UK-Russia relations, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is calling on the Government to step up its diplomacy with Russia in precisely that way. I also believe the UK needs to play a more active role in scrutinising, evaluating and enforcing the Minsk II agreements as a speedy resolution to the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine. It is that dispute which remains at the forefront of the tensions which exist between London and Moscow.
There can be no doubt at all that the Kremlin has acted in violation of basic international principles. Above all, Russia seems unwilling to abide by the principles of law and human rights. We always need to persist in confronting Russia with its shortcomings in that regard. But Russia’s strategic weight remains formidable. It would be foolish and shortsighted not to talk and engage with the Russians.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report is very clear on that point. Our bilateral relationship with Russia is at its most strained since the end of the Cold war. But that does not mean we should not try and work with Moscow on as many levels as possible. Part of our problem is that Russian public opinion is moving against the West. The sanctions have not actually done what many thought they would. Vladimir Putin’s standing is reinforced among the Russian people and his unacceptable behaviour in Ukraine is uncorrected. The sanctions have allowed Mr Putin to blame the West for the country’s problems. By deflecting attention from the Kremlin’s real failings, sanctions have – perversely – only helped to strengthen Mr Putin’s grip on his country.
That does not mean we should now just roll back the sanctions. It remains vital that we sustain a unified Western position on Ukraine-related sanctions. Only if Russia is willing to fully comply in Ukraine can there be a route to normalisation with the West.
In the meantime, we should continue to co-operate in other areas. The UK and Russia have experienced healthy cultural exchanges. It was a Russian spacecraft that took Tim Peake to space in 2015. That should continue and be encouraged. A people-to-people strategy is an excellent way of making sure that future generations do not grow up with the ingrained suspicion which people of my generation, for example, inherited from the Cold war era. And it may also be the best way of effectively convincing Russians that, in spite of what they are being told on their televisions, Western democracy and the principles of individual freedom are not their enemy.