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The Consequences of Foreign Policy: The Review and Russia

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

As noted in the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, much has changed in the six years since the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This is particularly evident, noticeably so, in terms of the framing of the threat that Russia poses to the UK. In the 2015 Review, it was deemed there was ‘no immediate direct military threat to the UK mainland’ from any actor, although it was noted that the UK’s ability to secure its airspace and waters was being tested, including by Russia. Compared to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the threat perception as regards Russia has risen considerably, even exponentially. There, Russia was referred to just twice, once in respect of cooperation in energy, the other in respect of dialogue. Instead, attention was focused on the terrorist threat. By contrast, in the 2021 Review, Russia is referred to fourteen times, projected to ‘remain the most acute direct threat to the UK’, a threat seen as having nuclear, conventional, and hybrid elements.


The UK’s Russia policy: Old Habits are Hard to Break


Russia, then, had not always been a central consideration in the formulation of the UK’s foreign policy, whether positively or negatively, despite the various arenas in which the two meet, including the UN, especially the Security Council, the OECD, G20, Council of Europe and OSCE. Inevitably, it has been in those organisations, NATO and (until most recently) the EU, where the two states do not overlap in their membership, that the relationship has been most tested. Still, old habits are hard to break and hopes perhaps even more so.

For over two decades of the post-Cold War era, UK foreign policy towards Russia was largely treated as synonymous with trade or finance policy, even in the face of dangerous provocations at home,– Dr Maxine David and Dr Natasha Kuhrt

such as the reckless killing of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, or abroad, such as the hot war with Georgia in 2008. As a result in their July 2020 response to the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, famously long delayed in its publication, the UK Government was forced to respond to accusations that it had ‘badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required’.


The criticism was fair but insufficiently nuanced, as the UK was on the road to a slow acknowledgement of the scale of the threat that Russia poses to British society and the variety of means used. In the (then) Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s evidence prepared in 2018 for the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations, the FCO referred to Russia as ‘more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist, increasingly defining itself in opposition to the West’ using ‘a range of overt and covert powers to pursue its policies - including propaganda, espionage, cyber interference and subversion’. The Skripal poisonings of 2018 in Salisbury followed this assessment of the FCO, the UK then mounting a more forceful response than it had done with regard to Litvinenko, and receiving an unprecedented levels of support from its allies, including in the EU. Finally, the UK. understood the lengths to which Russia was prepared to go, but also the extent to which. it was unconcerned about any reputational damage. At the same time,

the multi-faceted, interlinked model on which the Russian threat operates was not recognised and effective government responses were therefore thin on the ground.– Dr Maxine David and Dr Natasha Kuhrt

Balancing Security and Prosperity – and Building Resilience


It was judiciously noted by some that while the response was stronger, the UK still appeared reluctant to crack down too hard on Russian financial interests within the UK, and specifically, to tackle the problem of the Russian ‘laundromat’. Thus the July 2020 report of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee acknowledged the ‘inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security’. Further, the report was critical of the continued failure to reallocate resources away from counter-terrorism, concluding that there had been evidence of an underestimation by intelligence services of the threat posed by Russia.


The Integrated Review of March 2021 has emphasised the need to shore up resilience more broadly, not just in the areas of defence and national security but also in terms of societal security. Nonetheless, despite the heightened threat perception, there is little room for optimism that a full spectrum of effective measures will be put in place. In a study produced for the European Parliament on what constitutes best practice when trying to build whole-society resilience, measures ‘include strengthening the role of critical (digital) media literacy skills, together with other civic virtues such as critical thinking and public participation, in educational programmes and curricula’; increased transparency in elections, including ‘introducing regulation concerning foreign funding of political parties and associations’ and ‘strengthening transparency of political advertisements, including on social media platforms’. There is some understanding of this in the UK context too. In the conclusion to its February 2019 Disinformation and Fake News report, the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport offered detailed recommendations in respect of data targeting, political campaigning and advertising and foreign influence in elections. In respect of the latter, it asked again for the Government to establish independent investigations into the 2017 General Election, the 2016 Referendum on EU membership and the 2014 Scottish referendum. In its July 2020 response to the Russia report, the Government concluded ‘a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary’. Little or nothing has been instituted in response to the Select Committee’s other recommendations either. Other debates in the UK offer little room for optimism regarding a successful whole-society approach as seen so vividly in the 2021 report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, a report which was condemned by experts on the UN’s Human Rights Council.


In short, on the whole

there has so far been little sign that the UK Government understands that the nature of the Russian threat is to expose and exploit weaknesses within European and other societies. – Dr Maxine David and Dr Natasha Kuhrt

Until domestic weaknesses are addressed, the Russian threat cannot be adequately managed. That being said, the 2021 Integrated Review did include a pledge to utilise the UK’s G7 presidency to bolster efforts to expand the ‘Defending Democracy’ programme, first set up in 2019, to increase efforts to ‘protect UK institutions and selected officials from intimidation, interference and espionage’.


Soon after the release of the Integrated Review, further from home, the UK was tested militarily, by an incident involving HMS Defender, when an apparently pre-planned interception by Russia of the UK ship in the Black Sea heightened tensions and drew bellicose rhetoric from Russian Defence officials who claimed to have fired warning shots, claims that turned out to be untrue. Coming soon after the NATO summit, where the alliance had singled out Russia for its aggressive pattern of behaviour, the Defender incident looked like a Russian attempt to test the unity of the alliance, especially as a similar case of Russian provocation was reported by the Dutch navy not long after. The UK determination to assert and reaffirm Ukrainian sovereignty may help assuage concerns from some quarters that the UK focus in the 2021 Integrated Review on the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific implied it was becoming distracted from its core tasks in Europe.


The European dimension of the UK’s Russia policy


The complicated and often contradictory approach that the UK has towards relations with Russia makes this a difficult relationship to forecast. That is even more the case as the UK begins to see the consequences of its uncoupling with the EU. The EU’s foreign policy remains very relevant, particularly as it pertains to consequences for the NATO context. With the UK no longer there to rein in France’s ambitions to strengthen the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), both the UK and US should remain watchful for signs of EU states moving more time and resources to the EU than to the European pillar of NATO. If the UK wants to continue to contain France’s ambitions, it will likely look to bilateral relations with the more pro-NATO and pro-US EU member states in the hope that will stay France’s hands. Germany will be a crucial actor here, as recognised by the June 2021 UK-Germany Joint Declaration. However, in the context of thinking about UK-Russia relations, the UK seeking to influence outcomes in Brussels by going via national capitals bears a striking similarity to Russia’s attempts at influencing EU foreign policy, widely decried as seeking to undermine EU unity. The UK therefore needs to be wary of employing tactics to pursue one goal, when those tactics are likely to undermine another. On the positive side, much of the language in the UK’s foreign policy discourse on Russia speaks of the need to maintain dialogue with Russia on important issues, language very similar to that of the EU’s on the need for strategic engagement.





the UK’s response – if focused, consistent, and sufficiently holistic - has the capacity to show the overstretch of Russia’s foreign policy under Putin. – Dr Maxine David and Dr Natasha Kuhrt

Russia’s new National Security Strategy, published on 02 July 2021 demonstrates very clearly the mindset that the West, and the UK, is dealing with: Russia sees itself as under permanent attack by the West, and this state of paranoia will fuel and justify further attacks, be they overt, or in the grey zone. The UK has been a prime example of how Russia could get away with an awful lot, as long as it did not draw the UK into feeling too many of the consequences of its foreign policy actions. By, if not persistently, at least too often, making problems for the UK on its own territory, Russia is forcing the UK to pay attention and to amplify the efforts of others.


Dr Maxine David is a Lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University. She is a Foreign Policy analyst, specialising in Russian and EU foreign policy. She is co-editor and contributor to The Routledge Handbook of EU-Russia Relations. Structures, Actors, Issues (2021).

Dr Natasha Kuhrt is a Lecturer in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research expertise is in Russian foreign and security policy, Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regionalism, international law and norms of intervention.

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Natasha Kuhrt

Natasha Kuhrt

Senior Lecturer in International Peace & Security

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