House of Lords Debate: EU and Russia (EUC Report)
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard: Column 424-6 | Friday, October 10, 2008

My Lords, I was not a member of the House of Lords foreign affairs sub-committee, and I think that I am the first speaker today who was not a member, but I commended its report at the time as a sensible contribution to Europe-Russia relations, which mapped out the areas of possible co-operation between the EU and Russia. It highlighted challenging conflicts, which needed to be negotiated. I was particularly pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, pointed out the crucial aspects of Russian psychology that influence the country’s behaviour. The feeling of resentment that it had lost out and that it is now in a position to get some of its own back has dominated its recent actions.
Since then, events have taken place. I shall not go into details on the TNK-BP dispute, which is the only aspect of the energy situation that I want to mention in my speech. Above all, there has been Georgia. I agree that EU-Russian relations are at a low ebb, but they are not at as low an ebb as UK-Russian relations. When the Georgian conflict broke out, President Sarkozy flew to Moscow and brokered the ceasefire and the agreement for the withdrawal of Russian troops. Our Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, flew to Kiev and gave an interesting lecture on the importance of international law, democratic governance, territorial integrity and so on. Britain did not have the EU presidency at the time, but can one imagine Gordon Brown flying to Moscow under those circumstances to broker a deal? One cannot, because Britain has absolutely no influence or leverage at all on Russia. That is what I meant when I said that our bilateral relationship with Russia is at a very low ebb; it is almost in deep freeze.
The Opposition have not made a sensible contribution to this. David Cameron gave another moral lecture. He said that Russia must be excluded from the G8 and proposed the crass notion that one should extend visa restrictions to a much wider range of Russian visitors to this country. He also said, “We must lead, not follow”. What world do these statesmen think that we are living in? Lead whom and with what? Should we lead 3 billion Chinese and Indians, who are, by the way, part of the wider world to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred? It is not just the European world. That wider world does not regard Russia as the main bully; it regards the United States as the main bully. We have much less influence in Europe than we think. Should we lead the United States? These words have little meaning and few things are more ignoble than impotence masquerading as strength.
I agree completely that there is a lot of unfinished business. I endorse what has been said about the undesirability of expanding NATO into the Ukraine and Georgia, for two reasons. First, it is bound to antagonise Russia and make much more difficult all the co-operation that we hope for and should get from Russia, with which we face many common challenges. When the first plan to expand NATO to the Baltic states was mooted, an expert wrote that it would create an irreconcilable, suspicious and hostile atmosphere between Russia and the West that would result in a return to the Cold War. That was a prescient observation. The expansion has made things much more difficult. A further expansion would further sour relations between Russia and the West.
Secondly, an expansion is undesirable because we would be undertaking military guarantees to two of the most unstable regions in the world, whose territorial integrity and limits are unsettled. NATO is a military alliance, not a nice NGO expanding its activities. If we let countries into NATO, we undertake to defend them militarily against aggression. That would be the commitment. The Ukraine and Georgia do not have a right to enter NATO. It was ridiculous for the Foreign Secretary to say, “Well, they asked to join. Of course we will let them in. After all they are democracies”. By the way, that is not true. We should let countries into NATO only if it is in our interests and if the alliance is prepared to take seriously the military commitments that flow from Article 5.
Georgia is a country that lays claims to territory that has declared its independence, as recognised by Russia. Letting the Ukraine into NATO would risk splitting up that country. It is a mad policy to pursue and I hope that it is put in cold storage, which looks likely, because the Ukrainians have not voted on joining NATO and most of them are against it. The Georgians have voted for it. One must distinguish between Georgia and the Ukraine. It would be much more dangerous to let in the Ukraine, but both issues should be put into cold storage. We should think seriously about a new security structure, such as that mentioned by President Medvedev in Evian the other day. Such a structure exists only in shadowy outline. It takes the whole discussion beyond the expansion of NATO into a world in which we could start talking sensibly about the security requirements from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
We often tell the Russians that they should pay more attention to what others think about them and that they should try to imagine how their actions and behaviour strike other people. That is important. Misperception is at the root of many foreign policy disasters. We, too, should think a bit more about how our actions strike not just the Russians but the wider world. We talk about international law, but we are hardly impeccable supporters of it. People can talk about Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq. We talk about not deterring foreign investors. I agree. I read, I think only yesterday, that our Prime Minister said that bankers who have been responsible for excess lending should be punished. What does he mean by that? Should they be punished for legal activities? Does that encourage people to invest in Britain? President Putin attacked Mechel over criminal activities and suggested that it might be punished. We want to punish people who have engaged in activities that have never been suggested to be criminal.
It is the language. What about the charge that we often make that the Russians misuse their law for political purposes? That is perfectly true; they do. They use all kinds of legalities to get their political way. What about the freezing of the assets of the Landsbanki of Iceland under our anti-terrorist legislation? Is that not a good example of using a law for a purpose for which it was not intended? We do all these things ourselves. We do not do them as obviously as the Russians, but many of our actions are subject to the adverse interpretations that we give to the Russian actions.
We must be careful. A huge area of co-operation is available; we have not reached a dead end regarding Georgia and this may be the beginning of a new, more hopeful era. I wholeheartedly commend the report for mapping out those possibilities.