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Thu, 12/21/2017 - 11:22

Mission Impossible: Will Boris Johnson Thaw UK-Russia Relations?

Johnson is scheduled to visit Moscow this Friday in what would be the first official visit by a British Foreign Secretary to Russia in more than five years. The upcoming meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been subject to much speculation, as its outcome remains uncertain, given the rocky nature of relationships between the two countries. Johnson himself was somewhat contradictory about the stance that he is going to take during the visit, citing both "deep differences" between the UK and Russia as well as the need for "sustained and robust engagement." One thing is certain: if the Foreign Secretary is indeed trying to take Russia-UK relations forward then he is facing a myriad of international and domestic challenges. Ukraine: Deep-Rooted Crisis The most significant obstacle to that goal is the Ukrainian crisis, which sparked the latest confrontation between Russia and the West. Following the coup in Kiev and the Russian-Crimean reunification, the UK took a hostile position towards the issue, acting as a driving force within the EU to introduce and expand anti-Russia sanctions. Although Johnson did not participate in the initial decision to impose sanctions against Russia, he successfully lobbied the EU foreign affairs council to keep the restrictions intact earlier this year. "The UK will be insisting there is no case for relaxation of the sanctions [and] every case for keeping up the pressure on Russia," the Foreign Secretary said at the time, despite Moscow's continuous reference to international law, including a reference to Britain's own position towards Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008. The Foreign Office's statement on Johnson's upcoming visit to Moscow still lists the Ukrainian issue as one of the said "deep differences" between Britain and Russia, which may act as an unbridgeable gap in the restoration of bona fide relations. Syria: Shifting Tides Another notable point of contention between Downing Street and the Kremlin is the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Russia and the UK find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. After the West-sponsored Arab Spring turned into a full-scale war in Syria, Britain allied itself with what it called "moderate rebels," actively pursuing regime change in the country and going as far as to consider bombing the Syrian Army. Russia was, however, invited for help by the country's legitimate government, and has repeatedly voiced concern over the blurry lines between the said rebels and Daesh as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated terror groups. And while combat continues in parts of the country, the overall rhetoric of Downing Street has somewhat shifted from calls to end a bloody regime with a direct military intervention. This January, the Foreign Secretary indicated that the UK government is "open-minded" about Assad taking part in the transitional process, noting that "the old policy" of rejecting any involvement by the Syrian President in the transition "does not command much confidence." Nevertheless, the Syrian conflict continues to plague London's relationship with Moscow. In fact, Johnson had to cancel his earlier visit to the Russian capital in March due to a chemical attack that the West blamed on the Syrian government, even though its chemical weapons stockpiles were destroyed in 2013. The Foreign Secretary went so far as to, though unsuccessfully, urge the G7 leaders to enact further sanctions against Russia. Domestic Pressure: Snoopers and Hawks Last, but definitely not least, there is a significant domestic pressure exerted on Johnson by the ruling political establishment in Britain, who use the now in-fashion "Russian scare" to advance their personal and institutional goals. For instance, British Prime Minister Theresa May has used unsubstantiated allegations of Russian state-sponsored cyber-attacks and elections meddling to push for the dramatic expansion of Britain's own cyber intelligence capabilities in what was dubbed by the media as the "Snoopers' Charter," which May first introduced as Home Secretary in 2015. The Russian government has consistently denied these accusations, pointing to a complete lack of evidence, yet to no avail. Similarly, the cash-strapped UK Ministry of Defense, which is currently facing significant cuts to both its budget and military personnel, has consistently tried to inflate the danger of Russian troops that are stationed on their own territory to European security. Last week, Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of "fighting a war against Britain" and "trying to do damage to British interests." Finally, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who preceded Johnson as Foreign Secretary, sought to justify British foreign policy failures by blaming them on Russia, which he named the "single greatest threat to Britain's security." These pressures did not go unnoticed for the current Foreign Secretary, as Johnson himself toed the party line and accused Russia of "cyber-warfare," "attempted disruption of democratic processes in the UK" and "destabilizing activities in the western Balkans." In an effort to lower public expectation, Johnson stated that the upcoming visit does not constitute a return to "business as usual," but is simply a way of keeping the "channels of communication" open. At the same time, Russian President Putin has previously noted that the improvement of bilateral relations between Britain and Russia "to a higher level than they are at today" would benefit both countries. Read more: