A ‘hard-headed approach’ to Russian relations

House of Commons Defence Committee Report on Russia cites RUSI Whitehall Paper for expert analysis.

On 8 July the Government’s Defence Select Committee released an extensive report on Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. It comes in the wake of speculation about the risk of a new Cold War arising as the result of Russia’s robust posture in foreign affairs. Covering issues from Russia’s engagement with NATO and Georgian conflicts to military, energy and global security matters, ‘Russia: a new confrontation?’ addresses the implications of the country’s interests in and influences on its neighbouring countries. Working from a number of sources, including Dr Jonathan Eyal’s RUSI Whitehall Paper, ‘Who Lost Russia?’, the committee examined Russia’s hesitant attitude towards other former Soviet States joining NATO and the implications of this on European and UK security. The report concludes with a call for the government to assume a firmer position in its relations with Russia. Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, insists that the UK Government take a ‘hard-headed approach’ to its dealings with Russia, starting with a demand for the immediate removal of troops from all areas of Georgia.

The Georgia Conflict

Conflicts between Russian and Georgian forces in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been major contributors to instability in Georgia since its independence in 1991. Both regions are legally within Georgia’s territory, but the report states that they have been ‘beyond the control’ of the Georgian government in Tbilisi. Instead, the committee reports that Russian military officials have been governing the areas in attempts to ‘fuel separatist sentiment’. The report cites Jonathan Eyal’s claim that Russian authorities in Georgia circulate Russian passports ‘like confetti’ to ‘give the Kremlin the required justification to intervene inside Georgia’ based on the Russian citizenship there. Of President Saakashvili’s motives for launching the strike in Tskhinvali in August 2008, Eyal concedes that he could not have been under the assumption that the West would come to his aid, for while the international community may not condone the international actions of Russia in Georgia, it does not feel compelled to act against them through direct military force. Deeming the situation a humanitarian crisis, the report concedes that further conflicts in the region are a real probability. Conflicts in Georgia have fuelled the fear of other ex-Soviet countries that Russia may attempt to destabilise them.

Russia and NATO

NATO-Russian relations were of key importance to the Committee’s report. The paper argues that for Russia, the end of the Cold War presented challenges to NATO’s raison d’etre, for it appeared an outdated and unnecessary institution. In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established to build trust between NATO and Russia, ‘overcoming the Cold War legacy’. Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 jeopardised the NRC – NATO suspended its involvement with the council between August 2008 and January 2009 – but officials recognise the need for this ‘mechanism of dialogue with Russia’. The report highlights Jonathan Eyal’s view that Russian action in Georgia was perhaps a reaction to the Bucharest summit, which had left open the possibility of Georgian NATO membership. Though NATO rejected Georgia and Ukraine’s proposal to become part of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) programme, it did not close the door for them to become members in general. The report concludes that Russia should not be granted veto over membership, and argues that a country should be granted membership if it meets NATO’s own criteria.


Overall, the Defence Select Committee stressed the importance of further developing co-operation with Russia. It conceded that this would be difficult, given the lack of mutual values, but nevertheless highlighted the significance of such alliances. While acknowledging that Russia has valid interests in those countries that surround it, to allow undue Russian influence in these countries would risk increasing Russian assertiveness and possibly compromise the sovereignty of these states. The report urged the UK Government to adopt an altogether tougher position in their relations with Russia, while continuing to promote a climate of cohesion.

Read also:

US-Russia summit: a meeting of minds, but not of souls by Jonathan Eyal

RUSI Whitehall Paper: Who ‘Lost’ Russia? An Enquiry into the Failure of the Russian-Western Partnership by Jonathan Eyal

Eastern Partnerships, Eternal Illusions by Jonathan Eyal

RUSI Analysis: Russia

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