The UK and Russia: two “sick men” in need of a cure

Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson at the International conference on Libya, 19 January 2020.

The UK and Russia are two of the ‘sick men of Europe’ (the others being Hungary and Poland), bookending a continent that has been pursuing peaceful collaboration and exchange for decades – on the whole with positive results in terms of stability and prosperity.

Both countries have lost their way, crippled by myths and ‘alternative narratives’ which threaten the peace and prosperity of their own people and, in the case of Russia, of the whole European continent. Both countries possessed vast empires and see themselves as (former) great powers who have been humiliated: in Russia’s case through the skullduggery of the West; in the UK by the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ and ‘tyranny’ of Brussels, which is blamed for keeping the UK’s potential in check.

Both these narratives stem from an inability to face up to, and move on from, an imperialistic past. In both cases, a dangerous ‘restoration myth’ has taken hold. Putin wants to restore Russian greatness by recovering the territories of the former Soviet Union, whose loss he has called a “catastrophe” – though Ukraine and the Baltic countries would beg to differ.

Likewise, the UK’s Brexit project (which was influenced by Russia) was touted as a bid to “take back control” (the operative word being “back”), to ‘restore’ a ‘greatness’ that had, allegedly, been lost, and to unleash the full potential of ‘global Britain’ once it had broken free of its EU fetters.

This nationalist-cum-imperialist nostalgia is behind many attempts to put the clock back. Russia has closed down its independent press, poisoned its dissidents, upended European peace by invading its neighbours, and returned to its Soviet past in a number of ways. These include restoring the former Soviet national anthem and rehabilitating Stalin. Meanwhile in the UK, blue passports have returned, rights, standards and protections guaranteed by the EU are being scrapped, and wealth disparities are returning to what they were in the 19th century.

Lying, gaslighting and the construction of alternative narratives are common to both nations. In Russia, the war is called a “special operation”, “Nazis” are invoked as a fictional threat, while Russia commits atrocities that are blamed on Ukraine. In Britain, civil servants are banned from using the word ‘Brexit’, while decisions hailed as ‘benefits’ of Brexit usually turn out to be decisions that would anyway be allowed in the EU. Lying has become commonplace in British politics, with Boris Johnson being the most egregious example. In both Russia and the UK, public discourse is replete with projection and mirror play: “Nazis!”, cry the Nazis; “Fake news!”, cry the purveyors of fake news; “Elite!”, cry the elites.

Unlike Germany, which has acknowledged and atoned for the evils of Nazism, both the UK and Russia seem unable to repent of their imperialist past. Whereas this is unlikely to lead Britain into a war, in Russia the notion that might is right and that larger nations have the right to bully the smaller ones – itself a product of nineteenth-century Realpolitik – has yet to give way to the more liberal idea that a country should be free to choose its own way and its own alliances.

In trying to trace a way out of the impasse the two countries find themselves in, I am inclined to be more optimistic in the case of the UK than of Russia. The UK is still a democracy, albeit a highly flawed one, and dissent is still tolerated, on the whole. The English language is also a huge asset, giving the UK immense soft power around the world. As a bridge between English-speaking North America and the European continent, the UK prospered far more than Brexiteers are prepared to admit. She could do so again.

Though hampered by a defective voting system and a reactionary press, the UK may yet be able to trace its way back to being an open, liberal and relatively prosperous nation. If the opposition parties can unite and collaborate to establish a more proportional system of parliamentary representation, there is much to hope for. Even then, however, reintegration into the EU would still be a long way off. First, Britain must regain the trust of the EU and test the waters by rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union. Only after several years, and only if UK-EU relations improve, can fully-fledged reintegration into the EU be contemplated.  This will require a fundamental shift in the way the UK views itself and relates with the rest of the world: exceptionalism, the wild-goose search for a sovereignty that was never lost, and the reluctance to pool sovereignty with our European neighbours – all these prejudices must be overcome. Also, the British must lose their fears: of immigrants, socialism (which they conflate with totalitarian communism), Muslims and non-whites.    Finally, with its wind, rain and tidal resources, the UK is in an excellent position to develop green energy sources, should it choose to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Russia’s situation is more problematic. It is the Nigeria of the north, being a corrupt resource economy that lurches between large cash inflows when the prices of oil, gas and minerals are high, and relative poverty when they are low. It has failed to diversify its economy, which is why a country of 140m people has an economy the size of Spain’s with a population of only 47m. It is as dependent on the exportation of fossil fuels as European countries are on their importation.

Although Putin is reported to be less of a climate sceptic now than before, Russia faces a major challenge in weaning itself from its dependence on oil and gas consumption and exports. This challenge is all the greater because Russia has an apparent vested interest in the warming of the Arctic regions because of the abundant fossil fuels and minerals that await discovery and exploitation as the ice melts. Moreover, Russia, along with other countries, is also set to gain from the opening up of Arctic shipping routes, which save considerable amounts of time and expense compared with going through the Suez Canal. Convincing Russia that curbing global warming is in her own interests could be a tall order.

Russia is isolated, out on a limb at the start of the supply chain, and unable to forge friendly relations with its neighbours, who remember the Soviet past only too well. If or when enmity fades and trust returns, the question still remains: how to bring the country in from the cold?