With the news that Twitter and Facebook are facing major sanctions because of their reluctance to offer information on alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum in Britain, questions over the UK-Russia relations post-Brexit are worth investigating. More precisely, does Brexit have the potential of carving new ‘détente’ paths in this UK-Russia alliance?
‘Dark money in the EU referendum’…
105 Twitter accounts affiliated in some shape or form with Russian entities have been posting in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, according to a research team of the Oxford Internet Institute. For over two weeks, 16,000 different tweets came from these Russian-linked accounts, which gave birth to a full-on inquiry into a potential Russian disinformation campaign using various social media platforms.
Regardless of further uncovered evidence on Russia Today’s funding of Twitter adverts weeks before the referendum, no conclusive smoking gun was revealed in order for a British investigation similar to the one conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States to take place. This potential investigation is also hampered by the reluctance of the likes of Facebook and Twitter to hand over adequate information on the activities which have unravelled on their platforms pre, during and post-EU referendum. Nevertheless, bearing in mind similar worries concerning foreign interference in election campaigns are plaguing the U.S., Germany and France, a lack of a proper investigation apart from the currently developing Electoral Commission one is not going to close the debate on whether the likelihood of a Russian interference in the EU referendum is still within the realm of possibility. What is more, this matter could merely represent a canary in a coal mine, forecasting much bigger issues with reference to UK-Russia relations post-Brexit.
There is a considerable probability that the disdain both the UK and Russia have for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and particularly, the Council of Europe, will willingly or unwillingly make them allies. On the British side, the eagerness of Theresa May to bring back the right of making rules in Westminster and the potential of the drafting of a British Bill of Rights, will render the UK unable to fulfil its obligations as a Council of Europe member state. Similarly, on the Russian side, the end of 2015 brought with it a return of legislative powers to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation by making it impossible for a foreign tribunal to pass a judgement in a Russian-related circumstance. Hence, since they both oppose the ECHR with an emphasis on their mutual reluctance to adopt prisoners’ voting rights as dictated by the ECHR, a scenario can be sketched in which the UK and Russia will bond over their mutual dislike. As the old adage goes, the ‘enemy’ of my ‘enemy’ is my friend.
Likewise, the UK and Russia are also both part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In a post-Brexit world, they might find in each other good partnering agents. In the trade section of the EU-UK negotiations that are currently unfolding it is very likely that UK’s membership in the WTO will become a starting point and a contention point at the same time. The UK is bound to want to maintain trading relations with all other EU member states post-Brexit which are also part of the WTO. At the opposite end of the spectrum, because of the sanctions Russia is facing and its counter-embargo in the form of an increase in foreign trade, is weakening Russia’s sense of responsibility and its obligations in the WTO. Interestingly, Russia might return to fulfil its obligations under WTO law if said organisation would become the central body for the UK to use as a platform in its trade negotiations post-Brexit.
However, recent moves such as the active monitoring of Russian vessels nearing British waters could be seen as a sign of mistrust from the UK and, even worse, aggression from the Russia Federation. The UK, being a NATO member, is currently following a directive from NATO concerning the maintenance of open lines of communication in the Atlantic Ocean. The UK is also responsible for taking the leading role in some NATO missions in Eastern Europe, bringing UK Typhoon personnel into the Southern Air Policing Mission over the Black Sea, convoying a battle group made up of 800 troops in the northernmost Baltic state, namely Estonia, and as of the beginning of this year, the UK is also in command of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. These aforementioned UK responsibilities under NATO coupled with a warning from the head of the British military on the increasing upsurge of Russian submarine activity close to the Internet data cables linking the North American continent with Europe could potentially worsen UK-Russia relations. Diplomatically, Boris Johnson’s cancelling of his two Moscow trips since the beginning of his mandate certainly do not aid in the construction of a fruitful dialogue between the two powerhouses.
The UK has not been the only agent unable or seemingly unwilling to grease the wheels of cooperation as of lately. Looking at the 2016 Russian Foreign Policy concept paper, Russia has deemed the UK as no longer deserving the title of a Russian partner which comes in contrast with the 2014 Foreign Policy concept paper that states the opposite. Alternatively, in the 2016 version. France, Italy, Germany and other ‘European’ states are still being considered.
We need the past to predict the future
Decontextualized, ahistorical research cannot possibly portray an accurate picture. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the UK and Russia have a long history of interactions, both positive and negative. They have situated themselves on the same side of the geopolitical spectrum when opposing the expansionary tendencies of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century and Adolf Hitler in mid-20th century. Contrastingly, the UK and Russia have been on opposing camps during the Crimean War.
With this in mind, it becomes imperative for both sides to proceed with caution. It is in both countries’ interests to salvage as much as possible from what could become a mutually-beneficial relationship. This can be done by attempting constructive dialogue at various levels, starting with NGO and think tank experts. This will set the breeding ground for more favourable circumstances to provide the context of future UK-Russia relations. Only then can larger and more ambitious engagement steps be taken in the form of ‘military-to-military’ dialogues on terrorism prevention, risk reduction and joint defense mechanisms.