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Sir Tony Brenton
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Russia and the West: On the Brink – Part 1

Sir Tony Brenton joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1975 and, in the course of a 33 year career, served in the Arab world, the European Union, Russia and the USA. He has dealt with such issues as the Arab/Israel dispute, global climate change, international energy policy, and the Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He was a senior official at the British Embassy in Washington DC following 9/11 and at the time of the Iraq war. He served as British Ambassador in Moscow 2004-2008 during the most difficult period in modern British/Russian relations. He has written a well received book on international environmental diplomacy – “The Greening of Machiavelli”, is a regular commentator in the “Times” and other British publications, a Senior Advisor to Lloyds of London, Director of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce, and a Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge where he is writing a book on Russia at the time of Peter the Great.



April saw the lowest point in Russia’s relations with the West since the early 1980s – as embodied in three events. On 6 April the US imposed new, tougher, economic sanctions on Russia, battering the rouble and other economic indicators. On 12 April the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that the nerve agent used in the attack on Sergei Skripal was of Russian design, thus in effect inculpating Russia in the attack and validating the expulsion of over a hundred Russian diplomats from virtually all Western capitals. And on 14 April the US, UK and France, despite the presence of significant Russian armed forces in Syria, bombed that country in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.

These events graphically underlined how far Russo/Western relations have deteriorated in the past four years. The catalytic moment was the overthrow in 2014 of the pro-Russian President of Ukraine. This directly led to the Russian seizure of Crimea and support for the (ongoing) war in the Donbass, to all of which the West has responded with extensive economic and other sanctions.  A year later Russian armed forces went into Syria in direct support of Assad’s war against the Western backed opposition, producing serious moments of Russia/Western sabre rattling - some of it nuclear.  Alarmed by the new Russian activism, NATO has stepped up its military readiness.  Meanwhile Russia has launched cyberattacks in Ukraine and elsewhere, interfered via social media in Western elections, and attempted to murder ex-Russian spy Skripal on the streets of Salisbury. Both the US and Russia have now announced the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals.

Russo/Western links are now in tatters.  Russia has been excluded from the G8.  Other routine fora such as trade talks, the NATO/Russia Council and exchanges on security issues have either become formulaic or ceased entirely.  Western investment in Russia has slowed to a trickle. Financial exchanges will be increasingly constrained by the impact of sanctions.  Russia now has more Chinese tourists than European ones. Both sides have said that contacts now are thinner than even during the Cold War.  

Unsurprisingly, the picture of Russia in the West, in the media and elsewhere, has become very dark; a revanchist state and kleptocratic autocracy, a regime sustained by a combination of propaganda and fear, a direct military threat to its neighbours, intent on subverting and undermining the West.   This picture has taken particular hold in Washington DC where well established hostility to America’s old Cold War opponent has been given a sharp new partisan twist by allegations of covert Russian collusion with the Trump Presidential campaign.

The aim of this paper is to pick out which parts of this picture are right and which wrong, and to look at where the relationship is now going. This first Part introduces the issues and deals with Putin; the second Part, which will appear on 31 May, with Foreign Policy and the Economy; and the third and final Part, on 28 June, with relations with China and prognoses for the future.

Putin’s Russia, Russia’s Putin

Russia is not a dictatorship, nor Putin a dictator.  The regime is much closer to the “strong man” populist regimes of Turkey or Venezuela.  There is substantial freedom of expression (particularly on the internet) and freedom of movement. There are (often harassed, but functioning) opposition media and political parties.  What is carefully controlled is the output of state television (source of news for the vast majority of the population) and the activity of foreign funded NGOs (viewed as sources of subversion). Elections are manipulated and rigged - most notably by the exclusion of any opposition candidate who might present a real threat. But they are taken seriously by the regime and offer a distorted but by no means totally misleading picture of the state of Russian public opinion.

This system has been shaped and perfected during Putin’s (so far) 18 years of rule.  Although Putin dominates the system, he in fact presides over a cluster of feuding clans (security agencies, oligarchs, state industries, liberal economists etc) and not all decisions go the way he wants.  The system is authoritarian, frequently brutal, and corrupt. It is not a good idea if you are a businessman not to cut the local authorities in on any bid you make for a local contract, and if as a citizen you organise demonstrations against the local Governor’s pet project you could be in for a pretty rough time. At the top there is overwhelming evidence of very senior members of the regime using their official positions for immense personal gain. All of this of course carries high costs for Russian economic efficiency.

The key sources of Putin’s dominance are his role as final arbiter among the clans (the system nearly collapsed in chaos when it was thought he was going in 2008) and his very high level of popularity among the Russian people (as demonstrated by his overwhelming re-election last month). He has political weaknesses. The educated urban young regularly demonstrate against him. And there is widespread public anger at regime corruption (so much so that Putin’s most visible opponent is not a politician but an anticorruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny). Nevertheless, he is seen by a large majority of Russians as the man who ended the chaos of the Yeltsin years, tamed the oligarchs, rebuilt national prosperity in the years 2000-2008 and restored Russia’s national pride - in particular by standing up to the West.  

Many Western commentators have suggested that when Putin goes, willingly or not, Russia will turn into a more tractable neighbour. This feels like wishful thinking.  Putin very much embodies what Russians want from their government and keeps the clans from each other’s throats. So, an unwilling departure is highly unlikely. If and when he goes willingly (not expected before 2024) he will very probably be replaced by someone with similar policies and political approach.


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