Well, now that the EU has lent its collective support to the UK’s efforts, and with Gordon Brown heading off to meet Nicholas Sarkozy tomorrow (where the Russia dispute will almost certainly be raised), it’s no doubt past time to have a gander at what this is really all about – and where it’s likely to lead.
Because, let’s face it, though the high-profile murder of a political refugee on the streets of London is a fairly big deal, it’s not remotely big enough to warrant escalating an already tense European relationship with Russia. After all, if every political murder led to international incidents, when are we going to start expelling diplomats over the suspicious death of Egyptian billionaire (and alleged Mossad agent) Ashraf Marwan a few weeks back?
The most important thing to bear in mind is that as much as many in Britain would love all our international relations to be conducted largely bilaterally, that’s not possible when it comes to Russia. With so much potential to have a negative impact on the EU as a whole, any Anglo-Russian dispute was always bound to become part of the wider Russo-European spat that’s been bubbling away for the last few years – strained by gas supply disputes, American missile defence shields, disagreements over the Iranian nuclear programme and conduct of The War Against Terror, trade disputes, border spats, arguments over the treatment of ethnic Russians, you name it.
Le Croche Pied has a nice short overview of the last year or so of EU / Russia relations, which is a very good place to start. For more, the the EU-Russia Centre’s latest article is also rather good, and the EU’s own account is a good follow-up – proposals from the Robert Schuman Foundation on how to stabilise Russo-EU relations (in French, with an English summary from EurActiv) are also worth a gander. Add on to that a reminder of the arguments at the last EU-Russia summit and the Russia/Estonia cyberwarfare back in May, and this overview of Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, and you should have enough background.
The thing is, though, and as Sean’s Russia blog points out, it’s not in the interests of either Britain or Russia to have a fight when viewing them as individual nation states. Britain has been only tangentially affected by all the spats that have been going on with the rest of the EU, having the least dependence on Russian gas and not really caring that much about Russian import restrictions and bullying tactics towards eastern European EU member states as long as they don’t affect the UK (after all, where was the support for Britain when British beef was banned, eh?) In terms of Europe, Britain should be one of Russia’s most likely EU allies.
So at first glance, this doesn’t make much sense. Why the tetchiness between Russia and the UK over something as trivial as one conspiracy theorist’s death? Even Britain’s continued sheltering of the (almost certainly rampantly corrupt) Russian billionaire and critic of Putin Boris Berezovsky isn’t enough to get the Kremlin upset, because Berezovsky has far less support within Russia than he – and the western liberal press – likes to make out. Putin currently enjoys an 81% approval rating, and there would almost certainly be few complaints from the majority of the Russian people were he to alter the constitution to allow himself to stand for a third presidential term.
So, when the immediately obvious potential causes of tension don’t make sense, it’s time to look further afield.
Britain’s friendship with America? Too obvious, and it seems to be cooling under Brown anyway. And in any case, with Putin already dropping out of arms treaties in protest over the proposed US missile shield, the last thing Washington needs is for Moscow to be even more wound up, so the slightest hint that Britain was planning on expelling diplomats over the murder of one man, and Downing Street would doubtless have found itself getting a rather irate phone call from the other side of the Atlantic.
How about The War Against Terror? Here we could be on to something. Russia’s hardly been an active participant, despite having long had her own problems with Islamist militants in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Plus Moscow has been actively trying to win back the loyalties of the Central Asian dictatorships to which the UK and US have been cozying up in the last few years – the likes of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the rest. Resource-rich, and very handy for military bases. But it’s still not enough to cause this dispute – Britain should be sweet-talking Russia in the hope of gaining an insanely strong military ally, not getting into a fight with her.
So how’s this for a convoluted partial conspiracy theory, placing the current Anglo-Russian dispute firmly in the Caucasus, and all revolving around stabilising Europe’s Islamic south-eastern fringe in an attempt to secure economic advantage?
Back in October 1999, several members of the Armenian parliament were murdered (including the Prime Minister), apparently by terrorist gunmen. Recently, the UK got caught (allegedly) trying to influence the Armenian elections in favour of the slightly less fervently pro-Russian opposition.
The connection to current events? Well, a certain former KGB / FSB agent assassinated in London last year claimed that the 1999 Armenian parliament attack was organised and sponsored by Russia. If you believe these rumours, both Britain and Russia have been actively involved in trying to gain influence over Armenian politics.
Armenia may be tiny, but it is, strategically, currently one of the most important countries in the world. In terms of the EU, the ongoing lack of reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey continues to jeopardise Turkish EU membership (something the UK supports), as well as continue to threaten Turkish stability, as nationalist elements within Turkey continue to pick on Armenians, just as they do Kurds. More importantly than that, however, are Armenia’s other borders – with Azerbaijan and Iran.
Ignore the ongoing disputes with Iran over nuclear policy, in which both Britain and Russia are heavily involved. More important is the Iran-Armenia Gas pipeline, with a second currently planned. Not only does this threaten Russia’s previous dominance of gas supply to Armenia itself, but these two pipelines could potentially be linked up with the vast natural gas fields of Central Asia – and with the EU.
Azerbaijan in particular has huge gas supplies – in which British firm BP has invested around $60 BILLION in recent years. Link Azerbaijan with the other gas-rich Central Asian states, and that’s a vast amount of energy just waiting to be tapped – and western powers have been doing their utmost to get their mitts on it ever since the decline of Russian influence in the area following the fall of the Soviet Union. The Central Asian states, too, are keen to reduce their reliance on pipelines through Russia to benefit from the gas-hungry European market, and the Caucasus is the obvious alternate route.
In other words, a pipeline link-up from Armenia via Turkey into continental Europe would not only undermine the increasing Russian dominance of the European gas market, but also whack a tidy profit into a major British company. New Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is bound to be more than aware of the potential geopolitical and economic importance of such a move for Britain’s future finances. And, please note, this could also explain Britain’s support for Turkish EU membership – the security of energy supplies in which Britain could see a very nice profit.
So, is this what the current Anglo-Russian dispute is really about? Because I really can’t believe that Westminster is willing to enter such a high-profile and potentially damaging conflict with Russia merely over the death of an emigre dissident.