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For Britain, it would be an error to treat Russia as an eternal enemy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to journalists during his and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic meeting with th Image Credit: AP By Linda S. Heard , Special to Gulf News,Thinker

When Boris Johnson arrives in Moscow later this week, it will be the first time a British Foreign Secretary has set foot there since my last visit five years ago. He is right to go, and will no doubt make a good job of the mixture of firmness and conviviality that works best in Russia: A stern word about spying is not incompatible with an appreciation of the quality of the vodka. Yet, Johnson will be conscious that, over the last decade, his predecessors have often set about improving relations with the Kremlin only to finish up with them worse than ever. David Miliband was perfectly open to a better relationship, but found himself freezing security co-operation and suspending normal business after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with highly radioactive polonium in the heart of London.

While never forgetting that abominable crime, former British prime minister David Cameron and I saw the case for improving relations when we came to government. I made a string of visits to Moscow, before and after the 2010 general election, and for a while it seemed like a new page could be turned. The Russians were enthusiastic.

Cameron was received with much fuss at the Kremlin in 2011 and by the time I was accompanying Russian President Vladimir Putin around the judo contests at the 2012 Olympics, our conversations were friendly. British businesses were doing well in Russia and the scene seemed ripe for a further move forward in ties. The arguments for a better relationship are easy to understand.

Apart from the mutually beneficial economic opportunities, we need to work together as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council on framing solutions to problems all over the globe. We both face deadly terrorist threats. European security would be enhanced if we could trust each other. Above all, it is a lesson of history - of which Johnson as a biographer of Winston Churchill will be aware - that in the great world crises of the last three centuries, geography if not ideology has made us natural allies.

Save for the Crimean War, British and Russian soldiers have fought on the same side in every major conflict since the French Revolution. There is a deep common history of sacrifice and hard-won victory. So why do all the efforts, the long conversations, warm gestures and repeated attempts to recognise these arguments for the future always end in recriminations, sanctions and insults? The answer lies in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, when there arose between Russia and the West a vast misunderstanding.

For the West, history had come to an end, with the triumph of liberal democracy. As the Soviet Union fragmented, it was assumed that its components, including Russia, would become like us. Russia could join the G8. Any European country could aspire to join the European Union (EU) and Nato, right up to the borders of Russia itself. 
Since Britain was entering an era of common freedom and prosperity, how could that possibly be a threat? Today, there are many Russians who would dearly love to be part of such a vision. Recent demonstrations in support of the valiant opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the largest for 25 years, protesting against endemic corruption and abuse of power. But the leadership of Russia, embodied by Putin and with wide public support, has taken a different turn.

For them, the destruction of the former USSR was an ill-considered folly, western democracy is riddled with moral and political weakness, and the courting of states in Russia's own neighbourhood to join Euro-Atlantic security and economic structures is a clear sign of strategic hostility. For Putin and his acolytes, it is necessary to preserve a pyramid of financial and political power, requiring authoritarian practices at home and a tough posture abroad - particularly in nearby or allied states.

No matter that Russia exhibits the clear symptoms of long-term decline, with a falling population, rising death rates among men, a failure to diversify from dependence on oil and gas, and a GDP substantially smaller than our own.

These only intensify a pattern of aggressive reaction to developments that might bring transparency or real democracy to Moscow itself. So it is that Russia's recent behaviour includes complicity in atrocities in Syria to bolster the Bashar Al Assad regime and preserve a Mediterranean naval base, an attempted coup in Montenegro as it prepared to join Nato, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the destabilisation of Ukraine after it tried to become an economic partner of western Europe.

Russia maintains Cold War levels of espionage activity in many western countries and has undertaken a major modernisation of its armed forces. And it has started to use social media on a huge scale to fragment and poison western societies, seeking to widen divisions, neutralise candidates it sees as hostile and undermine confidence in democracy. No wonder British Prime Minister Theresa May recently spoke of Russia as a threat to the international order. Such a situation means Britain and other Nato states must keep improving their defences, against both physical and cyber attack. Beyond that, there are three possible strategies for how we deal with Russia.

One is long-term hostility, accepting that all efforts have come to nought and that Britain cannot reconcile how it sees the world. That is what the United Kingdom seems to be driven to, but it is not attractive if any other policy is still available. Another is a grand bargain, in which the West concedes that countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are forever in a Russian grip, whatever their people desire.

Our principles prevent us from doing that, unless one day we have no choice but to combine against a greater common threat. Or finally we can try, inch by inch, to create some trust and cooperation, on North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, and defeating terrorism, accepting that being too ambitious will end in further disappointment, and steeling ourselves for more trouble ahead. As a predecessor of Johnson, this last is all I can recommend to him. The ghosts of foreign secretaries past will wish him good fortune this Christmas if he can pursue it successfully.

- The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017

William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 20, 2017
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