Summary: The United Kingdom is a key EU and NATO member and a country with a UN Security Council permanent membership. The UK was quick to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, and its firm stance remains unchanged even after the political reshuffle following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum. Russia does not play a key role in British security or international policy, but Britain is aware of threats posed by Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and it is an active member of NATO efforts to counter these threats.
I. Relationship Parameters
History: The United Kingdom has been both an ally and a rival of Russia throughout history. The UK became an ally of the Soviet Union in the WWII, but the two countries maintained a hostile stance towards each other during the Cold War.
Economy: The United Kingdom is a major global financial and economic center, whose many companies saw great opportunities in expanding trade with Russia. However, they often encounter bureaucratic hurdles and harassment by Russian authorities, resulting in controversies that negatively shape the perception of Russia. A high profile case was the TNK-BP, which was consequently acquired by Rosneft, despite BP’s enthusiasm over TNK’s long-term prospects. Royal Dutch shell encountered similar issues on the Sakhalin-II project, being accused of causing environmental damage.
Energy: The United Kingdom does not depend heavily on energy imports, having its own carbon fuel reserves available. Its natural gas imports come primarily from Norway and Qatar, however, more domestic resources may become available with the advance of hydraulic fracturing.
Sanctions: The United Kingdom has shown an overwhelming support for sanctions against Russia following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the political challenges following the Brexit vote in 2016 did little to change the Conservative government’s stance on the issue.
Tensions: Russian jets have been known to patrol areas near or in the British territorial waters. In September 2015, Russian nuclear bombers have been spotted approaching the UK airspace and were intercepted by British jets. A year later a similar incident occurred in the same area near Shetland isles. Crossing of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier on the way to and from Russia’s operation in Syria in 2016 and 2017 caused high alertness in the Royal Navy, but was met with ridicule by some British tabloid media and with alarm by other. In 2011, Admiral Kuznetsov already violated the country’s territorial waters in Moray Firth near north-eastern Scotland, causing the Royal Navy to deploy HMS York and causing concern over dumping waste near the coast.
War in Syria: Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has been met with condemnation both from the British government and public opinion in Britain. In 2015 PM Cameron accused Iran and Russia of bolstering Assad’s regime in Syria and called for Assad’s prosecution for war crimes. The post-Brexit referendum, which caused significant political upheaval in the UK, did little to change this stance. PM May condemned Russia over its actions in Syria, and called for Russia to be pressured in order for killings in Syria to stop. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was among the most visible public figures to condemn Iran and Russia during the siege of Aleppo, accusing them of violating the international humanitarian law, and causing the city’s residents to suffer.
View of Russia: Britons maintain predominantly somewhat negative view of Russia (42%), with 23% having a somewhat positive view, 20% very negative, and 4% very positive.
STRATCOM: The UK has a national seconded expert working at the EEAS East STRATCOM Team. The UK is a sponsoring nation of the NATO STRATCOM COE.
II. Expert Assessment
Power Audit (2007): Frosty Pragmatist. The United Kingdom demonstrated a firm stance against Russia in political sphere, imposing restrictions upon Russian officials following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and by refusing to extradite political asylum seekers residing in Britain. At the same time, Britain remains a place of choice for many Russians to live, and the country became the second largest investor in the Russian economy in 2006.
National Perspectives (2013): Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Britain insisted on further democratization and reforms taking place in Russia, looking for a stable and reliable partner to the east. However, the war in Iraq and the UK’s previous positions on the wars in Chechnya, as well as the NATO’s operation in Kosovo, cooled the two countries’ relations. However, a major event that shaped them for years to come was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The UK’s refusal to extradite people wanted by Russian authorities, such as the leader of Chechen separatists Akhmed Zakayev or late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was used by Russia as a justification to harbor Litvinenko’s alleged murderers. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war was met with further harsh criticism by Prime Minsiter Brown, who urged the EU to seek further energy independence from Russia. However, none of this stopped the new Conservative government from trying to improve relations with Russia, as the Prime Minister Cameron’s 2011 visit to Moscow has demonstrated.
EU-28 Watch (2015): Though Britain is highly critical of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, it is commonly held that the EU was too eager to provoke Russian response by its diplomatic actions in Ukraine, and any direct military confrontation with Russia is seen as highly undesirable. In British context, such events are seen in the light of the constant political disagreements between London and Brussels. Thus, further expansion of the EU is met with hostility in Britain, particularly due to anti-immigrant stance of some right-wing organizations and parties, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
III. Policy Documents
National Cyber-Security Strategy 2016–2021 (2016)
Much of the most serious cyber crime – mainly fraud, theft and extortion – against the UK continues to be perpetrated predominantly by financially motivated Russian-language organised criminal groups (OCGs) in Eastern Europe, with many of the criminal marketplace services being hosted in these countries.
National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (2016)
The resurgence of state-based threats; and intensifying wider state competition is currently demonstrated most clearly in the actions of Russia in Syria and Ukraine. Russia continues to invest considerable sums in new military capability. Foreign intelligence agencies continue to engage in hostile activity against the UK and its interests. More generally, competition between states in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia brings ongoing risks of miscalculation and conflict.
Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2013–2014 (2014)
The UK suspended the vast majority of its bilateral defence cooperation with Russia following the Ukraine crisis (the exception being where there are Treaty obligations or the engagement is of a commemorative nature). Since then working closely with NATO partners, the UK MOD has built on a well-established relationship with Ukraine and increased cooperation designed to support defence reform, good governance (including anti-corruption) and strategic communications.
 David, M. Ireland and the United Kingdom, Chapter 4 in M. David, J. Gower and H. Haukkala, ‘National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making?’, Routledge 2013.