What can Labour do with Russia?

Next year’s general election is likely to centre on domestic issues rather than Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, not least as it is hard so far to see any substantive policy differences with the Conservatives on this issue, beyond a possibly performative demand that the government do more of the same, and faster. Nonetheless, it will be one of the policy dilemmas facing the new Foreign Secretary.

Fortunately, Labour seems to have grown beyond any knee-jerk assumption that Russia ought still to be taken as somewhere on the left. After all, Putin’s Russia is not just an authoritarian kleptocracy but also in many ways a neo-con dreamland, where income taxes are low, unions largely house-trained, and the Communist Party a bit-part player in his pantomime democracy, mouthing empty lines and there to scare the audience. If anything, the danger may be that a Labour government desperate to be regarded as ‘serious’ at home and abroad will go overboard in trying to align itself with the European or US consensus, fawning in the White House like Blair and Bush at their worst.

 

Whatever it takes, as long as it takes?

The real question is whether there is anything different much for Labour to do? Ukraine is locked in a pitiless existential struggle for its sovereignty and survival, and while one could point to the hypocrisy of elevating this war over many others, that does not invalidate its case for support. Russia is not at present giving any indications of being willing to talk about peace on anything other than on its own terms: it is happy to discuss Ukraine’s capitulation. Then again, President Zelensky’s own ‘ten-point plan for peace’ is no less than, as one senior US official put it to me, ‘an invitation to Moscow to surrender unconditionally.’

So is policy simply defined by those mantras, of ‘whatever it takes, as long as it takes’? Is it just a question of haggling over quite what to send Ukraine, and when? Not necessarily.

First of all, the West is still lacking a clear sense of ‘how this ends.’ Does it mean the return not just of territories illegally seized by Russia since February 2022’s invasion but also of those taken since 2014, including Crimea? That is a tough ask, condemning us all to at least a year and likely several, and even then it would not end the war in itself, only relocate the front line to Ukraine’s national borders? Off the record, and behind closed doors, many Western policymakers (and a few Ukrainian ones, for that matter) admit that Crimea, that one piece of Ukraine that almost every Russian, pro- or anti-Putin, thinks is rightfully theirs, may have to be in play.

The point is not to advocate, as some do, that it is time to bring pressure to bear on Kyiv to accept an ugly and unfair peace. Rather it is to recognise that as things stand, Western policy is built of equal parts moral indignation, anti-Russian feeling, and a fear of looking like the first to waver. Without a clear and credible roadmap towards an equitable outcome, though, the risk is that things look hopeless and the West feels helpless — and this is a recipe for the kind of debilitating ‘Ukraine fatigue’ on which Putin is counting.

 

Labour’s Opportunity

A Labour government has the opportunity to combine its existing support for Ukraine’s cause with fresh thinking, free of the need to stick to existing bromides. Although it has become something of a cliche to talk about British leadership and its convening power, both do still apply. The UK has, to use another cliche that seems obligatory in all discussions of foreign policy, punched above its weight over Ukraine, and this ought not to be wasted. Moscow believes that the West is looking for excuses to abandon Ukraine, but the reality is that instead, we are looking for reasons to believe that this can end well.

Labour is also in a position to address the scandalous ‘Londongrad’ issue, the continued welcome given dirty Russian money and those Russians who have robbed their country on an industrial scale for so long. In fairness, there has been progress, but nowhere near enough. Let us be honest, this will no more bring down the regime than it will force Putin to change his policies, but it will attack the individuals and institutions continuing to help the Kremlin bypass sanctions and also end the hypocritical way for years Britain has inveighed against the very imperialist kleptocracy from which it has benefited.

The City and all those well-paid facilitators, from lawyers to estate agents, will squeal and moan, but this is as much a moral as a practical imperative. Yet if it is not to replace one hypocrisy with another, we need to recognise that dirty money is dirty money, and it is not just the Russians who need to be targeted. After all, if we begin to draw distinctions between good kleptocrats and bad, we are not only sacrificing any claim to virtue, we are also playing to Putin’s own narrative, that the whole conflict has been generated by the West’s innate and unthinking hatred of Russians.

Why does this matter? Because a Labour government will presumably not be subject to the revolving-door short-termism that has so bedevilled the current administration. It is crucial to think beyond Putin. We don’t know who will succeed the ageing despot, and when, but what we can say with some certainty is that if Russians (who so far appear not to be buying Putin’s claims that they are locked in a grand struggle with the collective West) do come to believe that we are unreasoningly hostile and that if we repeat the mistakes of the 1990s (when we sacrificed support for genuine democracy for a short-sighted defence of ‘our guy,’ Boris Yeltsin), we are much more likely to face an angry, hostile Russia.

As is, intemperate outbursts by publicity-hungry politicians (such as former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s 2018 remark that ‘Russia should go away and shut up’) and a visa policy that militates against ordinary Russians, including those who would flee Putin’s tyranny, are wresting with Russians’ genuine and deep-seated Anglophilia. A far-sighted policy that maximises those few opportunities to reach out to ordinary Russians, treating them as Putin’s hostages more than his accomplices, could pay off handsomely in the long term.

Russians clearly have low expectations of Lord Cameron, noting the rapid turnover of foreign secretaries and the apparent absence of any clear Russia policy in London. Labour can and must do better.