The West, Russia & Syria: Foreign policy is rarely a zero-sum game

Aaron Ellis 6.12am

It is perfectly possible for one country to argue with another over a controversial issue at the same time as co-operating with them on several others - as long as they both get their priorities right and are diplomatic in explaining their differences publicly.

Unfortunately, both Britain and the United States have failed to do this with regard to Russia: they have given more attention to Syria, where they disagree with the latter, than to the many more important issues on which they share common interests. The way British and American officials have explained their differences with their Russian counterparts has also been appallingly undiplomatic and, unsurprisingly, counterproductive.

If London and Washington want to withdraw from Afghanistan, negotiate an end to the Iran crisis, reduce nuclear weapons, and expand NATO, they must give less ‘airtime’ to Syria when dealing with Moscow. If they want to stop the violence there, they must be more respectful of Russia’s views, no matter how heartless they believe them to be. Otherwise, the Kremlin will take a zero-sum approach to the issues listed above, making the world a considerably more dangerous place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Anglo-American relations with Russia knows how difficult it can be to get them on your side, no matter how obvious it is that your approach to an issue will benefit them as much as it would benefit yourself. Russian foreign policy is characterised by interplaying contradictions. Its practitioners can be refreshingly honest one minute, deceptive the next; they can play the aggrieved party in a dispute when they are actually the aggressor; and can alternate between undermining the international order and being one of its key pillars

Yet there are best practice principles that can be teased out of our difficult history with the Russians.

One, respect their interests and treat them the way a great power ought to be treated, even if it is obvious they’re not one. Two, be honest about your own interests and don’t try to trick them, though they may be trying to trick you. Three, don’t be a hypocrite, no matter how hypocritical you think they are behaving. Essentially, keep in mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum: trust, but verify.

If this is “best practice”, both the United Kingdom and the United States have badly mishandled the Russians during the Syria crisis. They have not tried to safeguard their interests in the country should Bashar al-Assad fall, nor have they taken seriously their view of the crisis, as Giles Marshall argued they should in these pages last month. Rather than be diplomatic about their differences, some Western officials have publicly attacked Russia, as the US Ambassador to the UN did in February.

Some of the British and Americans’ actions have just been tin-eared: for example, leaking that David Cameron thought about using Special Forces to stop a Russian ship from allegedly taking weapons to Syria.

For months now, the conflict has preoccupied Anglo-American diplomacy, yet there are many other issues that are much more important to us than Syria and which require Russian support – or at least acquiescence. If we continue to bungle things with the Kremlin, it will become less cooperative on Iran and Afghanistan, even taking a zero-sum approach. One official said as much yesterday, warning that “if Russia doesn’t like the outcome” in Syria, it will start selling long-range surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Given that Russia is part of one of the two routes via which NATO supplies troops in Afghanistan, its support will be vital over the next two years as we withdraw, as the only other route out of the country is through Pakistan…

British and American officials are understandably exasperated with Russia’s Syria policy, for it is cold, self-interested, and hypocritical. Vladimir Putin attacked humanitarian interventionism a few months ago, yet he justified the war with Georgia on the same as grounds as those calling for military action in Syria. Unfortunately, the terrible things happening there simply aren’t important enough to us to risk an open breach with the Kremlin and losing its cooperation on much more vital issues.

Much of what Otto von Bismarck said over a hundred years ago holds true today, not least his belief that the secret of foreign policy is to make a good treaty with Russia…

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis