British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow: We are two great countries, and it is important that we treat each other with mutual respect
Newly appointed British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks with about the current situation in British-Russian relations in the political, economic and cultural spheres, about London‘s position on the crises in Syria and Ukraine and shares his opinion on the Yury Gagarin flight.Question: Mr. Ambassador, you have presented your letters of credence to the president, and have been performing duties of Her Majesty‘s ambassador to Russia since January. This is your second mission to Moscow. How have things changed since your first mission? What challenges can you, as an ambassador, see, and what priority tasks have you set?
Answer: First of all, it is very, very good to be back. This is a job that I wanted for a very long time, and it is a huge privilege to be here in Russia and to be here as an ambassador. First of all, as to what has not changed, the things that I remember fr om Russia fr om my last time here and that I have noted again being here is culture, incredibly rich culture, history and also hospitality of the country of its people and the interested affection fr om both sides for each other‘s culture and traditions and history. Those are things that make it really good to work here. Here is just a small example of that. Last night it I attended an opening of the exhibition at the Tretyakov [Gallery] of some really important historical paintings from the UK. There is a similar exhibition in London, at the National Portrait Gallery, from the Treatyakov with some really important paintings from Russian history and culture. Things have changed of course since I was here last time five or six years ago is that that the relations between Russian and particularly her Western partners are not in a good shape. That‘s a part of a broader picture throughout the world. We live in a very complex and dangerous times. I think the main task of any diplomat certainly of my role during my time in Russia is to help our countries navigate through those difficulties. In terms of how I plan to do the job, I think the first job if any ambassador is to understand two things: your own country and your host country, what they want, wh ere their interests coincide. The second job is to keep the channels open. We are here, I am here to keep channels open with the Russian government, the Russian people. Third point, always very important for diplomats keep the sense of perspective and proportion. We have had an ambassador in Moscow since 1566, that‘s 450 years. So, it‘s really important that we think in a long-term perspective, as well as about today‘s problems, and a part of that is thinking about the next generation, how we will engage as a country with the next generations of Russians, how they will think of the United Kingdom. Final point, and this is one that is personally important to me, it is about respect. We are two great countries, and it is very important that deal with each other in that context with mutual respect
Q.: Not only observers, but also, officials, have noted the absence of an agenda in Russian-British relations, except for rare examples of cooperation. The leaders of Russia and Britain had their last telephone conversation late last year. Foreign political chiefs meet with each other only in multilateral formats, and there are no bilateral visits between Russia and the United Kingdom. It seems that this bilateral dialogue is developing even worse than that of the United States. What ways do you see it possible to overcome this trend? Do you have any idea what positive aspects can be brought to the bilateral relations?
A.: It‘s true. There are very real difficulties in the UK-Russia relationship, as there are in Russia‘s relations with many of her international partners. For us it is simply not possible to have normal relations with Russia of the sort that we have for example with the United States or Germany or France in current circumstances which include Russia‘s illegal annexation of Crimea. But I don‘t agree there is no agenda. I think there is actually a very important agenda between our two countries. First of all, we are both permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, which means we have specific and very important responsibilities in the field of international security and international politics. Second, we both have absolutely fundamental interests in the field of Europe‘s security. And the dispute what has happened around Ukraine has given that system a fundamental shock. Third, we both have enormously important interests in the stability of the Middle East, the region of the world that is a real turmoil at present. Linked to that the emergence of a new, very violent, very toxic form of extremism which threatens both countries. We have an enormous economic relationship, a very important economic relationship, a lot of people‘s jobs in both countries depend on it. We have a very important relationship in the field of education. A lot of Russians go to school or university in the UK, not quite as many British people attend school or university in Russia, but this is a very important part of building long-term links and the next generation that talked about. And there is also a group of subjects which I think are obvious for the 21st century agenda. Things like climate change, science and technology, we have a British astronaut up in space at the moment thanks to our cooperation with Russia, and there is anti-microbial resistance, these are areas we work very, very close with Russia to the benefit of our two countries.
Q.: Late last year, when the Russian Aerospace Forces were conducting an operation in Syria, the UK said that it was going to bomb the Islamic State in Syria. However, this was not realized. Moreover, the Russian embassy to Britain has recently said that the UK takes a passive stance on Syria, and in fact, pursues the policy of self-isolation, as far as fight against terrorism is concerned. Do you see any prospects for bilateral cooperation with Russia and the UK on Syria?
A.: Our policy is hardly the one of self-isolation. We are one of the leading members of the global coalition in the fight against Daesh. That is 66 or more countries from Europe, the United States, the Middle East, who are working together in Iraq and Syria. That includes but is not limited to our involvement in air strikes in both Iraq and in Syria against Daesh. The result of that action so far by the global coalition is that we have recovered 40% of the territory seized by Daesh, we have reduced Daesh‘s oil production by 30%, we have hit 22,000 Daesh targets through the coalition as a whole. It‘s also important to remember the humanitarian aspect of what is happening in Syria and Iraq. Millions of people are displaced, hundreds of thousands people killed. This matters not only because of the humanitarian catastrophe, but because that is something that will destabilize the Middle East for years to come if it is not resolved. And the UK is spending so far 2.3 billion pounds ($3.3 billion) simply on humanitarian assistance to the region. Those are areas wh ere it has not proved possible so far to work with Russia. The global coalition and Russia are working on different tracks essentially. The area wh ere we are working with Russia of course is through the International Syria Support Group, which is the international forum for supporting the political transition process in Syria. The key point for us here is that everyone, including Russia, needs to use every leverage they have to do a number of things. One is to keep the cessation of hostilities, to keep the hostilities ceased, to maintain the cessation of hostilities. The second is to move the political talks forward. And the third is to implement the international decisions, including the UN Security Council resolutions on humanitarian access. Everyone has to push the same direction on those things.
Q.: Is London going to cooperate and exchange information, including intelligence one, with Russia in fight against international terrorism and the Islamic State?
A.: Intelligence sharing is one aspect of the fight against terrorism, and we never ever comment on intelligence matters in public. But there are lots of other ways in which states can cooperate against terrorism. We cooperate with a very broad, a very wide range of state across the world both bilaterally and in international organizations to combat terrorism. After the tragedy in Sharm el-Sheikh when the Metrojet plane was brought down, our prime minister telephoned Mr. Putin to do two things. The first is of course to express condolences for 224 people murdered in that attack. Second thing was to share information. The reason for that is it could have been our citizens on that plane, it could have been our plane. In my experience of dealing with terrorism, terrorists do not respect borders, they don‘t respect nationalities, they don‘t check people‘s passports before they kill them. We see a very clear common interest in working with Russia against terrorism, against the ideologies that underlie terrorism and against the conditions that allow terrorist to flourish.
Q.: So, you are ready to exchange information with Russia, I don‘t mean intelligence information now, in case of incidents and their prevention, are not you?
A.: Let me say it very clearly. It cannot possibly be in our interests for Russia to be attacked by terrorists. And we do not believe that it is in Russia‘s interests for us to be attacked by terrorists.
Q.: What do you expect from the start of political settlement in Syria? Does London allow for the possibility for President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power during the transition period, or does it demand that he step down immediately?
A.: Our position is the same as it has been for some time. Essentially Assad is the problem. You know 250,000 people have been killed in Syria in a civil war that is the result of Assad making war on his people essentially, millions of refugees, he‘s used chemical weapons against his on population, he is using barrel bombs against his own population. We do not see how there can be a lasting settlement in Syria with Assad in power. That‘s our position. I think there are three issues though that the international community really needs to get behind here. One is how to get a transition to a new government, that‘s obviously the subject of the political talks. Second linked to that, we must maintain the cessation of hostilities. While the fighting is going on, the space for political negotiations is just not there. And finally of course is the humanitarian situation. This is a humanitarian catastrophe with dimensions that will affect the stability of Syria, the stability of the Middle East for years to come. Against that background what matters here is what will enable the Syrian people, all of Syria to move on from this catastrophic civil war. We do not see that that will be possible while Assad remains in power. The Geneva talks are the only game in town. The alternative to the Geneva talks is more conflict, more instability, more refugees, more space for terrorists, a lost generation. Russia has an enormous amount of leverage with the regime in Syria. We call on Russia to use that leverage to make these talks move forward.
Q.: Is London considering the possibility of supplying arms to Syrian opposition groups if the current ceasefire is disrupted?
A.: Our aim, our absolute priority is to make the ceasefire hold, is to make political talks move forward, is to make sure that the opposition, the regime, everyone engaged in those talks move things forward and deal with the humanitarian catastrophe. As I said for the political process, the Geneva talks is the only game in town.
Q.: Several months ago, the restoration of military contacts between Russia and the UK was witnessed. May contacts between the military of the two countries take place soon?
A.: It is difficult for us, the UK to have normal bilateral relationship in this field with Russia against the background of what happened in Ukraine. We are not alone in that. If you ask the same question most of, all of my Western colleagues would say the same thing. But we do have a clear common interest in making sure, whether there is business to be done, we do it and we have channels to make that happen. We had two very important contacts in recent months. First of all our national security advisor was here in Moscow as few weeks ago, two weeks ago to discuss the political dimensions of international security. And the vice-chief of our defense staff, the second most senior military officer was here at the end of last year to talks specifically about mechanisms to avoid accidents and incidents in aviation and on sea. He by the way is the next chief of our defense staff. The reason for that is that both sides need to avoid accidents and escalation between our armed forces in the air or in the sea.
Q.: Will it be a bilateral mechanism, or does London view it a part of the NATO-Russia mechanism?
A.: Our intention was to create a specifically bilateral mechanism to enable our military to speak to Russia‘s military urgently when a need arises.
Q.: The NATO-Russia Council has recently resumed its work. How do asses this? Do you think that contact between Russia and NATO may be unfrozen? May a new meeting of the NATO-Russia Council take place before the Warsaw summit in July?
A.: We of course supported the decision to resume the NATO-Russia Council dialog this week. A decision will be taken on whether there needs to be a second meeting before Warsaw, but a decision has not been taken yet. I should say that nothing has changed in the NATO position on the Ukraine conflict. But the decision of the NATO side was to that time has come to reopen this channel communication. The way that I would describe it is that we have not returned to the business as usual but we are doing business that needs doing with Russia.
Q.: As far as I know the Russian side was to raise the Afghanistan question during the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. From the point of view of the British government, is it possible to have cooperation with Russia on security issues in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is much closer to Russian borders and the situation there worries Moscow a lot.
A.: Both sides had things they intended to raise at the NATO-Russia Council. On our side it was the conflict in Ukraine and the need to ensure that the Russian side understands the NATO position on that. Afghanistan of course continues to be a concern for the national security of the United Kingdom, all NATO states and Russia. That is one of the subjects that have we actively discussed bilaterally with Russia.
Q.: Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev has said recently, that objective preconditions for cancelling, or easing sanctions, against Russia in the near future have emerged. Do you agree with this? Do you think that a decision to ease the sanctions against Russia may be taken at the EU summit this June?
A.: The sanctions were agreed by all member states of the European Union, and they were agreed and put in place for a reason. I think our aim as is the aim of all members of the European Union is to be able to lift the sanctions when those conditions have changed sufficiently to allow us to do so. That of course means the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. On the Russian side that means Russia using its influence with separatists to do the following: respect the ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons, full access of OSCE monitors and international humanitarian agencies. In our view none of those things depend of decisions made in Kyiv and implementing those obligations will create more political space for Kyiv to fulfill its side of the Minsk agreements.
Q.: Will London together with other Western council exert pressure on the current Ukrainian government on such sensitive issues as full amnesty and constitutional changes, including the ones on special status for Donbas? I think this is one of the main obstacles to progress in talks, and the Ukrainian government at least until recently has not fulfilled its part of the Minsk agreements and if Kyiv changes it position, this may result in progress.
A.: We of course have very, very close contacts with the government in Kyiv. There have been changes in the government in Kyiv in the last few weeks. We encourage, we support, we will help if they wish to do so, the Ukrainian side fulfills their obligations of the Minsk. But I repeat the fulfillment of Russia‘s obligations and the Russian back separatists obligations also need to happen. They need to fulfill their obligations and those things we think are not dependent on what happens in Kyiv.
Q.: Are you, as ambassador, going to assist the development of Russian-British trade and economic cooperation, given the fact that Britain has recently been one of the leading countries in term of investments to Russia, and given that bilateral trade has shrunk 50%? Does the UK want to ‘return‘ to Russia in ‘a falling market‘?
A.: Our companies have never left Russia. There are we think about one thousand British companies working in Russia, and a lot of jobs in Britain and Russia depend on this economic relationship My job is to support that. My job is to support British companies developing economic relationship with Russia. The reasons why our trade is falling – it‘s not as much as 50% - it is more or less in line with Russia‘s other European partners I think has a number of aspects. One is the recession in Russia. Another is sanctions and Russia‘s countersanctions particularly against food products and that is a part of the landscape we work in. But I want to repeat our job as an embassy is to support the economic and trade relationship.
Q.: Is there any obstacle for British companies to take part in privatization in Russia?
A.: The sanctions are a matter of law, and we expect our companies with sanctions as a matter of law. I would ask the question in reverse. What is the attitude of the Russian government to foreign companies being involved in privatization process?
Q.: And what can you say to Russians who want to visit the UK? How many visas does the embassy issue on average? Does the British government, in particular the embassy, plan to ease visa procedures for tourists, businessmen and officials, including Russian diplomats who have come across difficulties recently?
A.: First of all we welcome Russians visiting the UK. We want Russians to travel to Britain for tourism, for business, for education. And the political differences that we have had with Moscow over the years have had no effect whatsoever on our visa regime for ordinary Russian citizens, for ordinary Russian travelers. We have a visa regime for Russia as we do for many countries, and the visa regime for Russians is exactly the same as it is for other countries that require we visas. The last figures that I have is that we issue around 122,000 visas in the last year. That‘s a bit down on previous years because of the recession in Russia. I hope it will rise as Russia emerges from the recession. Two other point. Nearly 97% of applicants for visas get their visas. And we have recently simplified our application form to make a little bit easier for Russians to apply for their visas. As concerns official visas, visas for diplomats that‘s something completely separate from the regime for the public, that is something we prefer to discuss in private with the Russian state.
Q.: This year sees the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature. Can this, in your opinion, become a unifying factor in the bilateral agenda? What measures within the framework of this year would you note as the most important?
A.: This is a very, very important part of our relationships with Russia. It‘s something that matters to ordinary people, and it‘s something that catches public imagination. We have some fantastic exhibitions taking place in London and in Moscow right now, some really important paintings from both countries which have travelled to the other country to broaden the public understanding of the links between our countries and cultures. I particularly note Shakespeare. It‘s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare‘s death. Shakespeare of course had an enormous influence on Russian literature, just as Russian literature, the greats of Russian literature – Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky for example – have had an enormous impact in the UK. But one of the thing that we will be doing as part of Shakespeare celebrations is a program in Russian schools about Shakespeare. That leads me to a really important point that is every generation has to rediscover for itself the importance of its historical and cultural links between the UK and Russia. I just want to mention the cosmonauts exhibition that has recently closed in London and is now transferring back to Moscow for the Russian public to see. The opening of that exhibition in London coincided with Tim Peake going up to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket. When I think about what Yury Gagarin did, you have to think about the context, the time that he did it. It was the height of the Cold War, it was the period of competition between Russia and the West. What it means for the current generation I think it is something a little different, it means human courage, creativity and curiosity.