Laurie Bristow: My top priority for 2019 is to stabilize relationship between UK and Russia
British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about the current situation in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia, the impact of the Skripal case on it, the restoration of the numbers of diplomatic staff, exchange of information on counter-terrorism, possible introduction of sanctions over the Kerch Strait incident, the INF Treaty, and British-Russian economic relations.Question: You counterpart in London, Mr. Yakovenko, said in December that Russia and the United Kingdom will begin gradually restoring the numbers of diplomatic staff starting early this year after last year‘s mutual expulsions and problems with issuing visas to diplomats. Has this work already begun? Has any agreement been reached? What percentage of the diplomatic staff has been restored?
Answer: First of all, let‘s look a bit at a bigger picture. We have embassies in each other‘s countries in order to develop the relationship between those countries, so the relationship between the governments, but also between the wider societies.
The relationship between the UK and Russia has been in a very bad place for some years, but particularly in the last year because of the attack in Salisbury. We have no apologies for what we did last year – as you know we required a number of Russian undeclared intelligence officers to leave London, 23 of them, and that was because they presented a threat to the UK. Essentially, the state of the relationship as it is now is the result of actions taken by the Russian state. Actions have consequences – that is our position.
Turning to the staffing of the embassies, it‘s true that both sides‘ embassies are a lot smaller than they were this time last year. That is partly is the result of expulsions and things that we required each other to do, but it is also because there is – with any embassy in any country – a steady rotation of staff, and the arrangement for doing that with Russia have become more difficult in recent years.
We would actually like to regulate better the exchange of staff, as it happened in the past, and a fact a bit over a year ago – we proposed an agreement to the Russian side to do that, but for whatever reason the Russian side decided not to enter that agreement. But what we‘ve been doing now is that each side has given the other side permission for a certain number of staff to come to their own embassies in the other side‘s capital, and that is what is happening. So, it‘s not a new agreement, it is the usual routine, exchange of staffing arrangements to fill slots that are vacant.
Q.: The Skripal case remains toxic for bilateral relations, although the Russian side has resolutely rejected all accusations against it. Recently, leaks have appeared in the British media regarding new details and new people said to be involved in the affair. Does the British side have a full picture of the events in Salisbury and information about everyone involved?
A.: As you know, the police have been conducting a full investigation for nearly a year now into the Skripal case. They’ve interviewed hundreds of witnesses, they’ve collected hundreds of pieces of evidence, they’ve looked at 11,000 hours of CCTV coverage, and independent fr om the government police and the Crown Prosecution Service, have identified and named two suspects. They are both fr om Russia. We believe them to be serving members of the [Russian Military Intelligence Service] GRU.
Of course, that inquiry goes on – it‘s now a murder inquiry, because a British citizen, a completely innocent bystander Dawn Sturgess died as a result of the use of that chemical weapon. The aim here, of course, is to bring the suspects to trial in the UK. If the police identify more suspects, they will seek to bring them to trial in the UK.
A really important point here, though, is that we have - as the government and as the police – we have put certain amount of information out to the public in the course of the inquiry, but we have not made public everything that we know, and that of course will not happen bascule the place to examine that evidence is a court in the UK. The target here for us, for the police and for the Crown Prosecution Service is to build that body of evidence, put it to a jury and a judge in the UK for them to decide are these people guilty of murder, attempted murder, use of the chemical weapon.
Q.: You said that you have more information than you provide to the media...
A.: Of course, we have more information. As I said, that information will eventually be put in front of a court in the UK. We will not make all that information publicly available to the media, because that would prejudice a trial in the UK.
As far as the Russian government is concerned, we are not interested in a joint investigation with the Russian government. We are confident that we know who those people are. We are also confident that the Russian government knows who those people are. If the Russian government wants to offer us information about its involvement or the involvement of its employees, then we would welcome that, but we are not going to do a joint investigation.
Q.: The Russian embassy in London said a few days ago that it was not sure that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were alive. Can you confirm that? Do you have any reliable information that they are alive?
A.: I can confirm that they are alive. I can confirm that the request or offer of the Russian embassy to see them has been passed to them, they don‘t want to see members of the Russian embassy – I don‘t think it‘s difficult to understand why they might not want to see representatives of the Russian state. It is their choice. If they wish, we will make that happen, if they don‘t wish to, we are not going to make them see members, employees of the Russian state.
They are, of course, been kept in a safe location - somebody tried to kill them a year ago using a nerve agent – and our responsibility to them is to keep them safe.
Q.: Has the exchange of information between Russia and the United Kingdom on counterterrorism been progressing, if there is any such exchange? Are there any concrete examples of such interaction in the past year besides the FIFA World Cup? If the British side gets, for example, information about a terrorist attack being prepared against Russians or Russian facilities, is it willing to warn Russia through existing channels?
A.: The most important example of this cooperation in recent years was the FIFA World Cup last year. I don‘t want to go into the details, but our police, our specialists and agencies, of course, worked very, very closely with all of their international counterparts, including Russia – Russia, of course, was hosting the World Cup – to ensure that everybody had a safe and enjoyable World Cup.
We did that because that is in our interests. We had tens of thousands of British fans coming to Russia, tens of thousands of fans fr om a lot of countries across the world. It was our responsibility and our interest to help keep them safe. Our police and our agencies developed a very good working relationship with their Russian counterparts. In fact, we got to that relationship over a number of previous sporting engagements, football engagements. For example, we took Russian police officers to a number of football matches in the UK, so that both sides could understand how the other side operates, when keeping a football match safe. It went very well. The test here is that Russia ran a safe and enjoyable World Cup, that was what we wanted to happen.
We never go into the details of how we work with other special services on counterterrorism operations. But what I can say in principle - and we‘ve said for over 10 years during a very difficult time in our relationship with Russia - that if ever we have information that could prevent a threat to lives here in Russia, we will pass it on to the Russian side. And we expect them to do the same.
How we do that, it‘s not a big issue. If necessary, I personally will go down to the relevant ministry and to hand it over. But that is our position. I will restate that we do this because it is in our interests.
Q.: Will London support the new EU sanctions on Russia over the Kerch Strait incident that are currently being prepared? A group of U.S. Senators has prepared a bill that envisages new restrictions on Moscow, including sanctions related to Russia‘s state debt, as well as its energy and banking sectors. Does London considers effective the continuing strengthening of sanction pressure on Russia?
A.: The European Union, all 28 members of the European Union, a few days ago reached political agreement to apply some sanctions in response to what we believe was Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait. In the past, the European Union had brought in sanctions relating to a number of matters, so the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia‘s aggression in Donbas, the building of the Kerch Bridge – which we believe is illegal under international law, the illegal holding of elections in Sevastopol and in Eastern Ukraine. The reason we do this is because we want to send a signal to Russia that what it is doing is dangerous and destabilizing and needs to stop. We also want to raise the price of these actions to Russia. Ultimately, if Russia decides to press ahead regardless, well, that‘s their choice. But we believe that sanctions are raising the price for Russia; there is an impact on their prestige; for some individuals it makes it impossible to travel or to conduct business in the EU, and for example sanctions in the banking sector make it harder for Russia to globalize its economy and to raise living standards here in Russia. So, there is an effect, again actions have consequences.
As far as U.S. sanctions are concerned, that is a matter for the U.S. We work with our EU partners, our European Union partners. But I have to say that as far as the underlying reasons for the U.S. bringing in sanctions against Russia are concerned, we generally agree with them. There is a widespread concern about some of the things that the Russian state does which we believe are dangerous and threatening to us.
Q.: To what extent is Britain concerned about the possible consequences of the dismantling of the INF Treaty for European security? In your opinion, can compromise still be reached, and can the treaty be preserved? Do you think that not only Russia, but also Western countries should make concessions in order to preserve the INF Treaty? Have you discussed this topic with your counterparts in the U.S.?
A.: Of course, we discuss this constantly with our U.S. colleagues and with our NATO colleagues. As you have seen all 29 NATO allies take the same view on the INF Treaty, which is that first of all, we think the treaty is very important, but, secondly, Russia is in a breach of it, and you cannot have a treaty which only one side is complying with.
It‘s worth, I think, saying a bit about why the treaty is important. It was agreed in the 1980s towards the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, but it concerns Europe‘s security for two reasons. One is that the missiles that the treaty eliminated on both sides were basically for use on the European continent. Second, the risks that the agreement was aimed to reduce was the risk of missiles with very, very short flying times and, therefore, very short decision times for political leaders to decide what to do. Both sides in the 1980s understood that this was very destabilizing and very dangerous, and that we will all better off, that we will all be safer, if we were just to take all the missiles out of circulation. That is what the agreement did.
It‘s for that reason, and we deeply regret that in our view Russia‘s actions have caused the United States to suspend the treaty. What we would like to do is to get back to the situation wh ere nobody has any missiles of this class in the European continent. We believe that if we were in that position, everybody, including Russia, would be safer.
Q.: President Putin recently met with BP CEO Robert Dudley. The Kremlin said after the meeting that BP will always enjoy the support of the Russian authorities. How do you assess the fact that this meeting took place? Is it possible to expect that it will advance our business contacts? How important is the Russian market for the United Kingdom?
A.: We welcome any signal of support from the Russian state for any British businesses operating here in Russia in accordance with Russian law and in accordance with our law. It is important to underline what those businesses do. They create jobs and they raise living standards in both countries, that‘s why the governments are interested in this. Of course, a very large part of my job is to support, help our companies working here in Russia – as I said in accordance with Russian law and in accordance with our law – and to help Russian companies that want to invest in the UK in accordance with our law to do so. They create jobs in my country. So, we continue to support that.
The economic relationship is pretty big. Just a headline figure: our exports, trade in goods and services between Russia and the UK was 14.3 billion pounds. That was by the end of 2018. They were up by nearly 17% on the previous year. Broadly speaking I would say that commercial relationships are going rather well, and we think that is to the benefit of people of both countries.
Q.: What do you think about the Baring Vostok case?
A.: I don‘t want to comment on the details of the case, and of course it‘s not a British company and it‘s not British citizens involved. I have though discussed it with a number of my colleagues, and of course Mr. Lavrov was asked this question yesterday at the meeting with Association of European Business. What I can say that there is quite a lot of concern about what this case might, mean for the investment environment here in Russia. As I said earlier, we support British companies working here, because we believe it’s in the interests of both countries, people of both countries, because it supports jobs, it supports living standards. Anything that damages the investment climate in Russia, we would find very unfortunate.
Q.: Despite very complicated relations between Russia and the United Kingdom in the political sphere, has cooperation in the humanitarian sphere and on science and culture been maintained? To what extent has the crisis influenced the statistics on mutual visits?
A.: You‘ve asked a moment ago if there are any positive in the relationship. Actually, there are. The relationship between the governments is not good, but the relationship between the countries, the wider societies, I would say is extremely good and very beneficial to both countries. Of course, a large part of the work of my embassy – and hope the Russian embassy in London – is actually about building those links between the societies, as well as between the governments. So, a few examples.
The World Cup. The World Cup brought tens of thousands of British people to Russia to watch the football. My guess is that most of those people had never been to Russia before and knew nothing about this country. You have to ask them what impression they formed but my guess is that most of them went back thinking, ‘this is a really interesting country, I‘m glad I came.‘ I think this is the part of the relationship between the two countries.
We are about to launch the Year of Music between Russia and the UK. We are two of Europe‘s, two of the world’s greatest musical cultures, but not only classical music, but all of the popular forms of music. What we are seeking to do there is to create and strengthen ties between people, between institutions in an area that matters deeply to a lot of people in both countries.
There are fantastic links between Russian universities and British universities which have been built up very carefully over decades in some cases. An example - there are lots more – between the London School of Economics and the Higher School of Economics. These organization are producing, are educating the people who would run Britain and Russia for the next 20 or 30 years. So, it is very important for the governments to do what they can to help those institutions - in our case they are independent of government – to create those links.
There are a couple of other areas that I would like to mention which are more around the global challenges of the 21st century. One is the Arctic and global warming. There is a lot of work that the international community needs to do on the science of global warming, how it will affect the atmosphere, the oceans, the Arctic environment in particular. We have actually developed a rather interesting and I hope mutually beneficial set of links in cooperation between institutions here in Russia and the UK. The other issue I want to mention which is of importance to every single person in Russia and Britain is antimicrobial resistance. It is the need to develop new generations of drugs and treatments to deal with infections that the current range of drugs will not be able to do very soon. This matters to every single person because you ask an ordinary citizen for example, ‘Are you more worried about whether your governments are arguing over - for the sake of argument - Syria or whether the antibiotics you might need to give your children tomorrow will work,‘ I think you know the answer.
Q.: Is it right to say that bilateral relations hit bottom after the Salisbury incident and the events that followed? Could this be cause for a degree of optimism, as we now have to work to push off from the bottom and start gradually going up? Or is there a risk that someone will knock from under the bottom?
A.: I‘m very familiar with the Russian saying that you are referring to. We have to be realistic. The Salisbury incident was a very serious blow to the relationship between the two governments. This is a national security issue for us. We are not going to have a situation wh ere people are using chemical weapons to try to kill other people on the streets of Britain. This is just not negotiable for us. As long as the risk of that sort of things happening or other similarly dangerous things happening, it is will not be possible for us to build a normal political relationship with Russia. As my Prime Minister made absolutely clear that is not the relationship with Russia that we want. The relationship with Russia we want is when we can cooperate with each other – I mentioned some areas earlier – but we both have global responsibilities, we are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, we are both major international powers who need to play a role in global security and European security in addressing the 21st century challenges I mentioned earlier. The people of both counties benefit from economic links, from people-to-people links, from culture or just travel. We issued 140,000 visas to Russians last year. We are very glad to do so. We want Russians to come to the UK. By the way, 98% of Russian applicants get their visas. But the point is that we need something to change in Russia for that to be possible, for that to be a normal relationship. In the short-term our goal is to least to try to stabilize the relationship. There are some interesting sign about the willingness of the Russian side as well to do that, but it‘s early days. My top priority for 2019 is to stabilize the relationship.
Q.: There have been media reports that the United Kingdom is awaiting a "signal" from Russia that would prove that Moscow is open to improving bilateral relations. If this is so, what is the level on which London expects to get this signal? What specifically could it be?
A.: As I said, we see the priority for the coming months to try to stabilize the relationship. I don‘t want to go into all the details, but there are signals coming from the Russian side, that that‘s what they want as well. One example I can share with you is that Sir Alan Duncan, the Minister for Europe and Mr. Vladimir Titov, First Deputy Foreign Minister met in Munich recently. That was I think the first substantive ministerial meeting since the Salisbury incident. Both sides clearly have decided that they want to do that. The meeting went well, and we‘ll see wh ere thing will go further.