Fixing Russia’s foreign relations

Russia’s credit markets may have remained frozen these last few weeks but its foreign relations have begun to thaw. Foreign investors have yet to return after pulling out their money in the wake of the invasion of Georgia, but foreign diplomats are back.

At the end of October, Peter Mandelson, Britain’s business minister and a former EU trade commissioner, led a business delegation to Moscow. This was the first visit of a British cabinet minister to Russia for eighteen months and the choice of Mandelson was significant. Nicknamed ‘the prince of darkness’, he is Britain’s chief political fixer, and he was sent to Moscow to start fixing Anglo-Russian relations. The idea was to prise the two countries’ relations out of the hands of the two foreign ministries, where they have been stuck in ‘tit for tat’ mode since the Litvinenko-Lugovoi standoff of summer 2007, and resume dialogue on commercial and business matters.

Mandelson’s savoir-faire was up to the task. His friendships with Igor Shuvalov and Anatoly Chubais – both cultivated while he was trade commissioner – helped, and he left Russia declaring: ‘there is a real willingness to re-engage, to turn the page and start a new chapter in our relationship.’ He would not go so far as to say the Britain would drop its efforts to extradite Lugovoi but did say that ‘in the meantime life goes on.’

Another sign of the thaw was the EU’s announcement on 14 November that it planned to resume the security and trade talks it suspended ten weeks ago. It is clear that Saakashvili is no longer Europe’s flavour of the month. European leaders understand that, given Georgia’s disputed territorial borders, mounting evidence that it was the aggressor in the August war with Russia and Ukraine’s deep political fissures, it would be both dangerous and undesirable for either country to be given NATO membership any time soon. Expect the issue of their accession to be shelved when Nato foreign ministers meet in Budapest on 1-2 December.

The election of Barack Obama should have provided Russia with another opportunity to haul itself out of the diplomatic deep freeze. Even the prime minister of Iran managed to write Obama a letter of congratulation. President Medvedev, however, threatened to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad if America moved ahead with its plans to build missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. His excuse – that he ‘absolutely forgot’ about the American elections taking place that day– was deeply disingenuous.

Democrats are traditionally less hawkish than Republicans but Obama’s own experience of Russia will have done little to soften him up. In August 2005, as a junior senator, he was detained for three hours in a small, stuffy room in Perm Airport while local officials attempted – in contravention of international law – to search his plane. There is an old English saying: never be rude to a girl because you never know whom she might end up marrying. Now that the young senator is president, Russia must avoid missile brinkmanship, which will only play into the hands of the hawks in his administration, like Vice-president Joe Biden.

Russia’s relations with the west will also benefit from the shift in attention. The world is sliding into a global recession. In the coming months, international efforts will focus on economic rescue operations such as the coordination of fiscal policies, more funding for the IMF, better banking regulation and unified accounting standards. Last Saturday’s Washington meeting of the G20, not the traditional obsessions of foreign and defence ministries, will set the agenda for 2009, giving Russia a great opportunity to play a constructive role in a common cause.