FCO's Russian expertise has "disintegrated", MPs warn

Foreign Affairs Committee says UK should stick to its guns on Russia sanctions – but warns that decline in expertise at the FCO "must be reversed"

By Civil Service World

02 Mar 2017

The Foreign Office's Russian expertise has "disintegrated" since the end of the Cold War and must be rebuilt if the UK is to properly understand the country, a cross-party group of MPs has warned.

In a new report, the Foreign Affairs Committee said Britain "must accept a share of responsibility for the current state of relations" between the West and Russia under its president Vladimir Putin, who they describe as taking an "opportunist, tactical approach to foreign policy".

But while the committee says the UK is right not to "accept or recognise the illegal Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea" and back the continuation of sanctions on the country amid speculation that the new US administration could be readying a shift, they urge the FCO to clarify what it is seeking to achieve through its bilateral negotiations with Russia, and call for "meaningful and regular dialogue" between the two states to try and find points of agreement.

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The MPs took evidence from a number of foreign policy experts during their inquiry, with Dr Andrew Monaghan, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, saying Russia had "not been a priority" for the FCO in the past 25 years, meaning resources dedicated to understanding the country had been "wound down".

"There are still some resources and they are generally focused on civil society and democracy, because that is where the funding has been," he told the committee.

"There are very few people who are expert on the Russian economy, even fewer who are expert on the Russian military and fewer still—we can count on one hand—who are real experts on the Russian security system.~"

The UK's former ambassador to Russia, Sir Roderic Lyne – who was in post from 2000 to 2004 – meanwhile warned that Western "analytical capacity and coherence has declined and needs to be rebuilt" if Britain wants to improve its understanding of Russian actions.

"This is not the Cold War, for many reasons," he said. "But we need to define the problem. We need a better common understanding of the Russian adversary—of Russia’s motives, aims, capabilities and points of vulnerability."

In light of this evidence, the committee calls on the FCO – which had its budget protected in real-terms at the 2015 Spending Review – to "once again invest in the analytical capacity to understand Russian decision-making in order to develop effective and informed foreign policy".

"This should involve engaging with think-tanks and universities that study Russia, recruiting and training FCO Russia specialists and developing Russian language skills in the FCO," the MPs add.

"The FCO must set out detailed plans on how it will develop its internal capacity and harness external expertise, and how that will feed into policymaking."

Elsewhere, the committee says the Foreign Office should try and use next year's World Cup in Russia to repair relations with the country, and call on the department to boost it staff posted in Russia "to meet the likely surge in demand for consular services".

Launching the report, Conservative committee chairman Crispin Blunt said the UK was "not Russia's enemy".

"In the long term, Russia’s focus on its western borders may be misplaced," he said. "In reality, the China-Russia relationship may be the critical international relationship to watch in the next 50 years."

Blunt added: "The FCO’s Russia expertise has disintegrated since the end of the Cold War. This must be reversed. The committee recommends increased FCO resources to enhance the UK’s analytical and policymaking capacity, and the appointment of an FCO minister with more specific responsibility for Russia.

"We encourage the FCO to develop a long-term, people-to-people strategy to build bridges with the next generation of Russian political and economic leaders."

An FCO spokesperson said that although the UK had "significant differences" with Russia on areas including Ukraine and intervention in Syria, it sought to engage where possible.

"Our objectives are clear. We protect UK and our allies' interests, uphold the rules-based international order and global security, promote our values, including human rights, and build stronger links between the British and Russian people," the spokesperson added.

"We have increased resources on Russia across government, both in London and overseas, to deliver this policy."

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