David Miliband is in Russia, the first visit there by a British foreign minister since 2004, though Lord Mandelson was there last year, and did relatively well at cleaning up the mess that the FCO had made of Anglo-Russian relations.
I wonder if this trip, rather than having anything to do with serving our national interest, is actually aimed at furthering Miliband’s ambitions to become the new EU foreign secretary (a New Labour minister using office to further their own private interests? Shurely not!)
One of the key – if not the key – jobs of the new EU foreign minister will be managing relations with Russia. This will be a very difficult role, with the EU’s need for Russian gas and a friendly relationship with its largest neighbour needing to be balanced against New Europe’s desire for a strong, assertive stance against Russian authoritarianism and in support of NATO eastward expansion.
So far, the British political elite, with the exception of Mandelson, has shown itself incapable of nuance in their approach to Russia. During the Russo-Georgian War, for example, Miliband penned an article for The Times which was incredibly one-sided, putting all the blame for the situation squarely on Russia’s shoulders, and casting Saakashvili’s Georgia as the poor democratic victim in the war.
It was a bizarrely undiplomatic letter from a foreign secretary, and very much suggested Miliband was, again, serving his own interests (this was during his failed leadership bid in the summer of 2008) rather than the interests of his country.
In the last few weeks, the EU has released its report into the war, deciding that, actually, Georgia started it, and that the war was as much about Georgian nationalist aggression against the Ossetians as it was about Russian meddling in Georgia. That’s not to say that the Russian government was in any way innocent – it is in many ways an odious regime – but it shows that Miliband’s article was the sort of one-sided naive polemic one would expect from, say, a New Statesman columnist rather than the serving foreign secretary.
A month later, Miliband again showed his diplomatic nous by getting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov into such a rage that, during a phone conversation, Lavrov apparently descended into a ‘four letter tirade’ against our young secretary of state, saying ‘who the fuck are you to lecture me’, and questioning what exactly Miliband knew of Russian history. Bad enough – but then Miliband released the story of Lavrov’s tirade to the press!
It was like getting into a fight, and then running to mummy to say that so-and-so had called you names. Again, Miliband seemed to be trying to improve his own domestic image, as the incredibly courageous defender of human rights in distant lands, rather than genuinely serving his own country’s interests.
For Miliband, as with much of the British political elite, it is simply too easy and too tempting to score domestic political points by railing against Russian authoritarianism. It costs them nothing. It makes them feel brave. And it helps them forget how the British government approved the torture of British citizens.
And now, after all this grand-standing, all this name-calling, and after absolutely no change in Russian foreign policy, Miliband is off to Moscow, simpering all the way about ‘common ground’ and ‘the need for mutual respect’.
This, it seems to me, is an attempt by Miliband to show the Germans that he could be an effective EU negotiator with the Russians. But to me, it shows once again why he is simply unfit to manage anyone’s foreign relations, ours, theirs, anyone’s.