Putin’s invitation is an early test for post-Brexit Britain
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Just months into his premiership, Britain’s Boris Johnson has been thrown a diplomatic curveball. Should he accept Vladimir Putin’s invitation to a Moscow parade marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war? The optics risk being terrible. Barely two years have passed since Russian military intelligence operatives poisoned an ex-spy in Salisbury using a weapons-grade nerve agent. Relations are still fraught, with Moscow refusing to hand over those accused of carrying out the attack.
Yet concerns not to be co-opted into a Kremlin photo opportunity must be weighed against the need for a UK, which departs the EU this week, to show it is still a global player.
UK diplomats need to clarify several questions — first, on the nature of the May parade. If it is a show of military muscle-flexing, with rows of Mr Putin’s beloved nuclear missiles trundling on their carriers across Red Square, Mr Johnson should take a pass. A genuine festival of commemoration that features surviving veterans might be a different matter. Mr Putin hosted relatively dignified displays on the 70th anniversary, when China’s Xi Jinping was guest of honour, and in 2005 when US president George W Bush, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and France’s Jacques Chirac attended in what today looks like a different era.
The second is the broader context of the event. Mr Putin in Jerusalem last week proposed a summit of leaders of Russia, China, the US, France and UK — the permanent five members of the UN Security Council — to discuss “current challenges and threats”. Some diplomats speculate Russia’s president may seek to combine that with the May parade. The rancour over the Salisbury poisoning might then have to be put aside in favour of a chance to show post-Brexit Britain still holds, and merits, a place at the global top table. France’s Emmanuel Macron, never one to shun the spotlight, has already accepted his invitation to Moscow.
Some other capitals — especially Kyiv — may question whether other P5 members should allow Russia to host such a summit when it remains sanctioned over its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in east Ukraine. Yet the idea of a 75th-anniversary summit of the countries that, as Mr Putin noted, did most to form the postwar world order has some merit. While any full-scale reset with Russia is surely impossible without resolving the Ukraine issue, restoring limited engagement on issues such as security and nuclear arms is desirable.
For the UK, the decision on whether to go to Moscow forms a small part of a much larger challenge: to begin shaping an independent foreign policy. One task — already the subject of a review — is to establish how post-Brexit Britain sees its global role, how and where it can play it, and how it aligns with its fundamental national interests.
Another is to balance the freedom to take independent initiatives with the loss of influence that leaving the EU entails. For years, the UK’s stance on crucial issues has been shaped in weekly meetings of European envoys in Brussels. It could use those meetings to win partners to its position, then leverage their collective clout. Now London must make hard choices on its own and painstakingly build alliances, from outside the EU club, to support them.
The immediate tests for UK diplomacy will be whether it can corral governments into agreeing stronger carbon emissions targets in November’s COP26 talks in Glasgow, even as it tries to seal an EU trade deal a month later. By the year-end, these — not whether Mr Johnson stands beside Mr Putin in May — will be how Britain’s ability to play on the global stage will be judged.
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