Great Britain - Russia Relations

Relations between Great Britain and Russia have been marked by centuries of political tension. This dates back to the 19th century, when the British became aware of tsarist Russia's expansion into Central Asia and the subsequent threat facing India and other lands in the British Commonwealth. This situation led to two British invasions of Afghanistan in order to stem what they perceived as a Russian threat to occupy the country and use it as a staging area for an attack on India.

In 1853, the British resisted the effort by Tsar Nicholas I (1796 to 1855) to enhance Russian power and influence over the Black Sea region and the Ottoman Empire. When war broke out in October 1853 between Russia and Turkey, Great Britain and France joined forces with Turkey and together they laid siege to Sevastopol, Russia's naval base in the Crimea. The Russians were forced to accept defeat in September 1855. The Treaty of Paris signed on March 30, 1856, ended the war, but proved to be a serious diplomatic setback for Russia. It guaranteed the integrity of Ottoman Turkey and forced Russia to surrender southern Bessarabia, at the mouth of the Danube.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, saw Russia fight against the formidable coalition of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. Although it failed to settle the Russian-British rivalry, the war did make an impression upon Tsar Nicholas's successor, Alexander II. He recognized the need to overcome Russia's backwardness in order to compete successfully with Britain and the other European powers. In 1907, Russia joined the ‘Triple Entente' with Britain and France. Russia's decision to join was a result of the widened gap between the countries and improved relations with Britain's ally, Japan, rather than a political fondness of Britain and France.

During the Bolshevik Revolutions of 1917, Vladimir Lenin and other communists called on the workers in all countries to overthrow their capitalist oppressors and characterized the war as caused by rivalries between capitalist and imperialist countries like Britain. Lenin withdrew Russia from the war and subsequently signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Soviet support for national liberation movements in the empire, and of anti-British sentiment and activity in the Middle East, created considerable annoyance to Britain, which resulted in continued tensions.

Alarmed that the Germans might transfer troops to the Western Front, the British, French, and Japanese intervened in Russia's Civil War by deploying troops to Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Vladisvostok. In the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet policy toward Britain was marked by a variety of contradictions. Josef Stalin attempted to expand his diplomatic and commercial contacts in an effort to win recognition as a legitimate regime, while also remaining wary of an anti-Soviet capitalist alliance.

With the League of Nations weakened by the withdrawal of Germany and Japan, Adolf Hitler's re-arming of Germany and the world economy crashing in the Great Depression, Stalin began thinking of an alliance with Britain as protection against Germany. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Hitler at Munich in 1938, Stalin decided to make a pact with the Nazis. Hitler later renounced this treaty on June 22, 1941. The end of the treaty signaled the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which in turn led to the creation of the Grand Alliance between Britain, the Soviet Union and United States.

The advent of the Cold War, which developed after World War Two, forced relations between Britain and the Soviet Union into a rapid decline. The Soviet Union's perception of Britain during this time was that of an imperialist power in decline. Despite this opinion, Britain remained an important influence because of its nuclear forces, its leadership of the British Commonwealth and its close ties with the United States. The Soviet Union continued to view Great Britain with disdain and suspicion even after the collapse of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, and the declaration by President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1991 that the U.S.S.R was to be dissolved.

The al Qaeda terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 created closer ties. Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to improve their co-operation on terrorism after holding discussions following the attacks. The new security threats caused by international terrorism underscored the need for greater collaboration between Britain, Russia and all allied states.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Britain's Discovery of Russia, 1553-1815
M. S. Anderson.
Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1958
Peter the Great: Emperor of All Russia
Ian Grey.
J. B. Lippincott, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XIII "Peter in England 1698"
Russia's Foreign Trade and Economic Expansion in the Seventeenth Century: Windows on the World
J. T. Kotilaine.
Brill, 2005
Librarian’s tip: "English Trade with Russia: A Tale of Decline and Recovery" begins on p. 93
British and American Commercial Relations with Soviet Russia, 1918-1924
Christine A. White.
University of North Carolina Press, 1992
Between Churchill and Stalin: The Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Grand Alliance
Steven Merritt Miner.
University of North Carolina Press, 1988
The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union, 1937-1939
Louise Grace Shaw.
Frank Cass, 2003
Operation Pike: Britain Versus the Soviet Union, 1939-1941
Patrick R. Osborn.
Greenwood Press, 2000
The Red and the Blue: Cambridge, Treason, and Intelligence
Andrew Sinclair.
Little, Brown, 1986
Perestroika and International Law: Current Anglo-Soviet Approaches to International Law
Anthony Carty; Gennady Danilenko.
Edinburgh University Press, 1990
Britain and the Last Tsar: British Policy and Russia, 1894-1917
Keith Neilson.
Clarendon Press, 1995
The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion
John Howes Gleason.
Harvard University Press, 1950
The Tobacco Adventure to Russia: Enterprise, Politics, and Diplomacy in the Quest for a Northern Market for English Colonial Tobacco, 1676-1722
Jacob M. Price.
American Philosophical Society, 1961
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