May 11, 2020 - 4:35pm

Russia’s Victory Day — the day after VE Day — could have presented the UK Prime Minister with a dilemma. Vladimir Putin was planning a huge Red Square parade and had hoped for a full-court turn-out of foreign leaders to banish memories of the Western boycott five years earlier in protest at Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

President Macron was expected to attend as the self-appointed leader of efforts to open a new European dialogue with Russia. Donald Trump might have been there. But what was Boris Johnson to do, with the shadow of the Salisbury poisoning still hanging over UK-Russia relations, but “global Britain” the watchword for foreign policy post-Brexit? In the end, both Trump and Johnson were spared any decision. Coronavirus put paid not only to foreign travel, but to Moscow’s parade, too.

An exchange of appropriate messages was the easy option, and that is indeed what happened. President Putin sent congratulations to the Prime Minister for VE Day, and Boris Johnson reciprocated for Russia’s Victory Day.

This is not all that happened, however. The two messages seemed unusually respectful, and the two leaders also spoke by phone in a call reported positively in the Russian media. According to the Tass news agency:

Both sides expressed readiness to boost dialogue and cooperation… It was acknowledged that the fighting alliance of those times reminds [us] of the importance of consolidating efforts to counter modern challenges and efforts, one of which is the Coronavirus pandemic.
- Tass News Agency

Johnson also invited Russia to take part in the Global Vaccine Summit to be hosted by the UK in June. This drew some waspish comments online, where Russia’s prowess with chemical formulae in more nefarious contexts was duly noted.

That something could be changing, however, could also be detected from what seemed an unusually warm and personal message from Putin to Johnson when he was in hospital, where he referred to the Prime Minister’s “energy, optimism and sense of humour”. And if something is changing, could this be the start of a serious attempt at a UK-Russia rapprochement?

Caution, of course, is in order. There have been such attempts before, and they all came to grief; the death of Alexander Litvinenko, Crimea, the Skripals… Johnson’s few encounters with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, when he was foreign secretary were conspicuously frosty; ditto early encounters between Johnson and Putin.

There are reasons, though, why it could be time for the UK to extend an olive branch — or respond to one from the Kremlin. It is not just that the post-Brexit UK will need all the friends it can get, or at least need to minimise the number of adversaries. Nor is it just that the UK could be looking to import more energy as the North Sea produces less. More probably, it is that the UK had set much store by increasing trade with China, and the Coronavirus pandemic puts a considerable damper on that.

Few would dispute that the pandemic is likely to cast western, and the UK’s, relations with China in a different light. The UK will not be alone in deciding that it should not be so dependent on China for the supply of certain goods — PPE, of course, comes to mind. The decision to proceed with Huawei as a partner for the UK’s 5G capability was already being challenged from the Conservative backbenches and could also be revisited. Chinese trade no longer looks like a growth area.

Despite the friction of recent years, UK-Russia trade relations have proceeded normally, and energy was kept out of the post-Crimea sanctions. The quarrels were in politics and security, which could be improved with the softening of hostile language and some dropping of old grievances, as well as moves to include, rather than exclude, Russia from international initiatives (the vaccine summit here could represent a start).

Russia has in recent years not been averse to playing its “China card” to demonstrate to the West that it has foreign policy alternatives — including alternatives the West would not like, such as defence cooperation with China. Could it be that the UK is exploring alternatives to closer ties with China, or at least looking for a new balance in its relations between Russia and China? Under the convenient cover of the Coronavirus, has London, perhaps, found its own long-lost “Russia card”?

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.