Opinion: UK’s stance on Russia: people who live in glass houses…

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”

This scenario comes to us from Tolstoy’s 1886 essay What Then Must We Do? Applying it to today’s geopolitics, we can ask the following: if Georgia is the carrying man, who is on its back? Russia? Or the West?

Last month many of us were glued to the news channels – the Western media portraying Russia as the aggressor, ­making unlawful incursions into Georgia and bullying its weaker neighbour.

However, any lawyer will acknowledge that an argument has two sides. Speaking to colleagues and others in Moscow and St Petersburg indicates to me that the Russian media had a different take, with Russia as the peacemaker, entering South Ossetia on humanitarian grounds and evincing bafflement at the West’s aggressive stance.

There has been ongoing tension between Russia and the West at ­government level for some time. In the UK we are all aware of Alexander Litvinenko and polonium poisoning, as well as UK diplomats being expelled from Russia.

But there has also been a number of Russian anxieties: UK political asylum for Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel ­leaders (and others); surveillance devices hidden in rocks in a public park in the heart of Moscow; and the US build-up of missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. There are also concerns about the continuing apparent lack of dialogue at government levels and questions as to whether a new Cold War has started.

However, against this background there have on the whole been continued good business relations – with a few high-level but public exceptions, such as BP-TNK and Shell Sakhalin. This dichotomy has been continuing, with the governments on both sides seeking to avoid commercial damage.

Most Western companies that have been in Russia in the past five years, whether oil and gas companies or ­financial ­institutions, have benefited significantly from their Russian presences. And the same is true of law firms. Indeed, legal services are seen in Russia as some of the most desirable imports from the UK. For City firms, in the current Western credit crunch even greater focus is being directed onto Russia for new work and profits.

We should also remember that Russia is a rapidly changing society. Sebastian Faulks, in his new James Bond novel Devil May Care, has Bond in Russia for the first time, where, in a rare moment of ­reflection, Bond, the archetypal Cold War protagonist, sees Russia as “less alien and somehow more normal than he had ­pictured it”.

This is certainly true of urban Russia today, with the growing availability and adoption of many aspects of Western lifestyles and trappings. To everyone’s ­surprise, Russia has become one of the largest consumer markets in Europe.

While the South Ossetia crisis might make some who are planning to go into Russia for the first time think again, those already doing business in Russia are ­continuing to do so.

There may be other incidents over the coming months and years that will test Western business resolve. Hopefully cool heads will prevail and the financial and commercial interests of both sides will ultimately result in acceptable compromises and mutual accommodation in both politics and business.

If the worst happens UK law firms will need to reconsider how they man their Russian offices and start helping clients on strategic restructuring of their Russian interests. But the worst seems unlikely to happen in the near future.

In the meantime clients will place even greater value on the experienced advice and seasoned guidance that UK law firms with well-established Russian practices can offer.