The Institute for Government said the Foreign Office’s focus on Russia had ‘softened’ since the Cold War.
Liz Truss’s Foreign Office (FCDO) needs to step up work on Russia, improve staff morale and has “not yet fully found its feet” after taking responsibility for international aid, the Institute for Government (IfG) said.
The think tank’s report, drawn up with input from current and former officials and foreign policy experts, said the FCDO was “already reeling” from Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the time of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ms Truss, who became Foreign Secretary in September 2021, insisted “we have led the world in standing up to Russia”.
The IfG said the Eastern Europe and Central Asia unit, covering Russia, was “consistently among the worst resourced” geographical units between 2016 and 2022.
The Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy, which set out Boris Johnson’s “global Britain” vision, focused on a tilt to the Indo-Pacific region and away from Europe after Brexit.
Around 460 full-time equivalent staff work in the three units dedicated to the Indo-Pacific, while around 160 were in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia team, the IfG said.
The number of UK-based staff working from the embassy in Moscow has also been slowly reduced, from 30 in 2016/17 to somewhere in the 20s in 2020/21, while “other elements of the Foreign Office’s Russian expertise have continued to be downgraded”, including language skills.
The IfG said: “The Integrated Review identified Russia several times as ‘the most acute threat to our security’ while highlighting the work that the UK was doing during 2021 with the Ukrainian armed forces, work that has continued and ramped up during the war.
“But the Integrated Review’s self-proclaimed foreign policy ’tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific region was notable.
“This continued a long-term trend; as the Cold War faded into memory and other threats to the UK became dominant, the Foreign Office’s focus on Russia softened.
“With current events in Ukraine, this is not sustainable.”
But Ms Truss told reporters in Leeds: “We have led the world in standing up to Russia. We were the first country to send weapons to Ukraine in Europe, we put the toughest sanctions on Russia of any country, and we’re also making sure that nobody is allowing Ukraine’s sovereign territory to be given up, and we’ve worked with our allies to achieve that.
“I’m proud of our record, but we need to do more, and one of the key areas in bringing down the cost of living is dealing with Russia – making sure they can’t hold the world to ransom over their gas supplies – and I will be tough in standing up to Putin.”
Many of the problems identified in the IfG’s report pre-date Ms Truss’s time in office, with the role of foreign secretary also filled by Mr Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab in the last five years.
Mr Raab was in charge during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, an event which “revealed serious failings” in the “political and official leadership” of the Foreign Office, the report said.
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said: “The Conservatives have decimated Britain’s global influence by failing on both the strategy and implementation of foreign policy.
“This damning report backs up what Labour has been arguing for months: the Government’s Integrated Review wrongly de-emphasised European security in a way that is ‘not sustainable’.
“Meanwhile morale among civil servants has crashed and the reduction in the number of postings abroad has badly hampered Britain’s influence.
“In government, Labour will negotiate a new UK-EU security pact to make all of us more safe, restore the 0.7% aid target, and reboot Britain’s diplomacy to re-establish our standing as a trusted partner on the world stage.”