ANYONE who has listened to Billy Kay’s excellent series about the Scots in Russia will be astonished by the impact that Scots have had on that vast country.

From the time of Peter the Great to the present, Scots have made their mark on Europe’s biggest country from building the Spasskaya Tower that dominates Red Square to the work of Burns that is a mainstay of the Russian education system. We even share a patron saint and the Russian Navy flies an inverse saltire as its ensign.

Maybe it is the fact that we sit on Europe’s periphery and our capitals sit on a similar latitude. However, it is clear that we have a lot of connections and that Scots can continue to be a bridge between the EU and almost equally inter-ethnic Russian Federation (where I once listened to Burns in the little known Ossetian language).

I was reminded of that when I visited the country with the Foreign Affairs Committee as part of our ongoing Inquiry into the, poor, state of UK Russian relations.

As much as some of us may like to think of something of a special relationship between Scotland and Russia, that is largely cultural with economic ties less significant than those of other nations. For all Scotland may be a reasonably normal size European country similar to Denmark and Finland, Russia is not. It is an energy superpower with a multi-ethnic population of 140 million from the border of Poland in the west to Japan in the east.

It is also a country that, rightly or wrongly, continues to wield huge influence on nearby states as its nervous Baltic or conflict riddled Caucasian neighbours will testify. Even those now well within the EU’s borders that no longer share a land border with the Russian Federation continue to rely on its vast gas reserves. Russia has an impact on the domestic politics and recent histories of a number of European states that it is hard for us in western Europe to fully comprehend. As always the recent Eurovision song contest provided some insights into modern politics when a Ukrainian song about the deportation of the Tatars from the Crimea in 1944 won that competition much to the chagrin of third placed Russia.

As such it is very difficult to see Russia through the prism of a normal bilateral relationship in Europe. No EU Member State, be it France, the UK or Germany, can reliably deal with Russia on purely bilateral terms. If the EU Foreign and Security Policy is built for anything it is in dealing with the EU’s largest neighbour.

During my most recent time in Russia I was reminded of just how important a common EU Foreign policy is. NATO has a role to play in terms of security, however our relationship with Russia is about more than that. When the EU considers its long term energy strategy, its approach to Syria or the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Georgia or Nagorno-Karabakh among others it is critical that it is able to deal with Russia on its own terms. The EU may at present have a very weak common foreign policy platform however working together is the best way to deal with Russia. The UK acting alone would be seen as an after-thought by Russia.

A peaceful Europe also matters to Russia. One of the few breaks from meeting with politicians, embassies, civic society and others was in St Petersburg. We were taken to the Piskariovskoye memorial where 500,000 of the million citizens (one in three) who died during the siege of Leningrad are laid to rest. That is within living memory and provides a useful reminder of the cost that European disunity has had on Russia in the past.

The European Union’s relationship with the Russian Federation is in a difficult place right now. From the conflict in Ukraine, the shooting down of Malysian Airlines flight 17 costing 298 innocent civilians and difficulties in Syria and elsewhere it is easy to see why. There are also legitimate concerns among European democracies around Russian respect for the Rule of Law. Meetings with groups advocating the rights for soldiers, LGBT groups and others reminded us of the rights we take for granted but many Russians struggle to have recognised in what some see as an increasingly authoritarian government.

Nonetheless what happens in the Russian Federation matters to us all and it is clear is that without a common approach to Russia by our European partners we will achieve very little in our relationship. On June 23 we will decide whether or not to remain part of the EU. I hope we remain part of the EU and it leads to a refreshing of the UK and Scotland’s place in that partnership of Independent Member States.

Working towards a more coherent and strategic approach to the EU’s biggest neighbour will be an important part of the EU’s work in the coming years. Maybe that could be an initial area for some focus by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after the referendum.

Stephen Gethins is the MP for Fife North East and the SNP Member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.