Boris Johnson clashes with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow over attacks on Putin regime

Spat comes after Foreign Secretary criticised 'hostile' Russia over the war in the Ukraine and its cyber attacks on the West

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 22 December 2017 09:32 GMT
Boris Johnson and Russian foreign minister talk about frosty UK-Russia relationship

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Boris Johnson has clashed publicly with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, who criticised the Foreign Secretary for his outspoken attacks on Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Describing relations between the UK and Russia as “at a low point” Sergei Lavrov said their differences should be aired privately, not to the media.

“You prefer to talk about these reasons publicly, whereas we would prefer to talk about our mutual concerns not before a mic and at a tribune, but directly,” Mr Lavrov told Mr Johnson.

Later, Mr Lavrov said he did “trust” Mr Johnson, but he insisted: “Honestly I cannot remember any actions of Russia that would have been aggressive towards the UK.

“We hear some aggressive statements from London. Despite all that, we have never taken any aggressive measures to reciprocate.”

The unusual diplomatic spat came after the Foreign Secretary – before arriving in Moscow – criticised Russia over the war in the Ukraine, its alleged cyber attacks on the West, Syria and the annexation of Crimea.

He warned that Britain is “prepared and able” to launch retaliatory cyber attacks, if hackers continued to target Western power stations and communication networks, subvert elections and spread fake news.

Mr Johnson – the first UK foreign secretary to visit Russia for five years – has accused Moscow of behaving in a “more hostile way” towards British interests than at any time since the Cold War.

The visit also comes just one day after it emerged an alleged Russian spy had met Theresa May in Downing Street in July.

Facing Mr Johnson across a conference table at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Guest House in Moscow, Mr Lavrov said: “It is no secret that right now our relations are at a low point.”

Mr Johnson told the Russian foreign minister: “As you rightly say, Sergei, things are not easy between us at the moment.

“Whatever the difficulties in our relationship – whether over Ukraine, over the western Balkans or what is going on in cyberspace – I agree with you that it’s important to talk about these things and to be frank about them and accept that they are obstructions in our relationship at the moment.”

However, the Foreign Secretary insisted the two countries should not be “defined by these problems”, insisting they had “substantial interests in common”.

He pointed to “Iran and the need to continue with the Iranian nuclear deal, the imperative to stop North Korea acquiring a nuclear weapon and the need to progress the future for the people of Syria”.

Later, Mr Johnson added: “We cannot ignore those difficulties. We cannot pretend they do not exist.”

And, welcoming increased trade and cultural links between the UK and Russia, Mr Johnson said: “I’m delighted to say that there are increasing exports of British kettle crisps to Russia and 300 Bentleys have been sold this year in Russia – not, I believe necessarily to employees of the Foreign Ministry but nonetheless a sign of progress.”

Mr Johnson’s jibe at the possibility of imported luxury cars being snapped up by Russian state officials prompted a silent laugh from Mr Lavrov.

This week, Mr Johnson described Russia as “closed, nasty, militaristic and anti-democratic” and said it could not be “business as usual”.

But he is seeking improved co-operation on issues of global security, including preserving the Iranian nuclear deal and countering the threat to stability from North Korea.

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