Russia dubs Gavin Williamson 'minister for war' in latest controversy surrounding gaffe-prone defence secretary

Kremlin hits out at Mr Williamson's bellicose language - hours after his 'gunboat diplomacy' forces the chancellor to abort a trade trip to China

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 16 February 2019 15:04
UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson on Novichok and 'an increasingly aggressive Russia'

Russia has dubbed Gavin Williamson the “minister for war” in the latest controversy surrounding the gaffe-prone defence secretary.

Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s foreign minister, hit out at Mr Williamson after he accused the Kremlin of using mercenaries to “get away with murder while denying the blood on their hands” and of “trying to goad the west into a new arms race”.

The defence secretary is also under fire after the chancellor aborted a trade trip to China, amid the fury sparked by his plan to send a British aircraft carrier to Beijing’s backyard.

Addressing an international conference, Mr Lavrov took sarcastic aim at Williamson when asked about the security situation in the Arctic.

“We want to understand what kind of mandate NATO is going to have in the Arctic," he said.

“If you listen to some people like the minister of war - oh, sorry the minister of defence - of the United Kingdom then you might get an impression that nobody except NATO have the right to be anywhere,” he added to laughter.

It was not the first time Mr Lavrov and Mr Williamson have clashed verbally. Last year, after the defence secretary told Vladimir Putin to “go away and shut up”, he said: “Maybe he lacks education.”

On Friday, Mr Williamson – dubbed “Private Pike” by critics at Westminster – struck a bellicose tone by accusing Russia of “illegal activity” on land and at sea.

“We’ve seen Russian recklessness and disregard for life on the streets of Britain,” he told the Munich security conference, an annual gathering of global foreign and defence officials.

“The Kremlin is also taking the fight into the ‘grey zone’. Operating without rules using espionage, military, political, cyber, economic and even criminal tools to undermine its competitors.

“Their clandestine use of proxies – mercenary armies – like the infamous and unaccountable Wagner group, allows the Kremlin to get away with murder while denying the blood on their hands.”

Three days earlier, he said: “Russia is resurgent – rebuilding its military arsenal to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union like Georgia and Ukraine back into its orbit.”

It was revealed on Saturday that Philip Hammond will not make his expected to trip to China next week – which had been seen as a vital part of efforts to build the UK’s global trading links ahead of Brexit.

The apparent pull-out followed Mr Williamson’s “gunboat diplomacy”, by announcing HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent to the Pacific and that Britain was prepared to use “lethal” force to deter countries that “flout international law”.

The speech was widely seen as a threat to China over its expansion in the South China Sea and triggered a protest by the Chinese ambassador to the foreign office.

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