By Manal Ahmed | Political Editor
On 9 February, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow and intended to discuss pathways to a peaceful solution between Russia and Ukraine after UK officials stated there had been no indication that President Vladimir Putin intended to begin military de-escalation.
Prior to her arrival in Russia, the visit by Truss was expected to provide a path for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government to reorganise themselves as a leading diplomatic entity in the crisis in Ukraine that has reignited in recent months.
By assuring MPs before departing that the government intended to target Putin’s closest allies and “anyone providing strategic support” to him through the introduction of new legislation that would be in place by 10 February, the Foreign Secretary displayed a resolve to get the UK government back on track and warned Lavrov that they were to be taken seriously. The legislation was expected to widen the net of individuals and businesses subject to economic sanctions and tackle money laundering by Russian oligarchs. However, no laws had been put to parliament during her trip, with opposition MPs believing that government lawyers were struggling to frame and detail the proposals.
It seems that the first visit to the country by a UK Foreign Secretary in more than four years was not viewed as successful by both the British and Russian press. During their meeting on Thursday, the Russian foreign minister appeared to dismiss Truss as “unprepared” after she stated that the UK would refuse to recognise Russia’s sovereignty of Rostov and Voronezh – regions in Russia which closely border Ukraine, and where Russia has stationed forces – when tested on her geographical knowledge of the region by Lavrov. An ambassador corrected the British foreign secretary in front of Lavrov.
This exchange was leaked to a few Russian journalists and displayed a continuation of the frosty relations between the two countries. That Friday, the Kremlin stated that the gaffe was an example of poorly informed Western leaders interfering in an affair they do not understand.
This tense display continued later on in a press conference where the Russian foreign minister stated that, “The conversation turns out to be between the dumb and the deaf… We seem to listen, but we do not hear.” Truss appeared to counter the insult by stating, “I certainly wasn’t mute in our discussions.” The conference ended with Lavrov walking off, leaving Truss there.
The Independent stated that Truss’s “failure to make a breakthrough” meant that there was heightened pressure upon the defence secretary Ben Wallace’s trip to the country that immediately followed hers.
The recent visits by various cabinet members has come in the wake of the political fallout over Downing Street’s lockdown parties, as Johnson attempts to reframe his role in the Ukraine crisis. These efforts were dealt multiple blows such as when he was forced to cancel a scheduled call with Putin in order to answer MPs questions in the House of Common after the release of the Gray report, and was told by the Kremlin that it would not be possible to reschedule when No 10 tried to rearrange.
The release of the report led to widespread mockery and criticism of the Prime Minister’s leadership by the international press. In France and Germany, Le Figaro and Bild described the conclusions of the report as “stark” and criticised Johnson’s “faint sorry” respectively. The Russian channel, NTV, described him as the “most disliked, disrespected and ridiculed” individual in the UK, going on to suggest that he was “completely under the control and heel of his young wife”.
In addition to this, earlier this month US press secretary Jen Psaki laughed when asked whether President Biden had been “ambushed by cake” – a reference to an excuse given by Conservative MP Conor Burns in regards to Johnson’s birthday gathering – but maintained that while she had not discussed whether Johnson’s domestic turmoil would affect his ability to tackle Russian aggression with the President, Biden still held the view that Johnson was a capable ally.
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