British foreign minister Boris Johnson will tell his Russian counterpart on Friday that there can be no “business as usual” until Moscow stops “destabilising” Europe and that Britain is ready to retaliate against any cyber attacks. Johnson is due to hold talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during what is the first visit to Russia by a British foreign minister in five years. He is also expected to meet Kremlin critics, students, and gay rights activists.
Johnson’s visit comes at a time when relations between London and Moscow are strained by differences over Ukraine and Syria as well as by allegations, which Russia flatly denies, of it meddling in the politics of various European countries and of backing cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns. “Our relations with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’ whilst Russia continues to attempt to destabilise European states, including Ukraine,” Johnson said in a statement released by his office before the talks.
While travelling to Moscow on Thursday, Johnson told reporters that Britain disapproved of many things that Russia had done. He singled out its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, what he called Moscow’s destabilising of the western Balkans, and its cyber activities. “As you would expect the UK has its own (cyber) capabilities and we are ready of course to defend our interests,” he said.
But Johnson also stressed his desire for London and Moscow to cooperate where they have common interests, saying it was vital for international security that the two countries talk to each other because not doing so risked potentially dangerous misunderstandings. Johnson says he wants to discuss working with Moscow to preserve the Iran nuclear deal and the threat posed by North Korea, as well as security arrangements for next year’s soccer World Cup which will be held in Russia.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday that the decision to scale back British-Russian dialogue had been London’s however, and had been groundless and untimely. Johnson riled Russian officials before his visit by likening Russia to the ancient Greek city state of Sparta in an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, saying Moscow was “closed, nasty, militaristic and anti-democratic – like Sparta.”
Zakharova has previously called Johnson unprofessional, organised an online cartoon competition that mocked him, and strongly disputed his assertions about Syria. When asked before his trip what she made of Johnson’s statements criticising Moscow, Zakharova said they had caused only laughter in Russia and were not worth getting upset about because they had come from Boris Johnson.