Sunday, 5 March 2017

Boris Johnson Is Set To Become First Foreign Secretary To Visit Russia In 5 years

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson is to become the first foreign secretary to visit Russia in half a decade to pressure the Kremlin into abandoning its involvement in Syria and Ukraine.

In a significant foreign policy shift, Mr Johnson will fly out to meet his counterpart Sergey Lavrov for talks in Moscow within weeks.

It comes just months after Mr Johnson accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria and called on protesters to demonstrate outside its London embassy.

The Foreign Office has insisted the trip does not represent a “return to business as usual” and that Mr Johnson will be “robust” in defending existing British policy.

Sources close to Mr Johnson insisted that he wants to “look the Russians in the eye” over their controversial policies, arguing that face-to-face meetings offer the best hope of securing changes.

However the trip will inevitably lead to questions about whether Mr Trump’s more pro-Russia tone compared to predecessors has influenced the change in approach.

Not since William Hague visited Russia in May 2012 has a foreign secretary gone to country for official talks.

In the intervening five years Russia been accused by UK ministers of murdering a critic on British soil - Alexander Litvinenko - and escalating the Syrian civil war.

They have also faced international sanctions over the illegal annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine, as well as accusations of intervening in the US election through cyber attacks.

Mr Johnson has been at the forefront of such criticism since become Foreign Secretary last July.

He accused the Russians of committing a “war crime” in Syria, where the country helped prop up President Bashar al-Assad, and called for protects at the country’s embassy.

Mr Johnson also mocked his counterpart Mr Lavrov at the Tory Party conference last year, revealing he asked for a “show of hands” for who was “in favour of democracy” during a meeting between the pair at the UN general assembly.

However on Saturday morning the Foreign Office announced that Mr Johnson had accepted an invitation from Mr Lavrov to visit Russia in the coming weeks.

“The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made clear that our policy towards Russia is to ‘engage but beware’ and the visit is entirely consistent with this approach,” a spokesman for the department said.

“Discussions will focus on the UK-Russia relationship and current international issues including Syria and Ukraine, where we continue to have significant differences.

“This is not a return to business as usual and the Foreign Secretary will continue to be robust on those issues where we differ.

“We have always been clear that the UK will engage with Russia where it is in our national interest to do so.”

A source close to Mr Johnson suggested that Mr Johnson’s “hawkish” stance on Russia had given him political space to make the trip.

“Nixon was able to go to China and Russia because he was such a staunch anti-Communist in the 1950s and 1960s.

Boris has similarly has got such a strong record on the Russians that he can’t be criticised for being soft,” the source said.

Mr Johnson is expected to demand that Russia ends its military involved in Syria and Ukraine as well as its cyber-attacks disrupting elections in Western countries. Sanctions on Russia will also remain in place.

“We are not going there to make friends. We may make more enemies, but we want to meet them face to face. This is guarded diplomacy,” a source said.

Mr Trump is facing a firestorm in America over his team’s links to Russia and his more pro-Putin stance voiced during the election campaign.

The US President has said he is willing to engage with the Russian President, though in recent weeks has hardened his stance on Nato, which he once called “obsolete”.

Theresa May announced her new “engage but beware” mantra over Russia during a trip to America last month when she warned Mr Trump over Mr Putin.

Sources have denied Mr Johnson’s trip to Russia was a direct result of Mr Trump’s views on the country.



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