Russia decries cancelled Boris Johnson visit and warns on further Syria attacks

Moscow says decision to cancel trip shows Britain has no real influence and new aggressions in Syria will be met with force
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street.



Russian officials have launched a scathing attack on the UK before a gathering of G7 foreign ministers on Monday, criticising Boris Johnson’s decision to cancel a trip to Moscow due to increased tensions about Syria.

The foreign secretary faced criticism at home and abroad on Sunday for postponing the visit, prompting his allies to say critics had put “polls and politics above sorting out a civil war”.

In a further escalation of the rhetoric regarding last week’s US missile strikes on Syria, a joint command centre made up of the forces of Russia, Iran and militias supporting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said the attack had crossed “red lines” and it would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.

“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” said the statement published by the group on the media outlet Ilam al Harbi (War Media).

Amid continuing repercussions from last week’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhun and the US strike, the Russian foreign ministry and embassy in London belittled Britain’s role in the crisis.

Johnson’s cancellation showed a “fundamental misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the events in Syria, Russia’s efforts to settle that crisis and the general objectives of diplomacy,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

“The decision to call off Johnson’s visit to Moscow confirms once again doubts in the presence of added value in speaking to the UK, which does not have its own position on the majority of present-day issues, nor does it have real influence on the course of international affairs, as it remains ‘in the shadow’ of its strategic partners. We do not feel that we need dialogue with London any more than it does.”

Russia’s embassy in London, meanwhile, said it was “deplorable” that Johnson felt unable to meet his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. It tweeted mocking polls, including one that sought views on Donald Trump “as a wartime leader and Johnson as his lieutenant”.

The foreign secretary had been due to arrive in Moscow on Monday for talks with Lavrov, but the UK Foreign Office said these had been called off due to “Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime”.

The focus is now on agreeing a united position at an upcoming meeting of foreign ministers from the G7 group of industrialised nations before a trip to Russia by the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, later this week.

Johnson had been due to visit Moscow at the end of March but postponed because it clashed with a meeting of Nato foreign ministers. The second cancellation in the space of a fortnight prompted widespread condemnation from the Russian capital.

Alexey Puhskov, a senator and former leading foreign policy official, said: “The cancellation of Johnson’s visit to Moscow is just proof that London has nothing to say to us except the standard accusations. An empty waste of time.”

Sir John Sawers, formerly the head of MI6 and the UK representative to the United Nations, said it was sensible for Johnson to step back and await Tillerson’s visit to Moscow.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if this meant the UK was the junior partner, Sawers said: “That’s right, and that is the reality. The Russians will listen much more to Tillerson than they will to Boris Johnson because he’s the American secretary of state.”

Sawers said that while he was no fan of Donald Trump, the US response to the gas attack had been “quite measured, proportionate and limited in extent”, and he hoped more experienced hands were taking the lead in Washington.

“We see the sensible grown-ups within the administration taking charge, and the ideological figures around Trump being marginalised, and that’s to be welcomed,” he said.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said it was a mistake for Johnson to cancel the visit. “I think he should be there now, saying to the Russians just how appalling the situation is and the role that they should play,” McDonnell told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “We should be frank with them and we shouldn’t just allow the Americans to go off and do that – we should be doing that ourselves.”

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National party’s foreign affairs spokesman, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Johnson “just looks daft”. “What is the argument for not going ahead with a visit? Rex Tillerson is going on Wednesday, so it can’t be that we have moved to a cold war position of no talking whatsoever,” he said.

“The idea the foreign secretary can’t be trusted because he might pursue his own line, have an independent thought or cross over what the Americans are going to say just makes him look like some sort of mini-me to the United States of America. That’s not a position any foreign secretary would want to be in.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, accused Johnson of being “a poodle of Washington” for stepping back before Tillerson’s visit. A government source said in response: “It’s a shame that some like Farron, Salmond and McDonnell put polls and politics above sorting out a civil war. It’s very sad and shows how desperate they are.”

In the only official government comment on Sunday, the international development secretary, Priti Patel, said the cancellation of the trip did not mean contact with Russia was being cut off. “We are constantly engaging with all our counterparts and there has been dialogue,” she told Andrew Marr.

“The foreign secretary has engaged with his Russian counterpart previously as well. These discussions are continuous, and that is the right approach.”

Announcing his decision to cancel the visit on Saturday, saying Tillerson would present a united front to Moscow, Johnson said “developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally”.

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.

According to a Kremlin summary of the call, the two leaders noted: “The aggressive US actions against a sovereign state, which violate international law, are unacceptable.”

The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, writing in the Sunday Times, argued that Russia was directly complicit in the bloodshed taking place in Syria and must act immediately to help end the war.

Moscow had to “show the resolve necessary to bring this regime to heel”, he said.

“The Russians have influence in the region,” Fallon wrote. “They helped broker the original deal to put chemical weapons out of commission. This latest war crime happened on their watch. In the past few years, they have had every opportunity to pull levers and stop the civil war. By proxy, Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week.”


guardian

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