Boris Johnson has hailed British exports of crisps and cars to Russia as signs of improving relations between the two countries as the Foreign Secretary admitted: “Things are not easy between us.”
Johnson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday amid tensions over Russia’s “destabilising” cyber activity against the West.
Before the visit, Johnson told reporters that Britain disapproved of many things that Russia had done, and singled out its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as well as its cyber activities.
After the pair awkwardly shook hands, Lavrov told him: “It’s no secret relations are not good. You prefer to talk about our differences publicly, we prefer to do it face to face.”
Speaking with the aid of an interpreter, the British Foreign Secretary responded:
“I know in spite of the difficulties we have between us, as you rightly say Sergei, there are signs of economic progress.
“I’m delighted to say there are increasing exports of British Kettle Crisps (sic) to Russia, and in spite of all the difficulties 300 Bentleys were sold this year in Russia – not, I believe, necessarily to employees of the foreign ministry.
“But nonetheless a sign of progress. Things are difficult but we want to work together with you on some issues and work to achieve a better future.”
Lavrov told Johnson at the start of the talks that British-Russian relations were at a really low point, and “not due to our actions”.
“You and other Western colleagues have your views on why this situation exists and prefer to set out these reasons publicly. We wanted to discuss our mutual concerns directly,” said Lavrov.
But Johnson said that the UK is “able and prepared” to launch retaliatory attacks on Russia.
“As you would expect, the UK has its own (cyber) capabilities, and we are ready of course to defend our interests,” he said.
He 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 rather than risk dangerous misunderstandings.
Johnson says he wants to discuss working with Moscow to preserve the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers 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.
Johnson riled Russian officials before his visit by saying Moscow was “closed, nasty, militaristic and anti-democratic” in an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said before the visit that Zakharova said Russian officials had not taken offence, but merely laughed because the comments had been made by Johnson.