Correspondent Rachel Younger, in Moscow, reports on the icy atmosphere after talks between UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and her Russian counterpart
Despite a week of frenzied diplomatic activity, there has been scant progress on finding a solution to the crisis surrounding Ukraine.
On Thursday, it was the UK Foreign Secretary’s turn to try to deliver a breakthrough.
It didn’t go well. Liz Truss met her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at the Reception House used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the heart of Moscow.
Iced with fresh snow, the ornate nineteenth century building looks a bit like a giant wedding cake.
But after two hours of talks it quickly became apparent there was little love lost between the two politicians inside.
At the press conference that followed a stony faced Lavrov said he had spoken in detail about the security guarantees Russia wants from NATO.
But with Liz Truss standing barely feet away, looking equally glacial, he described that discussion in terms that were far from diplomatic. “It was like a conversation with a deaf person,” he said. “Who is here, but doesn’t hear.”
Referring to Western speculation that Moscow has a limited window for invading Ukraine because the ground needs to be frozen so its tanks won’t sink in, Lavrov argued the facts being put forward by Russia aren’t sinking in with the West.
It got worse. When Liz Truss insisted the UK “is resolute in pursuing a diplomatic path” to avert a war with Ukraine, something “Boris Johnson is very much behind”, there was a drawn out sigh from her Russian counterpart.
Rachel Younger, in Moscow, shares what she was told by a diplomatic source in Moscow about what happened in the negotiating room
A diplomatic source in Moscow told ITV News:
"The British side did not mention anything about bilateral relations. Usually, in 99.9% of negotiations, in the first part, ministers discuss bilateral issues. None of that was mentioned.
"Before the press conference. Lavrov asked: 'What about bilateral relations?' And Liz Truss said: 'Are we going to have lunch? We can discuss it.'
"That contradicted with Prime Minister Boris Johnson's statement that the goal of the visit is to improve the relationship. The meeting started with British slogans about Ukraine and the troops near there.
"It (the meeting itself) was embarrassing. I can’t understand how that can happen to British diplomacy. It’s like making a speech for elections, even her voice was as if she was outside.
"The foreign secretary told Lavrov that ‘you are behaving aggressively’ and Lavrov said ‘this is our territory. Do you recognise that Rostov and Voronezh is sovereign Russian territory?’ The British foreign secretary said, ‘we will never recognise Russian sovereignty there.’ And then the UK ambassador had to tell her that this is part of Russia."
On why Russian troops are near Ukraine, the source said:
"We understand that the West is preparing something in Ukraine. They are providing weapons. They are sending instructors. Several months ago, they held so-called NATO exercises. The British trained the Ukrainian Navy. That’s why the troops are there."
ITV News understands that bilateral relations were discussed in the lunch but fundamentally, Russia needs to de-escalate and engage in meaningful talks before bilateral relations can significantly improve.
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As Lavrov pointed out in his opening remarks, relations between London and Moscow have been at their lowest level in years.
Trust between the two sides has been in short supply since the Skripal poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury.
But whether it was Truss’ remarks on Twitter last night regarding the UK’s willingness to employ “the toughest of sanctions" or more long-standing animosity, it quickly became clear there had been no breakthrough here.
Rachel Younger sums up a fruitless day of talks in Moscow
The vastly experienced Lavrov is known for his directness but not normally for ill manners. Today his frustration appeared to get the better of him and when questions came to an end he abruptly left the room leaving Truss standing alone at the front of the room.
With the stakes so high in Ukraine the best thing we have been able to say this week is that both sides are still talking. But in the case of Russia and the UK, it seems only barely.
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