Relations between the UK and Russia are now “above zero”, the defence secretary has said, after a meeting with “absolutely no deafness or blindness.”
Ben Wallace is in Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart, the day after Boris Johnson insisted Vladimir Putin must not be allowed to “bully” eastern Europe amid fears of a Ukraine invasion.
Diplomacy between the countries has so far been fruitless, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss dismissed as “deaf” by her Russian equal, Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday.
At a frosty briefing, Mr Lavrov said he was disappointed with his meeting with Ms Truss, which he described as a “conversation between deaf and dumb.”
He said Ms Truss ignored Russian arguments, reflecting what he described as an “egoistic” stand.
Mr Wallace said there was “absolutely no deafness or blindness” in his talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, characterising them as “constructive and frank” discussions which he hopes will create a better atmosphere between the two sides.
Asked about Mr Lavrov’s characterisation of his meeting with Ms Truss, Mr Wallace said: “I think minister Lavrov is a master at these types of engagements and making those types of comments.
“In our discussion there was absolutely no deafness or blindness, we as defence ministers bear the responsibility of the consequences of what happens in conflict.
“We deal with the facts and we deal with the issues we have because it is in both our interests to resolve that.
“I think we have had a constructive and frank discussion and I hope it has contributed to a better atmosphere but also to de-escalation, but there is still considerable way to go between the two of us.”
He added that relations between Russia and Britain are “above zero” after his meeting.
He noted “ongoing issues” with the Kremlin, “not least” the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury which “needs to be resolved.”
However he stressed the need for discussions to prevent “miscalculation and escalation” after the first meeting between a UK defence minister and Russia’s Sergei Shoigu since 2013.
“And I think the beginning of this process which is to understand each other’s concerns and also to be able to have a line of communication is a lot better than zero per cent,” Mr Wallace said.
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Mr Wallace said the positioning of Russian forces gives them the ability to invade a neighbouring country “at any time.”
There are 130,000 troops around the border, with warplanes and ships also stationed – none of this part of normal exercise, he said.
But he added he had heard from the Russian government that it has “no intention” of invading Ukraine.
Ultimately, he said, Russia must be judged on its actions and not its statements.