LONDON — Well, that didn’t work.
Britain had touted Thursday’s meeting in Moscow between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as a key moment in the U.K.’s diplomatic campaign to deter the Kremlin from launching an attack against Ukraine. It was even a chance to show Britain was taking Moscow’s threats seriously amid criticism it was distracted by a political crisis over Downing Street’s lockdown-busting parties.
Instead, the meeting quickly turned into Kremlin attack fodder after Truss apparently made a geographical mistake in response to a craftily-placed question from Lavrov. The exchange was swiftly leaked to Russian journalists, setting the tone for the get-together.
The acrimonious tenor spilled over into a press conference afterward, where the two ministers exchanged icy barbs and Lavrov hurled open insults, summed up in one damning assessment.
“The conversation turns out to be between the dumb and the deaf,” Lavrov said next to a visibly uncomfortable Truss. “We seem to listen, but we do not hear.”
Truss tried to parry. “I certainly wasn’t mute in our discussions,” she countered.
But the scene closed with Lavrov simply walking off, leaving Truss alone at her podium. Scheduled right after for the two diplomats: A working lunch.
The whole act may have been staged outrage, but it was effective in underscoring how much bad blood persists between the U.K. and Russia. Truss’s visit to Russia was the first by a U.K. foreign secretary in more than four years, a product of deteriorating relations between the two countries after Moscow was blamed for assassinating a former Russian spy on British soil in 2016. And after Thursday’s meeting, things only seemed to be getting worse.
Hopes were higher in the run-up to the meeting.
In recent weeks, Britain has been trying to find its place amid all the shuttle diplomacy going on between Russia and various Western powers — French President Emmanuel Macron just visited Moscow and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will do so next week. The U.S. also recently sent its top diplomat to sit down with Lavrov.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for his part, went to Kyiv last week to show solidarity with Ukraine as it faces down 130,000 Russian troops massed along its border.
The Truss visit to Moscow was intended as the next step. The foreign minister arrived with a clear message for the Kremlin: Moscow must move its troops away from the Ukrainian border and give up on the idea of an attack against its neighboring country, or face unprecedented economic sanctions. The U.K. even announced on Thursday that it had changed its rules so the country could sanction a wider range of Russian businesses and individuals.
For Truss, the visit was a chance to stand on the global stage and present herself as a tough leader who could confront one of Britain’s biggest rivals, one who could perhaps replace Johnson as Conservative Party leader someday.
But the meeting was quickly overshadowed by leaks that made it into the Russian press, including the state-owned TASS.
According to these accounts, after Truss told Lavrov Russian troops must be withdrawn, Lavrov simply stated that they were on Russian soil — a public Kremlin talking point — implying other countries have no right to dictate what happens to them.
Then, Lavrov, well-known as an unpredictable and canny interlocutor, quickly changed subject to ask Truss a question: Would Britain recognize Russia’s sovereignty over the Rostov and Voronezh regions? It was a carefully laid trap — both regions are part of Russia and currently host the majority of the deployed Russian troops and weaponry.
According to the Russian media reports, Truss took the bait, saying the U.K. “will never recognize Russian sovereignty over these regions.” Another U.K. official then pointed out the error.
Later in the meeting, Lavrov expressed his feeling that U.K.-Russian relations had “perhaps reached their lowest levels in many years,” according to Russian media reports.
The U.K. readout of the meeting didn’t mention any of the headline-making exchanges.
It did, however, note Truss had been direct with Lavrov about Russia’s behavior. Moscow, she told Lavrov, had “threatened Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “increased tensions.” It “needed to de-escalate” and respect Kyiv’s right to choose its own security arrangements.
British government officials did not comment specifically on Lavrov’s geographic query.
The tensions carried into a joint press conference after the meeting.
Truss said Lavrov had reassured her the Kremlin had “no plans to invade Ukraine” but insisted London needs to see this “follow up by actions.”
“I can’t see any other reason for having 100,000 troops stationed on the Ukrainian border apart from to threaten Ukraine, and if Russia is serious about diplomacy they need to move those troops and desist from the threats,” she added.
Lavrov shot back. Britain must be either unaware of the “detailed explanations” given by Russian President Vladimir Putin for the troop movements or is choosing to “completely ignore” them.
“At least our most detailed explanations fell on unprepared ground,” he added, perhaps a dig at Truss over the geographical exchange.
Lavrov described Western “demands to remove Russian troops from Russian territory” as “regrettable.”
Truss sought to regain control of the message, accusing Russia of “attempting to destabilize Ukrainian democracy.”
And she added a stern warning: “The aggression by the Russian government and attempts to relitigate the past are seriously undermining Russia’s international standing.”
The British diplomatic drive will continue Friday, with U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also coming to Moscow for talks.