British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss received an icy reception from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Moscow on February 10.
The top UK diplomat flew to the Russian capital to warn the Kremlin that the UK would not brook an act of aggression against Ukraine and to reiterate London’s support for Ukraine and its eventual membership of Nato.
"I'm honestly disappointed that what we have is a conversation between a dumb person and a deaf person...Our most detailed explanations fell on unprepared soil," Lavrov told reporters at the press conference.
"They say Russia is waiting until the ground freezes like a stone so its tanks can easily cross into Ukrainian territory. I think the ground was like that today with our British colleagues, from which numerous facts that we produced bounced off."
Lavrov said he was disappointed with the talks and “As for the ultimatums and threats, this is a dead-end and will yield nothing,” Lavrov said.
He continued that "some of our western colleagues are carried away by this in their public statements and I can’t call this diplomacy.”
"I felt our colleagues were either not aware of the explanations that have been given by our president, or they are completely ignoring them," he added.
The talks did not go well and Lavrov was clearly in an angry mood during a stilted joint press conference, underlining that Russia’s expression of its security concerns “was a conversation between deaf and dumb” during his remarks.
Truss had a short list of demands that included withdrawing Russian troops from close to Ukraine’s border and de-escalating the situation.
"We need to see the troops and the equipment stationed on the Ukrainian border moved elsewhere, because at present it is in a very threatening posture," Truss said at the press conference following a meeting with Lavrov.
Lavrov replied that the military is on the territory of his country. Truss repeated that they should be withdrawn. To this, the Russian minister again objected that the military is not violating anything, since they have the right to conduct any manoeuvres on the territory of the Russian Federation.
Lavrov later took a sideways swipe at his counterpart, saying that the concerns raised by Truss belonged to the family of “highly likely” claims – an expression he used in English that has entered his lexicon as a sardonic expression used to dismiss accusations as groundless.
Those accusations included UK intelligence claims that Moscow was planning a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine to justify an invasion and that the Kremlin was plotting a coup d'état and intended to install a puppet regime run by pro-Russian Ukrainian businessman Yevhen Muraev.
The British foreign ministry did not provide any evidence to back its accusations, which were dismissed by Moscow, and also named several Ukrainian politicians who it said had links with Russian intelligence services. It was later reported that the US intelligence services were the original source of the intelligence.
However, Truss stood behind the story, which she used to lambast the Kremlin.
"The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking," Truss said in a statement released alongside the intelligence assessment.
"As the UK and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs," she added, as cited by RFE/RL.
The exchange over the coup claims laid the groundwork for a confrontational meeting between the two diplomats that appears to have boiled down to little more than a trading of accusation and counter accusation.
Analysts said that Truss’s trip to Moscow probably did more damage to East-West relations than good. Truss did not make things better by making a geographical clanger during the question and answer session after the opening remarks, when she confused two regions in Russia with the two disputed regions in Ukraine.
During their meeting Lavrov asked Truss if the British government recognised Russia’s sovereignty over the regions of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, which are two large regional cities with military bases where many of the troops moved westward are stationed. The idea was to question whether the UK government recognises Russia’s right to move troops around inside its own territory as it sees fit.
Trussed answered: “The British government will never recognise Russia’s sovereignty over those two regions,” according to a report by Kommersant.
The British foreign secretary had clearly confused the two Russian regions with Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of Ukraine that are currently held by Russian-backed separatist rebels.
British Ambassador to Russia Deborah Bonnert, who was in the room, intervened and delicately explained to Truss that Lavrov was actually talking about two Russian regions.
The clanger is likely to have irked Lavrov, who is widely seen as a consummate diplomat with decades of experience and is famous for knowing his brief down to intricate detail. To be faced with a interlocutor who is unaware of even the most basic details of the situation on the ground will likely lead to his dismissal of the British position, as he indicated with his “highly likely” comment during the press briefing.
Belarus military exercises start
Talks between Russia and the West over the eight-point list of demands the Russian Foreign Ministry issued in the middle of December are ongoing but have yet to reach a conclusion.
In the meantime, Russia is keeping up the pressure. It brought some 100,000 soldiers in September to bases near Ukraine’s border and in the meantime has continued to move men and materiel from the Central and Far Eastern military districts to the Western and Southern districts that face Ukraine.
As Truss arrived in Moscow the Kremlin stepped up another gear as, unscheduled, the largest military exercises since the Second World War were launched in Belarus on the same day.
Over 30,000 Russian troops have been moved into Belarus in recent weeks, as well as Russia’s advanced jet fighters, its sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system and Iskander missiles, according to reports.
The exercises are only 50 km from Ukraine's border and a two-hour march from Kyiv, which has led some to speculate that the exercises are a feint before an invasion of Ukraine. The war games play out a scenario where Nato attacks Belarus and Russia.
At the same time, Russian naval ships dispatched from their base in the Baltics last week arrived on in the Black Sea for more unscheduled large-scale exercises.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been playing down fears of war in recent weeks, but his country also launched war games this week. The Ukrainian forces, whose numbers have not been disclosed, are set to use Turkish Bayraktar armed drones and anti-tank Javelin and NLAW missiles provided by foreign partners.
Kyiv, meanwhile, received its ninth delivery of 80 tonnes of arms and munitions from the US. So far Ukraine has received $1.5bn worth or arms from its western partners during this crisis – five times more than in recent years – according to reports.
Diplomacy to continue
The diplomacy is set to continue for several weeks, rendering any attack on Ukraine unlikely while the talks continue. While Truss’ visit to Moscow is being seen as a setback, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to arrive in Moscow at the start of next week; he will travel on to Kyiv the following day in a repeat of French President Emmanuel Macron’s double-headed Moscow/Kyiv trip at the start of this week.
While talks started between Russia and the US with a meeting in Geneva on January 10, the French president has now launched a parallel EU diplomatic effort to de-escalate tensions that the Kremlin will be keen to see through. Any military attack is unlikely until these talks reach a conclusion, which is unlikely to happen until the end of February and probably well into March.