Johnson says Russia didn’t ‘successfully’ interfere in British elections

‘He’s afraid that if he doesn’t contradict me his reputation will be ruined,’ Lavrov replies

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

 

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said on Friday that Russia had “not successfully” interfered in British elections, during a tense press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

Mr Johnson, the first UK foreign secretary to visit Russia in more than five years, made the comments after Mr Lavrov claimed that Mr Johnson had said that Russia had not meddled in UK politics during their 90-minute closed-door meeting.

“He’s afraid that if he doesn’t contradict me his reputation is going to be ruined,” Mr Lavrov said.

But Mr Johnson replied: “I think you should recognise that Russian attempts to interfere in our relations and our referendums, whatever they may have been, have not been successful, so you can reassure yourself on that front.

“Had they been successful, that would have been an entirely different matter,” he added.

UK-Russia relations plummeted after Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned critic of the Kremlin, died after being poisoned at a Mayfair hotel in 2006. Relations soured further following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Mr Lavrov blamed the impasse on the eagerness of UK leaders to criticise Russia publicly. Earlier this week, MI6 described Russian security services as “formidable adversaries”.

Russia denies meddling in western elections, despite numerous claims to the contrary in the US, France, and Germany. Russia also continues to insist Crimea joined the country legally in what was an obviously flawed referendum held after it had already seized control of the peninsula.

However, Mr Johnson and Mr Lavrov both said on Friday that they wanted to improve contacts between London and Moscow on issues such as counter-terrorism and the North Korean nuclear programme, as well as increased police co-operation ahead of next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Common ground

After Mr Johnson acknowledged that “things are not easy between us at the moment”, he attempted to strike common ground by pointing to the 450th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia, when Elizabeth I sent an envoy to the court of tsar Ivan the Terrible. But Mr Lavrov disputed whether Russians actually call the tsar “terrible”.

Mr Johnson also cited an uptick in exports of Kettle Chips to Russia, as well as sales of 300 Bentleys in the country, adding: “None, I think, though, to employees of the foreign ministry.”

Asked whether he and Mr Lavrov could trust each other, Mr Johnson said: “It’s a measure of my trust that as soon as I got it into this foreign ministry I handed my hat, my coat, my gloves, and everything in my pockets, secret or otherwise, to Sergei Lavrov, with the knowledge that he would look after it and it would come to no harm.”

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Foreign secretary Boris Johnson during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

But Mr Lavrov said: “There was nothing in Boris’s coat pockets.”

“So you’ve searched it already,” Mr Johnson replied. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017