Despite rocky relations, London and Moscow should be able cooperate on global security challenges, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said as he began the first visit to Russia by a British government minister in five years.
Speaking at the start of their talks on December 22, Johnson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that despite "problems" in bilateral ties, Russia and Britain should “work together for peace and security.”
Johnson said the two nations need to cooperate on international issues, such as preserving the Iran nuclear deal, dealing with the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and helping bring peace to Syria.
Lavrov said Moscow wanted the talks to lead to "concrete steps" that would help revive ties.
"Our ties -- there is no secret here -- are at a very low point," Lavrov said.
Relations between London and Moscow are severely strained by differences over Ukraine and Syria as well as by allegations of Russian meddling in domestic politics in Europe and the United States. Russia denies the accusations.The 2006 radiation-poisoning death in London of former Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko also has continued to cast a shadow over ties.
Prime Minister Theresa May said Johnson would take a “hardheaded” approach to dealing with Russia during his talks with Lavrov.
"We are aware of the activity that Russia has undertaken, the illegal annexation of Crimea, its continued activity in...Ukraine, also the action that it is taking in relation to disinformation elsewhere," she said in an interview on December 22 with Sky News at an air base in Cyprus.
On the eve of the visit, Johnson said in a statement that “our relations with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’ whilst Russia continues to attempt to destabilize European states, including Ukraine."
“However, it is vital for international security that we do talk to each other – as the consequences of miscommunication or misunderstanding are grave," he said. "My visit to Russia comes at a critical time as we need to work together to solve the world’s most pressing global challenges."
Johnson said he wanted to discuss issues including cooperation to preserve the 2015 deal to curb Iran's nuclear program, the threat posed by North Korea, and security arrangements for the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia.
Johnson irritated Moscow with an interview in The Sunday Times on December 17 in which he said Russia was "closed, nasty, militaristic, and antidemocratic" like the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.
Speaking on December 21, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed Britain for the tension in relations, charging that London had made a "completely unfounded" decision to scale back dialogue.
Zakharova has previously called Johnson unprofessional and organized an online cartoon competition that mocked him.