What can Boris Johnson and Liz Truss do for Ukraine?

Foreign secretary accused of ‘playing into Putin’s hands’ as UK launches diplomatic push to avert war

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Moscow
Liz Truss at a wreath-laying ceremony on Thursday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow
(Image credit: Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images)

Liz Truss has called on Russia to abandon its “Cold War rhetoric” over Ukraine as she and Boris Johnson embark on a diplomatic blitz to ease the eastern European stand-off.

At a meeting in Moscow today, the foreign secretary told her counterpart Sergei Lavrov that he must “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”, amid fears that Russia plans to invade after amassing 100,000 troops on the neighbouring nation’s border.

Any incursion would be “disastrous for the Russian and Ukrainian people and for European security”, and would have “massive consequences and carry severe costs”, warned Truss, the first UK foreign secretary to visit Russia in four years.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

A defiant Lavrov shot back that “ultimatums and threats” were a “dead end” that would “yield nothing”, adding that relations between London and Moscow had reached their “lowest point in years”.

‘Most dangerous moment’

Johnson hoped for a better outcome as he travelled to Brussels and Warsaw for further talks. Ahead of the visits, the prime minister said that Nato must “draw lines in the snow and be clear there are principles upon which we will not compromise”.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Johnson insisted that Britain would not “bargain” with Moscow over the sovereignty and independence of central European allies.

“We are not going to treat the nations at the heart of our Continent as pawns on a chessboard, to be haggled over or sacrifice,” he wrote. “Every independent state, including Ukraine, has a sovereign right to decide its own foreign policy and seek its own alliances.”

The UK has already put 1,000 troops on alert amid fears of “a humanitarian crisis that could lead to a mass displacement of people”, said the i news site.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who will attend talks in Moscow tomorrow, told the BBC’s Breakfast programme that Russia needed to be shown that the UK would "stand by" fellow Nato members.

At a news briefing with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels this morning, Johnson warned that “the stakes are very high” and predicted that the next few days would be the “most dangerous moment”.

In what the broadcaster described as a “surge of UK diplomatic activity”, Labour leader Keir Starmer was also in the Belgian capital today for a meeting with the Nato boss.

The Times said Starmer’s intervention “represents a watershed moment” as he distances himself from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a “staunch critic” of Nato.

‘Chasing headlines’

There are doubts over how much any of the UK politicians can achieve for Ukraine, however. Plans by Truss to enact the UK’s “toughest sanctions regime” yet against Russia by today have “fallen through”, denting her influence, The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour reported.

Opposition politicians have criticised the delay in rolling out the sanctions legislation, amid “suspicions among opposition MPs that government lawyers are struggling to frame the sweeping and unprecedented new laws”, according to Wintour.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs, accused Truss of “chasing headlines” and offering “all words and no action”.

The Guardian’s Wintour pointed out that the UK’s influence is “restricted” since it is not a member of the Normandy format, the four-member group of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine that is expected to oversee the Minsk agreements on the future of the Russian-backed eastern region of Ukraine.

And a former Tory minister warned earlier this week that Truss’s visit to Moscow could play into the Russian president’s hands. Robert Jenrick, who was Johnson’s housing secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that he “questioned the good sense of going to Moscow and honouring Vladimir Putin at a time when he is so aggressive towards Ukraine”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.