Boris Johnson cancels trip to Moscow next week over Syria

Bethany Minelle, News Reporter

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has cancelled a visit to Moscow next week as tensions grow over events in Syria.

It comes after the UK backed US airstrikes on a Syrian airbase from where a horrifying chemical attack was allegedly launched.

Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, said the strikes had "completely ruined" the relationship between Moscow and Washington.

In a statement, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Mr Johnson of living "in his own reality".

"We have an impression that our Western colleagues are living in their own reality, in which they are trying to unilaterally build collective plans and then unilaterally change them, making up absurd pretexts," she added.

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Mr Johnson spoke with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who is still due to visit Russia, before making his decision.

Since then, Mr Tillerson has spoken to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov who told the American that the US strikes "play into the hands of extremists".

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary said: "Developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally.

"We deplore Russia's continued defence of the Assad regime even after the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.

"We call on Russia to do everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria and work with the rest of the international community to ensure that the shocking events of the last week are never repeated."

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Sky News Political Correspondent Tamara Cohen said: "The meeting was seen as an attempt at bridge-building after Mr Johnson's high-profile swipes at Russia, accusing them last year of 'war crimes' in Syria and perpetrating more violence in Ukraine.

"The international backdrop was that the US appeared to have no appetite to oust Assad in Syria, and that Britain's relationship with his backers in Russia must not be allowed to go into a deep freeze.

"Theresa May had carefully laid the groundwork when she met Mr Putin in China last September, to keep dialogue going even though the UK has taken a hard line on continuing sanctions against Russia.

"It came after senior MPs had warned relations between Britain and Russia were at their worst since the Cold War and the deadlock needed to be broken.

"In the past 48 hours they just got a lot worse."

Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke, who sits on the Nato parliamentary assembly, told Sky News that Mr Johnson was right to cancel his visit.

"The foreign secretary was right to withdraw. Russia is fully supporting Syria and trying to make excuses for the use of weapons of mass destruction," Mr Shelbrooke said.

"Russia wants to be a big player on the world stage. We shouldn't let Putin parade senior western politicians and use it as a way to divide and conquer. It's right that Nato allies speak with one voice."

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On the other side of the argument was Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who suggested the US was trying to shut the Foreign Secretary out of a sensitive process.

Mr Farron said: "Boris has revealed himself to be a poodle of Washington, having his diary managed from across the pond. It is pretty shameful when even Trump judges you to be a buffoon."

Reacting to the comment, an aide to Mr Johnson said: "It is a shame the Lib Dems would rather snipe and be silly when the US and UK are trying to work on a plan to help the innocent people of Syria and stop a devastating civil war".

The visit was announced with great fanfare last month as "high level talks" between Mr Johnson and Mr Lavrov - as part of a new policy of "guarded engagement" with Putin's Russia when it is "in the national interest."

The Russian Embassy in London tweeted a reply to Mr Johnson, writing: "Theatrics for lack of argument? Safer in G7 pack?", and adding an audio track by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Many world leaders have praised Donald Trump's move to strike Syria following the chemical attack of Idlib which killed 80 people, including children.

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