Boris Johnson is set for a highly charged showdown in Moscow after pledging to challenge his counterpart in the Kremlin on contentious issues including Russia’s military action in Syria and Ukraine.
In what will be the first UK foreign secretary visit to the country since 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed on Saturday that Johnson will meet Sergei Lavrov in the coming weeks.
The foreign secretary, who has repeatedly and publicly criticised Russia over the last six months, will not be “cosying up” to the Kremlin and will bring a “robust” defence of the UK government’s position on key issues, sources close to the minister said.
An FCO spokeswoman said: “The prime minister and the foreign secretary have made clear that our policy towards Russia is to ‘engage but beware’, and the visit is entirely consistent with this approach.
“Discussions will focus on the UK-Russia relationship and current international issues including Syria and Ukraine, where we continue to have significant differences. This is not a return to business as usual, and the foreign secretary will continue to be robust on those issues where we differ.”
The move was described by sources as constituting “guarded engagement”, and it is clear the FCO is keen for the meeting not to be considered as a softening of the UK’s position on Russian incursions into Europe.
“He intends to say the same things face to face as we do in public and parliament about Russian activities, and while it may be a tough meeting, that is what has to be done,” a source said. “Boris has always said we can’t reset but we must engage when in our interests. He calls it guarded engagement.
“He will be robust in the meeting and defend our position. This is absolutely not about cosying up – in fact the opposite.”
The meeting is likely to be tense. Since taking up his post in July, Johnson has not shied away from publicly criticising Russia and its foreign policy, particularly in relation to its support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Johnson told the Conservative party conference in October that the devastation wrought in Syria by Assad’s regime is happening with “the complicity of the Russians in committing what are patently war crimes”.
During an emergency Commons debate on Syria later in the year, Johnson went on to call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London in protest at the bombing of Aleppo.
On Ukraine, the foreign secretary has insisted there is no case for relaxation of sanctions on Russia, as the conflict between Kiev and Russia-backed separatists continues.
The meeting’s exact date is yet to be confirmed, but the FCO said discussions would focus on Ukraine and Syria, as well as Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Europe. There was no explicit mention of issues of recent controversy, including the claims that Russian actors have interfered in the domestic politics of the UK and US.
However, earlier this year, Johnson also told the House of Commons that the Kremlin was “up to all sorts of very dirty tricks” as he revealed British officials agreed with US intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking and leaking of documents from the US Democratic National Committee last year.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the Trump administration and the Russian government continues to court controversy. The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election after revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador last year.
Last month Michael Flynn resigned as national security advisor amid a flow of intelligence leaks that he had secretly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington and then tried to cover up the conversations.
US intelligence agencies reportedly concluded that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election to boost Trump’s bid for the White House.
A secret CIA assessment found that Russian operatives covertly interfered in the election campaign in an attempt to ensure the Republican candidate’s victory. The revelations prompted fears that Russia may have meddled with the EU referendum vote in the UK last June and concerns have been raised about the forthcoming French and German elections.