The British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has personally warned Moscow of tough sanctions that are to be imposed if Russia attacks Ukraine, during tense talks that Russia’s top diplomat said were like a conversation of “the mute with the deaf”.
The British sanctions package remained under government review on Thursday, somewhat undermining Truss’s threat as she led a British diplomatic effort to head off a potential Russian offensive in Ukraine.
“If there were to be a Russian incursion into Ukraine, the Ukrainians will fight,” Truss said in remarks following the negotiations. “This would be a prolonged and drawn-out conflict. The UK and our allies would put in place severe sanctions targeting individuals and institutions. The United States has been clear that Nord Stream 2 [the pipeline project] would not go ahead.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron travelled to Moscow this week on a similar mission to try to dissuade Vladimir Putin from launching an attack on Ukraine. Truss was expected to take a more combative line emphasising deterrence in her talks with her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
“Why I’m here in Moscow is that Russia has a very clear choice. They can pursue the path of diplomacy, work with Nato to improve European security, or continue down the path that they have been indicating by amassing troops on the border in a threatening way,” she said.
During an icy press conference after the talks, Lavrov said the two sides had found little common ground and that the talks contained “nothing secret, no trust. Just slogans shouted from the tribunes.”
“I’m honestly disappointed that our conversation turned out like the mute with the deaf. We appear to be listening but we’re not hearing anything. Our detailed explanations fell on unprepared ground,” Lavrov said.
“It’s like when they say that Russia is waiting for the ground to freeze so that tanks can easily enter Ukraine,” he added. “It seems that our British colleagues were on similar ground today, off of which bounced all the facts we presented them.”
The trip is part of a blitz of British diplomacy in Russia. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, is scheduled to travel to Moscow for consultations with the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, on Friday. Other European leaders and officials are also shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is expected in Moscow next week.
Expectations for the meetings are limited as Russia has put forward maximalist demands to Nato to remove its troops from member states and to pledge never to accept Ukraine into the alliance. At the same time, Russia has begun joint military exercises in Belarus, continued moving troops on its territory closer to the Ukrainian border, and announced new naval drills in the Black Sea.
In his remarks, Lavrov said British-Russian relations had reached their “lowest point in years” and warned Russia would not be cowed by western threats. He also attacked some western countries for pulling non-essential diplomats from Ukraine, publicly suggesting that Russia could follow suit if it decides the west is preparing a provocation.
“We’ve looked at their actions and, probably, will also recommend our non-essential personnel from our diplomatic institutions to come home for a time,” he said. “I don’t know what our Anglo-Saxon colleagues are thinking.”
Russia has previously denied reports that it has plans to pull its diplomats from Ukraine.
Truss appeared to stick closely to her prepared remarks while fielding questions from reporters, repeating warnings that a war would be “disastrous for the Russian and Ukrainian people and for European security”.
Lavrov, in turn, repeated Russia’s view that its demands were not being seriously entertained by the west. “As for the ultimatums and threats, this is a dead end and will yield nothing,” he said. “Unfortunately some of our western colleagues are carried away by this in their public statements and I can’t call this diplomacy.”
Truss and Lavrov met at the mansion of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs on Spiridonovka Street. Truss said that earlier she had visited Moscow State University to meet young mathematicians and other academics.
When the press conference ended, Lavrov walked off briskly, leaving Truss alone at the podium. The two were scheduled to continue their talks on Thursday over a working lunch.