It was billed in the local press as the visit of one of Russia’s “harshest critics”; a man who, on the eve of talks, has described Russia as modern-day Sparta – “closed, nasty, military and anti-democratic.” There was past history too. After all, the meeting between veteran diplomat Sergei Lavrov and recent-convert-to-the-trade Boris Johnson had already been cancelled once.
In the event, it was the Boris and Sergei show – a session filled with jokes, faux barbs, and general bonhomie. “I’m called Boris,” said the British Foreign Secretary. I know, answered his Russian equivalent – “and I trust you so much I will even call you BorIS,” placing the emphasis on the second syllable, as is correct in Russian.
With huge policy gaps between the countries, it was not long before the two professed statements of disagreement. There were differences on Ukraine, Syria and North Korea, declared Mr Johnson. There was no question that this was a “difficult patch.” Mr Lavrov agreed – and that was even without the fallout from Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian spy assassinated in London in 2006.
Trade relations between Russia and Britain were once excellent – at their height, the best bilateral economic relationship of anywhere in Europe. The new sanctions regime, pushed by the British, has put paid to that. During today’s press conference, Mr Johnson seemed to be clutching at straws for signs of life. Sales of British imports – including the hugely strategic areas of Kettle crisps and Bentley – were going through the roof, he said.
There was not complete cooperation on terrorism, he said. But the British minister had a blue pad of paper from the “Fedralnaya sloooozba bezopahznowsty” – “which, I think, is the FSB.” That, Mr Johnson said, was evidence of collaboration.
It was classic Boris: bumbling, chaotic, spectacle-driven. But judging by the way the wily Mr Lavrov carried his half of the press conference, Russia is not altogether unhappy having him. Bar a couple of gruff exchanges on alleged interference in the Brexit referendum, the tone of the press conference was, by Moscow standards, tame.
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On the one hand, the Russians believe they have a man they can relate to. Mr Johnson embraces much of the Russian political modus vivendi. Alpha male, cynical, showman, risk-taking – he is the exact opposite of his predecessor Philip Hammond, who was not popular in Moscow. With new oligarch-related sanctions coming from the US in the new year, Russia is looking to cultivate every ally it can get.
There is a second, franker point. As poor as relations between the UK and Russia have been since Litvinenko, the British have always been spared the vitriol often directed towards the Americans. And that is because the post-Brexit UK is now largely irrelevant to Russian foreign policy goals.
“Moscow doesn’t lose much sleep of what London has to say on matters other than sanctions,” says the former Kremlin advisor and security expert, Vladimir Frolov. “But this has an upside – you are not our arch enemy anymore, just a nuisance.”