The whole rationale for British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to cancel his visit to Moscow was that he was needed at the G7 summit in Lucca to push for a ‘united front’ against Russia. US Secretary of State Tillerson would then go to Moscow as a single envoy on behalf of the whole G7, presenting the Russians with the united position Boris Johnson had forged.
In the days which followed reports duly appeared in the British media saying Boris Johnson would press the G7 to give Russia an ultimatum to abandon its support for Syrian President Assad, that his objective was nothing less than the complete withdrawal of all Russian military personnel from Syria, and that he wanted the G7 to impose sanctions on Russia whilst offering Russia a way to ‘reintegrate itself’ into the ‘international community’ if it did as the G7 wanted as part of a ‘stick and carrot’ approach.
This was a ludicrously over-ambitious and ill-judged policy, and it is one which has completely failed.
It became immediately clear that none of the European members of the G7 – Germany, France and Italy – were at all keen on further sanctions, and nor was Japan. Boris Johnson attempted to win support for sanctions by scaling them down into sanctions on individual Russian military officers participating in the campaign in Syria.
This is a nonsensical idea. Military officers – people who are subject to military discipline and who by joining the military have already signalled their willingness to lay down their lives for their country – are by definition the very last people to be concerned about sanctions. The idea either they or Russia would be influenced by having sanctions imposed on them is crass.
Boris Johnson proposed it not because he genuinely believes in its effectiveness, but because he hoped that if he could persuade the G7 to impose these sanctions, even if they were on people who are by definition immune them, then a process would be created for imposing more and tougher sanctions in future.
Needless to say the other G7 states easily saw through this ploy, and it seems to have made their opposition to the sanctions if anything even stronger.
In the event the G7 not only refused Boris Johnson’s demands for more sanctions on Russia, but of the grandiose demands for ultimatums and the like which Boris Johnson’s aides were floating in the British media before the G7 summit there is no sign. Far from threatening Russia, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano – who hosted the summit – said the G7 ministers wanted to engage with Russia in order to persuade Russia to increase pressure on President Assad. The BBC reporter covering the summit, makes the point this way
Russia reacted angrily to last week’s US missile strike on Syria, condemning it as an “act of aggression”. Yet Moscow is happy to host the US secretary of state. He’ll meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and a meeting with President Putin cannot be ruled out.
But experience shows that Moscow does not take well to threats or ultimatums.
If Mr Tillerson thinks he can weaken Moscow’s support for President Assad, he may need to re-think. The Syrian president is Russia’s key military ally in the Middle East. Russia has invested heavily – militarily, politically and financially – to keep him in power.
(bold italics added)
The words “Moscow does not take well to threats or ultimatums” are perfectly correct. However they condemn the whole policy Britain has followed towards Russia ever since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, and indeed since the Litvinenko affair in 2006. What after all has that policy amounted to if not a string of “threats and ultimatums”? As the BBC correspond all but admits, it is a policy which has achieved precisely nothing.
In truth Boris Johnson’s reasons for cancelling his trip to Moscow are absurd. His claim that it would somehow be more effective if Tillerson went by himself to Moscow carrying a single message on behalf of the whole G7 all but says that Boris Johnson doesn’t trust himself to say the same things on Syria as Tillerson. In reality it would – obviously – be more effective if the Russians were to hear the same message on Syria from two Western foreign ministers rather than one.
The truth is that Boris Johnson never really wanted to go to Moscow in the first place, and the events in Syria simply gave him the excuse he was looking for to cancel the visit. The Russians have hinted that he is frightened of meeting Lavrov – the most terrifyingly competent foreign minister in the world – and they are probably right. The G7’s refusal to do any of the things Boris Johnson demanded have stripped his excuse of meaning, laying him bare. If the Russians ever took him seriously, they certainly won’t now.
The conclusion the British need to draw from this shabby farce of an affair is not just that they need to engage with Moscow – that ought to be obvious, and it is stunning that it isn’t – but that they need to put their delusions of grandeur behind them.
Britain still retains a certain level of influence in the world, but the idea it can leverage events like the ones in Syria to persuade countries far more powerful than itself like the US and Germany to do things like impose sanctions on Russia and get them to back the absurdly over-ambitious proposals Boris Johnson and his officials were floating before the G7 summit, is not just delusional but is actually silly.