Monday September 05, 2022
Truss faces open Russian hostility from day one
Openly scornful of Liz Truss long before she became prime minister, the Kremlin is in no mood to grant a honeymoon period to Britainâ€™s new leader.
Among the many foreign politicians who flew to Moscow at the start of this year in an effort to head off an invasion of Ukraine, it was Truss who appeared to annoy Russiaâ€™s leadership more than any other.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described their conversation as like a dialogue between deaf and mute people, complaining that facts had â€œbounced offâ€ her. Then a Russian newspaper reported that Truss, during their meeting, had inadvertently told Lavrov that Britain would never recognise Moscowâ€™s sovereignty over two Russian cities, Rostov and Voronezh, and had to be corrected by her ambassador.
The Kremlin seized on the error as an example of Western leaders being poorly informed. Britain dismissed that as propaganda and said Truss had simply misheard a question from Lavrov.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R.Politik, said that incident had played a significant role in forming Russiaâ€™s attitude to Truss.
â€œThe Kremlin dreams to deal with great, strong and competent leaders. Truss seems to the Kremlin as a representative of this new generation of superficial Western politicians who come and go and are unable to deal with such countries as Russia, think strategically and plan in the long term,â€ she said.
â€œThey, in the Kremlin, were so happy when she made this mistake. It was a â€˜giftâ€™ to use instantly against her.â€
Russia also pounced on an earlier gaffe when Truss got mixed up between the Black and Baltic Seas, prompting foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova to complain of â€œthe stupidity and ignorance of Anglo-Saxon politicians.â€
And the government newspaper mocked Truss for posing in a fur hat on Red Square like her role model Margaret Thatcher, even though the weather during her visit was mild. The openly contemptuous Moscow view of Truss contrasts with the respect that many Russians accorded to Thatcher, regarding her as a formidable opponent and awarding her the nickname of the Iron Lady, which she embraced as a compliment. Speaking before the announcement that Truss had defeated Rishi Sunak in a contest to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that relations with London might deteriorate further.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t like to say that things can change for the worse, because itâ€™s hard to imagine anything worse,â€ he said when asked if Moscow expected any shift in ties. â€œBut unfortunately, this cannot be ruled out, given that the contenders for the post of British prime minister competed with each other in anti-Russian rhetoric, in threats to take further steps against our country, and so on. Therefore, I donâ€™t think that we can hope for anything positive.â€
Political analysts expect Truss to maintain Britainâ€™s stance as one of the most active and vocal supporters of Ukraine, supplying it with weapons and training. Russian hostility may not overly worry her - and may even prove useful - as she sets out to prove her credentials as a strong leader facing up to Moscow over Ukraine. Despite her gaffe during the visit in February, she showed herself able to stand up to the far more experienced Lavrov by publicly challenging his assertion that Russia was not threatening anyone with its vast military build-up on the border with Ukraine. Two weeks later, Russia invaded its neighbour.
Judging by her words as foreign secretary and on the Downing Street campaign trail, the new UK prime minister appears to be itching for a fight with Europe, Russia and China.
Liz Trussâ€™s bellicose tone towards friends and foes alike â€” even French President Emmanuel Macron has not been immune â€” has some in the UK security establishment worried.
Defence chiefs forced Truss to backtrack in February when, as foreign secretary, she gave her approval to any Britons wanting to head to Ukraine to fight against the Russian invaders.
The cause of Ukraine became a rallying cry for her predecessor, Boris Johnson. Truss says she would â€œdouble downâ€ on his governmentâ€™s support for Kyiv. â€œWe will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine,â€ she said in a keynote speech in April, indicating that Moscow must also vacate Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
The speech, at Mansion House in the City of London financial district, previewed the foreign policy themes that are likely to inform Trussâ€™s world view from 10 Downing Street.
â€œMy vision is a world where free nations are assertive and in the ascendant,â€ she said.
â€œWhere freedom and democracy are strengthened through a network of economic and security partnerships. Where aggressors are contained and forced to take a better path.â€ The â€œaggressorsâ€ include Russia â€” and China.
In late July, Truss promised to build stronger economic and trade ties with Commonwealth nations to counter what she said was Chinaâ€™s â€œgrowing malign influenceâ€.
Trussâ€™s vision of likeminded partners in economics and security encompasses Pacific powers Australia and Japan, also as a counter to China.
She has attacked Chinaâ€™s rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its economic protectionism.
A UN report last week on the plight of the Uyghurs â€œshames China in the eyes of the international community,â€ Truss said. â€œAnd we must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves,â€ she said in April, before Chinese military drills in early August sent cross-strait tensions soaring.
Protesting the drills, Truss summoned Chinaâ€™s ambassador in London but ruled out visiting Taiwan as prime minister.
Reuters / Agence France-Presse