Downing Street denies Cameron is ‘diplomatic irrelevance’ in Ukraine talks

PM’s office issues robust defence after being criticised by army general and shadow foreign secretary for not being present at Moscow discussions

Stung by claims that David Cameron is a diplomatic irrelevance as France and Germany spearhead efforts to end the conflict in Ukraine, Downing Street has insisted Britain is playing an active role in Europe’s response to Russian aggression.

No 10 issued a robust defence after being criticised by an army general and the shadow foreign secretary for not being present at the diplomatic table when Europe is under threat of “total war”.

The French president, François Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, are set to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow to discuss a peace plan aimed at ending the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels.

The move has sparked fears of a division within the western alliance – with Britain and the United States apparently sidelined by the Franco-German initiative.

General Sir Richard Shirreff, Britain’s highest ranking Nato commander until last year, said the UK should be playing a major role in the efforts to resolve the crisis amid fears it could lead to an all-out European war. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is the most serious crisis to have faced Europe, arguably, since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There is a threat of total war.

“The UK is a major Nato member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN security council, and it is unfortunate that the weight that the British prime minister could bring to efforts to resolve this crisis appear to be absent.”

The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, said Shirreff’s comments were a serious indictment of Cameron’s foreign policy. “This isn’t the first time that his government has been one step behind our allies in trying to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine.

“This warning that he is a ‘bit player’ in foreign policy is yet more confirmation that David Cameron is weakening Britain’s influence abroad, at the time when it is most needed.”

Downing Street insisted that Friday’s meeting was part of the “Normandy group” process, which began during last year’s D-Day commemorations, in which France and Germany have taken the lead.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman said that Britain was involved in discussions last year on the establishment of the Normandy group and agreed the format, which has seen France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine engage in discussions at foreign minister and leader level on several occasions over the past eight months.

She said: “We’ve been comfortable with that process. We’ve worked very closely with Germany on the situation in Ukraine and it was something the prime minister and chancellor spoke about at length when they met in January.” Cameron had played a leading role in bringing about agreement on EU sanctions to put economic pressure on Russia, she said.

“It is very clear to people where our position on Russia and Ukraine has been. We have played an active role. We are supportive of efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. We’ve been clear throughout that that is what we want to see, and we’ve been working closely with the Germans, French, EU partners and the US throughout. Let’s see how talks go in Moscow today.

“We want a diplomatic solution. That solution will be found on the ground in eastern Ukraine and we will judge what progress we are making by actions there.”

Ukraine’s ambassador-at-large, Dmytro Kuleba, has stepped up appeals for western arms to match the firepower of the rebels, who are being supplied with state of the art weaponry by Moscow. He told the Today programme: “We do need support, we need defensive weapons. Because Russia is supplying terrorists on a daily basis with new tanks, with new military equipment and we are only using our own resources – and, to be honest, they are quite outdated, because we are not investing in our military.”

Merkel and Hollande – who met for talks in Kiev with the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, on Thursday – were going to Moscow with a repackaged version of a peace plan originally drawn up by Putin. The new version is reported to have dropped what were said to have been the most objectionable elements of the Putin plan in order to meet the concerns of the Ukrainians and the Europeans.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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