Russian ambassador pours scorn on Boris Johnson’s protest call

Diplomat says foreign secretary’s proposal shows weakness of Britain’s Syria policy

Boris Johnson’s calls for protesters to mass outside the Russian embassy have been mocked by Russia’s ambassador to the UK as a “sign of the state of Britain’s Syria policy”, in his first public comments on the affair.

The British foreign secretary said last week that he would “like to see” a protest against the mass aerial bombing raids by Syrian and Russian aircraft on rebel-held areas of Aleppo city.

Before a meeting on Saturday between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Lausanne, Johnson had also suggested military options could yet be deployed by western powers.

Writing in the Observer, the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, is scathing about Johnson’s remarks, which he claims are a sign of the weakness of the UK’s position on the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo.

Yakovenko, who was appointed by Putin in 2011, writes: “The novel way of diplomacy proposed by foreign secretary Johnson has so far materialised in a lone gentleman with a poster outside our embassy – not something I would describe as a big diplomatic victory. But the very fact of having to resort to (non-existent) campaigners to make a point is, in my opinion, a sign of the state of Britain’s Syria policy.”

Tensions are likely to be heightened by the expected arrival in the Channel next week of Russian warships making their way to Syria. The navy said it and Nato “routinely” monitor other nations’ fleets when they enter UK waters, but this trip comes at a time of particular anger in Westminster about Russia’s role in bombing civilian targets. Moscow has been accused by a number of countries, including the UK, of war crimes in connection with attacks on medical facilities and aid convoys in Aleppo.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has raised concerns over Russia’s role in bombing civilians.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has raised concerns over Russia’s role in bombing civilians. Photograph: Guido Kirchner/AP

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Saturday became the latest to raise concerns, calling the bombing campaign “inhuman”, and adding: “I think we are very close to war crimes,” although she did not explicitly attribute responsibility.

On Friday, bombers targeted an Aleppo hospital that has been hit several times before, and President Bashar al-Assad vowed to “clean” the rebel-held east of Syria’s largest city, raising fears of even greater atrocities. After warnings that the bombing campaign could destroy east Aleppo by Christmas, the former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell MP, has been arguing for a no-fly zone.

Yet, on Sunday, Yakovenko dismissed the accusations and claimed that Russia “saved Syria from terrorist takeover”. Moscow and Aleppo routinely label rebel fighters as terrorists, whatever their ideological allegiances. Groups fighting in Aleppo range from one formerly linked to al-Qaida to the moderate Free Syria Army.

“Those who fight in East Aleppo shamelessly use civilians as a human shield,” Yakovenko writes. “Human suffering, a horrible by-product of any war (the expression ‘collateral damage’ wasn’t invented by us or President Assad), is being exploited to rally to the terrorists’ cause.”

The Lausanne talks are the international community’s latest attempt to find a way to reconcile Russia’s support for Assad with growing western concern about the scale of bloodshed.

It was the first face-to-face meeting between Kerry and Lavrov since the collapse of a brief ceasefire last month. The US has abandoned bilateral meetings for broader talks bringing in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Qatar. Kerry will fly to London on Sunday to discuss the talks with European counterparts, a meeting set to be closely watched by Moscow.

Yakovenko’s tenure in the London embassy has seen relations between the UK and Russia hit new lows. However, in 2015 he tweeted congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn on his leadership victory, writing: “Hope for positive change in terms of debate, including on our relations.”

Last week, Corbyn’s spokesman, Seumas Milne, told reporters that Corbyn condemned Russia “as he has condemned the intervention by all outside forces in the Syrian civil war” but warned that “the focus on Russian atrocities in Syria sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities”.

Speaking to the Observer, the former Labour home secretary Lord (David) Blunkett said yesterday that Corbyn should ask whether Milne was helping Labour get back into government and, if not, then Milne should stand down.

“What does Jeremy Corbyn think are the benefits [of Milne] to the Labour party and not just himself? How does he think this is going to help Labour get back into power? If he can’t answer those questions, he [Milne] shouldn’t be there.”


Daniel Boffey

The GuardianTramp

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