Russia’s defence minister has described levels of cooperation with Britain as “close to zero” and in danger of going into “negative” territory as he received the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, in Moscow for talks meant to de-escalate tensions with the west.
Sergei Shoigu began his meeting with Wallace by attacking the UK’s deliveries of lethal arms and military trainers to Ukraine, which Wallace claims would only be useful for defence in case of a potential invasion.
“I would like to see the reason why the United Kingdom is sending special forces to Ukraine and until when [they] will be there,” Shoigu said.
The talks on Friday marked a second round of British-Russian diplomacy following the foreign secretary Liz Truss’ meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who complained that the talks resembled a discussion of the “mute with the deaf”.
By contrast, Wallace sought to emphasise the professional nature of Friday’s meeting with Shoigu, where he warned Russia about the “tragic” consequences of an offensive in Ukraine and said he had received Moscow’s assurances that it was not planning to launch an invasion.
“Shoigu is a professional and very experienced minister,” Wallace said following the “frank and constructive” talks. “When they say they aren’t going to invade Ukraine we take it seriously but look at the actions that accompany it.”
Wallace said he had not seen signs yet of a de-escalation by the Kremlin, pointing to Russia’s deployment of more than half of its offensive military forces near the border and saying the country is in position to launch a large offensive into Ukraine if it decides to.
But he also said he sought to “address some of the issues raised in Russia’s draft treaty”, a document published by its foreign ministry that includes demands that Nato remove its infrastructure from eastern Europe and publicly pledge not to admit Ukraine into the military alliance.
“We can try and move on to where we can resolve our issues together through diplomacy, through other actions, and through confidence-building measures,” he said he told Shoigu during meeting. Asked to evaluate the level of relations following the meeting, Wallace said they were “above zero”.
Wallace also defended British deliveries of arms, including antitank missiles to Ukraine, saying they were useful only for defensive purposes and that British military trainers would return to the UK “pretty soon”.
Wallace and Shoigu were pictured shaking hands under a portrait of allied military leaders following the taking of the Reichstag in 1945. The two men also exchanged gifts. Wallace received a plaque from an Arctic convoy ship and Shoigu a ceremonial sword.
Western intelligence agencies increasingly believe that Vladimir Putin has now put in place enough troops to attempt an invasion, a sentiment reflected in warnings in the last 24 hours from both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson. Nevertheless, they continue to believe no final decision by the Russian leader has been made.
A number of invasion scenarios are considered possible, but there is a prevailing belief that any military intervention ordered by Putin would be designed to achieve regime change in Kyiv. That could see a lightning attack, aimed at encircling the capital, with the intention of forcing the collapse of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government, and trying to install a pro-Russian regime without urban warfare.
Johnson emphasised on Thursday that any invasion would amount to a massive miscalculation by Putin because Ukraine would “fight and they will resist very strongly”. Any belief in the Kremlin that a Russian intervention would be welcome by anything other than a tiny minority was mistaken, British ministers said.
On Thursday, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met in Berlin, to try to hash out a roadmap towards implementing the Minsk accords, signed in 2015 to bring an end to the active phase of conflict.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has made resurrecting the Minsk deal the key plank of his diplomatic attempts to avoid Russian military action and he pushed the idea during his visits to Moscow and Kyiv earlier this week.
While Zelenskiy has publicly backed the accord, in private Ukrainian officials say fulfilling it would be politically impossible given public opinion in Ukraine, and would give Moscow a permanent say in the country’s politics.
After nine hours of talks, the sides broke up close to midnight having failed to sign any kind of joint document, merely agreeing to keep dialogue going.
Russia’s representative at the talks, Dmitry Kozak, said the “key disagreement” was that Kyiv refused to open direct negotiations with representatives of the breakaway territories. Ukraine believes that doing so would legitimise what are in effect Russian puppet regimes. Kozak accused Kyiv of sabotaging the talks.
“A negative result is still a result, we now have full clarity about what the statements of different politicians about adhering to the Minsk agreements mean,” Kozak said on Friday.