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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Senior Tory Says UK's "Photo-Op" Diplomacy Over Russia Is A Sign Of Weakening Global Influence

5 min read

The UK’s diplomatic efforts to stop Russia invading Ukraine have been heavily criticised by a senior Tory who believes their approach is a sign of the country’s diminishing global influence.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee said the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had been dispatched to Moscow for a “photo-op” by the Prime Minister and had been unable to get Russia to retreat from amassing troops on its border with Ukraine.

EU leaders are currently braced for an invasion, and last night Boris Johnson spoke to US President Biden to discuss the increasingly tense relations with Russian President Putin. The pair agreed there was still a "crucial window for diplomacy" and urged the Kremlin to "step back from its threats to Ukraine", but are still believed to be willing to take serious action against Russia if it goes ahead with an attack on its neighbour.

Ellwood, a former defence minister and ex-soldier, who has submitted a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister, said an "absence of strategic appreciation of where the world is going" was key to his decision. 

“When you dispatch foreign secretaries simply for a photo-op without leverage, to alter Russia’s position, you’ve got to ask yourself, where is the statecraft?,” he told PoliticsHome. 

After Truss’ trip to Moscow last week, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov gave a brutal assessment of their talks, saying it had been a conversation between the "deaf and dumb" and criticised her lack of preparation.

“It didn't move the dial at all,” Ellwood said of her visit – the first trip by a UK Foreign Secretary in four years.

“It underlined our inability to have command on the international stage right now.”

A foreign office source robustly defended Truss’ meeting in Russia.

“The Foreign Secretary went there to deliver a clear message and she did that. I don’t think anyone expected a decisive diplomatic breakthrough," they said.

“This is an incremental, attritional diplomatic campaign led by all NATO allies. The UK has helped lead diplomatic efforts, in stark contrast to 2014.”

Ellwood, who has chaired the Defence Select Committee since 2020, was also critical of what the UK government had been able to achieve by sending Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to Moscow.

He said Wallace’s trip to meet with Russian Defence Minister and General of the Army, Sergey Shoygu, had been different in its aims to Truss’ trip, in that he was accompanied by Tony Radakin, head of the UK armed forces, and its purpose was to “keep back channels open in case something spirals out of control”.

“But the fact is, both went there knowing that they had nothing to throw on the table,” Ellwood added. 

He said the one bit of leverage the UK had at its disposal was taking an incredibly tough stance on Russian money laundering in London, but “mechanisms still aren’t in place”.

David Cameron was criticised in 2014 for a weak response from the UK when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

As talks between Western world leaders continued late last night, Russia is understood to be maintaining its stance that there should be no further expansion of NATO and Ukraine should agree not to pursue membership of the organisation, something the country wrote into its constitution in 2019.

Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine, and on Monday minister Lavrov said it was still preparing its response to US proposals for easing tensions in Ukraine.

Drawing parallels with Britain’s 1938 policy of appeasement before the outbreak of World War Two, Ellwood said he has deep concerns that the West may now be at such a grave stage in relations, it will give Russia too many concessions in order to avoid war.

He said he is particularly concerned about any concessions made on the Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO, but believed it was also likely the deals made in “quieter agreements” wouldn’t be made public for decades to come.

“If you’d have asked me a few days ago I would have said absolutely an invasion is inevitable," he continued.

"You don’t put blood banks, special forces and attack helicopters [at the border], field hospitals all ready to take in injured people unless you're willing to fight.

“That said, I am now genuinely worried that we are going to bend over so far and offer so many concessions to Russia that they can actually call that a win. I really worry that that's where we are. This is a repeat of ’38 or '39.”

A Ministry of Defence source said: "NATO's diplomatic strength doesn't come from one nation's individual actions but is delivered through the unity of efforts from all NATO members. The UK is playing a vital role within the alliance."

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