The Foreign Office has signed off tougher sanctions on Russia just hours ahead of a self-imposed deadline – and after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss held stormy talks with her counterpart in Moscow.
New legislation was laid in parliament on Thursday that gives ministers the power to impose tough new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and businesses.
The Foreign Office said the legislation would allow the UK to sanction those linked directly to Russia’s agitation over Ukraine, as well as Kremlin-linked organisations and businesses of “economic and strategic significance” to the Russian government.
This includes their owners, directors and trustees.
‘A conversation between a dumb and a deaf person’
Earlier on Thursday, Ms Truss was involved in testy exchanges with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov as they met in Moscow.
He characterised the meeting as a “conversation between a dumb and a deaf person”.
“It seems like we listen but don’t hear,” he added.
“At least, our most detailed explanations fell on unprepared soil. They say Russia is waiting until the ground freezes like a stone so its tanks can easily cross into Ukrainian territory.
“I think the ground was like that today with our British colleagues – from which numerous facts that we produced bounced off.”
But, pushing back against Mr Lavrov’s statement, Ms Truss said: “I certainly was not mute in our discussions earlier.
“I put forward the UK’s point of view on the current situation and the fact that, as well as seeking to deter Russia from an invasion into Ukraine, we are also very resolute in pursuing the diplomatic path.”
She added there were “further talks to be had” between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis.
Truss meeting not a triumph of diplomacy
This was very far from a meeting of minds.
Sergei Lavrov said at the start that relations left a lot to be desired and that ultimatums and threats would lead nowhere. That seems to have been what he got.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s suggestions of possible talks with NATO on transparency and confidence-building measures weren’t likely to give a sense to Russia that the UK was taking what Russia sees as its legitimate security concerns seriously.
Mr Lavrov had already poured scorn on NATO’s response to Russia’s security guarantee proposals, saying there was nothing in there that Russia could engage with. Asking Russia to stick to a diplomatic path without giving it anything to keep it there is a challenge. In any case, it may also be only the US that Russia listens to.
There’s also the awkward story doing the rounds that when Mr Lavrov asked Ms Truss whether she recognised Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh oblasts, both in Russia, she said she would “never” do so. The British ambassador then had to tell her they were not in Ukraine.
The UK embassy issued a statement in Russian on Twitter quoting the foreign secretary as having said she’d thought Mr Lavrov was talking about Ukraine and that she’d indicated to him they were part of sovereign Russia. It seems a stretch.
Britain had an important message to bring and Ms Truss clearly brought it. She was resolute in the face of diplomatic bullying and stood up for Ukrainian sovereignty, as she needed to. But on Russia’s “Diplomats’ Day”, this was not a triumph of diplomacy.
Foreign Office strives to meet self-imposed deadline
The foreign secretary had previously said that new sanctions legislation aimed at Russia would be “in place” by 10 February.
Critics questioned whether Thursday’s announcement meant the Foreign Office had indeed met its own deadline.
Labour MP Chris Bryant said the legislation would “require a vote” in the House of Commons before becoming law.
He highlighted how MPs were now on recess for the next 10 days and without such a vote having taken place.
However, a Whitehall source stressed that existing post-Brexit sanctions legislation allowed ministers to bring in further powers with immediate effect.
Parliament will be asked whether to keep or scrap the new powers within the next 28 days, the source added.
Commenting on the new powers, Ms Truss said: “The UK is resolute in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.
“We urge Russia to de-escalate and choose the path of diplomacy. If Russia persists with its aggression towards Ukraine the UK and its partners will not hesitate to act.”
The Foreign Office said the new Russia-focussed legislation would provide the framework for the strongest sanctions regime the UK has had against Russia.
Targets could include the country’s chemical, defence, mining, oil, gas, communications and financial services industries.