Minister to make first official UK visit to Russia since Salisbury poisoning

A British government minister will become the first to travel to Russia next week since the Salisbury spy poisoning in 2018, which London blames on Moscow.

The visit by Wendy Morton, a junior foreign office minister, is not thought to be a sign of a thawing in relations between the two countries, which have been at a post-Cold War low since a novichok chemical weapon was used on the streets of Britain.

Instead, it is a more routine resumption of an annual encounter with Russia’s deputy foreign minister that is seen as an important line of dialogue to discuss issues, including sensitive topics like the more recent novichok poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The meeting, which usually alternates between London and Moscow, did not occur in 2018 because of the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

It did happen last year, with then foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan meeting Vladimir Titov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, Germany.

But Tuesday will be the first time it is taking place in the Russian capital since 2017. A return meeting is set for London next year.

The bilateral encounter comes against a worsening of relations between President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West, with the UK and the EU imposing sanctions on Russian officials they say are linked to the poisoning of Mr Navalny.

London has also accused Moscow of launching cyber attacks against other countries to try to steal or distort their research into vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, the West and the Kremlin are on opposite sides of a crisis in Belarus, a close ally of Russia, over a disputed presidential election in August that saw the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, claim victory and opposition leaders cry foul.

Key topics for Mrs Morton, minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, to discuss with Mr Titov will include a global climate change conference that the UK will host next year as well as human rights.

She is expected to discuss the case of Mr Navalny and will likely also raise the Skripal case.

The UK blamed Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, for the Salisbury spy poisoning on 4 March, 2018 but Moscow has denied involvement.

As well as talks with the deputy foreign minister, Mrs Morton will also meet with Mr Putin’s representative on environmental affairs as part of an effort to encourage the Kremlin to be more ambitious with its targets to reduce emissions and take a more constructive approach on climate change ahead of the COP26 summit.

During the four-day visit, which will last from Monday to Thursday, the British minister will meet with human rights activists and take part in a number of Remembrance events.

This will include a virtual event with World War Two veterans who were part of the Arctic convoys that transported supplies from the UK to Soviet ports for four years from 1941.

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