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article imageBritain's Johnson, Lavrov exchange smiles and barbs on Moscow visit

By Ola CICHOWLAS (AFP)     Dec 21, 2017 in Politics

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson clashed Friday over Russia's alleged interference in the Brexit vote on the first official visit by a foreign minister from London in five years.

The outspoken Johnson arrived in Moscow to try to open lines of communication after years of antagonism and the two diplomats made attempts to show their two countries were willing to consider rapprochement and overcome years of differences.

But they also exchanged barbs on everything from Russia's alleged interference in British politics to Moscow's meddling in Ukraine and Syria and the atmosphere at times grew tense during their final news conference.

The two appeared to clash over allegations that Russia had sought to influence the Brexit vote last year, with Lavrov urging Johnson to come up with hard evidence proving Russia's alleged interference.

Lavrov told reporters Johnson had told him that Russia did not interfere in the Brexit vote.

"Not successfully," Johnson shot back.

"See, he has to say this so that he is not criticised back home, for his reputation," Lavrov responded.

"It's your reputation I'm worried about, Sergei," the British diplomat responded with a smile.

Following the 2016 referendum on Brexit, in which Johnson campaigned to leave the EU, Britain has joined the growing number of Western countries accusing Russia of interfering in their political systems.

At the same time Lavrov praised his talks with Johnson, saying he felt no "hostility," and added that Moscow was ready for dialogue with London on equal terms.

"We are ready to develop dialogue on a very wide range of issues on the basis of principles of equality (and) taking into account and respecting each other's interests," he said.

- 'Committed Russophile' -

Johnson for his part called himself a "committed Russophile" and said he wanted to see an improvement in ties between the two nations.

"We have to find a way forward and in the meantime I think we have to cooperate in those areas where we can to build a better future," the top British diplomat said.

Johnson arrived in Russia after cancelling in April a planned trip at the last minute over Russia's support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

At the start of the talks Johnson told Lavrov that Russia and Britain should cooperate for the sake of global security and that the countries' similarities were more important than disagreements.

"Things are difficult but we want to work together with you on some issues, Sergei, and we want to work to achieve a better future," he told Lavrov.

"We have a duty to work together for peace and security," he added.

His Russian host said Moscow wanted Friday's talks to lead to "concrete steps" that would help revive ties.

"Our ties -- there is no secret here -- are at a very low point," Lavrov said.

Ahead of his Moscow visit Johnson himself said he holds out little hope that ties with Moscow could undergo a full-blown transformation.

In an interview with Polish news agency PAP ahead of his Russia visit, Johnson said he was "no cold warrior", but he did "not believe for a second that relations with Russia can be reset."

Relations between London and Moscow soured after Britain sought to prosecute suspects in the killing of Kremlin critic and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, murdered by radiation poisoning in London in 2006.

Britain has also been a fervent supporter of Western sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The relationship suffered further blows after Russia's intervention in the Syria conflict on the side of the Damascus regime in September 2015.

Johnson, who in his capacity as mayor of London called Russian strongman Vladimir Putin a "ruthless and manipulative tyrant" in 2015, is expected to make Syria a key focus of the talks with Lavrov.

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