Boris Johnson has clashed publicly with his Russian counterpart over Crimea and Moscow’s alleged cyber attacks on the West, as the two men met in Moscow.
Sergey Lavrov denied claims the Kremlin had interfered in democratic elections online and accused Mr Johnson of being a “hostage” of untrue Western narratives on the issue.
But in a series of extraordinarily frank exchanges, Mr Johnson insisted there was “abundant evidence” of Russian interference in polls in the US, Germany, Denmark and France.
When the Russian foreign minister told a press conference in Moscow that Mr Johnson himself had confirmed Russia had not interfered in the UK’s election and Brexit referendum, the Foreign Secretary interrupted to add: “Not successfully.”
The clash came after Mr Johnson issued a warning to the Kremlin that Britain was “prepared and able” to respond in kind to cyber attacks.
Speaking after more than an hour of talks on the first visit to Russia by a British foreign secretary for five years, both men acknowledged that relations between the two countries were at their worst for many years.
Nevertheless they accepted their countries had a duty to work together as fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council on issues affecting global security like Syria, Iran and North Korea.
The two men insisted they had established a level of personal trust, with Mr Johnson joking that he had even handed his coat with “everything in my pockets, secret or otherwise” to Mr Lavrov when he arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building.
Mr Lavrov joked back: “I can say that there was nothing in the pockets of Boris’s coat,” to which Mr Johnson responded in surprise: “So you have searched it already?”
However, when Mr Johnson rejected Mr Lavrov’s denial that Russia had attempted to interfere in British polls, the Russian foreign minister retorted: “He is afraid if he doesn’t contradict me his reputation is going to be ruined.”
Mr Johnson said Russian attempts to interfere in Britain’s referendums and elections “whatever they might be” had not been successful, adding that if they had, “that would have been an entirely different matter”.
Mr Lavrov said the evidence produced so far of Russian attempts at interference amounted to no more than the spending of “a few kopecks” on social media adverts.
“I think you have made all this up in your Western community and unfortunately right now you are hostage to this subject, it is very difficult for you to climb down from the fence you have climbed.”
He criticised Britain for cutting off ties with the FSB security agency over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, complaining that UK authorities had refused to hand over information in the case.
He said the takeover of Crimea had been approved by a referendum of its citizens unlike the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
And he said that UK Government criticism of politicians who speak to Russian media outlets like the RT TV channel did not reflect well on the UK.
“We are concerned that the cradle of democracy, the United Kingdom, sees the vilifying of people for speaking to Russian media,” he said. “It doesn’t add to the good reputation of the Government, unfortunately.”
Earlier Mr Johnson was rebuked by his host for speaking in public about their differences. On the eve of the talks, Mr Johnson sent a blunt message to the Kremlin to stop its use of cyberspace to disrupt Western countries.
He told reporters: “The UK is certainly prepared and able to respond, should we so desire.”
Facing Mr Johnson across a conference table at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Guest House in Moscow, Mr Lavrov said: “It is no secret that right now our relations are at a low point.
“You prefer to talk about these reasons publicly, whereas we would prefer to talk about our mutual concerns not before a mike and at a tribune, but directly.”
In a move likely to further aggravate his Russian hosts, Mr Johnson later laid a bunch of red roses at the spot on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015.
Mr Nemtsov was deputy prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin and a declared admirer of Margaret Thatcher who tried to institute reforms to push Russia towards democracy and free markets.
Mr Johnson added his flowers to a pile of tributes from Nemtsov supporters, which are left on the bridge on a daily basis, but cleared away every night.
Earlier, the Foreign Secretary laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin and made a tour of Red Square.
Mr Johnson later met Mr Nemtsov’s lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, who urged him to keep pressure on President Vladimir Putin to allow investigators to pursue evidence which might uncover the sponsors of the assassination.
“Some people have been arrested, but they are low-level perpetrators, not the organizers,” Mr Prokhorov told the Press Association.
“There are no real steps being taken by the investigators because they are being blocked by Vladimir Putin.
“We ask Mr Johnson and all leaders of Western countries to always ask Putin and his inner circle ’Where are the organisers?’ The Kremlin has no answer to these questions.”
Supporters of Mr Nemtsov suspect people linked to the Putin-backing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of involvement in the crime, he said.
Mr Johnson also met representatives of Russian human rights and civil society organisations at the residence of the UK ambassador.
Tania Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, said that the authorities were prosecuting critics of the Putin regime’s activities in Syria and Ukraine and shutting down websites which acted as independent voices.
“This is the worst human rights crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union,” Ms Lokshina told PA. “The worst that we have seen in Russia’s contemporary history.”
Mr Lavrov presented Mr Johnson with an album of photos of Churchill and Stalin at the 1943 Tehran conference between leaders of the Second World War allies.
The Foreign Secretary presented his host with the book of a London exhibition marking the centenary of the 1917 Russian revolution.