The first visit by a UK government minister to Moscow since 2017 will go ahead next week in what is being presented as an attempt to maintain a dialogue with Russia while stopping short of a normalisation of UK-Russian relations.
The Foreign Office minister Wendy Morton will undertake a three-day visit, with government officials stressing that the points of difference with Russia are if anything growing rather than receding.
The UK has imposed sanctions on six senior aides to Vladimir Putin, in common with France and Germany, and so far there have been no countermeasures from Russia. The sanctions were imposed by the UK in response to the poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
At a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Morton is expected to tell her opposite number, Vladimir Titov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, that the UK has seen no evidence to suggest anyone but the Russian state was responsible for the use of the nerve agent novichok to poison Navalny.
The Russian dissident is still recovering in Germany, and has said he wishes to return to Russia. His organisation’s offices in Moscow were raided last week.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Wednesday suggested sanctions would be imposed on Germany and France but made no mention of the UK. It was not clear if this was deliberate or an oversight.
Morton’s meeting is part of an annual set-piece ministerial dialogue that was cut off in 2018 the wake of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal by Russian secret service agents in Salisbury in March that year, and the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK.
Last February, the Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan met Titov on the margins of the Munich security conference.
The timing of next week’s meeting allows British officials to test the Russian response to the election of Joe Biden as US president. Although Donald Trump took a lenient approach towards Putin, many British officials feel the US administration overall did not follow the president’s lead.
The UK has held high-level talks with the Ukrainian government and offered a military and economic package to assist the Ukrainian resistance to Russian interference in the east of Ukraine.
The UK regards the annual dialogue as a way of communicating British concerns directly, and overall regards the trend in the rest of Europe as one of a hardening attitude towards Russia. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had suggested a possible opening towards Moscow, but then came the Navalny poisoning.
Morton will also meet Putin’s climate change adviser as part of preparations for the UK hosting the UN climate change conference. postponed to next year. She will also meet civilian human rights campaigners.