Liz Truss has accused Russia of “playing a smoke and mirrors game” by pretending to seek peace despite launching an “appalling war” in Ukraine, as Boris Johnson dampened down suggestions that Ukraine could join Nato.
As the conflict neared the end of its third week, Britain’s foreign secretary called it a “serious threat to the global order” and suggested the Kremlin could extend its attention to other eastern European countries in an attempt to “recreate the Soviet Union”.
The overnight assessment by the UK’s Ministry of Defence said Russian troops were “struggling to overcome the challenges posed by Ukraine’s terrain” and were confined mostly to the road network. It said Russia’s “continued failure to gain control of the air has drastically limited their ability to effectively use air manoeuvre, further limiting their options.”
Truss suggested the prospect of successful peace talks was still some way off, given that the first precursor would be a ceasefire and Vladimir Putin withdrawing soldiers.
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“It’s very, very difficult for the Ukrainians to negotiate with a gun against their heads,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I am very, very concerned that Putin is playing a smoke-and-mirrors game of trying to claim that he is seeking peace whilst at the same time continuing with this appalling war that he instigated. And he’s not making the progress that he thought he would.”
Truss said talk of whether Ukraine could join the western defensive military alliance of Nato was “not the real issue”.
Her comments came in stark contrast to Boris Johnson, who said on Wednesday morning there was “no way Ukraine is going to join Nato anytime soon”.
The prime minister said he understood “the reality of the position”, speaking during a visit to the Middle East with significant restrictions on access to journalists during which he will push for help to wean the UK and wider west off Russian energy.
It followed the admission by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, about the chance of the country becoming a Nato member. “We will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged,” he said. The comment was viewed as a crucial concession that could pave the way to a de-escalation of the war.
Truss, meanwhile, said: “It’s a matter for Ukraine whether or not they decide to join Nato and of course, a matter for Nato members. I’ve always thought that that isn’t the real issue, that it is a smokescreen.
“And if you look at all of Putin’s public statements, his Munich security conference speech in 2007, his essay of last year, this is about recreating a greater Russia, and essentially subordinating Ukraine under Russian authority, as well as extending more broadly to other eastern European states.
“This is why it’s so important that we stop Putin in Ukraine, because it isn’t just about Ukraine. It isn’t just about Nato. It is about the desire to recreate the Soviet Union, and he is clearly an extremely dangerous man.”
Pressed on whether it was more important for the UK to sacrifice its moral opposition to the death penalty by seeking the Saudi government’s help after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and recent executions of 81 men, Truss said: “I’m not condoning every action by the Saudi government.
“We need to be prepared to work with countries we don’t necessarily agree with because this is a threat to global security in a way that no other country poses that level of threat.”
She added: “This is a serious threat to the global order. It’s an incredibly serious threat to European security. And we cannot afford to simply rule out countries because we don’t like a particular policy.”