Policy U-turn makes Boris the first UK foreign secretary to visit Russia in five years

The official line is that Johnson has gone to give the Russians a tongue-lashing – the reality is quite different

Driving out of London last weekend, I actually missed the turning to Oxford (not brilliantly signposted, but I know where it is), because of a short item deep down in the midday news headlines on the radio. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, it said, would be going to Moscow in the coming weeks, the first UK foreign secretary to beat that path in five years.

Now, it may be that the news item, rather like the Oxford sign, was shaped and positioned in such a way as to be inconspicuous. It has since been rather lost in the general press of other news, as it was probably meant to be. But the Foreign Office announcement, slipped out on a Saturday morning, before the orgy of sport and the Sunday Budget previews, deserves more attention than my gasp of surprise at first hearing.

This is, first, because it amounts to an enormous foreign policy U-turn, one of the most definitive by any UK government in many years. Second, because it is that rare creature in the currently grim world of diplomacy: a move in the right direction that could play a small part in the making of a better world.

This is not, of course, how the Foreign Office presented it. The emphasis from the diplomatic spinmeisters was all on what this visit was not. As reported by the BBC, this is what an unidentified Foreign Office “source” said. “This is not a return to business as usual ... It does not ‘signal any shift in UK policy towards Russia’.” “He is not going in order to reset the relationship... This is not about cosying up, in fact quite the opposite.”

All of which might lead you to conclude that Boris Johnson was setting off on a mission to read the riot act to those pesky Russians, in the manner of an imperial envoy setting off with his retinue to a troublesome colony. Would any concessions be made, any of the condemnation softened? Perish the thought: “The Foreign Secretary will continue to be robust on those issues where we differ.”

So the official line is that Boris is setting off – “in due course” – on the first foreign ministerial visit to Russia for five years to give the Russians a tongue-lashing and drum home the UK’s known positions on the conflicts of the moment, such as Syria and Ukraine. Which he may well do, if only for form’s sake.

But this is not the point. The point is that there has been hardly any face-to-face contact at this level since 2012 and that Johnson is going there; Sergei Lavrov, his opposite number, is not coming here. The precedence is clear. It is the UK that has altered its position, not Russia.

Nor, although the announcement came out of the blue, was the policy shift completely without preparation. While UK ministers in general and Boris Johnson in particular have been notably harsher in their language about Russia than their counterparts in Europe or the pre-Trump United States – Johnson has accused Moscow of war crimes in Syria, for instance, and called for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy – the Foreign Secretary has recently started to hint at a different approach.

In January, when he gave his first major foreign policy speech as Foreign Secretary at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, he tucked in a remark about dialogue not being incompatible with a tough line on Russia. He went a little further at the Munich Security Conference last month, when he said: “You have got to engage with Russia, but you have to engage in a very guarded way...” Both phrasings, though, passed almost unnoticed. In the first case, because of a typically Johnsonian wordplay about elephants and tusks; in the second, because all the focus at Munich was all on the new US President and what his real intentions were for US security.

Even if the ground was prepared at least a little for the UK policy shift, however, the timing of the announcement still surprised. One sympathetic explanation – sympathetic to Johnson, that is – was that the very ferocity of his anti-Russia rhetoric since his arrival at King Charles Street had gained him “space” for a rapprochement without appearing “soft”, and this was all part of the plan. Perhaps. But there are hard-headed reasons why the UK might consider a policy change to be in its interests now – and the sooner and sharper the better.

One is the general thawing towards Russia that is in progress in much of “old” Europe, where the dangers of isolating Russia are increasingly seen as greater than the risks of engagement. President Vladimir Putin has gradually been brought in from the cold chamber where he was confined after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and elections in France and Germany could speed the change further.

Another is the extent to which the UK has been excluded from talks – whether over Ukraine, where the running has been made by Germany, or over Syria, where the baton of peace-convenor has been passed from the US to Russia. Choosing not to take part is one thing; not being invited – quite something else.

Theresa May has also seemed less dogmatic about Russia than her predecessor. When she became Prime Minister, one of her earliest calls was to Putin. There was also a cooling towards China. Was she perhaps troubled by the glaring inconsistency in official UK attitudes to the two?

What really changed the calculation, though, was surely the election of Donald Trump. His desire for a new US opening to Russia has got him into all sorts of difficulties at home, and it may be that the much-vaunted meeting with Putin has been put on hold. If the Trump administration eventually decides on an overture to Russia – as I still think it will – then the UK, already distanced from the EU, risked becoming perilously isolated – or looking like a “poodle” again if it left its U-turn too late.

In the event, the timing of the Boris-to-Moscow announcement was probably about as good as it gets. Only days before, the Government had been given something like cover for a policy change, when the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published its report on relations with Russia. While there was a generous amount of Cold War sabre-rattling, the bottom line was that attempts to isolate Russia had been counterproductive and that it was high time for the UK to re-engage or risk being left out on a limb. The report can now be cited to rebuff any objections that MPs or the Foreign Office might make.

It will not, of course, be a simple matter for the UK to re-set relations with Russia. The mood of MPs – though less of the Lords – is hawkish in the extreme. There is one dominant view of Syria and one of Ukraine – both of which put Russia in the dock and brook no dissent. But a UK rapprochement with Russia has to happen: standing alone against Putin would leave the UK looking not principled, but irrelevant. If the only way such a major policy change can be undertaken is to pretend it is not happening, that is regrettable. But better the pretence and the U-turn than the dead end our two countries are trapped in today.