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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Heather Stewart

Boris Johnson casts doubt on possibility of negotiated peace in Ukraine

Boris Johnson boards a plane at Stansted Airport for a visit to India.
Boris Johnson boards a plane at Stansted Airport for a visit to India. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Boris Johnson has cast doubt on the prospects for a negotiated peace in Ukraine, comparing it to holding talks with a “crocodile”, as he flies to India to discuss the conflict with prime minister Narendra Modi.

Speaking on a plane en route to India, where he will seek to deepen trade ties, as well as discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the prime minister suggested it would now be impossible for Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government to trust Russia in any talks.

“I think it’s very hard to see how the Ukrainians can negotiate with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin now, given his manifest lack of good faith, and his strategy, which is evident, which is to try to engulf and capture as much of Ukraine as he can and then perhaps to have some kind of negotiation from a position of strength, or even to launch another assault on Kyiv,” he said.

“I really don’t see how the Ukrainians can easily sit down and come to some kind of accommodation,” he added. “How can you negotiate with a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws?”

Instead, Johnson said Nato would “keep going with the strategy” of supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself.

He suggested president Zelenskiy had what he called a “pretty maximalist position” of wanting to see Russian troops expelled from their current positions in Donetsk and Luhansk, adding, “on Crimea they’re not so maximalist”.

Johnson played down the prospects that he could persuade Modi to toughen India’s stance on Ukraine – though he said he would press the importance of ditching what he called “Putin’s hydrocarbons”.

India, which buys military equipment from Russia, abstained on a UN motion condemning Putin’s actions in Ukraine in early March.

“I’ve already talked to Narendra Modi about Ukraine and actually the Indians have condemned what happened in Bucha, they have been quite forceful in what they have said,” the prime minister said. “But the UK in particular has to recognise that there is a historic relationship that India has with Russia, I think we have to be alive to that.”

As he embarked on a trip that will take in Gujarat and New Delhi, Downing Street announced £1bn of bilateral investments, claiming these would create up to 11,000 jobs in the UK. However, the investment includes a string of small-scale projects, the smallest of which, from Qure AI Technologies, will create just 15 jobs. The largest, from electric bus firm Switch Mobility, will create 4,000 jobs “across the UK and India”.

Number 10 also highlighted an agreement that will allow OneWeb, the taxpayer-backed space company, to launch its satellites from India.

He said: “As I arrive in India today, I see vast possibilities for what our two great nations can achieve together. From next-generation 5G telecoms and AI to new partnerships in health research and renewable energy – the UK and India are leading the world.”

The government laid out plans for an “Indo-Pacific tilt” in the UK’s foreign policy in its strategic defence review last year; but the approach has been questioned since Russia launched its devastating invasion in Europe.

But Johnson insisted: “I’m completely clear about this: it’s a good thing for us to be doing. India is our great partner,.”

Speaking before the trip, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “We see our role in India as not to seek to lecture and point fingers from the sidelines, but to engage with them constructively as we have done in recent years – to talk to them about potential possible alternatives, on things like energy, on things like security and defence, so we can broaden the coalition of partners who are moving away from any remaining dependence on Russia.”

Amid the continuing Partygate scandal, Number 10 is keen to demonstrate that the prime minister is focused on bread and butter issues, including advancing the UK’s economic and security interests abroad.

He will visit business and cultural sites during the two-day tour, as well as holding bilateral talks with Modi.

The two nations are aiming to agree a free trade agreement by the end of 2022, with two rounds of talks already having taken place and another happening next week.

In the past, hopes of a trade deal have foundered on India’s desire for a more liberal visa regime to allow its citizens to enter the UK. On, the plane, Johnson dropped a heavy hint that he might be willing to compromise. “On immigration I’ve always been in favour of having people coming to this country. We have a massive shortage in the UK, not least in experts in IT and programmers. We’re short to the tune of hundreds of thousands in our economy,” he said, adding, “we need to have a professional approach but it has to be controlled.”

Johnson is under pressure to secure post-Brexit free trade agreements, after hopes of a swift deal with the US evaporated, with Joe Biden’s focus elsewhere.

OneWeb, which was rescued by the UK taxpayer with the enthusiastic backing of Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, had turned to Elon Musk’s SpaceX for help, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ruled out its previous launch site in Kazakhstan.

The UK government took a £400m stake in OneWeb in July 2020, investing to save the business from bankruptcy.

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