UK tells allies to cut economic dependence on Russia and 'step up' in support of Ukraine

Britian warns of a 'massive cost' for Moscow if it invades its former Soviet neighbour

Russian soldiers take part in drills in the Rostov region in southern Russia. AP Photo
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Britain has urged its allies to scale back their economic dependence on Russia and stand in solidarity with Ukraine in the face of increasing aggression from its neighbour.

Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, issued the clarion call during a visit to Australia as tensions between the West and Moscow ratchet up.

Before crisis talks between the US and Russia on Friday — largely seen as one of the last chances to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine — Ms Truss delivered a speech at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

She warned Russian President Vladimir Putin he must “desist and step back” from war in Ukraine or risk being dragged into a prolonged conflict.

“Invasion will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war and conflict in Chechnya,” she said, referencing Moscow's past conflicts that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Ms Truss urged allies to "step up" in the face of the crisis, linking the Ukraine conflict to a slew of increasingly emboldened authoritarian regimes who are looking to "export dictatorship."

"The Ukrainians will fight this, it could be a quagmire" she said. "Ukraine is a proud country with a long history. They have known invading forces before from the Mongols to the Tartars ... their resilience runs deep. If they have to, Ukrainians will fight to defend their country."

When asked by the Australian think tank’s executive director Michael Fullilove why she was confident the “free world would stand its ground” against Russia, she replied: “I think it’s very important to note the commitments that Russia made in the 1994 Budapest Agreement in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.”

“Russia agreed alongside the UK and US to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she added. “So the claims that are being made by Vladimir Putin are completely wrong about what has happened but it is true and I made this point in my speech, that the free world has not been doing enough since the end of the Cold War, to make sure that we are deterring aggressors.”

She said any invasion of Ukraine would incur a “massive cost” for Russia and the UK is “prepared to put very severe sanctions in place” and bolster Ukraine’s defence capabilities.

“But the free world also needs to work together to reduce economic dependence on Russia to put in place the agreements that help countries have alternatives in terms of trade and investment,” she added. “So in the future, it becomes harder for those aggressive regimes to use economic dependence as a way of getting what they want.

“So yes, we are very ready to act in the immediate term.”

She pointed to the CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) as an example of how the West uses agreements “to protect ourselves from aggressors — from a position of economic and defensive strength.”

Ms Truss’s comments came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.

The talks between Mr Blinken and Mr Lavrov come just 11 days after their deputies met in Geneva and agreed to preserve dialogue amid Russia's build-up of tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border.

Unlike the January 10 session, which lasted for nearly eight hours, the pair are expected to have a concise exchange as they determine whether diplomacy remains possible.

They will meet at the lakeside luxury Hotel President Wilson, named after the US leader whose decisions included intervening against the Bolshevik revolution.

“These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won't be done quickly. I don't expect we'll solve them in Geneva”, Mr Blinken said in Geneva.

“But we can advance our mutual understanding”, Mr Blinken said, and if Russia de-escalates on the ground, “that can turn us away from this crisis in the weeks ahead".

US President Joe Biden bluntly assessed on Wednesday that his counterpart Vladimir Putin is likely to “move in” on Ukraine and warned of a “disaster for Russia".

Mr Biden said he believes Mr Putin does not want a full-scale war and warned the Russian leader would pay a “dear price” if he launches a military incursion.

Russia, which already fuels a deadly insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014, has demanded guarantees that Nato never accept the former Soviet republic as a member or expand elsewhere in Moscow's old sphere.

The US has declared the idea a “non-starter” and accused Russia of undermining Europe's post-Cold War order by bullying another country into submission.

Mr Blinken headed to Geneva after a solidarity trip to Kyiv and talks with Britain, France and Germany in Berlin, the city that symbolised Europe's transformation from the divisions of the Iron Curtain.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the situation on the Ukrainian border and agreed that further Russian military aggression against Ukraine must be averted, a German government representative said on Friday.

In a phone call on Thursday, Mr Scholz and Mr Johnson also agreed that it must be clear that Russia would have to face considerable costs in case of further aggression.

In her speech, Ms Truss also urged Mr Putin to engage in “meaningful discussions” about the crisis following the build-up of Russian forces near the border with Ukraine.

The foreign secretary said Russia's aggression towards Ukraine shows the “Kremlin has not learnt the lessons of history”, and that “invasion will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war and conflict in Chechnya”.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan stretched throughout the 1980s, costing thousands of lives.

The foreign secretary and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace have used their visit to Australia to bolster Britain's defence and diplomatic ties with Australia.

Ms Truss has highlighted the need for allies such as the UK and Australia to work together to counter the challenge posed by Russia and China on the world stage.

She hit out at “global aggressors” who are “emboldened in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War”.

“That is why regimes like Belarus, North Korea and Myanmar find their closest allies in Moscow and Beijing,” she added.

Ms Truss said that threats to “freedom, democracy and the rule of law” are global challenges, not regional issues and so require an international response from the “free world”.

“We need to work with partners like Australia, Israel, India, Japan, Indonesia and more,” she added.

“Building closer ties with our friends and drawing other countries closer to the orbit of free-market democracies will ultimately make us all safer and freer in the years to come.

“It is time for the free world to stand its ground.”

Updated: January 21, 2022, 9:41 AM