A summit between Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin might be possible if Russia’s president ceases “malign activity” against the UK and its allies, the defence secretary has signalled.
But the senior minister told Sky News that Western powers would judge Moscow on what it does next before any warming of ties, which have been brought to a post-Cold War low by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Salisbury spy poisonings.
Asked if he thought the Kremlin might want relations with the UK to improve, the defence secretary said: “I hope so. But we will judge them on their actions. Diplomacy is only valuable if the actions that follow actually make a difference.”
He said he remained concerned about an incident last month when the Russia-backed regime of Belarus forced a civilian airliner to land and seized a journalist on board.
“We, unfortunately, still see malign activity. But I think we will judge President Putin by his actions,” he said.
As to whether there was a chance of a UK-Russia summit, Mr Wallace indicated it was a possibility if the Russian president showed some positive signs of change.
“Boris Johnson is clearly open to meet anyone where there is an important step to be made and stepping towards normalising relations with Russia will obviously and hopefully come, but it comes following certain actions,” he said.
“Crimea is still illegally occupied in Ukraine and there are still things to resolve.”
Pressed again on whether he hoped such a summit could possibly happen, the defence secretary said: “I don’t want a permanent friction between Russia and the West. That is not in anybody’s interest.
“It is not in the interests of the Russian people, it’s not in the interests of the economy of Russia, it’s not in the interests of my population and constituents either.
“Listen, no one wants conflict. No one wants friction but that is not cost-free, you have to lift that based on behaviours.”
He said the Kremlin must recognise and respect “other people’s sovereignty and the international rule of law” before any improvement in relations, such as a lifting of sanctions, could happen.
“But we’ve always got to offer people a path out, a path to improvement and I think that bilateral between President Biden and President Putin is a really welcome start,” Mr Wallace added, referring to the summit in Geneva on Wednesday.
He was speaking on the sidelines of a multinational military exercise at a base in the south of Serbia, about six miles from the border with Kosovo.
Troops, equipped with armoured vehicles, a helicopter and a small drone, practised how to respond to a terrorist attack on a convoy and deal with rioting civilians, as Mr Wallace, Serbian defence minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and other officials watched from a stand.
With 70 British soldiers involved, the UK was the largest foreign contributor to the exercise – dubbed “Platinum Wolf” – which takes place across two weeks and, as well as Serbian forces, includes troops from eight other nations, such as France and the United States.
The visit by Mr Wallace is evidence of the UK’s desire to strengthen ties with a country it once bombed as part of a NATO mission during the Kosovo War more than 20 years ago, but which it previously fought alongside during both world wars.
“The Balkans matter for the security of Europe,” Mr Wallace said. “It’s always mattered. That is why 80 years ago we were standing on hills together side by side pushing back the Nazis. That importance, that geographic importance, that strategic importance still matters today.”
Underlining the challenges in this region, at the same time as British troops train with the Serbian military, forces from Serbia are conducting an exercise with their Russian and Belarussian counterparts in Russia.
Asked whose forces Serbia liked training with more – British or Russian – the Serbian defence minister told Sky News: “We are militarily neutral, so we don’t have to prefer to train with either, we can choose both and that’s our advantage.
He added: “We get the best from East and West in training capabilities, in learning about the tactics… As a militarily neutral country we want to work with everyone in order to get our army as professional as possible.”
Two bodies found in search for missing TV presenter Jesse Baird and his partner
Two bodies have been found in the search for a missing Australian TV presenter and his partner, who were allegedly killed by a police officer.
Jesse Baird, 26, and his flight attendant partner Luke Davies, 29, were allegedly shot dead in Mr Baird’s Sydney home last week.
Beau Lamarre-Condon, a police officer who was in a relationship with Mr Baird until late last year, was charged on Friday with the murders of both men.
Police said Lamarre-Condon provided them with information that led them to the bodies, which were found in a rural area around 124 miles southwest of Sydney.
The New South Wales force allege the 28-year-old officer and ex-celebrity blogger killed the couple at Mr Baird’s home in the Paddington area of the city on Monday and hired a white van to dispose of their bodies. Neighbours reportedly heard an argument at the property that morning.
Mr Baird was a presenter with Network 10 until December. Mr Davies was a Qantas flight attendant.
The Mardi Gras board said LGBT+ communities across Australia had been devastated by the loss of the couple, who had planned to celebrate at the annual parade on Saturday.
The incident has prompted Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras organisers to ask police not to march on the weekend, a move the police commissioner urges them to reconsider.
The board said police presence could “add to the distress within our communities”, which are “already deeply affected by recent events”.
“This decision was not made lightly, especially considering that many… police members who participate in the parade are also members of the LGBTQIA+ community and are navigating the impact of this tragedy alongside us,” the board added.
“However, we believe that their participation at this year’s event could intensify the current feelings of sorrow and distress.”
The alleged killer has been part of the parade in the past, the board said.
Police Commissioner Karen Webb, who has taken part in the annual march since 2006, said she will meet with the organisers in a bid to reverse their decision.
“We’re not dealing with a gay hate crime here,” she said. “We’re dealing with a domestic homicide and… I’m disappointed [by] the position that Mardi Gras board has taken on this issue.”
She added this time “more than any in our society” is “time to come together”.
We’re talking about inclusion, we’re talking about diversity and to exclude part of that community, I think, sends a wrong message,” she added.
Israel-Hamas war: Joe Biden says he hopes Gaza ceasefire can be agreed ‘by end of the weekend’
Joe Biden has said he hopes a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas can be secured by the weekend.
The US president made the remarks during an unannounced visit to the Van Leeuwen ice cream parlour, next door to 30 Rock in New York, on Monday.
Flanked by late night TV show host Seth Meyers, Mr Biden was asked by reporters on when a ceasefire in Gaza could start.
In a surprise turn, he said that he hopes it will take place “by the end of the weekend”.
“My national security advisor (Jake Sullivan) tells me that we’re close, we’re close, we’re not done yet,” he said. “My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”
Mr Biden’s comments come as Israel prepares to start a military operation in Rafah – which he has warned against without a “credible” plan to protect civilians.
Israel has said it will go ahead with an offensive on the city if hostages are not returned by 10 March, which is when Ramadan starts.
According to NBC News, Sky news’ US partner network, Qatar is mediating talks between Israel and Hamas this week, and ceasefire negotiations have taken place between US, Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials in Paris.
Should it happen, it would be the second ceasefire following one in November which saw several hundred Palestinians released from Israeli jails and about 100 hostages freed by Hamas.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said earlier on Monday that the Israeli Defence Force proposed a plan for the evacuation of civilians from “fighting areas” to the country’s war cabinet.
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Alexei Navalny was set to be part of prison swap before he died, claims ally
Alexei Navalny was set to be freed as part of a prisoner swap when he died, one of his allies has claimed.
The Russian opposition leader died at a penal colony within the Artic Circle on 16 February, while serving a 19-year prison sentence on charges his supporters said were politically motivated.
It has now been claimed that the prisoner-swap talks were in their “final stages” when Mr Navalny died.
In a video posted on the late Kremlin critic’s YouTube channel, Maria Pevchikh – who lives outside Russia – said: “Alexei Navalny could have been sitting here now, today. It’s not a figure of speech.”
Ms Pevchikh said she received confirmation about the talks just one day before Mr Navalny’s death was announced.
Ukraine-Russia latest: Kremlin dismisses peace talks as ‘laughable’
She claimed that Putin “wouldn’t tolerate” Navalny being freed and decided to “get rid of the bargaining chip”. She has not offered evidence to back up the allegation.
The circumstances of Mr Navalny’s death remain unclear – but several world leaders, including Joe Biden, have directly blamed Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.
Mr Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya has also pointed the finger at the Russian president, claiming her husband could have been poisoned with novichok.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in his death.
Ms Pevchikh said Mr Navalny and two US citizens held in Russia, whom she has not identified, were supposed to be swapped for Vadim Krasikov.
Krasikov is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen descent.
There are several US citizens in custody in Russia, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested on espionage charges, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, convicted of espionage.
Both men and the US government dispute the charge.
When asked about the swap claim at a regular news conference in Berlin, German government spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann said she could not comment.
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