Boris prepares to take on the Russian bear | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.07.2016
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Boris prepares to take on the Russian bear

The UK’s outgoing foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, was told he had "anti-Russian sentiments," but will his replacement, Boris Johnson, manage the frosty relationship any better? Fiona Clark takes a look.

Boris Johnson is about to get his chance to dance with the man he's labelled "the devil" - Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's probably not the best thing to call a world leader, but I guess when he wrote it in a column last year he probably hadn't envisaged Brexit and his failure to become PM or his appointment to the position of foreign secretary in Teresa May's new government. But now he will have to come face-to-face with pretty much every world leader he's insulted. And the list is long.

Media around the world has responded to the surprise appointment by listing some of his most famous gaffes including the limerick he wrote about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which basically states he's a "wankerer" from Ankara who'd had sex with a goat and didn't even bother to stop and "thankera."

two men Copyright: picture-alliance/PA Wire

Boris has always been known for his gaffes but the one targeting Erdogan was probably the pick of them

Writing in the Sun newspaper he went on to accuse US President Barack Obama of harboring anti-British sentiments due to his Kenyan background after a statue of Winston Churchill was removed from the oval office. "Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British Empire - of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender."

Then in the lead up to the Brexit referendum he took a swipe at the EU when he likened it to Hitler's attempts to take over Europe.

Dobby the house elf

And then there was his column last December in the Daily Telegraph where he labelled Putin as 'the devil.' To be fair the column was a back-handed compliment to Russian forces after the defeat of "Islamic State" (IS) fighters in the historic Syrian town of Palmyra and an appeal to the UK to put aside its cold-war sentiments and work with Russia and Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, to defeat the terrorist group.

But the devil comment was just the tip of the iceberg. He went on to write:

"Look, I am no particular fan of Vlad. Quite the opposite. Russian-backed forces are illegally occupying parts of Ukraine. Putin's proxy army was almost certainly guilty of killing the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines jet that came down in eastern Ukraine. He has questions to answer about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, pitilessly poisoned in a London restaurant. As for his reign in Moscow, he is allegedly the linchpin of a vast post-Soviet gangster kleptocracy, and is personally said to be the richest man on the planet. Journalists who oppose him get shot. His rivals find themselves locked up. Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, he is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant."

woman holding up report © Reuters/T. Melville

The Litvinenko affair was at the heart of frosty ties

Much of it may well be fair enough but it's not the rhetoric usually used in public to describe another country's leader and it might be hard to come back from. Boris, however the eternal optimist, obviously didn't think it'd be a problem at the time, going on to add: "Does that mean it is morally impossible to work with him? I am not so sure."

Russian riddle

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov isn't quite so loquacious. Lavrov, a career diplomat who's spent a decade in the UN (including seven stints as president of the Security Council) before being appointed to the position of foreign minister in 2004, is widely regarded as one of the best operators in the business.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described him as "among the most respected" diplomats of our time, and many of his contemporaries have praised his wit, wisdom, and ability to verbally eviscerate his opponents with his encyclopaedic knowledge, sarcasm and sharp turn of phrase (in three languages other than Russian.) He is the consummate professional who has survived Soviet times and beyond and, so far, unlike many of his colleagues in and around the Kremlin, remains untarnished.

Johnson's predecessor, Phillip Hammond, said Russia was the UK's "single greatest threat" and relations between the two countries have been frosty for some years. A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said he hopes Johnson will come to the table without the "anti-Russian complexes" of his predecessor, and he may well do. And given his love for Churchill, who famously said Russia "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" he may well find the "key" Churchill wrote about to make the relationship work.

And Boris may find he has a shared interest with Lavrov that could help break the ice. The Russian it seems has another side to him. Like Boris he has a penchant for putting pen to paper, and according to the BBC, is a poet in his spare time. One poem the site cites ends with the foreboding line "Weep but keep your powder dry."

A lesson, perhaps, Boris should heed before he takes on the Russian bear.

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