Borish Johnson: Britain is ‘ready to hit back’

Boris Johnson (pictured in Moscow on Thursday) said Britain is able to launch retaliatory cyber attacks against Russia

Britain is ‘prepared and able’ to launch massive retaliatory cyber attacks against Russia, Boris Johnson warned last night.

The Foreign Secretary, who arrived in Moscow yesterday for talks, said the UK ‘cannot accept’ Russia’s ‘destabilising’ cyber activity against the West.

In meetings with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov today, Mr Johnson will complain about Russian-backed hackers’ efforts to attack critical UK infrastructure – such as power stations and communication networks – influence elections, and spread fake news.

He will underline Britain’s growing offensive cyber capability, after GCHQ this week revealed it has developed sophisticated weapons that could cripple a hostile state.

On the day it emerged an alleged Russian spy had met Theresa May in Downing Street in July, Mr Johnson told reporters on a flight to Moscow that Russia should understand that the UK had developed a powerful cyber deterrent. 

He declined to comment in more detail, but added: ‘The UK is certainly prepared and able to respond should we so desire.

‘I can assure you the UK is a world leader in this field. We do not conduct malign or disruptive cyber activity but … the logic of deterrence is clearly something we now appreciate in the cyber field and that is something we have acquired.’

Mr Johnson is the first UK foreign secretary to visit Russia for five years. He said relations ‘haven’t been so bad for a very long time’ – and Moscow was behaving in a ‘more hostile way’ towards British interests than at any time since the Cold War.

Asked if he trusted the Russian government, he said: ‘It is very hard to attach credence to some of the things they have claimed over the last few years.’

He will warn Mr Lavrov that the UK will never accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its hostile action in Ukraine or its threats against Nato allies in the Baltics.

In a show of disapproval, the Foreign Secretary will also hold talks with Russian dissidents, including gay rights activists, who face growing persecution by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Last night Mr Johnson accused President Putin of placing Russia ‘in direct opposition to the West’.

But he added: ‘It doesn’t have to be that way … relations with Russia cannot be business as usual whilst Russia continues to attempt to destabilise European states … However, it is vital for international security that we do talk to each other as the consequences of miscommunication or misunderstanding are grave.’

Relations with the Kremlin have been strained since the 2011 murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in a central London hotel by Russian agents.

Mr Putin’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad further soured links with the West. Moscow has backed Assad’s attacks on his own people and vetoed 11 attempts to take action at the UN.

Mr Johnson will complain about Russian-backed hackers' efforts to attack critical UK infrastructure

Mr Johnson will complain about Russian-backed hackers’ efforts to attack critical UK infrastructure

Relations were plunged into the deep freeze when Russia seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 – action which led to Russia being booted out of the G8 and the imposition of sanctions against the Putin regime.

Last month, in a message to President Putin, the Prime Minister said: ‘We know what you are doing and you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

A diplomatic source said relations with Moscow were ‘as bad as I have ever known’. Mr Johnson this week likened Russia to the warlike Ancient Greek state of Sparta, describing it as ‘closed, nasty, militaristic and anti-democratic’.

But ministers are keen to promote better understanding with Russia. Mr Johnson hopes to gain more co-operation on tackling the threat posed by North Korea, and wants assurances about the safety of football fans at next year’s World Cup.

Moscow hopes to exploit his trip for propaganda by claiming it shows Russia is not isolated diplomatically. But Russian foreign ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said Mr Johnson’s visit was pointless unless he was willing to take ‘real steps’ to improve bilateral relations.

She hit back over his Sparta claim, saying: ‘Russia has never been a militaristic country, unlike the European states.’

On a plane to Cyprus yesterday, Mrs May said it was ‘right that we engage’ with Russia and that the Foreign Secretary’s visit was an ‘opportunity also to talk to them about the issues of concern that we have about their behaviour’.

She cited ‘disinformation’, the annexation of Crimea, and the current situation in Ukraine.