British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that while "things are not easy" between the two countries, rising exports of Kettle Chips and Bentleys bring hope for improving ties.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow on December 22 following talks with Lavrov, Johnson said London could not ignore Russia's meddling in elections around the world, its actions in Ukraine, or the persecution of gay people in Chechnya.
But in an attempt to bring some levity to what Lavrov termed a "frank dialogue" during the first visit by a British foreign minister to Russia in five years, Johnson also highlighted signs of increasing trade in luxury cars and potato chips.
"I know in spite of the difficulties we have between us, as you rightly say Sergei, there are signs of economic progress," Johnson, who calls himself a "committed Russophile," told reporters in a press conference that appeared ill-tempered at times.
"I'm delighted to say there are increasing exports of British Kettle Crisps to Russia, and in spite of all the difficulties 300 Bentleys were sold this year in Russia -- not, I believe, necessarily to employees of the Foreign Ministry," he added, although the company that makes that brand of potato chips is based in the United States, not Britain.
Bilateral relations have been severely strained by differences over Ukraine and Syria as well as by allegations of Russian meddling in domestic politics in Europe and the United States. Russia denies the accusations.
The 2006 radiation-poisoning death in London of former Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko has also continued to cast a shadow over ties.
Speaking earlier at the start of their talks on December 22, Johnson told Lavrov that despite "problems" in bilateral ties, Russia and Britain should "work together for peace and security."
Johnson said the two countries needed to cooperate on international issues, such as preserving the Iran nuclear deal, dealing with the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and helping bring peace to Syria.
Lavrov said Moscow wanted the talks to lead to "concrete steps" that would help revive ties.
He added that he "trusts" Johnson, who responded to the remark with trepidation, quipping, "I think as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev used to say, 'Trust, but verify.'"
This prompted Lavrov to shoot back, "I can trust him without verification."
Prime Minister Theresa May said Johnson would take a "hardheaded" approach to dealing with Russia during his talks with Lavrov.
"We are aware of the activity that Russia has undertaken, the illegal annexation of Crimea, its continued activity in...Ukraine, also the action that it is taking in relation to disinformation elsewhere," she told Sky News on December 22.
On the eve of the visit, Johnson said in a statement that "our relations with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’ whilst Russia continues to attempt to destabilize European states, including Ukraine."
"However, it is vital for international security that we do talk to each other – as the consequences of miscommunication or misunderstanding are grave," he said. "My visit to Russia comes at a critical time as we need to work together to solve the world’s most pressing global challenges."
Johnson said he wanted to discuss issues including cooperation to preserve the 2015 deal to curb Iran's nuclear program, the threat posed by North Korea, and security arrangements for the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia.
Johnson irritated Moscow with an interview with The Sunday Times on December 17 in which he said Russia was "closed, nasty, militaristic, and antidemocratic," like the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.
Speaking on December 21, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed Britain for the tension in relations, charging that London had made a "completely unfounded" decision to scale back dialogue.
Zakharova has previously called Johnson unprofessional and organized an online cartoon competition that mocked him.