Russia mocked Britain today as “a small island no one listens to”, sparking a diplomatic spat with David Cameron.
The Prime Minister insisted that Britain remained a major world power.
Tensions surrounding the Syrian crisis boiled over at a G20 summit in St Petersburg. Mr Cameron has backed calls for military intervention in Syria after the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons.
Mr Putin has opposed intervention and questioned Western claims about the attack. Britain has faced questions about its role and influence in the world since Mr Cameron was embarrassed by last week’s Commons vote to rule out a military strike against Syria.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s official spokesman, is said to have highlighted that embarrassment, telling Russian journalists that Britain was now diplomatically irrelevant.
Britain is “just a small island … no one pays any attention to them”, Mr Peskov is reported to have said. The blunt remarks appeared to realise British fears that the Russians would use the St Petersburg summit to upstage Mr Cameron over his criticism of Syria, Russia’s closest Middle Eastern ally.
The Russian official is also said to have joked about Russian “oligarchs” buying up large parts of Chelsea and other upmarket London districts.
The remarks, which were reported by the BBC, could not be verified, but were apparently accepted as genuine by the Prime Minister in a BBC interview.
In the interview, Mr Cameron angrily rejected the Russian dismissal of British influence. “I don’t accept that for a moment,” he said, insisting that Britain remained a power in world affairs.
“Britain will be one of the leaders in bringing forward plans for a peace process for Syria,” he said. “Britain will be leading the argument across the globe for continuing to respond strongly on chemical weapons.”
A No 10 source expressed irritation at the Russian comments.
“As host of guests from the world’s leading countries, I’m sure the Russians will want to clarify these reported remarks, particularly at a G20 where it’s a very British agenda on trade and tax.”
Despite Mr Cameron’s defence of Britain, the Russian jibe follows concerns among Tory MPs that the failure to follow through on promises of action in Syria has left the country diminished.
The Prime Minister had helped push Barack Obama towards US intervention in Syria. The US president and Mr Cameron are not holding formal meetings in St Petersburg, leading to speculation that their relationship is strained.