TORONTO: Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations on Monday united to condemn Russia for behavior that they said undermined international laws, and called on Moscow to help resolve the conflict in Syria.
The ministers agreed to create a working group to study Russia’s “malign behavior” given concerns about Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.
Johnson’s comments, to reporters on the margins of a two-day meeting of G7 ministers, underlined how tensions between Moscow and the West have increased steadily over recent years.
US intelligence agencies have said Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election campaign, and Russia is also blamed for a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain last month.
Johnson said the G7 ministers had agreed on the need to be vigilant about Russia, which denies interfering in the US election, or involvement in the attack in Britain.
“What we decided … was that we were going to set up a G7 group that would look at Russian malign behavior in all its manifestations — whether it’s cyber warfare, whether it’s disinformation, assassination attempts, whatever it happens to be and collectively try to call it out,” he told reporters.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who hosted the event, said G7 ministers expressed deep concern about the “despicable” nerve agent attack in Britain and Russia’s efforts to destabilize democracies by meddling in elections.
“The G7 countries are committed to preventing, stopping and responding to foreign interference,” she told a news conference at the end of talks.
“There are consequences for those who seek to undermine our democracies,” she said, adding there was clear unity among G7 allies on Russia.
The challenge for the G7 is that it also needs Moscow’s help to solve the crisis in Syria, where Russia and Iran are backing Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan called on Moscow to stop creating impediments to peace in Syria and to play a role in ending the seven-year-long conflict.
“Russia must be a constructive partner in Syria or will be held accountable,” he told reporters.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters the meeting “establishes again that there will be no political solution in Syria without Russia … and that Russia has to contribute its share to such a solution.”
The G7 meeting is the first high-level gathering of the allies since the United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack on April 7.
The Western countries blame Assad for the attack that killed dozens of people. The Syrian government and its Russian ally deny involvement or using poison gas on April 7.
Maas also said the leaders of France and Germany would urge US President Donald Trump in separate meetings this week not to pull out of an Iran nuclear deal with major powers.
Trump has given the European signatories of the deal a May 12 deadline to “fix the terrible flaws” of the 2015 nuclear agreement, or he will refuse to extend US sanctions relief on Iran.
The agreement offered Tehran relief from sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program.
“We accept that Iranian behavior has been disruptive in the region, we accept the president has some valid points that need to be addressed, but we believe they are capable of being addressed (inside the deal),” said Johnson.
The G7 meeting took place several miles from where a van killed at least two people and injured seven when its driver plowed through a busy Toronto sidewalk on Monday, according to police, hospital officials and a Reuters witness.