Boris Johnson has Not Been a ‘Great War Leader’
The claim that the Prime Minister has shown Churchillian solidarity with Ukraine does not stand up to scrutiny, says Sam Bright
Even as this year’s local elections approach, much focus is still trained on Ukraine – which continues to valiantly resist the march of Vladimir Putin’s fascism.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine has acute relevance to the domestic campaign, with Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party using their response to the conflict as proof that they can be trusted to lead the country – despite the ‘Partygate’ scandal.
Undoubtedly, Britain’s military response has been generous and swift. The UK has responded to the calls of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and has deployed more than 5,000 anti-tank missiles, five air defence systems – as well as other munitions and explosives – to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in mid-February. In recent days, the Government has also pledged an additional £300 million in military aid.
President Zelensky told reporters in mid-April that “we want more than we’re being given, but we’re satisfied. We cannot refuse or reject anything during the war from the biggest military aid, which is coming from the United States and the United Kingdom… I’m grateful for it”.
But, as Johnson himself acknowledges, Russia’s aggression did not begin in February this year – it is merely a continuation and an extension of the war it has been fighting since 2013/14, when Putin annexed Crimea in the east of Ukraine.
Speaking to the Ukrainian Parliament yesterday, Johnson admitted: “We who are your friends must be humble about what happened in in 2014, because Ukraine was invaded before for the first time, when Crimea was taken from Ukraine and the war in the Donbas began.
“The truth is that we were too slow to grasp what was really happening and we collectively failed to impose the sanctions then that we should have put on Vladimir Putin. We cannot make the same mistake again.”
Despite seemingly acknowledging the UK’s failure to stop Putin, these statements are a form of historical revisionism.
Firstly, Johnson is distributing the blame across the West, diluting the culpability of successive Conservative governments that have not only been slow to react to Putin’s threats, but have been fuelling Putin’s war machine.
The world has known about Putin’s expansionist pretensions since his invasion of Georgia in 2008, but this didn’t stop the Conservative Party from both directly and indirectly assisting his campaigns.
In terms of direct assistance, the UK approved £54.9 million of military export licenses to Russia between 2010 and 2014 – the value of arms allowed to be sold to the country by private firms – compared to just £17 million approved to Ukraine.
As catalogued by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, successive Conservative governments also allowed Russian money to flood London – a place in which “PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions [are] all willing beneficiaries of Russian money”.
Since 2008, £100 billion worth of London property has been bought by overseas companies based in so-called ‘secrecy jurisdictions’ – the “favoured vehicle for money launderers”, according to Transparency International.
The Government also rapidly expanded its ‘golden visa’ scheme after 2008 – welcoming thousands of wealthy Russian ‘investors’ into the country with minimal due diligence checks. More than 2,500 golden visas have been granted to Russian investors since 2008, with more than 750 of these individuals granted permanent settlement in the UK.
The scheme was a money laundering risk prior to 2015, experts say, due to the lax rules applied to potential investors. The Government has announced that all the golden visas granted prior to 2015 will be reviewed, though no deadline has been set on the publication of its findings, and the scheme has recently been abolished.
In contrast, from January 2014 to December 2021, only 30 Ukrainians were granted asylum by the UK.
This lack of due diligence has also been witnessed in the case of Conservative Party donations – with more than £2 million given to the party from Russian-linked sources since Johnson took over as party leader in July 2019, and more than £4.8 million accepted from seven wealthy Russian benefactors since 2012.
However, when Byline Times asked the Conservatives how these donors were vetted, no response was forthcoming.
Meanwhile, aside from accepting their money, the Conservative Party has developed a close relationship with several wealthy Russians.
Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, has donated millions to the party over the past decade and was recently revealed to be a member of a secret Downing Street ‘advisory board’ – a little known collective of wealthy individuals granted exclusive access to power.
Johnson also ennobled media baron Evgeny Lebedev – the son of a former KGB spy – with the title Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, and reportedly lent on the security services to drop their concerns about his appointment.
To add insult to injury, the UK was planning on slashing foreign aid to Ukraine this year – a symptom of its decision to cut aid spending as a proportion of Gross National Income from 0.7% to 0.5%. The Government’s contribution to the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) – a fund designed to support activities to prevent instability in countries with UK interests – has also been cut from £1.4 billion to £874 million.
The Prime Minister hasn’t addressed any of these issues – and has been conspicuously quiet about the vast sums of money piled into the Conservative Party by Russian donors. He hasn’t pledged to clean up the city of London or to make it more difficult for oligarchs to influence our politics – in fact quite the opposite.
Moreover, while he was Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, Johnson positively encouraged the encampment of suspicious wealth in the City of London – boasting that the English capital was the greatest city on earth because it had the most billionaires.
“I do not in any way want to deter international investment in our city. Quite the reverse: I want to encourage it,” Johnson said in 2014. “You can see astonishing transformations taking place in London thanks to international investment. We would be utterly nuts as a society if we did anything to turn that away.”
When serving as Mayor of London, Johnson also encouraged oligarchs to sue and divorce using London’s courts – a practice that has, more recently, allowed billionaire Russians to sue British journalists.
Reality and Performance
While the UK Government’s military response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion has been applauded, there are reasons for scepticism.
Reports today suggest that Boris Johnson’s chief of staff blocked an attempt by the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to increase UK military spending during the immediate onset of the invasion.
The UK was also slower than the EU and the US to apply sanctions to Russian oligarchs. Two weeks into the conflict, fewer than 20 Russian oligarchs had been sanctioned by the UK Government – 130 fewer than had been sanctioned by the EU.
Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow on the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Chatham House think tank, said: “On sanctions, there needs to be a greater effort to show that there is a will to grip the problem of Russian money in London. We see that Russia squeals loudest when personal fortunes are threatened.”
The UK has also, infamously, shown a tight-fisted attitude to people seeking asylum from Ukraine – lagging far behind other European countries. Indeed, a legal challenge is now being mounted on behalf of 800 Ukrainians facing visa delays through the Homes for Ukraine scheme – claiming that the Home Office’s muddled response is putting refugees in danger.
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The UK’s military response has appeared to be swift, perhaps only because the response of Europe and America has been relatively slow. There is nothing to suggest that Johnson and his administration have acted exceptionally nor that any other British regime would have acted differently.
There are geopolitical circumstances in America and Europe – namely anti-war sentiments in the former and energy dependence in the latter – that have constrained elements of their response to the war. These structural issues are not seen so acutely in the UK – thus facilitating a more nimble response.
Johnson has also been praised for his rhetoric, and his performative solidarity with Zelensky’s war effort – visiting Kyiv on 9 April. However, again, this wasn’t an exceptional act. Ursula von der Leyen, Head of the European Commission, visited Zelensky in Kyiv the day before – though her meeting was given far less attention by the Westminster tabloids.
Ultimately, Boris Johnson has assisted Putin’s war campaign in some ways during the last 14 years – particularly allowing the creation of ‘Londongrad’ during his time in City Hall. This has been aided and abetted by a Conservative Party that has fortified an economic pipeline running from Moscow to London – a record that has only been partially reversed by the Prime Minister’s benevolent application of military aid to Ukraine over the last two months.
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