Lying Again?The Many Questions for Boris Johnson Over his Support for Ukraine
With the former Prime Minister again dominating the news with claims of alleged nuclear threats from Vladimir Putin, former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall puts his record on Ukraine under the spotlight
Since stepping down as Prime Minister last September, Boris Johnson, has kept himself busy.
Though he departed in disgrace after members of his own party grew fed up with his serial lying, this did not prevent him from drawing up his own resignation honours list – a singularly inappropriate description in this case.
He has signed a lucrative deal with HarperCollins to write his memoirs.
He’s preparing his defence – funded by British taxpayers – for investigations into whether he lied to Parliament over the ‘Partygate’ scandal. Johnson and his backers continue to snipe at Rishi Sunak from the sidelines, and he has joined backbench rebellions on some of the Prime Minister’s planned legislation.
He’s also been busy earning money giving speeches on the international talk circuit. Apparently his salary as an MP, and the considerable number of loans and financial help he’s been given from various sponsors and friends under dubious circumstances, are still not enough to fund his and his wife’s lavish lifestyle. This includes the £800,00 loan facilitated while he was Prime Minister by the man he went on to appoint as the BBC’s Chairman, Richard Sharp.
Johnson may indeed find himself under further investigation as more details of his financial dealings emerge. Some voters in his constituency might legitimately feel a bit disgruntled at his lack of attention to them.
Perhaps to distract from all these domestic shenanigans, Johnson has also been actively promoting his support for Ukraine – writing op-eds, appearing on talk shows, and even this month finding the time to make a flying visit to Ukraine and meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Later this week Johnson is due to make another international appearance to discuss Ukraine, this time at the US think tank, the Atlantic Council. The theme of his talk is “to discuss the importance of Western unity and support for Ukraine, and what more can be done against the threat Russia poses”.
Many people – including myself – who have been harshly critical about Boris Johnson’s overall political record, have nevertheless recognised that he has outwardly been a stalwart champion of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.
As Prime Minister, he was swift to send military assistance to Ukraine. He supported tough international sanctions on Russia. His visit to Kyiv early in the war undoubtedly provided a valuable morale boost to the Ukrainians. His recent op-eds on the issue have persuasively made the case for why we should sustain support for Ukraine.
Nevertheless, those who praise Johnson’s views on Ukraine, or offer him a platform to expound them further, need to reflect on what might lie behind his current position.
This is a man who famously only decided to back Brexit at the last minute, after writing a column in favour of staying in the EU. He appeared not to have been motivated by any long-held position of principle, but by his assessment that backing the leave campaign offered him the best route to fulfil his ambition of becoming Prime Minister.
Any detailed study of his record on Russia and Ukraine would suggest that his strong stand on Ukraine may be similarly opportunistic.
Soon after the EU Referendum, Johnson became Foreign Secretary. His sympathies for Russia were well known in the Foreign Office, with officials having to work hard to persuade him not to pursue a Hillary Clinton-style ‘re-set’ of relations with Russia. Clinton at least had the excuse that her effort came before Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
So, if the Atlantic Council wants to host a genuinely honest event, here are some questions it should put to Boris Johnson.
Why, in 2016, at the height of the EU Referendum campaign, did he give a speech effectively blaming EU foreign policy for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?
“If you want an example of EU foreign policy-making on the hoof, and the EU’s pretensions to be running a defence policy, that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine,” he said.
These comments caused a storm of outrage at the time – since Johnson was effectively echoing Vladimir Putin’s talking points that the West was at fault. Johnson’s remarks even prompted the Ukrainian Embassy in London to issue a rebuttal, tweeting that Russia was to blame for the situation in Ukraine.
Why, in 2018, as Foreign Secretary, did Johnson spend several days at the private villa of Russian oligarch and ex-KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, unaccompanied by any Foreign Office officials or even security protection?
This event came immediately after a confidential NATO meeting discussing the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. What was discussed there? Why did Johnson allow himself to get so drunk that he was photographed at the airport for his return flight looking considerably the worse for wear?
In 2020, why did Boris Johnson make Alexander Lebedev’s son – Independent and Evening Standard media mogul Evgeny Lebedev – a peer in the House of Lords, against the advice of the UK’s own security services? Is it true, as claimed by the wife of fellow Brexit backer Michael Gove, that Johnson’s ultimate decision to back Brexit was taken after a private dinner with Evgeny Lebedev?
Why, in the run up to the 2019 General Election, did Boris Johnson’s Government suppress a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee into alleged Russian interference in British politics?
When the report was finally published, nine months later, among its key conclusions were that the UK Government has deliberately failed to investigate evidence of successful Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes, that Russian influence in the UK had become “the new normal”, that Russian links to the UK’s elites provided means for exerting influence, and that the UK’s intelligence services had “taken their eye off the ball”. Does Boris Johnson agree with these assessments? What actions did he take to address the concerns in the report?
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Why, on his watch, did Johnson continue to allow so much Russian money to flood into Conservative Party coffers? According to reports, as many as 14 ministers in his Government – including six members of the Cabinet and two MPs on the Intelligence and Security committee – received donations from individuals and companies linked to Russia. Does he still think that was appropriate? Does he regret any of his Russia associations now?
Why, in 2021, did the UK Treasury grant a special exemption to Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious Russian mercenary group Wagner, to circumvent British sanctions so he could launch a legal case in British courts against a British journalist?
Wagner is accused of some of the worst human rights abuses and war crimes in Ukraine and across the world in support of Putin’s regime. Prigozhin was sanctioned in the US in 2018 and by the UK and EU in 2020.
The US Government recently announced it would designate the Wagner group as a “transnational criminal organisation”, allowing it to impose even tougher sanctions on the group. But, according to a shocking new investigation by openDemocracy, in 2021 the UK Treasury issued special licenses to let the oligarch override sanctions and launch an aggressive legal campaign against British journalist Eliot Higgins in the London courts.
The libel suit against Higgins followed revelations by his website Bellingcat about Wagner’s shadowy operations. The case eventually collapsed last March after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but left Higgins with estimated legal costs of £70,000. Did Johnson know about this? How was this allowed to happen?
Why, in 2022, would the UK’s Information Commissioner refuse to release the minutes of a meeting between then Foreign Secretary Johnson and the CEO of Cambridge Analytica – the disgraced and now defunct data analytics firm notorious for its role in trying to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election in favour of Donald Trump – to Byline Times on the grounds that disclosure would undermine trust and confidence between the US and UK?
It is impossible to know what might justify this conclusion but, typically, trust between allies is undermined when one country spies on the other, colludes with an enemy against the other, fails to share critical security information with the other, or intervenes in the other country’s domestic political affairs. To clear up any confusion, might Johnson like to explain what might have been said and done at that meeting to warrant such secrecy?
Why, if Johnson puts such a premium now on maintaining Western unity in the face of Russian aggression, does he continue to call for the Northern Ireland Protocol to be renegotiated, at the risk of a real row with both the EU and the US? Why does he let Brexit continue to fester as an open wound in relations between the UK and EU, further distracting and dividing the Western alliance when it needs to remain strong and united?
Finally, can Boris Johnson assure us he has cut-off all his Russia associations?
Given his record of fickle, opportunistic and dishonest behaviour – in both his private and public life – can he assure us that he will continue to maintain his staunch support for Ukraine, even if wider circumstances change? What if Donald Trump or a similar Ukraine sceptic becomes US President? What if Russia starts to win the war or Zelensky is replaced by a less talented Ukrainian leader?
Given his past positions on Ukraine and Russia, why should we trust what Boris Johnson says now?
Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity
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