Does Boris Johnson Deserve a Pass Because of Ukraine?
Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall assesses the former Prime Minister’s recent trip to the US in support of Ukraine and what it says about his political motives
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Writing previously in these pages, I posed a series of questions about Boris Johnson’s dubious past dealings with Russian figures, his Government’s apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to the amount of Russian money in the UK financial system and evidence of Russian interference in British politics, and his ambivalent attitude on Ukraine before Russia’s invasion last year.
Given this record, I asked whether one could really take at face value his staunch support for Ukraine now. How much of his support for Ukraine is genuine and how much is it posturing or self-aggrandisement to maintain his international profile? How much might it be about positioning himself for a political comeback in the UK?
What prompted my questions was the news that he was planning to speak at a Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, on the theme of the importance of sustaining support to Ukraine and Western unity in the face of Russian aggression. During his visit, Johnson also called on several senior Republican members of Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, numerous prominent Senators, and a further group of Republicans at a private club.
On the eve of his visit, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had definitively made the case for Ukraine to be given NATO membership. Strategic ambiguity over its prospects was no longer an option. Johnson also gave several media interviews, including to ABC News and Fox News.
Given the fact that Johnson was forced out of office due to his own serial dishonesty, I wondered why so many Republicans were willing to embrace such a disgraced figure. I also wondered why an organisation like the Atlantic Council, dedicated to preserving the transatlantic alliance and strongly critical in much of its writings about Brexit, was so willing to give the chief architect of Brexit a platform now.
I appreciate that it is important for think tanks to hear different points of view. I appreciate many former prime ministers go on to become distinguished speakers on the international circuit. I appreciate that Boris Johnson is a particularly well-known figure, whose presence helps raises the profile, and perhaps the fundraising ability, of organisations which host him.
But most former prime ministers have not been ousted in such scandalous circumstances. Moreover, unlike, say, former Prime Minister Tony Blair – who took on new international roles such as Middle East Peace Envoy – Johnson currently has no formal foreign policy role and is nothing more these days than a backbench MP.
But when I listened to Johnson speak at the Atlantic Council, I found myself second-guessing my initial scepticism.
It is undeniable that he has become a persuasive orator on Ukraine. He speaks with the passion of one who truly believes in the cause. He has genuine first-hand knowledge of the situation from his own time as Prime Minister, his numerous visits to Ukraine and a personal rapport with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Though he spoke in his typical irreverent, bombastic style, for once I detected no evidence of his infamous ‘smirk’. His arguments were plain and, perhaps in some aspects, overly simplistic. But he sounded, and seemed, sincere.
One of his most compelling points was that we in the West should not allow ourselves to be held in thrall by fear of what might be going on in Vladimir Putin’s mind at any time or his threats to use nuclear weapons. We should not allow Putin’s “inner psycho-drama” to mess with our heads. What matters is what is actually happening in Ukraine now, rather than what might happen down the road in Russia.
Even more to Johnson’s credit, he implicitly acknowledged that he had been wrong in the past, when he volunteered that he had changed his mind about Ukrainian membership of NATO. He even dropped his usual hostility to the EU, by arguing that Ukraine should also be accepted into that grouping. He also called on Republicans to stop being afraid of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who’s been outspoken in defending Russian actions in Ukraine.
Given the genuine strategic importance of Ukraine, I found myself wondering whether Johnson’s prominent role now actually does absolve him from at least some of the dodgier aspects of his record as Prime Minister. Could it be that he actually was, for once, genuinely serving a cause larger than himself?
After wrestling with this for several days, I have concluded that the answer to both questions is no.
If Johnson truly cared about galvanising support for Ukraine, then the biggest target of his lobbying should not be Washington – which is already Ukraine’s biggest backer – but more reluctant Ukraine supporters in Europe. For obvious reasons, however, most European leaders are highly unlikely to take well to any lecturing from him.
He could also usefully campaign on behalf of Ukraine in important countries of the global south, such as India or South Africa, which have so far been reluctant to publicly criticise Putin’s actions. But perhaps he would not be that welcome in those places either.
So he went only to where he was sure of a warm reception and good publicity.
He also limited himself essentially to preaching to the converted. It’s true that there are some sceptics in the Republican Party about the scale of US support for Ukraine, but he did not actually meet any of them. He turned down an invitation to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show – which would have been a prime opportunity to face-down Russia sympathisers who watch that show. Meanwhile, the Washington Post is a newspaper with a readership that does not extend much beyond existing foreign policy elites, already well disposed towards Ukraine.
A further problem surrounding his visit is that it appears he did not engage with any Democrats at all, either in or outside the President Joe Biden’s administration. As a former Prime Minister, he should know that strong UK-US relations depend on maintaining good relationships with politicians on both sides of the aisle. His failure to meet any Democrats suggests two troubling alternatives: either he did not try or that they did not want to meet him, perhaps because of lingering Democrat hostility to Johnson’s previous friendship with Donald Trump or his aggressive stance on Brexit and Northern Ireland. That is not a good sign.
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There are also questions about the extent to which Johnson’s visit came with the implicit blessing of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – or whether it was a form of freelancing, which risks undermining Sunak at home.
If Sunak was supportive, one would have expected Johnson to have been received by at least one administration official. If Johnson was there in support of the British Government, one might have expected him to have made at least some positive references to the current Prime Minister, Foreign or Defence Secretaries. Instead, at least in his public remarks, Johnson only spoke about himself and his own positions on Ukraine. Johnson also publicly pushed for Ukraine to be given fighter jets, in direct contradiction of Sunak’s position.
These are not the actions of a self-effacing politician or one purely concerned about a greater cause. They are the actions of a self-serving politician, continuing to exploit Ukraine for his own advancement.
Perhaps his actions will shore-up support for Ukraine, and that is a good thing. I don’t deny his effectiveness. Probably, the Ukrainians don’t care about his motives, if it helps them. But we British voters should not grant him such a pass. We can welcome his actions if it drives up support for Ukraine but we should not delude ourselves into thinking he has become a changed figure.
We should not let Boris Johnson Ukraine-wash his appalling political record.