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Putin has saved Boris Johnson On Ukraine, the UK has been ahead of the curve

Boris with Volodymr. Credit: Peter Nicholls/Pool/Getty

Boris with Volodymr. Credit: Peter Nicholls/Pool/Getty


March 9, 2022   4 mins

Saving Boris Johnson probably wasn’t on Putin’s list of strategic objectives. Nevertheless, that is what his invasion of Ukraine has achieved. 

Just two weeks ago, Johnson’s approval ratings were cratering. On February 21, Redfield and Wilton put the net figure at minus 31. Just 25% of voters approved of his job performance, compared to 56% who disapproved. But then came the war. In the space of a fortnight, approval for the PM has risen by 24 points. Boris remains in negative territory, but only a few points behind Keir Starmer.

Rallying round the flag is part of the explanation for this remarkable recovery. But there’s another reason: he deserves it. Back in January, the UK was flying out weapons to Ukraine when the Germans were still blocking shipments. As Russian armour massed on Ukraine’s borders, Boris Johnson warned Putin against making a “massive strategic mistake”. What’s more, he did it from Kyiv. While Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz sat at the receiving end of the Russian President’s massive table, Boris Johnson was forging a close working relationship with Volodymr Zelenskyy. 

It could have been argued that in so obviously taking sides, the British were sacrificing diplomatic influence. But it’s now obvious that the negotiations prior to the invasion were a sham. The Russians were distracting the West while their military moved into position. It’s possible that the Chinese were given the run around too.

We should also credit Boris and his Tory predecessors with a degree of foresight. Military cooperation between the UK and Ukraine doesn’t start in 2022, it stretches back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. In response, the UK launched Operation Orbital — a training and capacity building programme for the Ukrainian armed forces. In the years since, it has been expanded and reinforced by additional programmes of military assistance.

Just how much of a difference these efforts have made is still unclear. But what is obvious is that the Russians weren’t expecting to meet with such determined — and effective — resistance. 

Of course, the British record on Ukraine is not unblemished. The Home Office, which seems so powerless to stop the flow of illegal migrants across the Channel, is rather more adept at denying entry to Ukrainian refugees.

We also have to accept the shame of Londongrad — and the wider role that our capital city plays in handling suspect funds from around the world. The Government has been slow to produce its long-promised register of foreign-owned property. This modern-day Domesday Book could and should have been ready by now — and would have helped in the implementation of sanctions against Putin’s cronies. 

That said, Johnson’s ministers are now making up for lost time. The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill has been introduced, sanctions are being applied and the UK is at the forefront of efforts to isolate Russia’s financial system. We were pushing to remove Russia from the SWIFT financial payments facility while some other European countries were still dragging their feet. 

The idea that this country has fallen behind the EU in our response to the invasion does not bear scrutiny. In respect to military cooperation, energy security and financial sanctions, the UK has been ahead of the curve. This needn’t be a matter for debate between British Leavers and Remainers. We only need to ask the Ukrainians whether the UK has been a true ally or a false friend. And on that question they’ve made their answer abundantly clear.

However, there is a more subtle argument that can be directed against the Britain of Brexit and Boris. It is made by serious commentators such as Rafael Behr in The Guardian and Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times.  

The basic idea is that the invasion is a wake-up call for this country. Our interests cannot be detached from those of our fellow Europeans, and so we must abandon our delusions and draw closer to the EU. Or, as Baer puts it, “Putin’s bombs should shake British politics into sobriety.”

But it’s not the British who’ve had to wake-up and smell the Kaffee. That would be the Germans. Since the invasion, Olaf Scholz hasn’t just u-turned on the first few weeks of his own Chancellorship, but the 16 year legacy of Angela Merkel. It’s suddenly dawned upon the German establishment that relying on Nato for their protection while cosying up to Russia might have been a tad irresponsible.  

Behr attacks Boris Johnson for his “levity”, but all this time it was Merkel, Schroeder and Kohl who were taking the piss. Well, no longer. After exhausting every other option, Scholz is finally doing the right thing — boosting defence spending, supplying arms to Ukraine and even building LNG terminals to reduce German dependency on Russian gas. 

And it’s not just the Germans having to change their ways. I reckon we might hear a lot less disrespect for Nato from Emmanuel Macron — who once called the alliance “brain dead”. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be some fundamental questioning of the EU itself. The stated goal of “ever closer union” has led Europe to look inwards when the focus should have been on Russia. 

Behr describes the European project as the “antithesis of Putinism”. It would more accurate to describe the Putin project as a dark reflection of the European Union. Obviously, the methods couldn’t be more different — but the centralising purpose and disregard for national sovereignty are not entirely dissimilar.

If the EU really does want to oppose Putin in every respect, then it must reject federalism and embrace the sovereign nationhood of its member states. Moreover, it should have the same respect for its neighbours. Contrary to the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, who insisted that “Brexit cannot be a success”, the EU should hope for the opposite and act accordingly. 

That’s for their sakes as well as ours. A UK that does things differently should be seen as a resource, not a threat — an example to learn from when we succeed or to avoid when we screw up. 

On Ukraine, it’s becoming clearer that the course charted by Boris Johnson is more right than wrong. At least, we must hope so — because on this issue it is the EU that is drawing closer to Britain, not the other way round. 


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“Our interests cannot be detached from those of our fellow Europeans, and so we must abandon our delusions and draw closer to the EU” – this crisis is proof of the opposite. An independent Britain has been able to chart its own course while the German-French axis was tripping over itself.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Also see: vaccine development and roll-out. And scrapping COVID regulations. It makes sense to have Britain and the EU acting independently and us learning from each other.

Roger Tilbury
Roger Tilbury
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Von der Leyen’s recent comments on accelerating Ukraine’s application to join the EU are not exactly helpful either. Makes Putin’s point for him.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

That’s why the only assertion in the article I would quibble with is *serious commentator* applied to Rafael Behr who is always consistently adoring towards the EU and anything it does.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

It sounds like MacMillan’s reflection on politics: “Events, dear boy, events!” I’m glad Boris has had a chance to show how his leadership works. He was saddled with rudderless Brexit by May and a pandemic through Wuhan incompetence. A sympathetic interpretation of partygate is that he is not an aggressive bossy authoritarian leader (aka Bercow) and wants people to get enjoyment (and maybe felt arm-twisted into pandemic restrictions). But when facing a challenge responds decisively which this emergency is showing. He’s got another couple of years to demonstrate to the country that this is not a flash in the pan.
PS if he stops them pouring concrete down the shale wells next Monday, his approval rate would get into the positive realms.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter LR
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

But the real problem is not the shale wells in the North. It is the shale wells in the Home Counties which will never take off. Nuclear power would be the same.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Home counties oil wells (which have been operating safely for decades) mostly aren’t shale. Some are, but so what?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Indeed. I live near Dorking in Surrey, where fracking was proposed.
The local opposition was massive and vocal (just search for fracking Dorking to get a taste).

Last edited 2 years ago by Philip Stott
Gill Holway
Gill Holway
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Fine….but forget about having electricity or gas then. I KNOW Dorking and lived there (for my sins) and even went to school there. The local philosophy has always been to throw money at problems with the idea that richness equals godliness.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  Gill Holway

I have no problem with fracking, even if it were to be proposed in my town,.
The ridiculously low level of tremors that are allowed couldn’t even be felt on the surface.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Cameron called Boris a ‘greased piglet’ for getting out of scrapes. It really did seem as if cakegate was the end yet here he is, with the very real possibility that his premiership will be what he was probably made for – a Churchillian moment. If someone wrote the story of Boris’s time as PM we would think it fiction – divorce, marriage, prorogation of Parliament, pandemic, a near-death experience, two babies – and that’s just the drama I can remember. All packed into two years. He’s like a cat with nine lives.

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I’d up that to 900 lives.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Who plays him on the Netflix box set?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

George Lucas from Little Britain.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

LOL….LOL

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I suggest that the media sensations that were supposed to bring him down were not really big issues to most people.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Hear hear.

Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
2 years ago

The busines of our personal freedoms are, however, but if he shelves the anti-democratic and unachievable green agendas, he might just swing it. Assuming Putin doesn’t push the red button.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I don’t believe Johnson has done anything that some other countries have done. What is missing, is the strategic vision. The US and Canada have provided military support dating back to 2014 as well. We can all see that our reliance on imported energy is a major problem, yet we hear nothing from him. Yes he tells us that it’s going to be painful this year, but that’s about it.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Boris was never in trouble as the Tories didn’t have a decent alternative to appoint, and it’s another 2 years to an election when any events would put partygate into perspective.
Whats truly shocking about our news media and politicians is their obsessive pursuit of Johnson over mere work parties as we made a major economic change with Brexit and dealt with a pandemic.
But it took a major European war for these numpties to realise the extent of their hysteria. It would be laughable, Python style, if it wasn’t so bleedin’ tragic.

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

…got to bear in mind that the PM is the most electorally successful politician of his generation (two times Mayor of a Labour City, eighty-seat majority) and was the best-paid columinist in the Country for some years…in two notoriously envious and vindictive professions, much of what politicians and journalists say about him is probably jealous bile, well-stewed by years of simmering spite.
To which we might add, with his male critics…for a chap who mostly looks like an unmade bed…he is a surprisingly successful Don Juan. I often wonder how many of them stew over a humiliating memory of seeing his blonde mop and burly frame departing the party arm in arm with the “one they brung”?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Thank you so much for this balanced article. My comments:
1) The Home Office. My goodness – this ministry needs to be taken apart, swept right out and put together again. It is a disgrace. And not just because of this latest disaster with Ukrainian refugees. Having had my own tangles with it in the last year, I can assure you it is an equal opportunities bureaucratic nightmare. Incompetent, uninformed employees, contradictory/incomplete info on the website – just chaos. This latest disaster should absolutely be the starting point for real reform.
2) I do not say this ungrudgingly, but yes – the UK should move closer to the EU again in some ways. This is for the benefit of all. But no rejoining. During the pandemic, there were several times when Austria at least was looking towards the UK to see what it was doing in terms of restrictions and opening up and then using that experience to chart its own course. The UK’s experimental “just-go-do-it” kind of approach can be really valuable. But the EU desperately needs to come away from this pathological obsession of seeing a free Britain as a mortal threat which must be stamped out, it is absurd. I hope that it does not take them as long to realise this as it took Germany to wake up to its new reality.
3) My respect for Olaf Scholz is increasing. He did exactly the right thing and was very brave. Sadly, the basis of his own party and that of the Greens are starting to bellyache already and are demanding more consultation about this policy change with the grassroots. This seems entirely self-absorbed and decadent at this point and I hope Scholz holds the line and doesn’t revert to typical German consensus seeking, or we could find this brave new Germany having its wings clipped.
4) Emmanual Macron. Nul points. Forever.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Good comment. My thoughts:

  1. Is it time to break up the Home Office? It is responsible for: terrorism prevention, policing, fire services, border control and passports and visas. Each one of those areas have had recent disasters: Liverpool bomber, David Amis murder, Sarah Everard murder and aftermath, kneeling coppers, Grenfell, dinghies, Ukrainian visas. It has been a mess for as long as I can remember under all governments.
  2. Of course we should be extremely close to the EU. As has been said so often it has become a cliche, we are the bridge between the USA and Europe. But as you say it takes two to tango – now would be a great time for some serious compromises on Northern Ireland protocol.
  3. I share your hope but fear if a ceasefire and peace talks happen soon, the Germans might quietly backtrack. And then live to regret it.
  4. Exactement!
Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I would say that the UK rejoining the customs union would be a good move – wouldn’t that sort out a bunch of problems with NI already (sorry, am not up to speed on this)?
There could also be defence and military cooperation in the offing – but the EU would have to compromise on things like returning Channel migrants (in return for Britain taking in a number of refugees per year from Greek camps, for instance) and equivalence for financial services.
My worry here is that these tender shoots of willingness to reconcile on the British side will either be nuked before they have chance to turn into something larger by some bull in a china shop like Guy Verhofstadt making obnoxious remarks. Which is unfortunately quite likely.
Both sides should just swallow their pride a bit and avoid the whole “this was all your fault” narrative. Whether this will happen? Hmmm.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

No. It would require subjugation to EU rules, laws and courts. No.

Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

No. Many who voted to Leave, as I did, hoped for comprehension from Brussels that we wished simply to run our own affairs without being subsumed by the EU’s suffocating “rules”. It was a finely judged decision to vote leave, but it has become increasingly clear since we left that they will never accept any partnership that they will not attempt to dominate. I will never regret my decision. So we must keep a distance that allows us to operate as we have done over Covid and in our actions so far over Ukraine. Close, but never ever again submissive.

Last edited 2 years ago by Susan Lundie
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Susan Lundie

That’s why I suggested rejoining the customs union and not the single market. This would be an arrangement like the one the EU has with Turkey. I think it’s an exaggeration to say that that would make GB submissive and no longer in control of its own affairs. Tbh if Britain isn’t capable of taking advantage of the freedoms it fought so hard to regain, then maintaining a hard Brexit (sorry, that sounds rude but you know what I mean) is just making your own life harder for no real gain.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I would not take your point as “rude” . However, after the last five years of childish, and grossly unprofessional political slanging coming out of Brussels, and it has often been little short of schoolyard tantrums, I’m afraid I see no indication that Brussels will approach any arrangement in good faith. I would personally not wish to tie myself into any union, even customs, with them at present. I suppose the situation might change in future, but not necessarily with those presently in charge. They are not even apparently capable of accepting us as continued companions in the ESA Galileo project.
I have no axe to grind with the people or countries of Europe, quite the reverse in fact, but until we have properly completed Brexit and settled the vexed question of Northern Ireland (and I have no idea how that very complicated situation should best be resolved), I do not believe Brussels are capable of accepting we are not theirs to direct.
The fact remains that neither they nor we have been blessed with straightforward, open and skilled politicians of vision for several decades, but perhaps that is too much to expect. Having said that, it may be that the events unfolding now will present us all ultimately with a very different perspective. We shall see.

Last edited 2 years ago by Susan Lundie
David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Susan Lundie

applause!

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

no…here is why: there are a dozen other ways:
comment image

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Agree on #2.
Should have started as soon as UK left, (which should have been accomplished maximum two years after referendum result. Instead, May’s dithering encouraged the saboteurs) As far as I can see, UK has been making all the overtures but EU has been resisting and determined that nobody should leave their club unscathed.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brendan O'Leary
michaelstanford
michaelstanford
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Katherine, you are spot-on about the Home Office. Decent Home Secretaries such as Chris Clarke, John Reid, David Blunkett and Amber Rudd quit after being stitched up by the civil servants. There was outrage when Patel was accused of telling her Sir Humphries that they were f*****g useless. She had a point.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Who will ever forget the 5,000 helmets that Germany sent to Ukraine to indicate support.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Not the Ukrainians, I bet.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Don’t forget the field hospital!

David Evans
David Evans
2 years ago

“the centralising purpose and disregard for national sovereignty are not entirely dissimilar” – bang on. The ‘there’s no such thing as sovereignty’ rhetoric from the EU is reflected in Putin’s denial of Ukrainian sovereignty. Both pertain to a post-national way of thinking.

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago

…worth adding that our being outside the EU decision-making framework made it possible to forge a different path, which undoubtedly put serious pressure on the EU to step up…I am certain that had we still been involved, we would simply have been outvoted…and the main EU priority would have been forcing Zelensky to surrender, so as not to interrupt the German energy supply…
…make no mistake, they are now acting to avoid the public shame of not doing so, not because they actually want to abandon Russian energy and rebuild the German Armed Forces…

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  R S Foster

And, in the article for ‘building LNG terminals’, (and much else besides) I would sub edit ‘talking about building LNG terminals’, (and much else besides).
Sholz isn’t out there in week two since his abrupt conversion with rivet gun and trowel building these things and spending the ÂŁ100B..I doubt anyone else is either.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

“The basic idea is that the invasion is a wake-up call for this country. Our interests cannot be detached from those of our fellow Europeans, and so we must abandon our delusions and draw closer to the EU.”
Peter, you do know that Britain’s main goal for several hundred years prior to the existence of the EU was to manage the balance of power in Europe? We didn’t need to be in a trade body to do it – just flexible enough to enter and leave military alliances without the need for referendums.ï»ż

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Maybe the German tabloids might reprint this? A very rumbustious, entertaining read.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

“Rumbustious” – what a great word, didn’t know that one!

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 years ago

BJ/DT/BJ/DT….One more reason not to vote in narcissists – they have an uncannny ability to make everyone talk about them all the time.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

The Boris has admittedly handled this one well – though I admit to asking myself, every time I hear his prononcements, how long it is till the next, effortless, U-turn. He is still, by nature, temperament and talent, an irresponsible clown.

If the nations of Europe really want to oppose Putin, they need to cooperate, to act as one. Whether that is most easily achieved by an organisation with rules and procedures for cooperation, or by everyone doing his own sovereign thing and expecting the others to accommodate him can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

For years Johnson has had a reputation of being a “clown who gets the big things right”
People seem happy with this trade-off.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

That’s moi! I keep asking people who would their alternative be, and they come up with nothing.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
2 years ago

I can’t really think of a worse option for the people of Ukraine than a long drawn out war and insurgency that they are doomed to lose. So sending weapons and cheering them on from the sidelines seems the exact level of involvement to maximise that possibility. Maybe this is all a big ploy to stall Russia and get a negotiated deal and that would be an excellent result but so far I’m unimpressed by the British strategy.

Riccardo Tomlinson
Riccardo Tomlinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

Yes they should just give in, and accept being part of Putin’s Russia, with it’s many freedoms.

Thing is, the Ukrainians can do that. But it’s their decision and not ours. To push them that way would would be deeply shameful.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

Kharkiv is 20 miles from the Russian border. Two weeks in and the might of the Russian army has failed to take it. I wouldn’t say the Ukraine are bound to lose. This war will bankrupt Russia, to China’s delight.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

George HW Bush was a one term president. Biden’s approval ratings have gone up also. War doesn’t necessarily mean you will win the next election. George W Bush had near 90 percent approval ratings after 9/11 and barely won the next election. Yes if you can lead the hysterical over reactions you will gain a lot of initial support. Plenty of time to the next elections though. These feelings will begin to dissipate. Especially if energy prices don’t stabilize.