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.