The man who once told us that there would be “no downsides to Brexit” and even that the deal we would reach with the EU would offer “the exact same benefits” as membership, is now ranking Boris Johnson above all other western leaders in his response to the Ukraine crisis.
David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, who called for the prime minister to “in the name of God, go” in January, has told listeners to LBC radio in a piece of tortured logic that, “when ranked against the other western leaders, [Boris Johnson] is doing better than all, if not most”.
He levels the charge that western leaders have “given in [to Putin] too many times” which, in hindsight, is probably true. However, few western leaders in 2016 provided Putin with an excuse, in the way that Johnson did, for annexing Crimea and invading the Donbass.
Is Davis right to heap praise on the prime minister?
Probably not. Let us be absolutely clear, nobody has done more to embolden Vladimir Putin by fragmenting and weakening the western alliance than Johnson and his erstwhile colleague Donald Trump.
Brexit was a “win for Putin”
Many leading academics and international commentators have suggested Brexit was a key, long-standing policy objective of Putin. Nikolay Petrov, a professor of political science at the National Research University’s higher school of economics in Moscow claimed in 2016 that, “Geopolitically and strategically, the Kremlin thinks it will benefit”.
Petrov wrote in The Washington Post:
”Europe is now weakening as Russia, its allies and its multilateral organizations are consolidating, even adding new members. Putin, of course, did not cause the Brexit vote, but he and his foreign policy objectives stand to gain enormously from it.”
The prime minister led the Vote Leave campaign and is widely credited with tipping the balance to a narrow victory.
Johnson blamed the EU for Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea
Davis may want to ask himself why the prime minister was once branded an “apologist for Putin” by Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary.
In May 2016, during the referendum campaign, it was Johnson who appeared to blame the EU for Russia’s annexation of Crime and occupation of parts of the Donbass region, telling reporters, “If you want an example of EU foreign policymaking on the hoof and the EU’s pretensions to running a defence policy that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine”.
When the then PM David Cameron took him to task and said it was “clear that the illegal annexation of Crimea was brought about by Russia alone”, Johnson doubled down. He ridiculed Cameron for “warning us that world war three is about to break out unless we vote to remain”.
Now we watch as Nato stands paralysed against Russian aggression due to fears of sparking off world war three.
The prime minister’s close links to the Kremlin
Nobody is suggesting Johnson is in the employ of the Russian security services and his connections to Putin may not be that close, but they are closer than any other current MP and closer than any British prime minister in history. That is beyond argument.
He counts among his friends Yevgeny Lebedev, son of a KGB officer who it is suggested helped put Putin into the Kremlin.
When Johnson was foreign secretary in 2018, he attended a high-level Nato summit following a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, just a month after the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
From Brussels he travelled to Lebedev’s Italian Palazzo near Perugia with no civil service aides or security detail present, where he partied with Yevgeny and his KGB office father Alexander. He was spotted the following morning at Perugia airport, “looking like he had slept in his clothes”, struggling to walk in a straight line and telling other passengers he had had a heavy night.
Which other foreign secretary would do that? Will we ever know what he told the Lebedevs during that ‘heavy night’?
Tank warfare in Europe
Our short-sighted populist prime minister had an extraordinary exchange with Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee in November 2021, when he declared the idea of “fighting big tank battles on the European land mass are over”. This was as Russia was massing tanks and armoured vehicles in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine.
Ellwood was highly critical of the government’s swingeing defence cuts and the integrated defence review, which he said was out of date. Johnson constantly talked over him and simply rejected his arguments out of hand. These same arguments now look extremely prescient.
Tory party funding and Russian connections
SNP leader Ian Blackford claims Conservative MPs and the party have received a total of £2.3m “from Russian Oligarchs”. Based on Electoral Commission data, the Labour Party has estimated that donors who have made money from Russia or Russians have given a slightly more modest £1.93m to either the Tory party or constituency associations since Johnson became prime minister.
A group calling itself Conservative Friends of Russia was launched at the Russian embassy in August 2012 with John Whittingdale as the honorary vice-president. Carrie Symonds, now Carrie Johnson, wife of the prime minister was an aide. Whittingdale later became a privy councillor and a cabinet minister (Note that this group disbanded with immediate effect on 1 March 2022).
On the basis that nothing is done by Russian oligarchs that Putin does not approve of, tacitly or otherwise, what did Russia get out of it?
President Macron has made a visit to Putin
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany visited Moscow in an attempt to avoid conflict. Johnson has not made the trip, although given his unfortunate proclivity for insulting world leaders, this may have been deliberate.
Macron has had nine long telephone conversations with Putin since meeting him in the Kremlin on 7 February, according to his office.
Johnson has spoken to Putin just once, on 2 February, and even that was delayed from the end of January because of the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street parties and the news the PM was to be investigated by the Metropolitan Police.
EU leaders travel to Kyiv, a city under siege
The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia travelled to Kyiv by train on Tuesday to show support for the embattled nation and after two powerful explosions had rocked the capital before dawn. Russian forces continue to shell the outskirts of the city, hitting apartment buildings and schools.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a statement, “The purpose of the visit is to confirm the unequivocal support of the entire European Union for the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine”.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the trip took place on the 20th day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “criminal aggression against Ukraine”.
“At such breakthrough times for the world, it is our duty to be where history is forged. Because it’s not about us, but about the future of our children who deserve to live in a world free from tyranny”, he said.
Is Boris Johnson really doing better?