Vladimir Putin’s bungled invasion has failed to capture Ukraine and oust its elected government, despite the horrors unleashed, while also appearing to have boosted Operation Save Big Dog. This was the daft name given to Downing Street’s mission to save their own leader after revelations of ceaseless partying during Covid lockdowns. Now there is belief in Westminster that Boris Johnson has salvaged his job due to his response to the war, which enables him to boast of his leadership while basking in the warm glow of praise from President Volodymyr Zelensky and insults from the Kremlin.
This was underlined by his heavily-trailed surprise visit to Kyiv. No doubt Johnson will be dismayed to have arrived the day after European Union president Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Bucha. But no-one should sneer: these visits are important shows of support. And the prime minister has shown a steely response to Russia’s attack.
Over the past three months in Ukraine, I have been offered repeated thanks for Britain’s rapid and strong backing, underlined at the weekend with more arms and cash to help counter the next phase in Putin’s offensive. The government’s resolve has not wavered – even if some plaudits from his domestic fan club imply that Johnson has almost single-handedly fended off the evil Russian forces.
As so often, Johnson was aided by extraordinary luck that enabled him to escape a scrape that might have felled other politicians. He seized on the war like a drowning man spying a lifejacket in a storm since he sensed Putin’s attack offered possible salvation from the swirling fury over Partygate, which had shown his own regime’s contempt for citizens. For once, Johnson’s ruthless ambition and pragmatism led him to do the right thing. Now his acolytes dismiss concerns over a government imposing the most drastic restrictions on liberty in peacetime and then ignoring them to party in Downing Street as ‘not the most important issue in the world’.
True. But it still stinks. And we should not forget Johnson won power on the back of support for Brexit, which undoubtedly assisted Putin’s desire to divide both our country and continent. Johnson likes to lambast the West for its weak response to the start of Russia’s invasion in Crimea and the Donbas, yet in his usual flexible style he used that 2014 crisis to attack the EU during the referendum campaign. “If you want an example of EU policy making on the hoof and EU pretensions to running defence policy that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in the Ukraine,” he said.
This was immoral opportunism. Johnson joined Putin apologists on the eurosceptic right who used Ukraine as a stick to beat Brussels. The likes of Nigel Farage, Lord Tebbit and John Redwood echoed the Kremlin’s line by accusing the EU of adopting an “aggressive posture” that “provokes Russia into flexing its military muscles” – although Redwood, who spoke those words, now tweets praise for the “bravery of so many in a country who want to be free and independent”.
When I was reporting on Crimea’s annexation, one prominent minister even texted to ask why I had any concerns over the referendum. I had to point out the problems of a hostile and repressive dictatorship holding such a ballot on terrain invaded by its own troops and threatening gangs of armed militia.
Ukraine underlines Johnson’s shamelessness as he shifts position to suit his own cause: look at his approach to Putin’s billionaire pals who relentlessly ripped off the Russian state and pandered to the Kremlin’s wishes. Suddenly the man who spent eight years as mayor of London, ennobled the son of an ex-KGB oligarch and leads a party tied to dodgy Russian donors has seen the need to stop laundering dirty money and dishing out golden visas.
“We have an issue with Russian money in the City. We’ve got to deal with that,” he says. But belated reforms and imposition of sanctions does not make up for Britain’s long-standing failure to tackle this tide of filthy money, let alone his own cavalier attitude in the past.
Then there is the refugee issue Brexiteers such as Johnson exploited for their own ends even after Putin’s bloodstained intervention inflamed Syria’s catastrophe. They helped demonise people seeking sanctuary and infect their party with a nasty hostility towards asylum seekers, then misjudged the public mood on Ukraine. This left Britain an outlier by forcing families fleeing war to endure a visa queue. Due to a toxic combination of government incompetence and bureaucratic pettifogging, only 1,200 Ukrainians had arrived in Britain by last Thursday under the host sponsorship scheme – fewer than three per cent of all applicants. This is appalling – and despite the useless Home Secretary’s apology, all blame for key decisions should be placed firmly at Downing Street’s door.
Ukraine’s struggle also demonstrates the drastic need to strengthen our democracy in the global fight against dictatorship. But Johnson’s government has displayed an alarming insouciance towards strengthening our bonds and system of government, preferring instead to prorogue parliament, attack judges, undermine institutions and constantly drive open divisions with pathetic culture battles. Partygate also chipped away again at the bond between politicians and voters by exposing the ruling elite’s contempt for the lesser mortals, something now reinforced by revelations over the chancellor’s family tax status.
So yes, Johnson deserves credit for backing Ukraine’s fight with alacrity and force. But the harsh truth is that he has betrayed the country’s cause and assisted Putin in the past for his own ends. Ultimately, the prime minister’s ambition, moral flexibility and extreme pragmatism make him an unreliable ally, something seen so often in his career that I fear his new pals in Kyiv might soon discover to their peril as his attention drifts to other matters.