Boris Johnson, I am told, is increasingly mesmerised by Volodymyr Zelensky. The prime minister and the Ukrainian president both rose to power as performers: Johnson as Britain’s political jester-in-chief and host of Have I Got News for You; Zelensky as the winner of his nation’s version of Strictly, the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear, and most uncannily, in the satirical show Servant of the People, playing a high-school teacher who is accidentally propelled to the presidency by a viral video.
In office, Johnson has continued to treat politics as a branch of the entertainment industry, smirking and gurning his way through a pandemic, and even police and Whitehall investigations into alleged multiple breaches of Covid law in Number 10.
Not so Zelensky who, in recent days, has been fast-tracked to the status of global icon with his remarkable wartime rhetoric, his video clips recorded on the streets of Kyiv, and his stoic rejection of the US offer of evacuation: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
This, Johnson’s allies say, has stirred something in the PM that oscillates between admiration and envy. According to one senior official: “You can tell that he’s looking at Zelensky and feeling a lot less Churchillian by comparison than he’d like to.”
Certainly, the PM entered this crisis hoping that it would be a handy distraction from the parties scandal, a Wag the Dog-style “pageant” rather than (as it now is) a historic test of the West’s resolve and moral identity. Initially, he was happy simply to wrap himself in the Ukrainian flag; since, as the joke in Downing Street had it, “blue and yellow are better than Gray” – meaning Sue Gray, head of the Whitehall inquiry into the Number 10 festivities.
Yet this phase – when the mounting tensions in eastern Europe were, for Johnson, a welcome diversion from his struggle to survive – is long past. Whether or not the Ukraine war will help to save his skin is impossible to judge today. But – hugely important as the question of the PM’s political future remains – it is now a distant second to the truly fundamental questions posed by this conflict.
I am not sure that Johnson has yet fully grasped the profundity of those questions. For a start, his government is responding sluggishly to the refugee crisis that Vladimir Putin’s invasion has already spawned: the potential displacement, according to the United Nations, of five million Ukrainians.
On Saturday, the immigration minister, Kevin Foster, posted a disgraceful tweet suggesting that these desperate refugees from war might like, if they fancied a spot of fruit-picking, to apply for the UK’s “seasonal worker scheme”. The tweet has since been deleted, but – to be clear – it was wholly in line with the Home Office’s robust position at the start of the weekend.
The heart of the government’s populist agenda for the coming weeks was going to be Priti Patel’s resolutely tough Nationality and Borders Bill. And, even now, it is hard to exaggerate the home secretary’s determination not, as she sees it, to soften or dilute the legislation.
Worth noting in this context: the UK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, solemnly promised in the heat of the retreat from Kabul in August, was only opened in January. Given this shameful delay, how far can we trust the government to respond decently and with sufficient speed to the even greater challenge posed by the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine?
So far, ministers have confined themselves to promising to “support” the refugees – a weasel word which falls far short of admitting them to our shores. Since the conflict began, the assistance for Ukrainians announced has been minimal and bureaucratic. Yesterday, the foreign secretary Liz Truss promised Sky’s Trevor Phillips that, in this sphere of the conflict, “we will lead”. But for that promise to be delivered meaningfully, Patel’s uncompromising position on border control will have to be overruled explicitly by Johnson – who has, until now, been more than happy to align himself with her demotic zeal and its populist political rewards.
On sanctions, the government has undoubtedly raised its game in the past week. To start with, the PM – like President Biden – seemed committed only to a slow ratcheting up of measures that was risibly unequal as a response to Putin’s conduct.
The harsher stuff, we were told, had to be held back in case the Russian autocrat did something really bad. It was hard not to imagine the leaders of the G7, dressed as Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, threatening naughty Vladimir with the “comfy chair.”
To be fair to Johnson, he has since led subsequent calls for Russian banks – or at least a number of them – to be excluded from Swift, the system that allows financial institutions to communicate and facilitate transactions. The package of targeted UK measures against individuals and businesses has also become progressively tougher in the past week.
But three problems bedevil this strategy. First, as Truss conceded yesterday, the legal practicalities of sanctions are fiendish: the targeted Russian plutocrats and businesses will happily exploit the rule of law in this country, employing the best legal firms in London to keep the pain at bay for as long as possible.
Second, measures of this sort always come at a price to the nations imposing them. Are British citizens – already beset by inflation – ready for the higher gas and food prices that the approaching economic conflict will undoubtedly involve? And how sure can we be that the further impoverishment of Russia will weaken Putin’s grip, rather than encourage a cussed sense of solidarity amongst his compatriots?
Third, and most important: it is a grave error to frame this conflict as essentially an economic confrontation, or to imagine the Russian president as homo economicus, a technocrat poring over data and financial projections to calculate his best options. Much more than numbers, this is a war about ideas and identity.
As long ago as 2008, Putin declared at the Nato summit in Bucharest that “Ukraine is a made-up country”. Like his guru, Alexander Dugin – a cross between Dr Strangelove and Rasputin, in and out of favour over the years but always close to Kremlin thinking – he believes in the “Great Awakening”. As Dugin wrote last year, this great project of the soul and the sword involves “[t]he Internationale of Nations vs the Internationale of the Elites” and “Russia Awakening: An Imperial Renaissance.” As easy as it is to scorn such ravings, this is the spiritual and emotional tide that is driving the 69-year-old Putin – ever more conscious of his legacy – to gamble all on Ukraine.
An authoritarian to his finger-tips, he is also addicted to the spread of chaos. As befits a son of the KGB, it is in his nature to destabilise, to misinform, to sow confusion. Thus it was entirely in character yesterday for him both to agree to talks with Ukrainian negotiators in Belarus, and to put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. With one hand, he stretches out an olive branch – while the other hovers over a big red button.
In a confrontation with such an adversary, it is unbelievably foolish to give prior notice of the limits of your resolve. Biden has missed no opportunity to pledge that ”our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict”. Johnson and his colleagues have ruled out direct British involvement in the conflict on the grounds that Ukraine is not a member of Nato.
This is a much less coherent or durable position than it seems. The notion that UK forces have only engaged in the defence of Nato countries is patently ahistorical – the first Gulf War, in which Saddam Hussein was driven from Kuwait, being the most obvious counter-example.
It is diplomatic, jurisprudential and ethical nonsense, furthermore, to imply that only the North Atlantic Treaty is available to the international community when faced with an aggressor nation invading another. Chapter VII of the UN Charter would provide ample legal scope for a coalition of the willing, determined to drive Russia from Ukraine, as would the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted in 2005.
More specifically, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 – signed by the US, Britain and Russia – enshrined an unambiguous pledge to “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” – in return for its surrender of its nuclear weapons. It is hard to think what more Putin could do to breach this agreement.
Russia’s failure to win a swift “shock and awe” victory is a tribute to the resolve and courage of the Ukrainian people. For a classicist such as Johnson, they combine Sparta’s martial virtues with the Athenian passion for democracy. But it is important not to romanticise these setbacks into a portent that Putin is inevitably doomed to be defeated by a bold citizen-militia. His record – from Salisbury to Syria – shows that, when frustrated, he escalates, and is willing to use any form of weapon in pursuit of victory.
This is why Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee and a former captain in the Royal Green Jackets, is quite right to urge the PM to put the option of a no-fly zone west of the Dnieper river on the table. As he told the New Statesman, Putin’s “following a plan and everything we’re doing right now is not altering that. Everything we’re doing is just reacting and following.”
Ellwood, who clashed with Johnson over the continued need for conventional weapons in November, was contacted by an angry minister after making this proposal, asking: “Are you trying to start World War III?”
Quite the opposite, in fact: it is only by adopting a much more flexible spectrum of potential measures – military and non-military – that the West will stand a chance of seeing off Putin. At present, Johnson’s position on the introduction of a no-fly zone is depressingly inflexible. In the Commons on Thursday, he told Iain Duncan Smith: “We would face the risk of having to shoot down Russian planes, and that is something that I think the House would want to contemplate with caution.”
This, as Ellwood points out, is to assume that such a measure would necessarily involve “Top Gun versus MiGs”. In practice, however, the imposition of a no-fly zone could involve a range of weaponry, from anti-missile systems to drones and portable FIM-92 Stingers.
Though Ellwood is presently one of only a handful of MPs calling publicly for this response, I think we will end up with something close to it being imposed unofficially and incrementally. The European Union’s remarkable decision to allocate €500 million to arms for the Ukrainians signals a broader readiness to get “defensive weapons” into the hands of those fighting Putin. Whether we like it or not, there will be mission creep.
That being so, why not unsettle the Russian president now with a display of the confidence that has been so badly lacking for so long in the West’s response to his behaviour? Putin is routinely said to have grown irrational.
Yet his bid to annex Ukraine is a perfectly logical response to decades of Western appeasement and half-measures in response to his atrocities. Time after time, he has watched us choose inaction or feeble slaps on the Russian wrist. Why wouldn’t he think he could get away with it, yet again?
At present, Biden, Johnson and their fellow G7 leaders are celebrating the unity of the free world in opposition to Russia’s conduct. Certainly, the speech given yesterday by Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in which, most notably, he committed his nation to spending more than two per cent of GDP on defence was nothing short of historic. It is remarkable, too, that Japan has thrown its weight behind the suite of sanctions on Russia.
All the same: the coalition should be defined by the objective, rather than vice versa. Western unity is not worth having if it does not stop Putin in his tracks. And this is no time for squeamishness, nor for politeness. The stakes are simply too high.
In the end, reality always bites. Even during the pandemic, Johnson’s government defined itself by bombast and boosterism. But now it has reached – or rather been forced towards – a crossroads of national identity and a moment of decision about the values to which 21st-century Britain truly subscribes.
As Truss said on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme yesterday: “The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe because that is what President Putin is challenging.” At PMQs on Wednesday, Johnson declared that “we must be in absolutely no doubt that what is at stake is not just the democracy of Ukraine, but the principle of democracy around the world.”
On Thursday in the Commons, he went further: “It is vital for the safety of every nation that Putin’s squalid venture should ultimately fail, and be seen to fail. However long it takes, that will be the steadfast and unflinching goal of the United Kingdom, I hope of every member of this house and of every one of our great allies, certain that together we have the power and the will to defend the cause of peace and justice, as we have always done.”
He is quite right. Much more is on the line here than the integrity of Nato and its partners, as vitally important as that is. This is a defining moment in the post-Cold War battle between autocracy and liberal values; between the belief in democracy and national self-determination and the conviction that might is right and that authoritarian leaders may do as they please.
In other words: is there an international order left to speak of? If Ukraine falls, how safe will the Baltic states be? Or Taiwan? Or what remains of democracy in Hong Kong? Who will ever again trust a Western leader who promises to protect democracy? This is not a moment for summits, and seminars, and tepid responses that salve the global conscience but fail to vanquish the brute dictator in the Kremlin. It is a moment for risk, political will and moral determination.
Johnson could be forgiven for thinking that he is being bombarded by history: first Covid, now this. But such is the nature of the office he sought all his life. And the decisions he takes in the coming weeks and months will determine whether he is remembered (for all his flaws) as a statesman or just another head of government overwhelmed by time and tide. In word and deed, he needs to be uncompromising. Let him channel the Iron Lady: Ukraine if you want to, this PM’s not for turning.
That, at least, is what he should say and do. But the task is indeed formidable. As the greatest Ukrainian writer, Nikolai Gogol, wrote in Dead Souls: “Countless as the sands of sea are human passions, and not all of them are alike, and all of them, base and noble alike, are at first obedient to man and only later on become his terrible masters.”
That’s absolutely right. To be human is to choose between agency and submission. As storm clouds gather once more over Europe – as the dogs of war return to their ancestral hunting ground – we shall soon discover whether this prime minister is a leader equal to the pitiless passions of the hour.