AAs is the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s war in Ukraine has significant personal and political significance.
For Putin, war is a figurative and literal blow to fate. The Russian President wants to submit Ukraine to a greater and restored Russia.
For Johnson, the war in Ukraine is a chance to emulate his hero, Winston Churchill, about whom Johnson wrote a book. The British Prime Minister also wants to show that Brexit has freed his vision of a “global Britain”.
This conflict of destinies reverberates far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Indeed, animosity between Britain and Russia is now at levels perhaps not seen since the pre-Gorbachev era of the Cold War. Not so long ago things were a lot friendlier.
Until 2021, Johnson was viewed positively in the Kremlin. In 2017, Johnson visited Moscow while serving as foreign minister. The former mayor of London also said he was a “Russophile, a committed Russophile”. Becoming prime minister in 2019, Johnson continued the Conservative Party’s embrace of Russian finance in London. This financial clout allowed Putin’s cronies to establish havens for their wealth, strengthen their influence in British politics and pay lawyers, such as Harbottle & Lewis, to silence journalists. Reveling in Russian donations, Johnson’s conservatives limited security service efforts to counter the Kremlin and associated organized crime activities.
Putin’s escalation against Ukraine fundamentally changed Johnson’s calculus.
In June 2021, Johnson shocked the world by audaciously sending a British warship within 12 miles (the sovereign territorial limit) of Russian-occupied Crimea. This decision caused outrage in Moscow. It also drew a significant contrast to President Joe Biden’s Russia policy. Not only did Biden refuse to replicate British naval activity, but he also canceled US Navy deployments to the Black Sea. Contrary to the Trump administration’s military posture, Biden has pressured the Pentagon to reduce its deterrence activity near Russia’s borders.
Since the start of the war, Johnson has doubled his military support for Ukraine.
London basically spent its reserves of light anti-tank missiles, sending thousands of its NLAW systems to Kyiv before the war started. Britain has also added sensitive cyber, anti-ship and anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine’s portfolio. While I cannot confirm reports that British special forces are in Ukraine, I also understand that Britain has kept intelligence officers there, even though most American personnel have been withdrawn. Many Western security officials have told me that Britain is taking the lead in support for Ukraine, pitting Johnson’s approach against the more risk-averse Biden administration. Although hesitant to criticize Biden, Ukrainian officials suggest that Johnson is their most trusted ally.
Johnson is reveling in his role as a figurehead in support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. The prime minister’s longstanding penchant for pageantry also finds satisfaction. Johnson’s recent walking tour through Kyiv, for example, allowed him to mimic Churchill’s wartime walks through Blitz-stricken London. Again, Biden’s absence presents a notable contrast.
Still, Johnson has broader political calculations at play.
On the one hand, his strong support for Ukraine is popular in Britain. And it comes at an opportune time, as Johnson faces heavy criticism for his so-called ‘Partygate’ scandal of hosting parties at his Downing Street office residence during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. Johnson had to pay at least one police fine as a result of those parties.
Politically, Johnson sees Ukraine as a crucial test of Britain’s viability as a post-Brexit world power. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union in January 2020 was seen by many around the world as the moment Britain ceased to be a major player. Johnson has sought to challenge that understanding with global investment tours and the deployment of a new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea. However, this deployment testifies to the tensions inherent in Brexit. Johnson remains cautious about China, resisting pressure from Washington to do more to limit China’s imperial adventurism. During its aircraft carrier deployment, for example, the Royal Navy did not make a naval transit of the Taiwan Strait or within 12 miles of Chinese-occupied reefs. While Johnson wants to show that Britain is an important player, he fears losing his trade clout with Beijing. Trade relations beyond Europe are of greater importance to London post-Brexit.
Ukraine then offers Johnson an easier chance to emulate his hero and show that Britain is capable of exercising global leadership. As Johnson walks past the famous statue of Churchill outside Parliament, one wonders if he finds himself in Churchill’s famous words about the outbreak of World War II: “I felt like I was walking with fate, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Put simply, Johnson seems to see Ukraine as his 1940 moment.