Ben Wray

Ben Wray

Boris’ War Exposes his Liberal Critics

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Boris Johnson is at his demagogic worst in escalating the war in Ukraine. Yet his liberal critics are quietly supportive of his provocations, writes Ben Wray.

How does a discredited politician go about resuscitating his career? Answer: Out-warmonger the warmongers. That’s what disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is doing, and it is difficult to find any pushback against it.

Johnson was a hate figure for anti-Brexit sentiment, but it’s noticeable that no comparison has been made in the liberal press between his role in the Leave campaign and his re-emergence as warmonger-in-chief.

In both cases, Johnson is deploying simplistic good v evil narratives and making hysterical claims. This cheap rhetoric only won him applause from one side of the Brexit divide but is apparently uncontested now, when the stakes are much higher.

If there is any doubt about just how aggressive Johnson’s position on Ukraine is, have a look at his appearance at an Atlantic Council think-tank event a few weeks ago.

Some highlights include:

  • On the risks of escalation: “How can we seriously worry about provoking [Putin] when we have seen what he will do without the slightest provocation?”
  • On the potential for a ceasefire: That it would only serve to “enable Putin to rebuild”
  • On the risks of nuclear war: Putin “won’t use nuclear weapons” and anyway a nuclear strike wouldn’t end the war, as “the Ukrainians will probably fight on and win anyway”
  • On fighter jets for Ukraine: The Ukrainians should be given “the deep fire artillery systems, the tanks and the planes”. There is no point in having these weapons in North Carolina or Alsace because “the Ukrainians could be using them now”
  • On the purpose of escalation: Johnson wants to ensure a crushing Russian defeat to “establish a new security architecture of Europe” and to “greatly strengthen the entire Euro-Atlantic area”
  • On China: “[The war] is a dry run for Xi Jinping…[China wants] to see how it will go”

And, if you were in any doubt about the character of the man, on the business opportunities for western companies in Ukraine after the war he said: “The returns would be sensational”

(As an aside, he also said that the fall of the Soviet union “turned out to be a very benign event”, apparently forgetting or ignoring the almost complete collapse of the economies of the post-Soviet Union states, including Ukraine, from which the latter never managed to fully recover even before the war. Oh, and he wants Ukraine in the European Union…)

Despite Johnson’s lust for full-scale proxy warfare with Russia, he would still not give Ukraine Nato membership now, only “once the Ukrainians have won”. And what if they don’t win? Nato states have license to just walk away from the wreckage of their bombs and jets and Ukrainian lives. Johnson is desperate to fight, but only to the last Ukrainian.

He is treated as some sort of hero figure by the Ukrainian Government. He visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the end of January, and prior to that was made an honorary “Citizen of Kyiv” by the city’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko, at Davos of all places. What many Ukrainians probably do not know is that Johnson played a key role in blocking the prospect of peace early on in the war.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister until the end of June 2022, has revealed in an interview that in March and April last year, just weeks into the war, there were serious prospects for striking a peace deal. Putin was willing to give up on regime change and Zelensky was prepared to end his pursuit of Nato membership. But it was “blocked” by Western powers. Key to stymieing the peace talks was Johnson.

“Bennett’s claims here would be less compelling if they didn’t corroborate what has already emerged publicly in dribs and drabs,” Branko Marcetic writes.

“Back in May last year, Ukrainska Pravda (a broadly Western-aligned Ukrainian paper) reported based on several sources close to Zelensky that in April, then UK prime minister Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv ‘almost without warning’ and told Zelensky the West would not recognise any peace deal he signed with Putin, because the Russian leader’s faltering invasion had shown he was weaker than they had thought. Zelensky should ‘press him’ instead — meaning fight on and end the war through military victory. (Johnson later told French president Emmanuel Macron in a May call that he had argued against negotiations with Moscow during that trip).”

Marcetic goes on:

“In the spectrum of world leaders’ attitudes to the war, which Bennett divides between those who wanted to fight Putin so as not to ‘reward’ an aggressor state and those who viewed a prolonged war as no good for anyone’s interests, the former prime minister says Johnson ‘adopted the aggressive line.’ Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz ‘were more pragmatic,’ he says, while US president Joe Biden ‘was both.’ This description overlaps with Western reporting on divisions within Nato over the war at the time.”

Mercetic recounts what has happened in the almost 12 months since Johnson successfully curbed promising peace negotiations.

“A few months after peace talks were scuttled, Zelensky admitted Ukraine was losing between 60 and 100 soldiers every day on the battlefield, while German intelligence recently revealed their estimate that Ukrainian casualties are currently in the three figures daily, as the Zelensky government resorts to controversially drafting soldiers in public places and ramps up penalties for deserters,” he explains.

“Western estimates are that Ukraine, which had roughly a third of Russia’s population before the war, has suffered more than 100,000 casualties, while its economy is in tatters, and a Russian bombing campaign that started in October has destroyed at least half of its energy infrastructure — something a Rand Corporation report recently declared came at a bigger economic cost to the country than the territory it’s lost to Russia. All indications are the ‘Marshall Plan’ being cooked up by Ukraine’s Western backers, meanwhile, will be a suite of damaging neoliberal reforms.”

And that is only the damaging impact of the continuation of war on Ukraine; the hunger crisis the war has unleashed in the global south and the energy crisis in Europe are also devastating by-products. Johnson’s warmongering has already done untold damage in office, and now he is ratcheting it up as part of a comeback bid. Even if that proves to be unsuccessful, the pressure being applied on current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to ramp up the war drive is significant.

Johnson’s antics need to be viewed in a broader context. They are only the British version of a European and world reactionary carnival: the opportunist right is benefitting from war and escalation. At the least, this is irresponsible and threatens a wider catastrophe. It is also promoting the most dangerous strains of authoritarian and ethnic politics, from Italy to Serbia and far beyond. Any notion that supporting war might bolster some leftwing crusade against Russian oligarchs or aggressive foreign policy now appears utterly naïve. It’s time this was recognised.

When Johnson was heading up the Leave campaign, or leading the Brexit negotiations from Number 10, or floundering amidst ‘partygate’, op-ed’s questioning his worldview and doubting his mental stability were two a penny. We were told he was someone who instinctively liked “chucking rocks over the garden wall”, that he had “main character syndrome”, and even “psychopathic traits of a lack of empathy, conscience and guilt”.

Yet now that Johnson is playing a key role in pushing for escalation in Ukraine, none of these character traits seem to matter anymore. How can they? If you are a journalist or politician who is also part of the grim consensus peddling escalation, you can hardly ridicule Johnson for doing the same, just with more bellicose performances.

Those who want less war-war and more jaw-jaw need to make their voices heard, and we shouldn’t be reliant on conservative voices like Peter Hitchens and Peter Oborne to do it. As we approach the war’s first anniversary, the risk is that Johnson continues to lead the debate, and in so doing helps take Ukraine and Europe from disaster to worse.

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