The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the first Western leader to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the night of February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine. His firm stance on economic and military aid to Ukraine has united European countries into an anti-Putin coalition.
During his visit to India, Boris Johnson announced that the British diplomatic mission would soon return to Kyiv. This was yet another signal that Ukraine's best friend Boris Johnson believed in its victory. On the eve of the visit, Johnson reiterated that Britain was firm in its intentions, and apparently succeeded in convincing the Indian Prime Minister to support Ukraine, which he had so far refrained from doing. After his meeting with Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi urged the sides to stop military action; the agreement on military cooperation signed by the parties might help India reduce its dependence on Russian arms supplies.
This is a clear stroke of luck for the British Prime Minister. The main purpose of Johnson's visit was to conclude a free trade agreement with India, so even symbolic support from India for his position on Ukraine is already a bonus.
However, Boris Johnson's main role from the beginning of the war and even long before the outbreak of hostilities has been that of the tacit leader of the anti-Putin coalition.
After German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired, Johnson felt there was a vacancy in Europe for a person to lead European unity, and the weak position of French President Emmanuel Macron, who had conducted endless telephone conversations with Putin, finally convinced Johnson he should be the leader of European resistance to Russia. Having left the European Union, Britain was still able to spearhead such an alliance.
Formally, Britain had the right to do so: Boris Johnson was taking his first steps as Europe's unifier being the head of the country that presided over the G7 in 2021. On December 12, 2021, under British auspices, G7 foreign ministers as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs made a joint statement on Russia and Ukraine, calling on Russia to de-escalate, condemning Russia's military build-up and its aggressive rhetoric against Ukraine, reminding that any use of force to change borders was strictly prohibited by international law.
On January 22, 2022, the Foreign Office made an announcement, unexpected to many, to the effect that, according to British intelligence, Russia intended to appoint its protege to head Ukraine. According to Liz Truss, the British Foreign Office stated Russian intelligence services were in touch with a number of former Ukrainian politicians. Some of them, Truss said, were involved in developing a plan to attack Ukraine. The list of those persons was attached. Sadly, no further details were given by the Foreign Office, and the information was made the object of ridicule both in and outside Ukraine, but since that day Boris Johnson resumed his activity in this direction with renewed vigor. Before that, he had been busy with his own problems, fending off «partygate» accusations. The entire tone of the Foreign Office statement indicated that Johnson was claiming the role of the leader of an anti-Putin coalition. The Foreign Office said that Johnson was receiving daily updates on the crisis, that he was shaping the British government's response, and that he was ready to negotiate personally with Putin. The statement did not fail to mention Johnson's personal friendship with Zelensky and the numerous telephone conversations Johnson had had with world leaders.
It must be said that Zelensky appreciated Johnson's efforts. Britain is not the largest arms supplier to Ukraine. America is now supplying more weapons, but the British government, led by Johnson, was the first to do so while other Western countries were still having doubts. On January 17, while French government officials were still discussing «Anglo-American alarmism,» Britain had already begun supplying thousands of NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapons), guided anti-tank missiles worth 120 million pounds. This has prompted other European countries to do the same. «British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was much more active in sending weapons. Frankly, Johnson is a leader who is more helpful,» Zelensky noted in an interview with The Economist. Zelensky explains that Johnson is helping Ukraine because the British have generally supported Ukraine. «Britain is definitely on our side. She's not trying to balance it. Britain doesn't see an alternative way out of the situation. Britain wants Ukraine to win and Russia to lose, but I'm not prepared to say whether Britain wants to prolong the war or not,» he added. The British do support Ukraine. As soon as the program to welcome refugees from Ukraine began, thousands of volunteers across Britain responded, offering help, and at one point there were more people willing to take in a Ukrainian family than those in need of shelter.
At one point there were more Brits willing to take in a Ukrainian family than people who needed a place to live
The Ukraine crisis coincided with a high-profile scandal in Britain, the so-called partygate, over allegations that Johnson and some members of his administration and government had violated lockdown laws. Skeptics claimed (and continue to claim) that Boris Johnson, by immersing himself in Ukrainian problems, is hiding from the accusations against him. There is some truth in that, but Johnson has an inherent propensity for heroism; he feels in his element, fighting and winning. Just as passionately he has taken on the fight against covid and for universal vaccination. His hero is the war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and one can feel it in his style of government. But also, in human terms, he clearly sympathizes with Zelensky.
Boris Johnson was the first Western leader to call Zelensky on the night of February 24 when he learned of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An official announcement on the government website stated:
«Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the early hours of this morning. The Prime Minister said he was appalled by the unfolding events in Ukraine. The Ukrainian President updated the Prime Minister on the attacks taking place, and the Prime Minister said the West would not stand by as President Putin waged his campaign against the Ukrainian people. The Prime Minister said he hoped Ukraine could resist and that Ukraine and its people were in the thoughts of everyone in the United Kingdom during this dark time.»
On the morning of February 24, Boris Johnson made a statement about the situation in Ukraine.
«I spoke to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine as the first missiles struck his beautiful and innocent country and its brave people, and I assured him of the unwavering support of the United Kingdom. And I can tell the House that at this stage, Ukrainians are offering a fierce defense of their families and their country, and I know that every House of Commons Member will share my admiration for their resolve.»
Johnson called Putin a bloodthirsty aggressor who believes in imperial conquest.
«I am proud that Britain has done everything in our power to help Ukraine prepare for this onslaught, and we will do our utmost to offer more help as our brave friends defend their homeland.»
Johnson said that at the G7 meeting, countries agreed to work together to ensure that the economic consequences that Vladimir Putin will face in response to aggression are as serious as possible: «And this must include ending Europe’s collective dependence on Russian oil and gas that has served to empower Putin for too long.»
Although the Instagram username reads «Boris Johnson UK,» it can also be read as «Boris Johnsonuk
Already as the informal leader of the anti-Putin opposition, Johnson convened a meeting of NATO leaders the next day. And not only NATO. «I will also host the countries that contribute to the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes both NATO members and non-NATO countries,» the British Prime Minister said.
On the same day, Johnson announced a new package of economic sanctions «the most massive and serious package of economic sanctions ever imposed on Russia,» and the freezing of some banks' assets, a blow to Russia's financial system. Both before the invasion and after February 24, arms shipments to Ukraine were interspersed with the imposition of more sanctions.
But sanctions without changing British laws, whose flexibility has made London a laundering ground for dubious wealth and a haven for Putin's oligarchs and their assets, are insufficient and pointless. Britain, which for years turned a blind eye to all abuses without giving up dirty money, has finally begun to put its laws in order, which will allow it to identify the real owners of multi-billion-dollar properties and the secret beneficiaries of suspicious assets.
Johnson promised a number of policies that will be included in the complete bill during the next parliamentary session - including changes to be made to the Companies House and the register of overseas property owners. «We will create a new kleptocracy cell at the National Crime Agency that will target sanctions evasion and corrupt Russian assets hidden in the United Kingdom. The oligarchs in London will have nowhere to hide,» Johnson said.
It was a very timely move, and the Ukrainian crisis accelerated the process of getting rid of dubious Russian money. By that time, Transparency International had estimated that suspicious assets from Russia amounted to 1.5 billion pounds sterling.
On the night of March 14, as Russian troops bombed Ukrainian cities, six leaders and other representatives from the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes 10 Northern European countries, gathered together for the first time at the Chequers residence. They left their phones outside the room where the working dinner was held. They agreed to coordinate, make and finance the supplies of arms and other equipment requested by Ukraine. The meeting participants said the JEF countries, through exercises and «offensive defense,» would seek to counter further acts of aggression, including provocations outside Ukraine that might occur outside NATO's area of responsibility.
According to The Economist's explanations, the JEF, of which few people are aware, is an organization that came into being 10 years ago as a rapid reaction force for the Northern, North Atlantic and Baltic regions. Unlike NATO, the Corps does not require a consensus of its members to decide on the deployment of troops at a time of crisis. Britain, as the formative state, can launch a military operation in partnership with one or more members of the Corps. The article cites the definition given to this organization by a British military officer: «the JEF can act while NATO is still deliberating.»
Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking to the British parliament by video link, thanked Boris Johnson for his support, and soon the British Prime Minister became the first Western head of state to personally visit Kyiv after the enemy troops retreated from the city. His visit was prepared in complete secrecy, and Boris Johnson did not invite a single British journalist to join him on the trip. But the effect of the unexpected and daring visit and the triumphant walk along Khreshchatyk and Bankova Street alongside President Zelensky was deafening.
Boris Johnson is mightily fond of grand gestures and beautiful words. His support for Ukraine on all public platforms is well known, and his personal visit to Kyiv was of landmark nature. The leader of the anti-Putin and pro-Ukrainian coalition declared loudly and clearly his solidarity with Ukraine at war. It is a beautiful and powerful gesture.