The default view at Westminster and in most of the media is that Vladimir Putin has saved Boris Johnson’s skin, for the present. The reflex on the Conservative backbenches is that the prospect of a European war means this is no time for a leadership change. In reality, of course, the reverse is true. Russia’s seizure of parts of Ukraine this week makes the case for replacing Johnson far stronger. That does not mean it will happen – the police investigating “partygate” and the voters have not yet spoken – but it should.
Putin’s annexation of the Donbas provinces is an epochal event. It is an assault on a sovereign European state and a western ally. From the Gulf of Finland in the north to the Danube delta in the south, it ratchets up the military threat to a string of other vulnerable European nations. It redefines at a stroke the security and energy assumptions of our entire continent for a decade and more.
It also represents a deliberate and culminating self-inflicted rupture by Russia’s autocracy with the western democracies. This has not come out of nowhere. There have been serious pre-eruptive signals since at least 2008 in Georgia, Crimea and elsewhere, including Salisbury. The Ukraine seizure is nevertheless a wake-up call about the absolute and systemic nature of the break. Relations could now descend into a 21st-century cyber cold war, but one in which a catastrophically divided United States – Donald Trump praised Putin’s action this week as “genius” – can no longer be guaranteed to provide the western pillar.
All this poses immense difficulties for every western European nation. The west has drifted into this without much thought – and with nothing approaching the degree of strategic hostile planning of Putin’s Russia. But existential challenges have to be faced all the same. They require a serious and sustained strategic response. Yet the current British government – perhaps even British politics in general – is peculiarly unsuited to this at present, and Johnson is alarmingly ill-qualified to grapple with it effectively as prime minister.
Johnson’s approach to government has proved to be the same as his approach to journalism and party politics: performative opportunism. He is not, in any traditional sense, a national leader. Just when this country needs a prime minister with a command of national statecraft, it is saddled with a prime minister who knows only stagecraft. In the Commons, he offers a pastiche of public school parliamentarism. In the world beyond, he dresses up as a builder, a doctor, a police officer or a soldier. On Tuesday, as Putin’s tanks rolled west, he went to the Ministry of Defence and dressed up again, this time as a prime minister in a war room surrounded by chaps in uniform.
Johnson’s response to Ukraine may appear engaged. But this is deceptive, and is designed to be. His priority is his own survival, not Ukraine’s. Putin has provided him with a heaven-sent distraction, and Johnson will milk it. The crisis plays to Johnson’s innate desire to act the part of Churchill, though in reality, as his feeble early sanctions show, he is aping Churchill’s language while following the policies of Neville Chamberlain. At every turn, he idiotically hypes the narcissism of small differences to assert that Britain is playing a bigger and more distinct role than it really is. Britain was “out in front” he said twice in the Commons on Wednesday.
This is precisely the opposite of what this situation calls for. As aspect after aspect of the Ukraine crisis shows, the reality is that Britain is not the autonomous master of its own fate, let alone of Ukraine’s. Britain is in truth what it has always been, before and after Brexit. It is one of a number of European states, though an important one, that must work together, with serious US backing, to limit the Ukraine conflict, to protect the rest of eastern Europe, to contain Russia, and to defend democracy and the rule of law.
In other words, British interests are effectively synonymous and coterminous with those of the European Union and just about every sovereign state in our continent. Part of Johnson’s brain seems to understand this. Unity with allies was absolutely vital, he repeated at prime minister’s questions. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. The problem is caused by what happens the rest of the time.
In the wake of Putin’s actions, two needs stand out for Europe as a whole, Britain included. Each is simultaneously immediate and long term. The first is military: to strengthen and deploy sufficient deterrence to limit further assaults on Ukraine’s sovereignty and to uphold the security of countries bordering Russia, from Norway to Romania. That’s where the threat is greatest. The second is continuity of affordable energy supplies without overdependence on Russian gas or any compromising of green energy goals.
These have been in-your-face issues for frontline states for years. Now they are top of everyone’s agenda. They cry out for a unified European tough realism to match that of Russia. The EU has been hopeless about this for many years. Germany dashed for Russian gas when the electorate revolted against nuclear power. France and Italy have bad histories of trying to be Russia’s western interlocutor and favoured trading partner. But Britain has its own big glass house too – the City’s Russian money launderers and the other enablers, including the Tory party – and should not throw stones.
All of these things demand an allied cooperative response as well as a certain degree of trust. But who trusts Johnson’s Britain? A country that spends its time poking fun at the EU, playing silly buggers in the Channel over migrants, doing a bit of freelance troublemaking in Poland and threatening to trigger a trade war over Northern Ireland is a country that needs to get real, and fast. Be absolutely clear. Johnson’s Britain is acting as Putin’s useful idiot and playing his game of divide and rule.
Nothing in this requires any backtrack on Brexit. But we are Europeans all the same. There is no logic in this country pretending we are an independent, freewheeling, great global power at such a time (nor ever was, come to that). No sense, either, in acting as if our greatest alliance is with reactionary Australia, that we are reborn as an Asia-Pacific player or that we are uniquely equipped to bind the US into Europe. These are the deluded and embarrassing fantasies of a post-imperial nation whose leader can only overplay or underplay.
This is a time for seriousness and for action to promote collective self-interest. Putin has reminded western Europeans that war has not disappeared, nor ever will. Security cannot be shirked, and should not be merely dabbled with. There’s a generational task ahead now. We need a government, and a prime minister, who are up to the job, because these ones simply are not.