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Ukraine Should Beware of Brits Bearing Gifts

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A negotiated settlement increasingly seems like the only way to end the violence and suffering in Ukraine. Yet, almost unnoticed by world, the path to a ceasefire is being complicated by some long-distance belligerents: three top members of the United Kingdom’s government.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Minister Liz Truss and Defense Minister Ben Wallace have all sought in the war in Ukraine a boost to their political fortunes. For Johnson, Vladimir Putin’s assault came at just the right moment. In late February, he faced the worse crisis of his premiership in “partygate.” Fellow Tories were turning against him over revelations of illegal gatherings at No. 10 Downing Street that Johnson attended, breaking laws that his own government had imposed at the height of the pandemic.

Johnson rushed to send lethal aid to Ukraine — one of the first world leaders to do so. He then became the first western European leader to address Ukraine’s parliament. His rousing speech, with its attempt at Churchillian cadences, made Johnson a hero in Ukraine even as he became at home the first sitting British prime minister to be criminally sanctioned. 

Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Johnson has also personally visited Kyiv. In the last fortnight, he has made much-publicized tours to Finland and Sweden, promising to defend them if either country comes under attack from Russia.

Indeed, the UK heads the Joint Expeditionary Force — a military group consisting of Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands. Leading a European army that his bête noire, the European Union, never organized, Johnson is yet again seeking inspiration from his idol Winston Churchill, who was rescued by war from a career blighted by serial incompetence and opportunism.

The problem is that Johnson is effectively stoking a war in which the UK is not a combatant. Instead, Ukrainians are fighting and dying, and their country is being devastated and depopulated.

Johnson’s departure from office wouldn’t reduce the risk of adventurism. On the contrary, Truss and Wallace — his two most likely successors — have decided that rhetoric even more bellicose than Johnson’s will also advance their careers.

Truss, who has posted Instagram pictures of herself on a tank, started off her war campaign by saying that she would support Britons going to Ukraine to join the fight against the Russians — a proposal met with scorn by her own party members and finally dismissed by the UK military. She now insists that Russia should be pushed out of Crimea as well. Wallace, who likens Putin to Hitler, has echoed the demand.

Truss and Wallace resemble, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Max Hastings pointed out last week, “football supporters baying from the away stands” rather than the foreign and defense ministers of a serious country. Their rhetoric over Crimea provoked Neal Ascherson, author of “The Black Sea” and longtime observer of Eurasia, to write an uncharacteristically intemperate letter to the Guardian warning that Truss was in danger of licensing a “bloodbath” in the region.

Certainly, Truss has to get better at geography before she makes a success of geopolitics. She recently said that Britain will support “our Baltic allies across the Black Sea,” conflating bodies of water separated by 700 miles. Earlier this year, in a hostile meeting with her Russian counterpart, Truss asserted that the UK would never recognize the Russian territories of Rostov and Voronezh. The British ambassador to Russia had to intervene and gently inform his boss of her blunder.

Even as it accepts essential aid from them, Ukraine needs to be on guard against British friends such as these. Its military successes will secure for Ukraine at best a good negotiating position with Russia rather than outright victory or the reconquest of Crimea demanded by its gung-ho British sponsors.

The Ukrainian cult of Johnson has other dangers. Kyiv’s closeness to the British government could complicate its relationship with the European Union. Churchill impersonators are, even as I write, ripping up Britain’s trade deal with the EU over Northern Ireland, undermining further their country’s authority and credibility.

In standing behind a lawless leader, and unable to find better alternatives, the Tory party may have given up on ordinary competence as well as ordinary decency. The rest of us ought to be more alert to the degraded state of domestic British politics — and the volatile element it has come to represent in the war in Ukraine.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Brexit Threats in Wartime Are Doubly Wrong: Lionel Laurent

• Britain Ups the Ante on Putin. Biden Should Too: Therese Raphael

• Have Britain’s Tories Been in Power Too Long? Martin Ivens

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of “Run and Hide.”

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