LONDON — In the war of words between the Western alliance and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have been conspicuously outspoken.
Johnson’s boosters in the Tory-friendly newspapers and Parliament contend that this muscular approach to the Ukraine crisis is a grand example of the benefits of Brexit — the emergence of newly assertive, unshackled “Global Britain” taking its rightful place in the international arena, even as some European capitals have been reluctant to engage.
Diplomats and analysts agree Britain is playing an outsize role. But Johnson has been among the many world leaders who have been on the phone with Putin or traipsing through Kyiv in recent days. And there is skepticism about how much substance is behind some of Britain’s bluster.
“Leading the West implies it’s convening all these different countries,” said David Lawrence, a research fellow at Chatham House.
“It’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Lawrence said, noting the Western response has been fragmented. But he ventured, “What the U.K. has done bilaterally is swifter and more substantial than France and especially Germany.”
Johnson said his country has provided training for 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers. It is supplying 2,000 antitank weapons and just committed $110 million to bolster the Ukrainian navy and better governance. There also might be a deal for two British-made minesweepers, at some point in the future.
British officials have been quick to alert the home front that no British soldiers will fight in Ukraine.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, introduced new legislation she called “the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we have ever had, and it is the most radical departure in approach since leaving the European Union.”
Specifically, the proposed sanctions — which must still be enacted into law — would allow the British government to target “any company that is linked to the Russian state, engages in business of economic significance to the Russian state, or operates in a sector of strategic significance to the Russian state.”
Truss promised, “Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide.”
But on these claims, there has been pushback. Britain’s midnight assertion that conspirators were working to install a puppet government led some to scratch their heads and ask “What proof?”
One of the alleged conspirators revealed by Britain’s intelligence service is Yevhen Murayev, who owns a pro-Russian television channel in Ukraine. He dismissed the allegations as “stupidity and nonsense.”
Equally, skeptics say that rather than making life hard for oligarchs, Britain, and especially London, has been their playground for years, a go-to destination for rich Russians in the mood for a real estate binge.
“Sanctions is a way to hit Russia where it hurts, but that could hurt the U.K., too, if we have an economic model that essentially gives cover to individuals with dodgy links in the city of London,” said Chatham House’s Lawrence. The London-based think tank recently published a report titled “The UK’s kleptocracy problem,” detailing how post-Soviet elites have turned to Britain to help launder their money and their reputations.
Critics wonder aloud if Johnson hasn’t suddenly found an interest in Ukraine, in part, as a way to distract from an ongoing scandal over a string of boozy parties held at 10 Downing Street during strict lockdowns over the past two years.
Those dueling impressions — a tough Britain and a prime minister under siege — were on display at a Tuesday evening news conference at Kyiv’s Mariinsky Palace. Johnson said Putin was “holding a gun to Ukraine’s head,” that a military campaign appeared “imminent,” and that such a war would be “very fierce and bloody.”
Staring down the cameras, Johnson warned, ominously, that the “mothers in Russia … should reflect on that fact.”
And yet, the first question to Johnson in Kyiv was from a BBC reporter who asked, pointedly, if Johnson were so interested in Ukraine, why just a day earlier had he postponed a call with Putin? Was it because at the time scheduled for the call Johnson was speaking in the House of Commons, hearing calls for his resignation over what the British press has dubbed “Partygate?”
The call went ahead Wednesday, with Putin criticizing NATO’s failure to accept Russia’s demands, including an end to NATO expansion, and Johnson saying “all European democracies have a right to aspire to NATO membership,” according to readouts from Moscow and London.
Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Johnson could legitimately be pursuing multiple tracts — to bolster Britain’s position in Europe, to side with the Americans, and to show that his government is, as he says, “getting on with the job.”
Alongside the United States, Britain is the dominant military power in NATO and Europe and a member of the “Five Eyes” spy alliance. All that was true before Brexit. But now that Britain is outside the European Union, its opportunities to be a transatlantic bridge are more limited.
As additional context, Britain has had a frosty relationship with Russia for years — hitting a low point in 2018, when Russian intelligence agents were accused of attempting to poison former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
“There’s plenty of reasons for Britain to feel aggrieved and to feel that standing up to Russia is an important requirement,” Eyal said. “London is used to the idea of leading a gaggle of Europeans in terms of noise against Russia.”
But, yes, the Ukraine crisis is also a welcome diversion from Johnson’s domestic woes, he said.
“To suggest that he’s interested in escaping his domestic concerns is to state the obvious,” Eyal said. “Name me the politician who doesn’t think of the domestic implications of a foreign policy initiative.”
Lawrence assessed that “Johnson is personally maybe louder on the issue” than he might have been if he weren’t in trouble domestically. “In the Commons, Johnson says, ‘We are talking about parties and cakes when there is a crisis on the edge of Europe.’ ”
But Lawrence added: “I don’t think Britain as a country would be acting in a different way if he wasn’t in trouble.”