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Boris Johnson’s effusive support for Ukraine comes with complications

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The most vocal fan of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may live under heavy guard in war-torn Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly singled out the British leader for praise, this week calling him “a leader who is helping more” and “an example” for other leaders. The two leaders talk almost every day, according to multiple reports.

And on this issue at least, Moscow and Kyiv agree. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters last week that the Kremlin viewed Johnson “as the most active participant in the race to be anti-Russian,” warning that it was a “foreign policy dead end.”

But Boris Johnson? That Boris Johnson? The former political journalist turned London mayor and foreign secretary has not had the best reputation on the world stage recently. Known for his colorful career and even more colorful private life, Johnson had overseen London as it became a playground for Russian oligarchs and money laundering.

He was perceived as having all-too-close links to many wealthy Russian figures himself, while the most important political move of his career — backing Brexit, the controversial British vote to leave the European Union — was tangled up in claims of Russian influence and misinformation. That Ukraine’s own break with Russia was prompted by popular desire to join the European Union is the icing on the cake.

Yet even if trained as a comedian, Zelensky is no fool. He wasn’t charmed by Johnson’s trademark bluster, but by very real policy moves made by the British government. According to tracking provided to Today’s WorldView by open-source defense intelligence provider Janes, Britain has agreed to supply Ukrainian troops with significant weaponry, including over 10,000 antiarmor weapons.

These weapons, officially known as Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapons, or NLAWs, may be as crucial as the U.S.-produced Javelin missiles for Ukrainians. They serve a different purpose as they are cheaper, lighter and optimized for short-range flights. Britain began helping Ukraine well before other nations like France and Germany.

There are some signs that the British government is making moves to clean up its capital, long so awash with dirty Russian money that it was dubbed “Londongrad,” with wealthy neighborhoods like Belgravia its “Red Square.” Long-delayed reforms and reviews are finally gaining momentum, placing the bankers and lawyers who enabled this world of shell companies and foreign registration under major pressure.

Britain has also sanctioned more of Russia’s richest people than either the European Union or the United States, according to a recent analysis from Bloomberg News. Britain even targeted household names like Roman Abramovich — who has moved in recent weeks to sell Chelsea Football Club — unlike the United States.

How Ukraine could lose land but still win the war with Russia

As is often the case in Johnson’s career, he has been helped by fortuitous timing. Just months ago, the British prime minister was hardly seen as someone leading the pack on the world stage. Instead, he was someone coming perilously close to losing his grip on power altogether.

A series of allegations about parties held by his staff during pandemic lockdowns hit Johnson severely this winter, with members of the prime minister’s own party suggesting it was time for him to resign. To Johnson’s many long-standing critics, the scandal highlighted what they see as among his greatest sins: a sense of entitlement that allowed him to habitually bend truth and break rules.

Ukraine has allowed the British prime minister to don an identity he would greatly prefer: The swashbuckling leader of a “Global Britain,” unencumbered by the bureaucracy and hesitancy that bedevils its European neighbors. Zelensky’s praise of Johnson often appeared designed to contrast with the less decisive foreign policy moves of France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz.

Johnson is famous for his love of history. He penned a biography of one British leader who staged an incredible political comeback: Winston Churchill. But Anthony Seldon, a longtime chronicler of British leaders and author of a forthcoming book on Johnson’s time as prime minister, said the closest historical parallel was that of the Falklands War in 1982.

“Margaret Thatcher was under very considerable pressure similar to Johnson today, from turbulent Cabinet colleagues and from a seemingly intractable economic slowdown. But her strength and resolve in the Falklands war showed her to be a strong leader, and she gained in confidence and credibility greatly from it — exactly as Johnson will wish to do so now,” Seldon wrote in an email.

Even if luck is on Johnson’s side, history may not be. For one thing, Britain’s efforts at ending its role as a place for dirty money have so far struck many experts and activists as lackluster, despite the hype attached by Johnson’s government.

“The measures that have been taken so far have been pretty unimpressive. To be honest, they are unimpressive on their own terms, let alone given the nature of the threat they are supposedly taking on,” said Oliver Bullough, author of the forthcoming book “Butler to the World,” which examines Britain’s role in the offshore economy.

Zelensky’s praise for Johnson was likely based on diplomatic moves and military donations rather than financial reform, Bullough said, adding that these moves are unlikely to have come from Johnson. “I’d say the credit more belongs to Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, who is a serious guy with a strong track record of appreciating the nature of the Russian threat.”

Johnson may reap the rewards, but so far the rewards look slim. His polling numbers have improved from their nadir, but they are still deeply negative. Just this week, London’s Metropolitan Police issued 20 criminal fines for those who attended the Downing Street parties. More are expected.

Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said Johnson was never particularly popular but that he really “plumbed the depths” during Partygate. “Ukraine has maybe allowed him to move nearer to the surface, but he’s still underwater — and the return of ‘Partygate’ is likely to see him sink again,” Bale said.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the president of Ukraine doesn’t vote in British elections. Key local votes will be happening in Britain in May. Many analysts have reasoned this is when Johnson will be pushed aside — if his party can find anyone to replace him.

Sending arms to Ukraine and sanctioning oligarchs are comparatively simple moves, both of which are popular with British voters. But the far more complicated task of weaning Britain’s economy off illicit money from Russia and elsewhere may be far harder to do. And given rising prices, if Britain goes through with plans to phase out Russian energy, it could well alienate voters already wary of inflation.

Can you fight Russian aggression without fighting Russian money? “No, not if you’re the U.K. because you’re simultaneously causing the problem that you are claiming to be trying to solve,” Bullough said. “If the U.K. was serious about trying to defang the threat posed by Vladimir Putin, then it would be serious about trying to identify and stop the illicit finance moving through the city of London.”

Right now, he added, “there’s a big question about whether it is serious or not.”