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Boris Johnson: We, the West, always end up giving what is needed but way too late

Why delay weapons supply? Get on with it now and we save lives, says one of Ukraine’s greatest advocates in the UK
Boris Johnson. Yalta European Strategy. Photograph provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. Photographer: Serhiy Illin.
Boris Johnson: We, the West, always end up giving what is needed but way too late

British ex-PM Boris Johnson has emerged as a prominent advocate for Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale war. During Yalta European Strategy 2023 and Young Leaders Forum, part of YES, he called for accelerating weapons delivery to Ukraine and supporting its NATO accession, while also responding to questions about Russia’s possible collapse and his changing perception of Ukraine in times of the full-scale war.

NATO as main security guarantee

If there’s a way of some sort of peaceful solution, then of course that should be. Everybody’s praying for that. But I don’t think that that is possible with Vladimir Putin. My impression is that that’s not really likely to be achieved. Yevgeny Prigozhin thought he had a deal with Vladimir Putin and that didn’t work very well for him, right?

The most important thing for the world is to prove that our values work. Democracy, liberty, the defense of freedom are valuable and that we stick up for them. That means supporting Ukraine right the way through, until the last Russian soldier has left sovereign Ukrainian territory. That’s what I think our job is. And that’s certainly going to be the position of the UK if I have anything to do with it. I think that will be the position of a cross party consensus in the UK.

The long-term question really is around NATO and security guarantees. We have to be absolutely clear with ourselves that the NATO issue was integrally bound up with the problem of Putin’s aggression. And if we hadn’t been so chronically ambiguous, if we – the West and the NATO – hadn’t tried to suck and blow at once, it’s very difficult to do. But that’s what we were doing – we were speaking out of both sides of our mouth when it came to Ukraine and NATO membership. That was the disaster.

The future is being decided in Ukraine: key takeaways from YES forum 2023 in Kyiv

What is needed now is to show that we’re willing to have Ukraine in NATO as fast as possible. What works is NATO. No one has attacked a NATO country for 80 years, right? As far as I can remember. [During 9-11 in the United States] they invoked Article 5. That is a very powerful guarantee. That is a massive psychological support for a country and a massive deterrent to anybody who would seek to attack that country.

NATO works; it’s proved that it works. And we’ve exhausted all the alternatives. Putin has comprehensively demolished the argument against Ukrainian membership of NATO. The argument was that if you had Ukraine precipitately in NATO, then you might provoke Putin. That argument doesn’t look very good these days. Look what he did without Ukraine being in NATO.

We tried not having Ukraine in NATO. It’s led to the worst war in Europe for 80 years, hundreds of thousands of people dead. It’s a disaster. The only answer is to get Ukraine in NATO as fast as possible. And that is the long-term solution. It’s going to be a tough thing for some people in Russia to swallow and to accept. But it has the great virtue of clarity. And people will know where the boundaries of NATO are and I think that is the solution that we all need to be working for together.

The need to speed up weapons supply

[In Ukraine] I went to see one of the rehabilitation centers where injured veterans of the war are being treated. It was truly humbling to see the injuries that these guys have suffered – the really cruel and life-changing injuries that they are experiencing. Every day more and more Ukrainians are going through this. We owe it to these guys, to everybody fighting for freedom to get on with it.

This whole history of this conflict, the West has always been a couple of beats behind, if not more. And we need to speed up. We need to be intensifying the economic pressure on Putin.

Zelenskyy and Johnson
Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and ex-PM of the UK Johnson in Kyiv on 22 January 2023. Photo by Ukraine’s President Office.

Russian state assets that are currently frozen, the $300 billion worth in the Cayman Islands or the US or wherever – it’s crazy that those should go back to Putin at the end of this. They clearly need to be put into escrow to be used to rebuild Ukraine. It’s clear from talking to the President Zelensky that Ukraine now needs attack arms, it needs anti-aircraft protection if the Ukrainian infantry is going to advance safely, it needs de-mining stuff. We need to get on with this now. My question to my friends, colleagues from other Western countries and governments, why are we waiting?

Why delay? Get on with it now and we save life. We save the appalling, we spare so many young men the appalling injuries that they’re currently suffering. We bring this wretched, disastrous episode to a conclusion. So I do not know what the case, I do not know morally why we are delaying.

We always end up giving what is needed, but we do it months and months too late. Let’s just accelerate, cut to the chase, give Ukraine what they need to win as fast as possible.

On the West’s fears of Russia collapsing

Russia is still a great imperial country in the historical conglomeration of conquest over a long time. Even if Russia were to collapse… I’m not saying I want that, and I’m not saying that we who support Ukraine have any objectives in this matter. What did the Russian collapse really look like?

People said that the collapse of the Soviet Union would be a disaster. The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the great moments of liberation that I can remember in my lifetime. And it gave birth to the modern Ukraine apart from everything else.

So, I think that for simplicity’s sake, what we all need to do is stop talking about Russia, stop talking about Putin, and talk about the victory of Ukraine. That’s what matters.

Change of the vision about Ukraine’s future

It was pretty spooky coming to Kyiv in the early days [of the full-scale war] because nobody was around. I think if you ask Volodymyr Zelensky’s security people, they weren’t expecting to do a walkabout, nor was I. But I didn’t know what else we could do because we had to show people that we weren’t afraid and we had to show people that we were in the city.

I have to show people that the president is being incredibly brave throughout. And so it was weird going around and talking to people in the street because there weren’t very many of them and they were quite surprised.

Former UK Prime Minister Johnson visited two Ukrainian cities, paid tribute to fallen defenders (photos)

But the difference between then and now is that maybe back then – I’ll be absolutely honest with you – it was possible that Ukrainians might have accepted if the Russians had got back, given up all the territory that they invaded on February the 24th. Maybe there could have been an agreement. I don’t think that’s possible anymore.

Now my impression is that Ukrainians want their whole country to be free. They feel that they’ve learned a terrible lesson about 2014 and the mistake that the West made in trying to appease Russia.

It was a terrible mistake we made. The Normandy process didn’t work. It’s now very clear. Ukraine, the 1991 borders of Ukraine must be free. I think the experience of the horror of the conflict and what Putin did has really confirmed that in everybody’s minds.

No progress in Normandy talks around Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donbas

So I think that is different. But what I’ve noticed now [in Kyiv] is things are much cheerier than they were in April last year, much cheerier. I see restaurants open, I see things happening, I see people with a lot more confidence, and that’s great to see. And I think that’s going to grow.

What to tell children about future?

I think what we need to do is don’t make them too paranoid about the world. The world is fundamentally a great place. And I think that sometimes we can be too negative about some of the problems that humanity faces.

I think climate change is terrible, but we can fix it. We can find ways of massively reducing our CO2 emissions. And great problems like the autocracies – with more understanding, with better explanation of what democracy is, we can win those arguments.

So I think to make the world a better place for our kids – make the democracies triumph, not in an aggressive way, but just by sweet persuasion. And fix climate change?

What else? More global free trade. I mean, why can’t Ukraine sell its wheat to the European Union? That seems to me to be very eccentric. We’re all trying to support Ukraine. And now we’re told that Ukraine can’t sell agricultural products to the EU. I think that’s crazy to myself. The world needs good cheap food.

Tell the kids it’s all going to be fine. That’s what they need to hear.

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