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Boris Johnson: Stop worrying about Putin and ‘focus entirely on Ukraine’

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants the West to stop tiptoeing around Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats and narratives.

“How can we seriously worry about provoking him when we have seen what he will do without the slightest provocation?” he asked at an Atlantic Council event on Wednesday. “We need to stop focusing on Putin and focus entirely on Ukraine” as it continues to fight for its sovereignty, European security, and democratic values.

That focus, Johnson urged, entails equipping Ukraine with “the stuff they need.” That includes Ukrainian requests for long-range missile systems, more armored vehicles, and fighter planes.

And what about escalation? Putin “won’t use nuclear weapons,” Johnson argued, because in such a case, China would likely draw back its support; India, African countries, and Latin American countries would likely turn against Russia; and the Russian people would face steep economic consequences. Not to mention, a nuclear strike wouldn’t end the war, and “the Ukrainians will probably fight on and win anyway,” he said.  

Below are more highlights from the conversation, moderated by Atlantic Council Eurasia Center Senior Director John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, as they discussed holding Russia accountable for war crimes, Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, and more.

Weapons, stat

  • If allies can equip Ukraine with what it needs to win the war quickly, Johnson explained, they would save countless lives. But they would also “lift the threat of aggression” in places such as Georgia, Moldova, the Baltic states, and Eastern Europe—and end the risk of further disruption to the economy, energy supply, and food system.
  • By contrast, if allies fail to help Ukraine “win decisively,” that would ensure that Putin remains a threat to all those countries and regions—meaning that Americans will continue incurring costs for generations to help secure Europe, Johnson said. He warned those concerned about costs not to be “penny wise and pound foolish, or cent wise and dollar foolish, however you would put it here.”
  • Johnson said he doesn’t think it would take long to train Ukrainians up on Western fighter jets, as they “have proved themselves able to use our technology to massively destructive effect.” He also pushed back against critics who say that helping Ukraine drains Western arsenals, asking if there is any point in deploying tanks and planes in secure places such as North Carolina or Alsace. “The Ukrainians could be using them now, exactly where [the weapons] are needed” to protect the West’s collective security, Johnson said.
  • Johnson, who served as prime minister during the war’s early months before resigning amid scandal in July, claimed that “it was because of Brexit” that the United Kingdom was able to make decisions and take approaches that were “distinct from the old EU [European Union] approach” on Ukraine. “If we’d stuck to that,” he said, “I don’t believe we would have delivered” next generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs).
  • In addition to equipping Ukraine, the country’s allies must help hold Russia accountable for its apparent war crimes, said Johnson, who remains a Conservative Party member of Parliament. “We should give every possible support to the Ukrainians” throughout the efforts to collect evidence and the legal process “to allow them to assemble the cases against those who have committed atrocities.” Johnson added that it is “essential” that any Ukrainians who may have committed war crimes “should be brought to justice as well.”

The nightmare that could have been

  • Johnson commended US “military and financial” support, saying that without the United States’ efforts, “Putin would have taken Kyiv in the blitzkrieg that he planned,” which could have brought a “terrible darkness” to a “young and entirely innocent European democracy.” If the Kremlin had succeeded in its invasion, that would have emboldened it to “increase the intimidation and threats toward every country and region on the fringes of the Soviet empire,” Johnson added.
  • The fall of Kyiv, explained Johnson, would have told China “all they need to know about [the West’s] reluctance to stand up for freedom and democracy” and it would signal to every “opportunist autocrat” that international borders are “fungible” and could “be changed by force.”
  • Johnson warned that China is still watching how this invasion unfolds: “This is a dry run for Xi Jinping… [China wants] to see how it will go” because it has “objectives of [its] own.”

NATO’s “mistake”

  • Johnson reflected on how, before Russia’s invasion last February, there wasn’t a clear consensus among NATO allies about Ukraine’s membership—an ambiguity that Putin ultimately exploited. “We made a mistake,” Johnson explained, in telling Ukraine that NATO membership “was [in] the cards” without offering “any kind of real security guarantees.” Putin used that reassurance of membership “as a pretext” for invasion, Johnson said.
  • Johnson looked back at the argument that Ukrainian membership would provoke Russian aggression, calling it “now transparently absurd.” He pointed out that Russian aggression has unfolded even despite NATO’s “failure” to admit Ukraine into the Alliance. “Not having Ukraine in NATO produced the worst war in Europe [in] eighty years,” he said.
  • Now, Putin has “demolished any objections to Ukrainian membership,” Johnson explained. While he said he doesn’t believe that Ukraine “should be admitted forthwith” into NATO, he explained that “once the Ukrainians have won” the war, they should “begin the process of induction, both to NATO and of course to the EU.”
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