As Europe pushes for peace, distraught Johnson falls behind | Simon Tisdall
DDespite Washington’s increasingly frenzied warnings of an “imminent” attack, all-out war in Ukraine is not inevitable. Far from there. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military pressure tactics are working. The West was forced to listen to his grievances. The fighting could start soon. But US intelligence is not accurate and Moscow is adept at spreading disinformation and fear. Just as likely, this standoff could last for months. In the meantime, diplomacy still has a chance.
The best hope remains the path to peace charted last week by French President Emmanuel Macron during talks with Putin in Moscow. How shameful and dangerous that Boris Johnson’s government is so unsupportive. Brexit Britain, detached by choice from the EU and in the grip of US policy, is undermining European diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
The United Kingdom once served as a transatlantic bridge and interlocutor. Now it has become an obstacle to understanding, doomed to insignificance.
The sight of the British prime minister and foreign and defense secretaries last week, representing a once influential and respected nation, walking around Europe making empty threats was embarrassing. In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mocked the “slogans” launched by Liz Truss, his British counterpart. In Brussels, Johnson was grimly cocky – and at a loss for what to do.
Johnson’s choice of far-flung destinations is instructive. So far, he’s served Christmas turkey to British troops in Tallinn, taken an insubstantial photo op in Kyiv and visited fellow EU-hating populists in Warsaw. Not exactly traditional diplomacy. Gaffe-prone Truss, heiress to Castlereagh, Balfour and Bevin, didn’t drive her Margaret Thatcher chariot to the Kremlin, but she might as well have done for all the good of her visit
do. British policy towards Ukraine remains awkwardly focused on “deterrence”, not solutions. It basically means yelling at Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down – or else. Yet Britain has no “or else”. Through no fault of their own, its exhausted, underfunded and ill-equipped armed forces make little difference to the Kremlin’s calculations.
Britain’s most potent unilateral weapon – effective measures to curb the laundering of stolen Russian money – has yet to be fully deployed, perhaps a result of the Conservative Party’s greed for red gold. When this government talks about deterrence, it relies on others, primarily the United States, to do what it cannot or does not want to do itself.
For all its posturing and punching, Britain is barely in the diplomatic hunt. Few people other than the worried leaders of the nearly indefensible Baltic republics – who will accept all the help they can get – are listening to London anymore. Johnson and his cronies are reduced to sneaky fire from the sidelines as headline-grabbing French diplomacy leaves them trailing in the snow.
Emmanuel Macron, Johnson’s pet peeve and main opponent of Brexit, made important strides last week in face-to-face talks with Putin, sketching out the outlines of a possible deal. Judging by the reaction from Downing Street, Johnson would prefer war to the success of the French president.
Anonymous officials and government sources have variously accused Macron of betraying NATO, rewarding aggression, campaigning and ‘waving a white flag’ – Savile-style insults thankfully amplified by conservative support , Francophobic commentators extolling appeasement and “Macron’s Munich moment”.
When such a low is reached, it is clear that post-Brexit failures, personal grudges and sneaky blame games, coupled with isolated Britain’s chronic lack of ideas, influence and responsible leadership, become extremely dangerous.
The British attacks are not just aimed at Paris. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, reluctant to blow up Russia’s gas supply lines, is criticized, as is the EU. Yet sour grapes aside, much of this cross-Channel barracks is calculated. It is deliberately intended for American consumption.
By confusing rancor with independent thought, such a wedge is meant to demonstrate to a panicked US President, Joe Biden, that whatever these cowardly and devious Europeans may do, Britain remains Washington’s staunch friend – even when Washington , blowing loud trumpets, drowns in its own hype.
This, in short, is Johnson’s made-in-Brexitland foreign policy: hug America, screw Europe. It is an unpleasant appeal to a shared but endangered Anglo-Saxon heritage. It’s cynical, self-defeating, dishonest, divisive and, most dangerous of all, it’s a gift to Putin. It is not Macron who threatens Western unity. It’s Big Dog.
What is so terrible, for example, in Ukraine’s neutrality? It is obvious, despite the rhetoric about open doors and sovereign rights, that the US-led NATO does not want Kiev to join the club. So be honest.
It is true that the Minsk ceasefire agreement after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, championed by Macron, is a fudge that means different things to different people. But it is also a crucial product of the only peace process in town. So fudge some more. Save time. Defuse.
Are the Russians justified in complaining that NATO has broken its promises to stay away from Moscow’s post-Soviet borders? Yes, suggests Macron, gradually moving closer to Putin’s demand for “indivisible security” – meaning that the security of one state does not compromise that of another.
There is clearly room for compromise here, especially if Putin follows through on his announced promise to freeze military buildup and withdraw troops from Belarus.
The problem is that the United States, emboldened by Johnson’s ramshackle act of tribute to Churchill, rejects changes to Europe’s “security architecture” outright. It also favors Kiev’s interpretation of what the Minsk agreements say should happen in the disputed Donbass region.
And although the United States promises to discuss limiting its deployment in Europe of new medium-range nuclear-capable missiles – an alarming and largely undiscussed revival of Washington’s 1980s cruise and escalating Pershing missile cold war – they insist that Putin back down first. It’s unrealistic.
To summarize. Outcast Putin, an international hooligan, started the Ukrainian crisis and is now exploiting it. Macron, representing France and the EU, is trying to solve it. And ill-judged, harsh and hostile American and British attitudes can still frustrate it.
Is it because Washington and London know what is best for Europe? No. It is because the United States, projecting its national interests through NATO, and the reckless, talkative liar of Downing Street, cannot stand the idea of a self-sufficient, strategically self-sufficient Europe, successfully managing his own safety.
It’s England. It’s Brexit. It’s a shame.