Ask an ordinary Ukrainian to name a foreign politician who is an indisputable friend of Ukraine, and Boris Johnson will be mentioned more than anyone else. It’s been four and a half months since he resigned as British Prime Minister, but he has not lost any of his popularity among Ukrainians.
Johnson was one of the most outspoken lobbyists for military assistance to Ukraine before the full-scale Russian invasion and in its early stages. He became the first Western European leader to visit Kyiv in April, as soon as the Armed Forces of Ukraine had repelled Russian troops from Kyiv's outskirts, and the first foreign politician to walk through the very centre of Kyiv, which was still empty at the time.
When Ukrainska Pravda announced its nominations for the Friend of Ukraine Award, Johnson was one of the contenders, and ultimately one of the winners. The award was presented to the British politician in London this week, and afterwards he agreed to talk to the editor of EuroPravda, Sergiy Sydorenko.
We have published a video of this interview in English, and the text appears below.
"European leaders are superstitious about Putin"
- Let me start with an unexpected question. Why do you support Ukraine? Our state is located quite far from the UK. Why are we important to you?
- I think it's one of the most extraordinary features of the UK's response. It very strong. All the people in the United Kingdom have very passionate feelings of support for Ukraine. It's very noticeable. You can see it on buildings everywhere people fly the Ukrainian flag. I think people were just shocked that an aggressor could attack an independent country like that.
I was lucky I went to Ukraine when I was foreign secretary a couple of times. First time in 2016 and then I think a bit later. It's an amazing country. It's beautiful. It was clearly on a different path from Russia. It was clearly a country that had a totally different vocation, a destiny, a different sense of nationhood.
I've never seen anything so clear-cut in foreign policy in the last 50 years. I've never seen something that was so clearly black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. And right is on the side of Ukraine, and Ukraine must win. And Ukraine will win, by the way.
- We will return to the Ukrainian victory. First, let me ask: when did you personally understand that Ukraine would withstand this attack? After all, at first, in the spring, it was not obvious to many in the West.
- When the 115 battalion tactical groups were assembling on the border, it was a horrific scenario. I was getting daily reports from defence intelligence in the UK. I have to tell they were not optimistic about Ukraine's ability to hold on.
To be absolutely frank, they thought they told me that it would be over in a matter of days!
There was nothing that was really able to stop Putin driving all the way to Kyiv with his tanks in a week or so. I was skeptical. As I say, I had been to Kyiv. I talked to veterans of the Donbass. I thought these guys are going to fight. They are very brave fighters, too. They have had a long time since 2014 to learn about warfare.
My people kept saying ‘It's going to be over soon.’ I kept saying ‘Yeah, but you don't understand that Ukraine will fight’. I had this argument with other European friends and colleagues.
- How did it happen? Did you manage to convince other European leaders, such as Scholz or Macron, that Ukraine will resist and win the war?
- I think we were able to win the argument because let's be in no doubt, I think that some of our friends started in a very different position. In France and in Germany they had this tradition of the Normandy process and the Minsk agreements.
They were used to engaging with Russia trying to persuade Russia and Ukraine to negotiate after Russia had already invaded in 2014. So they were in a kind of logic of negotiation and trying to find a deal. And if you remember Emmanuel at one stage said Putin must not be humiliated. We started from a very different position. We (the British government) thought there was only one way out. Ukraine must succeed, and Putin must fail. Everybody is a bit, in my view, superstitious about Putin.
So in the first meeting I said Putin must fail. It took a while for everybody to get people to agree to this.
They're wrong, but they you know they said it was too much to ask for Putin to fail. We need to find different language.
I said, no Putin must fail and Ukraine must succeed. That means at the least driving Putin out of all the areas he has taken since February 24. Let me explain how we were able to win the arguments. It was because fundamentally, there was no alternative to Ukrainian military success.
Whenever my colleagues from other European capitals began to think about some negotiation or some peace plan or some deal, some land for peace deal, the idea crumbled immediately in the discussion because you can't negotiate with Putin because he's so patently untrustworthy. That argument never worked.
Everybody was always forced back to the only logical conclusion. We had to back Ukraine with everything we could until Ukraine succeeds in getting Putin's invaders out of their country.
" It was the disaster in 2014 and we didn't stand up for Ukraine"
- Well, Ukraine will win. We do no doubt that, and neither do you. What is victory for you?
- I can't be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. I can say only diakuyu and dobry den. It's up to you to the sovereign people of Ukraine.
- We have our own answer, but your opinion is interesting.
- I would say it's up to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has to decide, but I would say that it's going to be the very minimum, before you can even begin to talk about anything with the Russians with Putin, they have to get out to the status quo ante February 24.
- It sounds pessimistic. This means the loss of Donbas and Crimea. For Ukrainians, this is an unacceptable option, they will perceive it as a huge defeat, which public opinion polls confirm.
- I understand that now. I can see the Ukrainian case for recovering everything for Crimea, the Donbas, the lot. I'll tell you why, because Number one, it's the law. It's the border. It's the boundaries of Ukraine. The second point, it was the failure to observe the international boundaries.
It was the failure to observe international boundaries that was the disaster in 2014.
The West was weak and we didn't stand up for Ukraine in 2014. We launched this hopeless Normandy process, which got nowhere.
Putin was able to keep twisting the knife in the wound keep agitating.
He saw that in the end he would be able to have another go. So I understand the logic why Ukrainians would want to get back to the status quo before 2014.
- Will the West support this? Will the West back the upcoming battle for Crimea? Or will they attempt to stop us?
- First of all, let's help you get back Melitopol, Mariupol, Berdiansk, and all the land bridge. That needs to happen first. I think frankly once that happens the geostrategic position will be very different. Ukraine will be in an immeasurably stronger position. The Kremlin with Putin will be very, very much weaker.
I have to say something else.
Before the war NATO membership for Ukraine was kind of off the table. There weren't enough people in NATO who would support it. Though there were quite a lot of people who were against it. I'm afraid to say that the one person who has made an overwhelming case for Ukrainian membership of NATO is Vladimir Putin. By the way, he has not only helped to massively to strengthen Ukraine's national pride and sense of what it can do.
But Vladimir Putin has also greatly strengthened NATO. He has made NATO great again. He has now two more NATO members on his western border.
"It's vanishingly unlikely that Russia would use a nuclear weapon"
- If the Kremlin returns to nuclear threats, won't it scare away the West? I am afraid that the unity of the Alliance may disappear after the first threat, let alone the first nuclear launch.
- What I noticed while doing the job of UK Prime Minister was every time we thought that the Western Alliance was going to be divided, G7, NATO or whatever G20 any big meeting, everybody always said in the run up that it was going be a fight about Ukraine, the doves and the hawks will disagree. Nonsense. Because of the logic of the argument that I described earlier we always came out united and on the nuclear thing
And on the nuclear thing we've sent a very clear message to Putin. He has heard that message.
It is very important that we don't allow him to transform this into a conversation about a nuclear standoff between NATO and Russia. This is not about a nuclear standoff between NATO and Russia. This is not about nuclear weapons. This is about Putin using conventional forces in an absolutely criminal and barbaric attack on a neighbouring country, a sovereign neighboring European country.
All we are trying to do is give our friends the ability to protect, defend themselves and kick the invader out. That's all this is about. We should not be trapped by Putin into talking about some nuclear logic or standoff.
- Do you rule out a nuclear strike at all?
- I think it's vanishingly unlikely. If Russia were to use a nuclear weapon, number one, Putin resigns his membership of the human race. All the middle ground countries that are giving Russia the benefit of the doubt, whether it's in the Gulf or in India, South Asia, they are not as supportive of Ukraine as I would like them to be.
They are more inclined to be favourable towards Russia for lots of historical reasons. As soon as he does something like that, he loses all that. Plus, what happens is that the West, I'm afraid, will be obliged to launch retaliatory action of one kind or another, which we spelled out to him.
Plus the freeze on the Russian economy would be absolutely nothing to what we would do to Putin after he launched a nuclear strike. From the point of view of the ordinary Russians, it would be an absolute catastrophe. Ordinary Russian families would suddenly fear for the consequences for themselves for the long term. In a way they have never feared before.
Because of that the nuclear strike is simply not going to happen.
Escalation? At every stage, and I faced this at the very beginning when I wanted to help Ukraine, Ben Wallace, our defence secretary, and I, we read Putin's essay. We thought, the guy’s round the bend! We thought, there's something freaky going on here. He really is going to invade. So we decided that we would give the NLAWs, the anti-tank missiles.
Our officials said ‘No, if you do that, he will escalate. You will provoke Putin.’
That has always been the argument, like with the tanks or with the aircraft. That argument is hollow. It's false. What needs to happen is Ukraine needs to be helped with the maximum conventional support to end this horrible, horrible conflict as fast as possible and to free the people of Ukraine and have peace. Again, that's what needs to happen.
- Are you not considering the scenario that Russia loses the war, Putin leaves or goes to prison and Russia dissolves?
- I don't think that we have to worry about Putin’s political career. It is not our job to be his advisers about whether he is going to survive in the Kremlin or not. That's not my job. Our job is to help Ukraine to win as fast as possible.
When that happens, given the polls, the way that Putin controls the media, the organs of opinion in Russia, he will have no difficulty persuading the Russian population that his special military operation has been a special kind of success. In a particularly special way that he will explain to them.
- If he loses Crimea, it will not work... Crimea is his "treasure".
- I defer to your opinion. He has a lot of political space to tell the Russian people that he's achieved his objectives in Ukraine. It's denazified, the Russian language, the Russian minorities, have been protected under the agreements that he has secured.
The war is over and the honour of Russia has been protected. I'm not saying it's going to look like a very persuasive case.
- But Russia will dissolve? It falls into pieces.
- I don't think so, no. I think that Russia is a great proud old country. Russia is not going to dissolve. I think people will say the risk is we will get someone worse in the Kremlin. Someone even more hardline than Putin. I have to tell you after February 24, it's very hard to think of anybody who could behave worse.
I want to stress again that the objective of the UK, the objective of NATO, the objective of all Ukraine's friends is not to have any particular outcome in Moscow.
Our objective is to protect and help Ukraine to have a free sovereign, independent Ukraine.
- Thank you, Mr. Johnson, from Ukraine - a country that will definitely join NATO, and will be a free, flourishing, democratic country.
- Yes, absolutely exactly. And I think that the UK looks forward to helping with the reconstruction of Ukraine, but also the creation of the new security architecture for Europe that will mean security for Ukraine and also security for Russia as well. And that can be done.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko
"European Pravda" editor