”We are constantly one step behind.” Boris Johnson explains how Ukraine can win the war faster, recalls the last conversation with Putin and asks the West to finally forget about “this guy”. An interview

Oksana Kovalenko
Kateryna Kobernyk
”We are constantly one step behind.” Boris Johnson explains how Ukraine can win the war faster, recalls the last conversation with Putin and asks the West to finally forget about “this guy”. An interview

Boris Johnson at a briefing in Kyiv, August 24, 2022.

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson actively supported Ukraine from the first days of the full-scale invasion. He was the first of the leaders of the G7 country to visit Kyiv in April 2022, in total there were four such visits over the past year and a half. In September 2022, Johnson left the post of prime minister due to a scandal — during the covid pandemic, he held loud parties, disregarding safety rules. In his homeland, he is criticized because of this (and not only), but for Ukraine he still remains almost the main friend and lobbyist for the provision of military aid and money. Babel correspondent Oksana Kovalenko met with Johnson at the Yalta European Strategy and agreed on an interview. The conversation took place on October 10. Johnson told what he talked about with Putin in February 2022, why the West is always one step behind and whether Great Britain is confiscating Russian money.

In your previous interviews, you said that you spoke with Putin a few weeks before the full-scale invasion, and then on the night of the attack — with Mr. Zelensky. You said that Putin tried to scare you, and maybe even threaten you. What exactly did he say and did he directly say that he was going to attack Ukraine?

This conversation with Putin was around the beginning of February 2022. He said he was not going to attack [Ukraine]. He was indignant that Ukraine wants to join NATO and place missiles on its territory. I said what was true at the time: that Ukraine will not join NATO in the near future, because many other countries — France, Germany, Hungary — are against it. I said that Ukraine is not a threat to him. Putin clarified what "in the near future" means — next month, next year. He tried to make me say that Ukraine will never join NATO. I couldnʼt say that because I didnʼt believe it.

Now there are no arguments against Ukraine joining NATO. Putin destroyed them all with his attack. We did not take Ukraine to NATO because we were afraid of Putin, and this led to the worst war in Europe in 80 years. As soon as it ends, we must accept Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible.

Even during this conversation, Putin was playing with me. He tried to present this conflict as a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO. He ambiguously joked, saying, "I wouldnʼt want to hurt you with a nuclear weapon, Boris." That is, he hinted that it could happen by accident and nobody needs such mistakes. He tried to intimidate. But later I realized that during that conversation on February 2, Putin had already made the decision to invade and was just trying to voice his arguments to me, but it was delusional. NATO wasnʼt the issue. It was about his dislike for Ukraine and his fear that it would choose a different path from Russia. It was about his desire to suppress Ukrainian freedom, rebuild the Soviet empire.

More and more disappointing information appears in the media. For example, after the parliamentary elections, Slovakia suspends military aid to Ukraine. Turbulence is also beginning in the USA due to the elections, which may affect the position regarding Ukraine. If it actually changes, who in Europe will stay with Ukraine until the end? Will Great Britain be among these countries?

Europe will most likely remain united [on this issue]. I think Great Britain will certainly support Ukraine as long as it is needed.

But the most important country is the United States. They provided the vast majority of aid — more than $50 billion. Many people are now worried about what will happen after the US election. But I think whoever becomes president of the United States will be determined by certain facts. And the facts are as follows: democracy and freedom — the values that America stands for — are under threat in Ukraine, like nowhere else in the world. And it will not be possible to make America great again if it gives in to Putinʼs aggression and criminal behavior. I believe that whoever becomes President of the United States next November will very likely follow current American policy.

Boris Johnson together with Volodymyr Zelensky on Independence Square in Kyiv, August 24, 2022.

You said that the EU will be united on the issue of Ukraine, but we see the example of Slovakia. Do you think it will change her mind?

I think they are wrong and Iʼm sad to see it. I donʼt know how much military aid Slovakia provides, but stopping aid is a mistake.

There is a threat that Russia will attack the Baltic countries. They take this risk very seriously. Do you believe that in the event of an attack, NATO will intervene and protect these countries from Russian attacks?

Yes of course. 100%. Thatʼs why NATO is the most successful military alliance in history.

Why this question arose: I spoke with some journalists in Lithuania, they are really afraid that if something happens, no one will come to help.

They are wrong. I believe that Article Five [of the NATO Charter] is fundamentally important — in the event of an attack [on one of the Alliance members], others come to help. Journalists should not worry.

Until February 2022, big Russian business felt very comfortable in Great Britain, there is a lot of Russian money and assets there. As far as I understand, your country is ready to freeze these funds, but does not have the political will to confiscate them. What is the problem?

I think we should go to confiscation. After these events, I canʼt even imagine Great Britain unfreezing and returning Russian assets. This money — approximately $300 billion — will be used to rebuild Ukraine. People in Ukraine suffered terribly. They deserve financial support.

Is this idea popular in the UK, will Parliament support it?

I think so, but it will take some time. In fact, this issue is being discussed in the United States as well. Senator Rich is leading the campaign on this, and I support him. I donʼt quite understand why international lawyers are worried about the confiscation of assets, but this money will never return to Russia, so it is better to make it so that it goes to the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Do you understand when this can happen? When can the Parliament of Great Britain allow confiscation of Russian assets?

It is necessary for the government to propose it, and now I am thinking how to push it to do so.

The West increasingly accuses Ukraine of corruption. This is indeed a problem, but it was there at the beginning of the war, and in fact it does not affect the fact that Russia is violating international law and killing Ukrainians. Isnʼt the accusation of corruption an attempt to find a reason not to support Ukraine?

You know, recently I was in Lviv and spoke with the mayor Andrii Sadovy, he is a very good guy. I told him I used to be mayor of London and I really liked it, it was a good job. I asked Andrii about the problems Lviv is facing. He has so many things to think about: the police, housing, public transport. But the most important problem is corruption. This surprised me because it has historically been a problem. We have to make sure we get through this together. Fighting corruption is very easy — you just need to put a lot of people in prison.

Boris Johnson during a visit to Lviv together with the mayor Andrii Sadovy, September 9, 2023.

If, in the first year of the full-scale Russian invasion, the West had provided weapons to Ukraine faster and in larger batches, until the Russians had gained a foothold in the occupied territories, could the war have followed a different scenario?

This is a very good question. I donʼt know the answer to that because Iʼm not a military expert. But you are right, we have given Ukraine what it needs for too long. And now we have to admit that Ukraineʼs technological needs are changing. A year ago, tanks and armored cars seemed very important, but now they seem more vulnerable to drones, so we need to think more about drones. It seems that we are always one step behind. We need to step forward and give Ukraine what it needs to end [the war] now.

Why is the West lagging behind?

Because there was an absurd fear, God forbid, not to provoke Vladimir Putin. But this guy can be provoked by anything. He has already brought this war to the most horrific level of barbarism. Therefore, I do not accept this argument [about escalation]. I think Putin is afraid of armed resistance, and it is possible to defeat it only by providing Ukraine with everything it needs — the best drone technologies, salvo fire systems, long-range missiles, air defense equipment. We should stop worrying about Putin.

What should be done to get it faster?

I will give you an example. We [Great Britain] are training Ukrainian fighter pilots. So far we are just teaching them to speak English and we are still far from providing airplanes. So, this is a problem not only of the West.

Literally a few days after the Russian invasion, the famous British lawyer Philip Sands wrote an article that Putin had committed a crime of aggression and should appear before the International Tribunal. Currently, there are two options for such a tribunal. The first is International, he will be able to bypass Putinʼs immunity. The second, supported by the United Kingdom and the United States, is a hybrid tribunal. He will not allow Putin to be tried as long as he remains president. Why does Britain support an option that will allow Putin to avoid responsibility?

These are all very interesting debates about bringing Putin to justice, and Iʼm all for that happening, but the most important thing right now is to help Ukraine win. And all talk about Putin in any court is completely meaningless until Ukraine has won. They will become relevant when there is a different regime in Moscow, then we can discuss the future of Putin. If we spend time talking about Putin, we are playing his game. We must focus on the needs of Ukraine. Everything else is just a psychological distraction maneuver.

That is, the tribunal regarding Putin is possible only after the victory of Ukraine or when he is removed from the Kremlin?

I donʼt care about Putinʼs political career. It is important to make sure that the people of Ukraine have the missiles, drones and financial support they need to win.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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