Months short of the Platinum Jubilee, you might think it strange that ‘God save the Queen’ was trending on Twitter this week – particularly given Prince Andrew’s indiscretions are still dominating the royal news cycle – but indeed it was, albeit briefly, and in relation to the actions of our own Prime Minister. A ray of light in what has otherwise been a difficult week for Boris Johnson, the Government’s announcement of fresh shipments of anti-tank missiles and 30 trainers from the Rangers Regiment to Ukraine was warmly welcomed by a nervous Ukrainian people – for it was they who caused the twitter trend, not us!
Some have sought to suggest that the Prime Minister majoring on the Ukrainian crisis is a means of ‘social imperialism’, distracting from his own faltering leadership at home. In particular, the Government’s decision to take the unusual step of publishing a Foreign Office memorandum exposing a Russian plot to mount a coup in Kiev has been viewed with some suspicion in the same week there were fears the PM could be booted out of office. Johnson told reporters ‘We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin that that would be a disastrous step.’ An attempt for the PM to do his best Churchill, perhaps?
Certainly, in recent days it would seem the Downing Street machine is seeking to position Johnson at the helm of the western anti-Russian alliance. And in doing so, he has also made no attempt to disguise his frustration with European allies – namely France and Germany – who seem more concerned about the impact the conflict could have on their energy supplies. In a statement to Parliament, he spoke of having a “hard hitting package of sanctions” against Russia “ready to go”, calling on EU leaders to solve internal differences over their response to Moscow as soon as possible. “We want to see our European friends ready to deploy that package as soon as there should be any Russian incursion at all into the Ukraine,” he said. An animated leader, gripping the crisis, and imploring other nations to follow, was the clear intention of this performance.
But is Johnson really being taken seriously as the central player in the conflict, as Downing Street has sought to project? The reality is that whilst Britain is certainly not the bystander some may seek to suggest, neither is it the leading force.
Ultimately, the UK is playing the role of messenger and demonstrating the ongoing strength of the ‘special relationship’ – with our own position being most aligned with that of the US. Putin’s message is predominantly directed at Washington, who have been the most keen to push Ukrainian membership of the NATO alliance; as well as Berlin and Paris, who have been the most cautious about any expansion of the alliance’s membership. And, of course, they are sending the most overt threat to Ukraine itself on the disbenefits that NATO membership would bring.
Should Russia invade Ukraine, then all our talk of birthday parties and garden drinks will risk looking terribly trivial. The world will be in its most serious geopolitical conflict for some decades, precisely at a time when western leadership is weak, and NATO is divided. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but in a very short time the frustrating delay to Sue Gray’s report might just be the least of our worries.