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‘Ukraine Must Win’: A Q&A With Boris Johnson

A Tablet exclusive from the Kyiv Jewish Forum

David Samuels
February 12, 2023
‘The position that we took from day one, literally from day one, was Putin must fail and Ukraine must succeed.’
‘The position that we took from day one, literally from day one, was Putin must fail and Ukraine must succeed.’
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He partied during COVID, on his birthday. He let COVID lockdowns go on too long. He let his girlfriend, now his wife, cut his hair. An expensive London barber cut his hair. The prime minister’s official barber came to his house and cut his hair. He’s sloppy in public. He’s an aristocrat. He worked as a journalist. He drinks too much (see: journalist, aristocrat). He dyes his hair, though his sister Rachel insists that the entire Johnson family are natural blondes, which is a bit too much information, maybe. Someone has something else to say about his hair. His hair is the secret to his political success, as well as the secret flaw or Achilles’ heel by which his political failure might have been foretold.

The problem with Boris is that he’s lazy. He was barely interested in being prime minister. The problem with Boris is that he won’t shut up. Boris wanted to be everywhere and do everything at once. He’s a Muppet. He’s the Brexit Muppet, who led Britain out of Europe. He’s a Muppet who thinks he’s Sir Winston Churchill. But Churchill was bald, you see. Also, he saved Europe from the Nazis.

The British people had enough of Boris. After three years, the Conservative Party, which had formerly adored him, booted him out. Bye-bye, Boris. Was it only three years? It seemed like so much longer. Goodbye, and farewell. Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms. Who among us will write a farewell ode to Boris’ hair?

Hear, hear. Let’s hear it for front-page conventional wisdom and social media snark masquerading as deeply significant analysis of the times that try men’s souls! Thank God that COVID is over, right, with all that jibber-jabber about jabs that turned out not to work so well and the cult of masked toddlers and mutilating teenagers and all that other public health nonsense that began to seem like the leading edge of some kind of sinister plot supported by monopoly social media platforms which turn out to be one-way mirrors for the American spy services who are spying on everyone, 24/7. Time to give Boris the boot, and try out someone who also went to Oxford but actually did their homework.

Only, on his way out of office, and actually a year before that, Boris Johnson did the most consequential thing that any British prime minister has done since botching the Suez Canal takeover, leaving India and Palestine, and winning the Second World War.

Boris Johnson stood up for Ukraine, and against Putin, when Ukraine was alone in the world, on the front lines of democracy, which no one particularly cared to defend, except for the Ukrainians, whom the rest of the world had come to understand as patsies for the Russians, and as an ATM for corrupt American politicians who partied on their yachts, fucked their hookers, and stuffed their pockets with cash from their oil and gas companies, which were as much Putin’s companies as theirs. Alone among the leaders of the West, who had benefited from Ukrainian largesse, only Boris Johnson, the Muppet who thought he was Churchill, thought they would fight.

More important, he got Washington, D.C., to go along with him, which bears some closer examination. This being the same Washington, D.C., that was hopelessly divided by partisan insanity, by the jailing of political demonstrators, the use of security services as political weapons, by brain-rotting conspiracy theories, and by the utter debasement of the American press, whose standards of objective reporting had been thoroughly trashed in the fight against racism, sexism, and fascism, after the once-grand pyramid of American magazines and newspapers had itself been defunded by the monopoly internet platforms that collectively became a giant video game for billionaires and spies to play on while properly informing readers about nothing. Tucker Carlson on the right and Glenn Greenwald on the left merged to become one person, spouting the gospel of American corruption and defeat.

Vampire Washington, aged, wealthy and corrupt, was inclined to go along with whatever Vladimir Putin wanted, feeding him Crimea, and slices of Donbas, and warm water ports in Syria, and nuclear reactor contracts in Iran like canapes to a hungry crocodile. In turn, Putin believed that Western governments were staffed by hollow sissy men who would drop their pants and bend over for him. In fact, Putin believed, in their decadence and emptiness, they yearned for it, for a taste of the good old czarist lash.

As for the Ukrainians, Putin thought, when were they ever a nation? A weird mix of Nazified peasants and servile Jews, Stalin taught them who was boss. Putin, though perhaps only a modest tyrant by comparison, was a Russian leader, and Stalin’s heir. There could be only one outcome to the fight, which would be over in a week, or two at the most. The triumphal parade of tanks through the heart of Kyiv would continue on for days. It would be the greatest sight since the Red Army entered Berlin, or Budapest, or Prague.

The Ukrainian people believed otherwise. As did President Volodymyr Zelensky, the heroic Jewish comedian, who played a president on TV, and then in real life, better than anyone had done since Ronald Reagan. Just as Boris played the role of British prime minister better than anyone since Margaret Thatcher, who was also famous for her hair.

From a distance, it is easy to predict that Ukraine will win its war, and become a real grown-up nation, and a full member of NATO, just as its sometime Geppetto, Boris Johnson, will go down in history for getting the big questions right, from Brexit to Ukraine. By comparison, his faults will look small.

I spoke with the once-and-future British prime minister on the afternoon of Feb. 8 in London, following an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Parliament asking the government of the current British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, for more airplanes. The transcript that follows has been only very lightly edited to remove stray interruptions, hems and hahs that were dutifully recorded by the transcriber.

David Samuels: Welcome.

Boris Johnson: Thank you so much.

Glory to the heroes.

Yes. “Heroyam slava,” as they say in Ukraine.

And they are heroes.

The Ukrainians are heroic and the Ukrainian armed forces are heroic. And everybody in Ukraine who has put their lives at risk day in, day out, to rescue people, the emergency services, they’re all completely heroic. They’re heroes. But I think the Ukrainian leadership has also been heroic.

And you were just there?

I was there a few weeks ago.

Tell us what you saw.

I saw some of the suburbs of Kyiv, which I hadn’t really looked at before, and I saw the residue of the Russian attacks. I saw appalling destruction of the buildings.

What does a year of war mean for people living there?

It’s been a catastrophe. And the point, what I saw was how Putin is able to drop a 500-kilo bomb on an eight-story block of flats and just reduce it to nothing, with no conscience at all, no understanding of the laws of war or humanity. But he’s doing it the whole time across all of occupied Ukraine and all the bits that he’s attacking. And he’s torturing, maiming, murdering innocent civilians the whole time.

And we hear about the heroic Ukrainian resistance, but that daily toll, people living without heat, people living without electricity, without water.

Yeah. I’m so worried about Ukraine fatigue. I’m so worried that people don’t understand the urgency of helping Ukraine. The suffering is appalling. They’re losing many, many brave young men and women in combat. They’re losing civilians. Children are being killed in attacks on innocent centers of the population. They need help. They need more equipment and the faster they can get it, the better.

Today, President Zelensky came here to London and asked for planes.

He did. He gave a remarkable speech, and he was very focused on planes. I was very struck by how much emphasis he put on the need for jets. It’s absolutely true. They need a load of stuff to stop the Russian aggression, but also to retake the ground that Russia has occupied. That’s the only way to finish this thing off. You have to get the land bridge.

There’s a strange reluctance to provide Ukraine with the actual weapons it needs to win the war.

But don’t forget, there’s always been a reluctance. So, right back at the beginning, a year ago, more than a year ago now, 18 months ago. I remember when Ben Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, and I were first considering whether or not to send shoulder-launched antitank weaponry, NLAWs. We had the system saying, “No, no, no, no, no. This would be an escalation. It’ll provoke the Russians.” We did it. It was invaluable, the NLAWs, the Javelins, which the U.S. sent, Donald Trump sent, actually, was invaluable in allowing the Ukrainians to protect themselves in that battle space that I saw around Kyiv. Then we had an argument about HIMARS. Then an argument about the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.

Battle tanks, “They shouldn’t have battle tanks.”

Correct. And an argument about battle tanks. And every time we’ve come to these forks in the road, we’ve always taken the option of giving the Ukrainians what they need. But we’ve done it slowly. My argument would be, let’s stop this titration of support. Let’s stop these pipette drops of assistance. I’m not saying these are pipettes, we’re giving huge amounts of assistance. By the way, I really congratulate and thank profoundly the United States of America. I think what America is doing is fantastic. I think once again, America is the arsenal of democracy and freedom.

You were just in the U.S. as well.

I was. I was.

But you must have heard the reluctance certainly on the Republican side of the aisle, which is odd. Traditionally ...

Yes. I want a caveat. I think that needs to be put in context. I thought that the overwhelming bulk of the Republicans I met were very strong. And indeed, most of the people I spoke to, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy, a lot of senators, a lot of Congress, they were actually keen to go faster even than Joe Biden is going. So they were outflanking on that side.

But, you’re right. There are some who take a very peculiar view of what is going on, and I really can’t explain it. They somehow have come to identify, through a really weird piece of logic, Putin with conservatism or upholding conservative values and Ukraine as being woke. I mean, give me a break. How is it conservative to set about extinguishing democracy and freedom in an innocent European country? How’s it conservative, by the way, to encourage the persecution of minority Christian groups, for instance, that don’t subscribe to the Orthodox faith. There’s nothing conservative about anything that Putin is doing. So I don’t understand this. You’re right to point at this train of thinking. I don’t believe it’s prevalent. And the vast majority of the Republicans I met were really solid.

Now, you were in Kyiv in January a year ago as well, correct?

I was in Kyiv in, yeah, in January and February.

At that time, did you think that Putin was going to invade Ukraine?

Well, we had the evidence that he was going to.

But did you believe that that was something that would actually happen?

It was a very interesting situation. Everything we saw. So, I thought reading [Putin’s] crazy manifesto, his weird essay treatise about Ukraine, I thought that this guy plainly doesn’t think Ukraine’s a proper country. This is a mad, chauvinistic, imperialistic battle plan. He’s going to do something. And so we formed that view in the U.K. government.

How early did you form that view? Because you were sending antitank weapons in January, right before …

Months, months before. So we started the process of trying to send the antitank weapons way before January. Because as I said to you earlier, it was laborious to persuade people that this was the right thing to do, even within our own system. Actually, they got there in the middle of January, which was the nick of time.

And so November was the point, right? Somewhere around November 10th, where you would’ve received warnings that these unusual troop concentrations were being …

That’s right. So we started to get these very, very convincing intelligence reports, and not just from the U.S. intelligence, but from our own intelligence services. They were saying that 115 battalion tactical groups were massing on the border with Ukraine and there seemed to be no other purpose but to invade.

When I went there, however, what was interesting was that there was a kind of mood of slight denial in Kyiv itself, and it was only afterwards I understood why that was. I think Volodymyr Zelensky perfectly knew that Putin was massing for an attack, but as a responsible leader who was about to become a war leader, he could not say to his population, “We’re all about to be attacked by the Russian army.”

Why terrify them?

Because they would’ve stampeded away from those places where resistance was going to be so absolutely vital. And plus, there would’ve been further economic carnage as well.

Those are very hard decisions to make as a leader. You’re sitting there and you’re thinking, “If I tell people what’s actually going to happen, they’ll run away. If I don’t tell them what’s going to happen, they’re going to be in the path of this war machine, people will die.”

Well, I think it was an appalling situation he found himself in. So we, I warned him what we were seeing in the intelligence, and also of course, assured him that we would do everything we could to support.

And in those early visits before the war, you formed a bond with him?

Yes. So I’d met him way back, I think a couple of years previously. And he’d come to London, we got on well. He’s a very amusing and entertaining guy. He’s come out of show biz, really. But he’s an extremely talented guy, and he wants the right things for Ukraine. I think the U.K. government has always been very supportive of Ukraine, but we’ve always been concerned about corruption, about the general direction of the country. Zelensky seemed to have the right ideas.

Amusing, youthful, friendly, but no one saw the person who has emerged as a result of the war.

I think that’s right. I think he has a hardness and a toughness and a clarity about what he wants that no one expected, but he’s more than risen to the occasion.

When the war started February 24th, how long did your intelligence and defense people think it was going to last?

So it’s on February the 24th that we get the first ... I’m awakened at 4:00, 4:30 in the morning, and I have Volodymyr Zelensky on the line, and he tells me what’s happening. They’re being attacked from north, east, south. “It’s all-out war,” he says, “Planes are coming in from Belarus, they’re bombing all the airports.”

At that stage, the military advice that we were getting, and I think that many other countries were getting was, “Look, the Ukrainians are probably going to be overwhelmed within a matter of days.” But I didn’t believe that because I had been to Ukraine a couple of times, and I’d talked to them. I talked to people who’d been fighting in the Donbas, and I thought they’re very brave. I mean, these are very tough guys, right?

It helps to actually go to the place.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I went to places like, there’s a pub in Kyiv, which is patronized by the veterans of the Donbas conflict. It’s studded, it’s got bullets all over the ... instead of wallpaper. They are very, very tough guys. 10 million Ukrainians fought in the Second World War, and they saw ...

Yeah. My family’s Ukrainian. People forgot in the West.

Yes, Stalin’s armies defeated Hitler. So they thought when Russia invades that must be it. But what they forgot was that 10 million of Stalin’s armies were Ukrainians.

And people also forgot in a more recent context that the war hadn’t begun when Putin launched this invasion. The war had begun in 2014.

That’s so right. That’s so right.

And thousands of people had been killed in battle.

Fourteen thousand. Ukraine had already become a very tough society that was used to suffering, and that was very battle hardened. Very battle hardened. One of the interesting things actually, when you go to Ukraine is, as I’ve done several times since the conflict began, since Putin’s invasion, we talk a lot about Western training, and we’re going to train them to ... They know about as much about war fighting as anybody in the world now. They are, they’re very, very brave.

How did you understand Putin’s initial war plan which resulted in this vast 60-mile-long column of tanks being set on fire day after day. Obviously that’s not what he intended.

No. Well, this is a famous disaster, strategic disaster, which what people don’t understand is that those columns of tanks, partly was because NLAWs were shooting them up and they were being interrupted on their roads and getting into traffic jams, they were running out of fuel and so on. But they were really Ubers that were going on their way to pick up their passengers, which were the crews for the tanks. Which were all going to arrive at the airport at Hostomel and the trouble, so it was the battle for Hostomel ...

Let’s talk about that battle because I’m fascinated by it.

Well, look, I can’t tell you, you’d really need a military expert. But what happened, as I understand it, was that the Russians landed. The Ukrainians had been supplied with an awful lot of intelligence about what was going to happen and they were ready. They shot the Russians up so badly that the Russians had to retreat, and then the Russians tried again. And essentially, even though Hostomel airport was not very far away from Kyiv itself, they couldn’t capture it. And because they couldn’t capture the airport, they couldn’t bring their tank crews in. So there was no point in the tanks even getting to Kyiv because their crews weren’t there. So the whole thing was a massive logistical disaster.

And the airport was defended by 500 local guardsmen mostly with rifles and a few missiles.

I think the story of Hostomel airport is a complex one.

How much intelligence had they been given about …

We don’t comment on all that sort of stuff. But the Ukrainians were fantastically brave. The basic difference is that the Ukrainians are fighting for hearth and home. They’re fighting for their country. They’re fighting for their families. Why do Putin’s troops fight? They don’t even know why they’re fighting. They’re poor, terrified conscripts or jailbirds.

For a victory parade they were promised and that never happened.

Correct. Remember what Robert S. McNamara says after the end of the Vietnam War, he says, “We weren’t fighting communism, we were fighting nationalism.” The truth is that Putin has actually created and intensified the most passionate national feeling anywhere in Europe. That is going to be an absolutely unbudgeable, unbreakable force.

Whatever arguments one might have had about the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation before the war, certainly there will never be those arguments again.

If Putin set out to prove himself wrong, he could not have done so in a more decisive and elegant way. It’s over, that argument.

Now, you visited Kyiv in April, and I remember the shots of those eerily empty streets with you and Zelensky walking together and one or two or three other humans visible somewhere.

Yeah. No, it was a bit spooky because Volodymyr Zelensky hadn’t been out of his bunker for about six weeks as I understood things. He certainly hadn’t done a walkabout like that. I mean, he’d been around, but he hadn’t done a thing where you walk around the streets and meet people. And you’re right, there weren’t that many people around because it was still pretty unclear.

Who in their right mind would let the prime minister of Britain go running loose in Kyiv with Vladimir Putin’s assassins everywhere? It was kind of nuts.

No, I don’t think so. I think that the Ukrainians had done an amazing job. I think they cleared the Russians out of Kyiv, and yeah, there might have been a few stay-behind Russians somewhere in Kyiv or Chechens or whatever. But the chances were small.

Why did you feel that it was important for you to go there then?

This was April. I’ll tell you why. It was because there was a sort of conversation building that there might be a deal. Do you remember all this stuff going on in Belarus, and there was ...

“You’ve put up a brave fight for six weeks. That’s wonderful. We all know you’re going to lose eventually, let’s end this.”

There was a bit of that. There was a bit of that. Everybody was going off to see Putin and just trying to see what conversation there could be. And of course, I couldn’t see the logic of any of that because there was no deal you could do with Putin, even if you could persuade the Ukrainians to do a land for peace deal. Whatever you’re going to give Putin, some of the stuff he’d conquered already in exchange. It’d be Mariupol, whatever, and then he retires from the rest. Even if you did that, which would be morally obnoxious, catastrophic, you couldn’t rely on him to observe the agreement you’d reached. Because he’s shown by his actions in 2014 and since 2014, that he’s prepared to do it again and again and again. So there was no deal.

If Putin set out to prove himself wrong, he could not have done so in a more decisive and elegant way.

How intense was that pressure?

I don’t know. So I don’t think that Zelensky came anywhere near to doing a bad deal for Ukraine. But I certainly think there was a lot of chatter in the West about it. And my purpose really, was to tell him that whatever, that he would have the U.K.’s unwavering support. And the position that we took from day one, literally from day one, was Putin must fail and Ukraine must succeed, or Ukraine must win.

Now, one of the things that is very, very interesting to me, coming from an American perspective, is that not only was your leadership wonderful and instrumental, but this was a consensus across the parties in the political system in Britain. There really was support for Ukraine on the left. There was support on the right. If there was criticism of you, it was that, “Oh, the weapons aren’t reaching there fast enough.” It was not a question of why are we involved? Why are we spending money? Who cares about these people? What accounts for that?

It’s a really good question. I think that the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.K. is interesting on this. It’s just something about what happened in Ukraine really struck a chord with the British people, and in some deep emotional way we sympathized with the Ukrainians in their struggle and in their suffering. I think it’s as simple as that. People just opened their hearts to Ukraine.

And was it also the fact that Ukrainians were defending themselves? It was not “come rescue us.”

I think that’s right. I think the crucial thing about the way it all unfolded was that in those first few days, it was clear that those of us who’d believed in Ukraine, who’d believed they would fight, were going to be proved right. And that became a virtuous self-reinforcing phenomenon because the more they resisted, the more on Capitol Hill there was support for Ukraine. That was the crucial thing. I repeat, it’s that huge support that’s come from the United States of America. Every time the U.S. has been tested in its resolve on this, there’s always been a delay. But in the end, the United States of America has come in and exceeded expectations. So look, I’m just confident that America will continue to help and do the right thing.

Another thing that interests me politically about this, I saw a quote the other day from John Major, and he said that, “Well, Brexit is a disaster because if someday we really need to take a tough stand on something like China, then we’ll be alone and we won’t be able to do anything. Whereas if we were in the EU …”

Oh, boy. Complete nonsense.

Right, except this proves the opposite, doesn’t it?

Exactly. Because if we’d been locked in the EU system with the common foreign policy, with all the discussions. We would’ve been locked into subservience to the Normandy process, you remember, which was set up after 2014. Basically when Britain subcontracted Ukrainian policy to France and Germany, remember? And we said, “Oh, let them get on with it,” and we weren’t even at the table.

Brexit in a real way made British leadership on this issue possible.

It made it possible. I think the interesting thing is that certainly in a lot of the East European countries, Central European countries, they totally agree with that. They saw the difference. I don’t think you’d find Emmanuel [Macron] would necessarily support that, but then he doesn’t like Brexit. As I said, the French, at least initially before the war broke out, had a different perspective on things. I think France and Germany did believe, or must’ve believed in this Normandy nonsense, and it just didn’t work.

Ukraine has purchased its freedom, its nationhood, its place in Europe in blood. No one can deny that. That’s what happened over the last year. They fought. They died. They held off this tyrant and this military machine. What do you think Europe and England and NATO owe Ukraine now? What do we have to do?

The Ukrainians are fighting for all of us. The Ukrainians are fighting for the Poles, for the Georgians, for the Moldovans, for the Balts. They’re fighting for every country that could have its borders changed by force anywhere in the world. It’s a massive sacrifice that they’re making.

I think that they’re also showing why Putin was wrong. They’re showing that they have a Western and a European vocation, that they’re a free democratic independent nation, and they deserve, I think, once this thing is done, they deserve to be treated with immense, immense respect. Clearly, I think that their membership in the EU, if that is what they choose, should be accelerated by the EU members. Clearly, it’s no longer for the U.K. to have a role in that. But certainly when it comes to NATO, I think we’re now in a very interesting position. Because if you’d asked me before the war, before Putin did his act of lunacy, is Ukraine going to join NATO anytime soon? I’d have said …

Well, Vladimir Putin asked you that question, right?

He did. I said, “No, not anytime soon.” The reality was, to be frank, there was a strong enough caucus within NATO to block Ukraine that it wouldn’t have happened till hell freezes over. But now, Putin has utterly destroyed, utterly destroyed the case against Ukrainian membership of NATO. Not having Ukraine in NATO meant the worst war in Europe in 80 years, colossal suffering, global economic disaster. The logic is to get clarity and stability and whatever ... Moscow has forfeited all right to protest now. NATO is not a hostile alliance. NATO is a defensive alliance. And Putin, by his actions, has proved to the Swedes, to the Finns that NATO is essential for them and he certainly proved that it’s essential for Ukraine.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

To watch the video of this Q&A, and for more interviews, panels, and speeches from the 2023 Kyiv Jewish Forum, tune in here on Wednesday, February 15.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.