William Shakespeare wrote that some men “are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Boris Johnson, 57, has spent his entire life seeking political glory. He tried to achieve it with Brexit, when the United Kingdom left the European Union. But that process left behind a trail of divided citizens. The pandemic steamrollered him, as it did so many other leaders. His Churchill moment may have arrived, however, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Johnson and his ministers have been on the front line of the response to the challenges of Vladimir Putin. The British intelligence services clearly anticipated the Kremlin’s intentions, and Downing Street sent arms to the Ukrainian government well before other states did. “Putin has decided to double down, and he sees no way out of the cul de sac that he’s in except to continue with the destruction, the pulverizing of innocent populations, in innocent European cities,” says Johnson, speaking ahead of this interview with correspondents from the German newspaper Die Welt, the Italian La Repubblica and EL PAÍS, all of them members of the LENA alliance of leading European media outlets.
Question. You received a call last night [in the early hours of Friday morning] from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and you expressed your great concern for the incident in the nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia. Are we close to a nuclear war or nuclear incident?
Answer. I think we need to distinguish very sharply between two things. And I think the whole question of a nuclear exchange, as it were, the use of nuclear weapons, this is a distraction from what’s happening in Ukraine, which is, I’m afraid, of a brutal and barbaric attack on innocent people. And I don’t think that we should be sidetracked by some of the rhetoric that we’ve heard. The issue is to do with the safety of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste. So I’m concerned that we work together to think of ways in which we can avert that disaster, because as I said, I do think that this would be a pan-European disaster. And I think the legitimate concerns of all European countries are engaged.
Q. And how can we protect the nuclear plants and Zelenskiy?
A. I think that we have to make clear to the Kremlin that a civilian nuclear disaster in Ukraine, another Chernobyl, is a disaster for Russia as well as for everybody. And therefore, I think that some system of protecting those plants, some system of ensuring that radioactivity levels are monitored by international authorities is going to be extremely important.
Q. Your Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace, said that Putin has gone “full tonto”, implying the idea that he’s just gone crazy. Do you agree with that? Is this a cold-blooded strategy, or, as you just said, he’s in a cul-de-sac, and he’s in a desperate and probably nervous state of mind?
A. I think he’s very difficult to read into it, to make a window into his soul, and to try and imagine what he’s thinking, really. Like you, I get all sorts of information about the way his government works, the system or the non-existent checks and balances in his system, the arbitrary way in which he’s able to make decisions, and that’s extremely worrying. But I think the issue is that he’s clearly made miscalculations. I think he probably has a lack of real feel for what life was really like for people in Ukraine and how people in Ukraine really feel about their country. It’s possible that he hasn’t been there for quite a long time, as I’m sure all of us have. There was there was a logical problem, because I knew that the Ukrainians would fight and anybody who’s been there would instinctively have understood that. Maybe he’s allowed himself to become out of touch on that issue. Now he’s made that mistake. There has to be a way out, there has to be solution that doesn’t involve the total destruction, or him continuing on this path of total destruction. But I’m afraid, logically, it’s very, very hard to see what that solution is. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that he must fail.
Q. French President Emmanuel Macron is the one leader who’s still talking to Putin. Do you think that this is a good thing? What do you hear from the French president makes you very concerned?
A. I think that the unity of the West has been one of the most important things. Before the invasion began, we were working together with Emmanuel to understand what the implications would be. It is very, very important that we continue to work, particularly with the Americans to have a common series of assumptions and priorities, about the conflict. The lesson of history from, you know, 1914, to Bosnia and beyond is that, sadly, the most wretched European conflicts are not solved without some measure of American interest and leadership. That’s going to be very, very important as well.
Q. So is it good that Macron is still talking to Putin?
A. I think it’s important that the unity of the West is preserved. I’m sure that Emmanuel is is not diverging from that unified position.
Q. Prime Minister, you said that Putin must fail. But shouldn’t he also fall, I mean losing power, to end all this? How can the West make it happen? Should we, as the West, encourage the Russian opposition to revolt?
A . Number one: I think it’s absolutely vital that there are two things we must frame strictly. We must not be trapped into framing this as in any way a conflict between the Russian people, or Russia, and the West, or even between Putin and NATO, or Putin and the West. That is not what this is about that. So that’s one category we must not fall into. This is about helping the Ukrainian people to protect their themselves, to protect their lives, their families and their independence. Number two: I think it’s very, very important that people see that this is the sum-total of the agenda. There is no further agenda. We can’t think like that. Events in Moscow or Russian politics are simply unforeseeable. In fact, that would be a total, a total distraction. Let me be very clear: this is not about trying to do anything to shorten the political career of anyone in Moscow. On the contrary, this is about simply trying to protect the people of Ukraine, and give them the help that they need. If we think in that way, we will damage our chances of achieving what we need to do.
Q. You said in the House of Commons that Putin is a war criminal. Should the West aspire to put this war criminal in front of an International court, like Milosevic or the Nuremberg trial?
A. What I certainly believe is that there is a close analogy between Putin’s behavior and the last years of Slobodan Milosevic. It’s very interesting that both leaders had been in power for a long time, both increasingly autocratic, both seeking to shore up their domestic position, and found a great nationalist cause. Slobodan Milosevic identified the birthplace of Serbian nationalism, indeed the Serbian nation, in Kosovo Poljie, and he inspired his people with this misbegotten idea that it needed to be rescued and liberated. There’s a very close sort of analogy between that catastrophic mistake, and what the president of Russia has been saying about Kyiv and the origins of Russian religion and culture and civilization and his objectives in Ukraine. When it comes to the International Criminal Court, that’s a matter for them. There would have to be the gathering of evidence. If there is evidence of the use of illegal munitions, cluster bombs, barrel weapons, this clearly will have to be brought to the Netherlands.
Q. Who’s going to enforce that?
A. I think we must be quite limited in what we’re setting out to do. Because I’ve never seen in a long time, such a clear difference between right and wrong in international politics, or such a clear difference between good and good and evil. The minute we start to introduce all sorts of other political considerations in Moscow, or whatever geostrategic considerations, then we lose the sharpness and the focus.
Q. How many deaths and how much brutality from Putin can we allow? What’s the red line until the west decides to act?
A. If you just think back a few weeks, I don’t think anybody would have imagined a few weeks ago, that so many European countries, would now be following what the UK did, and sending weapons in the way that they are. I don’t think anybody would have imagined that [the German chancellor] would have made a speech like the one he did. And that Germany would be in the position that it now is. Things are changing. And that’s because of people’s outrage and disgust at what is happening in in Ukraine. So what I’m trying to say is that the West has already moved a long way. And it’s very, very united. But it is still a long day’s march, as they say, to the idea of any kind of direct confrontation between Western forces… between UK, Italian, German, Spanish armed forces and Russian forces. And the reason for that is that the consequences of such engagements would be very, very hard to control and to manage. We wouldn’t know where it would end. And the risks of miscalculation are huge. And I think that we have to talk about a red line, we have to keep a boundary, we have to keep a conceptual boundary in what we’re doing. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care passionately, or that we won’t do everything that we can within the parameters that we’ve set to try to change the odds in favor of the victims. And we will try to change the odds in favor of the victims. But I think that there is no… let me put it this way… there is no Western country that I know of that is currently considering sending combatants to that theater of conflict. That’s just the reality. And I think that it’s not on the agenda.
Q. The Ukraine crisis, in some sense, has mended a lot of wounds and a lot of broken relations between the UK and the European Union. Would you say that? After all that happened after Brexit?
A. I think what all crises do is they reveal the true relationships. Sometimes, if a family goes through some big trauma, then the real strength of the affection between the members of the family and the way they work together can sometimes suddenly be revealed again. And I think that’s probably what’s happening now.