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Will British Security Policy Take a New Turn After Boris Johnson?

London is Europe’s defense heavyweight and Ukraine’s stalwart supporter. For now, that’s the consensus.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Johnson and Zelensky in Kyiv
Johnson and Zelensky in Kyiv
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walk at Khreschatyk Street and Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 9. Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

British prime ministers retain a foreign fan club long after their popularity crumbles at home. People living behind the Iron Curtain could not understand how British voters could be so crazy as to dump former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, revered in Central and Eastern Europe for her uncompromising stance against the Soviet Union. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s abundant foreign-policy mistakes—such as his complacence on Russia and China as well as his failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—did nothing to dent his popularity in Kosovo, where grateful parents named their children “Tonibler” to mark the British leader’s role in safeguarding their breakaway state through NATO’s bombing of Serbia.

And so too it may prove with Boris Johnson. The outgoing British prime minister is reviled for his slipshod approach to conventions and institutions. His ratings touched record lows this week at a net negative of 53, meaning just 19 percent of the public had a favorable view of him while 72 percent disliked him. Yet in Ukraine, it is the British leader’s prompt and forthright support for the embattled country in its resistance to Russian aggression that counts. Understandably, Ukrainians lamented Johnson’s departure. Some even wondered if he had fallen victim to a Kremlin plot. Britain’s influential Sun tabloid, citing anonymous insiders, said British officials were planning for Johnson to become a special envoy to Ukraine, building on his close ties to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other decision-makers in Kyiv.

That, of course, will be a question for whomever becomes the next leader of the British Conservative Party and prime minister. And although few people in Europe’s front-line states have the time or inclination to follow the quirks of the Conservative Party’s internal electoral processes (where a body cryptically called the 1922 Committee plays a central role), they do worry about Britain’s future foreign and security policy.

British prime ministers retain a foreign fan club long after their popularity crumbles at home. People living behind the Iron Curtain could not understand how British voters could be so crazy as to dump former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, revered in Central and Eastern Europe for her uncompromising stance against the Soviet Union. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s abundant foreign-policy mistakes—such as his complacence on Russia and China as well as his failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—did nothing to dent his popularity in Kosovo, where grateful parents named their children “Tonibler” to mark the British leader’s role in safeguarding their breakaway state through NATO’s bombing of Serbia.

And so too it may prove with Boris Johnson. The outgoing British prime minister is reviled for his slipshod approach to conventions and institutions. His ratings touched record lows this week at a net negative of 53, meaning just 19 percent of the public had a favorable view of him while 72 percent disliked him. Yet in Ukraine, it is the British leader’s prompt and forthright support for the embattled country in its resistance to Russian aggression that counts. Understandably, Ukrainians lamented Johnson’s departure. Some even wondered if he had fallen victim to a Kremlin plot. Britain’s influential Sun tabloid, citing anonymous insiders, said British officials were planning for Johnson to become a special envoy to Ukraine, building on his close ties to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other decision-makers in Kyiv.

That, of course, will be a question for whomever becomes the next leader of the British Conservative Party and prime minister. And although few people in Europe’s front-line states have the time or inclination to follow the quirks of the Conservative Party’s internal electoral processes (where a body cryptically called the 1922 Committee plays a central role), they do worry about Britain’s future foreign and security policy.

That’s because Britain matters. It is the only European military heavyweight trusted by the people who need defending. Although the United States is by far the most important outside military power in Europe, Britain stands out in its importance among the continent’s own strategic actors. It is the preeminent nuclear power in the region, with a submarine-based strategic deterrent continuously at sea. Despite downsizing, it still has full-spectrum conventional land, air, and sea capabilities. It also has human and electronic intelligence capabilities with global reach.

Elsewhere in Europe, only France comes close. But France faces a near-paralyzing obstacle in European security: Few other countries in Europe trust it. French decision-makers find the countries in the eastern half of Europe—with their strong Atlanticist sentiments and deep-seated, vociferously expressed fears of Russia—baffling and tiresome. French security thinking is far more focused southward toward former colonial possessions in Africa and the Indo-Pacific region, including “Overseas France”: far-flung territories such as Réunion and New Caledonia. For decades, Paris decision-makers’ policies have also focused on reducing U.S. influence in Europe, which sets off flashing red lights in capitals east of the old Iron Curtain. French President Emmanuel Macron’s penchant for grandstanding and attempts at bilateral deal-making, especially in his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, intensify the mistrust.

Nobody, surely, will be able to replace Johnson’s fizzing enthusiasm and charismatic personal engagement with countries living with real or putative Russian aggression.

Britain, by contrast enjoys best friend status in the countries worried by Russia. Since long before the Johnson era, Britain has been the linchpin of the Joint Expeditionary Force, a nine-nation grouping first developed for military cooperation in Afghanistan but now Europe’s leading minilateral security organization. It comprises the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden), the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and the Netherlands. The focus is on an ultra-speedy response to any Russian provocation in the region; the force could be far quicker, most reckon, than anything the lumbering NATO alliance could manage. And unlike the many attempts to build out a defense capability under the auspices of the European Union, the Joint Expeditionary Force is real and capable, not aspirational and symbolic.

Britain is also the lead provider of security in Estonia, with an armored battlegroup, recently doubled in size to around 2,000 troops, as part of NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” in countries threatened by Russia. Britain played a leading role in training the Ukrainian military in the years before Russia’s invasion. Since then, London has donated weapons and munitions, and it has stepped up training for Ukrainian soldiers at British military bases.

From Finland to Moldova, any change of political leadership in London is therefore a cause for understandable concern. Nobody, surely, will be able to replace Johnson’s fizzing enthusiasm and charismatic personal engagement with countries living with real or putative Russian aggression.

Look below the surface, however, and the story is a bit different. Johnson’s involvement in Ukraine was belated and—critics would say—opportunistic. Putin’s war was a heaven-sent distraction from his domestic political woes. Opposition parties, faced with broad public support for the government’s vehement pro-Ukraine stance, could only play catch-up. The main opposition Labour Party—keen to shake off the reputation for left-wing pacifism it gained under its previous leader, the shambolic anti-American, anti-capitalist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn—threatened a handful of left-wing parliamentarians with expulsion for parroting the Kremlin’s anti-NATO talking points. The Liberal Democrats (a centrist party for which I am campaigning to win a central London district) are similarly hawkish. The Scottish National Party sympathize ardently with Ukraine; many Scots see parallels between Russia’s treatment of its neighbor with the real and imagined wrongs the Scots have suffered over centuries from the English. None of this eclipsed Johnson’s role as a friendly and fervent supporter of Ukraine.

The darkest shadow over Johnson’s support for Ukraine is that his government has largely failed to fight Russia on the most important battleground: access to Britain’s financial, legal, and political systems. British company registration is scandalously lax: By law, information is only recorded but not checked. Abuse is rife, and kleptocrats benefit. Enablers—bankers, lawyers, accountants, realtors, grifters, and fixers—gorge on the fees while everyone else suffers. Proposed reforms are inadequate. Until the war distracted attention, Washington and its allies were sharply voicing concern for London’s infiltration by Russian money connected to the Kremlin.

Johnson’s personal role in this is particularly troubling. In 2019, he intervened personally to postpone the publication of a potentially embarrassing report on Russian influence by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. (Disclosure: I was that inquiry’s first witness.) He then tried to influence the committee so that the report would never be published. When that failed, he kicked its recommendations into the long grass. One reason for Johnson’s machinations: Leading figures in the Conservative Party have made their fortunes in offshore finance. Both in local and national contests, their generosity finances the party’s political campaigning. They gain baubles and titles as part of the deal. Scrutiny is discouraged—not least because they readily sue their critics, and Britain’s punitive libel laws and expensive courts give them the upper hand. Seasoned British spooks are horrified by the Johnson government’s indulgent attitude to murky foreign money.

Particular controversy surrounds donors with connections to the Putin regime. No woman in British history has donated more to a political party than Lubov Chernukhin, who has given around 2 million pounds (or almost $2.4 million) to the Conservative Party since 2012. Her husband served as a Russian deputy finance minister under Putin. In 2014, she reportedly paid 160,000 pounds (or $191,000) at an auction for the chance to play tennis with then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Johnson, who was mayor of London at the time.

Of many controversial moves, perhaps the most startling was Johnson’s provision of a peerage to his friend Evgeny Lebedev, son of a former top KGB man in London. The newly aristocratic Baron Lebedev, “of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation,” now sits in the British House of Lords. He also owns two British newspapers and a television station. No wrongdoing by him or anyone else is alleged (an important point to be made by any journalist writing about this subject). But Johnson’s recent admission that in 2018 while in his previous job as British foreign secretary, he attended a party at Lebedev’s mansion in Italy without any aides or a security detail and failed to record that he had a meeting there with Lebedev’s father, a top spy in a service with notoriously close ties with its alumni, has prompted a new storm of criticism. The suspicion-raising social event took place shortly after two Russian military intelligence officers had attempted to assassinate a British citizen, Sergei Skripal, with a nerve agent.

From the crowded field competing to be the next Conservative leader, it is hard to see any potential prime minister taking quite the same relaxed attitude to political rules and standards. Moreover, every contender is ostentatiously supportive of Ukraine. Coupled with multipartisan support for military and other aid to the embattled country—and strong British support for NATO—it is tempting to tell nervous allies not to worry and that Britain’s policies will not change.

But two difficulties dent this comforting prospect. One is military weakness: Britain’s skinny stockpiles—the result of shameful complacency and neglect—have been depleted even further by high-profile donations to Ukraine. Privately, British officers voice grave concern over the armed forces’ ability to fight a sustained war against Russia. Only a few dozen tanks are really operational. Ammunition would run out within days. The army’s size is already too small and about to shrink further. For years, money has been spread far too thinly over too many capabilities. The prospect of fighting a war not against lightly armed insurgents but against a peer adversary like Russia is a chilling prospect. “The public does not know how bad things are, but the Russians do,” a well-informed retired officer told FP on condition of anonymity. Fixing the problem will require a huge increase in defense spending. If Britain now spends a notional 2 percent of its GDP on defense, it is only because it includes expenditures on pensions, welfare, museums, and other nonmilitary elements in that listing. In reality, the figure is closer to 1.6 percent.

Johnson’s successor will have to deal with pressing questions about Britain’s relations with Europe—to which the answer is cooperation, not confrontation.

Raising defense spending by half—the minimum needed—will be particularly difficult as the economy contracts and inflation hits living standards and public services. As households struggle to make ends meet, the cost of the war in Ukraine will inevitably move up the agenda. The idea of striking a bargain with Russia to bring cheaper energy supplies into the country will look tempting.

The argument could also go the other way: In an increasingly cash-strapped Britain, a crackdown on—and even confiscation of—murkily obtained foreign fortunes will sound increasingly attractive. Opposition parties will make that argument hard. The government will have to find an answer.

The biggest question will be whether a new prime minister can repair Britain’s relations with the European Union. The bloc is central to any serious improvement in European security. Serious defense experts mock its bloviating attempts to build strategic autonomy and other talk-but-no-action defense capabilities. But NATO insiders readily concede that EU institutions are best-placed to improve resilience, boost military mobility, encourage the consolidation of fragmented defense procurements, and provide the diplomatic and economic backstop for the continent’s military security, whether U.S.-led or not.

All of this has been severely complicated by Brexit. The Johnson government depicted confrontation with Brussels as a point of honor to appease the fervently anti-EU factions in the Conservative Party and London media. That approach made sense in terms of domestic power politics, but it was counterproductive in every other respect.

Although the Conservative leadership election may fan these flames further in the short term, Johnson’s successor will have to deal with pressing questions about Britain’s relations with Europe—to which the answer is cooperation, not confrontation. The big hope in the front-line states is that, under new leadership, the aftermath of Brexit will stop impeding a renewed and effective British focus on the country’s core military and security task: the defense of Europe.

Edward Lucas is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament, a former senior editor at The Economist, and the author, most recently, of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet. Twitter: @edwardlucas

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