Watching Joe Biden stroll through Kyiv alongside Volodymyr Zelenskiy, flexing the muscles of democratic solidarity under a blue Ukrainian sky, it should be difficult to imagine any US president preferring the company of Vladimir Putin. But it is easy. America had such a president only three years ago. There is no doubt whose side Donald Trump would have taken had he been in the White House this time last year. He told a rally on Monday that Putin would “never, ever have gone into Ukraine” if he had been president. He reminded the audience that he “actually had a very good relationship” with Putin. Just ahead of the Kremlin invasion, Trump declared the massing of Russian troops a “genius” move by a “very savvy” leader.
Biden’s Ukraine policy has bipartisan support in Washington, but there is a streak of sweaty Putinophilia running down the right flank of the Republican party. In last November’s congressional elections, pro-Trump candidates took positions ranging from isolationism via appeasement (reluctance to “poke the Russian bear”) to regurgitating Kremlin propaganda. Tucker Carlson, the ultra-conservative Fox News commentator, delivers a diet of punditry so rich in pro-Putin flavours that portions are served on Russian state television.
Defeat for some of the more hysterical Republicans in the midterms sapped Trump’s momentum. But the kernel of his foreign policy is embedded in the conservative mainstream – scorn for rules; affinity with demagogues; dismissal of western Europe as a decrepit relic, overrun with Muslim immigrants, emasculated by “woke” ideology. It would be comforting to think of that as an exotic American dogma, like the conflation of liberty and firearms, unable to thrive in Britain’s more temperate climate. Maybe it can’t, but seeds were sown in the hothouse atmosphere of Brexit insurrection.
In March 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, Nigel Farage described the Russian president as the world leader he most admired. Eight years later, when Russia moved on to full-scale invasion, Farage blamed Nato and the European Union for provocative expansions into Moscow’s back yard.
This is Putin’s argument, too. In a speech today marking the anniversary of the war, he explained at great length how the west started it. In his warped retelling of history, the Kremlin record of bullying its neighbours is, in fact, self-defence against malicious encirclement by the west using places where Moscow has a proprietary claim (derived from Soviet nostalgia and a refusal to recognise the borders of smaller countries). This inversion of reality has double purchase on the fringes of western democracies, common to the “anti-imperialist” left and nationalist right. It means rejecting the principle that independent democracies should be allowed to choose their own allies. The leftwing variant also ignores the fact that Russia was once an empire, and that imperial autocracy is the governance model for its current president.
The idea that western overreach provoked Russia to raid Ukraine for land also got an airing in the Brexit referendum, via Boris Johnson. He told a campaign rally that Kyiv’s decision to sign a trade partnership with Brussels had “caused real trouble” and that things had “gone wrong” in Ukraine because of EU meddling.
What Johnson says one day is no guide to what he will later do. He defines truth as any statement aligned with his immediate career interest. But he also believes in his destiny as the incarnation of Churchillian resolve. Happily, those impulses made him swift and energetic in support for Ukraine against fascistic Russian assault. It is the most (maybe the only) creditable thing Johnson did as prime minister. His critics might point to vanity and flight from domestic scandal as his motives, but that doesn’t diminish the military advantage bestowed on Ukraine at its moment of maximum peril. Zelenskiy’s gratitude was powerfully expressed in a speech to parliament earlier this month.
Zelenskiy’s address also contained a note that doesn’t harmonise so well with a tune that Conservatives started singing under Johnson. The Ukrainian president located his country’s plight at the forefront of a wider struggle to protect the “rules-based world order and human rights”. Those are things that Tory ministers are all for, except when they aren’t. Universal human rights sound noble and inalienable when projected on to Ukrainians threatened by genocidal Russian mercenaries. Then they are suddenly a nuisance when attached to refugees, upheld by European courts and put in the way of deportations to Rwanda. A rules-based order is something the Conservative party cherishes when it means the G7 and Nato – any multilateral institution, in fact, apart from the EU. Then it is a conspiracy against sovereignty or a disposable nicety that mustn’t get in the way of a purer Brexit.
Treaties are sacrosanct, except when they are signed in Brussels. Then they are feints and holding positions that can be rewritten by one side if it feels buyer’s remorse. If Britain doesn’t like its obligations under international law it can breach them “in a specific and limited way”, as Brandon Lewis, Johnson’s Northern Ireland secretary, argued of clauses in the internal markets bill that overrode the Brexit withdrawal agreement. That was 2020. Johnson is still arguing that the way to get a good deal in Europe is to pass laws that assert Britain’s right to ignore whatever it signs.
That is the idea behind the Northern Ireland protocol bill, currently stalled on its way through parliament. Rishi Sunak knows it corrodes trust with the EU, stains Britain’s reputation as a reliable partner – especially in Washington – and grinds the gears of transatlantic diplomacy. But hardline Eurosceptics cling to it as the cudgel that will beat concessions out of Brussels.
They are wrong. Sunak’s de-dramatising approach has yielded more technical progress on problems with the Northern Ireland protocol than threats and swagger achieved under his predecessors. The Johnsonian method also belongs on the wrong side of a wider argument about the kind of country Britain wants to be post-Brexit. It is a hangover from the period when Tory radicals were playing wingman to Trump’s maverick rampage through constitutional order and conventional diplomacy. It belongs to the thrill-seeking phase of Conservative politics when success was measured in decibels of liberal outcry; when it was a kind of sport to denigrate compromise, evidence and expertise as emblems of a pro-European establishment. That ethos still governs much of the Conservative party. It isn’t Sunak’s natural style, although there is no sign he intends to challenge it. Failing to do so makes him look not only weak, but obsolete – a product of flawed design, the last Tory prime minister in a line that should be discontinued because it isn’t compatible with functional European diplomacy, and no longer meets the specifications for serious government in a dangerous world.