Boris Johnson is not an enigma, he is an anachronism. A throwback to a time when floppy-haired Etonians with names like Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson (Boris’ friends and family know him as Al) presided over the Foreign Office as though it were their own personal fiefdom. A stopped clock is right twice a day but Johnson only managed around twice a parliament His comments this week about Putin’s Russia were just such a rare occasion. Ian Austin, a Labour MP, made the initial comparison by remarking that: “Putin is going to use it [the 2018 World Cup] in the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics,”. Perhaps unwisely, Johnson replied “I think that your characterization of what is going to happen in Moscow, the World Cup, in all the venues — yes, I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right.” The world’s press ran with the story and unsurprisingly, given the highly sensitive evocation of Nazi Germany, (especially considering that 110 million Russians died fighting the Nazis during the Second World War) Johnson sparked an international furore with his remarks.
Despite his best efforts to appear a buffoon, Johnson is not one. The timing and content of his intervention reflects that Johnson recognises this summer’s World Cup as being a delicate moment for the international order. And given the near-universal backlash his comments provoked, it also reveals some inconvenient truths about the purpose of diplomacy. Yes, The foreign secretary is Britain’s chief diplomat and this role requires a considered manner and even hand. It’s fair to say neither are things anyone readily associates with Boris; he’s put his foot in it time and time and time again. Google Boris Johnson gaffe and you get over 160,000 results. But Boris is also a politician and a pretty accomplished one at that, which makes it intriguing that Boris’ comments were prompted by an exchange with a Labour MP. He could have exploited the opportunity to present Labour as reckless on foreign policy but instead he did something far more difficult. He did the right thing.
At a time when two people – a former Russian intelligence agent and his daughter – are in a critical condition as a consequence of exposure to the nerve gas Novichok in Salisbury, it is only right that the Foreign Secretary is speaking his mind. Government officials estimate that as many as 130 people may have been exposed.
Russia’s actions are illegal, irresponsible and irrational. Russia’s return to global supremacy has been defined by a lack of compliance with the norms and practices that characterise the liberal international order. And it is not outlandish to suggest that Putin’s illegal seizure of the Crimea in 2014 evoked Hitler’s decision to reclaim the Saarland and the Sudetenland in the run up to World War II. Similar to the pan-Germanism of the Nazi party, Russian elites have long bought into the idea that citizens of the Baltic state fall under the auspices of a greater Russian nation.
The British government’s ongoing investigation into the data-gathering practices of Cambridge Analytica has discovered potential links between Russian hackers and the British political consultancy. Moreover, after ten months, Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation has finally brought charges against Russian operatives for disrupting the Democratic campaign during the 2016 Presidential election. It’s difficult to definitively establish whether these Russian actors were sponsored by the Kremlin itself. However, seeing as no one benefits more from the current political crises enveloping the West than Putin himself, it would be a surprise to say the least if senior government officials were not involved.
However, Putin is no ordinary dictator as foreign policy experts have belatedly acknowledged. In “The Final Year”, Netflix’s surprisingly illuminating documentary on the end of Obama’s presidency, the President’s team belatedly realises that its dealings with Russia have been hamstrung by a misreading of Putin. “Mr. Putin is in fact out only for himself” they said in a revealing aside.
Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, received opprobrium in 2009 for popularising the phrase “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. Ironically, this could be Putin’s own motto. Except rather than exploiting domestic crises to force through a progressive agenda (the geopolitical crises from which Putin benefits have destructive consequences and are of his own making.
It would, however, be churlish to deny that Putin has made a series of smart moves. After eighteen years of Putin’s rule Russia is a big player once more. To some extent Putin has granted himself a licence to act with the opacity and aggression befitting an ex-KGB agent. In essence, Russia’s president is back making big bets at the high stakes table. Such a state affairs is certainly unexpected; the collapse of the Soviet Union along with economic and political troubles, have in some ways hamstrung Russia. Indeed, Russia still hasn’t entirely caught up with Western Europe and its sclerotic economy is a major factor. Even by the favourable measure of GDP, Russia ranks 12th behind Italy, Canada and South Korea. And besides, high-levels of inequality remains an impediment to the development of a nation that can truly compete in the modern global economy. Perversely, Putin’s might on the world stage, in part, stems from his disregard for his nation’s situation. He can act with a certain impunity allowed by the fact that he is not risking his own personal fortune (some observers estimate that his interests in Russian state assets make him unofficially the richest man in the world) but rather the priceless commodities that are his citizens’ human rights and global security.
Make no mistake, when the two teams walk out for the World Cup final in Moscow on the 15th of July, this current bout of outrage will surely have fizzled out. Not least because no British government could get away with refusing to send the England team to the World Cup. Comparing contemporary politicians to Hitler is a risky business, least of all for a top diplomat but ultimately, I think Boris has got this one right. It does no good to wave away the geopolitical consequences of a successful World Cup, particularly given the international community’s anxieties about the ongoing threat Russia poses. As foreign secretary, Boris Johnson is Britain’s chief diplomat. He may not always be agreeable. Indeed, he may not always be competent, but we do ourselves no favours when we cannot acknowledge that sometimes he may have a point. For too long British politicians have been content to literally let Putin “get away with murder”.