In the hapless, helpless state in which he spends his days floundering in the Foreign Office, Boris Johnson reminds me of Will Hay in a 1935 classic Boys will be Boys.
Despite access to the finest of professional diplomatists, Johnson will, like Will Hay’s incompetent and bogus headmaster, always generate chaos by dishonesty and incompetence.
And just as Will Hay’s headmaster of Narkover survived the chaos he generated, without even losing his job, Johnson’s incompetence appears to be rewarded by survival against the odds.
There’s another echo, from the 1959 Boulting brothers’ masterpiece Carleton-Browne of the F.O. in which Raymond Huntley created foreign secretary Tufton-Slade, a magnificently pompous man who can stand upon his dignity without any hint of the absurdity of his position. Huntley’s Tufton-Slade had to decide how to deal with a group of troublesome Russian mining engineers in the long-forgotten crown colony of Gaillardia. The engineers had begun digging for some unspecified commodity and the Foreign Secretary feared the worst.
“We must be there, we must fly the flag,” he proclaimed, before dispatching a troupe of British Council morris dancers to Gaillardia.
Johnson’s response to the outrageous Novichok attacks in Salisbury has been similarly inappropriate and absurd. Faced with mounting evidence of state-sponsored poisonings in an English cathedral city, the Foreign Secretary’s initial response was to propose forbidding the Duke of Cambridge to attend the FIFA World Cup. One could almost see the ghosts of Hay and Huntley feeding him his lines.
Anglo-Russian relations are now in a worse state than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The reason is that successive governments, but particularly Conservative ones, have failed to appreciate the nature of the Putin regime and to send the right signals at the right time. And signalling is as important in diplomacy as it is in the Royal Navy or on the railways.
There are two major problems at the moment, both of which are the result of fundamental misunderstandings. The first is that successive British governments, at least since the time of the Yugoslav crisis, have persisted in seeing Russia as both a normal state and, perhaps more importantly, as a means to another end. Rather than seeing Russia as an end in itself, its importance has seemed to lie in the role the Kremlin could play in securing a solution to conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq or Afghanistan. Equally, it has been assumed that Russia, for all its imperfections, is a normal state that can be treated in much the same way as Her Majesty’s Government might treat Turkey or Indonesia.
Russia, however, is not a normal state; it is a state in which organised crime is at the heart of a kleptocratic government, infecting its organs and poisoning its mind. Criminal methods, in such circumstances and to such people, are not unthinkable; they are a natural recourse of those in power.
The second mistake has been a failure either to understand the character and purpose of President Putin himself or to appreciate his perception of what Lenin called “the concentration of forces.” Putin is, in many ways, a brilliant man, a strategic thinker in total control of the levers of power and with no hesitation about using them. Although he heads a criminal regime, he cannot simply be dismissed as a corrupt thug with a taste for revenge. He is, above all, a Leninist and a Chekist.
To be a Leninist means to be adept at the art and practice of Realpolitik.’ Lenin, who was a German agent, had a Prussian understanding of politics, diplomacy, strategy and war. Like Bismarck, he realised that diplomacy is, as Clausewitz said, “a continuation of war by other means.” He knew too that history changes the nature of both politics and war and that modern battlefields are increasingly affected by seemingly ‘external’ factors, such as economics and the development of technology.
Part of Lenin’s genius was in his realisation that the traditional battlefields of the First World War were largely irrelevant to the outcome of the political struggle. His war, the real war, was won not in the trenches but on the streets of Saint Petersburg and in the minds of ordinary soldiers, workers and peasants. In the same way, part of Putin’s genius is in realising that information technology has changed the modern battlefield, so that a strategic political victory can be won far away from the crucible of traditional military action.
Under Putin, information warfare is at the heart of Russian military doctrine and Russia has been fighting an information war against the West for several years now. So far, it has been largely successful. Its efforts have created strains in the western alliance, undermining key institutions, such as NATO and the EU, and leading to the beginnings of a strategic shift in Europe. One of its signal successes was the sapping of British influence and leadership in Europe. All this has been achieved without direct military engagement.
It has, however, been made possible with the assistance of a group of people whom Lenin would have recognised as “useful idiots.” These people exist across the political spectrum in many European countries. In Britain, they include the arrogant, the venal and the strategically short-sighted. Some of them are wishful thinkers whose vision of Russia will always be rose-tinted; others are ideological obsessives driven by their hatred of the European Union.
There are those, such as Alex Salmond and other political figures, who have legitimised Russia’s information campaign by appearing on the state-sponsored propaganda channel, RT. There are others, such as the Conservative Board of Finance, who have been willing to take donations from wealthy individuals with links to the Putin regime. There are ex-ministers, who have accepted lucrative business arrangements with companies connected to the Kremlin and there are the armies of apologists, such as those who formed ‘Conservative Friends of Russia’ or took part in the disgusting propaganda film produced by the Bruges Group to endorse Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine (step forward John Redwood, Bernard Jenkin, Peter Bone and Lord Tebbit).
Yet of all the Kremlin’s useful idiots, Boris Johnson has proved himself to be by far the most useful. His role in undermining European solidarity by championing Brexit, in order to advance his own political career, was perhaps the most significant contribution any British politician has yet made to the advancement of Putin’s strategic agenda. Little wonder then that, in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, Russian state news channels have been broadcasting loop footage of Boris at the London Olympics stuck on a high wire waving his Union flag. Johnson has helped to leave Britain isolated, stranded and swinging in the wind.
If Theresa May really wants to show Putin that she means business, she should start by sacking her Foreign Secretary. Now is no time for useful idiots.
Harold Elletson is an expert on Russia and security matters. He was the Conservative MP for Blackpool North from 1992-97 and served as parliamentary private secretary to John Major’s Northern Ireland minister, Sir Patrick Mayhew.