Jingos and brokers: the politics of war

War is the continuation of politics by other means. But the domestic political handling of different countries’ approach to Putin’s 1939 style invasion of Ukraine is revealing.

For Joe Biden it has been a godsend. He has donned Roosevelt’s war leader mantle as he denounces Putin as a “war criminal” who is guilty of “genocide” and has pledged money and arms to Ukraine to resist Russian aggression.

When the war started three months ago, Biden’s ratings were down in the dumps, as fuel prices surged and inflation took off — the economics that destroyed Jimmy Carter’s unhappy one-term Democratic presidency after 1977. Donald Trump appeared to be making a serious comeback for a revenge election in 2024.

Biden has the most international experience — as a former Vice President and former Chair of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee — of any current world leader. He rightly denounced Putin, mobilised Nato, and helped to make the invasion of Ukraine the top world story of 2022.

There is plenty of evidence, often mentioned by Fiona Hill (the remarkable Bishop Auckland Russia expert who has been trying to get US policy-makers to take the Putin menace seriously) about Putin’s links with Trump and support for Trump in 2016. Trump’s dalliance with Putin is embarrassing for Republican candidates who hope to triumph in November mid-term elections. Biden’s world leadership role does him and his party no harm.

Similarly, in the UK Boris Johnson had the record of being the European leader who — other than the long-retired former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, or the defeated French far-Right Marine Le Pen — of being the most in hock to the Kremlin. As Mayor of London, he helped create “Londongrad”, giving London the reputation of being Putin’s laundromat, where the Russian leader and his oligarchs hid their money stolen from the Russian people.

Johnson’s partiality to oligarch donations to Tory coffers is a matter of public record, highlighted again by the New York Times on May 12th: “Major Donation to U.K. Conservative Party Was Flagged Over Russia Concerns. The cash was part of a fund-raising blitz that helped propel Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party to victory in 2019. Records track $630,225 to a Russian bank account.”

This has all been reported in Britain, along with Boris Johnson’s defence that the donations were legal and declared. However the smell over Johnson and Putin has been air-sprayed away by the Prime Minister’s robust language and despatch of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Ukraine voted for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, while Germany came bottom.

Johnson’s handling of Ukraine has parked for the time being any challenge by Tory MPs against their leader, who is being robust and strong against Putin. Liz Truss has tried and failed to use Ukraine to don the mantle of Margaret Thatcher as a warrior leader. The Foreign Secretary hunts for front page stories and pictures to remind Tory Party members, who will chose the next PM if Boris Johnson has to stand down, of her existence.

In France, Emmanuel Macron is also using the Ukraine war for domestic political reasons. He has reminded French voters of the hostility to Nato and soft feeling for dictators of his main Left-wing challenger, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn. Macron needs a working majority in the National Assembly election to chose 577 parliamentarians in a two-round election on 12th and 19th June. The pro-Putin rightist Marine Le Pen and anti-Nato leftist Mélenchon could between them win enough deputies to ruin Macron’s second term.

So while he is sending heavy weapons and cash to Zelensky and supporting the EU call for an embargo on Russian oil, Macron is also keeping open some lines of communication to Putin. Zelensky has criticised these contacts, but the Élysée insists that he has been consulted. Macron’s role pleases the Gaullist and Leftist voting communities in France who dislike the idea of everyone tailing automatically behind Washington. The predictable attacks by anti-Macron politicians in London or by journalists in the United States on the differentiated Paris approach to the war do Macron no harm at all. Au contraire, they help him persuade voters he is an honest broker, not a puppet of les Anglo-Saxons.

For Washington there is the wider geopolitics of securing a defeat for Putin as a warning to China that its plans to replace the US and allies in Europe as the world’s dominant power are not guaranteed, especially any adventurism on Taiwan. At times the gung-ho language from Biden, Johnson and Truss makes them sound like they are willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. At some stage a peace will have to be found with Putin in agreement with Zelensky. Then Macron’s different approach may win more support.

Despite Tory losses in the mid-term UK municipal elections, there is a real political dividend for Johnson’s anti-Putin rhetoric. US elections to Congress in November and French national assembly elections next month will show which of the contrasting approaches by Biden and Macron is rewarded electorally.

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