Boris Johnson says ‘we stand on the brink’ of war in Europe at ‘very dangerous moment’

Prime minister says Russian invasion of Ukraine would bring about ‘destruction of a democratic state’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 19 February 2022 19:38
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Boris Johnson says ‘we stand on the brink’ of war in Europe

Boris Johnson has said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would represent the “destruction of a democratic state” and would be followed by "a long and hideous period of reprisals and revenge and insurgency".

In a speech at the Munich security conference on Saturday the prime minister said Europe was on “the brink” of a possible war and was at “a very dangerous moment”.

His comments come as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called on the west to drop what he called a policy of “appeasement” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“We have no weapons and no security, but we have a right – a right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to one ensuring security and peace,” Mr Zelenskyy told the same conference.

It comes after another dramatic day where Russian separatist leaders in Ukraine have reportedly ordered a full military mobilisation and called up reservists. The US claims Russia is planning to invade the country within days.

Mr Putin also reportedly oversaw exercises involving the launch of ballistic missiles, according to the state-owned RIA news agency.

Speaking to world leaders on Saturday Mr Johnson warned that the world was at “the eleventh hour” to avert a conflict. He said any invasion would echo out like "a shock" around the world and encourage other countries to resort to military aggression.

Back at home the prime minister faces calls from opposition figures to hold a special extended session of parliament on Monday in order to pass long-promised money laundering controls as part of a promised package of sanctions against the Russian government.

Claiming that Russian plans for an invasion appeared to be “in motion”, Mr Johnson said during a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Mr Zelenskyy: “This is a very dangerous moment in our history. We stand on the brink of what could be a war in Europe.

“I think it would be an absolute disaster for Europe, a disaster for Ukraine, and a disaster certainly for Russia, if there were to be an invasion.

“And I think everybody at this conference wants to stand united in support, and in solidarity with Ukraine.

“And I remember actually, five years ago, I came here to the Munich Security Conference, [and] I said exactly the same thing to your predecessor, or one of your predecessors, and it is more vital than ever. That we, we stand with you.”

Addressing the conference, Mr Johnson told an audience: “It is in our collective interests that Russia should ultimately fail, and should be seen to fail.

“The risk now is that people would draw the conclusion that aggression pays and that might is right. So we should not underestimate the gravity of this moment.”

He added: “After a generation of freedom we are now staring at a generation of bloodshed and misery. I believe Russia would have absolutely nothing to gain from this catastrophic venture and everything to lose.”

Mr Johnson has been among the most vocal world leaders over the Ukraine crisis – a decision that comes as he seeks to move on from domestic anger over alleged lawbreaking in Downing Street during the Covid lockdown.

Russia denies it has plans to attack, but has built up an estimated 150,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. Mr Putin has insisted that large-scale military exercises with Belarusian forces close to the Ukrainian border are “purely defensive” and do not represent a threat to invade.

Mr Johnson has previously called the situation in eastern Europe “very grim” but stressed before his departure to Bavaria that “diplomacy can still prevail” if leaders unite.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told the Munich conference on Saturday that Russia was making a “blatant attempt to rewrite the rules of the international order”.

“The world has been watching in disbelief as we face the largest build-up of troops on European soil since the darkest days of the Cold War, because the events of these days could reshape the entire international order,” she said.

Meanwhile, German chancellor Olaf Scholz said there had been “important indications” on Saturday from Russia that it was open for dialogue.

The Kremlin said this week it was withdrawing some of its military presence from the region, but western governments’ intelligence suggests that 7,000 troops have actually arrived on the border in recent days.

Other apparent causes for alarm include claims of field hospitals and pontoon bridges spotted close to the border.

There has also been increased activity in the separatist-held eastern region of Ukraine, including reports of a major explosion in the centre of the city of Donetsk on Friday.

Asked by broadcasters following his speech in Munich whether he agreed with the US assessment about a possible imminent invasion, Mr Johnson said: “I think certainly things are in motion, but the question is whether it can all be pulled back, and whether the president of Russia is still able to call this operation off.

“I think that possibility must logically still exist, and therefore I think it’s absolutely vital that we have a path of dialogue, of reason.”

Responding to the prime minister’s speech, Keir Starmer said the opposition supported the government’s approach.

“The Labour Party is steadfast in our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.

“We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and in unity with our international partners and Nato allies in warning President Putin that any attack will lead to immediate, severe and extensive sanctions.

“The deeply concerning signs of escalation over recent days show the threat of invasion by Russia remains real and immediate. The stakes could not be higher but we share the view of our allies that diplomacy can still succeed at the eleventh hour.

“Labour supports the actions the UK government is taking with the aim of securing a peaceful end to this precarious stand-off. We stand resolutely as one in ensuring the right of all democratic states to determine their own path to prosperity without fear or threat.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said Mr Johnson should make time in Westminster to pass long-promised money laundering controls.

“At this dark moment, we must do everything we can to stand up to Putin and his cronies. It’s time to go after their dirty cash, which has been stored all over the UK,” she said.

“A law to combat the laundering of Russian money in the UK is ready and waiting to go – Boris Johnson has no excuse.

“We’ve waited 2,000 days for this law. All we need is 24 hours to end the era of Russian interference in the UK.”

Ms Moran said the extended session of both the House of Commons and the Lords would continue into the night as long as needed to pass emergency legislation within 24 hours.

This would include establishing a register of beneficial ownership to help clamp down on the laundering of Russian money through buying property in the UK.

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