It was Boris Johnson’s foray into being a statesman, playing a part in curbing the rising violence in Ukraine. He was a rather late and unexpected addition to the list of international visitors coming to Kiev to address the escalating crisis. But, he wanted to stress, Britain had an important role to play in this.
It was, however, the other B word which dominated the coverage, somewhat muted, of the British Foreign Secretary’s trip. “Father Brexit is Coming to Town” was the headline of one local publication. Just how much clout will Britain have on the international diplomatic stage after leaving the European Union? Analysts openly wondered.
Also coming to the Ukraine on Wednesday were Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, bearing news hotfoot that a ceasefire porposed by the separatist leader of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has received the crucial backing of the Kremlin.
Mr Johnson could offer nothing similar and received no name-check when Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, declared that the presence of the German and French ministers in Ukraine showed that the Minsk Agreement, which brought a ceasefire two years ago, can be kickstarted.
“The presence of Jean-Marc and Frank-Walter here in Kiev is evidence that the Normandy format [an international meeting where the UK was not present] works, that we must together force Russia to implement the Minsk Agreement,” said Mr Klimkin.
It is one of Ukraine’s dearest ambitions (unlikely to be fulfilled in the near future) to be part of the EU. Mr Steinmeier and Mr Ayrault made a point of visiting a bridge destroyed in the fighting, in Slovyansk, in the east of the country which will be rebuilt with international aid, some of it from the EU.
The local media recalled some of Mr Johnson’s controversial pronouncements on the EU’s defence and foreign policy during the Brexit campaign. One speech led to former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to tweet “Johnson is absolutely ignorant about Ukraine, the EU and Russia”, and accuse him with being a “Putin apologist”. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski asked: “Boris, old boy, it’s time to make a decision, are you with the EU, President Obama or President Putin?”
Mr Johnson was asked about his remarks when he faced the press following a meeting with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. He responded: “Whatever you want to say about the EU’s handling of the issues, the crucial thing now is that we maintain sanctions [against Russia]. Brexit or not, it makes no difference to us. We continue to be a major player.”
It is has been claimed that Britain is, in fact, no longer a major player when it comes to Ukraine. The blame for that, however, cannot be laid on the door of Mr Johnson. During the Minsk talks, General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former deputy commander of Nato, claimed Britain has been sidelined in the worst crisis in Europe in a half-century. “Where is Britain? Where is Cameron? He is clearly a bit part player. Nobody is taking any notice of him. He is now a foreign policy irrelevance,” charged General Shirreff.
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