DALLAS — Britain may have fallen in love with Boris Johnson. But Ukraine’s allies in the United States believe the charismatic former prime minister is still the perfect messenger to bolster support for the war in faltering Republican strongholds.
Pro-Ukrainian think tanks on Monday took Johnson to a private luncheon in Dallas, Texas, to meet with two dozen of the state’s top conservative figures, including politicians, donors and captains of industry.
The message Johnson was there to convey was simple: America must stay the course in Ukraine.
« I just urge you to follow him, » Johnson told those seated in the large wood-paneled dining room in downtown Dallas, where POLITICO was also in attendance. « It will pay off enormously in the long run. »
The former British prime minister has flown to Texas as have a growing number of Conservative lawmakers, candidates and activists started questioning the size of the US support package for Ukraine as it tries to counter an invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022.
Political tensions over the war are expected to rise further as the 2024 US election approaches.
The two highest-profile potential candidates for the Republican nomination — former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — have both expressed skepticism about America’s unwavering support for Ukraine. Trump has pledged to strike a “deal” to “end that war in one day,” while DeSantis he rejected it as a « territorial dispute » that does not involve America’s « vital national interests, » even if it later backed down partially.
But Johnson told Texan Republicans on Monday, “You are backing the right horse. Ukraine will win. They will defeat Putin. »
The lunch was not the first time Johnson has lobbied US lawmakers on Ukraine’s behalf. He visited Washington in January, where he publicly urged the US administration to supply fighter jets to Ukraine, and met privately with Republican lawmakers during the same trip.
Following that visit, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) — a Washington-based bipartisan pro-Ukraine think tank — decided to enlist Johnson’s support for a larger mission.
The group wanted him to take his forceful pro-conservative case for the war out of metropolitan DC and deep into Republican territory.
“We wanted to take that case out of Washington — where we all live in a bubble — and really take it to the heart, in places like Texas, to get more support for Ukraine and to present the case to people who are skeptical about that support. ”, said Alina Polyakova, CEO of CEPA.
« In many ways Dallas and Texas are at the center of the Republican debate, » he added.
Texas will be a key battleground in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. Trump held his first presidential rally in the Lone Star State in March, while DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley have also sought votes in Texas.
Johnson is « much seen as the architect of Western policy » on Ukraine, Polyakova said, adding that « because Trump had nice things to say about him when he was president, » it also gives Johnson « a lot of credibility with the basis of the Republican Party ».
In addition to the private lunch with Republicans in Dallas on Monday, Johnson also met with former US President George W. Bush, who lives in the city with his wife Laura. Johnson will meet with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Austin on Tuesday.
Unusually, the former UK prime minister, who raked in nearly £5m in fees in the first six months after leaving office, has not been paid for a lunchtime speaking engagement on Monday. However, he arranged the trip to Dallas as a stopover en route to the SCALE Global Summit in Las Vegas, a fintech conference where a planned six-figure sum will be paid for a scheduled speech.
Man on a mission
Johnson has kept Ukraine at the top of his public agenda since he was forced to resign as prime minister last July over a string of personal scandals, including his attendance at COVID-19 lockdown parties at his home and in his Downing Street office.
In power, Johnson had formed a strong personal connection with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and played a leading role in early Western efforts to arm Ukraine. His allies even floated the idea that he would become a formal envoy to Ukraine after his abrupt exit from Downing Street, although the idea never came to fruition.
However, that hasn’t stopped Johnson from continuing his personal lobbying drive. He visited the Ukrainian capital Kiev in January 2023, despite him no longer being a frontline politician, and has continued to speak out in support on multiple occasions.
At Monday’s luncheon in Dallas, Johnson insisted that Western support for Ukraine must not be indefinite, telling those present that he « has every hope that the Ukrainians will be able to deliver a very substantial counterattack this summer » and who believed there was « a prospect of a complete Russian military collapse ».
And addressing concerns in Republican circles that the United States should focus its attention on China rather than a land war in Eastern Europe, Johnson said Putin’s victory would be « terrible in its ramifications for Southeast Asia, for the South China Sea, for all areas of potential conflict between the great powers in the decades to come”.
On the contrary, he added, Western solidarity with Ukraine had already sent a clear message to China.
“From Beijing’s perspective, they’re looking at this and think this has massively increased the strategic ambiguity and risk surrounding a venture against Taiwan,” Johnson said.
A businessman present lobbied Johnson about corruption in Ukraine, which he said he heard was « really bad again ».
But the former prime minister insisted the $50 billion spending package President Biden agreed would prove « good value for money ». The United States is receiving « a huge, huge boost to global security for a relatively small outlay, » he said.
And Johnson being Johnson, couldn’t resist a jab at his old rival Emmanuel Macron, whom he reportedly privately called « Putin’s toady. »
« I think it was my French friend and colleague Emmanuel Macron who said ‘Putin must not be humiliated,' » Johnson said over lunch, adopting a mock French accent to gently mock the president.
« I think it takes a lot to humiliate Vladimir Putin, frankly, » Johnson continued. « I don’t think it’s our job to worry about Vladimir Putin’s ego, his political prospects or his career developments. »
However, it remains to be seen whether Johnson maintains populist credentials to win over Trump’s most ardent supporters in the United States.
In an interview with Nigel Farage on GB News last month, Trump said that while Johnson was a « wonderful guy » and « a friend of mine, » he was disappointed with his time in office.
Johnson had gone « a little on the liberal side, » Trump noted sadly. « Probably in a bad way. »