Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that France was “in denial” about the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, accusing the German government of initially preferring a quick Ukrainian military defeat to a protracted conflict.
Johnson told CNN’s affiliate network CNN Portugal on Monday that the attitudes of Western countries varied widely before Moscow launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, singled out three leading EU countries in comments unlikely to be welcome in Europe’s capitals.
While Johnson stressed that EU countries later aligned themselves with Ukraine and are now providing steadfast support, this was not universally the case in the pre-Russian invasion period.
“This was a huge shock… we could see the Russian battalion tactical groups growing, but different countries had very different perspectives,” Johnson told CNN’s Richard Quest in Portugal.
“The German view at one point was that if it happened, which would be a disaster, it would be better for the whole thing to be over soon and for Ukraine to stop,” Johnson claimed, citing “all sorts of sound economic reasons for that approach.
“I couldn’t support that, I thought that was a disastrous way to look at it. But I can understand why they thought and felt the way they did,” Johnson continued. Germany has been making rapid efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy since the invasion of Moscow.
“Have no doubt that the French were in denial until the last minute,” Johnson also said.
French President Emmanuel Macron led Europe’s efforts to stop Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, visiting him at the Kremlin just weeks before the Russian leader ordered his troops into the country. In March, the chief of French military intelligence, General Eric Vidaud, was told he had to step down from his position in part because he had failed to foresee the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a military source with knowledge of the matter told CNN at the time.
Johnson also criticized Italy’s initial response to the threat of invasion. He told Quest that his government – led by Mario Draghi at the time – “at one point just said they couldn’t support the position we took,” given their “massive” dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.
CNN has contacted the French and German governments. Draghi’s office declined to comment.
Many observers initially thought that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be completed within weeks or days, but instead Kiev’s forces repelled the initial sortie from Moscow to the capital and recently launched successful counter-offensives to regain ground in the east and south of the country.
Johnson said when Russia launched its invasion in February, attitudes across Europe quickly changed.
“What happened was everyone – Germans, French, Italians, everyone, (US President) Joe Biden – saw that there was just no option. Because you couldn’t negotiate with this man (Putin). That is the main point,” said the former prime minister, adding that “the EU has done a brilliant job” in its opposition to Russia since then.
“After all my worries… I pay tribute to the way the EU has acted. They are united. The sanctions were heavy,” Johnson continued.
During his tenure, Johnson frequently criticized the invasion of Russia and forged a close relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Johnson was forced to resign in July after repeated scandals tarnished his reputation and caused dozens of his ministers to resign.
Boris Johnson talks about his chances of becoming prime minister again
Johnson told CNN that Zelensky has been “absolutely outstanding” in his leadership. “He’s a very brave man. I think the history of this conflict would have been totally, totally different if it weren’t for him.”
He added that “if Ukraine chooses to join the EU, they should go for it. and I think it would be a good thing for Ukraine”, to help it implement political and economic reforms. Kiev applied to join the bloc earlier this year.
Johnson was replaced in Downing Street by Liz Truss, who had the shortest term of office of any British Prime Minister. Her disastrous seven-week term was scuttled by a “mini-budget” that spooked markets and caused global financial institutions to sound the alarm.
In a euphemistic critique of that mini-budget, Johnson told Quest, “It’s kind of like when I play the piano. The notes sound fine individually, but they’re not in the right order or occur at the right time.”
Truss has since been replaced by Johnson’s chancellor-turned-political rival, Rishi Sunak, who first visited Kyiv as prime minister on Saturday.