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Despite Putin Jibes, Russia Places Hope In 'Brexiteer' Boris Johnson

  • Tom Balmforth

Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office in London on July 14, a day after being appointed Britain's Foreign Secretary.

Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office in London on July 14, a day after being appointed Britain's Foreign Secretary.

MOSCOW -- In a single sentence, he once called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "manipulative tyrant" and likened him to the big-eared, bug-eyed "house elf" from the Harry Potter series. But the surprise appointment of Boris Johnson to head the British Foreign Office is being cautiously welcomed by Moscow -- and his predecessor's exit pointedly cheered.

While Putin has not avoided the undiplomatic jibes Johnson has trained on several world leaders, Russian officials suggested that the change in government in Britain -- following Prime Minister David Cameron's departure in the wake of the 'Brexit' vote to leave the EU -- presents a chance to pipe some warmth into ties that that have been chilly for a decade.

"Certainly, we have long been waiting to turn over what is not the best page in the book of Russian-British relations," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing on July 14. "Therefore, if under the new head of the Foreign Office, the British side has the appropriate desire and intention in this regard, we will certainly support this."

Moscow may see Johnson as more amenable to making "deals" with Russia, analysts say. Putin might also be hoping the appointment of the controversial figure -- who has been called "crafty" by the German foreign minister and a liar by his French counterpart -- could play into the Kremlin's hands by creating rifts in the West.

Former London mayor Johnson led the "Brexit" campaign, whose success was hailed by many Russian politicians. Britain's "leave" vote came shortly before the EU decided to prolong sanctions against Moscow over its interference in Ukraine and NATO approved new deployments as a deterrent to an "aggressive" Russia.

Dealing With The Devil?

Johnson has seemed amenable to working with Russia on the geopolitical stage, arguing last December for closer partnership in Syria -- albeit in a newspaper column titled Let's Deal With The Devil.

In the same column, Johnson wrote of Putin: "Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, he is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, predicted that Johnson would change his tone as foreign secretary, saying the Kremlin now expects "slightly different rhetoric of a more diplomatic nature."

Peskov suggested it would be hard for Russia-British relations to go anywhere but up.

"Unfortunately, we can't boast of much success in the field of bilateral relations [with Britain], and so of course every new beginning gives certain hopes," state news agency RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.

Ties have been badly strained since Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko was fatally poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. A British inquiry concluded in January 2016 that the Russian government was behind his death and that Putin "probably approved" the killing.

While Russian officials made few specific comments about Johnson himself in their remarks on his appointment, they made clear they were happy to see his predecessor, Philip Hammond, leave office.

"I can say that we are not going to miss Hammond," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova said.

"One wants to hope that [Johnson] doesn't have the…anti-Russian complexes of his predecessor," Aleksei Pushkov, the chairman of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, said on Twitter:

"In contrast to the [foreign ministers of] France, Germany and Italy, Hammond completely denied ties with Russia. As a result, London ended up on the sidelines on Syria as well as on Ukraine."

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told RFE/RL that Johnson is welcomed in Moscow as he lacks foreign affairs or Russia expertise and is seen as a "man who does deals."

Concern In Ukraine

In his "Devil" column in December, Johnson wrote: "It is time to set aside our Cold War mindset and stop being picky about our allies if we are to defeat [Islamic State extremists] before they kill thousands more.

In March, Johnson said that Putin displayed "ruthless clarity" in helping Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's government retake Palmyra from IS.

And while campaigning for Brexit, Johnson suggested that the EU bore responsibility for the upheaval in Ukraine, which Russia has destabilized by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting separatists in the eastern Donbas region in a war that has killed more than 9,300 people.

"If you want an example of EU foreign policymaking on the hoof and the EU's pretensions to running a defense policy that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine," Johnson said on May 9 -- though he has also criticized Russia over the war in Ukraine, and said Putin's "proxy army was almost certainly guilty of killing" the 298 people who died when a passenger jet was downed there in July 2014.

Johnson's appointment has caused concern for some in Ukraine. The Kharkiv-based Ukrainian Human Rights Protection Group said on July 14 that it "defies any comprehension."

But will it open a new chapter in Russia-U.K. relations? That's not clear, Nixey said.

"It's hard to say how much influence he's going to have on foreign policy direction," he said. "As in the country overall, people obviously are split on this."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at