MOSCOW BLOG: Kremlin ready to roll out the red carpet for Bojo's flying circus

MOSCOW BLOG: Kremlin ready to roll out the red carpet for Bojo's flying circus
By Jason Corcoran in Moscow July 15, 2016

Russia is ready to roll out the red carpet in anticipation of Britain's new foreign secretary Boris Johnson arriving in the Kremlin on a zipwire or careering through Red Square on a unicycle.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel and head of the successor FSB agency, likely can't believe his luck that the British political system has been upended by Brexit and that Johnson - more Bean than Bond - has ended up in charge of the MI6 foreign intelligence service.

The Moscow commentariat can't yet take the clown prince Johnson, aka Bojo, seriously and think that he's a pale shadow of Donald Trump, the Republican party's nomination for the US White House. In an op-ed in on July 14, the headline reads: "Boris – You are no Trump." The online newspaper notes many of Johnson's outlandish statements, his buffoonish stunts, awkward ability at sport and surmises that he is a pale imitation of the US presidential candidate.

Alexander Mineev, a correspondent at Novaya Gazeta, remembers Johnson when he was a correspondent for the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper in the Belgian capital. Mineev recalls him as a "scandalous" and "charismatic" figure. "To me, he was a very striking gentleman who I recall from my first days in Brussels because of his sarcastic questions at the European Commission's daily briefings," wrote Mineev in his column.

Unlike his sober and serious predecessor Philip Hammond, Johnson is an entertainer as well as a politician. His humour is very much that of an English public schoolboy and may not travel well – even beyond Britain's own Watford gap, taken by many as informally separating the moneyed South from the North. Think Bertie Wooster meets Machiavelli. Needless to say, he might have to apologise or contextualise his description of Putin as a "ruthless and manipulative tyrant" and comparing him to "Dobby the House Elf" from the Harry Potter movies.

Unlike Hammond, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov probably think they can work with Johnson based on his pragmatic foreign policy proclamations. Despite reservations about what he has called Putin's "vast post-Soviet gangster kleptocracy", Johnson expressed support for Russian actions in liberating the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS in a column titled "Let's Deal with the Devil: We should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria." In the Daily Telegraph piece, he called on the West to put aside its distaste for Putin and to cut a deal with him to eliminate ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

"Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site?" wrote Johnson in his Telegraph column. "You bet I am. That does not mean I trust Putin, and it does not mean that I want to keep Assad in power indefinitely. But we cannot suck and blow at once."

Russian official circles have so far been appropriately diplomatic about Johnson's appointment, if also noting that the role will probably require him to moderate his rhetoric. The Foreign Ministry said they hope he can improve dismal relations between Moscow and London.

"We have been waiting for a long time to turn over what is not the best page in the book of Russian-British relations," ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told a news briefing. "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."

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, made appeasing noises too. "Every new start gives a certain hope," Peskov told the Kremlin press pool. "In his previous role, he [Johnson] had no impact whatsoever on shaping Britain's foreign policy. But the burden of his current job will most likely force him to adopt a somewhat different rhetoric of a more diplomatic character."

Relations between London and Moscow are at their chilliest since the Cold War so things can hopefully only get better. A British public inquiry concluded in January it was probable that senior Kremlin officials had ordered the 2006 killing of Kremlin foe Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive polonium-210, and that Putin himself likely gave the nod to the hit.

Britain has been one of the most vocal supporters of stringent European Union sanctions imposed on Russia over its interference in the Ukraine conflict and of Nato boosting its military presence in the Baltic States and Poland to deter Russia.

British diplomatic sources in Moscow told bne IntelliNews that such is the level of distrust between the two nations that the British Ambassador Laurie Bistrow couldn't get to see anyone of note at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Laurie has been blocked wherever he has gone," said a Moscow-based diplomat. "He has been snubbed everywhere and has no access to anyone senior whatsoever."

Perhaps Johnson will able to wipe the slate clean and rebuild bilateral relations by barging open closed doors whenever he makes it to Moscow. After all, he has a Russian first name and has Russian roots. His great-grandfather Ali Kemal was a Turkish journalist, who married a Circassian slave from southern Russia. Johnson's great-grandmother left her homeland because of the Caucasian war and was enslaved by the Ottomans. Their descendants later moved to the US, and from there to England, where they took a popular surname Johnson.

Like or loathe him, Johnson is nothing if not a good sport and has even tried to get a handle on the language of Pushkin. As Mayor of London in 2014, he made an address partly in Russian to herald the opening of the Russian pre-Lent festival of Maslenitsa in the capital. Apart from murdering the word Maslenitsa, Johnson acquits himself quite well.


Yet it is Johnson's rude poem about the Turkish president Erdogan having sex with a goat, which is most cited in profiles of the poltician in the Russian press. However, the normally racy tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets couldn't bring themselves to cite the "obscene" lines.

The paper lauds Johnson for his oratory skills, his Euroscepticism, his biography of Winston Churchill, but warns its readers that the British politician has an "aggressive and sharply negative attitude" towards modern Russia.

"Boris is fine," the Moskovsky Komsomolets profile ends, after concluding that Johnson has more Turkish ancestry than Russian. "But, unfortunately, he's not our Boris."