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In Chicago, British foreign minister says Putin made ‘strategic error’ in thinking Ukraine invasion would fracture Western alliances

James Cleverly, the British foreign minister for Europe and North America, speaks during a visit to Chicago on April 13, 2022. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin committed a major “strategic error” in believing his invasion of Ukraine would fragment Western democracies, the British foreign minister for Europe and North America said in Chicago this week.

Instead, Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said, Putin saw the NATO alliance and allied countries unite against Russian aggression in a sign of democracy’s resilience.

“Democracy is messy. Democracy is untidy, and to an autocratic leader like Putin, it probably always looks as if it’s on the verge of collapse,” Cleverly, the British equivalent of U.S. secretary of state, said in an interview in Chicago with the Tribune on Wednesday.

“I think Putin read all the wrong lessons from the natural processes that liberal democracies go through — the elections, the criticism,” Cleverly said. “He was clearly not listening to the people who should know better or didn’t know better and pursued this ego-driven attack on Ukraine. And then, when the messy, untidy democracies of the liberal world saw what happened, instead of falling apart like he thought we would, we pull together because that’s what we do.”

Cleverly’s visit to Chicago was part of a tour, which that also included stops in Washington, D.C., Missouri and Minnesota, aimed at solidifying the United Kingdom’s preexisting relationships in an “really scary time” amid a backdrop of pandemic and war.

In Chicago, Cleverly traveled to the Ukrainian Village neighborhood and spoke with residents there. He said it was “quite tough, emotionally” speaking with “people who’ve got family members who are under attack.” He also met with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul; Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development; and Michael Fassnacht, the president and CEO of World Business Chicago.

In Missouri, Cleverly traveled to Westminster College in Fulton, the site of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration in 1946 that following World War II the Soviet Union was draping “an Iron Curtain” of communist control over neighboring countries. The famous speech has often been cited as helping usher in the Cold War. Putin’s move into Ukraine has stirred a belief that he wants to lead a restoration of the Soviet Union as a world power after its internal collapse in 1991.

In the 1946 speech, Churchill declared a “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom.

“You know, the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House and a conservative in Westminster, somehow that would pull us apart,” Cleverly said, characterizing Putin’s view of the U.S.-U.K relationship between President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Totally the opposite. And I strongly believe that it’s been a shock to Vladimir Putin. And for me, I think it’s something that we should be incredibly proud of.”

In addition to nations uniting on worldwide economic sanctions against Russia, Cleverly touted efforts that have provided military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. His visit came as Biden announced an additional $800 million in U.S. weaponry, ammunition and security assistance to Ukraine as Russia appears to gear up for a renewed assault.

Johnson, the British prime minister, made a surprise visit to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a trip Cleverly said was aimed at “demonstrating visibly and publicly that both literally and metaphorically the British prime minister was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Zelenskyy” and “gave the Ukrainians a moral boost in a really, really difficult time.”

As to whether allied nations are doing enough to help Ukraine, Cleverly said, “We need to give the Ukrainians the tools to push back and push back hard against the Russian invasion so that Putin is forced to engage properly with peace talks in a way that at this moment, up until this point, he hasn’t been.”

At the same time, Cleverly said, it was “incumbent upon us all to highlight to the Russian people the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name, that they don’t know about, and they currently are being lied to systematically by their own national leadership.”

“How this is resolved, ultimately, must be guided heavily by the Ukrainians. This is their nation. They are the ones who will decide when they would accept a peace settlement … and what the terms are. They’re the ones that will have to live with it,” he said. “Zelenskyy is not going to roll over. He’s not going to take a bad deal. We need to make sure, again echoing Winston Churchill, we need to give him the tools to get the job done.”

But as the war in Ukraine continues, there also will be a price paid by the citizens of Western democracies over trying to rein in Russian aggression, Cleverly said.

“I think we need to recognize that there is a bill to be paid and we are seeing this across the Western world — food prices going up, gas prices are going up — and those increases are a direct result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

“Now, both in Washington and Westminster and in capital cities around the world, we’re going to have to do whatever we can to try and mitigate those pressures to try and help people get to work and fill their shopping trolleys and that’s not going to be easy. But the simple truth is that these pressures became inevitable the day that that war started,” he said.


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