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Boris Johnson’s departure leaves tensions over future Ukraine-UK relations

When Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that he would step down as Britain’s prime minister despite a historic government revolt in a desperate bid to cling to power, his decision sparked a sense of relief in Westminster.

In Kiev, it was met with despair.

Johnson has been one of Ukraine’s most prominent supporters as it seeks to defend itself against Russian encroachment on its territory, and Johnson’s departure has sparked fears that UK aid to the country (totaling £3.8 billion (about BRL 24 billion) so far this year) : may begin to decrease.

The whole western world is united with the same goal, Ukraine has no shortage of supporters. But Johnson was seen as a special ally in Kiev. In early April, he became one of the first foreign leaders to travel to the Ukrainian capital since the Russian invasion, then returned last month for another surprise visit.

Johnson developed a close relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said he was saddened by his departure.

“We are all saddened to hear this news. Not only me, but the entire Ukrainian society,” Zelensky told Johnson in a phone call on Thursday, according to his office. “We have no doubt that Great Britain’s support will be maintained, but his personal leadership and charisma made him special,” Zelensky added.

Christine Berzina, senior fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund in the United States, said that in addition to Britain’s military support, Johnson’s personality played a big role in how Ukrainians viewed him.

“The scale and boldness of Johnson’s support for the Ukraine struggle … stands in stark contrast to the subdued support provided by German Chancellor (Olaf) Scholz. Here is the leader of a major European power, a nuclear power, who was not afraid to support Ukraine and criticize Russia,” he said. CNN: in the letter.

While French President Emmanuel Macron has faced criticism from Zelensky, who has accused him of trying to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, Johnson has always been seen as an unequivocal supporter.

The former Prime Minister of Great Britain is so popular in Ukraine that several cities have proposed naming streets after him. As news of his ouster spread, major Ukrainian supermarket chain Silpo added a picture of Johnson’s disheveled blonde hair to its logo.

Boris Johnson talks to Vladimir Zelensky about his visit to Kiev after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, called Johnson a “hero,” while Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said the British leader was “a fearless man who is willing to take risks for the cause he believes in.”

Peter Kellner, a British pollster, journalist and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said Johnson’s dedication to Ukraine was likely inspired by history and his own political needs.

“Ukraine gave Johnson a rare opportunity to imitate his hero. to take a tough and uncompromising position on an issue that is both moral and military,” he said. CNN: in the letter, referring to Johnson’s well-known admiration for British World War II leader Winston Churchill. Kellner added that Johnson often tried to draw attention to Ukraine during the domestic crisis.

“The Russian intrusion came at a time when Johnson was beset by scandals, particularly over Partygate, and also mired in the political costs of rapidly rising inflation,” he noted. “He is not the first and will not be the last national leader to use toughness abroad to mask weakness at home.”

Glenn Morgan, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, also questioned Johnson’s motives.

“If one were cynical, one might think that Johnson’s dealings with Ukraine reflected a brazen effort to divert attention from his long-standing relationship with Russian business interests and his then-eroding popularity in the UK,” he said.

“If one were a romantic, one might think that Johnson’s commitment to Ukraine reflects the great British love of the underdog, the brave hero who stands up to the biggest bully. Jonson is nothing more than a romantic who sees himself as the hero of an epic.’

Vladimir Zelensky and Boris Johnson during a surprise visit by the former British Prime Minister on June 17, 2022 / ABACA via Reuters Connect

long history of support

Johnson defended Ukraine, but Britain’s commitment to helping him fight Russia began long before he came to power, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

In 2015, the British Armed Forces launched Operation Orbital to provide guidance and training to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

That relationship deepened in 2016, when the two countries signed a 15-year defense cooperation agreement focusing on more training and intelligence sharing.

However, at the time, Britain was reluctant to supply arms to Ukraine, fearing that any supply of lethal weapons would escalate the conflict and enrage Russia.

That changed late last year when Russian President Vladimir Putin began massing troops on the border with Ukraine.

In January, under Johnson’s leadership, the British government sent the first shipment of weapons to Ukraine: 2,000 anti-tank missiles. Since then, it has followed a steady supply of weapons and ammunition.

Britain has announced £2.3 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the start of the war in late February, more than any other country except the US, according to a British government statement.

Such aid is unlikely to end with Johnson’s departure.

Boris Johnson and Vladimir Zelensky walk through Kiev, which has been hit by Russian troops, on April 9, 2022.

“Support for Ukraine is shared across the British political spectrum – left and right, political and military-administrative classes … his departure will have no effect, except that his successor will not be so charismatic,” Morgan said.

But it is precisely this charisma that has made Johnson, and in turn Britain, so popular with Ukrainians, even though he has not supported some of Kiev’s key demands.

Like the rest of NATO, Great Britain has also refused to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The UK also lags behind other European countries in supporting Ukrainian asylum seekers, refusing to waive visa requirements. However, the UK has never been criticized, which Zelensky has not hesitated to point out to others.

While material support is likely to continue in the short term, the long-term strategy may change.

Kellner said that, like his hero Churchill, who demanded Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II, Johnson advocated a strategy of total victory over Russia and against any compromise.

“If a moment comes when a negotiated end to the fighting becomes possible, the new British prime minister may not press Zelensky as hard as Johnson said that the war, with its deaths and destruction, must continue to the bitter end. that’s it,” he said. he said.

The war in Ukraine is likely to last a long time. Without the support of the West, Kiev cannot defend itself against an enemy that has resources of several magnitudes.

As British society faces a deep cost-of-living crisis, a British prime minister willing to spend money to help a country thousands of miles away will be crucial for Kiev.

This content was originally created in English.

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