After Johnson: Britain’s continued support for Ukraine

Boris Johnson, currently still the British Prime Minister, resigned[↗] as leader of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom (UK) on 8th July. The leadership competition within the party is now well underway and Johnson will be departing Downing Street by 5th September at the latest.

As his political appeal among Conservative parliamentarians continued to fall, Johnson’s approval rating in Ukraine remained high and even increased. To his critics in Parliament, Johnson’s handling of the illegal parties held during Covid-19 in Number 10 compounded by the fact he had failed to act on prior information of consistent misconduct by his party leadership were his main faults.

In contrast, in Ukraine, Johnson was able to deliver tangible results to the Ukrainian people in their valiant fight against a much larger neighbour. He was the first leader of a major power to arrive in Kyiv ‘despite missile attacks’, as noted[↗] by Mykhailo Podolyak, the advisor to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, and he was ‘always at the forefront of supporting Ukraine.’

On the same day of his resignation, Johnson held a phone call[↗] with Zelenskyy and affirmed the UK’s support for Ukraine in its battle against Russian aggression. Along with Poland and the United States (US), the UK has been one of Ukraine’s leading allies[↗] in supplying military aid, and Johnson’s departure will come as somewhat of a blow for Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. However, British support for Ukraine is likely to continue regardless of who Johnson’s successor is, and the strong relationship between London and Kyiv should still serve as an inspiration and model for other like minded partners to follow, particularly in Europe.

The Ukrainian people are still deep in their fight against Russia and are working tirelessly to form a new political and cultural identity with the European Union. This is a decades-long battle that will require sustained support from the UK and perpetual engagement from British leaders from across the political spectrum. 

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, initially a favourite[↗] to succeed Johnson, pulled out[↗] of the leadership race on 9th July. Wallace’s ‘focus is on [his] current job’, which will be currently consumed by the war against Ukraine. Wallace has been a pivotal voice in Westminster in detailing where the fight against Ukraine stands, how much support has been provided and is needed, as well as honestly assessing Russia’s war aims. He might remain defence secretary in the next Conservative government, heralding a continuation of the UK’s current support for Ukraine.

In fact, continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine in its fight against Russia receives widespread support across the Houses of Parliament. This is one of Johnson’s successes: institutionalising support for the people of a free and open nation under threat that is lacking in many other European nations.

And there is not just support for British assistance in the form of immediate aid and weapon shipments to Ukraine, but also for more long-term measures that will better prepare Ukraine, and shore up Euro-Atlantic security, for the future. Government-wide support[↗] for the new UK-led training programme announced[↗] on 17th June to train up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every 120 days is a case in point.

In Kyiv, there seems to be little worry that the UK will abandon or diminish its support for Ukraine. Zelenskyy has expressed[↗] his confidence that Britain’s policy towards Ukraine will not change because of Johnson’s resignation. Indeed, Her Majesty’s Government under Johnson showed[↗] a desire to continue leading European nations in supporting Ukraine; backtracking on or neglecting this effort could affect the popularity of a new government domestically and internationally. The Ukraine recovery conference, which the UK is hosting[↗] next year, will thus be a seminal event on next year’s political calendar.

British engagement matters in international affairs and has the proven capacity to bolster European security, galvanise allies and have impact. The foreign policy success of the Johnson administration in Ukraine represents one piece of the larger puzzle – that Britain is now able to take decisive unilateral action in its foreign policy pursuits. They should also serve as a reminder that foreign policy success cannot offset domestic ailments, and that the instruments of government should be wielded just as capable at home as they are abroad.

Undoubtedly, Johnson’s successor will have a domestic in-tray of economic problems and cleaning up ill-discipline at the heart of government, but they will have a strong and resolute policy on Russia and Ukraine to build on in the years ahead.

Alexander Brotman is a political risk and intelligence analyst based in Washington DC. He writes in a personal capacity and not through any professional affiliation.

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