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How will UK PM Johnson’s resignation affect Ukraine?

Johnson Zelenskyy in Kyiv UK ukraine weapons
Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a meeting in Kyiv. Source:
How will UK PM Johnson’s resignation affect Ukraine?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative party leader on 7 July and has said he would step down as Prime Minister when a new leader gets elected. Ukrainians are worried: will the UK’s staunch support in the war against Russia change? We talked to British journalists and experts to find out.

Boris Johnson could very well have had a double, judging from the vastly different reactions of Ukrainians and Brits to his resignation as Conservative leader.

In Ukraine, the atmosphere is of uncertainty and worry. After all, the UK is one of Ukraine’s greatest diplomatic and military supporters, and Boris Johnson’s surprise visits to Kyiv have earned him a special love – to the point of Kyiv cafes naming croissants after the politician, unruly hairstyle included.

A joke is even going around that a good bet for Johnson’s next career steps would be to apply for some governorship in Ukraine. This is a take on former Ukraine President Poroshenko inviting his old friend, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, for the post of governor of Odesa Oblast — a stunt that did not end well.

In the UK, the feeling couldn’t be more different. 71% disapproved of Johnson as Prime Minister as of 30 June, and the major question seems to be only how soon he will finally leave office.

Senior members of his government turned against Johnson and urged him to stand down following a series of scandals.

The scandals included something called Partygate, when government officials had parties at his offices when the rest of the country was under strict COVID-19 lockdown, and the appointment as a senior parliamentary official a man who he knew had a history of alleged sexual harassment.

Euromaidan Press asked a number of experts, journalists, and politicians how they think Johnson’s resignation would impact Ukraine.

The UK’s Ukraine policy won’t change despite Johnson’s resignation

Bob Seely, an MP from Johnson’s own Conservative Party, believes that the Prime Minister made the right decision to step aside.

“Despite his past strengths, he is becoming a distraction to governing Britain. I am concerned that important debates and important issues are being drowned out by the incessant noise from Downing Street.

We need a new leader who has the trust and respect of his or her colleagues – and a renewed sense of purpose – to govern us through a pivotal stage in our country’s history and meet the nation’s challenges.

I am confident that despite the forthcoming change in leadership of our government, Ukraine will continue to receive strong UK support as it has been for the last few months. There will not be any change in policy during this interim period while we select a new leader.

It is important, however, that we move swiftly to appoint a new leader so that government remains focused on important domestic challenges as well as global issues such as the situation in Ukraine.”

Unique personal chemistry of Zelenskyy and Johnson gone

James Sherr, Senior Fellow, Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security, Tallinn, Associate Fellow, Russia & Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, London, also believes the UK’s strong pro-Ukrainian policy will stand.

“In principle, Boris Johnson’s resignation changes nothing. Apart from the political fringes, support for Ukraine — and for arming Ukraine — is solid in both major parties. In no country west of Poland is there greater unity on these points. But the unique personal chemistry between Johnson and Zelensky disappears with the person.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson’s successor appreciates the importance of ‘connecting’ with Zelensky and whether he is able to do so. The personal factor matters in one other respect.  Johnson was willing to take risks and demonstrate, not just by noise but by action, that Britain would not be bullied by Russia. That is not true of President Biden. Will it be true of Johnson’s successor?

The greater concern, about which Johnson spoke in blunt terms, is the rising cost of the war for European electorates and the dangers of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ if it becomes long and inconclusive.  That the war will be long is beyond doubt. But it need not be inconclusive if the West’s leaders learn to act as statesmen.

Boris Johnson, like Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was mocked as a clown. But towards Ukraine and Russia, he behaved like a statesman. Most of his less clownish colleagues in Europe have not.”

UK public supports Ukraine because it’s “crystal clear” who the aggressor is

Andrew Wilson, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, also believes that “Ukraine fatigue” is the greater concern.

“Ukraine was a factor in delaying Johnson’s resignation. He exploited the argument that he had to stay in office during a time of war, though the UK obviously isn’t at war. And it’s not a good historical argument: we’ve removed ministers in 1940, in the middle of WWII, 1990 even, with Ms. Thatcher in the Gulf War. So, there’s no absolute taboo on that. He used a mixture of good arguments – that he was supporting Ukraine – and bad arguments. He was trying to deflect attention from his domestic troubles.

I hope his resignation won’t affect Ukraine negatively. The key figure – Defense Secretary Wallace – is still in place, although things are moving very quickly. At the moment Boris Johnson is trying to remain Prime Minister after he resigned as Conservative Party leader. There’s also bipartisan support: the Labor Party supports Ukraine. I’m more concerned really about public opinion and how we continue to focus on helping Ukraine per se as the very difficult for the UK economic costs begin to pile up.

The ECFR did an opinion poll in many EU countries about domestic issues versus solidarity with Ukraine. It won’t come as a surprise that Central European and Baltic states prioritize solidarity, even if they need to pay an economic price. Mediterranean countries are reverse. The UK and Northern Europe were not as pro-Ukrainian as Poland and Baltic states but more than the Mediterranean ones. But the economic costs are piling up, and Ukraine is a long way away, sadly.”

Who could replace Johnson? The situation is very fluid, says Wilson. “He resigned as Conservative Party Leader and said he would stay as Prime Minister until roughly about September. But all the signs are that the leadership elections can be organized much more quickly. Secondly, he thought he could buy time by remaining Prime Minister, and hopefully something would come along and save him. But that didn’t happen. He has no personal mandate, despite all this nonsense about him being personally elected. The Parliament remains sitting for two weeks, and the oppositional Labor Party said they will put in a vote of no confidence in him as Prime Minister.”

According to Wilson, although the UK’s policy towards Russia’s war is “fairly fixed,” the quality of candidates to replace Johnson is “extremely low:”

“The Conservative Party is a sect, it’s not really a political party. You belong in it through the virtue of believing in the Holy Grail of Brexit rather than being a rational or even realpolitik politician. One exception is Ben Wallace, Defense Secretary who is very well-reviewed, in particular, for his role in helping Ukraine. But that doesn’t help in the Conservative Party where it’s all about Brexit and charisma politics. Quiet competence doesn’t get very far. Although he’s clearly very popular among Conservative Party members, it’s not clear at all if he wants the job. So, somebody else should get it, and there should be a general election. A lot of people are very angry that Conservative Party is picking a leader on their behalf and prefer to do it themselves.”

Why does the UK public support Ukraine so? Wilson believes it’s an easy case: it’s crystal clear who is right and who is wrong, who the aggressor is, and what war crimes it has committed. “The brutality we see every day, particularly in the liberated areas – the British public can see what is happening there and they can make the obvious conclusion.”

Support could rise

Peter Jukes, Director of the Byline Times UK-based media, believes the UK’s support for Ukraine could actually rise.

“The departure of Boris Johnson will not undermine Britain’s strong support for Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression,” he said. “That is shared across all the political parties and within them. In fact, given Johnson was close to several Soviet-born pro-Putin oligarchs (and blamed the EU for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2016) any subsequent Prime Minister might actually be more effective in countering Vladimir Putin.”

Dr. Victor Madeira, a national security affairs specialist in the UK, and author of “Britannia and The Bear: the Anglo-Russian intelligence wars,” also believes that UK support for Ukraine could increase:

“Any new British Prime Minister will not only want to put their own ‘stamp’ on this vital relationship but also be seen to exceed what Mr. Johnson has achieved. The leadership campaign and British politics in general will obviously be shaped by the growing impact of cost-of-living/inflation and Covid on the UK economy – especially if energy prices keep rising as winter arrives.

One thing on Ukrainian minds right now is just how well the new British Prime Minister will understand the true situation in Ukraine. On this front, it’s very good news for Ukraine because expected frontrunners (depending on who you ask) all have extensive national security and defense experience.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is a former military officer and vocal critic of Russian aggression against Ukraine. But he was also Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime from 2016 to 2019, giving him a solid understanding of hostile state activity and so-called ‘hybrid warfare.’ For example, Mr. Wallace played a key role in the UK’s response to Russia’s Novichok attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is another favorite of Conservative Party members and also a vocal supporter of Ukraine. Both UK foreign intelligence agencies, SIS (human intelligence) and GCHQ (signals intelligence) report to Ms. Truss so she has excellent insight into everything that Russia is doing in Ukraine.

A third contender, Tom Tugendhat, is a former military intelligence officer who has headed the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament since 2017. In this role, Mr. Tugendhat has been particularly active in criticizing and exposing Russian (and other) hostile state activity, including by leading many Committee inquiries into such malign activity.

Two other leading contenders, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid, also have good national security credentials and are big supporters of Ukraine. Ms. Mordaunt was previously Defence Secretary and Minister of State for the Armed Forces. And Mr. Javid was Home Secretary in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. The Home Secretary is responsible for MI 5, the approximate British equivalent of the Security Service of Ukraine.

Ultimately, then, almost every leading contender for Prime Minister will be committed to supporting Ukraine to victory. What will differ will be their personal styles of persuasion. But both Europe and America are likely to see whichever one of these becomes Prime Minister as being more serious and professional where Russian aggression towards Ukraine is concerned.”

We can expect “less dazzle”

Meanwhile, British investigative journalist John Sweeney, says that the UK’s policy won’t change, but we can expect there to be less dazzle.

“There will be no change to the British government’s support for Ukraine. I’m not a supporter of Johnson, but it’s fair to say that from the moment the war started, Boris Johnson was good on Ukraine, and led the way. He was the first leader of a country to visit Kyiv after the start of the war. The symbolism was good.

The most likely candidate is Ben Wallace. And the gossip is that Wallace said ‘We must arm Ukraine,’ and Boris did not do it, and only after the invasion changed his position. If Wallace becomes Prime Minister, there will be less dazzle but the policy won’t change. I think what’s become obvious in the last couple of months is that Ukraine is not going to lose this war.

If you have half a mind, you get it, that the world is not safe while Vladimir Putin is in charge of the Kremlin, and the fastest way to get rid of him is to make it bleeding obvious to the Russian people that Putin has made a catastrophic mistake.

So, I don’t think the British position is going to change, and as a Brit, I feel very proud that the British government and people have got it. And that view is extremely popular. The fact that Boris Johnson is gone doesn’t change the love that the British people feel for the Ukrainians, for their courage, and whoever takes over will follow.”

Mr. Sweeney explained why he is about to return to Ukraine, despite the ongoing war.

“The reason I’m going back is that I’m sick of the West running away from Vladimir Putin, I am sick of the timidity, the greed, and his previous ability to get us to play against each other. In Ukraine, if you’re rude about Vladimir Putin, nobody gives a damn, so my head is clearer there. And I’m there not because I’m supporting the Ukrainian people, but because I’m supporting the struggle of the world against Vladimir Putin. And the best place to do that is Ukraine, and the best thing we can do is to arm Ukraine, send them the heavy metal that they need, send them charity but also send them guns.

I think that if you break the Russian army, he will be destroyed. I think that after him will come somebody who is anti-Putin because Russian people are sick of him and will understand the mistake they made. And the world will not feel safe until that happens. So, it’s in the security interest of all the democracies in the world: we need to see the Russian Army defeated in Ukraine.”

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