Back in the mists of time, when Boris Johnson won a vote of confidence on June 6, Nadhim Zahawi, then education minister and now a somewhat ungrateful chancellor quick to bite the hand that lifted him, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be punching the air in delight.
And indeed, an adviser to Zelensky’s office was quick to tweet out support, praising Johnson for being “one of the first who realised the menace of [Russia] and stood by Zelenskiy to protect the free world from barbaric invasion”.
The next day, Zelensky himself said he was grateful he didn’t lose an ally he described as a “concrete leader”. But he also noted that he considered Britain a great friend – and that is what matters now that Johnson has been forced to resign after the most unedifying 48 hours in modern British politics.
Because for all the former prime minister’s determination to style himself as the saviour of Kyiv, Britain’s support for Ukraine – military, financial and moral – runs much deeper than one man. In fact, rather than Johnson saving Ukraine, the war in Ukraine may well have saved Johnson – the fallout from Partygate was reaching its peak when Russia invaded in February, giving the British prime minister a lifeline, a reason to cling to power because as he and his allies were fond of saying: no one changes leaders during a war.
But that’s patently untrue, and the image of Johnson as Ukraine’s hero also sits uneasily with his alleged dubious connections with members of the Russian oligarchy. On Wednesday, as the resignation letters flooded in, Johnson was forced to admit to the Commons Liaison Committee that he had met ex-KGB officer Alexander Lebedev without officials present while he was foreign secretary in 2018.
Not just a great friend to Ukraine then, it seems.
Johnson liked to see his role in supporting Ukraine as pivotal – it fed into his admittedly delusional vision of himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill. He said he was leading the
Western response – a fact disputed by European diplomats whose own leaders were also travelling to Kyiv, also pledging support, also welcoming (many more) refugees.
But Johnson’s foibles and dubious motivations aside, British support has been critical: the UK was one of the first countries to deliver weapons, including 5,000 anti-tank missiles, long-range multiple launch rocket systems and artillery systems. Critically, it began delivering those anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in January, before the Russian invasion and analysts agree these arms played a decisive role in the first months of the war.
At the NATO summit in June, the UK pledged to provide another £1bn of military support to Ukraine, bringing total military and economic support to £3.8 billion this year. And just this week, Johnson took time out of his political death-spiral to phone Zelensky and update him on the latest arms delivery, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems and loitering munitions due to arrive in the coming weeks and months.
Johnson’s early, clear vocal support was deeply appreciated in Ukraine. The Mayor of Odesa made Johnson an honorary citizen and a number of towns said they would name streets after him. Peter Dickinson, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service, said many Ukrainians were personally charmed by the UK leader.
“They are savvy enough to understand that his bumbling Englishman persona is largely an act, but tend to enjoy his capering nonetheless. This is very much in line with the personality-driven political culture of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, which generally eschews ideology and often resembles a high school popularity contest. Indeed, the carefully curated Boris brand is in many ways tailor-made for a country that just three years ago saw fit to elect a celebrity comedian as president,” he wrote in a recent blog.
There can be no denying that Zelensky welcomed Johnson’s vocal, visible, unequivocal support but the British leader was also not above using Europe’s worst modern-day crisis for his own personal gain – remember when he flew to Kyiv for a surprise visit instead of attending a Yorkshire conference of northern Conservatives last month, sparking widespread anger among those Red Wall Tories?
Luckily, behind Johnson’s bluster stood the British military, led by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and that is likely where the real power resides on this issue. It is interesting to note that one of those – very few – who did not resign during Johnson’s drawn-out ouster was Wallace, who said he was staying in post along with a number of others who “have an obligation to keep this country safe, no matter who is PM”. Wallace is one of the most outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin’s invasion and there is little chance he will water down UK support for Ukraine.
There’s also an interesting twist as Wallace has also come out on top of a new YouGov poll of Tory members on favoured future leaders.
Already, in Ukraine, the UK’s new political reality is being absorbed because, as they have known for some time, Britain is more than just one man.
“We want to believe it is not personal support by Boris Johnson or anybody else, but this is the support of all people in the United Kingdom,” Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP, said on GB News on Thursday. “We do hope that, no matter who is in office, this support will continue.”
As he delivered his resignation speech on Thursday, Johnson admitted that Britain’s support for Ukraine is bigger than him, addressing the Ukrainian people directly to say: “I know we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes.”
There has been some damage already though. Johnson’s spectacular fall from grace was greeted with glee in Moscow, where Maria Zakharova, the top spokeswoman at the Russian foreign ministry, said it was a symptom of the decline of the West. “The moral of the story is: do not seek to destroy Russia. Russia cannot be destroyed. You can break your teeth on it – and then choke on them.”
But as a master of fact-light, bombastic rhetoric himself, Johnson will undoubtedly recognise this blatant attempt to redirect the truth to fit a particular narrative. He alone is responsible for the breaking of his own teeth and unfortunately for Russia, it is not a given that his political demise will see a waning of British support for Ukraine.