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Geopolitics

How Boris Johnson's Resignation Could Impact The Ukraine War

As one of the world's most ardent supporters of the Ukrainian cause, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson helped steer the Western response to Vladimir Putin's invasion. Moscow has been gloating over his fall from grace. The diplomatic cards may (or may not) be shuffled by a switch at 10 Downing Street.

Photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ​

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Cameron Manley

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bombshell resignation on Thursday was a long time coming. Forced to finally step down — first as Conservative party leader and ceding the Prime Minister post by the fall when his replacement is found — Johnson is a victim of his own countless domestic scandals.

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Of course, a change in leadership in London, and the drawn out process over the coming months within the ruling Conservative party, will weigh heavily on both domestic politics and policymaking. But a central subject in the final phase of Johnson's near three-year reign was overseas: namely, the war in Ukraine.

Now many are asking if and how the Western response will change with Johnson on his way out.


The sometimes erratic British prime minister has instead been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine, who hasn't been afraid to raise the tone in condemnation of Russia, calling Vladimir Putin a "dictator" on the first day of the invasion of Feb. 24, leading calls for sanctions and supplying large supplies of weapons and humanitarian aid to Kyiv over the past four months. In April, Johnson was also the first G7 leader to visit President Volodymyr Zelensky in the war-torn nation, returning last month for a second visit.

Russia gloats

Needless to say, Moscow isn't sorry to see BoJo go. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian ministry of Foreign Affairs, didn't hold back in comments on her Telegram platform account. Recent actions of the British government, she said, were "the habits of savages. Those who call themselves the "civilized world", advanced countries, developed democracies, have become not just a universal laughing stock. It’s worse than that. They evoke a sense of disgust in those who they themselves are accustomed to baselessly disdain."

She added that ‘the ruling Conservative Party of Britain has created largely insurmountable economic difficulties for ordinary and industrious Britons. The problem is not ours. It is a British problem. But London is actively trying to solve its internal issues at the expense of external factors: participation in anti-Russian activities, provocations in Ukraine, global economic destabilization and financial piracy."

Zakharova was in fact echoing criticism that Johnson faced at home by those accusing him of diverting his own political problems at home by taking an aggressive stance on foreign policy.

Kyiv grateful but wary

Johnson remained remarkably popular in Ukraine, notwithstanding his implosion back at home, recently tallying 90% approval by Ukrainians in a Lord Ashcroft Polls survey.

The British leader even had a Ukrainian city street and a bakery's croissant named after him. Last week, Johnson was made an honorary citizen of Odessa, with Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, declaring Johnson the ‘main ally and friend’ of Ukraine.

But Kyiv is focused on winning a war, and will waste no time looking back. Zelensky will be focused on maintaining maximum British support from whoever replaces Johnson as Conservative party chief, while keeping an eye on the Labour opposition.

Photo of UK PM Boris Johnson resigning

Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigns

Tayfun Salci/ZUMA

The succession question

Johnson's replacement, whoever that may be, must face the difficult task of rebuilding a parliament in disarray as well as play a major role in stabilizing the geopolitical unrest triggered by the invasion of Ukraine.

In his resignation speech Thursday, Johnson declared: "We in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes."

However, it is far more likely that active British support for Ukraine will dwindle in the coming weeks and months as UK parliamentary and media attention focuses on the internal brawls and corruption that have become commonplace in British politics, while the economic impact of the war continues to accumulate.

Truss, who has been compared to Margaret Thatcher, may take an even harder line.

Whoever emerges as the next British Prime Minister is unlikely to arrive in office with a stance ostensibly much different than Johnson's, and at least one leading candidate, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who has been compared to Margaret Thatcher, may take an even harder line.

In an interview last month with the BBC, Truss' Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, made it clear that the Kremlin was skeptical of the various members of the Tory cabinet. Still, by October, when a replacement is expected, we will likely be in a very different phase of the conflict. Whoever is to replace Johnson will need to trade in the bluster and rhetoric for pure skills in negotiation — with Western allies, regional players, Ukraine — and even Russia itself.

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