In Ukraine, Boris Johnson’s downfall is met with sorrow

Throughout Russia’s invasion, Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian public have viewed the charismatic yet divisive leader as a strong ally.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A portrait of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen at a gallery, as Russia?s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine July 6, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo/File Photo
A portrait of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen at a gallery in Kyiv [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – As Boris Johnson prepares to leave office following a humiliating loss of confidence by his own Conservative Party, most in The United Kingdom agree he leaves a mixed legacy after a premiership defined by dishonesty and scandal.

Yet that is not the view in Ukraine.

In a phone call last Thursday, after Johnson resigned, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told him, “We all heard this news with sadness. Not only me, but also the entire Ukrainian society.”

The 44-year-old, often seen wearing his trademark khaki T-shirt as the war on his country grinds on, continued, “We have no doubt that Great Britain’s support will be preserved, but your personal leadership and charisma made it special.”

How did Johnson become so popular in Ukraine?

According to Sofiya Cheliak, a journalist from Lviv, until 2022, British politics were a distant concern for the Ukrainian public.

“Ukrainians who wanted to integrate into the EU did not quite understand Brexit,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the UK’s historic departure from the bloc.

But that has changed this year.

Since the Russian invasion in late February, Johnson has been one of the most vocal international supporters of Ukraine.

He spoke out against Russian aggression before the invasion began, and after Moscow launched its war, and has continued to express support for Ukraine in bellicose terms.

This advocacy has been backed up with financial support: according to a British government statement, the UK has announced 2.3 billion pounds ($2.77bn) worth of military support for Ukraine since the outbreak of the war – more than any other country except for the United States.

The importance of this support has filtered through to Ukrainian citizens.

“Boris is seen in Ukraine as the biggest ally because at the moment when we needed support he was there,” said Vira Kostenko-Kuznetsova, social impact producer based between Warsaw and Kyiv.

“Because he has this big personality, people are following him. Polish people helped us a lot, but there, there is no one personality who everyone is following. Boris is a good friend who people really like.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy light candles during a visit to St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral (Mykhailivskyi Zolotoverkhyi), as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 17, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy light candles during a visit to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv on June 17, 2022 [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

In April, Johnson became one of the first world leaders to visit Kyiv.

While embraced by Ukrainians, at home, some questioned the motivation for his trips to Ukraine and much-trumpeted calls with Zelenskyy.

It is well known that Johnson’s hero is Winston Churchill, and he has been accused of not only trying to emulate this heroic wartime leader, but of using the war in Ukraine as a distraction from scandal, controversy and economic crisis in the UK.

“He is not the first, and won’t be the last, national leader to use toughness abroad to disguise weakness at home,” says Peter Kellner, a British polling expert.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s first trip to Kyiv was a move that, in Ukraine at least, cemented his position in the public imagination as a steadfast ally.

“He received the greatest support when he came to Kyiv immediately after the de-occupation of the Kyiv region,” says Cheliak. “Against the background of other world leaders, he looked like a superhero who came to witness our heroism. Of course, the gesture may seem very simple abroad, but for most Ukrainians, it added hope for victory and became incredible moral support.”

Johnson’s scruffy appearance and bombastic personality have long been credited as a key part of his popularity in the UK, and the same holds true in Ukraine.

He has been the subject of popular memes on Ukrainian social media, and when the news of his resignation broke last week, the Ukrainian supermarket chain Silpo added an illustration of Johnson’s trademark messy blonde hair to its logo.

Memes circulated showing Johnson with a Ukrainian passport.

“He’s a bit of a weirdo, but at the same time very charismatic and a strong politician,” said Olha Harbovska, a communications manager from western Ukraine. “[After the resignation], people have been expressing their appreciation, and there are a lot of memes and jokes, saying, ‘By the way, he should come and join our politics, or head one of the regional offices.’”

The humour is one expression of serious support.

A recent poll by Lord Ashcroft found that 90 percent of Ukrainians had a positive view of Johnson, placing him just three points behind President Zelenskyy – and miles above France’s Emmanuel Macron, who just 42 percent viewed favourably.

In recent months, several Ukrainian towns have proposed naming streets after Johnson, and last week the city of Odesa named him an honorary Cossack.

As the UK enters a frenetic Conservative leadership campaign, there is some concern in Ukraine about what might come next, and whether the UK’s extensive military support will continue.

Ukrainian newspapers have covered the political situation in the UK, including the fact that the country is facing a cost-of-living crisis and a squeeze on public spending.

“Although we know that support comes from the people and the government, many have fears whether the support will be the same as it was,” said Harbovska.

Presently, however, most analysts agreed that the UK’s Ukraine strategy is unlikely to change.

Politicians across the spectrum support Ukraine, and indeed, the UK’s commitment to helping the country stand against Russia predates Johnson’s premiership – in the years since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the UK has given the Ukrainian army guidance and training, and in 2016, the two countries signed a 15-year defence cooperation agreement.

“Despite everything, Ukrainians are confident in the support of Great Britain, we hope that the British government, parliament, and the people will not change their position, regardless of who will be the leader,” said Cheliak.

Be that as it may, some people are still wistful about Johnson’s departure.

“People are sad about the fact that he had to step down to be honest,” said Kostenko-Kuzentsova. “Me personally, I’m a bit sad because if you have a friend and you really like him, you just want him to be in a good place.”

Source: Al Jazeera