Rishi Sunak commits to Ukraine… but Kyiv still dreams of Boris Johnson – POLITICO

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LONDON and LUTSK – Britain is on its third prime minister of 2022 – but Rishi Sunak insists nothing has changed in his country’s unwavering support for Ukraine.

In his first address to the nation as British Prime Minister on Tuesday, Sunak pledged to put ‘economic stability’ at the heart of his new government’s agenda and warned of ‘tough decisions’ ahead on expenses.

But in a bid to reassure a Kyiv still pining for its late ally Boris Johnson – as well as bolster pro-defence Tory MPs – Sunak pledged firm support for Britain’s armed forces and said the “terrible” war in Ukraine “must be successfully seen to its conclusion.

His decision on Tuesday night to reinstate Ben Wallace and James Cleverly – both former servicemen – as Defense and Foreign Secretary, respectively, was meant as a clear signal that he will maintain continuity in Britain’s approach to world affairs. Neither man backed Sunak in his successful leadership bid, but Wallace in particular impressed NATO allies with his far-sighted approach to the war on Europe’s eastern frontier.

Tellingly, Sunak’s first call with a foreign leader was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday evening, to tell him that UK support will remain “as strong as ever under his tenure as prime minister”, according to a reading. of Downing Street. Zelensky in tower said the conversation had been “excellent”, signaling the UK’s “full support in the face of Russian aggression”.

The new Prime Minister, however, is yet to set out his plans for Britain’s defense budget, with next week’s all-important budget statement likely to signal the start of a long program of spending cuts as he is trying to restore confidence in British public finances. .

Sunak had already approved an increase in British defense spending before stepping down as Johnson’s chancellor in July. But throughout the summer he refused to endorse his leadership rival Liz Truss’ promise to raise the budget further, to 3% of GDP by 2030 – a figure endorsed by Wallace – arguing that didn’t want to set ‘arbitrary targets’. Tory MPs who pressed him again this week to commit to the 3% target said he refused to do so.

“It shows that he is going to put what in his mind is the security of the country’s finances ahead of bolstering the armed forces – at a time of war in Europe and looming tensions in the Pacific,” Ben Judah said, Senior Researcher at the Atlantic Council Think Tank.

Speculation over the defense budget has fueled murmurs of concern in Kyiv, where senior officials are publicly calling for closer ties with Britain.

Earlier in the year, Johnson’s allies – at the height of a feud between the two men – spread rumors that Sunak was less committed to the war than his former boss. In April, The Sunday Times suggested that Sunak believed a deal should one day be struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin – although Sunak had never made such a suggestion in public.

Zelensky congratulated Sunak tuesdayand said he was “ready to continue to strengthen the Ukrainian-British strategic partnership together”.

In private, however, the mood is less optimistic. A weird meme expressing support for Boris Johnson’s return as prime minister appeared on the Ukrainian government’s official Twitter account after Truss resigned last week – before it was quickly deleted.

Tellingly, Rishi Sunak’s first call with a foreign leader was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Alexei Furman/Getty Images

And a source close to the Ukrainian government lamented that Sunak said “virtually nothing about the defense of Europe except that there will be budget cuts in national defense”. [compared with Truss’ long-term plans].”

A Baltic ambassador to the UK said it was “important” for the region to see Sunak stick to the 3% target, and warned that “his credentials are not about foreign policy and defense”. Sunak’s immediate predecessors in Downing Street, Truss and Johnson, had both served as Foreign Secretary before entering No 10.

Other European allies are already resigned to a cut in Britain’s defense budget increase, but do not believe Sunak’s rise to power will see Britain actively change course.

” Given the fact that [U.K.] the economic situation is so bad that all sectors will probably have to play their part [in spending cuts]“, said a European diplomat. “But there is no split in the [Conservative] party regarding the basic principles of how to act in Ukraine.

Britain’s approach to Russia and China will be set out in a review of the government’s integrated review of security, defense and foreign policy, initiated by Truss, which is expected to continue under the leadership of Sunak.

The new Prime Minister, who cut his teeth as a hedge fund manager in the City of London before his political career, “will very well bring a Treasury mindset towards foreign policy into the Prime Minister’s office” , Judah predicted, adding the few times Sunak has expressed his views on international affairs have always been “through an economic lens.”

“He’s not very interested in foreign policy,” he added. “He’s interested in the economy, finance, Britain’s ability to be a sort of start-up nation…and stabilizing markets at a difficult time.”

Sunak could yet travel to Kyiv on his first foreign trip as prime minister, after expressing an interest in doing so last summer in a bid to show he would not deviate from the set course by Johnson and Truss.

Dreaming of BoJo

In Ukraine, however, it is former Sunak boss – and deadly rival – Johnson whose departure as prime minister is still lamented everywhere. His brief failed comeback attempt last week disappointed fans yet again.

“Johnson simply cannot fail to be loved by Ukrainians,” said Mykhailo Mykhailov, 33, owner of the recently opened “Boris Johnson” pub in the western town of Lutsk.

“He is extravagant. He rides his bike, drinks beer, throws parties. The British don’t like it, but we [Ukrainians] see the overall picture. It appeals to Ukrainian youth. He’s a guy you can identify with. »

Rishi Sunak commits to Ukraine... but Kyiv still dreams of Boris Johnson - POLITICO
In Ukraine, the departure of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister is still deplored everywhere | Pool photo by Toby Melville via Getty Images

Mykhailov, a refugee from eastern Ukraine, decorated the walls of his pub with numerous portraits of the former British prime minister.

“Also, Johnson impresses older people,” he added. “That he was not afraid to come to Ukraine, that he supports us a lot. And we love those who are with us.

Former Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin attributed Johnson’s popularity among millions of Ukrainians to the fact that the former British prime minister “did not do sophisticated calculations, but constantly advanced [in his support for Ukraine] …both politically and emotionally.

“He didn’t act like a typical Western politician – careful, cautious, deliberately worded,” Klimkin added. “He is not seen by Ukrainians as a typical Western politician. He is seen as a friend of Ukraine.


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