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Where now for Britain’s Ukraine policy?

The downfall of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could not have come at a worse time for a besieged Ukraine. Now planning a major counteroffensive, the Zelenskyy administration had come to rely on the outgoing UK leader for arms and diplomatic support. The ongoing contest to succeed Johnson in the autumn will decide the future contours of this extensive bilateral relationship.

August 23, 2022 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

Union Jack and Ukrainian flag at a gathering in support of Ukraine in Parliament Square, London. Photo: Watcharisma / Shutterstock

Boris Johnson’s sudden resignation came as a surprise to many in Britain and beyond. Determined to trudge on through a series of seemingly never-ending crises, the prime minister was ultimately undone by the actions of one of his own parliamentary whips. The UK leader’s prior knowledge of such issues would soon lead to an unprecedented wave of ministerial walkouts in early July. BBC News viewers were even treated to a live resignation ticker as the media descended on 10 Downing Street. Now faced with little option, Johnson finally relented on July 7th, leaving the country effectively leaderless at a time of great global uncertainty.

Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to be the most pressing issue currently facing British foreign policy. It goes without saying that London has distinguished itself in its support for the beleaguered country over the past six months. Large and consistent supplies of military aid have formed a key part of a highly personal diplomatic approach spearheaded by the prime minister himself. However, questions must be asked as to London’s next moves now that this “great friend of Ukraine” is on the way out. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has publicly lamented the loss of his counterpart’s “personal leadership and charisma”. The ongoing battle within Johnson’s party to carry on his mandate in the autumn will subsequently prove pivotal regarding the shape of things to come.


The Conservative Party’s two-stage succession process has produced two clear contenders who could soon be deciding the future of Britain’s Ukraine policy. The first of these figures is former Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Long tipped to one day rise to the top job, the politician received by far the largest level of support from parliament members in the initial round of voting. However, such support was largely gained on account of his market competencies. Observers in Kyiv may subsequently fear falling down the list of priorities under a Sunak administration. For example, comments in March saw the then chancellor draw a clear link between the Russian invasion and Britain’s growing cost of living crisis. This is in spite of his impressive aid and sanctions policies regarding the war in Ukraine. Such nuance has been seized on by rivals throughout the leadership competition. However, the now aspiring PM has attempted to expand on his natural strengths and assuage fears that such issues would represent a binary choice. Whilst focused on a robust response to inflation, Sunak has promised to “reinforce our policy of total support for Ukraine that Boris has so ably led”. He further declared that his first foreign visit would be to Kyiv. 

The same promise has also been made by his opponent Liz Truss. Forced to make more backroom deals in order to reach the second round, the ongoing foreign minister is nevertheless proving highly popular during voting among the Conservative rank and file. This performance is often attributed to her thoroughly Thatcherite stance at home and abroad. While known as somewhat of a loose cannon, Truss’s track record in the foreign ministry does indeed embody her political icon’s traditional scepticism of the Kremlin. For instance, Truss has overseen a diplomatic policy that has made Britain the second largest provider of arms to Kyiv. The UK’s head diplomat has also used her unique position to pursue an extensive relationship with the Zelenskyy administration, writing an article for The Telegraph with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in late June. These actions would likely appeal to a Ukrainian administration desperate for continuity. Whilst eager to work with either candidate, it would come as little or no surprise if Kyiv is quietly hoping for a Truss victory.

The power brokers

Perhaps to the delight of the Ukrainian government, it appears that the British foreign secretary is now the odds-on favourite to become the next prime minister. While the two candidates continue to duel over policy at various hustings, poll after poll has shown that Truss’s message simply cuts through more with Conservative members now deciding on the next leader. Publications such as The New Statesman and The Spectator have even turned to debate on whether or not Sunak can overcome this lead. Despite this, it is worth remembering that a likely Truss administration would be made up of numerous personalities. Many of these ambitious figures were also talked up in the earlier stages of the leadership contest, eager to make their mark on the international stage.

Ben Wallace could well be one of the most crucial figures in the new cabinet with regards to Ukraine. Opting to continue his job under Johnson’s outgoing government, the defence minister ruled himself out of the leadership race just days after his boss’s resignation announcement. Such a move came as a shock to the party given his soaring popularity following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, a pair of tweets from Wallace on July 9th declared that “my focus is on my current job and keeping this great country safe.” These statements suggest that the defence secretary could well be angling to maintain a similar position (and policy) in the new cabinet. This is especially true following his recent public backing of Liz Truss. In an article for The Times, the politician offered criticism of Sunak’s record on defence spending that will undoubtedly go down well in Kyiv.

James Cleverly is yet another MP who could be looking for a prominent role in the UK’s Ukraine policy. Unlike many cabinet hopefuls, the interim education minister has backed Truss since the start of the leadership contest. Such experience and loyalty could prove vital to his job prospects. Cleverly is now thought of as favourite to take over as foreign secretary after his potential future boss. Whilst by no means a household name in British foreign policy, the former Minister of State for Europe and North America has expressed a clear line on Ukraine that would prove pivotal to his future strategy. Regular meetings with Kyiv representatives and even a May visit to Tallinn’s Victims of Communism Memorial exemplify a nuanced understanding of the conflict built on more than just realpolitik. With regards to Russia, it now seems certain that a cast of hawks will be descending on London in the autumn.

New and old

Whilst the Conservative top brass jostle for position, their time in office will ultimately be judged on how they turn their outlooks on issues like Ukraine into reality. This will be especially important as Kyiv builds up its forces for a new offensive around the occupied city of Kherson. Indeed, recent attacks on Russian military bases in Crimea suggest that the war is already entering a new phase.

As a result, ongoing assistance in the form of training and arms supplies will likely form the cornerstone of a governmental approach focused on continuity. It is therefore possible that we will see more schemes such as those currently training Ukrainian naval recruits off the coast of Scotland. Ultimately resulting in a visit from Kyiv’s Deputy Defence Minister Volodymyr Havrylov, these exercises showcase the UK’s growing alignment with Ukrainian operations in and around the country’s occupied southern territories. It also appears that the government will try its best to maintain its weapon supplies in the face of economic uncertainty. For instance, Ben Wallace’s recent decision to send further long-range rocket systems to Ukraine looks set to form an integral part of London’s strategy going forward. This will ultimately feed into wider efforts regarding long-term aid, with Wallace even co-hosting the August 11th Copenhagen Conference for Northern European Defence Allies of Ukraine.

Simultaneously, this practical assistance could be backed up by an extensive diplomatic and security doctrine. Many in this thoroughly hawkish potential government have expressed clear interest in further developing a theoretical basis for the state’s actions abroad. Truss herself has discussed constructing a “Network of Liberty”, focusing not only on security but also economic cooperation among the world’s democracies. With regards to Russia, much of the policy’s heavy lifting could be carried out by former leadership hopeful Tom Tugendhat. The current chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recently launched a number of inquiries specifically related to the Kremlin. Standard investigations on issues surrounding the conflict are now complemented by discussions of illicit finance and Wagner Group. Such expertise could soon be influencing discussion at the top table, with Tugendhat in a strong position to become the country’s next security minister.

Of course, these potential moves all remain in the abstract until the final results are announced at the Conservative Party conference on September 5th. The ambitions of the likely Truss administration could also run into difficulties once the government is able to properly open the books on the country’s troubled economic forecast. Such issues may have played a role in former Chancellor Sunak’s more restrained view on foreign policy. Nevertheless, it is clear that London will attempt to maintain its commitment to the besieged Ukrainian state. The wall of silence in relations with the Kremlin therefore looks set to continue as both leadership hopefuls follow Johnson’s example. There is even a faint chance that Boris could maintain some kind of role in a Truss cabinet. Near the very end of his last speech in parliament, the outgoing prime minister made an appeal to his successor, “whoever he or she may be”, to “stick up for the Ukrainians”. If anything, it seems that London will make a concerted effort to honour those words.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He holds a master’s degree in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from the University of Glasgow.

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