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For Ukraine, Boris Johnson’s Resignation Means Loss of a Personal Ally

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be a polarizing figure in Britain, where his long association with scandal rendered him a lonely man this week as scores of onetime political allies abandoned him, forcing his resignation.

But if there is one place where appreciation for Mr. Johnson is undimmed, it is Ukraine, where the prime minister is seen as a genuine friend of the embattled nation since Russia’s invasion in February.

Pastries have been named after him in Kyiv, and countless memes have been created in his honor. Yulia Maleks, 36, who owns a small farm in a village near Lviv, recently recounted with laughter how she named a prized sheep “Johnsonuk,” using the moniker that has been adopted for Mr. Johnson across Ukraine, a play on his official Instagram handle.

“It will be always a great honor for us to see Boris Johnson on board,” the company wrote in a tribute on Facebook, where dozens of positive messages poured in after Mr. Johnson’s announcement on Thursday that he will resign.

For Mr. Johnson, an admirer of Churchill, stolid support for Ukraine helped buck up his leadership as the costs of Brexit and the pandemic took their toll, in addition to the numerous scandals that ultimately eroded the prime minister’s support and forced his departure.

One of the few things that British lawmakers can seem to agree on is backing Ukrainian forces in their battle against Russia, and the British public in opinion polls has overwhelmingly supported these efforts.

The conflict gave Mr. Johnson an opportunity to remind his country, and the world, of the legacy of British resolve on the continent and the latitude for a more independent foreign policy that Britain’s departure from the European Union has provided. British support of Ukraine allowed Mr. Johnson to juxtapose Britains’s position with the more cautious approach of Berlin and Paris.

No major Western leader, perhaps, was as outspoken in supporting the country, with two visits to Ukraine since the start of the war, countless phone calls to Mr. Zelensky, and the commitment of military and financial aid that forged a bond between the two leaders.

For many in Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, the gratitude to Mr. Johnson feels deeply personal. The two leaders traded praise for one another on Thursday.

Shortly after his resignation, Mr. Johnson called President Zelensky “to reiterate the United Kingdom’s steadfast support for Ukraine, according to his office, and “highlighted the U.K.’s unwavering cross-party support” for the country. Mr. Johnson ended the call by praising President Zelensky, saying: ‘You’re a hero, everybody loves you,” his office said.

“He was a true friend of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said in a Thursday interview with CNN shortly after the resignation. In his daily address to Ukraine on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky added that “Ukrainians feel personal gratitude to Boris,” specifically to his “leadership and charisma.”

The Ukrainian public also has a fondness for Mr. Johnson after the prime minister played an early role in supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons and was a vocal force in pushing Western allies to impose financial sanctions on Russia.

“We will miss you, Johnsonuk,” a social media user wrote.

For ordinary Ukrainians, Mr. Johnson’s departure may feel like a more personal loss, as he has become something of a figurehead for the push for western support for their battle against Russia.

At a dinner table in Ukraine during a recent memorial for a fallen soldier, family members expressed their appreciation for Mr. Johnson, even in their time of grief praising him for his commitment to Ukraine.

The parents of a soldier from Lviv who was deployed to the east of the country said they were certain Mr. Johnson’s support, and Britain’s commitment of weaponry and training, would help bring their son home safely.

Now, in the wake of Mr. Johnson’s announcement, many on social media seemed to feel certain that whoever would replace him would also continue the legacy of commitment to Ukraine.

Mr. Zelensky on Thursday echoed that resolve, confident that the same commitment would come from Mr. Johnson’s successor: “I’m sure the policy toward Ukraine of the U.K. will not be changing.”

He may be right.

John Kampfner, the executive director of the U.K. in the World Initiative at Chatham House, a British think tank, said that while there will be considerable changes to Britain’s foreign policy under a new leader — at least tonally if not substantively, depending on who wins the Tory leadership — the policy on Ukraine is unlikely to shift.

“It would defy all logic for any successor to Johnson to behave differently or pursue a politics that shifted from that,” he said, and one of the calls first of the new prime minister will likely be to Mr. Zelensky, and one of the first visits to Kyiv.

“Britain’s record in the last six to nine months with regard to Ukraine will be seen as a very important but rare positive in the historical reckoning on Johnson,” Mr. Kampfner said.

At times, Mr. Johnson’s own political destiny seemed tied to what was happening in Ukraine. Calls for his resignation earlier this year amid scandal seemed to quiet as attention turned to how to respond to the Russian invasion, which provided a useful political distraction.

As a result, when Mr. Johnson narrowly survived a confidence vote last month, Mr. Zelensky was among the first to applaud the fact that he had managed to stay in office. Just days later, Mr. Johnson made an unannounced visit to Kyiv and announced a training program for Ukrainian forces.

But Mr. Johnson and the successive British governments of the last three decades also had a double standard on Russia, Mr. Kampfner said, an important context when understanding the current relationship with Ukraine. The Conservative Party has benefited from Russian donors and Russian money has poured into London with little oversight.

“Consistently and enthusiastically, British governments have encouraged the city of London and the service industries to be the laundromat of dodgy Russian money and reputations,” Mr. Kampfner said. “And nothing serious was ever done on that, pretty much until Feb. 24.”

Even now, sanctions designed to punish Russian actors close to President Vladimir V. Putin in Britain have been based on freezing assets rather than seizing them.

Still, beyond Mr. Johnson’s domestic opponents, if there was one person happy to see the prime minister go, if was Mr. Putin. Mr. Johnson has been one of his loudest critics.

Asked by a reporter about the prime minister’s political turmoil on Thursday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said: “As for Mr. Johnson, he very much dislikes us — and the feeling is mutual.”

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.

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