Politics

Rishi Sunak’s battle to reassure Ukraine as key ally Boris falls

Rishi Sunak makes first statement as Prime Minister

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the first international leader Rishi Sunak spoke to in a bid to confirm the UK support for  Kyiv against Russia. Both the new Prime Minister’s predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had vocally promised full support to the war-torn country and on Tuesday evening Rishi Sunak said Britain’s backing will be as “strong as ever” under his leadership.

Calling it a “privilege” to speak to Mr Zelensky, who had earlier sent him congratulations, Mr Sunak tweeted: “Both he and the Ukrainian people can count on the UK’s continued solidarity and support. We will always stand with Ukraine.”

Mr Zelensky, in a tweet, called it an “excellent conversation” with the pair agreeing to “write a new chapter” in relations between the two countries.

Speaking outside Number 10 on Tuesday, the new Prime Minister referenced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine twice, saying: “Putin’s war in Ukraine has destabilised energy markets and supply chains the world over.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said the pair spoke on Tuesday evening “to underline the United Kingdom’s steadfast support for Ukraine”.

“The Prime Minister said the United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine would be as strong as ever under his premiership, and President Zelensky could count on his Government to stand in continued solidarity.

“The Prime Minister also noted the importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s work in Ukraine to ensure nuclear safety and provide transparency around any disinformation.

“Both leaders agreed on the need to continue to place pressure on Putin’s barbaric regime through continued economic sanctions.

“President Zelensky congratulated the Prime Minister on his appointment and wished him a happy Diwali. The Prime Minister thanked him and said he hoped they would see each other in person soon.”

But despite the conciliatory tone of the two leaders, officials in Kyiv worry Mr Sunak’s priorities lie mostly in ensuring the UK’s economy gets back on track at the cost of making cuts to the country’s defence budget for international aid.

Speaking to Politico, Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank said: “He’s going to put what, in his mind, is the security of the country’s finances before building up the armed forces — at a moment of war in Europe and looming tensions in the Pacific.”

Mr Judah added that the Prime Minister’s strategy “is very much going to bring a Treasury mindset toward foreign policy into the office of prime minister”.

He continued: “He’s not very interested in foreign policy. He’s interested in the economy, finances, Britain’s ability to be kind of a start-up nation … and stabilising the markets at a difficult time.”

Boris Johnson’s popularity in Ukraine also makes it difficult for the new Prime Minister to compete with his predecessor’s strong pro-Ukraine stance.

Addressing Mr Johnson’s success in the eyes of millions of Ukrainians, Ukraine’s former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the former UK leader “did not make any sophisticated calculations, but consistently went forward [in his support for Ukraine], both politically and emotionally.”

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He added: “He didn’t act like a typical Western politician — cautious, prudent, with deliberate wording.

“He is not perceived by Ukrainians as a typical Western politician. He is perceived as a friend of Ukraine.”

Ahead of Mr Sunak’s appointment, the Ukrainian Government tweeted a bizarre meme suggesting they would back Boris Johnson’s return as soon as Liz Truss announced her resignations.

The tweet was later deleted and deemed as a “clear attempt by Ukraine to interfere in UK domestic politics” by an MP.

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