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Zelenskiy’s visit shows Ukraine’s ties with UK run deeper than military aid

<span>Photograph: Jessica Taylor/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jessica Taylor/Reuters

Like his predecessor Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak will be hoping to borrow some of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s stardust. The Ukrainian president’s surprise visit to the UK on Wednesday is a boost to Downing Street, at a time when Rishi Sunak is beset by swirling political woes.

This is only Zelenskiy’s second trip abroad since Russia’s full-scale invasion almost a year ago. It demonstrates that the UK is considered by Kyiv to be Ukraine’s closest partner in Europe and an indispensable ally. Sunak is promising new military assistance to Kyiv, in the shape of further training for Ukrainian soldiers and fighter jet pilots.

After counter-offensives last autumn, Ukrainian troops are trying to hold back a resurgent Russian army. As many as half a million Russian soldiers are being deployed. Western intelligence agencies expect a major Kremlin offensive soon, in the east of the country where fighting rages around the city of Bakhmut, and possibly in the south as well.

Zelenskiy’s trip underscores the importance of British security assistance to holding the line. And it acknowledges Britain’s ability to persuade other nations to follow suit. Last month the UK became the first western power to supply the Ukrainians with main battle tanks. A squadron of Challenger 2 tanks with armoured recovery and repair vehicles are on their way.

In the weeks before last year’s invasion, the UK supplied Zelenskiy’s government with 2,000 Nlaw anti-tank weapons. These proved crucial in the battle for Kyiv. They allowed Ukrainian soldiers to ambush Russian tank columns as they trundled along forest roads towards the capital. One soldier said he fired an Nlaw while shouting: “God save the Queen.”

Related: Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrives in UK on first visit since Russian invasion

The UK has had a close military relationship with Ukraine since 2014 and Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Uniforms with union jack flags on them found their way to Ukrainian volunteers fighting against pro-Russian separatists and undercover Russian operatives in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Since 2020, the UK has trained Ukrainian soldiers, held joint paratrooper drills and helped revamp the ports of Ochakiv and Berdiansk, the latter on the Sea of Azov now occupied by Russia. The UK is the third biggest donor of military and economic aid, after the US and Germany, and it is home to about 158,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Among ordinary Ukrainians Britain is extraordinarily popular. This is in part due to Boris Johnson. He visited Kyiv last February as prime minister, just before Russia’s all out attack. In April 2022 he came back when the city was gloomy, deserted and under curfew.

Johnson’s frequent visits are tinged with opportunism. As one columnist put it, he enjoys the comfort of the world stage. Nevertheless, he was the first international leader to talk about Ukrainian victory, back when other western governments believed Kyiv would fall. Behind the scenes, he played a role in ensuring the supply of crucial real-time intelligence to Zelenskiy’s team.

Now a mere backbencher, Johnson remains Ukraine’s favourite foreign politician. Artists have depicted him as a Cossack warrior plucking at a bandura, a traditional Ukrainian stringed folk instrument. He has featured on street murals, including one painted in Zelenskiy’s home town of Kryvyi Rih, and in catchy rap songs with the chorus: “Dobryy Den everybody”.

But it is the enduring appeal of British culture which perhaps best explains Ukraine’s enduring love affair with London. “It is Robin Hood and King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island, Mowgli and Churchill,” Alex Kovzhun, a political adviser in Kyiv said. He added: “We love the idea of a United Kingdom. We see ourselves as a brotherly people.”

Kovzhun said Ukrainians viewed the US with “respect and admiration”, but sometimes with “distrust and even hate”. The country’s affection for the UK was more constant, he suggested. “With the UK it is love, parliament, charter of freedoms, traditions.” The most popular show in Ukraine on Netflix currently is Lockwood and Co, a supernatural drama set in a ghostly London.

And then there is the Queen, whose son King Charles III Zelenskiy meet on Wednesday, in a packed schedule which included an address to both houses of parliament. “We loved the Queen,” Kozhun said.