War fatigue touches Europe and complicates West’s aid to Ukraine

10:52 04.10.2023 •

The victory of former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing populist Smer party in this weekend’s parliamentary election in Slovakia.
Photo: NYT

The victory of Robert Fico, a former prime minister who took a pro-Russian campaign stance, in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections is a further sign of eroding support for Ukraine in the West, ‘The New York Times’ writes.

Slovakia is a small country with historical Russian sympathies, and the nature of the coalition government Mr. Fico will seek to form is unclear. He may lean more toward pragmatism, as Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has done since her election last year. Still, the shift in Slovakia is stark: It was the first country to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine.

The election results come as disquiet over the billions of dollars in military aid that the West has provided to Ukraine over the past 19 months has grown more acute in the United States and the European Union, with demands increasing for the money to go to domestic priorities instead.

House Republicans declined to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in Washington last month, and tensions between Kyiv and the White House over Ukrainian military strategy have surfaced. In Central Europe, once the core of fierce anti-Russian sentiment among fearful frontline states that endured decades of harsh communist rule as reluctant members of the Soviet bloc, the war is now viewed with greater nuance.

Mr. Fico’s victory, taking about 23 percent of the vote on a platform that included stopping all arms shipments to Ukraine and placing blame for the war equally on the West and Kyiv, is a case in point.

He laced social conservatism, nationalism, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric and promises of generous welfare handouts into what proved to be an effective anti-liberal agenda, especially in small towns and rural areas.

“The wear and tear from the war is more palpable in Central Europe than Western Europe for now,” said Jacques Rupnik, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris and an expert on the region. “Slovakia demonstrates that the threat at your door does not necessarily mean you are full-hearted in support of Ukraine.”

A Globsec survey in March of public opinion across Central and Eastern Europe found that 51 percent of Slovaks believed either the West or Ukraine to be “primarily responsible” for the war. Mr. Fico, who served for more than a decade as prime minister until 2018, played off this sentiment.

He adopted some of the rhetoric of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has resisted the overwhelming Western position on Ukraine that Russia’s brutal invasion of the country was a flagrant violation of international law that must be resisted in the name of liberty, democracy and the sanctity of national sovereignty.

“Fico was inspired by Orban, but does not have the same deep ideological roots, and is more of a pragmatist,” said Ludek Sekyra, a Czech businessman who chairs the Sekyra Foundation, a supporter of liberal causes. “He has been adept in exploiting unease over the vast influx of Ukrainian refugees, small-country resentment of the European Union and Russian sympathies that do not exist in the Czech Republic.”

With Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia all showing significant sympathy for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the tides have shifted in this part of Europe. Even Poland, an ardent supporter of Ukraine that has taken in more than 1.5 million refugees from there during the war, recently decided to close its border to low-price Ukrainian grain imports.

The governing hard-right nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland is in a tense electoral standoff this month against the liberal opposition. Although the country’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, remains staunchly anti-Russian, his nationalism and conservative values mesh with Mr. Orban’s and Mr. Fico’s. A PiS victory would undermine European unity further as the war shows no sign of a possible resolution.

Mr. Kaczynski opposes the kind of European political, military and economic integration of which President Emmanuel Macron of France is a fierce advocate. There has even been murmuring of a possible Polish exit from the European Union — a far-fetched notion but one suggestive of the European tensions that the war has begun to feed.

Even in Western Europe, a recent German Marshall Fund survey found that support for Ukrainian membership in the European Union stood at just 52 percent in France and 49 percent in Germany. In Germany, only 45 percent of respondents favored Ukrainian membership in NATO.

That a country on the Ukrainian border should now have voted for a man who has said he will “not send a single cartridge” of ammunition across that border can only increase the pressure on Ukraine’s leadership.

It also poses evident problems for a European Union already worried that Donald J. Trump may retake the White House next year, and facing internal divisions that a Polish election may sharpen further.

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg realizes that the situation in Europe is changing

A pall of gloom descended on Europe as the long-feared uncertainty set in over the weekend as to how long would the collective West underwrite the proxy war in Ukraine. To lift their sagging spirit, some European foreign ministers impromptu took the train to Kyiv to spend Monday with President Zelensky. It was an extraordinary sight of defiance of the call of destiny, as the war passed the 19-month mark, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.

A deal in Washington that averted government shutdown for now but cut funding for Kyiv; the Polish election campaign in which the ruling Law and Justice party, until recently one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, has toyed with various measures such as questioning more arms deliveries and blocking agri-products from its neighbour in order to court voters; and, the stunning parliamentary election results in Slovakia catapulting a pro-Russian left-wing political party to power and signalling the first true political embodiment of “Ukraine fatigue” — suddenly, the West’s mantra of being by Ukraine’s side “for as long as it takes” feels seriously open to question.

The CNN exaggerated, perhaps, while commenting that the above developments “appear to have thrown Ukraine and its war with Russia under the bus” — but only by a bit. The politics of Ukraine war has crossed an inflection point and is poised for bigger things in the critical months ahead.

The White House has vowed to seek quick passage of a stand-alone Ukraine aid bill totalling $20.6 billion that the Biden administration has said is essential to fight Russia, but it will likely continue to face determined opposition, particularly from Republicans in Congress. At the root of it is the fierce polarisation in US politics, which now threatens to shake the balance of power in the Congress in a no-holds barred election year that looms ahead.

European capitals are already nervously eyeing the possibility of a return to the White House by Trump. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and a major US partner in delivering aid to Ukraine, expressed surprise and regretted the US decision “deeply, thoroughly.”

Borrell said, “I have a hope that this will not be a definitive decision and Ukraine will continue having the support of the US.” Indeed, there is a wider problem — war fatigue among inflation-hit American voters.

In many ways, the victory of former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing populist Smer party in this weekend’s parliamentary election in Slovakia is also to be attributed to war fatigue. Fico has said no more weapons will go to Ukraine; questioned the logic of the EU’s Russia sanctions; praised Moscow; and blamed the NATO for causing the war, which he says, began after “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk.” Economic anxieties further compound the societal Ukraine fatigue and the dramatic turn in Slovakian politics, which is likely to impact the West’s relations with Kyiv.

Within the EU, Hungary and Austria will now have an ally in Slovakia, a frontline state, advocating an immediate cessation of hostilities in Ukraine and peace negotiations. Fico himself is a close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — and they could be joined by Poland if the ruling Law and Justice Party secures a fresh mandate, which seems likely, in the parliamentary election on October 15.

All indications are that Poland is veering away from its long-standing pro-Ukraine position. Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki said recently, “we are no longer transferring any weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming ourselves with the most advanced weapons.”

Then, as the CNN wrote, “Beyond EU, within NATO there is an equivalent fear of the consequences of an expanding anti-Ukraine bloc… And both Hungary’s Orban and Slovakia’s Fico have declared themselves adamantly opposed to any move to welcome Ukraine into the alliance… The reality is the Ukraine counteroffensive, which will have to diminish with the advent of winter, has so far achieved little substantive progress on the battlefront. The arrival of newly-empowered anti-Ukraine parties in frontline states, together with waffling by leading Kremlin foes like the United States, all comprise a truly toxic mix.”

The crunch time comes with the elections to the European Parliament on 6-9 June 2024. There is a clear possibility of anti-Ukraine parties winning a substantial bloc of votes in the elections. If and when that happens, the invidious conspiracy mooted by Germany and France to abolish the rule of unanimity required for taking major EU decisions (eg., Russia sanctions and their six-monthly renewal) will flounder.

Both Orban and Fico have declared their opposition to Russian sanctions. Suffice to say, the politics of Ukraine war and Russia sanctions is entering uncharted waters, as Hungary allied with Slovakia — and potentially with Poland — would be in a position to complicate pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian efforts by the rest of the EU, M.K. Bhadrakumar concludes.

The EU’s top diplomats failed to sign off on a plan to provide a 5 bln euro ($5.2 bln) military assistance package to Kyiv next year at an informal summit in Kyiv, the first-ever such meeting outside of the bloc’s borders, TASS informs.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell expressed his hope that a decision to green-light the aid may still be made before the year-end.

European Union countries no longer can give weapons to Ukraine from their stockpiles without endangering their own security, Politico reports, citing a European official. "We cannot keep on giving from our own stockpiles," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the media outlet, "the official added that there is still robust public and political support for Ukraine’s fight, but ‘we’ve given everything that will not endanger our own security.'"

A US administration official, in turn, told Politico that after 18 months of intense, industrial-scale combat, European stockpiles were running dry.

The news outlet said, citing US officials, that the Pentagon still had weapons to send to Ukraine, but was "running out of money to replenish its own stockpiles."

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 2, citing Pentagon officials, that the US Department of Defense had $5.2 bln left to provide military support to Ukraine, which "is roughly equivalent to the value of the weaponry the Biden administration has sent to Ukraine over the last six months." Though they promised 24 bln…


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