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POLITICO: Europe blinks amid calls to stop backing Ukraine

22-9-2023 |

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made little secret of his plan to keep up the pressure on Ukraine until Western resolve breaks. More than 500 days into his war of aggression, he now has reason to believe things are working out the way he hoped, even if events are not playing out how he might have imagined.

Governments in Poland, Estonia, Slovakia and others in Central and Eastern Europe have been among Kyiv’s staunchest allies since the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Beyond sending weapons and welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees, they have been Ukraine’s loudest advocates in the West, pushing for a tough line against Moscow in the face of reluctance from countries like France and Germany.

But as the leaders of some of these ride-or-die allies face reelection battles or other domestic challenges, and governments get nervous about the impact of Ukraine one day joining the European Union, that support is starting to waver.

The most striking example is Poland, whose Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Wednesday that he would stop delivering new weapons to Ukraine.

The statement marked a stunning escalation in a dispute between Kyiv and its closest EU neighbor over grain shipments Warsaw claims are undercutting production from Polish farmers ahead of a parliamentary election on October 15.

“Ukraine realizes that in the last months, they’re not bordering Poland, they’re bordering Polish elections,” said Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. So for now, “the votes of a hundred thousand Polish farmers are more important for the government than what is going to be the cost for Ukraine. And we’re going to see this happening in many places,” he added.

Morawiecki is facing a tough challenge from Donald Tusk, a former prime minister who has also served as president of the European Council. As part of his electoral strategy, the prime minister is courting supporters of the far-right Confederation Party, which opposes aid for Ukraine.

“We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons,” Morawiecki said in an appearance on Polish television channel Polsat.

While it’s tempting to write off the tensions as electoral fireworks, there are reasons to believe they could persist beyond the campaign. As a Western diplomat who asked not to be named pointed out, the grain dispute between Warsaw and Kyiv reveals deeper misgivings about Ukraine joining the EU. “For 18 months, Poland has badgered any member state that would utter the slightest hesitation towards Ukraine,” the diplomat said. “Now they’re showing their true colors.”

The problem for Kyiv is that it’s not just Poland where support seems to be slipping. Since the start of the war, the Baltic states have led the pro-Ukraine charge in Brussels and Washington, perhaps nobody as loudly or effectively as Estonia’s liberal prime minister, Kaja Kallas.

As the daughter of a former prime minister and European commissioner, Kallas was widely seen as the emblem of a newly emboldened Eastern Europe that would ride the Ukraine crisis to positions of greater power in Brussels.

But Kallas’ credibility took a hit over a scandal involving her husband, who was revealed to own a stake in a company that kept doing business in Russia after the February 2022 invasion, even as his wife was advocating for ending all trade with Moscow.

Asked about Kallas’ troubles, Estonia’s Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said that no amount of political upheaval would change the country’s course: “We constantly have elections, and we constantly have domestic issues, but it doesn’t change our policy,” Tsahkna said. “One thing Estonia has had in all these 32 years is the same continuous foreign policy.”

That said, Kallas has been a lot less vocal since the scandal broke in late August, depriving Kyiv of one of its strongest advocates in Western capitals.

Then there’s Slovakia. The Central European country has been among Europe’s biggest backers of Ukraine, but elections on September 30 could turn it into a skeptic overnight.

“If you have a society where only 40 percent support arms delivery to Ukraine and your government offers support almost at the level of the Baltics, that creates a backlash,” said Milan Nič, a fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Robert Fico, the country’s populist former prime minister, is campaigning on a pro-Russian, anti-American platform that opposes sanctions against Russian individuals and further arms deliveries to Kyiv. He’s on course to win the election, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

A victory for Fico would give Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — one of Kyiv’s biggest European skeptics — an ally on the EU stage. If his party gets enough support to be part of the government, Fico told the Associated Press earlier this month, “we won’t send any arms or ammunition to Ukraine anymore.”

To be sure, Ukraine still has plenty of strong backers in Europe. Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Sweden, Finland and others remain strongly committed, and French President Emmanuel Macron has recently swung strongly behind Kyiv. Some analysts also downplay the importance of Poland and Slovakia’s role at the moment, pointing out that there aren’t many weapons left to deliver in the countries’ armories.

Kyiv, for now, seems relaxed. Speaking at a press conference after an event in Brussels last Friday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Olha Stefanishyna downplayed the static between Kyiv and some of its erstwhile friends: “We have a strong commitment and a political confirmation that none of the political processes will affect the ongoing support,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that somewhere Putin isn’t rubbing his hands, and watching.