Electoral politics begin to bite into Ukraine support


Ukraine is fighting Russia on many fronts. And just as progress on the battlefield is hard won, so too these days are its diplomatic gains.

Since Russia’s invasion last year, Western support for Kyiv has remained largely strong. But cracks are beginning to form in the pro-Ukraine alliance.

The United States is Ukraine’s greatest supporter by a long way, allocating more than $110bn (£90bn) in military and economic support. Yet over the weekend, Congress ditched plans to give Ukraine another $6bn in a bitter internal battle over how to fund the federal government.

Some Republicans think support for Ukraine should be curbed, others think it should be provided only if President Biden spends more on US border security.

Mr Biden has promised Ukraine another $24bn soon, but that may now be vulnerable to internal US politics.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Ukraine may be about to lose another ally.

In Slovakia, elections saw Robert Fico’s Smer party win most seats, although he still needs to form a coalition. The populist former prime minister is widely seen as pro-Moscow and anti-Kyiv, having campaigned on a promise to end military support for Ukraine.

“People in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine,” he said. That means – alongside Viktor Orban’s Hungary – there are now two European Union countries ready to veto further collective EU action to support Ukraine.

Neighbouring Poland is also holding elections soon – and there too, doubts about supporting Ukraine have been aired. The ruling Law and Justice Party has promised to halt the import of cheap Ukrainian grain that Polish farmers oppose.

The President, Andrzej Duda, has described Ukraine as a drowning man dragging down his rescuers. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Poland was “no longer transferring any weapons to Ukraine”, although this was later reversed.

So electoral politics are beginning to bite into Ukraine’s support. So too are other issues, whether the global cost-of-living crisis or the climate emergency.

At the United Nations General Assembly recently, it was noticeable how Ukraine was no longer automatically at the top of the agenda.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first in-person speeches to the UN assembly and the Security Council did not command the same attention as before. Diplomats noticed the sheen had come off the Ukrainian delegation as leaders from the Global South pressed their own agendas.

All of this is what strategists in the Kremlin have been long been hoping for. Diplomats believe Vladimir Putin wants to wait out the West, keeping the fighting going until Ukraine begins to lose international support and seeks a political settlement.

Western leaders insist they have the stamina to stay the course and show more strategic patience than Russia expects.

Not for nothing did the UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, tell the House Magazine this weekend that international fatigue with the war was a “big thing” and “something we have got to deal with”, acknowledging it was “putting pressure on countries all over the world”.

His counter-argument was that if Western support for Ukraine diminished, then those pressures – whether economic or political – would only get worse: “This is tough and this is painful. But it will only be more tough and more painful if we falter.”

To counter that impression, EU foreign ministers visited Kyiv on Monday, meeting there collectively for the first time in a demonstration of support.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told the BBC that the EU would maintain its military backing, so far worth more than €5bn (£4.3bn).

“One thing is clear: for us Europeans, the war of Russia against Ukraine is an existential threat and we have to react according to that,” he said. But he admitted he was “worried” about Congress’s decision to block further aid.

The counter-argument diplomats are making is that more than the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance on the battlefield. They say countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are beginning to warm to this argument.

Before, some of those countries dismissed the fighting as a European regional war that had little to do with them. But Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain initiative and its attacks on Ukrainian grain silos have made it easier for Ukraine and the West to argue that the Global South has a stake in the fight.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told reporters: “What is at stake in Ukraine is much bigger than just Ukraine. It’s about the stability and predictability of the world.”

So Ukraine is playing a long game. Key figures within the government have long anticipated that Western support might soften over time. They have been ready for the vagaries of transatlantic electoral cycles.

And they know the real test of Western unity may come later at two key moments. First, if Donald Trump is re-elected President next year and curbs US support, then Ukraine will face a big decision about how long it can continue fighting.

And second, if there is some kind of end to the conflict, then allies may find it hard to unite around the compromises that might be needed to reach a political settlement.__BBC.com