Republicans opposed to the US funding Ukraine’s lifeline against Russia scored their first major success when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t include a $6 billion request for aid in a stopgap bill that averted a government shutdown.
The result, which left President Joe Biden demanding swift action to fulfill Kyiv’s needs, made for a good weekend for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it left Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with plenty more to worry about after shifts elsewhere in global politics played into Moscow’s push to outlast the West in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden suggested he had a “deal” with McCarthy on moving assistance for Ukraine in a separate measure, but the Republican speaker’s office declined to confirm any such agreement.
Drama in the US coincided with another development this weekend that will cause concern in Ukraine. In neighboring Slovakia, former pro-Russia Prime Minister Robert Fico’s populist party won parliamentary elections. Fico anchored his campaign on his anti-US rhetoric, vows to stop sending weapons to Ukraine and a pledge to thwart Kyiv’s NATO ambitions.
Blows to Ukraine in the US and Slovakia came on top of its spat over grain exports with Poland – one of Kyiv’s earliest and most staunch allies – which led Warsaw to warn it could stop arms shipments to its neighbor.
Each of these developments stresses a rising danger for Ukraine – that the arms and aid it needs to sustain its fight against Russia’s onslaught are increasingly getting dragged into the bitter politics of national elections in the West.
Any sign of weakening resolve for arming Ukraine among Western leaders and legislatures is an added incentive for Putin to try to extend the conflict into a war of attrition in the hope that Western publics will tire of the fight and that leaders like ex-President Donald Trump might win power next year and ditch Kyiv.
The headlines are alarming for Ukraine. And while the realities of international politics suggest that time is not yet running out for the remarkable pipeline of arms and aid that fueled its heroic resistance to Russia’s onslaught, the political ground could be shifting and augur serious long-term concerns for Kyiv.
A potential propaganda coup for Putin
In Slovakia, Fico’s SMER party won Saturday’s parliamentary elections in a swing of the political pendulum back toward the populism and nationalism that delivered Trump, Brexit and gains by far-right parties in France and Germany in recent years. In the glow of victory, Fico warned, “Slovakia and people in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine,” and added he would push for peace talks.
Slovakia, a member of NATO, was previously a vocal ally of Ukraine, and a turn against its neighbor would hand Putin valuable propaganda openings. Yet on its own, Slovakia has no power to push negotiations to start. In any case, there’s no sign Ukraine is ready to talk as its offensive grinds on, or that Putin has any political or strategic motivations to do so either. And Fico has to worry about his own coalition-building before he starts deciding Ukraine policy.
And a Slovakian halt to arms shipments is unlikely to tilt the battlefield toward Russia. It did send Kyiv old Soviet MiG jets and other equipment for which it was compensated by the European Union. But its contributions are dwarfed by those of larger European powers and the United States.
A threat to block Ukraine’s entry into NATO sounds alarming. But the NATO summit this year showed that there is no prospect of Kyiv joining the Western alliance soon anyhow. And even before the Slovakian election, getting all alliance members to back its eventual membership was already a struggle. Turkey, for instance, is still blocking the accession of Sweden, a far less controversial new member of the self-defense club.
Slovakia might be home to many voters sympathetic to Moscow given its decades as part of the former Czechoslovakia in the Warsaw Pact under the iron grip of the Soviet Union. But as a NATO member, it is still dependent on the group – and, ultimately, the US – for its defense. And its economy is reliant on its European Union membership. This gives the West substantial leverage in Bratislava.
Geopolitical realities may also be decisive in Poland’s dispute with Ukraine. Many analysts believe temperatures will cool after a tense election later this month. Poland’s antipathy to Russia and desire to prevent it from winning a victory in Ukraine are borne out of decades of bitter political history unlikely to be diluted by shifting political winds. And its posture is also critical to its rising importance to the United States as one of Washington’s most important European allies.
Zelensky’s visit to Washington to shore up Ukraine aid last month looks prescient. But after a wild week, it’s clear that future tranches of US assistance will be far harder for the Biden administration to drive through Congress.
McCarthy, whose speakership is wobbling, pushed through a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open through mid-November, without $6 billion in Ukraine funding the Senate hoped to add to the package – which in itself represented only about a quarter of Biden’s latest Ukraine aid request. The move will not immediately imperil Ukraine on the battlefield, but a longer delay could have serious consequences. And politically, it could embolden Putin and fuel doubts about US staying power in the war among allied European leaders who are standing firm but also need to manage public opinion.
Some of Ukraine’s loudest supporters in Congress were deeply disappointed. “Putin is celebrating,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois told CNN. “I don’t see how the dynamics change in 45 days.” The co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus was the only House Democrat to vote against the stopgap measure.
House Republican rebels, some of whom are threatening to topple McCarthy after he used Democratic votes to temporarily keep the government open at current spending levels, are largely opposed to more aid for Ukraine. They include Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and pro-Trump Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who wrote on social media Saturday that “Joe Biden treats Ukraine as the 51st state” after previously warning that more funds for Kyiv would be “blood money.”
Ukraine refused to panic over the interruption to its latest injection of aid in a multi-billion-dollar initiative on which its war effort largely depends, at least in its current scale. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country is working with the US Congress on the issue.
“We do not feel that US support has been shattered, because the US understands that what is at stake in Ukraine is much bigger than just Ukraine. It’s about the stability and predictability of the world, and therefore I believe that we will be able to find the necessary solutions,” Kuleba said.
The danger for Zelensky is that such rhetoric solidifies into a sense among voters that American interests and Ukraine’s interests are opposite. At Republican campaign events, voters often voice antipathy to sending billions of dollars to Ukraine, and polls show rising public skepticism.
Still, for now, there is a bipartisan Washington majority in favor of Ukraine aid, although the chaos in the GOP raises questions about how it will be delivered. Biden on Sunday seemed to indicate he had a deal with McCarthy on moving the funds in a separate bill, although the speaker may be too weak to deliver on any promises. “I fully expect the speaker to keep his commitment to secure the passage and support needed to help Ukraine as they defend themselves against aggression and brutality,” the president said.
McCarthy suggested that a framework that also sends more money to secure the southern US border might open the way for Ukraine funds. “They’re not going to get some package if the border is not secure,” the speaker said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “I support being able to make sure Ukraine has the weapons that they need. But I firmly support the border first. So we’ve got to find a way that we can do this together.”
But if McCarthy is toppled and replaced by a more radical speaker, Ukraine could run out of luck.
Longer term, the US elections in November 2024 are critical. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has vowed to end the war in 24 hours if elected president, presumably on terms that would favor Putin, whom he has called a “genius” and before whom he has often genuflected.
And Ukraine’s would not be the only future on the line. A second Trump term could pose an existential threat to NATO and the entire post-World War II and Cold War concept of the West.