The West’s united front on Ukraine is showing more cracks than ever — and Kyiv has little choice but to grin and bear it.
More than 500 days into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Republican lawmakers in Washington DC on Saturday derailed an effort to unleash a major tranche of aid for the war-torn country.
Coming just nine days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Washington to plead for continued support, the blockage underscored a hardening of attitudes among congressional Republicans who want to end Washington’s assistance for Kyiv.
At the same time as Republicans were voting ‘no’ on Capitol Hill, voters in Slovakia elected a pro-Russian prime minister, Robert Fico, who vows not to send a “single round” of ammunition to Ukraine, and looks set to team up with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn to oppose further European support for Kyiv. Poland, once the most dependable of Kyiv’s allies, made the shock announcement on September 20 that it would no longer send weapons.
These warning signs don’t amount to a profound policy shift in Washington or Brussels. U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to stand by Ukraine despite the budget fiasco. And most European leaders remain staunchly supportive of Ukraine, with some €50 billion in continued support for the country due to be signed off in coming months, according to two EU diplomats who were granted anonymity to talk about the non-public deliberations.
Asked to comment on the fact that the U.S. stopgap bill lacks any funding for Ukraine, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “The president has built a coalition of more than 50 countries to provide aid to support Ukraine … There is very strong international coalition behind Ukraine and if Putin thinks he can outlast us, he’s wrong.”
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said he was “sure” the decision to block funding would be reconsidered. “We’ll continue to be on your side,” he told reporters in Kyiv Monday when asked how the U.S. budget shortfall would affect Ukraine.
Ukrainian politicians — who’ve faced criticism from the United States and United Kingdom for appearing insufficiently “grateful” for Western aid — sounded similarly upbeat. “We’re working with both sides of the Congress to ensure it doesn’t repeat again, under any circumstances,” said Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, appearing next to Borrell.
‘Words of gratitude’
But despite these attempts to put a positive spin on the situation, open criticism of aid among senior Western politicians — coupled with Elon Musk’s online attacks against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — sends a chilling message to Kyiv.
The message that the U.S. and Europe will stick with Kyiv — no matter what — is starting to ring hollow.
Ukraine remains heavily dependent on Western support not just to fuel its battle against Russia, but also to keep its public administration ticking over. According to its projected budget for 2024, Ukraine expects to receive $42.8 billion from international donors in the coming year, a big chunk of which would come from the United States. In June, Ukraine’s finance minister, Serhiy Marchenko, told POLITICO that the U.S. should “step in and at least provide us mid-term relief.”
Asked whether the holdup on Capitol Hill now leaves Kyiv with a budget shortfall, a spokesperson for Marchenko declined to comment.
Europe is also worried about what to expect from Washington. While most EU countries agree on supporting Ukraine, aid for Kyiv is tied to a broader review of the EU’s long-term budget on which there is no agreement. And since all EU27 countries need to back the deal, it may prove difficult to pass by year-end, which is when the EU’s current support for Ukraine runs out.
“There is not much political discussion on the financial support for Ukraine. That is not the difficult piece of the puzzle. But the puzzle overall is very hard, that no one dares to predict anything,” said an EU diplomat who asked not to be named to discuss the confidential budget talks.
Indeed, Hungary’s Orbán has already said he’s not prepared to finance Ukraine unless it reviews its treatment of Hungarian minorities living in the country. Although critics describe this stance as a tactical veto meant to unlock funds that Brussels is withholding from Budapest over a separate rule-of-law dispute, Orbán may use the election of his like-minded Slovakian peer to toughen his negotiating tactics.
“Member states remain broadly supportive of aid for Ukraine,” said a second EU diplomat. “Of course the big elephant in the room is, ‘What if this is the precursor to the U.S. just abandoning Ukraine?’ While it’s in the back of everyone’s minds, I just don’t think that’s going to happen now or anytime soon.”
Amid uncertainty about whether Ukraine will be able to finance its budget and keep its war effort going, Ukrainian officials are trying hard to put on a brave face and appear thankful. Speaking to POLITICO last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal insisted on his “gratitude” toward Poland, an ally that has been locked in a dispute with Kyiv over grain exports, and has now vowed not to send any more weapons.
“I would like to express the words of gratitude to the Polish nation and all Polish families for the support that they have given and have provided to Ukrainian refugees,” he said.
Gregorio Sorgi and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting in Brussels and Eun Kim in Washington DC.