The U.S. and European coalition supporting Ukraine is showing significant cracks nearly 20 months after Russia’s invasion, worrying officials in Kyiv and its backers that Russian President Vladimir Putin could succeed simply by waiting out the war.
Ukraine aid is at the center of partisan spending fights in Washington, with a majority of House Republicans voting against additional funding in votes last week. Polish officials anxious over elections are lashing out at Kyiv. And in NATO ally Slovakia, a party headed by a pro-Kremlin politician came out on top in recent parliamentary elections.
Russian officials are not yet celebrating but are expressing optimism that time is on their side.
“We have repeatedly said that according to our forecasts, fatigue from this conflict, from the absurd sponsorship of the Kyiv regime, will grow in different countries, including the United States,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier this week.
“This fatigue will lead to the fragmentation of the political establishment.”
Ukraine’s backers in Washington are scrambling to shore up support to fulfill President Biden’s request to deliver on $24 billion in new economic and military assistance for Kyiv. An effort to deliver $6 billion for Ukraine in a short-term government funding bill was axed in the face of staunch opposition from some House Republicans in a vote over the weekend.
“Time is not our friend,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
“We have enough funding authorities to meet Ukraine’s battlefield needs but we need Congress to act to make sure there is no disruption in our support.”
And Biden was put in the awkward position of having to reassure allies in Europe, Asia and NATO on a phone call Tuesday morning that despite the chaos in Congress, the U.S. was steadfast in its support for Kyiv and commitments to allies.
Ukrainian officials and their supporters downplayed the immediate effects of the D.C. spending battle and schisms in Europe.
“I see no tragedy, but room for intense work and strengthening our positions,” one Ukrainian official told The Hill.
And in a signal of support, European Union (EU) Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell held an extraordinary meeting in Kyiv with representatives of the 27-member bloc, including at least 23 foreign ministers.
“By coming to Kyiv, the European Union’s foreign ministers sent a strong message of solidarity and support to Ukraine in the face of this unjust and illegitimate war,” Borell said.
The growing tensions over Ukraine aid, and mounting fatigue among Kyiv’s partners, isn’t surprising to close observers.
“I think it would have been naive to think that there would have been this easy-going, constant flow of unquestionable support,” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington focused on national security and foreign policy.
“We’re entering the 20th month of this large-scale invasion and we’re knocking on the door of two years. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of domestic political changes in the European countries, unfortunately we have our own issues we’re debating here in the United States,” he added.
In America, Republican voters are growing increasingly pessimistic about continuing U.S. support for Ukraine, while Democratic support has ebbed but remained relatively strong, according to recent polls.
In Europe, war fatigue and domestic strain is playing out at the polls, with voters in some countries choosing leaders that are increasingly turning away from Kyiv.
“Europe has not stopped aiding Ukraine, but if you look at these elections one by one, the Ukraine and foreign policy and European policy elements to it are actually becoming stronger and stronger,” said Tara Varma, a visiting fellow in the Center of the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
“And they are part of the reasons why citizens are voting for what used to be splinter, marginal parties and now who are gaining more ground in the mainstream debate.”
In Slovakia, Robert Fico, the head of the populist SMER party, came out on top in polls Monday following a campaign where he called for cutting off military aid to Ukraine, opposed EU sanctions on Russia and pushed for a peace settlement between Moscow and Kyiv.
Ukraine’s supporters, which also expressing a desire for peace, say pushing Ukraine into negotiations will only serve to solidify Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory. They say Russia should end the fighting by withdrawing its invading forces.
It’s not clear if Fico will be successful in forming a coalition government, but the support he’s garnered is signaling a worrying trend of deeper fractures in European support for Ukraine.
Fico’s positions put him in line with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with Budapest long considered an outlier among the 27-member bloc for frustrating otherwise strong support for Ukraine in the EU.
While Hungary has taken in Ukrainian refugees, Budapest has maintained economic ties with Russia, refused to provide military support to Kyiv, slow-walked Sweden’s accession into NATO and raised the prospect of blocking Ukraine’s bid to join the EU.
And Ukraine is also a central issue in Poland’s elections set for Oct. 15. The ruling government, which has been a stalwart ally in Ukraine’s war, in recent weeks has fueled anti-Ukraine positions in an apparent bid to motivate voters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted with fury last month when Poland said it would block Ukrainian grain shipments into the country in order to protect Polish farmers. And the Polish prime minister followed that by saying that Warsaw would not send military assistance beyond already established agreements.
Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Rau, reportedly skipped out on traveling to Kyiv with his EU colleagues over ill health and because of a “period of decline” in Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Still, Poland’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs traveled to Kyiv for the meeting.
“There are a lot of speculations whether Poland is taking this position very opportunistically as we’re moving towards election day,” said Varma, of the Brookings Institution.
“But at the same time, these declarations are made by the prime minister, the foreign minister; they’re made by people who have quite a lot of sway in Poland right now,” she added. “And they are a bit scary, because then suddenly you don’t have just one member state being an outlier but you have several member states going in one direction.”
Ukraine is working to guard against waning support by increasing its own capacity to develop weapons that are likely to dry up among allies, hosting an international defense industry conference in Kyiv late last month.
Zelensky, in an opening address, said the more than 250 military companies and 30 countries represented at the forum showed a readiness “to build the arsenal of the free world together with Ukraine and in Ukraine. A modern and powerful arsenal that will leave no chance for any aggressor.”
Coffey, of the Hudson Institute, said the concerns and challenges to solidarity and support for Ukraine were to be expected over the long-term. But he said overall support “remains, and I think it will remain for the foreseeable future.”
“It just requires statesmen and stateswomen to step up to the challenge and navigate us through all these challenges going into the future.”