Russian President Vladimir Putin has been open about his intention to continue pressuring Ukraine until the West gives in. After over 500 days of waging aggressive war, he has reason to believe that his strategy is producing the desired results, even if they are not unfolding exactly as he envisioned.
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.
However, as the heads of certain loyal allies contend with upcoming elections or domestic issues, and governments grow concerned about the potential consequences of Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union, their support is beginning to falter.
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.
Ivan Krastev, the head of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, stated that Ukraine has recognized that instead of bordering Poland, they have been bordering the Polish elections in recent months. He also mentioned that currently, the government values the votes of a hundred thousand Polish farmers over the potential consequences for Ukraine. This trend is expected to occur in various other locations as well.
Morawiecki is in a difficult position as he faces competition from Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and president of the European Council. In an effort to gain votes, the prime minister is reaching out to supporters of the far-right Confederation Party, who are against providing aid to Ukraine.
Morawiecki stated on a Polish television channel, Polsat, that we have ceased providing weapons to Ukraine and are instead equipping Poland with advanced weaponry.
Although it may be tempting to dismiss the recent tensions as mere political posturing during the elections, there are indications that they may continue even after the campaign is over. According to a Western diplomat who wished to remain anonymous, the ongoing grain dispute between Warsaw and Kyiv highlights underlying concerns about Ukraine’s potential membership in the EU. The diplomat stated, “For the past 18 months, Poland has strongly pressured any member state that expressed even slight hesitation towards Ukraine. Now, their true intentions are being revealed.”
Kyiv is facing an issue where support for them is fading not only in Poland, but also in other countries. The Baltic states have been at the forefront of advocating for Ukraine in Brussels and Washington since the conflict began. Among them, Estonia’s liberal prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has been particularly vocal and influential.
Kallas, the daughter of a past prime minister and European commissioner, was viewed as a symbol of a newly confident Eastern Europe that would leverage the Ukraine crisis to gain more influence in Brussels. However, her reputation was tarnished due to a controversy involving her husband, who was found to have a financial interest in a company that continued to operate in Russia following the invasion in February 2022, despite Kallas’ efforts to halt all trade with Moscow.
When questioned about Kallas’ difficulties, Margus Tsahkna, the Foreign Minister of Estonia, stated that no matter the political turmoil, the country’s direction would remain constant. Tsahkna explained, “Despite frequent elections and domestic problems, our policy remains steadfast. Over the past 32 years, Estonia has maintained a consistent foreign policy.”
However, since the scandal surfaced in late August, Kallas has been noticeably quieter, leaving Kyiv without one of its most influential supporters in Western countries.
Next on the list is Slovakia, a country in Central Europe that has been a strong supporter of Ukraine. However, upcoming elections on September 30 may cause it to shift its stance to one of doubt.
According to Milan Nič, a fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, if only 40% of society supports providing arms to Ukraine, but the government offers support similar to that of the Baltics, it may lead to a negative response.
According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, Robert Fico, a populist former prime minister of the country, is running a campaign that supports Russia and opposes the imposition of sanctions on Russian individuals as well as the delivery of more weapons to Kyiv. It appears that he is likely to win the election.
If Fico wins, Orbán, a major doubter of Kyiv in Europe, would gain an ally in the EU. Fico stated to the Associated Press that if his party becomes part of the government, they will no longer supply Ukraine with weapons or ammunition.
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.
Currently, the atmosphere in Kyiv appears to be calm. During a press conference following a recent event in Brussels, Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, downplayed any tension between Kyiv and its previous allies. She stated, “We are fully committed and have received confirmation that none of our political proceedings will impact the continued support.”
It is difficult to fathom that Putin is not somewhere gleefully observing.