David A. Andelman
The vast store of goodwill accumulated among the forces of democracy for Ukraine and its courageous and utterly unorthodox president may be running dry. That is the clearest and most present danger to the security of Europe and the entire Western alliance. It is surely also the fervent hope on which Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to pursue his carnage and the reason he has chanced his whole presidency on what once seemed like a sure bet, and is instead turning into a morass of quicksand and violence with no easy exit.
America – and its allies – must under no circumstances allow that to happen. The dangers for Ukraine are even more profound than simply waffling by a handful of right-wing Republicans in Congress over appropriations – those prepared to throw under the bus an entire nation to their overweening ambition and distrust of Democrats. Fissures are appearing across the hitherto united Western front that can only be sending shivers of joy up Putin’s spine. The worst of it is that at least some of this has been Ukraine’s own doing.
The slow pace of the counteroffensive, the rapidly expanding needs for ever more advanced weapons, the fears of enmeshing all of the NATO alliance in an expanded conflict and a host of more immediate issues have all converged in recent days into what could become a perfect storm of horrors for Ukraine. But first there is the sudden convergence of grain, food and politics. Putin quite rightly appreciated the stakes – and the opportunity – when he first launched his heartless blockade of Ukraine’s grain, grain that helps feed not only Europe but also vast stretches of Africa now plunged into the threat of devastating hunger.
But Ukraine was not deterred. It found other avenues for its crops than the embargoed Black Sea ports. These trade routes, however, were across Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Slovakia, where politically powerful farming interests felt threatened by new, cheaper sources of supply pouring across their frontiers – even if most of it was destined for other markets abroad. Poland has a major parliamentary election coming up on October 15, and the government has recognized its need to pander to the roughly 1.3 million Poles who describe themselves as farmers. They are a powerful voting bloc, dating back to the communist era when I was able to take the pulse of the Polish people by traveling to a chicken farm in the village of Bialobrzegi, 50 miles south of Warsaw, where, even then, one farmer I spoke to was fearless in his disgust of a government he felt had lost interest in him and his priorities. Fast-forward some four decades later, and the Polish government this month reacted quickly to rural concerns. It – along with Slovakia and Hungary – defied the European Union and extended a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, himself a master of the cut and thrusts of political theater, hasn’t been reluctant to strike back, telling the UN General Assembly in New York last week that “it is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in Europe, play out solidarity in a political theater – making a thriller from the grain.” The fear he enunciated is that they “are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki quickly followed with a threat to halt the export of weapons to the country for which it was once a wholehearted supporter. (Poland has since moved to walk back those comments, promising that it will still send weapons it has already committed to provide.) Still, on the sidelines at the UN General Assembly, Polish President Andrzej Duda compared Ukraine to “a drowning person clinging to anything available.”
Nearby Slovakia also has an election coming on Saturday, and it appears as though Robert Fico, former prime minister and leader of the populist Smer Party – which has campaigned on a pro-Russian message – is the front-runner. On the campaign trail last week in the village of Banovce nad Bebravou, Fico proclaimed: “We are a peaceful country. We will not send a single round to Ukraine.” Ukraine has only provided its detractors with more verbal ammunition by threatening to file a suit in the World Trade Organization against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia over their grain embargoes.
There is a sense of toxic stasis that has a number of officials in other Western countries worried about how long they can continue to supply Ukraine at the pace to which it has become accustomed. “Ukraine fatigue” is spreading slowly but inexorably. This past week German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his country would be sending a new round of arms shipments to Ukraine, but without the bunker-busting cruise missiles Kyiv had urgently requested. The problem is that all of this is converging at a delicate time. The EU is weighing up a mammoth four-year, 20 billion euro ($21.3 billion) fund to finance weapons purchases for Ukraine. It requires, however, unanimous consent of all 27 member states – an increasingly heavy lift. Hungary continues to hew closely to the Kremlin’s line and retains what has been an often toxic veto amid the rule of unanimity in all EU decision-making. And with Russia now eyeing up potential weapons deals with North Korea, Ukraine needs the West’s support more than ever.
The West has been waiting eagerly and increasingly anxiously for some significant progress in a still plodding summer offensive before fall rain and winter snow set in. Zelensky may also now be facing other troubles at home. In The Times of London this week, there was a dramatic report of growing threats of desertion, even rebellion by scattered Ukrainian troops, apparently fed up with corruption spreading through the ranks. The report came just as Zelensky is grappling with allegations of corruption in the military and beyond – earlier this month he sacked the defense minister, followed by the dismissal last week of six deputies. (The government gave no official reason for the dismissals.)
What can America and the West do? The simple answer is, stand firm with Ukraine. It may not be easy, especially in the face of polls that show more than half of voters oppose any more aid to Ukraine. Fortunately, there are still some leaders who will continue to lead. “American support for Ukraine is not charity,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. “It’s an investment in our own direct interests. Degrading Russia’s military power helps to deter our primary strategic adversary, China.” China does still appear to be avoiding tying itself too closely to Russia, congruent politically, but with waning military power that is a potential drag on its own image and capacities.
“When the hard right-wingers attempt in Congress to block renewed aid to Ukraine, they do Putin’s work,” Robert I. Rotberg, founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, wrote this week. “As such, they are Putin enablers.” The same could equally be said for an all-too-rapidly expanding collection of leaders abroad. All parties, more than ever, need to act like allies and continue singing from the same songbook.