EU foreign ministers convened in Kyiv for their first ever meeting outside the bloc on Monday, broadcasting their support after a pro-Russian candidate won an election in Slovakia and the U.S. Congress left Ukraine war aid out of a spending bill.
Kyiv brushed off the wobbles on both sides of the Atlantic, especially the prospect that the U.S. Congressional vote, which excluded aid to Ukraine from an emergency bill to prevent a government shutdown, represented a deeper change in policy.
“We don’t feel that the U.S support has been shattered… because the United States understands that what is at stake in Ukraine is much bigger than just Ukraine,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters as he greeted the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
As for the election victory of pro-Russian Slovakian former Prime Minister Robert Fico, Kuleba said it was “too early to judge”, noting that a new leader there would still have to form a coalition.
Monday’s meeting in Kyiv was touted by Borrell as an historic first, and provided striking photo opportunities for a succession of ministers in front of EU flags in the war-time capital.
But it comes at an awkward time for the Western alliance that has supported Kyiv. The summer is coming to a close after a slower-than-expected Ukrainian military counter-offensive, without the major success that Western leaders had hoped to see before autumn mud clogs the treads of their donated tanks.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called for efforts to prepare Ukraine for the coming winter, including through air defence and guaranteed energy supplies, after Russia bombed Ukraine’s energy infrastructure last year.
“Last winter, we saw the brutal way in which the Russian president is waging this war,” said Baerbock. “We must prevent this together with everything we have, as far as possible.”
Public opinion in most Western countries is still largely behind Ukraine. But political leaders are worried about calls on both the far right and the far left of the political spectrum challenging the consensus that has held so far.
Elections are looming in several European countries, and above all next year in the United States, where right-wing Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump have increasingly called for funding of Ukraine to be halted.
Republicans control the House of Representatives, one of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, where speaker Kevin McCarthy might need to rely on Democrats to support any bill to fund Ukraine. Right wingers have threatened to try to remove him.
President Joe Biden’s administration says it expects the House to pass a measure to keep aid to Ukraine flowing. Biden on Sunday pressed congressional Republicans to back the aid, saying he was “sick and tired” of the political brinkmanship that had nearly shut the government.
Kuleba said he believed the move over the weekend to pass a bill excluding aid was “an incident” rather than “a system”, and Kyiv expected aid to continue.
“We have a very in-depth discussion with both parts of the Congress – Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
Moscow, for its part, also saw little change in U.S. policy, for now at least.
“They will continue their support,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to state news agency TASS. “We should not think that anything has changed: it’s just a show for the public, it’s just noise.”
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said public opinion on the Ukraine issue in the West was fragmenting, despite the position of governments.
In Europe, pro-Russian former prime minister Fico won the most votes in an election in Slovakia on Sunday and will get a first chance to form a government. His campaign had called for “not a single round” of ammunition from Slovakia’s reserves to be sent to Ukraine.
“We are not changing that we are prepared to help Ukraine in a humanitarian way,” Fico said at a news conference after his victory. “We are prepared to help with the reconstruction of the state but you know our opinion on arming Ukraine.”
To form a government, Fico would have to establish a coalition with at least one other party that does not publicly share his position on Ukraine.
Russia’s Peskov defended Fico, saying it was “absurd” that politicians who support their country’s national interest were labelled “pro-Russian”.
“Of course, we would like to see more experienced politicians, sober politicians, politicians who tend to soberly assess the situation. We’ll watch what happens next,” he told a regular Kremlin news briefing.
Slovakia, a NATO state with a small border with Ukraine, has taken in refugees and, under the outgoing government, has provided a disproportionately major supply of weapons, notably being among the first to send fighter jets.