On Sunday, Slovakia’s former Prime Minister Robert Fico, a left-wing populist, won parliamentary elections with his SMER-SSD party, having campaigned on a promise to withdraw military support for Ukraine and stop sanctioning Russia.
It sent a worrying signal to Kyiv, which in recent weeks has been rowing with one of its staunchest allies, Poland, over the issue of Ukrainian grain imports, while watching on as US Republican lawmakers threaten to scupper a new aid deal.
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These developments have stirred talk of a global shift in sentiment towards supporting Ukraine as the war grinds on, more than a year and a half after it began.
According to Teona Lavrelashvili, an analyst at the European Politics Centre, they could signal that several allies are ready for a “pragmatic solution” to the end of the war,.
But Kyiv will be “worried but not panicking” by the growing sense that some traditional allies have “fallen out of step”, said Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Comparative Central and East European Politics at University College London.
Fico still needs to form a coalition, but the pro-Kremlin, anti-Kyiv rhetoric that saw his party win marked a significant departure from Slovakia’s position since the start of the war. As recently as April, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova travelled to Kyiv in what had been a then-routine show of support.
Hanley told Al Jazeera that Kyiv will likely be concerned about the Slovak pivot towards Russia because it signals that “Ukraine fatigue” is setting in among allies, while fears of Slovakia’s military aid potentially being cut are less worrying.
Even so, pro-Kremlin sentiment in Slovakian politics, Hanley said, is not as widespread as in countries such as Serbia or Bulgaria.
Instead, you see more “Ukraine-sceptic” views that prioritise national interests over international causes, as populist illiberal trends challenge “the idea that you’ve got to emulate the West”.
Kyiv will also be concerned by Slovakia potentially joining Hungary in carving out a Ukraine-sceptic alliance within the European Union bloc.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has maintained close relations with Moscow during the war and argued against supplying arms to Ukraine or providing economic aid.
On Sunday, Orban congratulated Fico with a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, saying: “Guess who’s back! … Always good to work together with a patriot.”
This budding friendship represents a shift. Previously, relations were strained between Slovak and Hungarian nationalists, according to Hanley.
Now, he said, there is a departure from “traditional kind of nationalist enmities whereby you pick a fight with the guy next door” to “culture wars” with the focus on scepticism of the rest of the EU, of LGBTQ rights, feminism and potential immigration from non-European countries.
Lavrelashvili said although Slovakia will now likely “be a troublemaker” regarding the EU’s support of Ukraine, bombastic rhetoric often gives way to a more pragmatic approach to diplomacy.
It is a trait that Fico has often displayed, according to Hanley, who said for him to become leader, he must compromise with another party to form a coalition.
Observers also say Slovakia, with the eurozone’s biggest budget deficit of nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, needs EU modernisation and recovery funds, meaning Fico may think twice before aggravating Brussels.
Since the outbreak of the war in February 2022, Poland has been one of Kyiv’s most committed allies.
The country, which shares a border with the war-torn nation, hosts millions of Ukrainian refugees, has transferred an array of weapons to Kyiv’s army in its fight against Russia, and acted as a transit hub for arms shipments from other nations.
But in recent weeks, a seemingly unbreakable bond began to crack as the neighbours rowed over Ukrainian grain imports, leading Poland to announce that it would no longer send arms to Ukraine and may cut aid to refugees.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, warned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to never “insult” Poles again after the Ukrainian leader told the United Nations that “political theatre” around grain imports was helping Moscow’s cause.
The dispute began in September when Poland imposed restrictions on Ukrainian grain imports in a bid to protect local farmers. Ukraine was enraged and the two nations traded warnings repeatedly, setting the stage for a row that played out in the international arena.
Robert Pszczel, a senior fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation in Poland, told Al Jazeera that despite the “unpleasant rhetoric” between the two nations, key strategic support for Ukraine will not change.
He said the recent spat is a culmination of various ongoing rifts, including an incident in November, during which an air defence missile killed two people in southern Poland. At the time, Poland and NATO said a Ukrainian missile likely caused the deaths but that Russia bore ultimate responsibility, having instigated the war. Kyiv denied any responsibility.
But Lavrelashvili said Poland and Slovakia cannot be compared.
In Slovakia, pro-Kremlin narratives have been more successful in influencing society, creating an East-West divide among those who now view the United States as a “security threat”, she said.
Poland, however, has not changed its view of Russia as a dangerous force. Instead, the discussions around Ukraine have revolved around balancing national interests while continuing some form of support.
When asked whether a close relationship with the U.S. or Russia is more important for their country, 76% of Poles say it is more important to have a close relationship with the U.S. Just 17% of Hungarians say the same of their relationship with the U.S.https://t.co/ig4Lh40YBP pic.twitter.com/ufRmTVtOci
— Pew Research Global (@pewglobal) October 2, 2023
Could the US stop funding Ukraine?
Meanwhile, recent developments in the US could be causing Ukraine further alarm.
At a NATO summit in July, US President Joe Biden reassured G7 leaders and President Zelenskyy, “Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken.”
But late on Sunday, a compromise reached in US Congress to prevent a government shutdown saw a new funding deal for Ukraine abandoned, largely because of resistance from hardline Republicans.
The subsequent removal of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives has added to the uncertainty around aid for Ukraine.
Joshua Tucker, head of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia and professor of politics at New York University, told Al Jazeera the stopgap bill should be viewed “in the context of the very peculiar situation of US domestic politics at this point in time”.
He said the bill was forced by a small section of the Republican Party and does not reflect an overarching shift in US politics.
Instead, support for Ukraine will depend more on the direction former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, chooses to take.
Tucker explained that in the US, the political narrative around Ukraine is focused on whether the government is spending too much money on the war, unlike in Europe, where there is more of a desire for the “conflict to be over” because of its direct effect on energy prices and quality of life.
Perhaps sensing this shift, most EU foreign ministers convened outside the bloc for the first time this week, visiting Kyiv on Monday in a public display of unwavering solidarity, while Poland and Hungary sent representatives.
“I don’t see any member state faltering,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said after promising Ukraine billions of euros in military aid and training for fighter pilots.
On Tuesday, President Biden assured his counterparts by phone that he remains confident Congress will approve aid for Ukraine, “for as long as it takes”.