The weekend of September 30 marked an ominous turning point in international support for Ukraine—not just in Washington, D.C., but in two of the beleaguered country’s once-staunch supporters in Eastern Europe.
On the 30th, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made an eleventh-hour budget deal to avoid a government shutdown, conditional on zeroing out U.S. support for Ukraine. The same day, halfway around the world, voters in Slovakia handed a major electoral victory to the party of the corrupt, pro-Russian conspiracy theorist Robert Fico, who campaigned on the rousing slogan “Not a single round”—meaning, no more ammunition from Slovakia for Ukraine.
Slovakia, though small, was one of the first NATO countries to provide armed assistance to Ukraine and has been a bulwark of logistical support. And yet, as the European Commission’s digital-affairs czar explained at a press conference in late September, “Slovakia has been chosen [by Russia] as the country where there is fertile soil for success of the Russian pro-Kremlin, pro-war narratives.” Fico—known for resigning as prime minister in disgrace in 2018, after the assassination of a journalist who was investigating his associates—has repeatedly blamed Ukraine for Russia’s full-scale invasion, parroting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda about “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists.” The weekend’s vote was deeply divided: Fico’s party won just 23 percent. But Slovakia’s president has tapped him to lead the country’s coalition government, which will likely seek to divest from Ukraine and push Slovakia into Putin’s waiting embrace.
Across Slovakia’s northern border, Poland, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been Ukraine’s most important, strategically placed backer in the European Union these past 18 months. The government pledged its support to Ukraine in high-minded terms last year. But this year has been defined instead by populist electioneering, in which the ruling party has made fear of migrants a central theme. Middle Eastern refugees are the primary targets of this campaign, but Polish solidarity with Ukraine, too, has been dying a slow death, and preexisting xenophobia and historical memory of past ethnic violence have made ready fodder for Law and Justice propaganda.
In a radio interview this past summer, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński called the Ukrainian killings of Poles during World War II “even worse than the German genocides.” Local officials from the ruling party have published anti-Ukrainian screeds on their social-media accounts, and the far-right Confederation, with which Law and Justice sometimes cooperates, has openly called for sending Ukrainians back to Ukraine. But perhaps most troubling is the across-the-board ebbing of grassroots solidarity with Ukrainians as anti-migrant rhetoric grows in electoral appeal.
That Poland’s xenophobia is gathering momentum and, with it, an ever-expanding circle of targets is one of the messages of The Green Border, a new film by Agnieszka Holland that has been critically acclaimed but publicly condemned by Poland’s president and a host of government ministers. On its surface, the film is about the Polish mistreatment of Syrian refugees crossing over from Belarus in 2021, but the director explained in a September interview that she understands Ukrainians to be part of the same story: “From the beginning I knew that, as soon as helping Ukraine ceased to pay off for this government, it would start playing a different game. I do not believe that they are guided by humanitarian or Christian considerations. This is the most cynical politics there is. It ends and begins with electoral efficacy.”
A pair of influential Polish sociologists noted a year ago that Polish support for Ukraine did not mean Polish support for Ukrainians: In other words, a pro-Ukrainian foreign policy could go hand in hand with anti-Ukrainian feeling at home, and carry an expiration date to boot. We are now arriving at this expiration date. In July, Poland led a regional coalition of EU member states seeking an indefinite embargo on Ukrainian grain; most of the neighbors have since negotiated separate deals with Ukraine, but Law and Justice has stubbornly held out, nominally to protect the interests of grain-producing Polish farmers who fear Ukrainian competition. In his September speech before the United Nations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called out neighboring states for making a show of solidarity while essentially playing into Moscow’s hands. Law and Justice government ministers hit back; their social-media accounts exploded with tirades against perceived Ukrainian ingratitude.
Law and Justice will likely win reelection, but even if it doesn’t, the rift between Poland and Ukraine is deepening—and the trend for Ukraine is worrying. Stalwarts on whom the embattled country has relied for the past year and a half seem to be falling away. Zelensky’s travels to the UN, the United States, and Canada were meant to shore up flagging transatlantic support for Ukraine after the lackluster summer counteroffensive. But little went as planned. In the Canadian Parliament, Zelensky unwittingly became part of a standing ovation for a 98-year-old Ukrainian-born Canadian invited as a guest of the House speaker. The man was later unmasked as a former Waffen SS fighter—terrible optics for Zelensky, given Putin’s persistent attempts to tarnish Ukraine as a Nazi successor. In the U.S. Congress, Zelensky met with McCarthy and Mitch McConnell mere weeks before McCarthy caved to the House Republicans demanding an end to U.S. aid for Ukraine.
Support for Ukraine is drying up both in the country’s own backyard and across the Atlantic, at a time when Kyiv still desperately needs the world’s backing. Whether the initiative now comes from anti-migrant Poland, pro-Putin Slovakia, or perhaps the EU’s long-standing Eastern European laboratory of illiberalism—Viktor Orbán’s Hungary—matters less than the bottom line: Ukraine’s days of international solidarity are numbered.