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Ukraine war: mixed signals among Kyiv’s allies hint at growing conflict fatigue

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the United Nations security council
Don’t lose faith with Ukraine: Volodymyr Zelensky makes his case at the United Nations. EPA-EFE/Justin Lane

It is now almost 600 days since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the war that has followed has tested the resilience of both countries. But it has also tested those in the west that have supported Ukraine from the start.

This much was evident from the mixed reception Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, received last week when he visited the US and Canada. Meanwhile, tensions in Europe over support for Ukraine have flared up again.

With the Ukrainian counteroffensive still not living up to – the perhaps inflated – expectations, we are beginning to see the first serious signs of a fraying consensus in the west about how seriously different governments are committed to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Zelensky’s North American visit started with a speech at the UN general assembly in New York in which he made a passionate appeal to fellow world leaders to uphold international law and order and support his country. While there remains widespread backing for the principles of sovereign equality and territorial integrity, it gets fuzzier when it comes to how to end the war.

There are two camps: many western leaders following Ukraine’s line that the country’s territorial integrity needs to be restored first. Others – including a large number of countries in the global south – prefer to emphasise the importance of dialogue and an early cessation of violence.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s savages Russia at the United Nations.

This pattern was repeated the following morning at the UN security council’s open debate on the war in Ukraine, with a predictable clash between Zelensky and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who presented very different accounts of causes and dynamics of the war. But before the debate could conclude, the security council turned its attention to the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, a clear indication that Ukraine is not the only urgent issue on the global agenda.

Zelensky continued to Washington DC where he secured another military aid package worth US$325 million (£192 million). This aid can be allocated by US president Joe Biden directly under the so-called presidential drawdown authority.

A further US$24 billion in aid, which is subject to congressional approval, is more problematic. The Republican House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, would not commit to putting a bill to that effect on the legislative schedule before the end of the year.

McCarthy also denied the Ukrainian president an opportunity to address a joint session of the House and the Senate, another sign of growing Republican resistance to the enthusiastic support offered to Ukraine by the Biden administration.

Moving up to Canada, Zelensky received a universally warm reception and left with a military aid package worth C$650 million (£394 million).

Europe: growing division

Meanwhile, in Europe, three of Kyiv’s neighbours inside the EU – Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – defied the end of an EU-wide ban on grain imports from Ukraine. Poland then went one step further and also put a – temporary – halt on any weapons deliveries to Ukraine. This was decried by Zelensky in his speech before the UN general assembly as “political theatre” and a gift for Moscow.

The grain dispute between Poland and Ukraine has been simmering for some time, and it was a question of when, not if, it would ultimately escalate. Importantly, it foreshadows other potential obstacles in Ukraine’s path to EU membership.

Some of these are potentially within Ukraine itself. As Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, noted in her annual state-of-the-union address at the European parliament, “accession [to the EU] is merit-based”, she acknowledged “the great strides Ukraine has already made”.

But accession negotiations will not be opened before a positive recommendation from the commission on Kyiv’s progress concerning seven conditions set in June 2022 when Ukraine was granted candidate status. This decision is expected before the end of 2023.

Once accession talks start, the interests of individual EU member states will play a greater role in determining the speed at which Ukraine can progress. The current spat with Poland is but one indication of potential trouble ahead, albeit in the particularly sensitive area of the EU’s common agricultural policy. This will be deeply affected if Ukraine – a global agricultural superpower – joins.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki.
An important but fragile relationship: Volodymyr Zelensky with Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. EPA-EFE/Rafal Guz

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, clearly wants to be seen to be protecting his country’s farmers from uncompetitive practices by Ukrainian exporters, particularly in the run-up to a parliamentary election next month.

But this is also about leadership and the potential challenge that Ukrainian EU membership would pose to Poland’s ambitions to be the main voice of the bloc’s eastern members.

Such an open attack on Zelensky and his policies significantly shifts the dial in what is considered acceptable criticism of the highly charismatic Ukrainian president. It comes in the wake of growing western unease about the course and cost of the war.

This is not to say that Ukraine has not made progress since its offensive began just before the summer. In recent days, Ukraine has made further gains in the south and launched a spectacular attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet in occupied Crimea at the weekend.

But Ukraine’s recent successes are almost certainly not enough to dispel the growing sense that the war is becoming a lasting stalemate. Until now, western support has underwritten Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself. But it has done no more than that and is not sufficient to enable a Ukrainian victory.

If the events of last week are a sign that this support begins to weaken, the prevention of a Ukrainian defeat can no longer be taken as a given. Nor could it be argued that this was merely a defeat for Ukraine – it would also mean that the western alliance did not have the stamina to prevail in the current confrontation with Russia.

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