EU summit turns its eyes away from Ukraine despite a commitment to stay the course with Zelenskiy

European leaders focused on the order of the day, the Israel-Hamas war, and didn’t come back to the issue of Russia’s war in Ukraine after Zelenskiy’s videoconference

Spain's acting Prime minister Pedro Sanchez, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob, Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and French President Emmanuel Macron
(L-R) Spain's acting Prime minister Pedro Sanchez, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob, Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and French President Emmanuel Macron during the second day of the European Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 27 October 2023.OLIVIER HOSLET (EFE)

It was a good thing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had his videoconference address to the European Union summit pre-slotted for the opening session. Immediately afterward, EU leaders switched off and went to the order of the day — the Israel-Hamas war. They didn’t come back to the issue of Russia’s war in Ukraine again before Friday’s closing day of the summit.

After dominating summit after summit since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Zelenskiy will now find it challenging to get all the attention and the political, economic and military aid that Ukraine wants.

That may extend beyond Europe, too, since the new U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson has shown little interest in providing additional money from Congress to support Ukraine. He has said now is the moment “we must stand with our important ally in the Middle East, and that’s Israel.”

Not only have the geopolitics in general shifted, some of the EU politics in particular are no longer as kind to Zelenskiy. “Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said when he assessed the summit on his Facebook page on Friday. After the summit, he added: “we are ready to help, but not militarily, because I do not believe in a military solution of this conflict in Ukraine.” Zelenskiy wants a military victory ahead of peace.

Slovakia is a nation of just 5.5 million people, dwarfed by nations like Germany and France in a bloc of almost 450 million. But Fico’s threats of denying military aid must be seen as more than just bluster. That’s because the EU gives veto rights to members on most money issues affecting Ukraine.

Fico’s counterpart from neighboring Hungary, Viktor Orbán, has been leveraging the threat of vetos for years. And he also poured cold water on Zelenskiy on Friday. Orbán said in his weekly interview on state radio that the EU’s strategy for assisting Ukraine in its war has “failed,” and signaled that he may not be willing to approve an EU proposal that would provide more financial assistance to Kyiv.

“The Ukrainians are not going to win on the battlefield, the Russians are not going to lose on the battlefield, and there’s no way that the Russian president will be defeated in Moscow in the chaos of a lost war,” Orbán said.

Moscow is certainly pushing more funds into the war effort. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told lawmakers in Moscow that nearly a third of government spending next year will go into defense for a total about 109 billion euros ($115 billion), noting that the amount is significantly higher compared to previous years.

After reclaiming some ground during a counteroffensive that began in June, Ukraine forces failed to break through Russia’s multi-echeloned defenses to achieve their goal of cutting a land link to the Crimean Peninsula they crave. Offensive operations are now expected to slow down as the winter sets in. All this despite billions in support from Europe and the United States.

With Ukraine funding in jeopardy in the U.S. Congress, Zelenskiy is hoping Europe’s financial lifeline stays open. By the end of the year, EU leaders have to approve a four-year 50-billion-euro (nearly $53 billion) package for Ukraine to provide budget support, promote investment and help with reconstruction — and here the veto powers of member states come into play. There is also a four-year 20-billion-euro ($21 billion) military and security package in the pipeline.

Orbán said that he was unwilling to move forward on financing to Ukraine that aimed to help it win the war militarily, a strategy he said was no longer tenable. “I was forced to clearly and directly say that the strategy that those in Brussels adopted and brought us into has failed,” he said. “Whatever we do, before we spend the money, there has to be a clear strategy,” he said Friday. That stance has irked a large majority of EU nations that see Ukraine as a bulwark for the kind of democracy they want to see across the globe.

This week, Germany handed over a third IRIS-T SLM air defense system to Ukraine after two of the sophisticated systems were supplied over the past year. “Even if the security policy situation worldwide is further escalating and we are looking with great concern at the moment at Israel and the Middle East, we will not stop supporting Ukraine,” Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said. “This war will not be forgotten.”

Others were asking what strategy Fico and Orban would propose other than full backing for Ukraine. “If we don’t help Ukraine, then what is the alternative, really,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “I mean, Russia wins! And so what happens next? Why do you think that you’re safe then?” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said. “If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, he won’t stop there. So it is a threat to all of us.”

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