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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies

Disputes in Washington and European capitals come as war approaches possible ‘turning point’

Reporting | QiOSK

Last week’s edition of Diplomacy Watch focused on how politics in Poland and Slovakia were threatening Western unity over Ukraine. A spat between Warsaw and Kyiv over grain imports led Polish President Andrzej Duda to compare Ukraine to a “drowning person … capable of pulling you down to the depths ,” while upcoming elections in Slovakia could bring to power a new leader who has pledged to halt weapons sales to Ukraine.

As Connor Echols wrote last week, “the West will soon face far greater challenges in maintaining unity on Ukraine than at any time since the war began.”

A piece in Politico this week outlining the challenges facing the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff C.Q. Brown as he prepares to take over from Gen. Mark Milley suggests that the divisions may be even more widespread.

“As Ukrainian forces push for a breakthrough before winter sets in, there is a growing sense in Washington and Europe that the West may be weary of the fight,” wrote Lara Seligman. “On Capitol Hill, hardline Republicans oppose sending additional aid; across the Atlantic, Poland recently said it could not send any more weapons to Ukraine in the short term, and French officials recently hinted the country would soon reach that point as well.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been busy trying to win over skeptics around the world, but there is not much evidence that his audience in the Global South or the GOP caucus in Washington has been particularly receptive to his message.

In the U.S. Congress, future funding for the war in Ukraine has taken an outsized role in the ongoing battle for government funding, and little progress has been made this week. A small but growing (and increasingly vocal) group of Republicans in both the House and Senate have vowed to hold up government spending legislation if it includes more aid for Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal indicated that others are watching these fights closely.

“Intertwined with those contentious negotiations in Washington are rising concerns in European capitals about the war, particularly if Washington’s support shows signs of flagging,” the Journal reported. “While European backing for Ukraine generally remains solid, cracks are starting to surface as weapons stockpiles from some allies dwindle and others hesitate to fill the gaps.”

This infighting in various capitals around the world comes at what Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies described to Politico as a turning point in the war. “If the counteroffensive fails, or if the counteroffensive does not get through the Russian defensive zone in a major way, I think that fears of a forever war will get stronger,” said Cancian.

From the perspective of the incoming U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman, it will likely become increasingly difficult to navigate both the domestic political and battlefield realities. “Milley was in the enviable position of having a lot of stuff and a lot of political support so that makes it easy,” Cancian told Politico. “Brown is in the position of having less stuff and less political support.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

—Some Western politicians are pushing the government in Kyiv to hold elections, despite the ongoing war and the imposition of martial law. Visiting Ukraine’s capital last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that it was“time for Ukraine to take the next step” in the “development of democracy, namely to hold elections in 2024.” But Ukrainian officials have expressed serious skepticism that new elections would be prudent, or even possible. “Ukrainian officials say that in order to hold a major vote during wartime, considerable financial, logistical and legal hurdles must be overcome,” the Washington Post reported. “In private, some say that the prospect is outright impossible, and could provide Moscow’s security forces with a means to infiltrate and weaken Ukraine from within.” The Biden administration has maintained that the timing for a new election will be Ukraine’s decision.

—Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky met with defense ministers from France and Britain, as well as NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg ahead of an arms production forum in Kyiv. The forum, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister, will bring together representatives of 165 military contractors from 26 nations.

“It will be an important opportunity for Ukrainian companies to forge new partnerships with the industry across the alliance and beyond,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Zelensky on Thursday. “The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we come to ending Russia’s aggression.”

—Significant territorial gains have been hard to come by for either side this year, according to a new study by the New York Times. “Despite nine months of bloody fighting, less than 500 square miles of territory have changed hands since the start of the year. A prolonged stalemate could weaken Western support for Ukraine,” the Times reported. The Times’ analysis of data from the Institute for the Study of War showed that August 2023 was the month in which the least territory changed hands since the invasion last year.

—Ukraine is continuing to search for safe alternatives for its grain exports following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain initiative in July. Last week, Ukraine successfully tested a new route, and a second ship made it through this week. Three more vessels have safely entered Ukrainian waters in recent days, officials told the New York Times. In the past week, the Times reported, “it appears that Russia has made no public attempt to impede the progress of commercial vessels along the new route.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mattew Miller spoke about the state of Ukraine support amid the ongoing disputes on Capitol Hill.

“We have been encouraged by the bipartisan support that we have gotten from Congress since the beginning of this war. I think it is quite clear, if you look at the debate in Congress, that there are bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress that support continued aid to Ukraine,” Miller said. “Now, look, there’s a process that we have to go through in working with Congress. I think it was important that President Zelenskyy was able to travel to the Hill last week and communicate directly with members of Congress about what is happening on the ground. We have been able to talk to Congress about accountability mechanisms that we have in place for the aid that we’ve provided. We’ve heard them say we want to hear accountability; we’ve made clear we have accountability mechanisms and we’re happy to talk to you more about what those look like.”
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Reporting | QiOSK
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