Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban agreed to a funding plan for Ukraine on Thursday, allowing the European Union to clear the final hurdle on its $54 billion aid package that will run through 2027.
Orban, who had pushed for an annual review of the fund so that he would have the opportunity to veto additional aid each year, had been the sole holdout on the package since it was introduced last December.. It is unclear what, if any, material concessions Orban received before agreeing to the new package. The Financial Times earlier this week reported that Brussels had itself drawn up a plan to “sabotage” Budapest’s economy if it vetoed the aid package.
“All 27 leaders agreed on an additional €50 billion support package for Ukraine within the EU budget. This locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding for #Ukraine,” Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, wrote on the social media platform X. “EU is taking leadership & responsibility in support for Ukraine; we know what is at stake.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed, saying it was “very important” that the funding plan had been agreed to unanimously.
“Continued EU financial support for Ukraine will strengthen long-term economic and financial stability, which is no less important than military assistance and sanctions pressure on Russia,” Zelensky wrote on X.
This development comes at a precarious time for Ukraine, as the stalling of aid from Europe and the United States had left it on the verge of an economic crisis. While the support from Brussels is welcome news, new aid from Washington remains tied up in Congress.
“The only way to preserve macroeconomic stability is support from the United States,” Ukraine’s finance minister, Serhiy Marchenko told the New York Times this week.
The fate of President Joe Biden’s national security supplemental request, which contains $60 billion for Kyiv remains unclear. Negotiations regarding the border security policy that is included in the bill have been ongoing for weeks. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday that the text of the bill is expected to be finalized by Sunday, and that the legislation will be brought to a vote no later than next Wednesday. Whether or not it makes its way through the Senate, the bill faces even longer odds in the Republican-led House.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Washington this week to try to convince notable skeptics of continuing aid to Ukraine. He met with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) and gave a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Stoltenberg struck a positive tone about his visit, saying that he was optimistic that Washington would pass another tranche of aid.
“I expect that the United States will find a way to support Ukraine, because this is in U.S. national security interests to ensure that President Putin doesn't win and that Ukraine prevails,” Stoltenberg told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday.
He also released a joint statement with Johnson saying that they had “addressed the importance of sending a clear, decisive message to President Putin that he will not win his war of aggression in Ukraine.”
But, as RS’s Connor Echols explained this week, the secretary general’s efforts are up against serious roadblocks. “[Stoltenberg’s arguments are] unlikely to satisfy concerns from budget hawks and restrainers, who fear the possibility of open-ended conflict with sky-high cost,” Echols wrote. “But, as Ukraine’s military capacity continues to degrade, only time will tell if Stoltenberg’s last-ditch effort proved persuasive.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The U.S. and Germany are pushing back at an attempt from other NATO members — namely Poland and the Baltic countries — to formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance during an upcoming summit this July, according to Foreign Policy.
“[P]roponents of this view believe that bringing Ukraine into NATO sooner rather than later will be cheaper in the long run than the current Western strategy of funneling arms and munitions to Ukraine in perpetuity while keeping NATO membership on the back burner,” according to the report. “Letting Ukraine into NATO too soon, however, particularly as large swaths of its territory are still occupied by Russian forces, could trigger a full-scale NATO-Russia conflict, given the 31-member alliance’s bedrock collective defense clause that calls for all NATO countries to defend any one country that has been attacked.
— Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis said that there may be a window for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine at the end of 2024, as both sides continue to suffer from war fatigue. “I think toward the end of this year, probably after the U.S. elections, we’ve got a moment for potential negotiation,” Stravridis said, according to The Hill. He also laid out the broad parameters of what such a deal could look like, saying that the conflict will end “like the Korean War, meaning that Russia will probably still have control of some portion of Ukraine, Crimea, the land bridge to Russia.
“On the other hand, I see Ukraine coming into NATO,” he continued “I think the outline of that deal will probably become more clear as this year goes on.”
— Russia and Ukraine completed another round of prisoner exchanges on Wednesday. The exact figures were disputed, with the Russian defense ministry saying that each side had released 195 prisoners, while Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said that it had received 207 prisoners . This was the first prisoner exchange since a plane carrying a reported 65 Ukrainian POWs crashed while heading to a similar swap last week. Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting down the plane, calling it “a terrorist act.” Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.
—The Washington Post is confirming earlier reports that Zelensky is planning to fire top military commander Valery Zaluzhny at some point in the near future.
“Zaluzhny’s popularity — both within the military and among ordinary citizens — makes his removal a political gamble for Zelensky. It also poses strategic risks at a time when Russia has intensified its attacks and Western security assistance for Kyiv has slowed,” according to the Post report. “The general has built strong rapport with his Western counterparts and has often been able to advocate directly for certain materiel and seek counsel on battlefield strategy.” However, friction between the two men has continued to grow following last summer’s failed counteroffensive and ongoing disagreements over how many more soldiers Kyiv will need to mobilize this year.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller denied reports that Washington was working behind the scenes to delay Ukraine’s path to joining NATO.
“Those reports are incorrect,” Miller said. “You’ve heard the President himself as well as the Secretary say it a number of times, that Ukraine will be a member of NATO.”
Blaise Malley is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He is a former associate editor at The National Interest and reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, The American Conservative, and elsewhere.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.