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Autor foto: Domena publiczna/ Fundacja im. Kazimierza Pułaskiego

CEE Weekly Update: Omnipresent pessimism

CEE Weekly Update: Omnipresent pessimism

February 22, 2024

Author: Casimir Pulaski Foundation

CEE Weekly Update: Omnipresent pessimism

WhatsApp Image 2024-02-17 at 19.39.46

Autor foto: Domena publiczna/ Fundacja im. Kazimierza Pułaskiego

CEE Weekly Update: Omnipresent pessimism

Author: Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Published: February 22, 2024

US Ukraine Aid Bill DOA

Last Thursday, US House Speaker Mike Johnson delivered a blow to any hopes that the Senate-approved foreign aid bill would soon pass Congress’s lower chamber. Instead, Speaker Johnson, R-LA, called for a two-week recess, effectively killing any chance for the bill to come to the floor this month.[1] The recess, ending on February 28th, will likely push aid for Ukraine further down the list of congressional priorities, especially with a government shutdown looming in the first week of March. Johnson’s politically motivated decision to kill the bill on arrival is one of several strategies in the Republican playbook leading up to the presidential election.

An overview of the bill’s path to this point sheds light on its electoral significance and fraught political nature. In October, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, approached Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, to caution him that Republican approval of a Ukraine aid bill would hinge on tying in US border security.[2] Sen. Schumer agreed to combine the two issues, believing this would provide a win-win scenario: the bill would pass, and the border would be secured since those who prioritise Ukraine would support the bill holistically. After months of negotiations, the final package overwhelmingly passed last Tuesday in a 70-to-29 bipartisan vote.[3] However, far-right Senate conservatives removed the border elements they had originally fought for from the bill, rendering the legislation dead on arrival in the House.[4] Why remove border security if Speaker Johnson cautioned it would kill the bill? A potential answer may lie in Republican candidate Donald Trump’s views on the issue.

Republicans in Congress are already toeing the party line behind an unelected official. During the initial Senate negotiations, candidate Trump was preemptively calling on Republicans in Congress to reject the Ukrainian aid package. A win for Democrats on the spending bill would boost Biden’s electoral chances, a win that Trump is keen to prevent. Far-right congresspeople followed Trump’s calls, claiming that Democrats had not made any real concessions on the border and asserting that President Biden would not enforce the border law.[5] The Republicans’ requests for tying in border security, the far-right senators’ subsequent elimination of these border policies, and Johnson’s sudden call for a recess to obstruct a House vote on the bill reveals that a group of Republicans, wary of losing the election in 2024, are dealing a blow to the Democrats’ ability to secure a win (on border security and foreign aid). In doing so, they are creating chaos for all of Congress while Europe’s security situation worsens. In fact, on Sunday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers sent a letter to the entire House claiming that Ukraine’s recent loss of Eastern territory was the direct result of US Congressional gridlock.[6]


Munich Security Conference

During the 60th Munich Security Conference, European leaders sent two main messages aimed at US congresspeople. Firstly, every day that Ukraine’s military might is not reinforced, the war advantage is ceded to Russia. Secondly, Americans stand to gain from investing their spending bill in Ukraine.[7] These two points converged into one major European security goal: stop Russia in Ukraine, otherwise it may pull the West into a world war.[8] Every day that Russia secures victories in Ukraine and realigns its state towards a war economy, Western countries lose their chance to stop Russia’s advancement towards NATO’s borders.[9] Every day that the US does not invest in Ukraine, it shows China that dictators can challenge sovereignty.[10] Every day by which Congress delays the bill, it delays US investment into its own economy and military modernization.[11]


The statements of US congress members at the MSC are also worth considering, as they reveal inconsistencies in America’s understanding of these existential threats. Some, such as Sen. JD Vance, R-OH, showed an inherent denial of the security situation in Europe. Sen. Vance argued that Putin does not pose an “existential threat to Europe” and that a $60 billion dollar aid package to Ukraine “is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield.”[12] He added, “There are a lot of bad guys all over the world. And I’m much more interested in some of the problems in East Asia right now than I am in Europe”—a view reflective of Trump’s focus on China and cosy relations with Russia.[13] Vance overlooks Europe’s unified recognition of Russia’s heightened threat and the consensus on the war’s outcomes: “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow.”[14] Another congress member, Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE), acknowledged that Putin is a dictator with relentless ambition to pommel democracies, but did not perceive Ukrainian aid to be the main priority for US security.[15]

The absence of a consistent voice from the United States should serve as a signal to Europe that some lawmakers perceive a different reality than their European NATO allies. This underscores the importance for European states to strengthen self-reliance and foster inter-European military partnerships at all levels to effectively respond to crises.


Avdiivka Has Fallen!

On February 17, 2024, after four months of fighting off devastating Russian attacks, the Ukrainian army withdrew from the ruins of Avdiivka, a small town located north of Donetsk, which had been turned into a Ukrainian stronghold. According to Ukrainian military sources, the withdrawal from Avdiivka was imperative to avoid the encirclement and destruction of Ukrainian units, which had been coping with relentless artillery shelling and missile barrages in the past few weeks. Russia has been able to penetrate Ukraine’s air defence systems by deploying Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft equipped with glide bombs with a range of 70 km, thus forcing Kyiv’s forces to withdraw to a new, fortified line of defence. Nonetheless, the capture of the town was a costly endeavour for Moscow, given that the Ukrainian Armed Forces inflicted heavy losses on the attackers. As reported by the Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Press Service, the Russians lost up to 20,000 soldiers and over 600 tanks and other armoured vehicles on the frontlines between Avdiivka and western Zaporizhia.

Although the fall of Avdiivka should not be perceived as a turning point in the war, the future looks grim for the Ukrainian Armed Forces if the West fails to deliver the aid it had pledged. Additional delays of Western military assistance could have a detrimental impact on Ukraine’s ability to halt further Russian advances. This is due to Kyiv’s ammunition shortages and insufficient air defence capabilities. On Saturday morning, just a few hours before the fall of Avdiivka, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared at the Munich Security Conference to plead for Western support and weapon deliveries, in particular long-range munition and air defence systems. The conference took place under the shadow of Donald Trump’s threats to not defend those NATO allies that “do not pay their dues”, as well as “congressional inaction,” a term coined by President Biden to describe House Republicans’ reluctance to approve a $95 billion bill including aid for Ukraine. Considering the indecisiveness of American politicians and the fading political credibility of the United States, European allies need to step up and assume greater responsibility by supporting Kyiv while simultaneously re-arming themselves; this will require significant increases in both military spending and European defence industry capacities.


Farmers against the EU

Once again, protests erupted among Polish farmers against Ukrainian grain flooding the market. Since Russia’s unilateral decision to end the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Poland stands at the forefront of receiving most of the excessive grain but does not have the capacity and trade network to transfer the products further to Africa or the Middle East. It ends up as an oversupply on the market that lowers the price of the local products. A similar situation happens with Russian products sneaking into Eastern European markets or Africans coming to the Southern countries.

A sudden spike in supplies, together with worsening climate conditions affecting the harvest,  lagging reforms, lifted subsidies on fuels and tightening regulations, provoked many farmers to go to the streets around the continent. Since the beginning of the year, protests of various scales have occurred in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. Although each country has its own specificity, the European Green Deal is a common scapegoat that helps to unite the front of populists ahead of the European elections. Announced years ago, only now, together with more challenges to the sector, it receveies more attention of the sector. As much as the requirements of the scheme add some gas to the fire, they are not a direct cause of the protests. Nevertheless, it gives the movement a Pan-European character of a scale not witnessed before.

Although the protests might lead to some delay in the implementation of the European Green Deal, it will not affect the most immediate impasse in Polish-Ukrainian relations. As Radosław Sikorski said at the Munich Security Conference, the solution lies at the Black Sea[16]. The Russian bluff to abandon the deal should have been checked immediately, as now it has become a gloomy reality. Ukrainian allies have lost an initiative, and now reopening sailing roads through the Black Sea would be a bluff from the Western side that Russia could escalate on. It would require either more damage to the Russian fleet by the Ukrainian forces, which is rather a slow process or a solution at the negotiation table. Moscow has signalled to the West its willingness to do so despite Kyiv being absolutely against it. If no solution for excessive Ukrainian grain is found on the land, it can eventually lead more Europeans, even from CEE, to push for a cease-fire. Although tempting for populists, such a solution would be very short-sighted and would not guarantee the safety of the sea routes.


Authors: Rafał Lipka, Tomasz Obremsi, Jessica Maksimov (ed.)

[1] Catie Edmondson and Karoun Demirjian, “Ukraine Aid Bill Faces Hurdles in the House Amid G.O.P. Opposition,” February 13, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/13/us/politics/ukraine-aid-bill-house.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

[2] Carl Hulse, “How Senate Democrats Flipped the Border Issue on Republicans,” NYTimes, February 14, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/14/us/border-senate-schumer.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-new-congress&variant=show&region=BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT&block=storyline_flex_guide_recirc

[3]  Matt Murphy & Anthony Zurcher, “Biden condemns House taking break without passing fresh Ukraine aid,” BBC, February 17, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-68322241.

[4]  Since House Speaker Johnson has repeatedly stated that he would not put the bill to a vote without additional border security funding, omitting these elements was effectively a decision to kill the legislation.

[5] Catie Edmondson and Karoun Demirjian, “Ukraine Aid Bill Faces Hurdles in the House Amid G.O.P. Opposition,” February 13, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/13/us/politics/ukraine-aid-bill-house.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap.

[6] Sarah Fortinsky, “Bipartisan lawmakers urge colleagues to back bill combining Ukraine aid, border security,” The Hill, February 19, 2024, https://thehill.com/homenews/house/4477219-bipartisan-lawmakers-urge-colleagues-to-back-bill-combining-ukraine-aid-border-security/.

[7] “NATO Secretary General in panel discussion at Munich Security Conference,” NATO News, 17 Feb 2024, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25G5uX2wlBw.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Andrew Gray, “Europe seeks to sway Trump camp on NATO, Ukraine aid,” February 19, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/europe-seeks-sway-trump-camp-nato-ukraine-aid-2024-02-18/.

[12] Jack Detsch, “Specter of Another War in Europe Hangs Over Munich,” Foreign Policy, February 18, 2024, https://foreignpolicy.com/2024/02/18/munich-security-conference-ukraine-bill-estonia-china-defense-spending/#cookie_message_anchor; JD Vance, “Senator Vance Delivers a “Wake Up Call” to Munich Security Conference,” Senate.gov, February 18, 2024, https://www.vance.senate.gov/press-releases/senator-vance-delivers-a-wake-up-call-to-munich-security-conference/#:~:text=I%20do%20not%20think%20that,question%20about%20’abandoning%20Ukraine.

[13] Andrew Gray, “Europe seeks to sway Trump camp on NATO, Ukraine aid,” February 19, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/europe-seeks-sway-trump-camp-nato-ukraine-aid-2024-02-18/.

[14] “NATO Secretary General in panel discussion at Munich Security Conference,” NATO News, 17 Feb 2024, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25G5uX2wlBw.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “EU must solve problems of Ukrainian food imports says Polish FM”, February 18, 2024, https://www.pap.pl/ua/node/1681988 , Polish Press Agency.