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Ukraine’s allies fret over coalition after U.S. drops aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) walks with U.S. President Joe Biden down the colonnade to the Oval Office during a visit to the White House Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington, DC. Zelensky is in the nation's capital to meet with President Biden and Congressional lawmakers after attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York.   (Evan Vucci/Pool/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Emily Ashton and Andra Timu Bloomberg News

The decision by U.S. lawmakers to drop a $6 billion aid package for Ukraine is fueling anxiety among some of Kyiv’s allies that American support for the war effort is starting to waver.

Congress abandoned the funding for Kyiv to help avoid a government shutdown just as Ukraine intensifies efforts to repel Russia’s invasion, stoking concerns that the U.S. may be drifting toward isolationism and an increased focus on domestic politics. Less than two weeks ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the U.S. capital to plead for new weapons systems and continued financial and military support.

The development is concerning and needs to be resolved quickly, according to one senior European official, who asked not to be identified. There’s a broader shift in U.S. sentiment on Ukraine, and Putin and other aggressors may be emboldened in the absence of unwavering western support, the official added. One European Union leader predicted that the situation is likely to get more difficult as U.S. elections approach.

“It took most of us by surprise, those who are supporting Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Bloomberg Monday by telephone from Kyiv, where he was taking part in a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers.

“It could have raised some cheers in those countries who do not support Ukraine or wish them anything else but victory,” Landsbergis added. “It can be rectified, obviously, but it shows the difficulty of the discussion.”

Some allies pointed to comments from President Joe Biden, who urged House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to follow up quickly with funding, as evidence that broad international backing for Ukraine’s war effort is intact, and the holdup in aid for Kyiv only temporary.

“President Biden’s actually made it clear that it doesn’t change his view about the continuing gifting and financing,” U.K. Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday during a panel discussion at the Tory Party conference in Manchester. “But of course domestic politics will play into it.”

Congress on Saturday passed a bipartisan measure that would keep the U.S. government funded until mid-November, but the absence of aid to Ukraine was a blow to Biden’s administration.

Asked what he would say to Zelenskyy and other allies, the U.S. leader said: “I can reassure them. Look at me: We are going to get it done.”

But fresh assistance is becoming more difficult to achieve particularly as the domestic focus in the U.S. increasingly shifts to issues like border security.

The Biden administration hopes that the funding decision is seen as anomalous, a U.S. official said. Still, several European officials said the move by lawmakers raised concerns, though U.S. support to Ukraine would likely continue.

Speaking Monday in Kyiv before talks with his E.U. counterparts, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his government is working with both sides of Congress to make sure support continues.

“We don’t feel that the U.S. support has been shattered because the United States understands that what is at stake in Ukraine,” he told reporters. “The question is whether what happened is an incident or a system,” he added. “I think it was an incident.”

The decision to drop the aid was discussed only informally by ministers meeting in Kyiv, and the general assessment is that Washington will find a solution, according to an E.U. diplomat, who asked not to be identified as the talks were confidential. Nevertheless, concerns remain about the potential outcome of next year’s U.S. election, the official added.

European backing for Ukraine is facing an additional new challenge after a candidate sympathetic to Russia won Slovakia’s election on Saturday. Robert Fico has criticized E.U. sanctions against the Kremlin and pledged to end military aid to Ukraine.

Olena Bilan, chief economist at Kyiv-based investment bank Dragon Capital, said in a tepehone interview that the administration in Kyiv has secured enough financing to cover its budget needs for this year, but warned that next year looks “increasingly challenging” and “Ukraine has become a hostage of difficult political processes in the U.S.”

The E.U.’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc “deeply and thoroughly” regrets the decision by Congress, while insisting that he’s certain it will be reconsidered.

Borrell spoke to reporters in Kyiv Monday before hosting what he said was the first ever gathering of all 27 member nations outside E.U. territory.

“We have to continue supporting Ukraine and discussing with our American allies and friends for them too to continue.”