Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 6 October 2023


Revival of the Danube axis spells trouble for Ukraine

Unjust peace with Putin is becoming increasingly attractive to central European leaders who are allowing economic anxiety and latent Russophilia to drive a wedge between them and the Zelensky government

Anti-government protesters gather at the statue of Alexander II of Russia in Sofia. President Putin and Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, share a commitment to conservative values
Anti-government protesters gather at the statue of Alexander II of Russia in Sofia. President Putin and Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, share a commitment to conservative values
The Times

The blood-and-guts war in Ukraine is spilling over into the US election campaign, aggravating the famine heartlands of Africa, pumping global inflation and, it emerges, turning Mitteleuropa into a toxic neighbourhood. Central Europe, it was assumed at the outset of the Russian invasion 20 months ago, would side with President Zelensky, the archetypal Little Man, the resister-in-chief. Instead, many of his neighbours are backing away from the fight.

Robert Fico has just won the Slovak election partly on the basis of the slogan: “Not one bullet more!” The EU is having to try ever harder to persuade Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, to lift his veto on an urgently required aid package for Kyiv. President Radov of Bulgaria grumbles: “Ukraine insists on fighting this war but the bill is paid by the whole of Europe.”

The east Europeans should be natural allies in Ukraine’s struggle but Kyiv is losing them. Even Poland, squeezed for much of the 20th century between the killing machines of Germany and Russia, and commendably quick to take sides, is calculating that it may be approaching the end of its military stocks for its southern neighbour Ukraine. Who is listening to these rumblings? America’s Ukraine-sceptics, who calculate that there are few votes to be won from supporting what might be the losing side in an unwinnable war far away.

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As the presidential election campaign limbers up, the American political class is growing queasy at the prospect of an even longer, more expensive conflict. Congress has dropped overboard $6 billion of aid, earmarked for Ukraine, as part of a bid to avert a government shutdown. President Biden says that a previously promised additional $40 billion will come. But that seems far from certain. A principle has been established: aid for Ukraine has become a bargaining chip in Washington politics. Zelensky's moment in the sun may be disappearing.

President Putin is counting on it. The final battle of the war, he calculates, will be the bloodless contest to persuade western voters to wind down military support for the Zelensky government. Moscow is said (by US intelligence) to be preparing disinformation campaigns for next year, which will be brimming with elections, from India to the US to Britain.


Judging by the changing political winds in the West, the Russian leader might not have to mobilise all of his bot armies. The biggest impact on America’s Republican sceptics on arming Ukraine so far was Poland’s tactical withdrawal. Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister, promised to honour existing contracts with Ukraine but warned there would be no new deliveries until Warsaw had rebuilt its own defences. That hurt Kyiv. Poland had taken in 1.5 million Ukrainians, offered generous welfare handouts and unbureaucratic treatment of those granted temporary protection. It was Warsaw that had lobbied hard for Germany to free up its Leopard tanks for use on the battlefield; Poland which had turned itself into a mass transit hub for weapons flown in from American bases. Poland and Ukraine had a chequered history but the war effort seemingly overcame the old animosities.

Now, as Poland heads for an election on October 15, the government has taken a step back. The reversal was almost certainly tactical — to nudge the US into speeding up deliveries of modern high-tech kit for Warsaw's own use. But it was also intended, and framed, as a rebuke to the Zelensky government, as a protest against Ukraine’s dumping of cheap grain on the Polish market. And at Zelensky's perceived ingratitude. Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party may need the support, after the election, of a smaller, even more nationalist party, Confederation, which has been tapping into rural discontent and war-weariness. Farmers complain that the glut of Ukrainian grain is forcing them into bankruptcy.

After the election, Poland may relent and revive the maxim of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the founding father of the modern Polish state, that “there is no free Poland without a free Ukraine”. But Ukraine is right to be nervous. This is not just about the possible arrival of Donald Trump next year, it’s about the peeling away of the western allies, the end of enthusiasm. If the West is to hold firm, it is going to have to take a more thorough look at what is happening, not just in the interplay between Europe and the US in bankrolling and kitting out this war, but also the historically rooted schisms within Europe. Wars can unify, but also atomise societies. An assumption guiding western policy has been that “central Europe” — the small countries in the middle of the continent — had forcibly ended up as part of the Moscow-controlled east but were culturally pro-western. That wasn’t wrong but it does not take into account the variegation of the region.

President Zelensky’s neighbours appear to be backing away from the fight
President Zelensky’s neighbours appear to be backing away from the fight

One cordon of today’s Ukraine-sceptics, for example, follows an ancient fault line along the course of the Danube, its basin and floodplains that marked out for centuries the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, the civilisational border known as the Danubian Limes. Chains of forts and watchtowers were built along it as it wound its way from the source in the Black Forest towards the delta and the Black Sea, a defence against the Germanic tribes. It runs 2,400km. You can cycle along much of it and understand what happened to Europe afterwards: how the sites of Roman camps became the basis of towns in the Middle Ages, and how new wars absorbed the Danube region — the Ottomans against the Serbs, the Ottomans against the Hungarians and the Habsburgs, the Russians against the Turks.

Today, its strategic significance is clear. The Black Sea has become one of the crucibles of the Russian war. Grain is shipped along the Danube from under-fire Ukrainian silos to Romania. Russian rockets are aimed at the Ukrainian ports of Izmail and Reni and sometimes overshoot into Romania. That is, into Nato territory. There is intelligence chatter about the Russians preparing to use sea mines against civilian shipping close to Ukrainian ports and thus destroy the country’s humanitarian corridor. That will put more pressure on the Danube.

No wonder the Romanians are not enthusiastic about the war. About a year ago Vasile Dincu, the defence minister, urged Ukraine to enter negotiations with the Russians. And he argued that Nato and the US negotiate on its behalf since a Ukrainian negotiator would never be able to accept the loss of territory as a condition of peace. Dincu resigned shortly afterwards, citing differences with the president. Yet he wasn’t denounced as a Putin puppet, merely as someone who made the mistake of saying aloud what many in the country were thinking — that even an unjust peace could be better for the neighbourhood than a destructive war.

The Danube flows through or defines the borders of ten countries, among them Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. Some, like Austria, are formally neutral. Serbia, whose government is fiercely pro-Russian, is focused on other conflicts (piling up troops close to Kosovo’s border). But the three countries of concern, all Nato members, all potential swing states in the great contest between Putin and the West, are Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. Together they have the capacity to block action — to trip up all the logical next steps to shield a post-bellum Ukraine from continuing subversion and aggression from Russia. Some form of Nato membership is likely to be on offer to Kyiv at the 75th anniversary summit next summer. Will the Danube Three block it, or demand concessions from the US? EU membership — which the Zelensky government thinks is achievable within two years — could become a never-ending process like Turkey’s application.

Robert Fico, of Slovakia, won his election with the slogan: “Not one bullet more!”
Robert Fico, of Slovakia, won his election with the slogan: “Not one bullet more!”

The Danube Three — Slovakia’s Fico, Hungary’s Orban and Bulgaria’s Radev — are not just unenthusiastic arms suppliers, they represent a dangerous counter-orthodoxy: that the future of the region cannot be decided without the active participation of Putin. If Trump or a like-minded president takes over the US next year, if the European component of Nato remains split, then Ukraine is in even bigger trouble than the pessimists claim.


Georgi Gotev, a shrewd Bulgarian-born analyst, identifies Slovakia and Bulgaria as the two weakest links in the EU and Nato efforts to help Ukraine. “Russian propaganda has found fertile ground in both countries amongst local actors,” he says. “No one seems to be fighting this propaganda at the state level.” In Slovakia, voters were encouraged to vote for Fico, despite his murky past, by a sense of victimhood born of its suffering in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later in the Soviet bloc within what was Czechoslovakia. Claudio Magris, the chronicler of Danubian cultures, thinks Slovak misery under the Soviets may have been overdone. Although Slovaks certainly contributed to the Prague Spring of 1968 — a movement in favour of a more democratic socialism that was crushed by Soviet tanks — they were not punished to the same degree as the Czechs. Prague was decapitated by the totalitarian restoration of 1968, but one side-effect was to increase the political weight of the Slovak population. Twenty-four years later that contributed to the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Pan-Slavism was seen as a path to significance for 19th-century Slovaks fed up with being written off as a semi-literate peasant minority. Under pressure to become Hungarianised, Catholic Slovaks were also at odds with Protestant Czechs. A broader bond with Slavs everywhere was their escape from the fate of being a small, ignored nation. Russia was seen by many as a protector. A similar process was under way in Bulgaria. Even today a statue of the Tsar Liberator, Alexander II of Russia, sits in the centre of Sofia. The “liberation” refers to the 1878 victory over the Turks when Russians and Bulgarians fought side by side. Russophilia feeds into its politics to this day, informing radical right-wing populists and the Bulgarian socialist party. A large protest movement is threatening to resist any attempt to dismantle the Soviet war memorial. Under Communist rule the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov wanted to make his country the 16th republic of the Soviet Union. CIA officers privately dubbed him Toady Zhivkov.

There is then, a sense of loyalty, if not to Putin personally, then to Russia as a historic protector. It was only after a long, weaselly debate that Bulgaria this summer eventually agreed to send 100 infantry carrier vehicles to Ukraine. They were dusted off from police stocks and had been acquired in the Eighties as part of a campaign to force 300,000 Bulgarian Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Slovakia was more forthcoming above all as a transit country for weaponry. But this kind of support is not popular in either country. A study by Globsec, a Bratislava-based think tank, found this year that 69 per cent of Slovak respondents believed their country was provoking Russia by supplying kit to the Ukrainians and was bringing war closer to home. The second-highest percentage (in a sample of six east European countries) was Bulgaria with 59 per cent. A slim majority of Slovaks believed that either the West or Ukraine was “primarily responsible” for the war.

Slovakia and Bulgaria are also the countries with the lowest percentage of respondents who would vote to stay in Nato if there was a referendum, says Gotev. That would be Slovakia and Bulgaria at 58 per cent, according to Globsec polling, compared to 94 per cent for Poland and 89 per cent for Hungary and Romania. The high degree of popular support for Nato membership in Hungary shows how Orban is cynically instrumentalising his country’s position. Every single fighter jet flown by the Hungarian defence forces is a Swedish jet — yet he has been assiduously adding hurdles to Sweden’s Nato bid. His common ground with Putin is a public commitment to conservative family and religious values as well as a strongman leader’s contempt for media criticism. Parts of Ukraine, meanwhile, still figure on maps of greater Hungary.

The Danube Three awkward squad are against being told what to do. Their response to western solidarity on behalf of Ukraine is to start bargaining. What concessions can be won in return for siding with the alliance? What rewards are on offer from a Putin desperate to splinter the pro-Ukrainian front? Ukraine’s survival hinges on the answers to these questions. It shouldn’t. Nor should new Nato members ransack their history to carve out exceptionalist or obstructive positions. One east European envoy set out his small country’s line of defence to me: “Big countries are doing exactly the same, look how Germany drags its feet! Look how Putin’s people are entertained in Austria!” But of course Austria is technically neutral even if its former foreign minister embarrassed herself by curtseying towards her honoured wedding guest Putin. It has long ago decided that it does not have a moral case to answer for its multiple entanglements with Putin’s cronies. And Germany, while over-cautious and in no sense a leader on Ukraine, has at least radically reduced its dependence on Russian gas.

The case for the defence of Ukraine cannot be made by default. It has to be declared, sincerely and with concrete, credible commitments, from one end of Europe to another. If America gets the impression that Europe is trying to duck the fight for Ukraine, then the war will be lost politically as well as on the battlefield. The country has to be assured a position in Euro-Atlantic institutions, and be given the confidence that it will be safe from its predatory neighbour when the fighting eventually stops. That responsibility falls on leaders from states big and small.

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