The intended optics during the visit of Josep Borrell, the top diplomat of the European Union, to Kyiv were unambiguous. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, Borrell hailed the visit as "historic."
Monday marked the first time EU foreign ministers gathered in Kyiv for a meeting outside of the bloc's borders. But, Borrell said, early-stage EU accession candidate Ukraine, would one day lie within the bloc's frontiers.
"We are here to express our solidarity and support to the Ukrainian people," Borrell wrote on X, formerly Twitter, at the start of talks.
Messages of solidarity with Ukraine
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of offering Ukraine a "protective shield" against Russian bombardment over the coming winter months — implying the strengthening of Ukrainian air defense.
France's Europe and foreign affairs minister, Catherine Colonna, warned Russia not to "count on our weariness. We will be there for a long time to come."
More than 18 months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the conflict is grinding on with no clear end in sight — despite the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in June.
The European Union has made clear that it stands by Ukraine. Its institutions and national governments have collectively pledged more than €130 billion ($136.4 billion) in military, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Germany alone has pledged some €20 billion, according to the non-profit think tank Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW). The US has promised close to €60 billion.
Waning support from the West?
But question marks still linger over future Western support. On Sunday, Slovakian elections saw the populist and openly pro-Russian Robert Fico emerge victorious on a ticket of ending military support to Ukraine. If Fico manages to lead the next coalition government and makes good on his promises, Slovakia might join Hungary in obfuscating the passage of aid to Kyiv.
Even Poland, one of Ukraine's closest backers, said last month that it would stop sending weapons to Kyiv. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki quickly insisted his comments had been misinterpreted, and that in fact the government would only stop sending newer weaponry.
Warsaw's comments came at a moment of high-tension dispute over Ukrainian grain exports. Elections are weeks away in Poland, and Morawiecki's right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) relies on farmers for its voter base — a group heavily affected by cheap Ukrainian grain imports.
In the United States, aid to Ukraine has been temporarily paused during tense budget negotiations. A stopgap funding bill passed to avoid government shutdown does not foresee aid to Ukraine. President Joe Biden is still pushing to find a solution.
Kuleba sought to minimize concerns on Monday. The Ukrainian politician said he did not believe Washington's support was waning, describing the issue as an "incident" rather than systemic, news agency Reuters reported. On the Slovakian elections, Kuleba said it was too soon to say what stance of the new government in Bratislava would take on military aid to Kyiv.
Nothing in Kyiv on Monday suggested anything like a sea change in EU policy toward Ukraine, but it appears that unwavering support may come to clash more frequently with domestic concerns. The skyrocketing cost of living and inflation in the wake of Russia's war on Ukraine has posed a huge strain for many people living in the EU.
Betting on war fatigue
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that he believed that fatigue with the Ukraine war would eventually take hold in the United States and European Union, but that Washington would remain directly involved in the conflict.
Borrell and visiting EU ministers were keen to show that this was not the case. "I don't see any member states faltering," Borrell told reporters after the talks.
Michael Emerson, a foreign policy expert from the independent think thank Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), agreed, but stated that he believed the United States was actually of concern.
Poland had merely stated that it would not send brand new weapons to Kyiv, Emerson said, and Fico had said he would still support economic aid to Ukraine. "Both will be careful not to be real wreckers," Emerson said.
"The EU has reason to be very worried about how US party politics may undermine Western unity over Ukraine," Emerson added. "Biden sends out soothing words, but one has to be skeptical."
The possibility of a return of former US President Donald Trump to the White House in 2024 also looms large over the current unified front between the US, EU and UK, another major backer. In the past, Trump has suggested the US was sending too much military and financial aid to Kyiv.
Gustav Gressel, an analyst from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW that Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy was now based on winning a long war. If Putin could not beat Ukraine in a quick military operation, he would try to "grind it to death,” Gressel said.
"He might drag the war so long that Western unity and Western support for Ukraine collapses first. And then he can mop up Ukraine, or what's left of it," said Gressel, a senior policy fellow at ECFR's Berlin office, who appeals for private donations and public funding for the Ukrainian military.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to share Gressel's assessment. "Our victory directly depends on our cooperation," Zelenskyy said of EU support at the Kyiv talks. "The most strong and principled steps we take together, the sooner this war will end."
Edited by: Maren Sass