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The AFU drive invaders away, Zelenskyi persuades the U.S., and Eastern Europe is deluged with anti-Ukraine sentiments

The counteroffensive, Zelenskyi's visit, and problems with Eastern Europe: September 18–22 digest

The counteroffensive, Zelenskyi's visit, and problems with Eastern Europe: September 18–22 digest

Ukrainian forces broke through more defense lines of the occupiers, approaching the first strategic goal of the counteroffensive in the south, the city of Tokmak. Meanwhile, Zelenskyi is convincing American lawmakers not to stop supporting Kyiv, and in the eastern EU countries, which have been the Ukraine’s staunchest allies since the full-scale invasion — Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, and Bulgaria — support is waning; instead, anti-Ukrainian voices are gaining strength.

The Page offers a digest of Western mass media at the end of the September 18–22, 2023, business week.

New progress in the South: Ukrainian forces crush the invaders’ resistance

Ukrainian forces approach Tokmak. Photo: Getty Images

Ukrainian forces approach Tokmak. Photo: Getty Images

Ukrainian officials indicated Thursday that further inroads have been made on the southern front, with some units advancing "deep into the Russian defenses", CNN reports.

Colonel Mykola Urshalovych, Deputy Director of Planning with the National Guard, said at a briefing in Kyiv that units of the Offensive Guard brigades were pushing the occupiers out of their positions and consolidating their positions despite strong Russian resistance.

Russian-appointed officials in occupied Zaporizhzhia give a very different picture. Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Russian-installed Zaporizhzhia military-civilian administration, said there had been a strike on a Ukrainian assault group in the Robotyne area, which forced it to retreat with heavy losses.

However, Yevgeniy Balitskiy, the head of the occupation administration of the Zaporizhzhia region, said that he expected the situation in the Robotyne-Verbove area to deteriorate.

According to several analysts, Ukrainian vehicles from the 82nd Air Assault Brigade had crossed one trench system. The open-source investigative group GeoConfirmed posted a video showing armored vehicles crossing the trench system.

A Ukrainian officer with extensive experience in reporting on front line changes said on X (ex-Twitter):

Quote"It’s evident that our forces executed maneuvers effectively, driving back the enemy and exploiting the gap. They have advanced close to Verbove, overcoming [anti-tank] trenches, minefields, and dragon’s teeth. A notable milestone…The next several days will show if the penetration becomes a breakthrough."

Ukrainian defenders still remain some 20 kilometers from the strategic Russian hub of Tokmak, their first major target on the southern offensive. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar on Monday told CNN her country has been able to liberate 300 square kilometers since the beginning of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the summer.

Zelenskyi in Washington: Did he convince the skeptics?

Biden reassured Zelenskyi in his support for Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images

Biden reassured Zelenskyi in his support for Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images

According to The New York Times, U.S. President Joe Biden told President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine during their meeting on Thursday that the United States would be staying with Kyiv, although a growing number of Republicans has threatened to hold up aid.

As part of his visit, the Ukrainian president visited Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House. At the White House, Mr. Biden said the United States would begin shipping over Abrams tanks next week. He also acknowledged that he counted on bipartisan support for continued assistance for Ukraine, to which "there’s no alternative".

Meanwhile, polls have shown a growing weariness over the war among the American public. Dozens of Republicans say they are opposed to Mr. Biden’s latest request to Congress for $24 billion for additional aid for Ukraine. However, according to Zelenskyi, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, assured him in a private meeting that the House would continue to support the Ukrainian war effort.

According to Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, Zelensky said Ukraine would lose the war without the aid. He also said that Ukrainian Defense Forces wouldn’t stop their counteroffensive during the winter and predicted that Ukrainian forces would retake Bakhmut and two more cities, which he refused to name.

Quote"American support for Ukraine is not charity," Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said in a statement. "It’s in our own direct interests — not least because degrading Russia helps to deter China."

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy has been under pressure to take a hard line amid demands in his caucus for spending cuts. In a closed-door meeting on Thursday, Republican lawmakers asked Mr. Zelensky to address their concerns and provide them with his vision of a plan for victory. Democrats asked him how they could convince their conservative colleagues that continuing to support the war was the right answer.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said Mr. Zelensky had listened to questions about "funding fatigue," and then talked about the consequences of cutting off the money. He stressed that Europe and other countries look to the United States for leadership, and a decision by Washington to curtail aid could undercut Europe’s commitment.

Putin’s friends in Bulgaria demand a breakup with NATO

Pro-Russian Bulgarians rallied to close NATO bases

Pro-Russian Bulgarians rallied to close NATO bases

Bulgarian police on Thursday scuffled with supporters of the ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane (Revival) party protesting against the policies of the pro-Western government, calling for the government to resign and for the closure of NATO military bases, Reuters reports.

Hundreds of protesters opposing the EU member's support for Ukraine in its war with Russia gathered in front of the parliament building, demanding an early election.

Some protesters carried placards reading "American bases out! Bulgaria is a zone of peace", referring to the opening of a new military base in the NATO member.

September 21 protests in Bulgaria [video]

Quote"Bulgarians do not want to participate in the war between Russia and Ukraine, we want to be a neutral country," one participant told Reuters

Bulgaria, which has sent arms to Ukraine, lifted its ban on Ukrainian grains last week. Separately on Thursday, Bulgaria expelled one Russian and two Belarusian nationals and barred them from entering Bulgaria in the next five years by order of the State Agency for National Security (SANS), local media reported.

Poland and Ukraine: A friendship tarnished by elections

Elections in Poland degrade the relations between Kyiv and Warsaw. Photo: depositphotos.com

Elections in Poland degrade the relations between Kyiv and Warsaw. Photo: depositphotos.com

To hear the Polish president compare Ukraine to a drowning person and the Ukrainian president describe Poland as acting in Moscow’s interests will come as a shock to many, The Guardian observes.

Poland was one of the few western countries that had an ambassador who stayed in Kyiv through the first days of the Russian invasion, and its president, Andrzej Duda, has been a frequent visitor to the Ukrainian capital. Poland also welcomed more than 2 million refugees in the first weeks of the full-fledged war.

This all makes the intensity of the rhetoric in the rift over grain imports harder to understand, but it may have more to do with internal politics in Poland than with real issues between the two capitals. As the 15 October parliamentary elections draws closer, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is looking for boosts to its support wherever possible.

Quote"This is primarily about the election and the motives are quite clear," said Wojciech Przybylski, the editor-in-chief of the journal Visegrad Insight. PiS is hoping to "flex a muscle with their key electoral groups", he added, including those involved in agriculture in the east of Poland, who have been most affected by the influx of Ukrainian grain.

The nationalist PiS party is also facing a challenge from the far-right Konfederecja party, which advocates for less help to Ukraine and focusing on Poland’s internal issues.

Although there are elements of "Ukraine fatigue" in Polish society, the ruling party has to tread a careful line as most of the population is staunchly anti-Russian and believes that Ukraine is also fighting for Poland’s security.

Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition coalition in next month’s election, on Thursday accused Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, and the ruling party of a "moral and geopolitical scandal of stabbing Ukraine in the back politically".

Daniel Szeligowski, a senior research fellow on Ukraine at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that although the issue had inevitably become political given that Poland is in an election season, it began with genuine economic concerns.

Quote"During the first four months of this year, import of Ukrainian wheat to Poland rose 600-fold, Polish agriculture was destabilized and the Polish government had no choice but to step in," he said.

According to him, if Ukrainian and Polish politicians continued with incendiary rhetoric, it would probably complicate the bilateral relationship further, even if both Kyiv and Warsaw will continue to be united in wanting to neutralize the threat from Russia.

Poland, Estonia, and Slovakia: weak links in the anti-Putin coalition

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made little secret of his plan to keep up the pressure on Ukraine until Western resolve breaks, Politico argues. More than 500 days into his war of aggression, he now has reason to believe things are working out the way he hoped.

Governments in Poland, Estonia, Slovakia and others in Central and Eastern Europe have been among Kyiv’s staunchest allies since the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Beyond sending weapons and welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees, they have been Ukraine’s loudest advocates in the West. However, domestic problems in these countries have undermined their support for Ukraine.

The most striking example is Poland, whose Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Wednesday that he would stop delivering new weapons to Ukraine. The statement marked a stunning escalation in a dispute between Kyiv and its closest EU neighbor ahead of a parliamentary election on October 15.

Quote"Ukraine realizes that in the last months, they’re not bordering Poland, they’re bordering Polish elections," said Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, adding that "the votes of a hundred thousand Polish farmers are more important for the government than what is going to be the cost for Ukraine".

The problems of waning support are not only about Poland. Thus, since the start of the full-scale war, Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, advocated the pro-Ukraine cause in Brussels and Washington loudly and effectively. But Kallas’ credibility took a hit over a scandal involving her husband, who was revealed to own a stake in a company that kept doing business in Russia after the February 2022 invasion, even as his wife was advocating for ending all trade with Moscow.

Estonia’s Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said that no amount of political upheaval would change the country’s course:

Quote"We constantly have elections, and we constantly have domestic issues, but it doesn’t change our policy. One thing Estonia has had in all these 32 years is the same continuous foreign policy."

That said, Kallas has been a lot less vocal since the scandal broke in late August, depriving Kyiv of one of its strongest advocates in Western capitals.

There are also changes in Slovakia, which can be turned into a skeptic overnight by elections on September 30. Robert Fico, the country’s populist former prime minister, is campaigning on a pro-Russian, anti-American platform that opposes sanctions against Russian individuals and further arms deliveries to Kyiv. He’s on course to win the election, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

Quote"If you have a society where only 40 percent support arms delivery to Ukraine and your government offers support almost at the level of the Baltics, that creates a backlash," said Milan Nič, a fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Kyiv, for now, seems relaxed. Speaking at a press conference after an event in Brussels last Friday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Olha Stefanishyna downplayed the static between Kyiv and some of its erstwhile friends:

Quote"We have a strong commitment and a political confirmation that none of the political processes will affect the ongoing support," she said.

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