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Not backing Ukraine is 'disastrous for Slovak security,' says former defense minister

by Asami Terajima November 15, 2023 7:33 PM 6 min read
President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) meets with Slovak Defense Minister Martin Sklenar in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 29, 2023. (President's Office)
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One of Ukraine's worst fears appears to have come to pass: a key ally announced a halt to military aid.

Slovakia, Ukraine's small eastern neighbor of 5.4 million people, gave generously from its Soviet-era arsenal and welcomed Ukrainian refugees after the full-scale war began.

Now, a recent election handed scandal-marked populist Robert Fico his fourth stint as Prime Minister — he was sworn in on Oct. 25. In contrast to the pro-Ukraine caretaker government appointed in May following a coalition crisis, Fico vowed not to send "a single bullet" to Ukraine and has been known to repeat Kremlin propaganda in public.

"I will support zero military aid to Ukraine," Fico said on Oct. 26, as he so often did during his campaign. He believes that "the EU should change from an arms supplier to a peacemaker."

Fico has opposed sanctions on Russia since before the full-scale invasion. He claimed that military aid will only prolong the war and insisted on peace talks, since "further killing will not help anyone."

His return is a threat to both Kyiv and Bratislava.

Slovakia's ex-Defense Minister Martin Sklenar told the Kyiv Independent that an inability to understand the seriousness of the war and declining support for Ukraine could be "disastrous for Slovakia's security."

But even though Fico talks a big game, Sklenar said he expects some aid to persist for pragmatic reasons, although it will become much harder to organize.

Fico's message reflects a 2023 public opinion poll by Bratislava-based security think-tank Globsec. In it, 69% of the respondents believed that providing military aid to Ukraine is provoking Russia and bringing the war closer to home. Only 40% blamed Russia for the war, "with most falling prey to disinformation narratives, blaming Ukraine or the West."

In an interview with the Kyiv Independent, before his government was ousted in late October, Sklenar said that the length of the war has allowed propaganda to catch up to public opinion.

Some people came to believe that "fewer weapons make more peace," which he says is absolutely not the case.

"We need to make sure that we do everything that is in our possibilities to push that (narrative) away as far as possible from Slovakia," Sklenar said. "If Ukraine is stable and secure and prosperous, that's the best situation in which Slovakia can be."

Strengthening Ukraine is the best way to keep the war from coming to Slovakia, he said.

The former defense minister believes that the Slovak people would do well to consider their history. During World War II, Slovakia – then part of Czechoslovakia – expected other countries to help it stand against Nazi Germany, which it couldn't do on its own.

"We seem to have forgotten this, that we were, you know, protecting and liberating our country from oppression, in this case, from Nazism," he said. "This is the situation that Ukraine is in, very similar to that one."

Halting crucial military aid

Slovakia is one of the few countries on the verge of cutting support for Ukraine due to internal politics.

Its contributions were substantial. Slovakia pledged 680 million euros across 13 military aid packages, according to the German-based Kiel Institute. It was the first country to provide S-300 air defense systems and joined Poland in sending the first MiG-29 fighter jets.

Relative to GDP, Slovakia's aid was some of the highest, sixth overall.

"While the attitude of the Ministry of Defense has always been, you know, based on the requests coming from Ukraine, we would assess what are the possibilities," said Sklenar, who was the country's defense minister for most of 2023.

"And based on that, we would act if possible. There was always a balance between the donations and (home security) needs."

Slovakia no longer has MiG-29 jets to donate, but it still has more Soviet-era T-72 tanks and ammunition to give, once NATO allies can replace them, according to Sklenar.

And in spite of the new prime minister's hard-no stance on any military aid for Ukraine, Sklenar said he still expects it to continue in some form, though it may be "less frequent and less visible" and take longer to put together.

"There's a lot of support that will continue even after this," Sklenar said. "There are possibilities to still provide the necessary support, but in a slightly different framework."

He hinted that "there are other countries who have done the same in the past for various reasons, either security or political reasons," without naming them.

Bulgaria sent ammo and fuel to Ukraine in secret, despite publicly turning down Kyiv's aid requests, the Guardian reported, citing former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and Finance Minister Asen Vasilev.

Fico said on Nov. 6 his government will not prevent arms sales from Slovak companies to Ukraine.

"If some company wants to produce arms and export them somewhere, nobody is going to prevent that, of course," Fico said after meeting new Defense Minister Robert Kalinak.

During Fico's rule, the Ukraine-Slovakia defense cooperation is expected to continue, Sklenar said.

Slovakia is among the few NATO countries that have begun working with Ukraine to co-produce much-needed weapons.

Together with Ukraine's private manufacturer, Kramatorsk Heavy Machine Tool Plant (KZVV), Slovak-owned Konstrukta-Defence is working to co-develop a new 155 mm self-propelled howitzer – relying on Slovak technical knowledge and Ukraine's input from the battlefield.

The timeframe of the project has not been revealed yet.

"And that (arms industrial contractual) relationship will not be broken just by the government," Sklenar said.

Along with other allies, Slovakia amped up domestic ammunition production this year for Ukraine and itself.

Slovakia's production is expected to reach 60,000 rounds a year in 2024 and 125,000 a year in 2025, according to Sklenar. Before the full-scale war, Slovakia, or the partially state-owned Slovak defense company ZVS Holding, produced about 25,000 rounds per year.

Military analysts like Tom Cooper have criticized the Western allies' slow decision to ramp up ammunition production for Ukraine.

In Slovakia, it took a long time to convince private companies in the arms industry that investment was not risky, even with the prospect that the war would end one day, according to Sklenar.

While Fico campaigned on a clear anti-Ukraine policy, analysts are telling the media they're not sure the halt will be as absolute as he promised.

Citing Fico's "pragmatic" reign during his prior terms, analysts suggested that the new leader could adjust his rhetoric to suit his coalition partner Hlas (Voice), formerly part of Fico's populist Smer party that broke away from the original group after losing the 2020 election following a scandal, the Guardian reported.

Hlas has supported the EU policy on the war and Slovakia's continued ammunition support to boost its industry, it added.

"It will be up to the government to decide how they want to go about making sure that the country on our border is stable, secure, and prosperous – because that's the goal for any government," Sklenar said.

Still, Slovakia's latest package of arms assistance for Ukraine was blocked by President Zuzana Caputova. She turned down the caretaker government's plan earlier in October, saying that it lacked the authority after Fico's September victory.

Kyiv slammed Bratislava, but Sklenar agreed with the decision, saying, "In the time of election campaign, it is difficult to mount such (support)."

'Political earthquake'

Fico last served as prime minister in 2018 until he was forced to resign after a journalist investigating government corruption and organized crime turned up murdered.

Now, Fico is back, and his policies could spell a "political earthquake" pushing the country towards Russia, the German Marshall Fund, a D.C. think-tank wrote earlier this month.

Hungary's authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, has already sent his congratulations.

"This is what the Slovak people have elected in the free, fair and democratic election," Sklenar said, adding that maintaining unity with the EU and NATO is a must.

"We are a small country," Sklenar said. "We cannot really live and prosper in a world where the stronger ones have the right, and we don't really want to allow the world to slide back into this type of situation."

Fico promised to oppose the EU's sanctions on Russia. He promised to refocus on internal problems and called for peace talks, which plays into the hands of Russia, that is currently occupying significant parts of five Ukrainian regions, including Crimea.

Sklenar said Ukraine should be the one to initiate the talks, supported by the West.

"In any case, there needs to be diplomatic negotiations," the former defense minister said. "The question is when should it start and what should be the conditions on the ground when the negotiations start. This is from our point of view."

"Ukraine has shown us that they are incredibly heroic defenders," said Sklenar, who now leads the Transatlantic Relations and Security Policy Department in the Foreign Ministry.

Asked whether he thinks it's realistic for Ukraine to liberate all of its territories, Sklenar said that "the negotiations will show whether it's possible to reconstitute Ukraine's borders in the 1991 form, and for that, we need to see how the counteroffensive is successful."

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