A pro-Putin populist’s success adds to fears of cracks in support for Ukraine

A pro-Russian populist just won a crucial election in the heart of Europe, offering President Vladimir Putin a boost closer to home as events in Washington signaled cracks may be emerging in the West’s backing of Ukraine.

As a result of that election in Slovakia,  a country that has been one of Kyiv’s strongest supporters could turn against it at a crucial moment, adding to jitters in Western capitals about public fatigue with the war that only worsened after the United States avoided a government shutdown with a last-minute deal that included no new funding for Ukraine.

Robert Fico’s SMER-SSD Party won 23% of the vote in Slovakia’s election on Saturday, unexpectedly putting him in position to form a government in the small central European nation. The liberal Progressive Slovakia Party won 18% of the vote.

Fico, who wants to immediately stop funding Kyiv’s fight and has echoed the Kremlin’s baseless propaganda by accusing “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists” of starting the war, is widely expected to seek to turn the capital, Bratislava, away from Brussels and the European Union and toward Moscow.

He now has two weeks to form a coalition government and will need the help of more liberal lawmakers who could moderate his more extreme stance on Ukraine. 

A populist party that wants to stop military aid to Ukraine and is critical of the EU and NATO has won Slovakia's election, results showed on October 1.Chairman of Smer-Social Democracy party, Robert Fico, in Bratislava, Slovakia on Sunday Dladimir Simicek / AFP – Getty Images

Despite strong assurances of support for Ukraine from the White House and from European Union officials meeting in Kyiv this week, analysts told NBC News that, as a cost-of-living crisis continues to bite the continent, political parties taking a more Russia-friendly stance on the war are making gains across Europe.

“Parties like SMER were able to use this nationalist populism to create the assumption that by being pro-Ukrainian you are actually taking support from Slovakia. I think that this had an impact — this narrative was really resonating very, very well,” said Dominika Hajdu, policy director at GlobSec, a Bratislava-based think tank.

GlobSec conducted a poll in March that found 51% of Slovaks thought the West generally, or Ukraine itself, was “primarily responsible” for the war. Half of respondents saw the United States as a threat to its security, an increase from 39% in 2022.

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Slovakia borders Ukraine to the west and has been a major military donor, providing air defense systems and its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets. With a population of 5.4 million — less than Kentucky — Slovakia is the sixth-biggest provider of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as a proportion of its GDP.

But that could soon change.

Fico, 59, a former two-time prime minister, won the election partly by promising that “not a single round” would be sent to Ukraine under his watch. Humanitarian aid will continue, he said, and tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees will remain in Slovakia, but the military assistance will end.

Image: Smer Wins Slovak Parliamentary ElectionSmer ran on a pro-Russian, anti-European Union platform, including advocating an immediate halt to Slovak military aid to Ukraine. Zuzana Gogova / Getty Images

In 2022, inflation in Slovakia rose to over 12% amid huge energy price rises, sparking protests — an economic trend Fico says is partially due to the huge financial support for Ukraine.

“We are prepared to help with the reconstruction of the state, but you know our opinion on arming Ukraine,” he said Sunday at a news conference.

“We think as a political party that we have to call for peace,” Katarína Roth Neveďalová, a SMER lawmaker in the European Parliament, told BBC News on Tuesday. “We feel that attacking from one side and still talking about Putin as a dictator or whatever is not helping the conflict.”

The election also comes two weeks before the Christian nationalist government in Poland hopes to win a third term on Oct. 15 — as Warsaw’s staunch support for Ukraine also shows signs of eroding.

The country’s foreign minister was notably absent from the gathering in Kyiv this week and told Polish TV that his no-show was due to a “downturn” in Polish-Ukrainian relations. Last month Poland said it would stop arming its neighbor over its anger at cheap Ukrainian grain flooding its agricultural markets. 

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EU Foreign Ministers UkrainePoland sent a representative but not its foreign minister to the gathering in Kyiv as its government clashes with Ukraine over grain and searches for votes at home.JosepBorellF via X

The European Union has long raised concerns of Russian influence over Slovakia, which was created 30 years ago with the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Hajdu said Russia had been trying to manipulate Slovakian democracy for years, with some success. Fico has openly flirted with withdrawing Slovakia from NATO, the military alliance Putin regards as his chief enemy.

“Russia has been trying to influence our country since early 2010. So we can also see the effect of it on the public opinion that the public actually believes a lot of Kremlin-spread disinformation or Kremlin-originated disinformation and propaganda,” she said. 

A shift away from the West’s support for Ukraine and toward Moscow would bring Slovakia in line with its southern neighbor Hungary, led by the pro-Russian Christian nationalist Viktor Orban and currently an outlier in the E.U.

Although SMER styles itself as a left-wing party, the ultra right-wing Orban was quick to congratulate Fico on his win, calling him a “fellow patriot.”

But one expert said that while Fico’s rhetoric is pro-Putin and vehemently in favor of stopping the war, he may have to compromise  and cut a deal with coalition parties to return to power.

“Forming a coalition would provide a justification for making the reality of a Fico government’s foreign policy different from the campaign rhetoric,” said Tim Haughton, a political scientist specializing in central and eastern Europe at the University of Birmingham in England.

“He may just be happy for Slovakia to take a back seat, stress that a small country like Slovakia has very little influence anyway in NATO and the E.U., and focus his energies on domestic politics.”

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a London-based editor and reporter for NBC News Digital.