Already a member? Log In

Ukraine’s Darth Vader & The Pentagon’s Voodoo Economics

Robert Fico
Most Western outlets have labeled Slovak politician Robert Fico “pro-Russian,” and so his party’s victory on Saturday, of course, sounds very ominous. Photo: Vladimir Simicek via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
October 3, 2023

Two big things happened for Ukraine outside of its borders over the weekend. The first happened here, in Washington, when the House of Representatives surprised everyone and passed a short-term funding measure that would allow the U.S. government to function until mid-November. The measure, however, notably did not include any aid for Ukraine. The Ukraine proposal had gone from $24 billion to $6 billion and then to zero. The second was the parliamentary elections in Slovakia, where a populist named Robert Fico led his party to victory, in part on promises not to send any more aid—“not a single bullet”—to Ukraine. 

Both developments, understandably, have sent jolts of panic through Ukraine’s allies both here and in Europe. Western media haven’t helped their jitters either. The narrative, especially when it comes to Slovakia’s elections, is that this is the first real crack in the West’s unity on Ukraine. And, with Poland’s elections on October 15 and Congress’s inability to predictably fund the U.S. government, let alone Ukraine, the dam seems like it’s starting to break. This, after all, has been Vladimir Putin’s plan since it became clear he couldn’t take Ukraine in one quick hit: wait out the West, which, unlike his autocratic regime, has a real range of opinions and where elections are real.

From what I’m hearing, however, it’s a little too early to be freaking out, at least when it comes to the short term. 

First, the American side. The Pentagon’s comptroller Michael McCord sent a letter to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries on Friday, warning him of the consequences of failing to allocate more funding for Ukraine. The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the program by which the U.S. gives money to the Ukrainian government to buy American weapons, has run out of money, McCord warned. But some money remains. Over the past 18 months, Congress has repeatedly authorized the president to spend money to restock the Pentagon’s shelves, for a total of $29 billion. Using this presidential drawdown authority, the White House could send Ukraine weapons, ammunition, and equipment as long as it costs no more than $29 billion to replace it. 

That money looked to be almost out this summer until, as I wrote last week, a bit of accounting wizardry in the Pentagon magically and suddenly gave the White House some wiggle room. They did this by repricing—or, essentially discounting—the costs of various weaponry and munitions, most of which don’t exactly have a commonly agreed upon market price. As one source told me, “There’s no Kelley Blue Book value on a used Bradley.” So how much does it really cost to replace it? Who knows! And so, after tweaking these values and re-crunching the numbers, the Pentagon discovered it actually had over $6 billion more in drawdown funds than it originally thought. (“This is why the Pentagon can never pass an audit,” the source joked.)

This is also why the people I spoke with in the administration and on the Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, didn’t seem that worried. “In the short term, it won’t have much effect—we still have drawdown authority,” one senior administration official told me. “We can fulfill their battleground needs for now. If we can’t get full funding, though, that’ll be a problem.” 

According to McCord, of that original $29 billion in drawdown authority, just under $2 billion is left. Others say it’s more than that, closer to $4 or 5 billion. And according to C.S.I.S.’s defense budget whizz Mark Cancian, the U.S. goes through the drawdown at a rate of about $1.4 billion per month. So, even with the more pessimistic calculations, Biden has about a month and a half left—just enough to last until the next negotiation in mid-November. 

Another, though less plausible, option is for the D.O.D. to ask for a reprogramming—that is, taking money that was allotted for, say, toilet seat acquisitions and using it instead to help Ukraine. But the deeply conservative Pentagon, focused on meticulous planning and every contingency, is deeply reluctant about doing that. (“I want to be clear,” McCord wrote to Jeffries, “the Department does not support that approach, which will create unacceptable risk to us.”) Said Cancian, who used to work on such issues at D.O.D., “They might do that for a couple weeks after that they’ll start to complain.” 

Still, there isn’t panic in D.C.—at least not about Ukraine funding. The fact of the matter is that it remains deeply and broadly popular on the Hill and if the next speaker—whoever the hell that might be—would just bring it to a vote, it would pass overwhelmingly. “We’ll get there,” said the administration official. “We have time to get it done.”

Europe’s Darth Vader

Most Western outlets have labeled Slovak politician Robert Fico (pronounced “FEE-tso”) “pro-Russian” and so his party’s victory on Saturday, of course, sounds very ominous: Slovakia, a NATO member, shares a border with Ukraine and was the second country, after Poland, to pledge warplanes for Kyiv’s fight. In fact, Slovakia promised Ukraine its entire fleet—of 13 MiGs—and delivered. Now, Fico’s Smer party has won on a campaign of cutting off all aid and blaming Ukraine and the West for starting the war. Like other populists, he has said that all military aid to Ukraine does is create “more killing” and he has referred to “Ukrainians Nazis and fascists.”

But is Fico really pro-Russian? And will he really pull Slovakia out of the coalition supporting Ukraine? Unlikely, say even people who loathe him. “I think he’ll make a grand gesture that won’t mean much,” said Dalibor Rohac, of the American Enterprise Institute. 

Fico, it seems, is a rather complex character. “One thing I noticed in Western media coverage of this is that people don’t realize what an intelligent pragmatist Fico is,” one Slovak government official who is opposed to Fico told me. “He looks like this gigantic pig. But he’s super educated, he’s a lawyer, and he probably had aspirations to work for the European Court of Human Rights or to serve on the Constitutional Court.” But life and politics happened, and this erstwhile liberal became one of the many anti-Western populists—like Viktor Orban—terrifying Euro-centrists on both sides of the Atlantic. “He’s like Darth Vader,” the official explained. “He decided to go to the dark side.” 

Fico has already been prime minister twice, and the second go-round ended in disaster. He was forced to resign after a hitman killed a young Slovak investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée. Kuciak had been investigating government corruption, including in Smer’s ranks, and the protests after Kuciak’s murder forced Fico out. “Afterwards, he became super vindictive, and began drinking like crazy,” the Slovak official recounted, saying that people would often see Fico drunk all over Bratislava. “Then he got his shit together and decided to get back at all these people. Unfortunately, he is using his intellect for all the wrong causes.”

Fico had always flirted with right-wingers and populism, but this year, it presented the clearest path to power. It also presented an obvious opportunity to evade a closing noose of corruption investigations. (In this sense, he is much like Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu.) Some three dozen of Fico’s associates have already gone to jail and prosecutors are circling ever closer to Fico himself. If he can become prime minister, he can appoint the head of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and the investigators into his dealings. “It’s his primary motivation to become prime minister,” the Slovak official explained. “Basically, he’s thinking, My life is on the line, I will do anything in my power to win. So I’ll say what 45 percent of the population of Slovakia wants to hear. He picked up on a narrative that no one wanted to feed.” 

That narrative is an anti-American, anti-Western, anti-establishment one that is very popular in a country that is still largely rural and regularly lands on the bottom of European education rankings. Moreover, according to Rohac, the Slovaks have a history quite different from the anti-Russian Czechs with whom they once shared a country. During the 19th-century wave of romantic nationalism, the Czechs went all in. The Slovaks went with the pan-Slavism emanating from Russia. And when Soviet Moscow sent in the tanks in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring, “there was an asymmetry in how it was felt in the Czech and Slovak parts of Czechoslovakia,” said Rohac. “Czechs felt it much more strongly and formed a real dissident movement. The Slovaks didn’t.” In fact, said Rohac, “One of the consequences of ‘68 was that it gave more power to Slovak apparatchiks.” They didn’t mind that. 

Putin has been adept at exploiting this gap. Ever since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has launched an intensive disinformation campaign in Slovakia, hoping to create another fissure inside the E.U.—and perhaps another vote against Russia sanctions. “It’s been insane here for nine years,” the Slovak official complained. “The Russian Embassy here, they have 80, 90 people and that’s all they’re doing.” The disinformation actually works well in Slovakia’s vibrant media ecosystem: non-mainstream outlets spreading Russian narratives are constantly sprouting up and few think anything of it. “The population is extremely susceptible here because it’s the least educated population in central Europe,” the Slovak official continued. “We kind of value being uneducated. There’s a big anti-intellectual streak in Slovakia. Our education hasn’t been reformed in 30 years. It doesn’t emphasize critical thinking. The Russians picked up on it immediately and started bombarding us.” 

As a result, according to GLOBSEC, a think tank in Bratislava, Slovaks are more prone to believe Russian disinformation than their neighbors. For example, Slovaks are more likely to believe that the West was responsible for the war in Ukraine, not Russia, and about half of them see the U.S. as a national security threat. “We’re always at the bottom” of surveys ranking what proportion of European countries believe the Moscow line, said Rohac. 

Mining this rich stream, it seems, was Fico’s easiest path to power. That said, he won less than a quarter of the vote and now has to form a coalition. The partners available to him are all pro-Western and pro-Ukraine. One potential coalition partner is Fico’s former lieutenant, Peter Pellegrini. “Fico will be leading a coalition where Pelligrini will insist on some guarantees that Slovakia won’t go full Orban,” Rohac predicted. 

Moreover, even if Slovakia were to cut off all military aid to Ukraine—Fico has been clear that he doesn’t want to suspend humanitarian aid—Slovakia has pretty much already emptied its stores. Whatever it had to send to Ukraine has already been sent—nor did it make a big impact compared to Ukraine’s need and to what other allies provided. 

What Slovakia does have is a healthy defense sector that makes some of the very things that Ukraine needs, like demining equipment. That sector provides good-paying jobs for Slovaks—and political contributions to Fico’s party. “They have keen interests in this,” said Rohac. “And that’s another moderating influence.” Not only that, said the Slovak official, “he knows full well that there will be a ton of money flowing to Ukraine for reconstruction and we’re right on the border. Slovak companies want access to that.”

To be sure, there’s always a lot of magical thinking that a nutter politician spouting hate will somehow be different from who he’s always said he’s been. Look at Trump and all that hope that he’d suddenly one day turn “presidential.” 

But Fico has already been hard at work, pivoting toward the center. On Sunday, less than 24 hours after his victory on Saturday night, Fico was already thanking local journalists for attending and expressing a hope that they would have a good working relationship—after calling them “anti-Slovak prostitutes.” He also said that, despite his own opinion, if his party was part of the governing coalition, Slovakia’s position toward Ukraine would stay the same. 

“What I think will happen is Fico will try to save face in front of his electorate and say, I would totally do this [suspend aid to Ukraine] but our coalition partners wouldn’t do it,” said the Slovak official. “He’ll do what’s best first and foremost for his own ass, and then Slovakia. He is by far, by far the smartest politician in Slovakia.”