How 'Ukraine-washing' became the new gambit for embattled European politicians

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By Cristian Gherasim
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

With trust in government and parliament at an all-time low, Romania’s PM, the head of the chamber of deputies and senate leader all scrambled for a chance to meet Ukraine's president in Kyiv, hoping that the international visit will curry favor with Romanian constituents.

But for Romania’s top politicians even this photo-op proved hard to agree on as bickering between the three on who should get there first clouded the visit.

Eventually, last week, after the Orthodox Easter holiday was over, the Romanian PM and the president of the chamber of deputies went to Kyiv together. They had forgotten that only days before a statement was issued saying that the Romania senate president would also be joining.

Because of rifts and infighting in the Romanian governing coalition, Florin Citu, head of the senate, was left home, only to go by himself to Kyiv the following day.

“Not the PM nor the president of Chamber of Deputies called to tell me when they were going to Kyiv”, said Citu.

Asked about why he chose to leave his own party member back home, Romanian PM Ciucă said that “these were two visits planed separately and the number of delegates was limited”.

Photo-ops

Romania hasn’t been alone in seeking photo-ops in Kiev. For almost two months now, as all hell broke loose over Ukraine, Kyiv has been welcoming a flurry of European leaders keen on showing support and helping the country however they can.

In a heartwarming display of solidarity, Europe’s response to the war in Ukraine has been swift, with member states imposing sanctions on Russia and welcoming millions of refugees fleeing war. 

Billions of euros of aid and tons of advanced weaponry have so far crossed the border into Ukraine, as Europe tried to walk a thin line between provoking Russia and dragging the entire continent into a catastrophic war, and standing with Kyiv in defending its sovereignty.

As the Kiel Institute points out, Eastern European countries have been “particularly generous” considering the size of their economies, with Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia emerging as the top four donors. 

Estonia has spent almost 1% of its GDP on the war effort, Poland and Romania have rushed to accommodate millions of refugees, while the small nation of Slovakia has been trying to arm the military in Ukraine with fighter jets.

However, amidst all of this, a less savory tactic has emerged over the past few months: Ukraine-washing. A number of European leaders, looking to camouflage their domestic problems and sagging fortunes, have sought relief abroad by hitching their wagon and public image to that of Ukraine’s heroic resistance.

UK leader Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Ukraine, which included a photogenic Kyiv walkabout alongside Zelenskyy, came just as the PM was fighting mounting pressure to resign after being found to have attended numerous parties in 2020 and 2021 in violation of Covid restrictions. 

The scandal has ratcheted up sharply after Johnson and other leading figures in the British government received fines from the Metropolitan Police. 

A Churchill biographer, Boris Johnson appears to heed his hero’s advice who famously said “never let a good crisis go to waste” as he was working to form the United Nations after WWII.

In France, Emmanuel Macron looks to remind voters of his diplomatic prowess during his re-election battle. Macron bet on the fact that French voters will be pleased to see their country’s leader taking a high-profile diplomatic role and bolstering France’s image as a world player. 

Indeed, the crisis in Ukraine represents a turning point in both French politics, notably re-energizing the presidential race, and in Macron’s own political career. 

The series of photos released last month by the French president’s official photographer, showing a slightly unshaved Macron dressed down in a hoodie—an uncharacteristic look for the French head of state which many interpreted as an homage to Volodymyr Zelenskyy—seemed to signpost Macron’s transformation into a wartime president, a figure that the Elysée hopes would be more popular with voters.

AP/AP
In this image released by the press office of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, applauds as Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sAP/AP

Drawing from their own experience with Moscow’s aggression, Central and Eastern European politicians have been some of the loudest advocates for Ukraine’s European integration, pledging almost unconditional support for Kyiv. 

Yet, like their Western counterparts, these leaders also undoubtedly hope that the Ukrainian crisis will provide them with a respite from their political troubles back home and a popularity boost both domestically and internationally.

Perhaps no European leader, however, is netting greater reputational dividends from the Ukrainian crisis than Poland’s President Andrzej Duda. He has been at loggerheads with the EU over his government’s controversial stance on LGBT, abortion, media laws and constitutional changes to extend his presidential term. These led to a wave of mass protests in 2020 and 2021 which greatly damaged Duda and the ruling party’s popularity. 

But Poland’s crucial role in providing help to the almost 3 million Ukraine refugees it is hosting could help Warsaw turn its fortunes around with the EU. As Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki recently said, “Poland has never had such an excellent brand, all over the world”.

Or take Slovakian premier Eduard Heger, a staunch supporter of Ukraine and its EU accession, whose own trip to Kyiv seems to have provided a welcomed distraction from troubles back home where his fragile coalition is slumping in the polls. 

Much like his more famous British counterpart, the PM of Slovakia saw his premiership slipping before the war started. According to February polls, 70% of Slovaks distrusted him, after rounds of bitter infighting cost his ruling coalition much of its credibility. 

Elected on an anti-corruption ticket, Heger’s anti-corruption crusade has been facing accusations at home that the government is wielding undue influence over which targets law enforcement pursue. 

Prosecutors have developed a strategy centred around first bringing charges against lower-level figures, inciting them to turn government witness and testify against their superiors, including the leaders of the two major opposition parties – with former Prime Minister Robert Fico calling the charges filed against him as "clear political revenge" and an attempt to "liquidate the political opposition".

From London to Warsaw, Ukraine-washing has emerged as a savvy move for many European politicians, and the assistance they have provided is one of the main reasons Ukraine is still holding strong against Russia’s wanton aggression. One can only hope these same leaders will not reduce their support to Ukraine once it stops boosting poll ratings.