Fico may be harbouring a grudge against Ukraine, but it meshes neatly with his political goals and long-standing Russophilia.

"Trea-son! Trea-son!" chanted Smer deputy leader Luboš Blaha, waving a clenched fist, at an anti-government protest in late January 2022, shortly before the Slovak Parliament approved the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the US.

More than 150,000 Russian soldiers were already massed on the Russian and Belarusian borders with Ukraine – supposedly for a military exercise, but far exceeding the size of the largest Soviet manoeuvres seen during the Cold War.

"The war in Ukraine is one gigantic hoax conceived by Americans to drive a wedge between, and frighten, Europeans," Blaha continued two weeks later, when the Presidential Palace was lit up in Ukrainian colours as a sign of solidarity.

When Blaha, the most radical member of the Smer leadership, spoke about the "rape of the Slovak nation by occupying American troops", his boss and Smer chairman Robert Fico stood in support behind him on the podium.

"No one is going to attack anyone, there will be no war," Fico repeatedly claimed throughout February 2022.

At 4am on February 24, 2022, Russia launched the largest military conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. Russia to this day insists on referring to its invasion of Ukraine as a "special military operation".

Otherwise quick to comment, Blaha fell silent. So did Smer and a large share of Russia's long-term sympathisers, including numerous disinformation and conspiracy websites.

In the first hours and days, it seemed that Russian President Vladimir Putin's military aggression would hobble the pro-Kremlin influence campaign in Slovakia for quite some time. Russia's attack on Ukraine directly contradicted the claims that it had been spreading through its channels in the weeks before the war, thus stripping them of credibility.

However, the weakening of the disinformation scene, and especially its key theme – that Russia is friendly, a message that pro-Kremlin Slovak politicians used to mobilise voters – was short-lived.

At that time, Putin not only laid the foundations for the occupation of Ukrainian territories. In fact, he erected one of the main pillars of the growing power of Europe's populist politicians.

This is the story of how Putin's Russia also helped Fico win the parliamentary election held on September 30, 2023. It is an analysis of why the Smer chair himself managed to get the most out of the war, while other pro-Russian actors, such as the extremist Republika party, failed. And it examines whether declarations about stopping military aid to Ukraine and leaning towards Russia will be the real policy of Fico's fourth government.

How to win an election? Fico's rhetoric matches his inner world

"The world has four cardinal points", and therefore the government wants to make a policy oriented not only to the west, but also "to the east, north and south". Already articulated several times by Smer before, this foreign policy aphorism was laid out by then prime minister Fico before students at Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra in 2007.

"Let's put away ideological blinders from our eyes; for us the world has four points," he repeated shortly after the 2012 elections, when he became prime minister for the second time.

Fico was still relying on the same motto 24 years after founding his Smer party: "You have to look at all four points of the world, the west is not the only one," he reiterated 11 days before the 2023 parliamentary election. In fact, this narrative has undermined Slovakia's anchoring in the West – in NATO and the EU – from the beginning.

Fico's eastern-oriented policy followed up on the thesis set out by Vladimír Mečiar's government in the 1990s that Slovakia should be a "bridge between the West and the East." In fact, it was all about making space for Russian influence in Slovakia.

A counter-argument used in diplomatic circles is that in war bridges are the first things to be blown up.

However, for more than 40 years voters have trusted Fico's attitude towards Russia because he has long been consistent in this regard. In fact, his attitude has hardly changed since he was a student.

"He was the first to raise his hand in class, he could always give an example of something made in the Soviet Union. He said that everything in the world was researched by Soviet scientists," Katarína Šípošová, a classmate of Fico's at high school in Topolčany in 1978-1982, told the Sme daily. "It was funny to us, as in the 1980s the regime was no longer so harsh and there were also opposing opinions," she added.

Soon after Fico left the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) at the turn of the millennium and founded Smer, he was received by members of the Russian government in 2001. Having held no government position before then, and having no influence on the formation of foreign policy in Slovakia, he was an ordinary MP at the time.

A former Russian ambassador to Slovakia, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, provided him with contacts, and Fico thus gained the favour of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yastrzhembsky was then Putin's special representative. Thus, Fico gained his first major contact with representatives of a major power.

When the anniversary of the end of World War II was commemorated in May 2012, prime minister Fico organised a commemorative event on May 9 "in cooperation with the Russian Embassy". This was despite the fact that the national holiday in Slovakia and the rest of Europe is on May 8, when Germany's capitulation came into effect here.

In Russia, the time difference meant that it was already the next day when the German surrender came into effect in 1945, so the end of the war is celebrated there on May 9.

In May 2014, shortly after Russia had occupied and then annexed Ukrainian Crimea, Fico stood up for the Russian ambassador when the then mayor of Liptovský Mikuláš refused to invite the latter to celebrations of the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Since then, Fico has constantly criticised European Union sanctions against Russia. He claims that they do not affect the Russian economy, but instead harm Slovakia.

Another pillar of Fico's world-view – "In world politics, there is no justice, only economic interests" – did not arise overnight too. For example, he said the same thing in 2007 at his university lecture in Nitra.

This is also why Fico had no objection to his close friend Miroslav Výboh's former company serving as an intermediary between Slovakia and Russia in the maintenance of Slovakia's Soviet-made Slovak MiG-29 fighter jets via a contracts worth millions of euros.

The contracts were extended during Fico's governments, and Výboh's company Willing was involved in maintain the jets until they were grounded in 2022.

Letters to Bratchikov and meetings at the embassy

For a long time, Fico and other Smer members have been developing contacts with Russia, and with the Russian Ambassador himself. In May 2023, Fico wrote a letter to Ambassador Igor Bratchikov and invited him to Smer-organised celebrations of Victory Over Fascism Day.

"Unfortunately, Nazism is once again rising to prominence," the Russian Ambassador replied. Russia has cited the supposed need for "denazification" of Ukraine to justify its war there.

Fico, as well as former judge and justice minister Štefan Harabin and far-right Republika party chair Milan Uhrík, celebrated Russia Day, a Russian national holiday, at the Russian embassy last June. Slovak pro-Kremlin bikers from the Brat za Brata (Brother for Brother) group were also present.

Among its voters, Smer uses its contacts with Russian representatives to create the impression that they are an internationally accepted party. Western diplomats have not visited the Russian embassy for many years, as its doors are open only to the most loyal sympathisers of Russia.

"I remember that in the past the Russian embassy was much more open and organised pleasant diplomatic and cultural events. Since 2014, relations with Russia have been burdened by its policy towards our neighbour, Ukraine," former international relations minister Pavol Demeš told the Sme daily after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to Demeš, the Russian embassy is now more of an "opaque box".

Thanks to his consistently positive relationship with both Russia and its representatives, Fico has managed to maintain his pro-Russian positions in public even following Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine.

On the other hand, Republika chair Milan Uhrík cannot boast a similarly consistent story. For example, before the September election he had to explain why he had previously been a member of a youth group affiliated with the pro-Western political party SDKÚ; one of its main goals was support for Slovak membership of NATO and the European Union.

In last September's election, Republika failed to make it into parliament. In an effort late in the campaign to improve Republika's image as a party with coalition potential, its politicians opted for a more moderate choice of words. This, ironically, might have cost them votes to the more "authentic" Smer, as well as the increasingly hard-right Slovak National Party (SNS), which scraped in after a last-minute rise in support.

Against the US, but not at all costs

Just as Fico has openly sympathised with Russia, he has long criticised the United States' foreign policy. Ahead of the September elections, one of the main planks of Smer's campaign was criticism of the United States. However, when it comes to the US, Fico's actions as prime minister have always been strikingly pragmatic.

"Iraq is not about principles, and [former prime minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda's cabinet never once found the courage to condemn the killing of civilians," Fico claimed in 2003 about the US-led war in Iraq at the time, when the Slovak Parliament voted to join NATO. However, voting as an MP he supported Slovakia's NATO membership.

Later, when visiting the White House as prime minister, Fico assured then US president Barack Obama of the importance of cooperation between Slovakia and the United States. That was in November 2013, just three months before the annexation of Crimea.

"We are strategic partners," Fico told Obama. However, 9 years later, when tensions in Slovakia's neighbourhood escalated historically, he harshly and insultingly rejected cooperation in the form of a defence agreement with the US.

The agreement was initiated by his own government in 2017. In order to break away from its dependence on Russia, Slovakia subsequently signed a €1.9-billion contract with the United States to purchase fourteen brand new F-16 fighter jets.

Every time they want to downplay the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Fico, Blaha and other Smer representatives compare it to American operations around the world. However, when speaking about Russian policy, the same harsh tone in their statements is nowhere to be seen.

When Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, Fico did not call clearly identify it as the aggressor. "We reject sabre-rattling. We are in favour of a diplomatic solution," he said back then, similar to the way he is now reacting to the current open war against Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion began, he has been calling for an immediate end to the fighting and the signing of a peace agreement – even though this would almost certainly result in the loss by Ukraine of its occupied territories to Russia.

Other politicians and disinformation websites sympathetic to Russia are using the same claims. Russia talks about its willingness to start peace negotiations only after Ukrainians stop fighting and recognise the "new territorial reality", meaning the loss of territory.

Fico was also one of just a few EU politicians to attend the May 9 celebrations in Moscow in 2015, a year after the annexation.

However, Fico's antipathy towards Ukraine may not be the result of his long-term sympathy for Russia. In October last year, analyst Alexander Duleba and a Slovak diplomatic source told Politico that Fico's personal experiences with Ukrainian officials dating back to 2009, when Europe was facing a gas crisis, could be behind it.

At that time, Ukraine stopped the flow of Russian gas to Slovakia during a dispute with Russia. When Fico and his delegation flew to Kyiv to negotiate with the then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian side made them wait for three hours.

Subsequently, instead of a private talk, Fico found Tymoshenko waiting for him in a room filled with journalists, and spent 20 minutes being criticised by her in front of the cameras for taking Moscow's side in the gas dispute.

"It was an absolutely unpleasant situation. Fico was fuming. It was a disaster," a high-ranking Slovak diplomat told Politico. "He was humiliated," he added.

The delegation then flew to Moscow, where Putin welcomed them with a dignified ceremony in the grandiose setting of a Kremlin Palace. "After that, Fico started taking an openly anti-Ukrainian stance," Duleba told Politico. Fico himself allegedly told him that "we don't need to support Ukrainians, Ukraine doesn't need us, they don't hold serious talks with us," and also that "it's personal."

However, this story from 2009 appeared in the public only after the September 2023 election.

Without an audience, Russian rhetoric wouldn't be successful

If a significant group of Slovak voters did not hold pro-Russian views, it would not make any sense for Smer to base its election campaign on friendship with Russia.

The foundations of this popular sentiment were laid by Ludovít Štúr, a 19th-century writer, revolutionary politician, and codifier of the Slovak language standard. "Hand to heart, brothers, and tell me: was it not Russia that in our sad past shone like a beacon in the deep night of our life?" asked Štúr in 1851.

At the time, Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I had refused to give Slovaks, who were then subjects of the Habsburg crown, autonomy despite for their help in suppressing an uprising by Hungarians. In response, Štúr turned to the widespread notion of pan-Slavic reciprocity, which was supposed to ensure Slovakia's survival.

Štúr turned Russia into a myth of a safe harbour for generations of intellectuals and politicians in Slovakia. "Russia was supposed to become the core of a pan-Slavic state," explains Duleba, an expert on Russia and Ukraine.

In addition to the ideas of Štúr and the group of people around him, what contributed to the positive image of Russia as well were Slovakia's 40-plus years of communism, during which critical views of the Soviet Union were suppressed. In the 1990s, former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar followed the same path.

"When the West doesn't want us, we will go to the East," Mečiar said about Slovakia's exclusion from NATO accession negotiations in 1997, which was the result of several years of his erratic foreign policy.

At the turn of the millennium, 35.9 percent of Slovaks still considered themselves part of eastern European culture; and 28 percent did not see themselves in the West, but on the border between the West and the East. This stemmed from a survey conducted by the Slovak Academy of Sciences that was published in 2003.

After 2000, showing sympathy for Russia impressed some Smer voters. However, at that time, in the public space these views tended to be on the fringes, according to analyst Daniel Milo.

An Institute for Public Affairs survey carried out for the Sme daily in 2014 showed that 85.2 percent of Smer voters agreed with the statement that Russia should not interfere in Ukraine's affairs.

However, after the annexation of Crimea in the same year, a radical change occurred. Russia launched a large-scale hybrid campaign targeting NATO countries.

Kremlin-controlled media outlets Sputnik and Russia Today, and their emerging Slovak and Czech franchises, began defending the annexation of Crimea by pointing to a sham referendum that Russian forces had held there "at the gunpoint of unmarked little green men," says Milo.

Various Slovak websites joined in, covering similar stories. They claimed that Russia was not involved in the secession of Donbas and that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which was crashed in July 2014 with the loss of 297 lives, was not shot down by a Russian Buk missile system – although an investigation proved otherwise.

As part of the disinformation campaign, embellished reports regarding life in Russia, the supposed dictatorship of the European Union, Brussels and the West are also being spread; they all end with a call to save the future of the Slavic nations under the protection of Russia.

In 2018, for example, such media claimed that Americans were planning to disrupt the FIFA World Cup in Russia by attacking Donbas, or that NATO planes were spreading substances over Poland causing health problems for the population. The asserted that Russia was the only hope for Europe.

The goal of such campaigns was to overwhelm the Western public with half-truths and false information via social media and conspiracy websites. The public would thus lose the ability to assess what is actually happening in the world and what they should believe. In this way, people would become more prone to believing other misleading or deceptive interpretations of events.

The end result is a divided society in which traditional politicians lose support, allowing either Kremlin supporters or populists who know how to take advantage of the new situation to come to the fore: this is actually the case of Robert Fico and Smer.

The campaign continues to this day. Among all the NATO countries it has been most successful in Slovakia.

Even before Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, polls confirmed a fundamental shift in public opinion in favour of the former. Just before the attack, the Focus polling agency found that 44.1 percent of Slovaks blamed NATO and the United States for the dangerous escalation in tension on Ukraine's eastern and northern borders. Only 34.7 percent saw Russia as the culprit, although it had by then amassed 130,000 soldiers along Ukraine's borders.

In 2021, the Globsec think tank included Slovakia among the most pro-Russian Central and Eastern European countries, calling the group "Russian Bear huggers".

"The majority of Slovaks view Russia as a victim, the majority consider Russia to be the most important strategic partner, and the perception of Russia as a big Slavic brother still prevails in society," reads the study.

After the invasion of Ukraine, these feelings deepened. Between 2022 and 2023, support among Slovaks for NATO membership fell from 72 to 58 percent, according to Globsec's Centre for Democracy and Resilience. No longer do a majority of people in Slovakia think that Russia bears the main responsibility for the war in Ukraine, and 50 percent consider Slovakia's security partner the USA to be a security threat.

"The political chaos and confusion caused by the government coalition between 2020 and 2023 have left a scar on us. This created fertile ground for a campaign blaming the West for the war and undermining support for Ukraine, which found a sympathetic ear among a significant part of the population," Globsec analyst Karolína Klingová explained.

Fascists everywhere: Putin's idea for Smer's campaign

"Remember, Ms. Čaputová, Mr. Kollár, Mr. Ódor and all other warmongers and Russophobes. Where books are burned, people will be burned," Fico told the crowd with a raised finger during a party rally in Zvolen, in central Slovakia, held on the state holiday that commemorates the August 1944 Slovak National Uprising. Smer invited the Russian Ambassador to the event.

The words Fico said were a response to information "from the people" that Russian literature is being burned in Ukraine, and that Slovakia does not allow its students to study at Russian universities, thereby creating an implicit parallel with Nazi Germany.

After the start of the Russian invasion, Smer has focused on sub-topics and used them to criticise its opponents, in particular the 2021-23 Eduard Heger government and President Zuzana Čaputová.

Together with Blaha, Fico has consistently repeated the conspiracy theory that Čaputová is an "American agent"; at one large public gathering, Fico and Blaha led the crowd in a chant which replaced the word "agent" with a sexual profanity.

The party mobilised voters to oppose the donation of Slovakia's S-300 air-defence system to Ukraine, which by that time was functionally obsolete (but would still offer some value to Ukraine, which operates the same systems).

"Robert Fico, former prime minister of the Slovak Republic, also known for his pro-Russian views, is spreading news that Slovakia has lost a 'high-quality, multi-million-dollar defence system' because of Ukraine and the United States. He also claims that 'Slovakia is being dragged into the war in Ukraine'. However, he does not say who is fighting against whom in this war," the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine stated a month and a half after the invasion.

Smer politicians pivoted from their pre-war claims that Russia would not attack Ukraine to interpreting the war as a matter of relations between Russia and Ukraine, with Fico blaming the United States for the conflict.

To this day, both Smer and its aligned disinformation outlets have been repeating the Kremlin's view that the conflict would not have occurred if NATO had not expanded eastwards at the turn of the millennium, including by accepting Slovakia's membership.

A part of Smer's both unofficial and regular election campaign were deliberate insults to allies, who are also Slovakia's main economic partners.

At one press conference, Fico called the German armed forces the "Wehrmacht", the name the German army bore during the Nazi era. He later criticised German interests by stating that they were "über alles", a reference to the anthem of Nazi Germany.

If Putin's invasion had not caused a huge increase in inflation, which in the pre-election year reached a 20-year record in Slovakia, the radicalisation of voters would probably not have been so successful. Food, fuel, and energy prices rose significantly.

Using elaborate marketing, Smer blamed the government for the price hike; in a press release in February 2023 Fico used two bread rolls to point out how supermarket chains allegedly camouflage prices by reducing the weight of food.

"We visited chain stores and bought two identical rolls. One roll weighs 50 grams and the other 40 grams. They offer similar products for the same price, but one is 20 percent lighter," claimed Fico.

Such socially oriented issues were alternated with his comments on the events in Ukraine. His conclusion was that the situation would improve if Ukraine stopped fighting and initiated peace talks. By analysing social media, Globsec came to the conclusion that various pro-Kremlin actors such as the Facebook page of the pro-Russian motorcycle group Brat za Brata and the website hosting the TV Slovan conspiracy video show helped Smer significantly in the final part of the election campaign between June and September 2023.

According to the Globsec report, the most frequent message was cultural and historical ties to Russia and the Soviet Union, but also narratives accusing NATO or the US of having started the war in Ukraine.

Globsec identified specific messages as being: "[Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn knew what the expansion of NATO would lead to. The goal of NATO and the US is to dominate and subjugate Russia. The expansion of NATO was the root cause of the war. We must not forget that the entire tragedy in Ukraine has arisen because of the dispute over the inclusion of this strategically key state in NATO."

How did Smer benefit from this in the election?

According to a Focus polling agency exit poll adjusted according to the actual election results, 17 percent of Smer voters said on election day that they voted for Fico's party because of the "protection of national interests". This group consists of more than 115,000 voters.

In the campaign, Fico often linked anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian themes with the future "sovereign and Slovak" foreign policy, which he said he would implement if he were to form a government.

Although it is not possible to determine exactly what part of these voters voted for Smer because of such expectations, if this were the case, Fico's party would have gained approximately six mandates. In parliament, the governing coalition of Smer, Hlas and the SNS has a majority of only four MPs.

Was it just a campaign?

The day after the election, Fico set a radically different tone compared to the campaign when standing before journalists at Smer's headquarters on Súmračná Street in Bratislava. He answered critical questions in a calm and conciliatory tone.

"Slovakia is in need of a calming down of the situation," he claimed. "I'm in favour of normal relations," he told the very same media that he had relentlessly attacked during the campaign. In front of foreign journalists Fico also tried to send the signal that he would not govern the country by following his own pre-election slogans.

Some coalition parties' intentions were communicated even before the definitive plans of Fico's cabinet were published and approved in the form of the government's programme statement.

"We will do everything – even within the EU – to start peace negotiations. Further killing of each other does not help anyone. We are a party of peace," Fico claimed, adding that Slovakia would provide Ukraine with humanitarian aid only and would take part in the reconstruction of the country.

However, it is already clear that the government has not stopped military aid completely. Konštrukta Defence, the state-owned manufacturer of Zuzana 2 howitzers, is already fulfilling the largest contract in the company's history, worth almost €100 million. It was due to deliver the first three howitzers to Ukraine by the end of 2023, with the remaining 13 to be delivered this year.

Likewise, the government did not stop the production of large-calibre artillery ammunition for Ukraine at the semi-state enterprise ZVS Holding; thanks to demand, it will produce 50,000 pieces this year, more than twice as many as in each of the previous years. Any effort to stop these contracts by the government would threaten hundreds of jobs in Dubnica nad Váhom and damage the business of the co-owner of ZVS Holding, Czech arms manufacturer Michal Strnad's Czechoslovakia Group.

Since the elections, Smer has claimed that the foreign policy orientation of the country will not change and that Slovakia will remain an EU and NATO member. Peter Pellegrini's Hlas party positions itself as a guardian of Slovakia's foreign policy and claims that if there is a change in orientation, the party will leave the coalition. However, withdrawal from Euro-Atlantic structures was not the subject of pre- and post-election concerns regarding possible deviation from Slovakia's foreign policy – rather, the concerns were how Slovakia would behave within the EU and NATO, for example in the future, when approving membership for Ukraine.

Before an October 2023 meeting of EU member states' leaders in Brussels, Fico claimed that he would not prevent Ukraine from becoming an EU member, but that Ukraine must fulfil all conditions without any concessions, just as Slovakia did in the past. He categorically rejects Ukraine's NATO membership.

Fico's choice of foreign minister indicates a certain departure from the previous security and foreign policy. Juraj Blanár is a deputy chair of Smer and one of Fico's most loyal associates but, unlike most of Slovakia's previous foreign ministers, he has zero diplomatic experience. Like Fico, Blanár has called for "peace" in Ukraine and claims that the war does not concern Slovakia.

He also criticised the expulsion of Russian agents with diplomatic cover from the Russian embassy in Bratislava.

Fico has also admitted that his government will consider introducing a new regime for NGOs to bear a mandatory designation as "foreign agents" if they receive income from abroad. Similar rules, which are openly intended to denigrate the people and organisation that receive such designations, already apply in Russia and Hungary.

There are reasons for good cheer at the Russian embassy

Two days after the election, then serving foreign affairs minister Miroslav Wlachovský summoned a representative of the Russian embassy, located on a street now named after Boris Nemtsov, an assassinated critic of Vladimir Putin. The reason was the revelation of Russia's unprecedented interference in the election.

In mid September Slovakia expelled "a person with diplomatic cover" from the embassy. Minister Wlachovský claimed that the agent had built up a network of collaborators and tried to influence public opinion and the "situation in the pre-election period".

Then, during the election moratorium, Sergey Naryshkin, the director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, shared a conspiracy theory that the United States had intensified its interference in the internal affairs of Slovakia in the run-up to the election.

Russian Ambassador Igor Bratchikov can consider the election result to have been favourable. Two of the coalition's three parties are filled with politicians sympathetic to Russia and critical of Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

From Russia's point of view, out of all possible scenarios, the current one is one of the three best options for how the election could have turned out. The only better options would have been for the far-right Republika party to have joined the coalition instead of Hlas, or for Smer and the SNS to have been able to form a two-party government.

According to Wlachovský, a representative of the Russian embassy rejected his allegations about interference in the election. But former defence minister Jaroslav Nad claims that the operation was only the tip of the iceberg of Russia's successful and still-ongoing influence campaign in Slovakia.


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.