Republicans and Support for Ukraine
As the Ukraine-Russia war neared its one-year mark, the United States led all other nations in providing support for the Ukrainians. At that point American contributions stood at $196 billion with Germany in second place having sent $172 billion.
It is clear that without this support, the Russians would likely have achieved victory within no more than two weeks. In the first months of the war, international support for the Ukrainians was enthusiastic and was shared by most segments of United States political and popular communities. In fact, most people in both the US and elsewhere were horrified by Russian atrocities and by Putin’s increasing threats to use some type of nuclear weapons to conquer the Ukrainians.
In May, 2022, a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicated that 60% of Americans supported providing military aid to Kiev. In those days there was heady talk about Americans actually joining the International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine. By February, 2023, the level of popular support had fallen to 48% with 29% opposing such assistance. More and more respondents complained that American communities don’t have the resources need to deal with their problems.
The watchword for the new Republican House majority is oversight but with an increasingly cautious attitude toward military support for Zelensky. Like most of the post-Soviet states, Ukraine has a reputation for corruption, a factor that has reduced popular support for the regime among American voters.
When the Ukrainian president spoke to the US Congress, Republican representatives Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert were conspicuous in their lack of enthusiasm as they remained seated throughout his speech. As Philip Wegmann wrote for RealClearPolitics in January, 2023, “Republicans are more skeptical and already making good on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s warning before the midterms that the House wouldn’t be sending Ukraine “a blank check.” Representative James Comer, who heads the House Oversight Committee, has repeatedly stressed that he will examine the Ukrainian budget to identify waste or corruption.
Other critics suggested that Zelensky’s casual apparel when he appeared before Congress betrayed a lack of respect and that his urgent demands for more support showed an inability to calculate the magnitude of American largess.
According to Ed Kilgore writing in Intelligencer on 13 January 2023, “neo-isolationist disdain for any U.S. role in aiding Ukraine has been steadily rising in the GOP and may have reached a tipping point where it has real-life consequences.”
One of the most dramatic illustrations of Republican opposition to aid for Ukraine came from Representative Matt Gaetz. In March, 2023, he introduced what he referred to as the “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution which, if enacted by Congress, would have suspended any further military and financial aid to Ukraine. It would also urge the combatants to reach a peace agreement. Ten members of Congress – including Representatives Andy Biggs and Lauren Boebert – immediately signaled their support for the resolution.
Senator Josh Hawley, who initially was an enthusiastic supporter of the Ukrainian aid program, began to back away. In an interview in National Review, Hawley addressed Republicans when he declared that “You can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of this country.”
While Republican skepticism is to be expected in the wake of years of wars in support of nation building, the extent to which the Biden administration has oversold the Ukrainian cause has also been a factor. Comparisons of Zelensky to Winston Churchill and Ukraine to World War Two Britain have been excessive and consistent. This is the first factor undermining enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine.
Following Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine on 20 February 2023, historian Michael Beschloss, suggested (incorrectly) that Biden was the first president since Lincoln to visit a war zone. News commentator Joe Scarborough described the visit as “incredible, staggering,... absolutely stunning, ... extraordinary, ... incredibly moving” and put Biden's bravery in the same category as that of Lincoln visiting Union troops.
The hyperbole surrounding the Biden policy has served to undermine domestic support for the administration’s pro-Ukraine position. There is a legitimate concern about Russia’s international intentions, but it is not as significant as World War Two. Nor does it justify World War Three.
Nor does it help when legitimate questions are dismissed as support for Putin. Supporters of the war are quick to describe Tucker Carlson as a person who echoes the “Kremlin line” rather than engaging in a discussion of specific concerns. This approach is not helpful and serves to transforms skeptics into opponents of the policy.
A second factor driving hesitancy about aid to Ukraine is Zelensky himself. While many refer to him as a modern Churchill, his insistence that this is a war for democracy is a step to far for several reasons. First, while the Zelensky regime is much more democratic than the government of his predecessor, at least his election was clearly legitimate and his modest popularity genuine. But it is hardly a model for the entire region. Corruption is finally being punished but the country has been left with a reputation as corrupt.
Third, Zelensky’s understandable demands for more support are not helping convince all Americans that more needs to be done and that our support must be enthusiastic, unquestioned, and unlimited. From the perspective of an increasing number of Americans, Ukraine is not only on the other side of the world but the urgency of its problems pales when American citizens look at American problems in places like East Palestine, Ohio, the US-Mexican border, and American communities being devastated by an opioid crisis that claims hundreds of lives every week.
The fourth factor is that Zelensky has been negative about accepting any proposal that would bring peace to Ukraine and is unwilling to negotiate with Russia. During his visit to Washington in December, a journalist asked Zelensky what would be a “fair way to end this war.” His answer indicated it would only be on Ukrainian terms. Zelensky declared that a “just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom, and territorial integrity of my country, the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/12/22/four-things-zelensky-didnt-do-washington/)
Writing in National Review in December, 2022, Jack Butler observed that “while Ukraine’s interests and America’s overlap considerably here, they are not identical.” Butler has consistently supported the Ukrainian cause and denounced Russia’s cruelty and Vladimir Putin’s dishonesty. However, he suggests that neither Ukraine nor Zelensky is perfect although criticisms of both are often exaggerated. (https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/zelensky-should-not-visit-the-u-s/)
These factors have had an impact on the public in general but, in particular, on some key Republicans. Their hesitancy is driven by the concerns noted above. The amount of US funds that have been devoted to the first year of this war certainly justifies an open discussion about the policy.
Trump has been the most vocal of Republican critics of the Biden policy and has suggested that more money needs to be directed toward our domestic needs. DeSantis has also been moving in that direction and on 14 March, The New York Times reported that he had stated that defense of Ukraine was not a vital interest. The combined support within the Republic Party is a total of 75%. Establishment Republicans reject this position, but it could well have an impact on the attitudes of rank and file party members.
In the end, what matters is that the Republican leadership, overall, is supportive of US aid for the Ukrainians. In fact, many of them have accused the Biden Administration of not give Kiev enough support. (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/republican-senators-push-back-desantis-ukraine-remarks-rcna74974)
Many prominent Republicans were quick to reject DeSantis’ characterization of the war in Ukraine as a mere territorial dispute that did not make the top five of US security concerns. Potential 2024 presidential contender Governor Chris Sununu (R-NH) responded to the DeSantis pronouncement with an explanation of the logic of defending Ukraine. “Let’s walk through it. Yeah, so if you let Russia come in and walk over Ukraine, you put all of Eastern Europe at risk. You put all of our NATO allies there at risk. And then, when a NATO ally is now at risk, now you really risk having to put potential American troops on the ground, which nobody wants to see…” (https://www.breitbart.com/clips/2023/03/19/chris-sununu-money-u-s-spending-to-defend-ukraine-is-a-deal/)
Two prominent Republicans, Mitch McConnell and Nicky Haley actually call for more aid for the Ukrainians. Mike Pence has declared that “there can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin.” (https://www.axios.com/2023/02/26/ukraine-republicans-desantis-trump)
According to Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who say the U.S. is providing too much support has increased to 26% while 31% say it is giving the right amount. However, 20% feel the U.S. give Ukraine even more assistance. In terms of a partisan divide, Republicans are more likely to question aid programs. As of now 40& of Republicans feel the U.S. is giving too much support. That has increased from just 9% a year ago. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2023/01/31/as-russian-invasion-nears-one-year-mark-partisans-grow-further-apart-on-u-s-support-for-ukraine/)
If projecting the impact of the midterm elections, Republican leadership still supports Ukrainian aid. House Republican leadership has joined Senate Republicans in efforts to maintain this policy. Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner warn that hedging U.S. support for Ukraine would likely prolong the war. Therefore, they conclude, the Biden Administration should increase its level of support. (https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/19/politics/mike-turner-mike-mccaul-ukraine-military-cnntv/index.html)
In the end, there will likely be nuanced calls for different types of support and greater oversight for how aid money is spent. Yet, it is unlikely that the shift in House membership and the dynamics of presidential politics will lead to a significant reduction in American support for Ukraine. The fact that the Biden administration is considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine with only minimal opposition to this increase is evidence that U.S. aid will continue. In March, 2023, Senators Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss, urged President Biden to waive a ban on cluster bombs and send them to Ukraine. Whether aid will endure at this level, as Biden has said, “as long as it takes” remains to be seen. However, what these discussions represent is a normal part of policy debates in a democratic system rather than a rejection of American aid to an embattled Ukraine that is resisting Russian expansionism.