Trump’s years-long crusade against Ukraine has finally come home to roost as Republicans call for abandoning Kyiv
John Haltiwanger, Sonam Sheth – October 20, 2022
- US aid to Ukraine could be in jeopardy if Republicans win the House in the midterms.
- Several GOP lawmakers and candidates have signaled they would support reducing or cutting off Ukraine aid.
- “Ukraine unfortunately has been hijacked sometimes in domestic politics. Now and then that happens,” a Zelenskyy advisor told Insider.
In a phone call with Ukraine’s president this month, US President Joe Biden pledged continued solidarity with Ukraine as it battles Russia’s military invasion and illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
But that level of support could be in jeopardy if the GOP gains control of the House of Representatives in this year’s midterm elections.
The warning signs have been building for months.
In April, 10 House Republicans voted against a bill allowing the Biden administration to more easily lend military equipment to Ukraine. The following month, 57 House Republicans voted “no” on a nearly $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. Both measures ultimately passed the chamber.
“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s favored to become House Speaker if the GOP retakes the chamber, recently told Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it.”
Ukraine has repeatedly defied expectations since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion, delivering a blow to the Russian military’s prestige. With the help of Western aid and at a massive personal cost, Ukrainian forces prevented Russia from seizing Kyiv in the early days of the war and more recently launched a counteroffensive that’s shown major signs of success.
But a far-right faction of the GOP has increasingly pushed against continued assistance to Ukraine, saying the billions the US has provided to Kyiv is too costly and not worth the risk of sparking a wider conflict with Russia.
A remarkable shift
The GOP’s gradual shift away from Ukraine and toward Russia has been years in the making, but right-wing hostility toward Ukraine hit a pivotal point during Donald Trump’s presidency.
In addition to peddling the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election, Trump was impeached in 2019 for withholding hundreds of millions in vital aid to Ukraine as it fought a war against Kremlin-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
While withholding the aid, Trump and his allies pressured Zelenskyy, a political neophyte who won the 2019 election in a landslide victory, to launch an investigation targeting the Bidens ahead of the 2020 US election.
Foreign policy experts said Trump’s actions — dangling security assistance in exchange for political favors — were a threat to the US’s national security and bipartisan support for Ukraine. But the vast majority of congressional Republicans rallied to Trump’s defense, and ultimately, just one Senate Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict the former president over his actions.
In the years since, Trump has continued to take a controversial stance on Ukraine, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading as “genius” and “savvy.” The former president has often lauded the Russian leader, going out of his way to avoid criticizing Putin amid a historically contentious period in US-Russia relations.
Anti-Ukraine sentiment doesn’t just come from the top of the GOP. Putin has long been seen as a hero by the alt-right and white nationalists, and since Russia invaded Ukraine, many prominent right-wing politicians and media figures have moved in lockstep with the Kremlin, creating a feedback loop where each side amplifies and recycles the other’s propaganda.
On Fox News, for instance, the far-right host Tucker Carlson has repeatedly echoed a nonsense conspiracy theory, which originated in Moscow before taking root in the US, suggesting that Ukraine houses US-funded bioweapons labs.
Russian state-sponsored media outlets in turn frequently feature Carlson’s segments, and in March, Mother Jones reported that the Russian government instructed state media that it was “essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson” to spread negative information about Ukraine, the US, and NATO.
“When we see Fox News commentators, from our perspective, promote isolationist positions — that looks like support for Russia,” Mykola Kniazhytskyi, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, recently told NPR.
Some GOP opposition to continuing aid to Ukraine is tied to Trump’s “America First” policy vis-a-vis foreign affairs. Trump embraced a non-interventionist stance and was often critical of US spending abroad, particularly when it came to NATO and European security.
Congressional Republicans like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have echoed these sentiments in their criticism of US assistance to Ukraine.
It’s a remarkable shift for the Republican Party, which for years touted a hawkish position on foreign policy, especially as it related to leading adversaries like Russia. But under Trump’s stewardship, the party has become increasingly isolationist, and its growing opposition to aiding Ukraine is the latest and clearest sign of that.
Biden, meanwhile, has made the case that supporting Ukraine is part of a wider fight between democracy and autocracy. But a growing number of Republicans say sending aid to Kyiv should not be prioritized in Washington amid concerns over inflation and a potential recession.
“When people are seeing a 13% increase in grocery prices; energy, utility bills doubling … if you’re a border community and you’re being overrun by migrants and fentanyl, Ukraine is the furthest thing from your mind,” GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong told Axios.
Democrats are more optimistic about retaining the Senate, but according to forecaster FiveThirtyEight, their chances have gone down in recent weeks based on polling in four key contests in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and North Carolina.
And in Ohio, GOP Senate candidate JD Vance has made it clear that he would vote against sending more aid to Ukraine, saying in September that “we’ve got to stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually. We cannot fund a long-term military conflict that I think ultimately has diminishing returns for our own country.”
‘The cards have been dealt’
There are some in Kyiv who believe that US support to Ukraine will continue regardless of which party controls Congress.
“Ukraine unfortunately has been hijacked sometimes in domestic politics. Now and then that happens,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to Zelenskyy who previously served as Ukraine’s economic minister, told Insider. “We try our best to stay away from this. We would like to stay away from this.”
“Despite all that rhetoric, the support has always been bipartisan,” Mylovanov said, adding that the amount of assistance Ukraine needs is a small fraction of the US GDP. “In terms of what it means in the budget — it means nothing. It’s not trillions of dollars,” he said.
The US has provided over $20 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. The Biden administration has sent Ukraine $18.2 billion in military aid, including roughly $17.6 billion since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in late February.
Other Western countries have provided important assistance to Ukraine, but the US has contributed the most of any individual country so far.
Weapons the US sent, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), have turned the tables on Russia by blunting its previous advantages in armored vehicles and artillery. If US aid to Kyiv suddenly dried up, it would likely curtail Ukraine’s ability to oust sizable Russian columns from dug-in positions.
Trump, meanwhile, called for a negotiated settlement to the war during a rally earlier this month. “We must demand the immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine or we will end up in World War III,” he said at the time.
But Putin has shown little interest in negotiating, as evidenced by the drastic steps he’s taken in recent weeks. Beyond the illegal annexations, Putin announced a partial military mobilization — calling up hundreds of thousands of men — and imposed martial law in the regions Moscow claims are now part of Russia but does not fully control.
Russia has also ramped up missile and drone attacks against civilian areas while destroying key infrastructure across Ukraine.
But Mylovanov, the former economic minister who is also the president at the Kyiv School of Economics, said that while Russia wants Ukraine to surrender, the “Ukrainian people will not have it.”
“People think that what happens in Kyiv is decided either in Moscow or Washington or Brussels, or maybe Beijing. It is not, it’s decided in Ukraine,” Mylovanov said.
“The cards have been dealt,” he added, and it’s up to the US if it wants to be at the table.