The GOP Split on Ukraine Aid Isn’t Really About Ukraine

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When the new GOP House majority finally selects a speaker and gets down to business, it will have another coalition-rendering issue to address: whether to continue, scrutinize, reduce, or end U.S. aid to Ukraine.

The debate promises to be messy—and not only because the majority is so narrow. The Republican Party is split on foreign policy, but this is playing out less as a normal foreign policy dispute than an odd intrusion of domestic politics into foreign affairs. For most aid critics, the urge to cut off Kyiv appears unconnected to any sort of principled realism, non-interventionism, or even isolationism. It looks much more like an offshoot of the culture war and the GOP’s ongoing thrall to former President Donald Trump. 

On one side of this question are lawmakers like Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who has called for “more oversight and accountability in terms of the funding” but more fundamentally insists “we gotta give [the Ukrainians] what they need.” That is also the position of the Biden administration and most congressional Democrats, and that bipartisan agreement has ensured a steady stream of U.S. dollars and weapons to Kyiv over the past 10 months.

The pro-aid view still seems to be the dominant GOP stance in the Senate. An unsuccessful inspector general proposal from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and explicit anti-aid comments from Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) aside, Republican senators have longer tenures and a median foreign policy contiguous with a Cold War view of American global dominance and the interventionism of the George W. Bush years. Many Senate Republicans likely fall about where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lands: “Continuing our support for Ukraine is morally right, but it is not only that,” he tweeted in December. “It is also a direct investment in cold, hard, American interests.”

The House GOP presents a more chaotic picture. McCaul isn’t alone in backing ongoing aid, but Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the presumptive caucus leader until he lost six speaker votes this week, indicated in October that a House under his leadership might try to reduce or eliminate aid to Ukraine. 

“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy said in an interview. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do, and it can’t be a blank check.” A number of other House Republicans have commented along similar lines, some calling for oversight and others, like Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), categorically opposing additional funds for Kyiv. 

Where the anti-aid position gets extra spicy, though, is among the right-wing commentariat, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Washington last month was met by intense vitriol. The Daily Wire‘s Matt Walsh dubbed Zelensky a “grifting leech;” Tucker Carlson called him a “strip club manager” whom U.S. lawmakers love more than their own constituents; and Donald Trump Jr., refighting old family battles, labeled him an “ungrateful international welfare queen.” Polling shows GOP support for Ukraine aid has already declined, and it’s not difficult to imagine House Republicans feeling pressure from the base to move from skeptical to outright critical of Ukraine aid if remarks like these continue.

Whatever happens, it’s worth noting what the anti-Ukraine aid crowd in Congress generally doesn’t support: ending U.S. weapons transfers and military funding to other countries.

Hawley, for example, has connected his opposition to Ukraine aid to his enthusiasm for Taiwan aid. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation to fast-track U.S. arms sales to Taipei. He’s also repeatedly voted against resolutions stopping weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and he likewise voted against ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war.

Similarly, Vance has suggested that until semiconductor production is ramped up domestically, the U.S. would need to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack. Gaetz has a more mixed record—he’s willing to cut off U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia in Yemen—but he’s uniquely targeted Ukraine aid for slashing. Cutting aid to Israel is certainly off the table. Indeed, none of the representatives I’ve named here voted against $1 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome last year, and Hawley and Vance are as effusive in their pledges of support for Israel as congressional Republicans tend to be.

The fuller picture, then, doesn’t show a GOP pivot to America as “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “champion and vindicator only of her own.” A better explanation is simple partisan reaction: Many Democrats believe Trump is in bed with Moscow and made investigating his alleged ties to the Kremlin a major theme of his four years in office. That has translated to a broader Democratic focus on Russia as the primary threat to the United States and, by extension, on Ukraine as a pseudo-ally particularly deserving of our support. 

In response, some Republicans have—well, not quite embraced Russia, but certainly deemphasized it as a security risk compared to what they likely would have said without the recent history of Russiagate. They’ve cast China as the primary threat instead and, by extension, made Taiwan the pseudo-ally deserving support. And insofar as backing Ukraine is a Democratic cause—insofar as Ukrainian flags flutter over “In this house we believe” signs, as they reliably do in my neighborhood—GOP opposition to Ukraine aid naturally follows, despite the obvious sympathy of the Ukrainian cause. 

Whether that opposition will be enough to change U.S. policy here remains to be seen, especially after the House’s chaotic first week. And maybe even more uncertain is whether this newfound skepticism of an intervention abroad will have any long-term influence on Republican foreign policy. Elect a GOP president who wants to support Ukraine and my guess is this intra-party rift will suddenly start to shrink.

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