Republican Hypocrisy on Ukraine
GOP policymakers who want to support the embattled country should start by convincing their own party.
A COMMON COMPLAINT addressed to President Joe Biden is that, notwithstanding his open-ended expressions of support for Ukraine, he lacks a clear vision for ending the war, has an undeveloped notion of the conditions of victory, and can’t make a compelling account of what is at stake for the United States. That’s the argument of a document released late last year—a “Proposed Plan for Victory in Ukraine” by Reps. Michael McCaul, Mike Rogers, and Mike Turner, who chair respectively the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Armed Services Committee, and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. They write that the president’s “mantra of supporting Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ is a losing strategy.”
It is a fair criticism, as far as it goes—and to their credit, the three congressmen use it as a starting point for a constructive plan to mobilize further aid to Ukraine. Their recommendations are far more ambitious than the half-hearted assistance extended to Ukraine by the Biden administration.
But any critique along these lines must also be directed at these congressmen’s Republican colleagues, who either oppose helping Ukraine at all or would make U.S. support conditional on meeting other (alleged) priorities. They, too, need to game out what will happen if American military aid to our embattled ally dries up in the coming weeks, and how America’s interests in the region will be affected if it does.
In the short term, Ukrainians have no available substitute for the U.S. defense industrial base. Europeans may be scaling up their production of both munitions and essential weapons systems, but the reality of this expressed commitment lags expectations—and, more importantly, Ukraine’s needs. The EU, for example, will fail to meet its own goal of producing a million artillery shells for Ukraine by March, a shortcoming openly admitted last fall following months of skepticism expressed in private by European officials. Germany’s Rheinmetall is still planning to build a new factory in Ukraine capable of producing 400 tanks a year, but such a project is bound to take many years to complete. The company might begin producing other armored vehicles in the country sooner, but those likely won’t start rolling off assembly lines until the latter half of this year at the earliest.
Ukrainians might be in for a long war, but they can’t wait years for Western supplies. An under-resourced, relatively small military may still hold a defensive line, but it cannot be reasonably expected to conduct successful offensive operations. At a minimum, an aid-depleted Ukrainian military will likely be forced to allow the Kremlin to consolidate its existing gains. In the worst case, however, a weakened Ukrainian military could prove unable to prevent Russia from gaining more territory.
WHAT OPTIONS ARE THE UKRAINIANS LEFT WITH? Negotiations? It is possible that we will see a replay of the Minsk agreements in the coming year, but no Ukrainian will be under any illusion that a lasting peace deal with a neighbor that wants to destroy their country is possible. Such proposals should be seen in the context of Russia’s long, cynical tradition of bogus “peace offensives.” Unless the peace settlement or the ceasefire in question arrives stapled to tangible security guarantees—the most obvious option being Ukraine’s accession to NATO membership—it will amount to no more than a pause in hostilities that will enable the Russians to regroup and attack again at a time of their choosing.
Ukraine being forced into a false peace—a result that some Republican policymakers are explicitly pushing for, and that others are tacitly supporting by using Ukraine aid as a bargaining chip—would irreparably scar Ukraine’s relations with the West and possibly derail Ukraine’s progress toward becoming a European-style market democracy and member of the EU. Dangerous fissures already exist. One is opening between the current government and the parliamentary opposition; another between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the highly popular commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
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Cutting off non-military aid to the country, as some Republicans are also eager to do, is fraught with danger as well. Western financial assistance—disproportionately coming from Europe, where the most recent €50 billion aid package was blocked last month by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—has helped Ukraine to operate as a normal country throughout the war. The $46 billion of U.S. non-military aid provided so far has helped to protect government operations, keep the country’s power grid operational, maintain food security, repair infrastructure, and much else. Take this aid away and Ukrainians may be forced to print money, introduce rationing, and implement the sort of command-and-control system that would make it harder to for Kyiv to deliver on the country’s European aspirations.
A divided, embittered Ukraine, left with a sense of abandonment from the West, could easily change from a source of hope for liberal democracies around the world into a major geopolitical liability for Europe and the United States. Anti-Ukrainian Republicans who still believe in a strong American presence in Europe need to grapple with the ramifications of such an outcome for NATO and security along its Eastern flank. And if their true goal is more radical—an outright U.S. exit from Europe, as Donald Trump has reportedly considered—they need to come clean about it now and explain how such a move would strengthen the U.S. position toward China and how it would support our other foreign policy priorities.
It’s true that the Biden administration deserves criticism for acting too slowly and for failing to make a more compelling case to the American people for helping Ukraine. But that shortcoming does not protect those on the Republican right from criticism, especially when it comes to those who have seized on the administration’s failure to advocate in bad faith for abandoning Ukraine to its own devices. The Republican party must be held to the same standard that Reps. McCaul, Rogers, and Turner want us to hold Biden to. They should articulate their vision and strategy for victory or a sustainable peace—and if they have none, they should say so.