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The Republicans Who Are Treating Ukraine as Their Hostage
Why some in the GOP are increasingly taking a grossly instrumental view of the war in Ukraine.
IN THE YEAR AND A HALF since Russia invaded Ukraine, many Republicans have turned against arming Ukraine. Now the party has crossed a tipping point. Most rank-and-file Republicans want to end or reduce aid to Ukraine. For the first time, most House Republicans have voted against a proposal to send more assistance. And even Republican leaders who support Kyiv are threatening to withhold aid unless Democrats offer concessions on other issues. They’re treating Ukraine as a hostage—not a Russian hostage, but a Republican hostage.
Over the last year, in Economist/YouGov polls, the percentage of Republicans who favor “decreasing military aid to Ukraine” has doubled, from 27 percent to more than 50 percent. In the latest Economist survey on this question, taken a week ago, 60 percent of Republicans said we should reduce aid to Ukraine, and half of that 60 percent wanted to cut off aid entirely. Democrats, by contrast, have hardly budged. Only 14 percent want to reduce the aid.
The 60 percent figure is a big jump from the previous 50 percent, so that number might subside in future samples. But it’s consistent with a September Navigator survey in which 59 percent of Republican voters—but only 27 percent of Democratic voters—agreed that “The United States should stop sending military aid to Ukraine.”
A poll for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, taken in September and released on Wednesday, underscores the partisan divide. Since March 2022—shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion—Democratic support for “economic assistance” to Ukraine has declined slightly, from 85 percent to 76 percent. But Republican support has plummeted from 74 percent to 47 percent. Democratic support for “military assistance” remains robust at 77 percent, but Republican support has plunged from 80 percent to 50 percent.
Surveys taken by Echelon Insights, a Republican firm, show a similar trend when voters are asked to choose between two statements. One statement says “Ukraine’s war is our war” because “If Russia wins, vital U.S. interests and values are threatened.” The other statement says “The war in Ukraine is a tragedy, but vital U.S. interests and values are not really at stake in this conflict.”
In March 2022, 46 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters chose the statement that our vital interests and values “are threatened.” Only 34 percent chose the statement that those interests and values are “not really at stake.” But by May 2022, that gap had vanished. And since October 2022, Republicans have consistently preferred the “not really at stake” position.
In the latest Echelon Insights poll, taken last week, 53 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners chose the “not really at stake” position; only 29 percent chose the “interests and values are threatened” position. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, those numbers were almost reversed. And while 67 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners said “military assistance to Ukraine” was a good idea, a plurality of Republicans and Republican leaners—44 percent to 38 percent—said it was a bad idea.
AS REPUBLICAN VOTERS have turned against Ukraine, so have many of their representatives in Congress.
In July, during a debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, 70 of 219 House Republicans (32 percent) voted for an amendment—offered by Rep. Matt Gaetz—that would have prohibited further military aid to Ukraine. Last week, Gaetz offered a similar amendment, and this time 93 of 219 Republicans (42 percent) voted for it.
In July, 89 of 219 House Republicans (41 percent) voted for a different amendment, proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, that would have deleted $300 million in Ukraine security assistance from the NDAA. Last week, Rep. Andy Biggs offered a similar amendment to delete the $300 million, and this time 104 of 221 Republicans (47 percent) voted for it.
Republican opposition to the money for Ukraine has become so intense that last Thursday, to rescue the NDAA, House GOP leaders removed the $300 million from the bill. When they put that money up for a separate vote on the floor, 117 of 218 Republicans (54 percent) voted against it.
On every one of these votes, House Democrats have stood unanimously with Ukraine.
In the Senate, Republican support for Ukraine has been stronger, thanks in part to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But that support is fraying. On Saturday, at a meeting of the Senate Republican Conference, McConnell tried to defend a continuing resolution (CR), passed a few days earlier by the Senate, that included $6 billion for Ukraine. The conference—including its second- and third-ranking leaders, Sen. John Thune and Sen. John Barrasso—rejected McConnell’s argument. Republican senators told Punchbowl News that McConnell was “vastly outnumbered” in the meeting and “out of step with the conference.”
In place of the Senate CR, Republican senators deferred to a CR passed by the House, which differed in only one notable respect: It omitted the money for Ukraine. And the intra-Republican fight over that money tells a grim story about where the party is going.
Initially, most Republican senators joined Democrats to pass the Senate CR, including the $6 billion for Ukraine. But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, nominally a supporter of Ukraine, responded by accusing the Senate of snubbing America. “If they want to . . . focus on Ukraine and not focus on the southern border, I think their priorities are backwards,” McCarthy sniped. “I just went out to Maui and watched the devastating fires of Americans killed. I’ve been to California, watched the floods and the hurricanes. Florida. Vermont. Ohio, in a train derailment. They’re picking Ukraine over Americans.”
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On Friday, McCarthy warned that the House might reject the Senate’s CR—resulting in a government shutdown—if the Senate were to put “Ukraine over America” by including aid for Kyiv. And on Saturday, after the House passed its Ukraine-free CR, McCarthy took another shot at the Senate and Ukraine. “What the Senate wanted to do was focus on Ukraine in front of America,” he asserted. “I understand our responsibilities, but I’m going to put America first.”
MCCARTHY’S ATTACKS SIGNIFIED a new stage of the GOP’s turn against Reaganism. The party has always had an isolationist wing. But now Republican leaders are yielding to, and in some cases exploiting, the spread of isolationism in the Republican base.
On Sunday, Gaetz indicated that McCarthy, in conversations with House Republicans, had touted the House-Senate dispute over Ukraine money as a political weapon against the Senate. McCarthy “was baiting [House] Republicans to vote for a continuing resolution without Ukraine money, saying that we were going to jam the Senate on Ukraine,” Gaetz told CNN.
Gaetz’s account is consistent with McCarthy’s public attacks on the Senate’s allocation of funds to Ukraine. And McCarthy added more evidence on Monday, when he boasted on Fox & Friends that Republicans had scored “a win” by “making sure that Ukraine was not in” the House CR.
BUT THE BIGGER STORY is that even Republicans who claim to support Ukraine are now treating aid to that country as a concession to Democrats.
On Sunday, McCarthy made it clear that House Republicans wouldn’t agree to more money for Ukraine unless Democrats accepted Republican proposals for tightening the Mexican border. “I’m going to make sure that the weapons are provided for Ukraine, but they’re not going to get some big package if the border is not secure,” McCarthy declared on Face the Nation. To get money for Ukraine, said McCarthy, “the one thing the White House has to understand: They better be prepared to secure [the] American border.”
Two days later, Gaetz and other hardline Republicans toppled McCarthy from the speakership. Afterward, in a press conference, McCarthy confirmed that he viewed Ukraine as a hostage to be exchanged in negotiations with Democrats. “My whole plan,” said McCarthy, was “If you want anything on Ukraine, we got to do something with the border.”
That instrumental view of Ukraine hasn’t ended with McCarthy’s ouster. It’s broadly shared by congressional Republicans. Those who claim to support arming Ukraine are now using, as political leverage against Democrats, their Republican colleagues who oppose arming Ukraine.
On Saturday, as the House debated its CR, Rep. Mike Lawler—a putative moderate and self-described friend of Ukraine—wielded the Ukraine money as a cudgel against Democrats. “If you’re saying that you support the Senate CR but you don’t support this one [the House CR], the only difference is Ukraine,” Lawler shouted. “And if you’re telling the American people with a straight face that you will shut the American government down over Ukraine, shame on you.”
The next day, on Face the Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham—ostensibly one of the Senate’s strongest advocates for Ukraine—endorsed McCarthy’s hostage-taking strategy. “He’s telling everybody in the country, including me, ‘You better send something over for the border for me to help Ukraine.’ And he’s right to make that demand,” said Graham. “To expect people like me and others to vote for Ukraine aid without border security is unreasonable.”
In the House, Ukraine’s fate might hinge on who succeeds McCarthy. His temporary successor, Acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry, supports aid to Ukraine but shares McCarthy’s view that the issue is a political albatross. A few days ago, McHenry called the Senate “so dumb” for including Ukraine money in its CR.
As of Wednesday, three Republicans had announced they were seeking the speakership, and only one of the three, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a record of supporting Ukraine. The others, Reps. Jim Jordan and Kevin Hern, have consistently voted against helping Ukraine. On Wednesday, CNN’s Manu Raju asked Jordan whether he was “willing to move forward with an aid package for Ukraine if you’re speaker.” “I’m against that,” Jordan “The most pressing issue on Americans’ minds is not Ukraine. It is the border situation, and it’s crime on the streets.”
REAGANITE FOREIGN POLICY—the idea that America should play a moral and forceful role in the world, particularly against Russian aggression and in defense of democracy—isn’t dead. You can still see vestiges of it in the House, the Senate, and the 2024 presidential campaign, where several Republican candidates continue to make the case for Ukraine.
But that faction no longer dominates the party. Today, Reaganites are outnumbered by Republican isolationists. And Republican leaders won’t continue to aid countries like Ukraine unless—from the party that still stands firmly for democracy—they get something in return.