Kyiv Is Hoping the Republican Party’s Better Angels Prevail in the U.S. Midterms

A small but vocal minority of pro-Trump Republicans are openly questioning U.S. support for Ukraine.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A storm cloud hangs over the U.S. Capitol.
A storm cloud hangs over the U.S. Capitol.
A storm cloud hangs over the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 16. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Politics stops at the water’s edge, or it may have in 1947, when then-Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first made the remark. But as partisan politics increasingly have bled into U.S. foreign policy in recent years, next month’s midterm elections have raised concerns about how the election could impact U.S. support for Ukraine as the war against Russia grinds into the winter.

Republicans have been widely predicted to retake control of the House of Representatives, and the future of the Senate remains up in the air. Although there has been strong bipartisan support for Kyiv since the war began among mainstream Republicans, former U.S. President Donald Trump-aligned members as well as influential commentators on Fox News and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber have begun to question the degree of military aid provided by Washington.

The decision to further arm Ukraine maps onto a deepening rift within the Republican Party between hawkish establishment conservatives, not shy of overseas intervention, and a growing chorus of isolationists who gained prominence during the Trump administration.

Politics stops at the water’s edge, or it may have in 1947, when then-Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first made the remark. But as partisan politics increasingly have bled into U.S. foreign policy in recent years, next month’s midterm elections have raised concerns about how the election could impact U.S. support for Ukraine as the war against Russia grinds into the winter.

Republicans have been widely predicted to retake control of the House of Representatives, and the future of the Senate remains up in the air. Although there has been strong bipartisan support for Kyiv since the war began among mainstream Republicans, former U.S. President Donald Trump-aligned members as well as influential commentators on Fox News and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber have begun to question the degree of military aid provided by Washington.

The decision to further arm Ukraine maps onto a deepening rift within the Republican Party between hawkish establishment conservatives, not shy of overseas intervention, and a growing chorus of isolationists who gained prominence during the Trump administration.

“There are a lot of Republicans who are strongly behind Ukraine, who want the administration to do more,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

There is, however, a creeping anxiety among Republicans, Democrats, and Ukrainians as to whether they could be overwhelmed by the vocal minority. In May, 57 Republican members of the House and 11 Republican senators voted against a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine while several members of the House Freedom Caucus, which represents some of the most extreme right-wing members, have spoken out explicitly against sending further aid to Ukraine. In August, members of the caucus co-sponsored a bill that called for no more federal funds to be sent to Ukraine until a wall is erected along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“These voices that believe in America First isolationism dominate all of the major right-wing media,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “They’re the noisiest and the loudest, and they get the most attention.”

Since the day Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, highly influential Fox News anchors—such as Tucker Carlson—have portrayed the war as a failing of the Biden administration, an effort to avenge Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. At times, Carlson has echoed Russian talking points about the war.

Other conservative commentators dismissed the impact that Carlson and others had on the broader Republican Party. “Anytime youre citing [Rep.] Matt Gaetz and Tucker Carlson, it sounds like there is an agenda behind it,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior foreign-policy and defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka noted that senior Republicans across the House and Senate have all encouraged the administration to provide more aid to Ukraine.

“I think a lot is overblown in terms of the effect of Fox News commentators,” said a Republican congressional aide who requested anonymity to discuss the matter. The aide noted that Republican concerns about military aid have largely centered on bureaucratic fights over appropriations and the urge to get heavy weaponry into the hands of the Ukrainian military faster. In a speech on the Senate floor in late September, minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell urged the Biden administration to move faster in delivering weapons to Ukraine.

“The other hesitancy about providing money to Ukraine is not as much to do with Ukraine itself but the Biden administration not doing the proper oversight and accountability of very large sums of money being given to a foreign partner,” the aide added.

Others found little substance to the GOP’s critiques of the way the Biden administration has handled military aid to Ukraine. “Republican critiques of the Biden administration are nonsense on Ukraine. And I say that as a lifelong Republican and an Ukraine expert,” Haring said.

But views from the fringes of the party have proven capable of moving into the mainstream in recent years, as evidenced by the party’s coalescence around claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. A majority of GOP candidates running for office in November have questioned or rejected the outcome of the vote.

“That small group has certainly shown that they have a disproportionate influence on the direction that [House Minority Leader Rep.] Kevin McCarthy chooses,” Smith said.

Opinion polls already show creeping fatigue among Republican voters for U.S. support for Ukraine, which could come to weigh on members. A Morning Consult poll released on Monday found only 32 percent of Republicans believe that the United States has a responsibility to protect and defend Ukraine from Russia, compared to 58 percent of Democrats. “I think its incumbent on mainstream Republicans to get out of Washington and New York and start talking to Americans,” Haring said. “We need to do better, and we need to explain why support for Ukraine is in the U.S. national interest.”

Between January and October, Washington pledged $26.8 billion in military aid, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, several times that of the second-biggest donor, the United Kingdom.

Any cutbacks to U.S. military aid to Kyiv could deal an existential blow to Ukraine.

“People in Ukraine do believe that support for Ukraine is a bipartisan issue,” said Olena Tregub, secretary-general of NAKO, an independent defense anti-corruption commission in Ukraine.

“Yet, of course, here in Ukraine, there is a strong reaction [to] some statements of Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson. These are really shocking statements for Ukrainians, and they are confused as to how Russian propaganda has penetrated the American Republican Party to such an extent,” she added.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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