I attempted to run this story last Thursday, but a nasty site bug ate most of it, so readers only saw the first couple of paragraphs. Normally, I go into comments to check reaction and note any corrections, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so that day. So ultimately, the comments were full of confused “this is the shortest Ukraine Update ever!” Sorry about that. Unfortunately, Ukraine is still a big factor in our domestic politics and the original story is still timely, so we’re running it in full.
It might not be obvious, but the war in Ukraine has always been an issue of utmost domestic importance to the United States.
Ukraine was at the center of Donald Trump’s first impeachment, and featured heavily in internal Republican machinations. Remember, the one change that the Trump camp made to the 2016 Republican Party platform was watering down support for Ukraine.
And then there are the strategic considerations. Russia is a big part of the reason that the United States’ defense budget is north of $800 billion … and fast approaching $900 billion. Not only does Russia’s battlefield defeat have budgetary implications, but it will inform whether we have to fight a hot war against either China or North Korea that would cost trillions of dollars, claim untold lives, and destroy the world economy.
This is all quite clear to Democrats and old-guard Republicans. But Trump’s MAGA cult has lined up behind their authoritarian pro-Putin leader, rupturing the Republican Party and leading to a seemingly inevitable government shutdown at midnight on Sept. 30. [Edit: the shutdown was averted, but only after all Ukraine aid was stripped from the legislation.]
In my list of Republican presidential debate winners and losers Wednesday night, I listed Ukraine as one of the few winners. It started with the running of this excellent ad from Republicans for Ukraine:
It got even better when the moderators adopted the ad’s narrative when asking the assembled candidates about Ukraine.
“So, Governor DeSantis, let me go to you. Experts say President Putin has ordered assassinations across Europe, cheated on arms control treaties with the U.S., and seeks to work with China to force our decline,” former White House press secretary and debate moderator Dana Perino asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “President Reagan believed that if you want to prevent a war, you better be prepared to fight one. Today the Republican Party is at odds over aid to Ukraine. The price tag so far is $76 billion. But is it in our best interest to degrade Russia’s military for less than 5 percent of what we pay annually on defense, especially when there are no U.S. soldiers in the fight?”
DeSantis, hack that he is, had nothing. “It is in our interest to end this war, and that’s what I will do as president,” he answered impotently, spewing empty words. “We are not going to have a blank check.” He then awkwardly pivoted to border border border. But it did open up the field to more forceful defenses.
“[O]ur national vital interest is in degrading the Russian military,” said South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. “By degrading the Russian military, we actually keep our homeland safer, we keep our troops at home.” Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley added, “A win for Russia is a win for China.”
After tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that supporting Ukraine was “driving Russia further into China’s arms,” former Vice President Mike Pence made the obvious point that, “Vivek, if you let Putin have Ukraine, that’s a green light to China to take Taiwan. Peace comes through strength.” Remember, China and Russia declared they had a “friendship with no limits” right before Russia invaded. It would take an ignoramus conspiracy theorist like Ramaswamy, who has admitted to not knowing anything about foreign policy until six months ago, to think that supporting Ukraine would bring those two countries further together. They’ve been using the BRICS framework to try and balance out U.S. and Western power for years—since 2001, actually. China and Russia are already allies.
After that exchange, moderator and Fox Business host Stuart Varney teed up a softball for the rest of the pro-Ukraine candidates, asking, “[Former New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie, President Biden’s first two years have brought China, Russia, and Iran closer together. Are we focused too much on Ukraine, and not enough on this threat from the new world order?” Christie smashed it out of the ballpark: “No, they’re all connected, Stuart. They’re all connected. The Chinese are paying for the Russian war in Ukraine. The Iranians are supplying more sophisticated weapons, and so are the North Koreans now as well, with the encouragement of the Chinese. The naivete on this stage from some of these folks is extraordinary.”
He wasn’t done. “And the fact of the matter is, we need to say right now that the Chinese-Russian alliance is something we have to fight against. And we are not going to solve it by going over and cuddling up to Vladimir Putin,” Christie added. “Look, Donald Trump said Vladimir Putin was brilliant and a great leader. This is the person who is murdering people in his own country. And now, not having enough blood, he’s now going to Ukraine to murder innocent civilians and kidnap 20,000 children.”
This isn’t hard. Ramaswamy is clearly trying to ingratiate himself with the MAGA seditionist crowd, so perhaps his willful ignorance makes sense. But DeSantis? This is one of the most momentous issues facing the world community today, and rather than deliver a forceful defense of the international rule of law and America’s clear interest in defeating Russia, he pulled a Trumpian “I’ll immediately bring peace” and tried to pivot to something else. His weakness permeates everything he does and says, and he can’t mask it with hateful attacks against trans and gay people. He is a small and scared man, and people see through him. That’s why he’s gone nowhere but down in the polls.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been on an on-again, off-again merry-go-round on whether to include new Ukraine aid in the defense budget, and it is currently out. The House Freedom Caucus’ MAGA-aligned nihilists wanted it stripped out, but there’s no indication that they’ll vote for the clean spending bill anyway, so no one knows how things will proceed without cutting a deal with Democrats.
One person losing patience is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who must really regret not impeaching Trump when he had the chance. “We’re lined up here against China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran,” McConnell said while speaking at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank on Sept. 27. “That ought to tell you right from the beginning that you’re on the right side. If Putin is to win this, some NATO country will be next. And I think it’s a lot smarter to just stop this invasion, to push him back.”
It’s smart to message the new China-Iran-Russia-North Korea axis. The MAGA cult pretends that focusing on Ukraine and Russia somehow detracts from China, but they are all one and the same fight. Any future Chinese war against Taiwan would feature strong Russian support, if not outright participation. North Korea would similarly need strong Chinese and Russian support for any sustained war against South Korea.
It is U.S. and Western pressure, and the threat to China’s rickety economy, that is keeping them from overtly supplying Russia with military support. But make no mistake, those repressive expansionist regimes are all working to undermine Western democracies and national self-determination. And even if it refuses to provide direct (and overt) military aid to Russia, China has still offered a lifeline and sanctions evasion to keep Russia’s economy from completely collapsing.
At the other end of the Republican spectrum, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has gone off the deep end into nutso conspiracy land. “And over in Ukraine, Charlie, by the way we haven't even talked about this, the country that Mitch McConnell and Schumer and Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton and everybody can't wait to give another 100 billion dollars to, Ukraine is one of the worst countries on the Earth for child sex trafficking and they're harvesting children's organs over there,” she said on Charlie Kirk’s radio show, amplifying one of the more bizarre Russian-spread conspiracy theories.
At some point, reason will likely prevail and Ukraine aid will pass through both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support. But that doesn’t mean the issue will be domestically dead. Expect the MAGA crowd, fueled by an aggrieved Trump, to keep agitating against Ukraine and building more opposition to further U.S. assistance. How it plays in the 2024 presidential election remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t assume it plays to President Joe Biden’s advantage, particularly given how reluctant he and many of Ukraine’s European allies are to provide Ukraine everything it needs to win quickly and decisively.
Slow-rolling Ukraine aid hasn’t served anyone’s interests except for Russia’s, using the delays to further entrench itself in occupied territory.