How the midterms could impact the Russia-Ukraine war

The midterm elections, which are largely being fought over inflation, crime and other domestic issues, could have a huge impact on America’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the likely Speaker in a GOP majority, has talked about how Ukraine would not get a “blank check” from the U.S. with Republicans in control of the House.  

GOP victories by pro-Trump candidates in the House and Senate could also amplify isolationist voices that have questioned the Biden administration’s steady spending in support of Ukraine.  

“I just see a freight train coming, and that is Trump and his operation turning against aid for Ukraine,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told MSNBC last month, underscoring a widely-held concern among Democrats. He added that there could be “a real crisis where the House Republican majority would refuse to support additional aid to Ukraine.” 

Statements from GOP lawmakers such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) have added to the anxiety. During a rally last week, she said a GOP majority would not spend “another penny” on Ukraine.  

To be sure, there are many voices within the GOP that have been highly supportive of Ukraine during the conflict with Russia, including Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).  

Sen. James Risch (Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top Republicans in the foreign affairs committees in each chamber, have been leading voices in support of arming Ukraine, often pushing for Biden to do more.   

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Republican Senate foreign policy staff member, said a majority of Republicans want to back Ukraine against Russia’s aggression.  

“For me, it is about the great battle of the substantive versus the loud,” she said, placing figures like Greene in the latter category. “But these are not people who have any power at all in the House or the Senate.”

But it is also true that McCarthy’s comments reflect skepticism about U.S. economic and military support for Ukraine within his conference. 

And the first test of GOP resistance to additional Ukraine aid could come before the end of this session, with the Biden administration expected to push for another aid package during the lame-duck period before January.

Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said McCarthy was “exactly right” with his no-blank-check comments.  

“Now Democrats are screaming and saying 'Well, McCarthy says that, we know he's gonna be Speaker of the House. We're gonna pass another $50 billion in the lame duck.' It’s just absurd. It’s insanity,” he told Fox News last month.  

That package is likely to pass with Democrats still in control of the House and Senate no matter the results of the midterms. But the level of GOP opposition could indicate how much of the caucus remains on board with strong support for Kyiv. And Banks’s remarks could find even more support if the U.S. economy tips into a recession in 2023.  

Ukraine is likely to be watching the results of the midterms with some anxiety, though Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the BBC last week that he was confident that both parties would keep up support for Kyiv after meetings with lawmakers.  

“I got a lot of signals that it doesn't matter who will steer … bipartisan support for Ukraine will be continued,” he said. “I believe in that.” 

Andres Kasekamp, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who studies the war, said the GOP is “exploiting” the narrative that America must choose between investing in the U.S. on one hand or helping Ukraine on the other. He accused some in the GOP of abandoning the idea that upholding a rules-based international order is in the U.S. interest.  

“That used to be something that was common sense and in the DNA of the Republican Party,” he said. “Now the sort of populists on the far right of the Republican Party have changed the narrative, and it’s dangerous.” 

So far, Americans remain largely united behind U.S. support for Ukraine, thought recent polls have shown a growing partisan divide. 

Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted in early October found that 81 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans agreed that the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine, despite nuclear warnings from Russia.  

Wall Street Journal poll this month found that 81 percent of Democrats support additional financial aid for Ukraine, compared to 35 percent of Republicans. And almost half of Republicans said the U.S. is doing too much, up from 6 percent at the start of the war.  

“It plays right into the hands of Putin,” Kasekamp said of skepticism toward Ukraine support. “The Russians from the beginning have tried to dissuade the West from helping the Ukrainians.” 

Former President Trump has said current U.S. policy risks World War III, advocating instead for the U.S. to pressure Ukraine to open peace talks with Russia.  

Last month, he found rare common cause with progressive Democrats in the House, who released and then retracted a letter calling on President Biden to ramp up diplomatic efforts to end the war.  

Tuesday’s election could bolster the ranks of Ukraine skeptics. J.D. Vance, the Trump-backed GOP Senate nominee in Ohio, said earlier this year that he didn’t care about Ukraine, and wanted Biden to focus on the U.S. border.  

Pletka, the former GOP staffer, said she worried that the far right and far left — for different reasons — will decide to capitulate to Putin and pressure Ukraine to take a peace deal.  

“I could absolutely see the appeasement wing of the Democratic Party having a meeting of minds, if you can call them that, with the fortress America-first wing of the Republican party and doing the wrong thing,” she said.  

Despite Ukraine projecting confidence in continued support from both parties, Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Kyiv has cause for concern.  

“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy learned the hard way in 2019 how much domestic U.S. politics can affect Ukraine’s reality,” she wrote last week, referring to Trump’s first impeachment trial.  

“He and his team would be right to worry about next week’s polls. Whether or not the GOP will follow through on its threats to scale back Ukraine aid is impossible to predict, but it is definitely a real possibility,” she added.