GOP divide over Ukraine now front and center in presidential primary

The first GOP presidential primary debate underscored the split in the Republican Party — and among its candidates for president — when it comes to U.S. support for the war in Ukraine against Russia.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy’s hand shot up immediately Wednesday night when moderator Bret Baier asked which of the candidates would oppose providing Ukraine with more financial help.

“I think this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent across the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America,” said Ramaswamy, who is rising in polls and has modeled his insurgent campaign on many of former President Trump’s policies.

At the other end of the spectrum on the political stage was former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose stark differences with Ramaswamy on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine led to one of the most memorable moments of the night in Milwaukee.

“Ukraine is the first line of defense for us, and the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is he wants [to] hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends,” Haley said.

“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley told Ramaswamy, echoing former Vice President Mike Pence, another GOP candidate on stage that night, in blasting Ramaswamy as a political and foreign policy novice.

“When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug,” she said, referring to Putin.

The struggle for Ukraine has long divided Republicans, though not enough to hold up support for the embattled country.

Opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine has been most vocal among pro-Trump lawmakers in the House, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

In July, the House rejected five measures backed by some Republicans to curtail aid to Ukraine. The measures were offered as amendments to an annual Pentagon policy bill. 

Greene’s amendment to strike $300 million in Ukraine funding failed in a 341-89 vote, with 130 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against it.

Another proposal from Gaetz that would have prohibited all security assistance for Ukraine failed in a 358-70 vote, with 149 Republicans opposing it. 

The votes were broadly seen as a testament to the relative strength of support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine, despite vocal opposition from some voices on the right.

Support for Ukraine in the Senate among Republicans has been even stronger, in part because of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has visited the country and indicated support for Kyiv should be a major U.S. national security interest.

But that doesn’t mean Ramaswamy is alone as a voice of opposition — or that the future of U.S. support for Ukraine is stable.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last October that Ukraine should not receive a “blank check” on aid. He said Ukraine is “very important” and Russia should be defeated but indicated Republicans would further scrutinize the amount of assistance if they won a majority in the House.

Trump, the leading contender for the GOP nomination, recently called for a pause on additional aid for Ukraine until federal agencies provide “every scrap” of evidence they have on alleged “corrupt business dealings” by President Biden and Hunter Biden.

The former president, criticized by lawmakers in both parties while in office over his handling of Putin and Russia, has refused to directly say he wants Ukraine to win the war and claimed he would be able to end the fighting within 24 hours if he became president again.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, second to Trump in most polls, has also given conflicting signals on Ukraine as he seeks to win over GOP primary voters.

DeSantis at Wednesday’s debate raised his hand partway and said the country’s European allies need to “step up” to provide greater support than they are providing. He said U.S. support for Ukraine should be “contingent” on if those countries “pull their weight.”

Haley was joined by Pence and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in forcefully pushing back at the notion that supporting Ukraine is not in the U.S. national security interest.

Yet all three of those candidates look like also-rans in the GOP race for the White House, and their opinions on Ukraine may be out of step with voters.

A CNN poll released earlier this month showed 55 percent of Americans said the country should not provide additional funding for Ukraine, including 71 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents. Meanwhile, 38 percent of Democrats said the same.

And if Trump or another Republican with views similar to his on Ukraine were to take office, it could change the level of support in Congress on the Russian-Ukraine war.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the U.S. has spent about $66.2 billion in support for Ukraine in military, economic and humanitarian aid since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. That’s less than 4 percent of the total defense budget for fiscal 2023 of $1.77 trillion.

Yet to critics, that’s way too much, given issues they see as more important — including at the southern border.

Ramaswamy argued the U.S. should focus on its issues, like enhancing security on the southern border, over other countries’ conflicts, as did DeSantis.

“As president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people, and that means, you’re sending all this money [to Ukraine], but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border,” DeSantis said.

Pence, who visited the Ukrainian capital Kyiv during the war, maintained the U.S. can address problems at home like the southern border and abroad, like Ukraine. He cited the Reagan Doctrine declared by President Reagan in the 1980s in which he vowed to support those fighting pro-communist governments.

“Anybody that thinks we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth,” Pence said.

“Vivek, if we do the giveaway that you want to give to Putin to give him his land, it’s not going to be too long before he rolls across a NATO border,” he added.

The Biden administration requested Congress allocate an additional $24 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine earlier this month. 

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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