For weeks, Ukrainian defense officials had warned that the effort by Russian forces to telegraph their imminent withdrawal from Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city in Russian control and the first major metro to fall to invading forces, was a trap.
The Russians, it was thought, were setting the stage for a feint. They would draw Ukrainian troops into an urban slog where control of the city would be contested block by block. But it wasn’t a ruse. On Wednesday, Russian officials announced the full withdrawal of some 30,000 soldiers to the eastern bank of the Dnieper. By Thursday, Ukrainian soldiers had entered the city center amid the jubilant celebrations of Kherson residents who, Moscow claimed, had voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian federation just months ago.
This represents the most propitious Ukrainian victory since Russian forces retreated from the outskirts of Kharkiv in mid-September. It may be Kyiv’s greatest military achievement of the war, given the resources Russia devoted to the southern axis and the long, methodical Ukrainian effort to drive Russia out of its entrenched positions in Kherson Oblast. Along with the retreat from Kyiv and the flight from Kharkiv, retrenchment in Kherson marks the third major humiliating defeat for Russian forces in their nine-month war in Ukraine.
Ukrainians are winning on their own terms, and their success is due primarily to their own will to resist. But Western aid and weapons contribute to that fight. Kyiv’s victories are our victories, too, insofar as they advance a core American national interest: preserving the stable European covenant that has blessed Western powers with the longest, most durable peace on the Continent in the modern age.
There are lessons that students of American politics can draw from this. The appeal of the Ukrainian cause in both moral and tangible terms is obvious. Americans, it needs to be said, tend to root for America and its interests. They like the relative peace, and prosperity American hegemony has produced. Moreover, embedded in the American DNA is an abiding affection for underdogs and a hostility toward aggressive, imperialist powers that would crush them. For these reasons, the populist right’s incandescently stupid campaign to popularize opposition to the Ukrainian cause is monumentally witless.
Republicans could secure a majority in the House (though, despite the advantages the GOP enjoyed ahead of the 2022 vote, this is no sure thing), and would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy has lent credence to the notion that his majority would take a skeptical look at the aid America provides Ukraine. Given the popularity of the Ukrainian cause, not just among voters but within the Republican conference, it would have been a heavy lift to cut off what the right baselessly disparages as a “blank check” for Kyiv. So giving voice to the idea served no higher purpose than legitimizing the grievance of populist rabble-rousers like Marjorie Taylor Green and Matt Gaetz. But McCarthy went and did it anyway, thereby providing Democrats with yet another avenue to criticize the irresponsibility of their Republican opponents.
Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won reelection in a hotly contested swing district, campaigned against McCarthy’s comments. Her opponent Yesli Vega surrounded herself with the likes of Tulsi Gabbard, a recent convert to the GOP’s burgeoning isolationism. So Spanberger tarred Vega as insufficiently supportive of the cause. Another top-tier GOP recruit in Virginia, Hung Cao, also opposed Ukraine aid under the guise that we just cannot afford what amounts to a rounding error within the federal budget. He also lost. Trump-pick J.R. Majewski lost his bid for the House after, among other unsavory moves, insisting that aid to Ukraine contributed to inflation. Losing New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc tried to convince Granite Staters that we can’t spend “money we don’t have” in support of Ukraine. Arizona’s Blake Masters attacked his opponent for securing Ukraine’s borders at the expense of our own, which somehow failed to convince this border state’s voters. And so on.
These soap-box sentiments are reflective of a line of argument expressed almost nightly on platforms like Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” and they had begun to find purchase among GOP primary voters. The moderate Republicans and independent voters who split their tickets in favor of conventional Republicans and against the populist sort didn’t walk into the voting booth with Ukraine on their minds, of course. But all this agitation likely contributed to a cumulative sense that the Republican Party remains an irresponsible steward of political power.
It was all an unforced error, as indicated by the post-election efforts by Republican lawmakers to insist that support for Ukraine will remain consistent regardless of which party controls Congress. But it was an illustrative error. The populist wing of the GOP’s addiction to unpopularity for the sake of unpopularity fueled its vocal skepticism of the Ukrainian cause. Kyiv’s independence and the salvation of Ukrainians who are being raped, tortured, murdered, and exfiltrated into reeducation camps inside Russia was, to put it in terms the terminally online right would understand, just “the current thing”–a fad to which only coastal elites were beholden. That was mystifyingly foolish.
Skepticism toward the Ukrainian cause never appealed to a majority of Republicans, much less a majority of voters. Expressing that skepticism sufficed only to irritate the conventional Republicans that the populist right so despises. It turned out that making yourself irritating isn’t the shrewdest political strategy.