Republicans should remember that our political debates have a global audience.
House Speaker Mike Johnson is playing hardball with President Biden over Ukraine and border funding with an eye toward avoiding a showdown with his right flank while it’s still early in his speakership. And Biden is giving him reason to: While figures like former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen are practically begging the president “to accommodate Republican views on the border issue and create a package with four elements: support for Ukraine, support for Israel, support for Taiwan and solve the border issue,” Biden has let the issue linger far longer than it had to.
But Republicans—with important exceptions, like Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who is trying to push Johnson to accept a funding deal coming down the pike—are increasingly framing Ukraine in partisan terms. Rather than arguing in favor of funding both the border and our allies, loud voices on the right are omitting any positive argument for Ukraine funding at all, and Russia is adapting its war strategy to this new reality.
One example of the divide on Republican rhetoric could be heard loud and clear at the most recent (and, seemingly, the last) primary debate. “People like Nikki Haley care more about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border,” Ron DeSantis said, later adding a second point of contention: “They’ve done tens of billions of dollars to pay salaries for Ukrainian government bureaucrats. They’ve paid pensions for Ukrainian retirees with your tax dollars.”
To the first criticism, Haley’s response is simply that “You do not have to choose when it comes to national security,” meaning we can afford both Ukraine aid and border security. To the second, Haley says that money is harder to track than materiel, which is why we should be providing Ukraine with the equipment it needs, not cash.
This came up again in today’s AP dispatch from Kyiv. Ukraine is funding its defensive war from its tax coffers, leaving budgetary holes elsewhere. If Ukraine can’t fill the holes with donor money, it will print money—and that will bring the wrecking ball of inflation swinging back through. The gaps aren’t only in pensions and salaries, either: medical facilities, schools, and banks need to stay open too.
If the West can’t make sure Ukraine gets the supplies it needs, the war could turn on a dime. Earlier Russian missile campaigns targeted power stations and other sites that would make it harder for Ukrainians to get through the winter. If Ukraine was going to be sufficiently supplied with weapons, Moscow strategized, then creating a humanitarian catastrophe could offset their battlefield capabilities.
As Business Insider’s Sinead Baker notes today, that didn’t work. With the changing conditions come changing approaches, however: As the West’s funding stalemate drags on, Moscow is “targeting Ukraine’s weapons industry and its logistics to move those arms to the front, at a time when Ukraine’s ability to make its own weapons is more important than ever because of falling Western military aid.”
It’s a lot easier for Russia to destroy weapons and ammunition if they’re being manufactured inside Ukraine. Essentially, the West’s flagging dedication to Ukraine has cracked open a Ukrainian vulnerability and made Russia’s job that much easier. A path to victory for Vladimir Putin has emerged because we let it. We don’t have to pay “salaries for Ukrainian bureaucrats.” We can let the Ukrainians handle that. But that requires keeping the weapons supply running.
But that’s not going to happen if Republicans let support for Ukraine become functionally a partisan affair. “Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene told reporters Wednesday she would move for a vote to oust Johnson if he approves more Ukraine funding,” reports Bloomberg. At some point these threats are going to be hollow but they are not quite there yet.
In a presidential election year, the campaign rhetoric will answer the question of whether the DeSantis or the Haley approach to Ukraine carries the day with the GOP, and that means the party’s frontrunner, Donald Trump, may end up determining whether Ukraine’s war effort sinks in the partisan miasma of Washington DC. It’s nearly impossible to predict where Trump will be on any specific issue on any particular day—except for immigration. And if Ukraine funding continues to be set against border funding, Trump is likely to sink it.
Of course, the worst-case scenario is that by then it won’t matter anymore.