Much of the U.S. Republican political establishment appears eager to abandon Ukraine to Vladimir Putin’s quest for a new Russian Empire — or destroy the aspiring democracy on his border if he can’t have it.
The GOP, which in Soviet times dominated the community of U.S. Russia hawks, is now under the sway of former President Donald Trump’s envy and emulation of the strongman in the Kremlin.
The question bedeviling politicians and foreign policy experts is “why?” Have those who brush off Trump’s authoritarian proclamations as attempts at humor decided that doing Trump’s bidding now will secure them a place in his future oligarchy? Do they think they will be kingpins in the inner circle, reaping the spoils of dictatorship like the filthy-rich elite surrounding Putin?
There is no shortage of warnings from U.S. diplomats, academics and foreign policy experts that Trump’s allusions to being a dictator on Day One of his imagined second presidential term are nothing to laugh about.
On the last day of U.S. Senate business before the holiday break that runs through Jan. 8, Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet implored the nearly empty chamber to help Ukraine save itself and prevent the United States from being drawn into the next phase of Putin’s aggression.
“We’re living in a time when there are all kinds of forces that are tearing at democracy,” Bennet said before the last stragglers in the upper house adjourned. They left Washington without taking a vote on a $110-billion national security aid package—$61 billion earmarked for Ukraine.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell lamented that “from South Texas to Southeast Asia and from the Black Sea to the Red Sea, it is an historically challenging and consequential time to protect America’s interests, our allies and our own people.” But McConnell, like the rest of his delegation, decamped without taking action to replenish the empty aid coffers for Ukraine. The Kentucky senator also saddled the national security aid package with demands for draconian restrictions on immigration at the center of an intractable conflict with Democrats that has eluded agreement for decades.
By pairing unachievable immigration proposals with approval of aid to an embattled ally enduring daily bombardment on front lines and civilian communities, Republican senators have bolstered the far-right faction in the House of Representatives committed to cutting off Ukraine to please their aspiring authoritarian who trusts Putin over U.S. national intelligence sources.
U.S. inaction on Ukraine aid has had a contagious effect in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in mid-December torpedoed the European Union’s proposed $55 billion in renewed aid to Ukraine, apparently in a fit of pique after skipping an earlier EU vote to invite Kyiv to begin the lengthy process to become a NATO member.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky values the path to EU membership above all else for the message it sends to Putin that Ukraine will never succumb to Russian domination. But Orban hastily indicated he can deny EU membership for Ukraine when it is closer to becoming a reality by wielding the Hungarian parliament’s veto to include Ukraine, which must be unanimous among the 27 existing member states according to EU rules.
Western aid to Ukraine in the last months of 2023 dropped by 90% over the same period in 2022, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy reported as the EU and U.S. commitments wavered.
Following Orban’s scuttling of EU aid and U.S. congressional Republicans’ tying the national security aid bill to dead-on-arrival immigration issues, Dara Massicot of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that flagging support from the two biggest backers of Ukrainian independence—the United States and the EU—are leaving Putin to believe he can take advantage of Ukraine’s vulnerability.
“Putin knows that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against ongoing Russian attacks depends on Western aid. The trend lines are not encouraging,” Massicot wrote in late December, noting that Iran and North Korea have been replenishing Russia’s depleted ammunition stocks while Western allies dither over helping Ukraine.
“Every time the Russians think that they have ‘won’ in a conflict under Putin—Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, Syria 2015—they learn something about us (and) become overconfident in their abilities and in a few years they try bigger and bolder operations,” Massicot wrote.
The Financial Times, in a recent commentary, stated that “Americans and Western Europeans feel immune: Putin isn’t coming for them.” There is an alternative, the British daily wrote:
“The Europeans could help Ukraine withstand Putin even if Trump pulled out. We’d have to build up our arms industries fast, but the effort required of us would be tiny compared with Russia’s,” whose low-tech economy is about the size of Canada’s. Europe would need to make up the U.S. aid shortfall of $45 billion a year so far, the FT said. “We could find that if we wanted.”
Analysts blame the support falloff on “Ukraine fatigue” after nearly two years of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing, despite the Ukrainian defenders having taken back more than half the territory Putin’s troops seized in the first weeks after their Feb. 24, 2022, full-scale invasion. Much of what is still under Russian control is in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces occupied by a stealth Russian mercenary invasion in 2014 that culminated in the seizure and annexation of Crimea.
The minimal recovery of Russian-occupied lands during Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive has drawn outsized media attention while the Ukrainian forces’ success in decimating Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet gets rare and fleeting mention in the conflict’s coverage.
“I am grateful to our Air Force for the spectacular replenishment of the Russian Black Sea submarine fleet with another vessel. There will be no peaceful place for the occupiers in Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in praising the latest strike on Russian naval power on Tuesday. Destruction of the amphibious landing ship Novocherkassk and its cargo of Iranian-made attack drones added to a toll of sunken surface vessels that has prevented Russia’s remaining naval forces from operating safely in the Black Sea ports within Ukraine’s cruise missile range.
Casting further U.S. aid to Ukraine as a choice between investment at home or spending billions in taxpayer money on a faraway war is misleading and dangerous, those who know Russia best are warning.
“Congressional division and inaction undermine American national security interests well beyond Ukraine,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul writes in his latest commentary on Substack. “Our inability to get things done sends a signal of dysfunction to our friends and foes alike, suggesting that the United States is no longer a reliable partner. Our enemies love it. Our allies and partners are frightened by it.”
McFaul, now a Stanford professor and head of its foreign policy institute, urges Congress to cease undermining America’s credibility as a reliable member of NATO and its commitment to defend any of its 31 states if attacked by a hostile power.
“Think about the signal that delayed Ukraine aid sends to the leaders and people of Taiwan. If, God forbid, they are faced with the decision of whether to fight or capitulate to the People’s Republic of China, they will need to soberly assess the credibility of America’s commitment to helping them defend their island. Right now, we are sending a terrible message. We appear to be unreliable partners, who might change course should the war drag on too long and dismiss Taiwan as ‘not our problem.’”
Ukraine’s political leaders make a persuasive case that sending ammunition and war-fighting equipment for their battle against Russia is an investment in Western security. Putin has made no secret of his view that territory lost from Moscow’s orbit after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 rightfully belongs to Russia and is subject to Kremlin rule.
Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s Rada parliament, has been reminding the United States and Britain that they provided guarantees of Ukraine’s security when the newly independent country gave up its nuclear weapons under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia also pledged at that time to protect the sovereignty and security of its neighbor that had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal before voluntarily surrendering the weapons after the Soviet breakup.
“The danger for the world from Putin is bigger today than two years ago,” Goncharenko told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. “He feels himself emboldened… Putin will attack again. The only question is where. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia or he’ll test Article 5 of NATO and try to take a Baltic state. (The West) has a unique opportunity to stop Putin in Ukraine without any of its boots on the ground.”
The uncertainty surrounding U.S. aid to Ukraine is likely to intensify when Congress is back in session after the long holiday break. Lawmakers’ attention will be stretched by the need to resolve major conflicts over domestic funding priorities for 2024 by Jan. 19, when the first of two continuing resolutions extending the federal budget expires. By the Feb. 2 second deadline, the most contentious issues of defense, homeland security, and conservatives’ pressure to reduce government and lower the national debt will have to be agreed to prevent a government shutdown.
Whether the divided and often dysfunctional Congress can get through its massive agenda in three weeks is an open question. The threat of a partial government shutdown looms just 11 days after lawmakers reconvene. The Republican-majority House spent most of 2023 wallowing in scandal and acrimony in the least productive session in recent history. The internally conflicted lower house gives little cause for optimism that unity can prevail and the business of governing will take priority over political brinkmanship.
French philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy points out in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this week that whether or not the United States continues its aid to the valiant defenders against Putin’s attempts to destroy a sovereign neighbor, Ukrainians will fight to the death to protect their independence.
“Our defense budgets today are half what they were during the Cold War — and of what they will have to be if we allow Russia to become an offensive threat again,” Levy argues in support of persistent Western aid. “While we hesitate to pay our respects to international law in dollars, the Ukrainians are paying in blood.”