Ukrainian soldiers with the 55th Separate Artillery Brigade fire a Caesar self-propelled howitzer toward Russian troops near the town of Avdiivka in Ukraine's Donetsk (OSV News photo/Viacheslav Ratynskyi, Reuters).

After Donald Trump was roundly criticized for claiming he would encourage Russia to attack NATO allies that failed to spend enough on defense, he tried to double down on these remarks at a campaign rally in South Carolina. He proposed that instead of passing a $60 billion package for aid to Ukraine—which is currently stalled in the House of Representatives due to Republican opposition—we instead give the money to Ukraine “in the form of a loan.” This is something, he told the audience, he frequently does with professional golfers. But the thought of golf distracted Trump and kept him from completing the unpromising analogy. Instead, he complained that a recent photo of him on the golf course misrepresented his girth. Then he claimed he could drive the ball “nine times further than Biden could hit it, nine times.”

Trump’s approach to international affairs—childish, bloviating, easily distracted, and driven by domestic political hostility—has taken root in the Republican Party. House Speaker Mike Johnson has pledged not to bring the bill for Ukraine aid to the House floor because it’s not tied to border-security measures, even though Johnson had already rejected a compromise bill that did include many Republican priorities on immigration. Like most of his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill, he is afraid of offending Trump by depriving him of his signature campaign issue.

Republicans opposed to Ukraine aid repeat Trump’s ill-considered talking points. On the floor of the Senate, Rand Paul conflated border security with foreign policy, saying the Senate bill, which passed with seventy votes, put “Ukraine first” and “America last.” Many in the GOP, for example, Missouri senator Josh Hawley, want military aid redirected away from Ukraine’s defense against Putin’s brutal assault and toward Israel for its own brutal campaign in Gaza. 

Other figures on the Right have adopted Trump’s admiring attitude toward Putin. In an interview with the Russian president, Tucker Carlson encouraged Putin to advance a deluded historical justification for the invasion and asked no questions about Russian war crimes or Putin’s authoritarian crackdown on dissent. When questioned about his favorable treatment of Putin, Carlson said, “Leadership requires killing people.” A few days later, news broke of the death in prison of Putin’s most prominent critic, Aleksei Navalny. Asked to comment on Carlson’s interview, Republican senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said, “Take things with a grain of salt, but a lot of the points that Vladimir Putin made are accurate.”

Other figures on the Right have adopted Trump’s admiring attitude toward Putin.

Of course, there remains an old guard in the Republican Party—represented by Nikki Haley, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Mitt Romney—that rejects MAGA isolationism and clings to the party’s pre-Trump interventionism, but it has become a clear minority.

Without needed U.S. support, Ukraine’s position in the war is becoming increasingly dire. After a much touted counteroffensive ended in a stalemate and led to recriminations between Ukrainian and U.S. military strategists, Ukraine is now ceding territory to Russia. The city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine fell in mid-February after a protracted battle. Both Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky blamed a lack of ammunition for the reversal. In addition to artillery shortages, Ukraine faces serious troop shortages. A battalion commander reported to the Washington Post that his unit, which should number more than two hundred, has been depleted to just forty. In August, Zelensky fired the heads of regional recruiting offices because of concerns about corruption. He clashed publicly with his top general, Valery Zaluzhny, who pressed for a new conscription law and voiced a dim view of Ukraine’s prospects in the Economist. In early February, Zelensky replaced Zaluzhny with General Oleksandr Syrskyi. Corruption, endemic in Ukraine’s political system since before the war, has become a growing concern, as have the prospects for democracy after two years under martial law with no new elections.

These challenges mean that, despite Republicans’ crude motivations and juvenile arguments, serious questions do need to be asked about U.S. policy in Ukraine. The Biden administration has failed to articulate its overall objectives. Many military experts both here and in Ukraine are convinced that Zelensky’s goal of reestablishing the country’s 2014 borders has become unattainable. Meanwhile, Biden’s decision to link Ukraine and Israel rhetorically as two battles for “democracy” makes little sense and undermines the administration’s own efforts to turn Putin into an international pariah.

Partly for these reasons, public support for U.S. aid to Ukraine continues to slip. Sixty-one percent of Americans, including a third of Democrats, think there should be a time limit on our support, and 70 percent think the Biden administration should initiate peace talks. Ukraine deserves our continued support—it would be tragic to withdraw it now—but the American public deserves a credible explanation of how that support can help bring an end to a war that is beginning to seem endless.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.