Nikki Haley Bucks Trump to Send Putin a Message 

Throughout his administration, former President Donald Trump bore a gentle—if not complimentary—posture toward Russian President Vladimir Putin that stoked concern from critics and members of his administration alike.

As president and outside of the White House, Trump has repeatedly said he trusted Putin's word over that of his own director of national intelligence, and reportedly had a congenial relationship with him through the final days of his presidency.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last winter, Trump described Putin as a "genius" while calling a war that has left thousands of people dead on both sides a "savvy" political move—building on a posture that earned Trump harsh rebukes even from his own secretary of state.

"An American partnership with Russia is a fool's errand so long as Putin and his thugs are in power," Mike Pompeo, his onetime secretary of state, wrote in a memoir published ahead of his own anticipated 2024 bid for the presidency.

Trump's first credible opponent in the race—his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley—already plans to put the U.S. posture toward Russia on the ballot.

From left to right: Russian President Vladimir Putin, former President Donald Trump, and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley. Haley, who has faced allegations from Trump supporters of being a "neocon" in the tradition of figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney, is trying to reframe the narrative about the necessity of U.S. support for Ukraine. Michael Santiago/Win McNamee/Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images

In her announcement speeches and subsequent interviews this week, Haley advocated for the United States to take a more proactive role in aiding the Ukrainian defense as enthusiasm for the war has begun to wane among Republicans in Congress.

"We have the backs of our friends, and we hold our enemies to account," she told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody in an interview after her campaign launch in South Carolina earlier this week. "Whether it's Ukraine or Israel, we take care of them because it's about freedom. And we can never stop fighting for freedom."

Newsweek has reached out to Haley's campaign for comment. But it's a position that is becoming an increasingly precarious one within the Republican base.

A CBS News/YouGov poll from early January showed a slight majority of Republicans—52 percent to 48 percent—wanted their member of Congress to oppose further funding to Ukraine, while a Washington Post/ABC News poll in early February showed feelings among Republicans that the country was doing "too much" for Ukraine were up 18 percent from that position in April 2022.

Prior to the 2022 midterms, current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy even suggested his party would consider taking a more active opposition to Ukrainian aid, while others have indicated even the Biden administration's contributions have limits.

It's a balancing act some in the GOP are treading gingerly—particularly as the party's right wing has already begun pushing for an outright end to U.S. assistance.

Some, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have begun aggressively pushing a counter to some of his Republican colleagues, traveling to the Munich Security Conference on Friday to help advocate for more aid from NATO allies while maintaining the need for continued U.S. support.

"I'm gonna try to help explain to the American people that defeating the Russians in Ukraine is the single most important event going on in the world right now," he said in an interview on Fox News Thursday.

Meanwhile, Haley—who has already faced allegations from Trump supporters of being a "neocon" in the tradition of figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney—is trying to reframe the narrative about the necessity of the conflict: namely, that Russia is a threat and the only way to prevent future wars is for Ukraine to win this one.

"This isn't a war about Ukraine. This is a war about freedom," she told Brody. "I don't think we need to put troops on the ground. I don't think we need to write them blank checks. But they have the passion to fight for their own freedom. Give them the ammunition to do it. Get with our NATO allies and say, 'Hey, we're not the only ones, you've got to do it too.' And let them win this fight."