Republicans' Divided Stance on Russia Is Major Boost for Putin

Divisions among Republicans on support for Ukraine could prove a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin as campaigning for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination begins.

Both former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that opposing Russia in Ukraine is not a matter of vital strategic interest for the U.S.

Those statements come as Trump campaigns for the Republican nomination. DeSantis is widely expected to jump into the race, with polls showing he's the former president's most formidable opponent.

Vladimir Putin Speaks at the Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an event marking the 100th anniversary of domestic civil aviation at the State Kremlin Palace, on February 9, 2023 in Moscow. Republicans appear divided over ongoing aid for Ukraine. Getty Images

In response to a questionnaire from Carlson, Trump said that opposing Russia in Ukraine was a vital interest for Europe but "not for the United States. That is why Europe should be paying far more than we are, or equal."

When Trump was asked what limit he would put on funding and material for Ukraine, he responded that it "would strongly depend on my meeting with President Putin and Russia. Russia would have never attacked Ukraine if I were President, not even a small chance."

DeSantis gave similar answers, telling Carlson: "While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them."

Those comments stand in contrast to other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He said in February: "If Putin were given a green light to destabilize Europe," then "the long-term cost to the United States in both dollars and security risks would be astronomically higher than the miniscule fraction of our GDP that we have invested in Ukraine's defense thus far."

Senator Roger Wicker is the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. He issued a statement on Tuesday saying an incident involving a U.S. drone and a Russian plane "should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is."

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has said he will not support a "blank check" for Ukraine and turned down an invitation a week ago to visit Kyiv.

"Let's be very clear about what I said: no blank checks, OK? So, from that perspective, I don't have to go to Ukraine to understand where there's a blank check or not," McCarthy added.

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Politico in comments published on Wednesday that Trump's nomination by the GOP would be a "geopolitical catastrophe." It could undermine support for Ukraine.

Political scientists who spoke to Newsweek said that divisions among Republicans on Ukraine could come into sharp focus as the 2024 campaign heats up.

Putin's Interests

Republicans who want to win Trump's support may have to oppose U.S. support for Ukraine, according to Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, in Canada.

"The basis for this position is not some principled or strategic rationale for accommodating Putin's invasion, or for backing out of the NATO alliance. It is just that President Trump, for reasons that were highly suspicious but have not yet been adequately explained, was extraordinarily responsive to Putin's interests," Quirk told Newsweek.

Quirk pointed to Trump's first impeachment. It centered on accusations that he had withheld aid to Ukraine to induce the country's government to open up an investigation into then-former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The growing Republican opposition to military aid for Ukraine is all about defending Trump," Quirk said.

He added that, although "public enthusiasm for military assistance to Ukraine has declined, support still outweighs opposition, 48 percent to 29 percent, according to a recent poll."

Those figures come from a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted from January 26 to 30 among 1,068 adults.

"One cause of the decline has simply been the passage of time – people paying less attention to the war – along with economic troubles at home," Quirk said. He added that "attacks on the American effort by Fox host Tucker Carlson, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Trump himself contribute to the erosion, among Trump's base supporters."

A Legitimate Debate on Ukraine

It is "perfectly appropriate to ask whether arming Ukraine is in the U.S.'s national interest, or whether it is humane to prolong a war," according to David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"Raising these questions should not be presented as a boon to Putin," Bateman said. "It is a legitimate debate for a democratic people to be engaging in. It means people must be able to advocate and defend all the reasons for and against the U.S.'s current course of action without being accused of acting as Putin's dupes or as apologists for U.S. empire."

Bateman told Newsweek that, when it comes to DeSantis, "his political interests are clear."

"He is appealing to three overlapping audiences in the GOP primary, each of which might be a natural constituency for Trump," he said. "First, the small but persistent strand of Republican primary voters who are occasionally skeptical of what have been called 'wars of choice,' most vocally when the conflict is happening under a Democratic administration."

The second group is "the larger strand of voters who want more aggressive assertions of American power, often framed in language of ruinous masculinity, but who also admire so-called strongmen who assert their own country's power in ways that these voters believe the U.S. fails to do, i.e. a worldview where the 'strong' should rule and the weak should accommodate themselves accordingly."

"Third, those voters invested in sustaining patriarchal and heteronormative relations of authority and domination, and who see Putin, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as a titanic figure in keeping the prerogatives of cis- hetero- men secure. Blocking out Trump from appealing to these constituencies is DeSantis's clear aim," Bateman said.

A 'Tricky Act' for DeSantis

Balancing those different groups of voters could be key to victory, but it won't be an easy matter for the Florida governor.

"Still, it's a tricky act for him to pull off," Bateman said. "There are a lot of primary voters who can be associated more-or-less with these tendencies, but the hardcore believers, those willing to insist on their position despite the unpopularity of a war waged by an authoritarian regime, are a minority."

DeSantis "risks winning potential Trump voters only to lose everyone else. And while these groups overlap, they're not the same," he added.

"Presumably, there are some isolationists who might be repelled by praise for Putin, or supporters of U.S. bellicosity who oppose Biden leading the conflict but who would support it if a Republican were in charge," Bateman said.

"Saying it's not in the U.S. national interest is a way of recognizing the concerns of the first group, letting the second group know that he will aggressively throw the U.S.'s obese military power around when it is in what he defines as the national interest, while hoping his record leading the fight against gays and lesbians and trans-persons will help secure his standing with the third," Bateman added.

Thomas Gift is founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics. He told Newsweek that what "we're seeing from a number of Republican presidential hopefuls, not just DeSantis, is a position on Ukraine that's anything but towing the inside-the-Beltway line."

"Neo-conservatism is out. Belligerent isolationism is in," Gift said.

"From a purely political standpoint, DeSantis and others are reading the tea leaves. There's plenty of skepticism within the GOP base about the value of sending billions of dollars to Kyiv," he said.

Gift added that "it's hard to imagine any candidate who takes a 'back Ukraine regardless' stance will win many votes in the Republican presidential primaries. It's simply not where the median GOP voter is at the moment."

'America First' Foreign Policy

DeSantis has not yet declared his intention to seek the 2024 presidential nomination but if he hopes to win, he will need to appeal to voters who backed Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Robert Singh, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, U.K, told Newsweek that the governor's stance on Ukraine "is very significant."

"It suggests that DeSantis has calculated, whether cynically or out of genuine belief, that adopting a Trumpian 'America First'-style foreign policy is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of besting the former president in the 2024 primaries," Singh said.

"At one level, this is probably pragmatic. The GOP electorate is not 'isolationist,' but it does contain a lot of nationalists and skeptics of military intervention. Those traditional Reagan-style internationalists that care a lot about foreign affairs are not going to be decisive in the primaries, however much noise they make," Singh said.

He added that the question "is whether a President DeSantis would carry out a retreat in support. We can't know. From Woodrow Wilson, FDR and LBJ promising not to send Americans into war, to Eisenhower promising not to contain but roll back communism, presidents in office often behave differently to what they say on the campaign trail."

"But this raises the stakes not just on Russia but for China, too, which will be monitoring carefully what DeSantis says for signs of whether he doesn't think that the defense of Taiwan is any more a vital U.S. interest than Ukraine," Singh added.

The Role of Congress

In his remarks to Politico, Rasmussen said that a Trump nomination could undermine support for Ukraine in Congress. Paul Quirk told Newsweek that the House will be of particular importance because it has a GOP majority.

"The main threat to American support is in the House of Representatives—controlled by Republicans and led by a Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is essentially owned by the most extreme MAGA faction of the party," Quirk said.

He added that McCarthy "may resist bringing measures for further assistance to the House floor."

"The president and the Senate, where Republicans have largely maintained the party's long-standing pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO posture, may have to settle for smaller aid packages than they would want," Quirk said.

"The rising Trumpist opposition to assistance for Ukraine is perhaps one of the few bits of encouraging news about the war, from Putin's standpoint," he added.