Russia might be bogged down in its vicious onslaught on Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin is winning big elsewhere – in the Republican presidential primary.
The two highest-polling potential GOP nominees – former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – are making clear that if they make it to the White House, Ukraine’s lifeline of US weapons and ammunition would be in danger and the war could end on Putin’s terms. Their stands underscore rising antipathy among grassroots conservatives to the war and President Joe Biden’s marshaling of the West to bankroll Kyiv’s resistance to Putin’s unprovoked invasion.
“The death and destruction must end now!” Trump wrote in replies to a questionnaire from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson about the war and US involvement. DeSantis, answering the same questions, countered with his most unequivocal signal yet that he’d downgrade US help for Ukraine if he wins the presidency. “We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland,” he wrote.
Trump’s warnings that only he can stop World War III and DeSantis’ main argument that saving Ukraine is not a core US national security interest will likely gain even more traction following one of the most alarming moments yet in the war on Tuesday. The apparent downing of a US drone by a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea was a step closer to the scenario that everyone has dreaded since the war erupted a year ago – a direct clash between US and Russian forces.
“This incident 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,” Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in a Tuesday statement that read as an implicit rebuke of his party’s leading presidential hopefuls. Others, like Texas Sen. John Cornyn, said DeSantis’ position “raises questions.”
But the reproach from some senior Senate Republicans may not matter much in today’s GOP. As they fight to outdo one another’s skepticism of Western help for Ukraine, Trump and DeSantis are showing how “America First” Republicans have transformed a party that was led by President Ronald Reagan to victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Their influence is sure to deepen the split in the US House between traditional GOP hawks and followers of the ex-president that is already threatening future aid to Ukraine – even before the 2024 presidential election.
That divide is playing out in the early exchanges of the GOP primary race as other candidates, including ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, warn that failing to stop Putin now could lead to disastrous confrontations later. Haley staked out a far more hawkish position on Ukraine in a statement on Tuesday. The former South Carolina governor warned that Russia’s goal was to wipe Ukraine off the map, and that if Kyiv “stopped fighting, Ukraine would no longer exist, and other countries would legitimately fear they would be next.”
But her position might help explain why she’s trailing in early polls of the race. A new CNN/SSRS poll on Tuesday, for instance, found that 80% of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents thought it was important that the GOP nominee for president believe the US “should not be involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine.”
GOP political calculations will have a profound geopolitical impact.
Rising Republican skepticism of US aid to Ukraine presents President Volodymyr Zelensky with the most critical test yet of his international campaign for the weapons and ammunition Ukraine needs to survive. It will also bolster Putin’s apparent belief that he can outlast Western resolve and eventually crush Ukrainian resistance. The possibility that a Republican successor in the White House could abandon Ukraine will also become a bigger issue for Biden, increasing the pressure on him to shore up support among Americans for his policy in Ukraine, which polls show has ebbed a bit in recent months.
If the war is still going on next year, the 2024 election could become a forum for a wide-ranging debate that will ask the American people to decide between twin impulses that have often divided the nation throughout its history – does the US have a duty to stand up for freedom and democracy anywhere, or should it indulge its more isolationist tendencies?
Unless Trump or DeSantis fade in the coming months, Ukraine’s fate could effectively be on the ballot in primary races next year and in the November general election. And Biden’s vow to stick with Zelensky “for as long as it takes” could have an expiration date of January 20, 2025 – the next presidential inauguration.
The rhetoric on Russia coming from the biggest 2024 names caused alarm on Capitol Hill, where many top Republican House committee chairman and senior senators are pressing Biden to do more to support Ukraine – including with the dispatch of F-16 fighter jets.
Speaking on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program, Sen. Marco Rubio seemed to rebuke his state’s governor – arguing the US does have a national security interest in Ukraine and wondering whether DeSantis’ inexperience was a factor. “I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor, so I’m not sure,” Rubio said.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s already backed Trump’s 2024 White House bid, warned that those who said Ukraine didn’t matter were also effectively saying the same of war crimes.
“We’re not invading Russia, we’re trying to expel the Russians from Ukraine, and no Americans are dying, and it is in our national interest to get this right,” Graham told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Still, while Rubio and Graham represent traditional GOP foreign policy orthodoxy, their comments may only help DeSantis and Trump make their points since many pro-Trump voters often see them as part of a neo-conservative bloc in the party that led the US into years of war in the Middle East.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, also said he disagreed with DeSantis, but he acknowledged that his own stance may not reflect where his party is now. “There are probably going to be other candidates in ’24 on our side who may share that view, and certainly it’s held by Republicans around the country,” Thune said of DeSantis’ perspective.
The most noteworthy replies to Carlson’s questionnaire came from DeSantis, who has not yet officially launched a campaign, but was revealed by Tuesday’s CNN/SSRS poll to be Trump’s most threatening potential rival. The governor is encroaching on the ex-president’s ideological turf, and after speaking out more generally against current US policy in recent weeks, has now adopted a position apparently designed to hedge against the ex-president’s attacks on the issue.
“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,” DeSantis said.
In response to a question about whether the US should support “regime change” in Russia, the Florida governor appeared to suggest the US is engaged in such a policy, warning that any replacement for Putin might prove “even more ruthless.” There is no indication that the US government is engaged in any attempt to topple Putin. DeSantis did not specifically say he would halt US military aid to Ukraine, leaving himself some political leeway if he were elected president. There remains some doubt about his true beliefs since CNN’s KFile has reported that as a member of Congress he called for the US to send lethal aid to Ukraine.
But his most recent comments were remarkable in echoing Putin’s talking points. By referring to a “territorial dispute,” the governor minimized Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation that Putin insists has no right to exist. His answer on regime change also bolsters a yearslong claim by the Russian leader that Washington is trying to drive him from power, and may be highlighted by the propagandists in Moscow’s official media.
DeSantis’ responses to Carlson on the war also underscore how the normal relationship between political leaders and media commentators has been inverted by Fox and its star anchor. Carlson warmly approved of DeSantis’ answers, which appeared calculated to win his approval. This put Carlson in the amazing position of potentially curating what could end up being US foreign policy on one of the most critical questions since the end of the Cold War.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy recently performed a similar genuflection, providing Carlson with exclusive access to US Capitol surveillance tapes from the January 6, 2021, insurrection, which the Fox anchor used to undermine the truth about the most serious attack on US democracy of the modern era.
In his responses to Carlson, Trump repeated his unprovable claim that Russia would never have invaded Ukraine if he were president. He demanded an end to the fighting and peace talks that would effectively vindicate the invasion by Putin, to whom he often fawned when he was in the Oval Office. “The President must meet with each side, then both sides together, and quickly work out a deal. This can be easily done if conducted by the right President,” Trump said. “Both sides are weary and ready to make a deal,” he added, in a comment that does not reflect the reality of the war.
Given that her views contradict Carlson’s, Haley publicly released her answers on Ukraine – and also accused DeSantis of copying Trump’s positions.
“The Russian government is a powerful dictatorship that makes no secret of its hatred of America. Unlike other anti-American regimes, it is attempting to brutally expand by force into a neighboring pro-American country,” she wrote. “It also regularly threatens other American allies. America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory.”
Haley’s statement epitomized the divisions on the war that will animate Republican primary debates that begin later this year – and that will be closely watched in both Kyiv and Moscow. She wouldn’t be Putin’s preferred candidate.