GOP Split on Ukraine

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMar 17, 2023

Terry H. Schwadron

March 17, 2023

The pending Republican primary elections seem an awfully poor venue for deciding whether this country is going to walk away from the defense of Ukraine from an invading Russia.

For one thing, the primaries are notoriously rife with attempts to lean towards party line extremes, and, as we saw last November, may not jibe with thoughts needed to win in a general election. And so, the talk of primaries is about anger and other emotions, not a reflection of thoughtful consideration of a phalanx of international issues.

A personality lineup should not substitute for intelligent response to daily reports of genocidal attacks on Ukrainian civilians in what is amounting to a proxy war pitting autocracy against what we have until recent days considered American-backed democratic values.

Yet, we have seen Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sharply breaking with other possible Republican challenges over our Ukraine policies in an apparent grab at responding to isolationist Americans who see themselves as ignored in favor of international commitments of money and attention.

DeSantis, an all-but-announced candidate, surprised the political pundits this week by arguing that protecting Ukraine is not a vital U.S. interest and that policymakers should instead focus attention at home. Other than Trump, others in or edging towards running say the problem with the Biden administration is that it is not doing enough to confront Russia.

Trump himself has promoted the idea that he would promote an immediate settlement to end death and destruction in Ukraine and that he would let Russia “take over” parts of Ukraine in a negotiated deal. Naturally, he has not talked with Ukrainians about this.

Is Russia a Threat?

You need not be an expert in foreign policy to see that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has designs on all of Ukraine and then other territories that were once part of a vast Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Putin has told us so multiple times.

Nor do you need special training to see that Russian aggression has brought military dangers throughout Europe and has heightened the stakes of outright war with the United States and its NATO allies, committed as they are by specific treaty obligations for joint resistance to Russian military takeover.

Plus, despite Trump’s repeated denials, the links between his businesses and his political record looking with a certain fondness for all things Russia has been documented and continues to spawn investigation.

Just this week, a sourced report emerged in reports in The Guardian that federal prosecutors had been investigating whether Trump Media, owner of the Trump social media company, violated money laundering statutes in connection with loans from a company with Russian ties. Multiple incidence of cooperation with Russian operatives were documented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III.

It is in exactly this light that DeSantis, who continues to poll with Trump as the top primary choice for president, joined with the isolationist party extreme in what amounts to a public promise to undercut Ukraine.

His statements — meant to blunt Biden — instead amount to a declaration to Russia to hang on long enough for a possible Republican win in November 2024 to get their way in Ukraine.

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with 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. DeSantis’ bland description of a “territorial dispute” is marked with military attacks on residential buildings, schools and hospitals that are resulting in international court charges of war crimes, of course,

Apart from content, DeSantis chose to make his remarks on the Tucker Carlson broadcast in response to a Carlson questionnaire that promised airtime for those who join with him in calling for a halt to aid for Ukraine. It came across as a dare to see who was ready to join with Carlson in opposing the idea that the war in Ukraine matters.

Outlanders or Mainstream?

In 2015, when Russia invaded southern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, DeSantis, then a congressman, attacked Barack Obama for not taking on Russia. So, apart from all else, we now have a major candidate who was against Russian aggression until he wasn’t.

Just a couple of weeks ago, DeSantis was asked by reporters about Ukraine, and he had no answer.

Now he has found one, and it feels like a signal of danger for embattled Ukrainians and those in the neighboring NATO countries who are part of an American-led coalition that could still dissemble.

Opposition to aid for Ukraine by Trump and DeSantis runs counter to positions from former Vice President Mike Pence, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, all of whom are declared or about-to-declare candidates as the Republican presidential nod. The Ukraine policy reflects the position of the Freedom Caucus in the House but at odds with most Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.

In their various remarks and speeches, most of them see defense of Ukraine as a measure of defending freedom and democracy.

Trump made clear as president that he was ready to walk away from NATO treaty obligations — and that he admired Putin.

A Pew Research Center poll showed that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters thought the U.S. was giving too much support to Ukraine, up substantially from a year ago. Exactly what that means other than resentment over high gas prices from war-caused kinks in the worldwide oil supply is unclear.

But it shows there is a ready audience for a Fox-fueled skepticism about long-term commitments to our overseas allies. Apparently, that is enough to push DeSantis into a position that seems to aid our adversaries by extending the conflict through to a time of Republican win in the White House.