Members Only | November 29, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

On aid to Ukraine, the Republicans jammed themselves

Will the Democrats press their advantage?


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The Democrat’s surprising strength in the midterms has been framed mostly as a rebuke of Republican’s attack on abortion rights and on democracy. The GOP’s flirtation with imperial oligarchic Russian leader Vladimir Putin has, in contrast, received little attention.

That’s not exactly a mistake. Foreign policy rarely drives many votes, and the war between Russia and Ukraine was never a top issue for voters or for candidates on the campaign trail. 

And yet the Democratic midterm strength serves as a powerful defeat not just for the GOP, but for Putin. Republican losses in the Senate and narrow gains in the House all but guarantee that the US will continue to lead international support for Ukraine. 

The Putinistas
The GOP has been divided on aid for Ukraine. An older, more traditional wing of the party, steeped in Reaganite Cold War antagonism to the Soviet Union, has supported the (much more justified) Ukrainian war against Russia imperial invasion.

But there’s another wing that’s openly pro-Putin.

The GOP has been divided on aid for Ukraine. An older, more traditional wing of the party, steeped in Reaganite Cold War antagonism to the Soviet Union, has supported the (much more justified) Ukrainian war against Russia imperial invasion. But there’s another wing that’s openly pro-Putin.

Putin has long cultivated ties with far-right nationalist groups globally, portraying himself as a defender of manly tradition through shirtless iconography and vicious homophobic policies

He saw a potential ally in wannabe-authoritarian Donald Trump, and tried to aid his campaigns in 2016 and (less successfully) in 2020

Trump reciprocated by praising Putin consistently over the last six years. Most recently, he called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “genius” and “wonderful.” 

Trump’s enthusiasm has affected his partisans. 

Between 2015 and 2017, GOP opinions of Putin went up 20 points from 12 percent favorability to 32 percent favorable. A February poll found that Putin’s favorables among Republicans were higher than those of Democratic President Joe Biden.

It’s not just the rank-and-file either. Fox News far-right host Tucker Carlson has ceaselessly pumped out pro-Putin propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine in February. So has Carlson’s frequent guest, erstwhile progressive and current far-right shill Glenn Greenwald.

Many in the GOP conference have followed along. In the House, the chair of the rabid more-MAGA-than-thou Freedom Caucus, Scott Perry, wants to investigate, and potentially spike, US aid to Ukraine. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signaled support for Perry in an interview in October: “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.”

In May, 57 House Republicans voted against $40 billion in aid to Ukraine. Eleven senators joined them, including Rand Paul and Josh Hawley.

In addition, one of the few midterm contests focused on foreign policy was that of JD Vance, the Ohio Republican Senator-elect, boosted by fash-curious tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who made opposition to Ukraine a centerpiece of his campaign.

Republicans are split
With far-right Putinophilia bubbling up from the MAGA swamp, observers believed Biden might have real trouble continuing support for Ukraine. Reports suggest Russia put off announcing its retreat from Kherson until after the midterms because Putin did not want news of a Ukrainian victory to bolster Democrats. 

Republicans who support Ukrainian aid were reportedly nervous that they’d be undercut in a GOP-controlled House. Biden was floating a Ukrainian aid package in the lame-duck session of the Congress, anticipating that further funding might be blocked.

Democrats may still vote on a Ukraine funding bill. But prospects for aid in the new Congress have significantly improved.

First of all, Democrats retained control of the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has strongly supported aid for Ukraine. Even so, his conference is unpredictable, and the Democrats are in a much better position to buttress Biden’s foreign policy priorities than they would have been had they lost the chamber.

Democrats did lose the House — but it was very close. The GOP majority is likely to be somewhere between 220-215 and 222-213

McCarthy — or whoever the GOP chooses as speaker — is will block many Democratic initiatives on abortion rights, voting rights and much else. Ukrainian aid is different, though. That’s an issue that sharply divides McCarthy’s own caucus. Even if he wanted to, he’s not going to be able to win a vote striking down Ukrainian aid. 

And if he were to try, the Democrats could likely get enough GOP support to bring it to the floor without his say-so.  

Opposition to aid would likely expose huge fissures in the Republican caucus and lead to an embarrassing defeat for the speaker. 

Stepping away, domestically
If the GOP were a normal party, that would be the end of that. 

But the conference is neither normal, so there are caveats.

Representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz hate their more moderate Republican colleagues almost as much as they hate Democrats. They might oppose Ukrainian aid precisely because they know it would put their own speaker in an impossible and humiliating position.  

So there could be bumps in the road. 

The bottom line is that after their weak-showing in the midterms, the Trumpy GOP pro-Putin wing doesn’t have the leverage to successfully advance their dream of global totalitarianism. 

The defeat of election deniers in races for governor and secretary of state across the country means that the US has taken a step back from authoritarianism — domestically. 

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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