President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers critical remarks at a Joint Session of Congress on Capitol Hill December 21, 2022 in Washington DC. Photo by Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Ukraine has the Republican Party twisted in knots. Consider what transpired between former President Donald Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham last week. 

On January 24, Graham issued a statement enthusiastically welcoming President Joe Biden’s “decision to send Abrams tanks to help Ukraine evict Russia from Ukrainian soil. It is in America’s national security interest for Russia to be defeated in Ukraine because Russia’s ambitions are to rewrite the map of Europe, and China is watching.” 

On January 26, Trump criticized Biden’s tank announcement on his Truth Social website: “FIRST COME THE TANKS, THEN COME THE NUKES. Get this crazy war ended, NOW. So easy to do!” Donald Trump Jr. expounded on his father’s post, suggesting that ending the war involves cutting off military aid to Ukraine: “Until we say we’re not funding this crap anymore, no one has an incentive to negotiate.” A few weeks prior, Trump Sr. said, “The good old USA ‘suckers’ are paying a VAST majority of the NATO bill, & outside money, going to Ukraine. VERY UNFAIR!” 

On January 28, Graham spoke at a South Carolina event supporting Trump’s presidential campaign. He said, “How many times have you heard, ‘We like Trump policies but we want somebody new?’ There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.” Graham was not referring to domestic policies like tax cuts. He proceeded to laud Trump’s foreign policy record, crediting Trump for his handling of NATO, China, Mexico, and the Middle East. 

The notoriously shapeshifting Graham, however, did not mention Russia or Ukraine. How could he, without magnifying his party’s internal divide? 

 The GOP today is in an unusual, unsettled place. Foreign policy had been a source of party unity for decades. During the Cold War, fervent opposition to Communism, coupled with stout support for military spending, was central to the GOP’s identity. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Republicans defined themselves as the party most committed to waging a “War on Terror” and scorched Democrats as soft and weak. 

Over the last 15 years, political tectonic plates have shifted. The extension of the “War on Terror” into Iraq sullied the Republican Party’s reputation for hawkish competence. It rekindled conservative interest in the isolationism that was the hallmark of the post-World War I Republican Party. In 2016, Trump resurrected the “America First” slogan used by Charles Lindbergh when he led the failed effort to orient America’s foreign policy towards warmer relations with Nazi Germany and keep America out of “these wars in Europe.” Trump’s 21st-century version of America First offered a nationalist justification for strengthening ties to unsavory foreign powers. Trump thawed relations with Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Longtime Republican hawks like Graham squirmed but stayed in the fold as Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. 

Meanwhile, Democrats have united behind policies to contain Russian imperialism. Biden’s signature accomplishment on the global stage has been his support of the Ukrainian resistance and leading the remarkably united western coalition backing Kyiv. Biden has done this with key support from Senate Republican hawks and minimal carping from the Democratic Party’s doves. 

Whether America’s commitment to Ukraine can survive a protracted military standoff depends on a host of factors, but the odds of durability go up as partisanship goes down. If Ukrainian policy is not a point of contention between the parties, then the policy can weather shifting public opinion. 

For now, Ukrainian policy is less a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans than between Republican factions—Reaganesque foes of Russian autocrats and America Firsters à la Trump.

This division includes voters as well as Republican politicians. Sixty-four percent of respondents in a January CBS News/YouGov poll said they want their House representative to support “U.S. aid to Ukraine.” For Democrats, that number is a whopping 81 percent. But a narrow majority of Republicans, 52 percent, want their representative to oppose Ukraine aid. 

A November poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs provided similar numbers, though with more support for Ukraine from Republicans. Sixty-five percent of respondents favored “sending additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government,” including 76 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans. 

Though the GOP is divided, the grassroots energy appears to be with the America Firsters. Trump leads most primary polling, albeit with plurality support. Fox News’s top-rated prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, regularly pumps out hysterical criticisms of aiding Ukraine. Renegade conservative Representatives Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert held up Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to House Speaker, boasting (inaccurately) that the delay would hamper funding to Ukraine. 

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in December voted in favor of a resolution sponsored by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to audit Ukraine aid. Last week Greene went further, posting on Twitter that “We must stop funding Ukraine. This war needs to end. … It’s a corrupt slush fund and it’s just killing people.” (Greene once addressed the America First Political Action Conference, which is not affiliated with Trump but is led by Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist who urged attendees to “give a round of applause for Russia” and appeared to compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, casting the Russian strongman and Nazi Führer in a favorable light.) 

McCarthy’s comments during the midterm campaign arguably straddled the two factions but leaned more toward Ukraine’s critics: “I think Ukraine is very important. I support making sure that we move forward to defeat Russia in that program. But there should be no blank check on anything.” 

But in the Senate, Republicans are led by Mitch McConnell, who often views the Trump wing of the party as electorally challenged and intellectually suspect. He has been helping Biden round up votes for Ukraine aid. The last two batches of aid were tucked into larger “must-pass” spending bills that kept the federal government open. With McConnell’s blessing, these bills attracted healthy bipartisan support in the Senate while mustering scant Republican votes in the House. 

The internal party debate will likely shift to the presidential primary. While we can’t know if the 2024 GOP presidential candidates will challenge Trump on Ukraine funding, we have some possibilities. Former Vice President Mike Pence delivered a foreign policy address in October that broke with the America Firsters: “I believe that conservatives must make it clear that Putin must stop, and Putin will pay. There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has not said much about Ukraine. Still, after the initial invasion, he called Putin an “authoritarian gas station attendant” (while blaming Biden for not doing enough to stop him). 

Still, as Senator Lindsey Graham exemplifies, a Republican can favor arming Ukraine yet lack the courage to say as much while on stage with Trump. Presidential primary candidates may conclude that tangling with the America First faction is too steep a price to pay. 

With polls indicating the GOP electorate is roughly evenly divided over Ukraine, the correct short-term political calculation is hard to compute. But what’s best for the Republican Party over the long term is clear, and frankly, clearly stated by Pence. A Republican Party that is home to Putin apologists is no longer built on liberty and freedom. 

Last week, former high-ranking counterintelligence FBI official Charles McGonigal was arrested for illegally trying to help Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska escape U.S. sanctions imposed five years ago as punishment for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (Eight months after the initial sanctions were levied, Trump backtracked and lifted sanctions on Deripaska’s businesses, though the ones placed on Deripaska personally remained.) 

Deripaska was not only an ally of Putin but had business dealings with Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort. As The New York Times reported in November, Manafort and Deripaska discussed through intermediaries a plan to resolve the Ukrainian conflict on terms highly favorable to Russia, as well as the sharing of polling data that mapped Trump’s geographic path to 270 Electoral College votes. Ostensibly, Russia could use the poll data to guide its disinformation strategy, and Manafort could use his position to lobby Trump for the peace plan. 

Manafort—you may recall—resigned from his post during the 2016 campaign and was later convicted of tax and bank fraud related to his work in Ukraine. An imprisoned Manafort was unable to lobby Trump. Meanwhile, Ukrainian opposition to Russian occupation grew stiffer throughout the Trump presidency, prompting President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2019, to resist Putin’s demands. Trump, consumed with Nixonian paranoia over his upcoming 2020 re-election campaign, sought to exploit Zelensky’s vulnerability. He held back $400 million in aid to Ukraine before pressuring Zelensky to investigate Biden, which led to his first impeachment. Trump was acquitted in the Senate, thanks to near-unanimous support from Republicans. Before leaving office, Trump pardoned Manafort. 

We have no evidence Trump had anything to do with McGonigal. However, some national security analysts such as Jeff Stein and Timothy Snyder have speculated that McGonigal may have played a role in undermining Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. At a minimum, McGonigal’s arrest raises questions about whether Russia’s election meddling activities reached the FBI. 

But to Trump, any Russia-related news development is an opportunity to display his friendly attitude toward Putin and deflect attention away from Russia’s election interference on his behalf. “The FBI guy after me for the Russia, Russia, Russia HOAX, long before my Election as President, was just arrested for taking money from Russia, Russia, Russia. May he Rot In Hell!” Trump posted on Truth Social. (Some conservative media outlets have been quick to claim McGonigal played a major role in the 2016 “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia, but Stein quotes a former FBI official saying “he didn’t touch it.” Fox News reported McGonigal “likely was briefed” on the investigation.) 

On Monday, Trump posted, “Remember in Helsinki when a 3rd rate reporter asked me, essentially, who I trusted more, President Putin of Russia, or our ‘Intelligence’ lowlifes. My instinct at the time was that we had really bad people in the form of James Comey” and others at the FBI, “Now add McGonigal & other slime to the list. Who would you choose, Putin or these Misfits?” 

After everything that has transpired over the last eight years, since Trump first announced his campaign, through all the Russia-related investigations of the invasion of Ukraine, Trump still wants us to put our trust in Putin. 

Russia’s attempts to manipulate American public opinion and infiltrate American institutions after Trump’s fluky 2016 victory have been a miserable failure. In a recent YouGov poll, Putin’s favorable rating among Americans is 11 percent, and his unfavorable rating is 74 percent. America’s foreign policy is more oriented against Russian imperialism than at any point since the end of the Cold War. Do Republican primary voters really want to hitch their party’s wagon not only to Trump but to his America First agenda that seeks closer ties to one of the world’s most unpopular—not to mention murderous—figures? 

As of today, we can’t know the answer. But the 2024 primary will determine the foreign policy principles of the Republican Party, and that will determine whether America remains committed to Ukrainian sovereignty regardless of the shifting political winds.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.