One of the more interesting and curious recurring themes of modern American politics is how Russia and Ukraine keep popping up. Since Mitt Romney’s prescient statement in 2012 that Russia was “without question our number one geopolitical foe,” our old Cold War adversary has been cropping up like a bad penny.
Shortly after Romney’s remark, Russia invaded Crimea and launched a proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donbas and Luhansk. The invasion was a response to the Maidan Revolution in November 2013 in which Ukrainians deposed Putin-backed Viktor Yanukovych and incidentally ended future Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s job working with the former dictator.
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At about the same time, Hunter Biden took a job working with a Ukrainian gas company. It was Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump’s efforts to find evidence of criminal activity by Hunter that inspired Trump to withhold military aid to Ukraine, which was already fighting Russian-backed separatists, leading to his first impeachment.
Ukraine popped up again in 2016 as Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination. The GOP platform was mysteriously amended to water down language calling for lethal aid to Ukraine, which the Obama Administration had opposed and Republicans had supported. The Mueller report did not trace the change to Trump himself, but it may have originated with his campaign’s national security advisor.
Of course, the Russian interference in the election that year is well-documented even if its effects are debated. A host of Trump Administration intelligence officials and a bipartisan Senate report confirmed the extent of Putin’s meddling in internal American politics.
Ukraine resurfaced in 2020 as the Trump campaign alleged that Joe Biden had intervened with the Ukrainian government on behalf of Hunter when he was vice president. The truth here was that Biden was following US and European policy in pushing to oust a corrupt prosecutor, an action that could have endangered Hunter if was involved in criminal activity.
The threads of the Ukraine-Russia story converged in Washington, DC yesterday when Ukrainian President Zelensky visited the White House and addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech was hailed by most.
Interestingly, the most vocal critics of Zelensky’s speech were MAGA Republicans. A viral picture of Lauren Boebert (R-Col.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) showed the pair sitting and looking at their phones while most members of Congress welcomed Zelensky with a standing ovation. When Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk live-blogged the speech on Twitter, criticizing the fact that Zelensky did not wear a suit, Patrick Chovanec pointed out that Winston Churchill wore military fatigues to the White House during a WWII visit in response.
MAGA’s clown princes were also on hand with far-out takes. Jack Posobiec speculated that Zelensky might really be in Washington to smuggle Sam Bankman-Fried (or as I like to call, “Sam Bank-Fraud”) out of the country while Tucker Carlson took the airwaves to accuse the Ukrainian president of waging war on Christianity.
Donald Trump, Jr. called Zelenskey an “ungrateful international welfare queen.”
I’m old enough to remember last February when Putin’s army invaded Ukraine. At that point, the reaction from MAGA world was that it was tragic, but that there was nothing we could do. If Donald Trump was still president, they opined, the invasion would never have happened but with Biden in office, Ukraine was pretty much doomed from the start.
Fast-forward to present day. Support for Ukraine has easily been one of Biden’s most popular and successful policy moves. The president helped to rally the free world to oppose the invasion with both sanctions on Russia and lethal aid for Ukraine. The lifeline of high-tech weapons paired with Ukrainian courage and resolve turned the tide of the war and now Russia is in retreat.
As Russian fortunes in the war shifted, so did the MAGA outlook. Where there was sympathy for Ukraine in the past, now there is criticism of the spending that has saved Ukraine. From Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) to Lauren Boebert to Josh Hammer to Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), MAGA politicians and pundits seem to determined to restrict or halt US aid to Ukraine.
There are several likely reasons for that. Some on the MAGA right are openly pro-Putin. For example, days before the invasion, Tucker Carlson was on television asking why anyone should hate Vladimir Putin. Since then, Carlson has openly admitted that doesn't “really care one way or the other” what Putin does in Ukraine and, at one point, suggested, “The Italians, in other words, are in a better position to take over the world than Vladimir Putin.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon. There are factions on the right that have been fanboying Vladimir Putin for at least a decade. The Russian dictator is sometimes perceived as a defender of Christianity (see Tucker’s broadcast in the ninth paragraph), resister of homosexual rights, and a manly man.
The Russian propagandists and sympathizers are going to do their thing. That’s part of our tradition of free speech, no matter how disgusting and inane their views are.
Others are probably still butthurt over Donald Trump’s failed attempt to dig up dirt on the Bidens. MAGA became convinced that Zelensky and Ukraine were corrupt because they didn’t play ball with Trump’s blackmail. The Ukraine scandal led to Trump’s first impeachment and played a role in costing him re-election as well. There is definitely some lingering resentment there.
Finally, I think there is also some Biden Derangement Syndrome at play. To some extent, MAGA opposes helping Ukraine because Biden favors it and Ukraine’s successes have made the president look good.
The good news is that a lot of Republicans are willing to leave politics at the water’s edge and work with the Biden Administration to stymie Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine (and elsewhere). These courageous Republicans include Mitch McConnell, who recently said, “Providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the number one priority for the United States right now according to most Republicans.”
The bad news is that in a closely divided Congress, it might not take more than a few pro-Russia Republicans to gum up the works. And there are more than a few pro-Russia Republicans these days.
One big question mark is Kevin McCarthy, who might possibly one day garner enough votes to become Speaker of the House. McCarthy seems to be straddling the fence, saying after Zelensky’s speech, “I support Ukraine, but I never support a blank check.”
What that will mean in the upcoming Congress is anyone’s guess. It could refer to checks-and-balances to ensure that aid is not stolen or wasted or it could mean restrictions so onerous that aid is effectively stopped. That was reportedly the case when the Trump Administration sold the Ukrainians Javelin anti-tank missiles but placed restrictions on the weapons that kept them far from the front lines.
No matter how restrictions on aid are justified, the core truth is that without Western and American weapons, Ukraine would fall to Russia no matter how courageous and dedicated its defenders may be. Ukraine is facing an opponent that is out of its weight class and only Western weapons make it a fair fight.
People who argue for ending aid are taking a position that benefits no one except Vladimir Putin. Cutting off aid would not end the war, but it would allow Russia to ultimately win a war of attrition in the conventional conflict. The Ukrainians would almost certainly not give up even then but would go underground to fight a insurgency against the hated Russian “Orcs.” The war would go on indefinitely.
For whatever reason, MAGA seems to be lining up on the side of Vladimir Putin. It’s yet another way that the faction is badly out of step with the rest of America. It is this sort of radicalism that cost Republicans victory in the midterms and shows that MAGA is unfit to govern.
For much of my political life, Republicans have lamented that so many peoples around the world were not willing to fight for their freedom. When given weapons and training by the US, they were all too often ineffective and corrupt. Afghanistan is only the most recent example. In Ukraine, we’ve found a freedom-loving nation that is willing to fight and die for their liberty, but many Republicans seem to have a problem with the fact that the enemy they are defending themselves against is Vladimir Putin.
Republicans need to do a lot of soul-searching, but near the top of the list of topics is how such a large segment of the party could go from being Russia hawks to Putinphiles in such a short time. The shift is one more example of how the GOP is no longer the party it was only a few years ago.
OMNIBUS UPDATE: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was holding up the omnibus bill over the Title 42 immigration rule that allowed expedited handling of illegal immigrants during the pandemic. Title 42 was set to expire but was extended by the Supreme Court. Lee and others were concerned about adding to the influx of migrants if the measure was allowed to expire. Newly independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-ARiz.) came to the rescue with an amendment that increased funding for border security and extend Title 42. The Senate could vote on the amendment and the Omnibus as early as today. The Hill has the details.