What could a Republican presidency mean for the war of Ukraine? The first debate gave us the answer

GOP candidates avoid consensus while Democrats unify behind continued aid

John Bowden
Washington DC
Thursday 24 August 2023 21:32 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

If Volodymyr Zelensky ends up seeing any clips of Wednesday night’s Republican debate in Milwaukee, one could bet that he would respond by redoubling his lobbying efforts among GOP leaders in Washington.

Ukraine’s bitter struggle with Russia has now lasted far longer than boasting Kremlin officials had once predicted, thanks in part to the fierce resistance staged by the Ukrainian army and due to the steady stream of weapons and supplies fueling that army from the West.

But if the words of Republican presidential contenders this week were any indication, that metaphorical pipeline from Washington may suffer the same fate as the Nord Stream project — blown to smithereens.

The topic of Ukraine was one of the most divisive issues to hit the stage Wednesday evening. A question about the issue was a scene-setting for the night’s biggest showdown, a stunning rebuke of Vivek Ramaswamy’s understanding of geopolitics by ex-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who was clearly ready to school any Republican willing to suggest America’s retreat from its global military footprint.

“You will make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Ms Haley admonished him.

But there’s one issue with that admonishment: Ms Haley’s standing in the polls. She’s not exactly a frontrunner right now; that spot is occupied by Donald Trump, whose most famous foreign policy position may well be his well-enunciated skepticism towards Nato. And in second place is Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who himself has raised the idea that aid to Kyiv should dry up or be reduced.

And then there’s Mr Ramaswamy, the loudest critic of America’s foreign military aid programmes to actually attend the debate, thanks to Mr Trump’s absence. Should either of the two leading contenders falter, Mr Ramaswamy’s surging campaign all but guarantees that the hawkish wing of the GOP will be playing second fiddle, at least for the near future.

The scene onstage contrasted sharply with the dynamics of the Democratic Party, headed by incumbent President Joe Biden. Democrats, especially their voters, are strongly unified around the idea of supporting Ukraine’s military, though sharper divisions present themselves when the question of drawing a red line for direct military action is presented.

Presuming purely for analysis’ sake that one of the Republican candidates currently in the race wins next year’s presidential election, these voices are not going away. Even a vocally pro-Ukraine Republican like Ms Haley or former Gov Chris Christie would face a growing chorus of voices in their own party against the idea of further aid, making the passage of such legislation through Congress all the more dependent on Democratic votes. A President Haley or President Mike Pence will still have to deal with the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and others in their party, and that may mean some serious concessions.

Complicating the issue (and so many others) is the ongoing scandal surrounding Hunter Biden, President Biden’s adult son. The younger Mr Biden has been accused by Republicans of using his father’s name and influence to secure lucrative business deals and gifts in exchange for access to then-VP Biden. And he’s accused of doing so in Ukraine, before Russia’s invasion ramped up last year.

Many on the far-right who believe that the Justice Department is not taking those allegations seriously have argued relatedly for an end to aid to Ukraine, which they portray as being run by a corrupt government closely tied to the Bidens.

In short, the path forward for Kiev is riddled with uncertainty. For all the shows of support, the US-Ukraine dynamic will almost certainly shift if the keys to the White House change hands in 2025. What remains to be seen is how convincing either side’s argument will be in the first real intra-party battle for the Republican Party in almost 10 years.

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