The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP base warms to giving Russia some of Ukraine’s territory

Then-President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel in September 2019. (Evan Vucci/AP)
5 min

When President Biden on Tuesday night delivers his second State of the Union address, one of the major orders of business is likely to be Ukraine — particularly in light of flagging GOP support for funding its defense against Russia’s invasion.

We’ve written about this shift in opinion before, including as recently as a month ago. The December speech before Congress by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t appear to have moved the needle much, with half or more of Republicans now saying either that we’re doing too much to help Ukraine or that we should stop funding its defense, period. Those sentiments in his party had led now-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to suggest a GOP-led House could be reluctant to send more money.

A new batch of polls ahead of Biden’s speech confirms the evolution of what was once a very bipartisan issue. A Washington Post-ABC News poll, for instance, shows half of Republicans now say we’re doing “too much” for Ukraine. That’s up from 18 percent in April 2022.

More strikingly, an NBC News poll last week showed 63 percent of Republicans opposed “providing more funding and weapons to Ukraine,” while 32 percent were in support. That’s perhaps the most severe GOP rebuke of funding Ukraine on record, and it comes as the Biden administration has decided to start sending tanks.

But then there’s the question of why. It’s not just about the financial cost, and it’s not really a matter of Republicans siding with Russia over Ukraine, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson once said he did. It’s mostly about their having less faith in Ukraine’s war effort and growing skepticism that Russia’s invasion poses a threat to the United States.

And perhaps most notably, it features an emerging willingness to give Russia some of the Ukrainian territory it seeks.

Support for Ukraine’s cause overall remains overwhelmingly bipartisan. But Republicans are more skeptical that Ukraine can emerge victorious. A Fox News poll released last week showed Democrats thought Ukraine was winning the war by a 2-to-1 margin, 61 percent to 26 percent. But Republicans were split, with 43 percent saying Russia was winning and 42 percent saying Ukraine was winning. It’s the second poll since the 2022 election that suggests Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view Russia as winning the war.

Similarly, a December poll from Fox News showed 34 percent of Democrats thought Ukraine was “very likely” to survive the invasion and remain a free country, but just 15 percent of Republicans agreed.

Beyond that, Republicans are less likely than before to believe the United States truly has something at stake in the war.

A Marquette University poll this month showed 37 percent of Democrats thought what happens with the war matters a “great deal” to life in the United States, compared to 24 percent of Republicans. And while a Pew Research Center poll at the start of the war showed half of Republicans regarded the invasion as a “major threat” to U.S. interests, just 29 percent now say that’s the case. (Democrats’ belief that Russia is a “major threat” in that time has declined only slightly, from half to 43 percent.)

Perhaps most striking, though, is a the GOP’s willingness to cede Ukraine’s territory in the name of ending the war.

A new Gallup poll gave people a binary choice between supporting Ukraine’s efforts to reclaim its territory, and ending the war quickly — even if it meant Russiawas allowed to keep conquered territory. A slight majority of Republicans picked the former, but 41 percent were willing to countenance Russia keeping the territory in the name of ending the war. That’s compared to just 16 percent of Democrats who believed the same.

And if you layer on top of that the financial question, Republicans appear even more open to Russia keeping some territory. A November poll for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs posed a somewhat similar dilemma: between supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” even if it means higher domestic gas and food prices, or negotiating a settlement “even if that means that Ukraine will lose some territory.” Republicans had been split on the same question in the summer of 2022, but by November they chose the quicker settlement by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 63-33. Democrats were essentially flipped, siding 61-36 in favor of “as long as it takes.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Americans have countenanced Russia claiming Ukrainian territory. But when the United States took a more hands-off approach to Russia annexing Crimea in 2014, the partisan split was reversed. Back then it was Republicans who were more slightly likely to believe supporting Ukraine was in the national interest, and who favored taking a firm stand against Russia.

Such surveys pose something of a chicken-and-egg problem: Perhaps a growing portion of the GOP simply believes the costs aren’t worth it, given the uncertain prospects for Ukraine’s success. Or perhaps Republicans who prefer a more noninterventionist foreign policy with regards to Ukraine are backfilling the reasons for pulling away from the war.

But the result is the same: About half or more Republicans are now pretty skeptical about continued U.S. involvement, and many in the GOP are willing to give Russia at least some of what it invaded Ukraine for.