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Mitch McConnell tells U.S. to ‘wake up’ to threat of Russia on Ukraine war anniversary

The Senate Republican leader pushed back against calls from within his own party to pare back U.S. funding in support of Ukraine

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Helsinki on Friday. (Lehtikuva/Reuters)
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday urged the United States and its allies to renew their resolve to help Ukraine as it stands up to Russian “thuggery,” tacitly pushing back against members of his own party who have become loudly skeptical of Ukraine’s fight as the conflict passes the one-year mark.

“America and our friends need to finish waking up from our holiday from history, welcome Finland and Sweden into NATO by this summer, and make significant investments in military modernization and our defense-industrial capacities that are commensurate with the major challenges we face,” McConnell said in a statement, shortly before appearing alongside President Sauli Niinisto in Helsinki to support Finland’s bid to join NATO.

The message marked a stark contrast to the one pushed by former president Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans, who criticized President Biden’s trip to Kyiv earlier this week and have called for ending or slowing aid to Ukraine. In a tweet, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga), a hard-right ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and one of dozens of House Republicans to vote against Ukraine aid in May, called Biden’s trip “insulting” and proof that he “chose Ukraine over America.”

But nearly 50 U.S. lawmakers, including McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), traveled to the Munich Security Conference in Germany last week to reassure European allies that Congress, which is split between a GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate, will continue to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with weapons and funds.

The longtime Republican leader argued forcefully Friday that giving money to Ukraine “is not an act of charity” on America’s part, while also urging European countries to spend more of their own funds toward the effort.

“If Putin were given a green light to destabilize Europe, invading and killing at will, the long-term cost to the United States in both dollars and security risks would be astronomically higher than the minuscule fraction of our GDP that we have invested in Ukraine’s defense thus far,” McConnell said in the statement.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world as millions of refugees fled the country, grain shipments were delayed and Russian gas curtailed. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Congress appropriated billions in aid for Ukraine at the end of last year, which was expected to last through September.

The issue is dividing Republicans thought to be vying for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination. Trump, who has announced his candidacy, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have criticized Biden’s avowed commitment to assisting Ukraine, while former vice president Mike Pence and announced candidate Nikki Haley have argued for a forceful posture against Russia. Trump has said he believes the U.S. aid risks inciting a third world war.

Eleven House Republicans supported a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution last month in Congress, calling for an end to all aid, but it’s unclear whether they will win out. McCarthy has said he does not favor a “blank check” when it comes to Ukraine aid, but he has not foreclosed on the possibility of providing additional support. And some of McCarthy’s top allies, including Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also went to Munich last week.

Recent polling has shown some erosion in public support for the assistance, driven by Republicans’ increasing skepticism. About a quarter of Americans said in a recent Pew poll that too much aid is flowing to Ukraine, up six percentage points since September and 19 percentage points since March, shortly after the war began. An Associated Press poll found that 48 percent of voters support continued assistance, down from 60 percent in May.

Some Republican critics of helping Ukraine, including Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), have argued that the United States should draw down its assistance and instead focus on arming Taiwan so it can defend itself in a potential conflict with China. But McConnell said helping Ukraine sends a message to China, as well.

“Prime Minister Kishida of Japan has warned repeatedly that Ukraine’s fate today could be East Asia’s tomorrow if the free world flinches in the face of aggression,” McConnell said. “He calls the fate of Ukraine and the future of Asia ‘inseparable.’”