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A Republican winter may be coming for Ukraine

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“Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) declared at a stump speech last Thursday in Iowa. The far-right politician was looking forward to what may be the imminent future: Her party is poised to make significant gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections and possibly revamp the United States’ whole approach to supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.

Greene emerged from the extremist fringes of the Republican base, initially known for promoting the hysterical conspiracy theories of QAnon, an extremist ideology based on false claims. But her brief stint in office has catapulted her into the national spotlight; she has become an embodiment of the energies driving the right-wing movement in the United States. While there’s no uniform consensus within the Republican caucus on how to best support Ukraine, Greene represents as much of a constituency as more establishment figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has urged the Biden administration to deliver military aid to Kyiv at greater scale and speed.

And she may have reinforcements in Congress after Tuesday. A Republican-led House is expected to, among other things, turn up the heat on the Biden administration over its handling of the U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan, as well as step up political pressure on Iran. But Ukraine may feel the pinch, too, given that Congress has already greenlit upward of $60 billion in aid and Kyiv is pleading for more from the West. It remains locked in an existential conflict with Russia, its cities struck by indiscriminate missile attacks, and whole communities displaced or besieged.

Ahead of the election, various GOP lawmakers and candidates have indicated the fire hose of funding needs to be turned off.

“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently told Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it.”

“I think we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine, I really do. … The Europeans need to step up,” said J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio. “And frankly, if the Ukrainians and the Europeans, more importantly, knew that America wasn’t going to foot the bill, they might actually step up.”

In Ohio, Vance faces backlash in Ukrainian community over war stance

The current mood marks a striking departure from not-so-distant paradigms. For years, the Republicans have been the party more inclined to militarism and hawkish foreign policy. That arguably is still the case on numerous fronts, but the war in Ukraine has unraveled a curious seam in American politics. The Biden administration’s energetic and effective — at least, according to European diplomats in the U.S. capital — approach to bolstering Ukraine’s defense and rallying Western partners to its cause has created what seems an open-ended mission. President Biden and his allies all cast the fight for Ukraine as a fight for the future of democracy and the liberal order itself.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the left flank of their party struggle to even voice skepticism about the ongoing effort to back Ukraine’s prosecution of the war — a situation best illustrated last month by the tormented saga surrounding a mostly anodyne letter put forward by a bloc of progressive Democratic lawmakers that called on the Biden administration to work toward negotiations and a cease fire with Russia, even as the United States continues to back Ukraine militarily.

The irony, as my colleagues reported this weekend, is that the Biden administration is indeed quietly pressing the Ukrainians to drop their refusal to engage in dialogue with the Kremlin, as part of a bid “to ensure the government in Kyiv maintains the support of other nations facing constituencies wary of fueling a war for many years to come.” Nevertheless, the letter last month triggered a heated backlash from other Democrats and was awkwardly withdrawn, with some of its signatories stressing they didn’t want to be seen in the same light as Republicans who seem more eager to pull the plug on support to Kyiv.

About those Republicans, Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Republican Senate foreign policy staff member, told the New York Times that McCarthy’s comment about not giving a “blank check” to Ukraine was just a toe in the water of this growing divide inside the Republican Party between the traditionalist, internationalist wing and the populist, Orban wing of the party.” She was referring to the illiberal Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who commands a curious level of devotion among the American right and is Europe’s leading Kremlin-friendly statesman.

Democrats have warned that as former president Donald Trump returns to center stage — it seems he may soon announce his 2024 presidential run — the winds will shift in Washington. “I just see a freight train coming, and that is Trump and his operation turning against aid for Ukraine,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on MSNBC last month. “House Republicans, if they were to take the majority, being preternaturally against anything Joe Biden is for — including the war in Ukraine — and there being a real crisis where the House Republican majority would refuse to support additional aid to Ukraine.”

Breaking down Senate, House, governor races that could flip in midterms

Ukraine casts a long shadow over Trump’s time in office. His first impeachment by a Democratic-led House was provoked by Trump’s attempts to strong-arm Ukraine’s government into aiding his own domestic political feuds. And going back further, Trump and his circle had a thicket of connections to Ukrainian and Russian operatives bent on overturning a political dispensation in Kyiv that was unfavorable to the Kremlin, as laid out in great detail in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

For whatever that’s all worth now, many in Ukraine are concerned about the road ahead.

“The U.S. midterms are one of the factors that have us concerned about the winter,” a senior Ukrainian official told my colleagues last month, speaking on the condition of anonymity as Ukrainian forces armed almost wholly by the West sought to reclaim more territory lost to the invaders. “Russia will gain an advantage with the new Congress and with Europeans as they blackmail them on energy policy. That’s why the current offensive is so important.”

There’s also fear of a reduction in U.S. aid to Ukraine in Europe, where many governments may not be able to muster either the capacity or political will to fill the gap. “You’d be playing into [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s hands,” Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defense committee in Britain’s Parliament, told my colleagues. “If America pulls back, Putin could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

A similar awareness is on view among the Kremlin’s soothsayers.

“Trump’s formula ‘Make America Great Again,’ MAGA, those are the guys who are starting to say, ‘Why are we funding not only America’s interests, but Biden’s personal interests, the interests of puppeteers who are standing behind Biden’s back?,’” said Russian political scientist Sergey Sudakov on a state television news show last week. He added: “I’m sure that Republicans will win.”