Skip to content
Conflict Resolution
Go to my account

Conflict Resolution

Who won the GOP civil war over Ukraine?

Tucker Carlson speaks at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Hollywood on November 17, 2022, in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images)

The occasion of a Republican presidential forum being hosted by a propagandist for Russia seems like a fine time to revisit this newsletter from October, wondering which faction of the party would prevail on the question of funding Ukraine’s war effort.

“The fact that a propagandist for Russia is hosting a Republican presidential forum seems like a clue to the answer,” you might respond, fairly enough. But it isn’t that simple.

In the nine months since I wrote that column, said commentator lost his prime-time perch at Fox News and now slums it on Twitter, interviewing accused rapists for the edification of “manosphere” incels. His diminished daily influence seems to have emboldened certain top Republicans in Congress to re-embrace their old hawkish selves, particularly the speaker of the House. Under Kevin McCarthy’s leadership, no more than a token effort has been made by MAGA types to cancel military support for Ukraine.

In the upper chamber, meanwhile, backing for the war among Republican leaders remains as rock solid as you’d expect.

Check the polling lately and you might also find yourself pleasantly surprised by how buoyant enthusiasm from right-wing hawks remains despite the heavy weight of Trumpy populism. A Reuters survey published last month found 56 percent of Republicans still favor supplying weapons to Ukraine. A Gallup poll released around the same time saw GOP opinion almost evenly split, 49-47, when given a choice between ending the war quickly at the cost of Russia keeping the territory it’s gained and supporting Ukraine in reclaiming lost territory at the cost of prolonging the conflict.

As recently as March, most Republicans thought the biggest problem with how Joe Biden has handled Russia is that he isn’t doing enough to counter Moscow’s influence.

Those old Reaganite instincts are still alive and kicking in some quarters. We’ll be reminded of it tomorrow, I suspect, when Такер Карлсон digs into the subject of Ukraine with traditional conservatives Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, the latter of whom recently visited Volodymyr Zelensky to show his support in person.

It’s fair to conclude from the foregoing that Republican hawks have fought Republican doves to nothing worse than a stalemate, perhaps even that they have the upper hand.

It would also be fair to conclude from other data that they’re being routed.

It seems like more than a coincidence that the three most buzzed-about Republicans in the presidential race (the only three who are buzzed-about, frankly) are doves when it comes to continued aid to Ukraine.

There’s Trump, of course. There’s Ron DeSantis, who, despite his lackluster launch, continues to win a larger share of Republicans nationally than all of the candidates trailing him combined. And there’s Vivek Ramaswamy, the lone figure in the field who’s showing signs of momentum. Some surveys now have them first, second, and third, respectively. According to the RealClearPolitics average, together they account for nearly 77 percent of the GOP vote.

Seventy-seven percent. If America elects a Republican president in 2024, he’ll almost certainly be someone who takes a dim view of helping European allies fend off a Russian invasion.

The White House’s decision this week to send cluster munitions to Ukraine gave all three an opportunity to flash their dovish credentials to primary voters. I won’t belabor the arguments for and against that policy here, as Jonah Goldberg recently did a better job of it than I could. Two facts should suffice. One: Russia has been using cluster munitions since the start of the war despite the immense risk to Ukrainian noncombatants, a fact seldom noted or criticized by America’s Ukraine doves. Two: The Ukrainian government obviously—obviously—has an incentive not to use those munitions in civilian areas the way Russia haphazardly does given the threat they pose to their own citizens.

Trump’s statement on the matter was quintessentially Trump—World War III, a weakened America, etc. He played the hits. Sing along if you like:

DeSantis’ position was also true to form. He was cagier than Trump about how urgently the war needs to end, a sop to the traditional conservatives within his coalition, but his alignment with the populist view of Ukraine is clear. I wouldn’t send cluster munitions to Kyiv because I don’t want to escalate the war, the governor confirmed, seemingly unaware that we’re already past the “blowing up major dams to drown civilians” phase of escalation.

That answer reminded me of his comment this spring describing Russia’s invasion as a “territorial dispute” between the two sides. DeSantis was careful at the time not to say that he’d end military support for Ukraine as president—another sop to anti-Trump hawks—but his studious moral equivalence between the combatants made clear which faction of the Republican base he’s courting.

The guy has bet his entire campaign on his theoretical ability to woo MAGA voters away from Trump. His positions on Ukraine will not undermine that strategy.

Last was Ramaswamy, who’s prone to describing the leader of one of the parties to this conflict as a “bully” and not the one whom you might think. He too opposes sending cluster munitions to Ukraine and supports an immediate peace deal. But fear not, Republican hawks: He imagines Russia making some entirely fanciful concessions as he goes about cutting off Kyiv and pressuring the Ukrainians to quit the fight.

Ramaswamy and DeSantis are keen to frame their skepticism of aiding Ukraine as a matter of America taking its eye off the ball internationally. They’re not isolationists or Putinistas, they want traditional Republicans to know; they simply believe in prioritizing foreign threats properly, and there’s no disputing that China is a greater threat than Russia. That’s a compelling argument—or would be, if the logic of “America First” didn’t clash so sharply with sending U.S. troops to die in defense of Taiwan. For the record, the Taiwanese themselves appear not to agree. “Ukraine’s survival is Taiwan’s survival. Ukraine’s success is Taiwan’s success. Our futures are closely linked,” a diplomat from Taipei told an audience of Americans in May.

Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Chris Christie are all on board with that logic. Alas, Republican voters prefer candidates who feel differently to the tune of 77 percent of the presidential primary vote. It’s possible, in fact, that by the time the Ukrainian counteroffensive ends sometime this fall or winter, not a single hawk will still be standing in the GOP field.

Doesn’t that mean the doves won, or will ultimately win, the party’s civil war over Ukraine funding?

The answer is complicated, I suspect. Republican voters are Americans, and Americans tend not to care about foreign policy during elections when the country isn’t at war and/or having major skyscrapers knocked over by terrorists.

If you’re into Trump, DeSantis, or Ramaswamy, chances are it’s because you can’t get enough of their pugnacious lib-bashing. Their positions on Ukraine may or may not match yours, which is a plus or minus as the case may be. But their view of the conflict won’t put you off them entirely.

That’s one type of voter, the person who’s uncertain or apathetic about foreign policy. There’s another kind—the person who recognizes Ukraine policy, correctly, as a proxy for what the American right and/or American government should be.

DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and of course Trump rose to prominence within the GOP during the Trump era, with populism in ascendance. The more traditional conservatives, Haley, Pence, Scott, and Christie, made their bones politically before then. That’s a crucial dividing line in the primary: Republican voters are reportedly adamant in focus groups that they’re “never going back” to what the party represented before Trump entered politics, a prejudice which their hero has leveraged effectively against his most formidable challenger.

It may be, then, that the candidates’ positions on Ukraine matter to Republican voters chiefly insofar as they signal broad ideological allegiance to the values of the pre-Trump or post-Trump GOP. If you oppose arming Ukraine, if you evince skepticism of alliances and sympathy for foreign strongmen, you must be a Trump Republican—with everything that entails, domestically and attitudinally. If you’re enthused about alliances and eager to take those strongmen down a peg, you’re a Bush/McCain/McConnell Republican—with everything that entails, domestically and attitudinally.

Most primary voters don’t want a Bush/McCain/McConnell Republican even if they happen to believe we should be arming the Ukrainians against Russia. They want culture war. Or, like Tucker Carlson, they want to weaken Americans’ moral aversion to post-liberal authoritarianism. Only a Trump Republican can be trusted to do either.

All of which explains, I think, how we’ve somehow ended up with GOP voters evenly split on funding the war yet favoring “Trump Republican” presidential candidates at a clip of 3 to 1. Given a choice between a lib-owning pugilist who’d abandon Ukraine to the Russians on the one hand and a “milktoast” classical liberal who’d keep the weapons flowing on the other, populist Ukraine hawks will grit their teeth and opt for the former.

“Mark Levin conservatives,” we might call them.

When you look at it that way, the doves really did win. Not in the sense that they remade the Republican base’s outlook on foreign policy root and branch but in the sense that they’ve made support for European alliances irrelevant to some Republican voters and an outright political liability to many others.

With the nomination all but guaranteed to go to Trump or DeSantis, the beneficiaries of those European alliances must be having some dark thoughts of late.

There are sound arguments for and against letting Ukraine join NATO once the war with Russia ends. This alternative, floated by one of the right’s more prominent populists, is not sound.

I can’t imagine why Russia would choose to become the tip of the West’s spear against a nuclear-armed superpower on its own border, particularly given the state of its military, just as I can’t imagine why NATO would ever trust Russia to be a reliable partner. Purely as an ideological matter, Putin would doubtless prefer to align himself with China’s totalitarian model of government than with Western democracy lest the people of Russia start getting funny ideas about how their system should operate.

Gaetz isn’t being serious, though. (I think.) In his own trollish way, he’s signaling that traditional American alliances should and will be rethought if a Republican president takes office in 2025.

Biden’s administration has been keen this week to reassure Western allies that Washington’s internationalist consensus will endure. The president “guaranteed” that the United States would remain a stalwart NATO member for decades to come during a press conference in Finland on Thursday. As will Ukraine, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: There’s “no doubt” that Kyiv will be admitted to the organization once the war with Russia is over, he told CNN. It’s a nice thought.

But it reeks of them trying to convince themselves, let alone others, of something they’re no longer sure of.

On Tuesday The Economist reported that European leaders are already fretting about the consequences of a Trump restoration. In the short term after his election, the bottom might drop out of Ukraine funding across the Western world. In the medium term, if the U.S. withdrew from NATO, EU states would struggle to maintain a military bulwark against Russia and might go nuclear to hedge their risk. In the longer term, far-right parties could gain traction on the continent. Ukraine itself would need to consider going nuclear absent meaningful security guarantees against Russia aggression going forward.

Trump clinching the Republican nomination might also have consequences for the war. Ukrainian leaders told the head of the CIA recently they believe they can retake “substantial territory” by year’s end and force Russia to sue for peace. (“Russia will only negotiate if it feels threatened,” one official told the Washington Post.) Let’s hope—because if they can’t, the prospect of Trump soon returning to power will incentivize Moscow to fight on until 2025. They’ll get more favorable terms in negotiations with the West divided and Ukraine suddenly desperate for weapons than they will by seeking a deal when NATO is united. That means holding out until Trump has replaced Biden as president.

Zelensky was asked recently what he thinks of Trump’s recurring boast that he could strike a bargain between Ukraine and Russia to end the war in 24 hours if given the chance. His patience with it has run thin.

“It seems to me that the sole desire to bring the war to an end is beautiful,” Zelensky said during an interview on ABC’s This Week Sunday after host Martha Raddatz played a clip of Trump’s brag. “But this desire should be based on some real-life experience. Well, it looks as if Donald Trump had already these 24 hours once in his time. We were at war, not a full-scale war, but we were at war, and as I assume, he had that time at his disposal, but he must have had some other priorities.”

Zelensky added that Trump’s idea of ending the war might be for Ukraine to cede some of its land to Russia. “If we are talking about ending the war at the cost of Ukraine, in other words to make us give up our territories, well, I think, in this way, Biden could have brought it to an end even in five minutes, but we would not agree,” he said.

Zelensky knows what a Trump-brokered deal with Russia would mean. So does Chris Christie. Trump would “give away Ukraine to the Russians,” he told Hugh Hewitt last month, “because he’s a Putin sympathizer.” The other Republican candidates surely understand the global implications of handing American foreign policy back to Trump. Do Republican voters?

Or do they not care because it’s more important to nominate someone who’s not a Bush/McCain/McConnell Republican, whatever that might mean for American interests abroad?
They should start caring, if only as a matter of electoral self-preservation. “Large majorities of Americans—67% and 73%—are more likely to support a candidate in next year’s U.S. presidential election who will continue military aid to Ukraine and one who backs the NATO alliance,” Reuters reported last month. Perhaps tomorrow’s Tucker Carlson candidate forum in Iowa will be the first step to more serious reflection. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.