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Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen, PhD, is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion and the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution. He was a candidate for California State Controller in 2022. Chen has played senior roles in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations and been an adviser to four presidential campaigns, including as policy director of Romney-Ryan 2012. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was visiting Washington this week, nearly 30 Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the Biden administration, opposing the request for an additional $24 billion in spending to support the war effort in Ukraine. The premise of the letter is that the administration’s request comes without clear answers to questions about Ukraine’s progress in the war, our own strategy and endgame in the ongoing conflict and how existing dollars that Congress has appropriated for the war effort have been spent.
These are fair questions that deserve thorough consideration and fulsome debate — which is why House Speaker Kevin McCarthy should consider the administration’s request separately from the ongoing discussions over a potential government shutdown. Indeed, the inquiries in the GOP letter are valid and should not be dismissed as an expected reaction of a group of hard-right Republicans to a Biden administration priority as we approach an election year. They reflect the misgivings and doubt amongst many voters across the country — particularly Republicans — about continuing to send resources to Ukraine.
While there are likely many reasons for these misgivings, the principal among them seems to be a lack of understanding around two key issues. The first is why continuing support is important to American national interests and second, what the endpoint of our commitment there will be, particularly given the uncertainty about Ukraine’s own prospects for success in the fight against Russia, which could drag on for years.
Some of the blame lies with Ukrainian leadership for a failure to clearly communicate their own plans and transparently account for where existing US aid has been deployed. But perhaps more of the fault should be laid at the feet of Republican leaders who have failed to adequately explain to their own voters why continued involvement in Ukraine is an important priority amidst the many other fiscal and substantive challenges our nation faces.
There remain compelling reasons that Republican leaders could cite to help convince voters of the value of support for Ukraine. If left unchecked, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine threatens peace and stability in the rest of Europe, which remains an important economic and strategic partner of the United States. Further, America has an interest in checking Russian aggression, which has been most visibly on display in Ukraine, but has also manifested itself in interference in our elections, cyberattacks against American institutions and commercial enterprises and support for terror attacks against US allies. There are also broader concerns that abandoning support for Ukraine would send the wrong message to China, with leader Xi Jinping interested in expanding his country’s sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Policymakers who support continuing aid to Ukraine would be well-advised to clearly and succinctly outline the metrics to determine when our help is no longer needed. Voters are rightfully concerned about America being dragged into endless commitments in a war that may not end soon.
While many have noted that there is a split amongst GOP policymakers about continued American support for Ukraine, the predominant position among Republican voters is actually closer to that articulated in the GOP congressional letter that greeted Zelensky this week. The data are stark. Nearly three out of four self-identified Republicans in a July CNN survey opposed more US funding for the war effort in Ukraine with opposition strongest amongst more conservative Republicans (compared to 61% of moderate and liberal Republicans who opposed more funding). Sixty percent of Republicans surveyed argued that the US has done enough for Ukraine and just 30% favored providing additional weapons to Kyiv.
It’s no surprise, then, that three of the leading Republican presidential contenders — including former president Donald Trump, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to additional US funding for or involvement in the Ukraine war effort.
Given these political headwinds, it’s perhaps more surprising that a number of GOP presidential candidates seeking to be the alternative to Trump, including former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have been steadfast in their support for American involvement in Ukraine. All three have gone after Trump, the front-runner in the GOP nominating contest, for his skepticism of continued US assistance to Ukraine. Haley this week argued at a campaign stop in New Hampshire that Trump had become “weak in the knees” on Ukraine, while Pence warned on CNN that the only way Trump could end the war in a day (as the former president has claimed) would be to “let Vladimir Putin have what he wants.” Christie, who made a surprise visit to Ukraine in early August, has called Trump a “puppet of Putin” for refusing to say that he wanted Ukraine to prevail in its fight against Russia.
It is ultimately the GOP presidential candidates who favor continued support for Ukraine who are in the best position to make the case to Republican voters. If one of these candidates were to become the nominee of the Republican Party (an admittedly unlikely scenario given the current polling), his or her view would become the de facto position of the party going into next year’s election and potentially beyond. This view would also be backed by Senate Republican leadership and a healthy number of Republican members in both houses of Congress who have voiced their support for Ukraine.
So far, the skirmishes between the GOP contenders have framed Ukraine as a wedge issue that differentiates Trump from other candidates like Haley, Pence or Christie. Less time has been spent on the campaign trail explaining to voters why support for Ukraine is crucial to our national interests.
Given the sharp divides among GOP policymakers and leaders over the question of US assistance for Ukraine, it seems increasingly unlikely, barring a significant development in the war, that Republican voter opinions will shift so dramatically as to favor robust and sustained American involvement. Nonetheless, it’s up to Haley, Pence and Christie to make the case. They may be the only hope for Zelensky — and those here in America who wish to see continued support for Ukraine — to change the minds of Republican voters and, by extension, policymakers who have soured on all we are doing to help Kyiv win the war.
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