It’s become commonplace to point to one issue that supposedly divides Republicans: support for Ukraine.
On one side, you have the old, traditional GOP — the party of cold warriors, John McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
On the other, concentrated mostly but not exclusively in the House, are the MAGA faithful — a coalition of self-described America Firsters who advocate alternately for a halt to U.S. assistance or, at least, an audit of that which has already been given.
It’s not at all clear, however, that these two groups will turn out to be practically different over the coming two years.
One year in, Ukraine has fought off the Russians and retaken around half of the territory that it lost in the first weeks of the war. But that success has been contingent on Western support, with the lion’s share — and the political wherewithal to marshal it — coming from the U.S., with support seemingly from both parties.
That all took place during a Congress where Democrats retained control of both Houses.
But now, with the GOP in control of the House, and with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) job reliant on support from a small but vocal core of MAGA holdouts, the future of support for Ukraine looks far more murky.
The situation leaves a few questions. One big one is: how important is the Ukraine posturing to the MAGA caucus in the House?
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has vocally opposed U.S. support for Ukraine over the past year, saying at an Iowa Trump rally in November 2022 that “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine. Our country comes first.”
Greene and many others around her portray U.S. support for the country against the Russian invasion as a zero-sum game. Money that flows to Kyiv is money that would be spent in the U.S., according to this narrative — wealth that’s pried away for unknown, likely corrupt foreigners. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has called Ukraine “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” and asked whether “America’s hard-earned tax dollars are being stolen.”
It’s a view that infuses some of the bitter, Ukraine-related resentments of the Trump years, emanating from the failed attempt to extort President Volodymyr Zelensky into providing dirt on Joe Biden in 2019. But it also comes with a patina of legitimacy: Ukraine has struggled with corruption since it gained independence in 1991.
Greene walked this line in a Thursday night interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, saying that the U.S. government was paying “pensions to the Ukrainian people and their government while people in East Palestine are suffering from basically a nuclear bomb that exploded in their city.”
She added that she wanted the House to pass a resolution requiring an audit of aid to Ukraine, describing the support as “fighting a war in Ukraine that does nothing for Americans except forcing them to pay for it” and “literally going to lead us into World War III.”
Greene is talking about an effort that, according to one recent study, amounted to 0.21 of the U.S.’s GDP. But that exaggeration hasn’t stopped other, more senior Republicans from buying in to her basic point: that support for Ukraine means a tradeoff at home, and that there’s some fiscal constraint limiting it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) cast Ukraine aid in terms of being a good investment during a trip to Helsinki on Friday, saying that “the long-term cost to the U.S. in both dollars and security risks would be astronomically higher than the minuscule fraction of our GDP” were Russia to prevail in Ukraine.
McCarthy struck a similar tone but went further, saying that he opposes “a blank check” but suggesting the funds were something of a sunk cost.
“We spent $100 billion here; we want to win,” he told CNN.
The fate of Greene’s audit proposal is unclear, though the current House Foreign Affairs Committee chair — Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) — has tried to walk a similar line to McCarthy, calling for examinations of aid provided to Ukraine while also demanding more of it. In a trip to Kyiv this week, McCaul downplayed Republicans who oppose further aid, describing them as being “more supportive if they saw a long-term strategy that was based on a Ukrainian victory rather than sending just enough support to prolong the war but not win it.”
Reps. Gaetz, Greene, and others have called for that aid to end.
But the central dynamic remains unclear: how important is it to them? Is this all simply rhetorical culture warring, or a suggestion of a MAGA policy plank — to the extent any such thing exists — worth going to the mat for? What leverage might they use with McCarthy to stop further aid packages?
For a movement composed of nihilists and focused more on dominance than anything else, there’s a broad range of outcomes that could satisfy the MAGA wing: from hollow PR victories to an outright end to aid to Ukraine.