After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, something surprising happened: Donald Trump went mostly silent on the topic.
At the same time, the American public and political class were united in support of Ukraine’s fight. Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, but substantial aid packages passed with large bipartisan majorities. Some Republicans sought to criticize the Biden administration for not acting swiftly enough to aid Ukraine.
Now, that’s all gone away. Republican senators are demanding that a supplemental aid package Ukraine desperately needs to continue its defense be conditioned on finding a way through one of the most intractable issues in American politics: the border. MAGA House members portray Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in Washington this week to make the case for more assistance, as a warmongering beggar. The arch-conservative and very influential Heritage Foundation, a onetime bastion of hawkish GOP interventionism, is reportedly holding a meeting this week with allies of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s government to discuss opposition to further aid to Ukraine. Heritage itself signed a cooperation agreement this year with the Danube Institute. The head of the Budapest-based, Orbán-aligned organization described the agreement as showing that “Hungary has allies in the United States.”
For older GOP foreign policy hands, and much of the broader public, all of this provokes a visceral sense of whiplash. The GOP has been defined for decades by its willingness to use military force to counter what Republicans argued were examples of totalitarianism abroad; lofty rhetoric which encompassed Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” and the Bush administration’s fateful decision to invade Iraq. Now, Ukraine shows the party at the other end of a momentous shift: instead of clamoring for ever-more aid to help Ukrainian democracy resist its autocratic neighbor, Republican politicians and institutions are the main obstacle to the level of assistance that Democrats want to provide.
Asked about the shift, former GOP officials and allies cast about for explanations, which included blaming Donald Trump’s personal animus towards Ukraine and a willingness to “parrot” Kremlin talking points for the immediate mess.
“In the very recent past, the GOP pulling support for a country like Ukraine in the conflict that it’s in would have been laughable,” Kim Holmes, an assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush Administration and a former executive vice president at the Heritage foundation, told TPM. He added that Trump had “opened the door” to a deeper strain of isolationism after “he got it in his mind that he was being undermined by the Ukrainians.”
He attributed the cratering support to a “political calculation, that somehow Ukraine was Biden’s country and Russia was Donald Trump’s country, because of all the melodrama around the impeachment of Donald Trump.”
As Biden continued to voice support for Ukraine, Holmes said, rank partisanship took over: “Ukraine became Biden’s, and after Biden started supporting Ukraine, oddly enough in a perverse way, it gave permission for these Republicans to go against it.”
Others attribute the change from blanket support in 2022 to the lack of support today as the product of factors that extend beyond Trump.
“It was so black and white in February of last year,” Bush institute Executive Director David Kramer told TPM. “It was blatant and it was hard for anybody to look the other way.”
Kramer in some ways embodies the contradictions of the old GOP foreign policy establishment. He’s a longtime McCain aide who now heads the George W. Bush Institute. After Trump won the 2016 election, Kramer played a key role in getting the now-debunked Steele Dossier to senior levels of government.
He told TPM that unrealistic expectations around what Ukraine could achieve in its counteroffensive and a lack of clear goals set by the Biden Administration had all contributed to Congress’ shift, and that, now, House Republicans remained apparently immovable in their opposition.
“I wish they would understand that not supporting this assistance will amount to a victory for Putin,” he said.
Many of the House GOPers who have leveraged the Republican Party’s slim majority to force whoever is speaker of the House to block further Ukraine aid seem to have their own agendas in doing so — regardless of what it means for the war’s outcome. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), for example, has described Ukraine aid as “nothing but a big money laundering scam.” During an April 2023 hearing on Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine, Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) asked Ukraine’s prosecutor general about investigating Hunter Biden.
To Kramer, it’s an example of how some of them “have used incorrect information or misinformation and some who even parrot Russian disinformation.”
“Some of it you would almost hear coming out of the Kremlin, and a lot of it is just plain wrong,” he added.
On the Senate side, lawmakers have been more careful not to parrot Russian propaganda. Instead, they’ve resorted to the more familiar tactic of procedural radicalism. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been among those to demand “serious policy changes” around immigration in exchange for allowing Ukraine aid to go forward, a remarkable shift by one of the country’s key GOP allies.
The shift in foreign policy stance on the right have been demonstrated in smaller ways, in other parts of the world, that are telling but less potentially cataclysmic. GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said in August that he’d accept Chinese annexation of Taiwan if the U.S. found a different source for semiconductors; the influential Tucker Carlson suggested that the U.S. hold off on military support to Israel.
Trump himself demanded in July that Congress cease support to Ukraine absent further congressional investigations into Biden.
To Holmes, who departed Heritage in 2021, the change was not totally surprising. He recalled experiencing the beginnings of the shift directly while at Heritage, when conservatives “in their late 20s” would approach him and call him and and his colleagues “a bunch of Reagan zombies.”
It was partly the product of deeper changes in the conservative movement, Holmes said. A generation that never knew the Cold War, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and growing embrace of what he described as thought “alien to the American founding.”
That’s partly come out in the affinity between the MAGA right and Orbán, himself a vocal opponent of further Ukraine aid from the European Union. Holmes described it as as an opposition to “liberalism in the broadest sense.”