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Republicans are a lot more pro-Ukraine than their presidential candidates

Last month, eight candidates gathered in Wisconsin for the first Republican presidential debate. During the session, the rivals shared their opinions on the state of the U.S. economy, inflation, abortion, border security and immigration, and former President Donald Trump.

Foreign policy also took an important role in the debate. During the session, the eight individuals vying for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination were pressed on U.S. defense policy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their responses highlighted a division within the Republican Party.

In one corner was the old guard. These individuals believe in the importance of democratic institutions, rules-based laws and global order. During the debate, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie emphasized the importance of aiding Ukraine.

“If [the U.S. does not] stand up against [Russia’s] autocratic killing in the world, we will be next,” Christie said during the debate. “I went to Ukraine because I wanted to see for myself what Vladimir Putin’s army was doing to the free Ukrainian people.”

If the U.S. gives Putin Ukraine, it is “not going to be too long before he rolls across a NATO border,” Pence added. “I want to let the Ukrainians fight and drive the Russians back out.” Russian President Putin is a “dictator and a murderer and the United States of America needs to stand against authoritarianism.”

“A win for Russia [in Ukraine] is a win for China,” Haley said. “Ukraine is the first line of defense for us.” If Putin takes Ukraine, then “Poland and the Baltics are next. That’s a world war. [The U.S. is] trying to prevent war.”

The views expressed by these candidates are in line with several prominent Republicans in the House and Senate. In fact, the majority of Republicans in Congress support aid to Ukraine. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) has said that the U.S. should give the Ukrainians “what they need,” and that if we do so then they “will win.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also praised this aid. Ukraine’s success during the war is “due in large measure to the heroism of the brave Ukrainians defending their homeland,” he said. “But [Ukraine’s] success is also a credit to the tangible support of the United States, NATO allies, and friends around the globe who value the same sovereignty and territorial integrity which is under attack in Ukraine.”

Finally, most Republican voters want Ukraine to succeed. According to a Reagan Foundation poll taken this summer, 71 percent of Republicans said that it was “important to the United States that Ukraine win the war.” In addition, 50 percent of Republicans said they were “willing to do what it takes to help Ukraine win [the war].”

In short, the views of Haley, Pence and Christie on Ukraine are widely shared by prominent Republicans in Congress and by Republican voters.

But a new base within the GOP is skeptical of or opposed to American aid to Ukraine. This was most apparent during the Aug. 23 debate. During the event, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took this position.

“Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said. “I do not want to get to the point where [the U.S. is] sending our military resources abroad.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that U.S. support for Ukraine “should be contingent on” Western European countries stepping up their own contributions. Beyond that, he said, “I’m not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our Southern border.”

Although not present at the debate, President Donald Trump also falls within this dovish camp.

There are other Republicans who support this line of thinking. For example, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) famously said that the U.S. should not “write a blank check to Ukraine.” McCarthy is also reportedly keen on scaling back aid to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) introduced bills in the House to reduce aid to Ukraine. These attempts, however, did not gain traction, as the majority of Republicans voted against their bills.

These opinions are also misinformed. First, there is a misconception that the U.S. is simply shoveling money out the door to Ukraine. This is untrue. Throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office has thoroughly examined aid to Ukraine. The process has been grueling, but effective. According to top Pentagon officials, there is “no evidence…that any of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid sent to Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion has been lost due to corruption.”

Second, critics of U.S. aid to Ukraine claim the process has been costly. But a report by the Center for European Policy Analysis put it best, stating that it has cost the U.S. “peanuts” to defeat Russia in Ukraine. For example, the total defense budget in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 was $816.7 billion. Of that, $46 billion was provided to Ukraine, meaning that aid to Ukraine accounted for 5.6 percent of the total U.S. defense budget in fiscal year 2023.

In part through this assistance, the Ukrainians have successfully defended their homeland by forcing the Russians out of northern Ukraine, and they are gaining ground in southern and eastern Ukraine. In addition, Russia’s military has been completely battered. This has been a very worthwhile investment.

Finally, the Ukrainians have stated that they will do all the work on the ground to defend their country. They only ask for continued aid, not for U.S. troops, and it is false to suggest otherwise.

Overall, although there is a divide within the Republican Party on U.S. aid to Ukraine, the majority of Republican voters continue to support the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. This cannot be taken for granted.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eurasian affairs and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Tags 2024 presidential election Chris Christie Donald Trump Donald Trump Mike Pence Nikki Haley republicans Russia-Ukraine war Vladimir Putin