Republican debate highlights future of US aid to Ukraine

Rob Garver

The future of US aid to Ukraine under a potential Republican White House remains very much in doubt, one day after eight candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination clashed over the subject in the party’s first presidential primary debate.
On stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday, the candidates displayed a range of attitudes toward US support for Ukraine’s effort to fend off the full-scale Russian invasion that began in February 2022. Some called for the elimination or reduction of US support, while others spoke forcefully in favor of extending it.
The dispute highlights a sharp divergence of opinion within the broader Republican Party over the war in Ukraine, one that has been reflected in public opinion polls since last year. Recent polling by CNN has indicated that a large segment of the Republican electorate wants to cut or eliminate US funding, with 71% saying that Congress should not authorize new funding, and 59% saying they believe the US has already done enough to support Kyiv. The Republicans on the debate stage did not include former President Donald Trump, who is currently leading the field by a wide margin in public polling. Trump, instead, recorded an interview that aired at the same time as the debate.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who early in his campaign stumbled over his position on Ukraine, was first among the candidates to address the issue on Wednesday, saying immediately that he would make additional US aid “contingent” on an increase in aid from European countries. “Europe needs to step up,” DeSantis said. “I’m going to have Europe step up and do their job.”
Statistical data on aid to Ukraine show that while the US has sent the most to Ukraine in total dollars, European countries have given the most on a GDP basis. The candidate most adamant about restricting US aid to Ukraine was Vivek Ramaswamy, a tech businessman who has no experience in public office.
Asked if he would support increased funding to Ukraine, Ramaswamy said, “I would not, and I think that this is disastrous, that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border, when we should use those same military resources to prevent … the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America.” He went on to contend that US support for Ukraine is “driving Russia further into China’s hands,” and he accused politicians in favor of maintaining support for Ukraine – including some on stage with him – of placing that country’s concerns above the needs of the US. He also appeared to ridicule their support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv – to their pope, Zelenskyy – without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago.”
Several other contenders – former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – sharply criticized Ramaswamy’s position, defending continued US support for Kyiv and arguing that US interests are at stake in Ukraine.
Christie, who recently traveled to Ukraine, reminded the audience of the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, and of the many thousands of Ukrainian children who have been taken from Ukraine and resettled in Russia. “If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next,” Christie said.
Pence rebutted Ramaswamy’s claim that US aid to Ukraine is detracting from the country’s ability to address its own problems, saying, “Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth. We can do both.” Haley, who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, noted that aid to Ukraine has totaled only about 3.5% of the overall US military budget. She also attacked Ramaswamy for a number of his stated positions on foreign policy, including his public statement that he would not object to China’s hostile takeover of Taiwan after 2028.
“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia,” Haley said. “He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends. What you do instead is, you have the backs of your friends. Ukraine is the front line of defense.” Ramaswamy retorted by suggesting that Haley is hoping to join the boards of US military contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, who manufacture much of the equipment the US has sent to Ukraine. Haley pointed out that she has no affiliation with either company and added, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
In an interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that was released on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Trump only briefly addressed the conflict in Ukraine. While criticizing President Joe Biden for going on vacation, he said, “He’s supposed to be working. He’s supposed to be getting us out of that horrible, horrible war that we’re very much involved in with Russia and Ukraine.” Trump went on to call for an end to the war. He also claimed that he could stop it “easily,” and that Russia never would have invaded Ukraine if he had been president. He offered no evidence for either claim.
Politics aside, experts told VOA that continued US aid to Ukraine is essential to the country’s struggle against Russia, and that cutting it off would have major consequences. In an email exchange, Nicholas Lokker, a research associate in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told VOA that US support is “critical” to Ukraine’s continued defense. “Washington has so far provided the most military aid of any country by a wide margin. And without this aid, it is quite likely that Ukrainian forces would be in much worse shape than they are now,” he said.
“The United States has also had a very important role in coordinating aid deliveries from more than 40 countries through its leadership of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, without which Kyiv would be less likely to receive the type of support that it needs most,” he added. Gian Gentile, a retired US Army colonel who now serves as associate director of the RAND Corporation’s Army Research Division, told VOA that a withdrawal of US support would be “a disaster” for Ukraine. He said it could entail cutting off not just money and materiel, but training for Ukrainian forces. “The whole Ukrainian offensive would stop,” he said. “They would have to try to consolidate what they have and move into a defensive standpoint across the board.”
But the damage might not stop there, he said. “If Russia knows that there’s no US support, that might be enough for them to begin their own major counteroffensive or offensive operations to retake what they’ve lost,” Gentile said. “And without US support [for Ukraine], [Russia] could be pretty damned successful.”