The Republican rift over the United States’ support for Ukraine was on vivid display this week, as 2024 presidential hopefuls staked out opposing positions on whether President Joe Biden’s administration has done too much or too little to help the country a year into Russia’s invasion.
The divide over the US role in Ukraine is one of the opening fault lines of a GOP race that is only beginning to take shape – and one that could become a heated topic when Republican primary debates begin in the coming months.
What GOP presidential candidates, and those taking steps toward entering the race, broadly agree on is that Biden has mishandled the situation.
But those hopefuls are split into two camps: Isolationists, particularly former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who believe the United States is too involved in supporting Ukraine’s efforts to fend off the Russian invasion; and hawks, including several former Trump administration officials, who argue for an even more aggressive posture toward Russia. Both sides are warning that if their positions aren’t heeded, a world war could follow.
Trump and DeSantis both accused Biden of provoking unnecessary clashes with global powers by traveling to Ukraine on Monday.
Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador who last week became the second major candidate to declare her candidacy, took the opposite position in stops in New Hampshire and Iowa, arguing for a more forceful US role.
“It’s more than just about Ukraine. This is a war about freedom. And it’s a war we have to win,” the former South Carolina governor said Monday night in Urbandale, Iowa.
Trump this week has repeatedly lambasted Biden for his Kyiv trip.
“World War III has never been closer than it is right now,” Trump said Tuesday in a video in which he pledged to “clean house of all of the warmongers and America-Last globalists in the Deep State, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the national security industrial complex.”
Trump also sent supporters a fundraising email claiming Biden is defending other countries’ borders – a clear reference to Ukraine – but putting Americans “dead last.”
And on his social media network, Truth Social, Trump said: “If you watch and understand the moves being made by Biden on Ukraine, he is systematically, but perhaps unknowingly, pushing us into what could soon be WORLD WAR III.”
But Haley is among the latter group, telling voters in Iowa that stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine is necessary to prevent “world war.”
She, too, faulted Biden – but said the president has been too “slow to the take” and that he emboldened Putin with the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. She said the United States should continue supplying Ukraine with military equipment and ammunition.
“If we win this fight for freedom it will send a signal to every enemy we have. If we lose this fight for freedom, Russia has said Poland and the Baltics are next and then we’ve got a world war,” she said.
Other prominent Republicans have similarly argued for a forceful US role in Ukraine.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he is considering a 2024 run, said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday that the US has “got to stay in the fight” in backing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
“We are involved in a proxy war against the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians are fighting it. And I really believe that it is essential that we see it through. We demand our European allies do more than their share because it is their front yard. But I think it is absolutely essential that after a slow start in providing support to the Ukrainian military by the Biden administration, we’re now providing that support. But let’s get them what they need, the tanks, let’s get them the F-16s and support them as they finish this fight,” Pence said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is also considering a 2024 presidential bid, said Tuesday that Biden’s trip was “a great moment for America.”
“We need to applaud this. This is a good moment for our country, and in those that respect, freedom and sovereignty, and those that are fighting against oppression,” the former two-term Republican governor said Tuesday during an interview on Fox News host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.
DeSantis – who this week made appearances on Fox News and traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, delivering what could be a preview of his potential 2024 message – appears to be attempting to out-flank Trump in opposing Biden’s approach to the war.
DeSantis on Monday criticized American aid to Ukraine as an “open-ended blank check” and questioned whether the United States should be engaged in the Russian conflict at all.
“I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the Borderlands or over Crimea,” DeSantis told “Fox & Friends,” referring to Ukrainian territories that Russia has seized through military force.
Asked on the program “what a win looks like” for the United States, DeSantis demurred and instead downplayed Russia’s military actions to date, saying the country was “really wounded” and suffered “tremendous, tremendous loses” without acknowledging the role that US weapons, military intelligence and aid have played in shaping the conflict.
DeSantis insisted Russia is not a threat “on the same level as China” – a remark that is a stark departure from the years he spent in Congress as a hawk on the issue as a member of the House Freedom Caucus, casting former President Barack Obama as weak in his approach to Russia.
“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that, and steamrolling, that has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis said Monday. “I think they have shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”
One of the earliest clashes of the 2024 race – playing out with only two candidates officially having entered the Republican primary – is taking place against the backdrop of a broader debate within the GOP over the United States’ role in the war in Ukraine and its broader foreign policy obligations.
Biden’s trip to Ukraine on Monday, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to show support for Kyiv nearly a year into Russia’s invasion and announce another $500 million in US assistance, was met with strident criticism from Republicans who have aligned themselves with Trump.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said Biden’s visit demonstrated an “America last” policy.
“This is incredibly insulting. Today on our President’s Day, Joe Biden, the President of the United States chose Ukraine over America, while forcing the American people to pay for Ukraine’s government and war,” Greene said in a tweet.
Greene was one of 11 House Republicans who co-sponsored a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution earlier this month. The resolution called for suspending military and financial aid to Ukraine.
Other House Republicans have urged Biden to increase support for Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, pledged GOP support for Ukraine and NATO and argued for boosting military spending. He also insisted Republicans are committed to global leadership.
“Don’t look at Twitter. Look at the people in power, like me and Speaker Kevin McCarthy,” he said.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement he was “very pleased” Biden visited Ukraine.
“This was the right signal to send at the right time,” Graham said.
The debate over Republicans’ approach to the war in Ukraine is being shaped in part by polling that shows GOP voters are less likely than Democratic voters to support the United States playing a major role.
About a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, recent polling suggests there’s been a slight decline in support for US intervention in the war and a growing sense that the United States is doing too much, particularly among Republicans.
A Quinnipiac University poll this month found that 40% of Americans feel the United States is doing the right amount to help Ukraine, with 30% saying the United States is doing too much and 22% too little.
Republicans are most likely to say that the US is doing too much (47%, compared with 35% among independents and 9% among Democrats), while a majority of Democrats say the effort is about right (56% among Democrats compared with 39% among independents and 30% among Republicans).
An AP-NORC survey conducted in late January found that most Americans feel the United States should have a role in the Russia-Ukraine war at 75%, including 26% who say the United States should have a major role in the conflict. Democrats, at 40%, were more apt than Republicans, at 17%, to say the United States should be playing a major role.
A Fox News poll in late January found that about half of registered voters in the United States think that Ukraine is winning the war against Russia (51% said so, while 34% think Russia is winning and 9% say neither are), and that most want to continue supplying weapons (64%) or money (63%) to Ukraine.
Other Republicans who are considering 2024 runs, including members of Trump’s former administration, have similarly argued that the United States should take a more active role in opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Fox News last month that the United States “should be doing everything the Ukrainians are asking us to do.”
He noted that Ukrainian leaders have not asked for direct US military support. “They’ve simply said, provide us the stuff we need. And it is their lives that are at risk,” Pompeo said.
“Helping America means a sovereign nation that is prepared to defend itself from an invasion and an attack where civilians are being killed by Vladimir Putin is in America’s best interest for our economy, for our security,” he said.
Pence has also sought to steer the Republican Party toward a more aggressive posture against Russia, denouncing “Putin apologists.”
He warned conservatives in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in October against being “led astray by the siren song of unprincipled populism that’s unmoored from our oldest traditions and most cherished values.”
“As Russia continues its unconscionable war of aggression to Ukraine, I believe that conservatives must make it clear that Putin must stop and Putin will pay,” he added. “There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin. There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.