Why Republicans Are Increasingly Opposing Aid to Ukraine

Why Republicans Are Increasingly Opposing Aid to Ukraine

The illegitimate ingredients should not be allowed to overshadow sound reasons to question an open-ended supply line to Ukraine.

Waning American support for military aid to Ukraine displays a marked partisan division, among both the public and politicians in Washington. In a poll conducted for CNN and published in August, respondents were asked whether the United States “should do more to stop Russian military actions in Ukraine” or had “already done enough.” Among Democrats, 61 percent said it should do more, and 38 percent said it had done enough. A majority of Republicans—59 percent—said the United States had already done enough, and only 40 percent said it should do more.

Such views among the Republican Party faithful are being reflected in the posture of many Republican candidates on the campaign trail. In Congress, the loudest voices opposing aid to Ukraine are coming from some members of a Republican caucus that is divided on the issue.

No single explanation underlies this pattern. Multiple factors are in play, including ones that are legitimate parts of a healthy foreign policy debate and ones that are not. The following are the principal factors involved, beginning with the two that can be part of a healthy conversation about foreign policy.

Calculated response to the course of the war

Although it might be hard to point to evidence of careful analysis, especially among respondents to public opinion polls, opposition to further military aid to Ukraine can be an understandable response to how people see the war going. Many view the current Ukrainian counteroffensive as yielding meager results at a high cost. This leads to an opinion that more aid to Ukraine would be throwing good money after bad. A related view is that further aid discourages the Ukrainians from accepting the inevitable outcome of a compromise settlement and only prolongs a needless expenditure of blood and treasure.

This is not, of course, the only reasonable way to interpret the story of the war so far. Even those who see an eventual negotiated settlement as inevitable may favor additional military aid to Ukraine as necessary in persuading the Russian leadership to accept a compromise peace agreement. But opposition to more aid is a legitimate, defensible posture, and one that Republicans can hold just as much as anyone else.

In the CNN poll, self-declared independents expressed views on this issue closer to Republicans than to Democrats. This may suggest that for Republicans as a whole, partisan considerations are playing no greater role in positions about the war in Ukraine than they are for Democrats, although the result masks the sharp divisions among Republicans on the issue.

Traditional isolationism

Opposition to aiding Kyiv’s war effort may be based at least as much on general foreign policy ideology as on interpretations of the specific war being waged in Ukraine. Isolationism, with an eschewing of involvement in other nations’ conflicts, has a long pedigree in America, and has been a prominent strand of opinion in the Republican Party. Some of the most prominent isolationist figures of the twentieth century were leading congressional Republicans such as William Borah and Robert Taft. The only senators to vote against ratification of the United Nations Charter were two other isolationist Republicans, William Langer and Henrik Shipstead.

The isolationist strand is competing against another ideological strand in the Republican Party, one that is partial to using military means to assert interests abroad and that favors standing tall against aggressive tendencies of regimes in Moscow. The conflict between these two ideological traditions is reflected in the split among congressional Republicans today regarding the war in Ukraine.

Making political life difficult for a Democratic president

The partisan warfare mode of addressing issues of the Ukraine war was demonstrated in the early days after the Russian invasion when the reflexive response of some Republican politicians was to blame President Joe Biden for the war, just as they might, as a matter of habit, try to blame him for any other untoward happening in the world. Senator Ted Cruz’s comment at the time that “Joe Biden sought to appease Vladimir Putin from the very beginning” was a ludicrous as well as puzzling way to wage partisan warfare when one compares Biden’s posture toward Putin with the posture toward the Russian president of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. 

That a Democratic U.S. president has been leading not only U.S. but also international support for Ukraine stimulates the Republican instinct to oppose whatever a Democratic president proposes. That instinct, like the isolationist tradition, has been colliding with Republican inclinations to oppose Russian aggression. The resulting confusion within the Republican caucus was aptly described by Democratic senator Chris Murphy when he said of his Republican colleagues, “I think many of them really do want to help Ukraine, but they are so used to opposing a Democratic president on everything and anything that they can’t figure out how to get out of their own way.”

Sympathy for Russia as “anti-woke”

The culture war to which the Republican Party devotes much attention and effort intersects with the issue of the war in Ukraine because Putin is waging a cultural war with similar themes, which has won him admiration among much of the American Right. Putin is “anti-woke,” former Trump political advisor Steve Bannon approvingly declares. Putin has used his own culture war, with its religious and anti-LGBTQ themes, as a device not only to help build support within Russia for his war in Ukraine but also, by appealing to culture warriors in the West, to weaken Western support for the Ukrainians. 

To the extent this strategy is even partially successful, it is another reason for Republicans to balk at added military support to Ukraine. Apart from any isolationist or analytical reasons for such opposition, Russia is seen as not the bad guy, and maybe even the good guy, in the conflict.

The projection of domestic social and cultural preferences onto a foreign policy issue is not new. Something similar happened in the early years of the United States, when attitudes of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans toward Britain and France sometimes had less to do with protecting U.S. interests abroad than with how partisans saw in each of the two warring European powers social patterns that they either sought or feared in the United States itself.

The Trump-Russia connection

That the Republican Party is still largely in thrall to Trump is reflected in his huge lead in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and in how most of those ostensibly running against him say they would support his candidacy even if he were a convicted felon. It follows that Trump’s extraordinary relationship with Putin and Russia colors Republican attitudes toward the war between Russian and Ukraine, and all subsidiary issues such as military aid to Ukraine.

The most evident foundation for that relationship was Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Trump. More opaque but evidently no less real given Trump’s secretive dealings with Putin while still in office have been Trump’s business or other connections with Russia. All this augments any disinclination to aid another state in defending itself in a war against Russia.

Added to this disinclination have been related efforts to demean Ukraine and to associate it with corruption supposedly involving Biden or his family—the notion that was at the center of Trump’s caper that led to his first impeachment. Some other Republicans, in an apparent effort to deflect attention from Russia’s pro-Trump election interference, have falsely suggested that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in favor of Democrats. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, continued to push this notion even after it had been investigated and debunked.


First, Republican opposition against aid to Ukraine is over-determined. This opposition is thus likely to continue growing.

Second, among the reasons for that opposition are some that are not legitimate ingredients of a healthy foreign policy debate and are likely only to confuse and pollute that debate.

But third, the illegitimate ingredients should not be allowed to overshadow sound reasons to question an open-ended supply line to Ukraine. The future course of the war in Ukraine has yet to be determined, and the jury is still out on which approach toward the war is best for U.S. interests and for bringing a stable peace to that part of Europe. All the arguments both in favor of and opposed to added military aid to Ukraine need to be carefully considered, regardless of any other reasons some participants in the debate have for taking the stand they do.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

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