How the impasse over Ukraine aid could have critical global ramifications

AVDIIVKA, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 7: Panorama of the city from a bird's-eye view, shot on a drone, covered with snow on December 7, 2023 in Avdiivka, Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Russia have recently claimed gains in the Avdiivka, where Russia is continuing a long-running campaign to capture the city, located in the Ukraine's eastern Donetsk Region. (Photo by Kostya Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

Panorama of Avdiivka, Ukraine, from a bird’s-eye view, shot on a drone, covered with snow on December 7, 2023.Kostya Liberov/Libkos/Getty ImagesCNN — 

America’s paralyzing political estrangement may soon change the world for the worse.

Nearly two years into the war in Ukraine, a US lifeline of arms and ammunition is for the first time in real danger of collapsing, 12 months after President Volodymyr Zelensky was hailed as a hero during a Christmas visit to Washington. The assumption lying behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bid to wipe Ukraine off the map – that the US will lose interest in the war – is therefore close to being validated. This could set off serious consequences that would shake the foundation of US global leadership, alienate allies and embolden America’s sworn enemies.

In the GOP-controlled House, hardline Republicans dedicated to ex-President Donald Trump’s “America First” philosophy want to cut Ukraine loose and leave it to its fate. A wider group of Republicans in both chambers of Congress, meanwhile, are using President Joe Biden’s new $60 billion aid request to try to force huge concessions on immigration policy.

This is the latest occasion when conservative lawmakers, who lack mandates to enact their goals, are holding America’s national security priorities and global reputation hostage to their domestic political aims. The House recently passed an emergency aid package to bolster Israel’s war against Hamas – but included cuts to Internal Revenue Service funding that made it impossible for Senate Democrats and the White House to accept. That followed the refusal of scores of Republicans to vote to raise the government’s borrowing authority in May. Their stance forced then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to use Democrats to pass a measure averting a global financial meltdown, fatally weakening his hold on the job.

The rationale behind such political gambits? That the White House will eventually fold and capitulate to GOP demands because the consequences of doing nothing are so horrendous. But given the ever-narrowing Republican House majority, the inability of new Speaker Mike Johnson to govern and the nihilism of the pro-Trump wing of the conference, there’s no guarantee Ukraine aid would pass even then.

A widening geopolitical earthquake

The Ukrainian aid clash is so critical because American armaments have been essential to Kyiv’s success in repelling Putin’s brutal invasion. The country’s survival may depend on the flow of material continuing amid a bloody stalemate.

But the situation has ramifications that go beyond a single nation’s existence.

If the United States allows a country to be crushed in an illegal invasion, it will raise grave questions about the credibility of defense and strategic agreements that underpin the entire Western world. Such an outcome would increase the possibility that Putin would not stop at Ukraine and could eye other states once in the orbit of the former Soviet Union like Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. Since this trio is in NATO, a Russian incursion would pitch the US into a direct war with nuclear-armed Russia and risk World War III.

Furthermore, the abandonment of Ukraine would send a message to authoritarians like Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping that smaller adversaries can be crushed with impunity and that there are rewards for geopolitical gangsterism. It would confirm the belief of American adversaries, including Russia and China, that poisoned domestic politics will make it impossible for the US to wield superpower might and shield global democracy.

But supporters of extending billions more dollars in aid to Ukraine also have an obligation to explain – in a more effective way than the administration has managed so far – why it is in the interests of every American to continue. This is especially the case as many voters struggle with high grocery prices and interest rates, feel their own country is heading in the wrong direction, and wonder why a war on the edge of Europe is their business.

This is where the Republican position in the showdown has political potency. Even more moderate GOP figures are arguing that the Biden administration’s failure to control a surge of migrant crossings at the southern border means they have no choice but to use the Ukraine funding fight as leverage for tougher immigration policy. The argument is why, if Biden can’t control US borders, is he trying to save Ukraine’s?

“I am very much in favor of getting support for Ukraine and support for Israel, but I also recognize the real politics of the United States House of Representatives will not give funding for Ukraine and Israel unless the border is secured,” GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said Wednesday. “That’s the reality.”

A schism over US foreign policy

The dispute over funding for Ukraine is a symptom of a deep philosophical clash over America’s role in the world that is already at the center of the possible 2024 rematch between Biden and Trump.

The current commander in chief is squarely in the internationalist tradition of US presidents since World War II who saw the country as a bulwark for freedom, democracy and the rule of international law. Trump’s “America First” creed, however, springs from traditional US isolationism. It spurns democracy and alliances in favor of pursuing narrow national interests and transactional deal making with global tyrants and demagogues. This schism between these outlooks likely means that even if the current impasse over Ukraine funding is eventually resolved, it’s merely a taste of a long-running national feud to come.

At the most fundamental level, the end of American support for Ukraine would mean the United States would be deserting people victimized by an unprovoked invasion, who have endured two years of carnage and atrocities all because they want the right to choose their nation’s destiny and leaders.

If Washington turns its back, it would stain American leadership for decades, as Biden implicitly acknowledged in an impassioned speech at the White House on Wednesday.

“I think it’s stunning that we’ve gotten to this point in the first place,” Biden said. “Russian forces are committing war crimes. It’s as simple as that. It’s stunning. Who is prepared to walk away from holding Putin accountable for this behavior? Who among us is really prepared to do that?”

The imbroglio in Congress is already being felt on the Ukrainian frontlines. Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, who co-chairs the Congressional Ukraine Caucus and visited the country earlier this fall, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto Wednesday that soldiers have had to “start rationing their munitions as any sensible army would” because they fear that the flow of US shells and bullets is about to dry up.

One soldier, identified only as Sasha, told CNN’s Anna Coren on the frontlines, “I am afraid Ukraine will not be able to stand without our partners and allies. … It’s as simple as that.”

What happens if Putin is not stopped now?

In a broader strategic context, there are growing fears about what a loss of US aid to Ukraine would mean when its counter-offensive has stalled and when Putin is managing to reconstitute Russian forces battered by the war, partly through the help of other US adversaries like Iran and North Korea. One lesson of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which did not prompt the West to arm Ukraine, is that if Putin is not stopped he will keep going.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron made the case for continued US involvement on Thursday after meeting Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, pointing out that the cost of halting Putin’s aggression now paled in comparison to the price the US might have to pay down the road.

“If there is a victory for Putin, it won’t be the end of this. I stood in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2008, when he took the part of that country and warned this would happen,” Cameron, who previously served as prime minister, said. “And now it’s happened in Ukraine. And if we let it win in Ukraine, it will be somewhere else next, and it won’t just be American money. That’s a risk. It might be a NATO country, so it could be American lives,” Cameron said at the Aspen Security Forum conference in Washington.

The loss of Ukraine would not just reverberate in Europe. In Asia, where the United States is confronting the implications of a rising China, a conclusion that the US deserts its friends could change Beijing’s calculations as it weighs whether to use military force to capture Taiwan. And a weakening of American resolve could prompt allies in the region and in the Middle East to doubt their security guarantees and consider whether to seek their own nuclear safety net.

Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idado made this point, also at the Aspen forum on Thursday, when he said: “If indeed the United States does not stand behind Ukraine, I worry about what our enemies would think, but I worry much more about what our allies would think.” Risch, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added: “(If) they say, ‘We can’t count on the United States, we have got to have nuclear weapons,’ I really think a default in Ukraine would set off the largest nuclear race on the planet that we have ever seen.”

Opposition to continuing to arm Ukraine is often not based on such deep thinking.

Among some Republicans, it often appears to be motivated by politics. Trump appears to be still smarting over his first impeachment in the US House, which was set off by him trying to pressure Zelensky to open an investigation into Biden.

The new House speaker, however, has raised some valid questions. Johnson wants a better accounting of where billions already spent have gone. And he wants to know the administration’s plan for ending the war. Still, the situation in Ukraine doesn’t lend itself to clear answers. Putin is seeking to outwait the United States. And the only endgame for Ukraine under such a vicious assault is survival, however long that takes.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has spoken for many Ukraine skeptics in the GOP as he tries to harness isolationism in the party base. He likens US support for the country to “neoconservative” misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan as he seeks to capitalize on voter fatigue with long wars abroad. This is the case even though no American troops are fighting in Ukraine.

“We’re forking over more taxpayer money so some Ukrainian kleptocrat can buy a bigger house,” Ramaswamy said in a furious exchange on Fox News on Thursday, when he was asked why he would be comfortable “giving up” Eastern Europe to Russia.

Ramaswamy’s arguments might work on a debate stage. But they ignore critical strategic considerations.

And they also don’t answer a poignant question posed by Sasha, the Ukrainian frontline soldier. “If we let Ukraine go, if we let Putin win, who will feel themselves safe? No one.”

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