Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 April 2024

America’s moment of truth on Ukraine

Edward Luce · 11 Apr 2024

The last time David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, urged Capitol Hill to pass Ukraine aid, he was told to “kiss my ass” by Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most vocal pro-Russia Republicans. Washington largely treated the Georgia legislator as a joke when she was first elected. Now Greene is threatening the speakership of her party leader, Mike Johnson, if he tries to pass Ukraine funding. Her threat is not empty. Johnson is as keen on remaining speaker as he is lukewarm on Ukraine. His path of least resistance would be to fold.

That is also the advice that Republican leaders are offering Ukraine in spite of increasingly urgent opposing pleas from allies. Tellingly, Johnson refused to meet Cameron on his latest trip to Washington this week. Donald Trump says that Ukraine should cede the Donbas and Crimea to Russia in exchange for a ceasefire — an outcome he would impose on day one of his presidency. Some Republicans still want to supply Ukraine with weapons. But they are in a minority. The Republican right treats Ukraine as an enemy and Russia as a friend. Defining that stance as isolationist is lazy and wrong. It is actively pro-Russian.

“The Ukrainian government is attacking Christians,” says Greene. “The Ukrainian government is executing priests. Russia is not doing that. They are not attacking Christianity. As a matter of fact they seem to be protecting it.” Michael Whatley, Trump’s handpicked co-chair of the Republican National Committee, openly calls Ukraine an enemy. “Joe Biden’s feckless leadership has shown China, has shown Ukraine, has shown Iran, that they can feel free to be much more aggressive on the world front to the point where even they will try and meddle with our elections here,” he told Fox.

The Republican right’s pro-Russia interventionism is two-way. As Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, reported this week, Russian troll factories are giving Greene’s Republicans their talking points. Ken Buck, one of many Republican legislators to have recently quit politics in despair, calls Greene “Moscow Marjorie”. Her fictional claim that Ukraine is executing priests and fighting to spread a “woke” agenda comes straight from the Kremlin. Historians compare Trump to Charles Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi “America First” movement in the early 1940s. The difference is that Lindbergh got nowhere near the White House. Far from isolating America, a Trump presidency would switch US foreign policy in Vladimir Putin’s favour.

All of which leaves Johnson, the accidental speaker, in a no-win situation. The difference between backing Ukraine or Russia is as critical to US democracy’s future as it is for European security. It is a battle over whether the west as an idea should be defended or blown up. Like most Republicans, Johnson was initially an admirer of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Churchillian defiance. Johnson voted for the first rounds of US funding in 2022. At that time, the Republican critique was that Biden was not doing enough for Zelenskyy. Johnson changed his mind on the last clean vote in September. Suddenly every dollar for Ukraine was a dollar less for US border security.

Johnson’s dramatic switch has little to do with his stated reasons. The US can easily afford to keep funding Ukraine. At $113bn over the past two years, America’s largesse amounts to less than 1 per cent of federal spending over that time. Even that overstates it. Most of the money is spent at home on US-made military equipment, much of which is ageing and needed to be replaced.

Nor is America subsidising Nato. Europe has spent more on Ukraine than the US. Washington can easily pay for more Mexican border security and arm Ukraine. Indeed, the US Senate passed just such a bill earlier this year. It had the support of 22 Republicans, almost half of the party’s caucus. It came to a halt in the House.

In the coming days, Johnson will submit what will surely be Congress’s final chance this year to bolster a faltering Ukraine. In addition to tougher border security measures that some Democrats will see as a poison pill, his package will divert interest from Russia’s seques- tered assets and define part of the Ukraine aid as a loan. Neither gimmick is likely to sway Greene. Her aim is to stop any help from reaching Ukraine, not to help it in a fiscally responsible way. Johnson’s hope is to supply Ukraine without being branded a Maga traitor. In reality, he faces a simple choice; help Zelenskyy or please Trump. It is impos- sible to do both.

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