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Former President Donald Trump has signaled to Republicans that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “genius” for invading Ukraine.
Now we shall see what happens.
Will the party’s lawmakers back President Joe Biden as he stands up to Putin? Or, as the majority did with a collective amnesia on the January 6 insurrection, will they retreat on promised sanctions and support for Ukraine?
The GOP, already changed by Trump, may be molting again.
The old party. Republicans used to stand up to Russia. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan demanded that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall” in Berlin.
They used to oppose unwarranted invasions. In 1990, George H.W. Bush said to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that his aggression against Kuwait “will not stand.”
They used to recognize that even modern Russia is a threat to the US. Mitt Romney — who became the Republican presidential nominee in the 2012 race against President Barack Obama — said that year that Russia was the United States’ main geopolitical foe.
A new tone. The party today is under the influence of Trump, who heaped admiration on Putin for invading another country with a democratically elected leader.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump said on Tuesday in an interview on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” a conservative radio show.
He then suggested it would be nice to have a “peace force” like the Russian military to be stationed on the US border with Mexico — a supremely flawed comparison since Trump wants to secure the border, whereas Putin appears to be set on claiming new territory. Putin has misleadingly referred to Russian forces he ordered to enter eastern Ukraine as “peacekeepers.”
Holdouts. It was Republicans like Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the few seeking accountability for the Capitol Hill insurrection, who openly criticized Trump’s praise of Putin.
Others’ praise for Putin. Before the Ukraine invasion, there were already echoes of Trump’s high regard for Putin among Republicans.
Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called Putin “a very talented statesman” who has “lots of gifts” in a Fox interview. The Kansas City Star wrote in detail about Pompeo’s comments regarding Putin and Ukraine over the years.
Disinterest in other democracies. After the invasion of Ukraine began, there was a lot of disinterest from conservative voices.
“As an American, what’s in this for me and my neighbors and the rest of us? And all I’m getting is that we can feel morally satisfied because we hate Putin,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox on Tuesday.
J.D. Vance, an author and Trump acolyte running for Senate in Ohio, has pushed an almost isolationist view of foreign policy, arguing the US has no real interest in Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and should instead be focused solely on the Southern border.
“‘America First’ means not listening to the same people who have blundered us into disaster after disaster on the world stage,” Vance said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Coincidental alignment. Even Republicans who talk about the need to support Ukraine have suggested the US might reject out of hand, as Putin desires, admitting Ukraine into NATO.
Sen. Josh Hawley, the fist-pumping Missourian who helped question the US presidential election results, recently wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken questioning the wisdom of even entertaining the idea of adding Ukraine to NATO.
It just so happens that Putin’s main goal of halting the expansion of NATO is exactly in line with Hawley’s letter.
An authoritarian and a wannabe authoritarian. Trump’s reverence of Putin is well documented, as are Putin’s efforts to meddle in recent US presidential elections with an eye toward helping Trump’s chances.
Putin has won elections with unbelievable support. Trump is still won’t believe he lost the 2020 election. Both men may be running again in 2024.
In fact, their interests have often dovetailed.
Putin wants to beat NATO back to its Cold War membership and undermine European unity.
Trump groused about NATO throughout his presidency, and frequently misrepresented NATO’s requirement that member nations spend 2% of their GDP on defense. He moved to pull US troops from Germany, which drew warnings from people like Romney, although NATO officials tried to put a positive spin on the move.
At news of the drawdown of US troops in Europe, CNN’s Nic Robertson wrote in August 2020 that it could be Trump’s “last gift to Putin before the election.”
Trump did place sanctions on Russia while he was President, but only after Congress essentially made him do it.
Republicans tough on Russia. That’s not to say Trump’s Putin envy is universal in the GOP. It is not.
A bipartisan sanctions bill failed to pass before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, but Republicans have been working with Democrats on the issue.
They even released their own GOP-only proposal for tough sanctions when the bipartisan talks hit snags last week.
After Biden enacted sanctions, some Republicans were complimentary.
“It is good to see President Biden do the right thing,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN in a statement on Wednesday, referring to Biden’s efforts to sanction the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Risch would have preferred Biden to be more forceful on the pipeline earlier. “The next step is to work with Germany to ensure this geopolitical threat remains dead, never to be resurrected,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also offered rare praise for Biden for the sanctions, but he has also recently accused Biden of weakness.
The McConnell example. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while accusing Biden of foreign policy weakness, has also promised to stand up to Russia alongside the Democrats.
McConnell argues Putin built up troops on the Ukraine border only after Biden withdrew the US from Afghanistan. Never mind that Biden was largely following the example of Trump on that particular issue.
Many Americans don’t care about Russia and Ukraine. Disinterest in maintaining international democracies is common in the US.
A new AP-NORC poll, released Wednesday and conducted as the Ukraine standoff grew more tense, suggests about half of Americans think the US should play only a minor role in the situation. Almost a third of independents and about a fifth of Republicans think the US should play no role at all.
Nationalist Russia. One explanation for why Republicans are less concerned with Russia, in addition to signaling from Trump, may be ideological. In the AP-NORC poll, Republicans are far more concerned than other subgroups about a direct threat from China, which is still a Communist country, than from Russia, which is not.
Republican attacks on Democrats for veering toward socialism have now lasted much longer than the Soviet Union. Russia, under Putin, is a nationalist regime. And in that could lie much of what Trump, who pushed American nationalism as US President, covets.