It didn’t escape the notice of conservatives that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was sporting the colors of his favorite team on the evening of the State of the Union address. Like millions of the virtue signalers on Facebook who replaced the Black Lives Matter or Covid vaccination logos on their profile pictures, McConnell’s blue and yellow tie was a visual manifestation of his belief that support for Ukraine is the “the most important thing going on in the world.”
As President Joe Biden’s astonishing success in getting the Senate Republicans to rubber-stamp his decision to spend more than $100 billion on aid to Ukraine last year demonstrated, the Beltway GOP establishment is just as invested in the war in Ukraine as the Democrats.
Some of it is the product of the vestigial remnants of Reaganite policy toward the Soviet Union, which rightly believed that a willingness to engage and defeat Moscow wherever it sought to expand its reach was necessary. Yet despite the fact that Vladimir Putin dreams of reassembling Stalin’s empire, his Russia doesn’t pose the same threat to the West that the Soviet Union did.
That has been demonstrated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s been, to put it mildly, a fiasco that exposed systemic incompetence. Outside the possibility of Biden blundering into a nuclear Third World War scenario, the Russians no longer present a potent threat to an expanding NATO.
Yet Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are still sounding the same sort of critique of Biden’s war policy that Republicans also used against weak-kneed Democrats who were soft on the communist threat in the last century. But according to Cotton’s pro-war manifesto published earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal, in which he correctly states that Biden’s indecisiveness and weakness encouraged Putin to do something he didn’t dare try while Trump was president. He also argued Biden isn’t doing enough to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ambitions in the region.
But a consensus about preserving Ukrainian independence against Putin’s efforts to force it back into Soviet-era satellite status isn’t good enough for GOP hawks. They want a full American commitment to Zelensky’s quest to oust the Russians from every inch of soil that was under Ukrainian sovereignty in 2014. If that means giving Ukraine U.S. fighter jets, cluster bombs, and long-range missiles to hit targets deep inside Russia, then Cotton’s all for it. He believes anything short of a complete Ukrainian victory — however improbable that might be — would be a disaster and wants an American commitment to “war to the hilt” against Russia.
That may resonate with Republicans who came of age after the Vietnam War when Americans critiqued leaders who didn’t fight to win the wars they blundered into. He believes America should have a “strategy of victory” that will put an end to Russia’s ability to threaten Europe and deter China from invading Taiwan.
Unlike the declining regime in Moscow, Beijing does pose a global threat to U.S. interests. But Cotton gives no explanation for how disarming the American military in order to feed Zelensky’s war machine with no coherent plans for an arms buildup that would put us in a position to help anyone will achieve such deterrence.
More importantly, Republicans don’t seem to have given any serious consideration to the consequences of their plans.
No serious person thinks Ukraine can achieve a total victory over Russia in a war that, following Moscow’s setbacks last year, has settled into a World War One-style trench warfare stalemate.
But what would happen if a massive infusion of American high-tech weaponry as well as cash along the lines of Cotton’s dreams of escalation did lead to a Ukraine victory and, ultimately, Putin’s fall? Do the GOP hawks really think Putin’s regime would be replaced by a Western European-style liberal democracy that poses no threat to its neighbors? Perhaps those who have swallowed the myth that Zelensky is a paladin of American values rather than a typical leader of a corrupt, oppressive former Soviet republic actually believe that’s a possibility.
But the most likely outcome would be a bitter revanchist regime that would probably be even more dangerous than that of Putin. This might also entail the breakup of the Russian Federation and the emergence of unstable, dangerous states in places like Chechnya that could go to war with each other for control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The Bush-era Republicans who still dominate the Senate GOP caucus have learned nothing from what happened in Iraq, where similarly well-intentioned schemes not only failed to defend American interests but made the world a more dangerous place.
The Ukrainians deserve credit for fighting bravely for their country, but the continuation of the current stalemate as the death tolls rise benefits only the political interests of Zelensky, Putin, and those who profit from the war. Bleeding Russia white simply to revive Cold War-era proxy wars with Moscow is not only deeply cynical. The notion that the restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine as it was in 2014 has anything to do with the national interests of the United States, let alone its top security issue, would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that so many Republicans actually believe it.
Ukraine is already strong enough to help contain a post-war Russia with or without Putin. And thanks to Trump’s efforts and the way Putin’s aggression has awakened America’s allies to their responsibilities, the idea that Moscow could successfully attack any of its NATO neighbors is no longer a serious proposition.
If instead of heeding the war hawks, Biden begins pushing for a compromise peace deal, Ukraine could be spared more years of a devastating war with countless casualties and damage to an already broken country. The same terms that the Ukrainians will eventually have to accept to end the war years from now are currently available if the West is willing to prioritize diplomacy over escalation. That will mean fewer dead and a lower price for the rebuilding of Ukraine that the United States will be expected to pay.
Republican voters may still revere Reagan’s memory, but most are aware that different challenges — such as China and a southern border that Biden won’t defend even as he pours U.S. resources into Ukraine — face the nation he once led. It’s time congressional Republicans listened more to their voters and less to pundits who labor under the delusion that Zelensky is the 21st-century Churchill. If they did, they’d be working to put a stop to a costly, unwinnable, and endless war in Ukraine rather than trying to make it even bloodier.