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Who’s Soft on Russia? Meet the Republican Anti-Ukraine Caucus!

The Republicans who love Russia and hate America.
April 5, 2022
Who’s Soft on Russia? Meet the Republican Anti-Ukraine Caucus!
Russian nesting dolls with images of Donald Trump and the president of Russia Vladimir Putin. (Shutterstock)

After years of defending a pro-Putin American president and dismissing Russia’s interference in American elections, Republicans have returned to their old shtick: accusing Democrats of being soft on Russia. Their hypocrisy is galling, but the bigger problem is that their depiction of the two parties is backward. In polls, Republicans are more dovish on Russia and Ukraine than Democrats are. And in Congress, the purveyors of isolationism, appeasement, and Russian propaganda are on the right, not the left.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the House of Representatives has voted on three measures specific to the war. The first vote, taken on March 2, was on a resolution that endorsed sanctions against Russia, reaffirmed Ukrainian sovereignty over territory seized by Russia, advocated military aid to Ukraine, and pledged to support the Ukrainian resistance. All six members of the progressive “Squad”—Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—voted for the resolution. So did Rep. Barbara Lee, the Democrats’ foremost opponent of military spending. Not one Democrat voted against the resolution. But three Republicans did: Reps. Paul Gosar, Thomas Massie, and Matt Rosendale.

On March 9, the House passed a bill to suspend oil and gas imports from Russia. Five of the seven Democratic leftists voted for the suspension. The two who voted against it—Bush and Omar—were joined by 15 Republicans who also voted no. In addition to Gosar and Massie, this time the list included Reps. Andy Biggs, Dan Bishop, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn, Scott DesJarlais, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Glenn Grothman, Clay Higgins, Bill Posey, Chip Roy, and Tom Tiffany.

On March 17, the House passed a bill to end favorable trade relations with Russia and its accomplice in the war, Belarus. Eight Republicans voted against the bill. Every Democrat, including the seven leftists, voted for it.

Several Republicans have gone further. Cawthorn and Gosar are pushing legislation that would prohibit the U.S. military from deploying “by reason of the situation in Ukraine” any more troops than are stationed at the Mexican border. No sensible military planner would want more troops guarding a friendly border than deterring an imminent threat to our most important alliance, but that’s what this bill would do: It would block deployments to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. It’s a gift to Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, 10 Republicans have signed on to a bill that would bar any delivery of military aid to Ukraine until “a border wall system along the United States-Mexico border is completed.” The cosponsors include Reps. Bob Good, Jody Hice, Mary Miller, Ralph Norman, and Randy Weber. (Don’t bother trying to square this demand with Trump’s insistence that he has basically built the wall, except for a couple of tiny spots.)

Altogether, that’s 21 Republicans who have opposed, or at least sought to constrain, aid to Ukraine or sanctions on Russia. That’s a group three times the size of “the Squad,” which Republicans claim is in control of every aspect of Democratic policy. Imagine how much power those 21 Republicans would wield in a GOP-controlled House.

The other side of the equation is the near-unanimity of support among Democrats, even from very progressive members, for standing up to Russia. Leftist Democrats generally oppose armed intervention, yet nearly all of them voted for sanctions against Russia and military aid for Ukraine. Why is that?

It’s because they recognize the war as a showdown between right and wrong. “We have to hold Putin accountable,” Pressley told her constituents at a town hall last week. Ocasio-Cortez, at her own town hall, applauded President Biden for refusing to be “walked over” by Putin. And in a progressive teleconference on the Ukraine crisis, Lee endorsed “security and military assistance” to the Ukrainians because “we’ve got to help them defend themselves.”

Many of the 21 House Republicans, however, don’t see it that way. They’ve swallowed a cocktail of isolationism, defeatism, partisan paranoia, and Russian disinformation. Here are the main pillars of their reasoning:

America has no responsibilities in the world.The United States has no legal or moral obligation to come to Ukraine’s aid,” says Rosendale. Biggs and Gosar also oppose America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which obliges each member state to defend the others. Gaetz and Massie oppose financial support, not just military assistance, to Ukraine and other eastern European countries. Gaetz calls these countries “welfare cases.” Massie says we should scrap NATO because “Americans are done subsidizing socialism.”

America should worry about its own borders, not Ukraine’s. This is the most popular theme among the 21 Republican resisters. In mid-February, when Biden sent troops to Europe to protect NATO allies from a possible Russian attack, Miller scoffed: “Biden wants U.S. troops to defend Ukraine’s border instead of our own.” A week later, on the eve of the invasion, Bishop said the U.S. should focus on the Mexican border instead of getting “distracted” and “absorbed in the predicament of Ukraine.”

Russia is powerful, so America should retreat. The resisters fret that Putin would punish the West’s sanctions with “drastic measures,” that America should accept Russia’s domination of its neighbors, that we shouldn’t send “money and weaponry to Ukraine to fight a war they cannot possibly win,” and that instead we should “take NATO membership for Ukraine off the table” to appease the Kremlin.

The invasion was provoked. Some of the resisters blame Ukraine for the war. “Ukraine just kept poking the bear and poking the bear . . . and Russia invaded,” says Greene. Others blame NATO. “We’re jabbing and have been jabbing Russia in the eye by expanding NATO,” says Massie. “They feel threatened.”

Sanctions on Russia are a Democratic plot to hurt Americans. Many Republican lawmakers agree with Donald Trump that domestic liberals, not foreign tyrants, are America’s real enemies. Roy says he voted against banning Russian oil and gas because the ban was “designed purposefully to depress American oil and gas production” and “advance their [Democrats’] radical climate agenda.” He says Ukraine is just a cover story: “They WANT your gas to cost more. This is why Democrats jumped on the opportunity to ban Russian oil.”

Sanctions on Russia are part of the gay agenda. Grothman said he voted against sanctions on March 17 because the bill would “leave open the possibility of the U.S. government weaponizing our vast financial wealth to threaten foreign officials that hold traditional views on life or marriage.” He specifically cited concerns about gay and transgender rights. Gosar retweeted a similar argument: “Do you really want gay pride parades in Kieve [sic] so badly that you’ll get into a nuclear confrontation with Russia?”

Ukraine is a tool of the Biden family and the Democratic party. Trump’s propaganda about the Russia investigation and the Ukraine impeachment has saturated his party. Cawthorn calls Ukraine “incredibly evil”; Gaetz calls it “the third-most corrupt country in the world”; Greene says it was “the Number 1 donor to Hillary Clinton.” (It wasn’t.)

These views aren’t confined to the fringe. Other Republicans have also insinuated that Biden is defending Ukraine for corrupt reasons. Weber calls Putin’s invasion “an attack on Hunter Biden’s income.” Miller complains: “After Hunter Biden made millions in Ukraine and held ‘10% for the Big Guy,’ Joe Biden is now making the United States responsible for Ukraine’s border.” (Even if you buy the “10% for the Big Guy” story, it was supposedly a deal Hunter Biden was trying to make in China, not Ukraine.)

Everything Russia said about Ukraine is true. Some of the resisters claim that Ukraine is dangerous because of its “biological labs,” that its government exists only “because the Obama State Department helped to overthrow the previous regime,” or that U.S. military aid might fall “into the hands of Nazis in Ukraine.” These smears are identical to Kremlin propaganda.

Russia is no worse than Canada or the United States. Boebert says the fuss over Ukraine is overshadowing a bigger story: COVID tyranny in Canada and America. “We also have neighbors to the north who need freedom and need to be liberated, and we need that right here at home, as well,” she argues.

Massie agrees: “People are complaining about communists who may invade Ukraine. But what the hell have they been doing to our country? When you can tell people they can’t go to church, they can’t go to work, their kids have to wear these muzzles . . .”

This is the reality of the partisan divide in Congress today. The Democratic left supports sanctions and military aid, while a significant bloc of Republicans is trying to obstruct American intervention. Some of these Republicans see themselves as an antiwar caucus. They denounce “war hawks on both sides of the aisle,” and they protest that “the left is so addicted to war.” But what they’re preaching isn’t pacifism. It’s nihilism, cynicism, cowardice, partisan derangement, and a loathing of contemporary America.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.