To tell the Truth: The Republican party’s Ukraine divide

Mitch McConnell uttered comforting words in Munich, but European policymakers would serve the cause of European defence better by planning for a Trump or DeSantis presidency

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | J. Scott Applewhite

Despite the tragedies of the war in Ukraine, this year’s Munich Security Conference gave supporters of the transatlantic alliance plenty to feel good about. The West has surprised even itself by showing fierce unity and strong support for Ukraine. The “Westlessness” the conference made its theme in 2020 was all but forgotten as Europeans joined the largest ever US Congressional delegation to celebrate their newfound sense of shared purpose.

This was particularly echoed in the speech of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. McConnell is not the most prominent foreign policy voice in the Republican party but he attended the Munich Security Conference this year and began his speech by channeling Mark Twain: “reports of the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated.” He assured his listeners that the GOP leaders in Congress overwhelmingly back a strong, involved America and a robust transatlantic alliance. Far from seeking to reduce the US commitment to Ukraine, he obliquely criticised the Biden administration for not going far and fast enough, insisting that it was his party that added $45 billion to the president’s “insufficient budget request.” To those worried about the Republican voices arguing for greater restraint abroad, he suggested: “Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power.” It was just what the Europeans wanted to hear.

Luckily for McConnell, conference attendees do not have time to watch Fox News or scroll on former president Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform. If they had, they might have noticed the two frontrunners for the next Republican presidential nomination were saying the exact opposite.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis (who has not formally announced his candidacy yet but is almost certain to run), told Fox News that Russia is a third-rate military power whose threat to NATO has been greatly exaggerated. He also critiqued US support for Ukraine as a blank cheque policy. Meanwhile, Trump posted a message to Truth Social that conveyed roughly the same message, albeit with his own unique verbal stylings. In a repeat of his words at a rally in South Carolina a month ago, he insisted that President Joe Biden is leading the US into world war three and declared that, once back in the White House, he would end the war within 24 hours. This, to put it mildly, would be a less substantial US commitment to protecting Ukraine than McConnell’s “multi-year contracting authority to strengthen our defence industrial base.”

These competing messages reveal much about the state of foreign policy thinking in the Republican party. A wide divide cleaves GOP elites from the party base. The bulk of the party elite in Congress remains committed to helping Ukraine, because, as McConnell put it, “it feels America’s own core national interests are at stake and because our security and economies are so intertwined.” By contrast, the Republican base – the disenchanted millions who will choose the winner of the Republican presidential primary – are more concerned with issues at home. They are open to arguments that it is not America’s job to defend wealthy European nations from Vladimir Putin and that precious US tax dollars would be better spent on building a wall to stanch the “spiralling tsunami” of immigrants at the United States’ southern border.

For all of Trump’s narcissistic braggadocio and DeSantis’s lack of foreign policy experience, data suggest they are more in touch with Republican voters than McConnell is

For all of Trump’s narcissistic braggadocio and DeSantis’s lack of foreign policy experience, data suggest they are more in touch with Republican voters than McConnell is. Pew Research Centre findings show that the share of Republicans who think that Russia’s war on Ukraine is a major threat to the US dropped from 51 per cent in March 2022 to 29 per cent in January this year. Similarly, the share of Republicans who say that the US is doing too much on Ukraine increased from 9 per cent to 40 per cent. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey from last November suggested that 63 per cent of Republicans believe the US should urge Ukraine to settle the war as soon as possible and thereby ease the costs for American households – even if it means Ukraine losing part of its territory. It is therefore unsurprising the Republican presidential frontrunners’ positions are so diametrically opposed to McConnell’s: they need, after all, to win the primaries, where they will likely seek to outbid each other in their efforts to put America first and show that they are focused on problems that are closer to home such as immigration.

This Republican split contains both good and bad news for European transatlanticists. The good news is that Congress will not stand in the way of continued US support to Ukraine in the next two years. The bad news is that any candidate likely to win the Republican primary probably will. The traditional strategy in presidential elections is to swing to the fringe in the primaries and move towards the centre during the main campaign. But the Republican nominee for 2024 is likely to try to replicate Trump’s strategy from 2016 – mobilise turnout in key states of disenchanted voters who care more about domestic issues than Ukraine, and accuse Biden of sending billions of dollars to wars that have nothing to do with America.

Europeans therefore need to steel themselves and look beyond the McConnell position to the views of those who could actually win the presidency next year. A change in leadership in Washington would almost certainly dramatically affect the US commitment to Ukraine and European defence more broadly. European leaders might even start taking steps now to prepare for the possibility.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.