A congressional delegation of five Republicans and two Democrats met with representatives of Ukraine’s Parliament this month in Poland, where the Ukrainians thanked the delegation for American aid and asked for F-16 fighter jets to help in the war against Russia. Three members of the delegation described the meeting as cordial and informative.
One left the session in a state of indignation.
“I just got back from meeting with the Ukrainian Parliament in Poland, where they demanded F-35s and thought it was an obligation for every American to pay $10 a month to fund their war,” Representative Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative Republican freshman from Florida, wrote in a heated email to this reporter three days later. Ukrainians are not asking for the more advanced and expensive F-35s, but regardless, Ms. Luna said the United States’ role in the conflict could “potentially start WWIII.”
Ukraine ranked low on her constituents’ concerns, she added, vowing to brief her colleagues about the encounter.
Ms. Luna is among the boisterous proponents in Congress of former President Donald J. Trump’s “America first” worldview that regards financial commitments overseas with extreme skepticism. Like Mr. Trump, they maintain that every dollar spent on Ukraine — and there has been $113 billion for the war so far — is a dubious investment of taxpayer money that could have been better used on domestic priorities, like fighting the spread of fentanyl. Senior Republicans who support the war, and maintain the hawkish traditions of the establishment G.O.P., fear the movement will gain momentum as the conflict grinds on and Mr. Trump’s candidacy consumes the 2024 spotlight.
For the moment, America’s commitment to Ukraine seems resilient. President Biden announced an additional $1.2 billion in military aid last week. Ukraine funding has gone unmentioned in the $4.5 trillion in spending cuts House Republicans are demanding in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. A House resolution introduced in February by Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, aimed at halting further aid to Ukraine attracted only Ms. Luna and nine other signatories among the chamber’s 222 Republicans.
An amendment by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, to establish a special inspector general to oversee Ukraine-related expenditures drew 26 supporters among 49 Republican senators. And one week before Ms. Luna met with the Ukrainians, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who previously declared that Ukraine would not receive a “blank check” from the United States, emphatically told a Russian reporter that “we will continue to support” Ukraine in the war effort.
But there is evidence to suggest that the anti-Ukraine flank of the Republican Party is playing not to the fringe but to the heart of the party’s base. A survey last month of registered voters by Kristen Soltis Anderson’s Echelon Insights found that 52 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do not think U.S. interests are at stake in Ukraine. Similarly, a survey in March conducted by Axios/Ipsos found that 57 percent of Republicans opposed providing weapons and financial support to Ukraine.
“It’s insane that so few Republican members are willing to say what I’m willing to say,” Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio and a vocal opponent of aid to Ukraine, said in a recent interview. “Clearly something is broken down about the democratic opinion-making process.”
He added, “I’d love to hear McCarthy be more skeptical of aiding Ukraine, because I think that’s where most of his voters are.”
Mr. Vance said his opposition to aiding Ukraine came from enlisting at 18 as a Marine in the Iraq war. “I feel this deep sense of shame and regret for having gotten caught up in all of the social pressure to support the war and to think that it would have led to a good outcome,” he said.
When Mr. Trump denounced the war as a presidential candidate in 2015, Mr. Vance recalled that “I wanted to stand up and cry, because I was so happy that somebody finally said it.”
Mr. Gaetz, whose conservative district includes an Air Force base and a naval air station, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had devastated his community. “I saw the impact up close,” he said, “and I came to the view that this just isn’t worth it.”
Mr. Gaetz said that his party’s dominant foreign policy ideology for the past three decades, neoconservatism, “has done our country harm.”
Mr. Hawley echoed Mr. Gaetz and said that the legacy of neoconservatism, an interventionist foreign policy, continued to pervade Republicans’ policymaking approach. “My party took a serious wrong turn in the 1990s,” Mr. Hawley said. “And in D.C., you still see strong remnants of that thinking when it comes to Ukraine. But that’s not where the voters are.”
But some well-known Democratic antiwar voices reject the parallel between invading Afghanistan and Iraq and lending military assistance to Ukraine. Among them is Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat whom Mr. Gaetz now describes as a “folk hero” for casting the lone vote against authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ms. Lee, who received death threats after that vote, said that in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, “we see a dictatorship invading a democracy. And we need to be on the side of democracy. Whenever you see innocent people being killed by a war criminal, you want to do what you can to support them.”
Ms. Lee declined to ascribe a motive for the dovishness in the G.O.P., but other Democrats did not.
“If you look at where the political energy is within the Republican Party right now, I’d say it’s with what I call the Tucker Carlson/Viktor Orban/Donald Trump wing of the party,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the bombastic former Fox News host and the autocratic prime minister of Hungary. “And among that group, there are some very influential voices, starting with Trump, who believe that the idea of ‘America first’ translates into America retreating from the rest of the world.”
Mr. Gaetz insisted that he and the other opponents of Ukraine aid were not isolationists, citing their hard-line rhetoric against China as evidence. “I don’t want my grandchildren speaking Mandarin,” he said. At the same time, he added, “I think that it’s preposterous to lash the future of the United States of America to the future of Ukraine. Quality of life doesn’t fundamentally change for my constituents based on which guy in a track suit runs Crimea.”
Other Democrats said the anti-Ukraine sentiments of Mr. Gaetz and other Republicans on the Hill were transparently attributable to the party’s dominant voice. “I just think these guys are with Trump,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, a House manager in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, which centered on his phone call strong-arming President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine over military aid.
“I think Trump has made clear that he supports Putin and other authoritarian leaders,” Ms. Lofgren said, referring to a recent CNN town hall with Mr. Trump. “You saw how he refused to say he wants Ukraine to win the war.”
Mr. Vance insisted that the Republican opposition to aiding Ukraine was not fueled by fealty to Mr. Trump. Still, he acknowledged that his party had left itself open to some cynical interpretations, saying, “We do lack a sort of coherent strategic view of what American foreign policy should be.”
It was also true, Mr. Vance added, that “some of my more Ukraine-skeptical colleagues will say things like, ‘They impeached Trump over a phone call.’ There is a recognition, at least from my side, that domestic politics drives the way that we respond to this stuff.”
The political currents are already evident among some pro-Ukraine Republicans, if only by inference. Representative Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement to The New York Times that while members in his party “largely support” assisting Ukraine, “continued support goes hand in hand with increased oversight.” (In an interview, Representative Michael R. Turner, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, seemed to suggest that such scrutiny of the Ukrainian funding was unwarranted, saying, “I can tell you we have full accounting of all the military aid to Ukraine.”)
So far, defying the Republican base by supporting aid to Ukraine does not appear to be politically detrimental to the party’s incumbents.
“Not at this time,” said Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, a vociferous foe of assisting Ukraine and a Trump loyalist. “But I’ll be speaking at many of the Trump rallies, and you can bet that I’ll be heavily messaging against the war in Ukraine and anyone who’s funding it. And I guarantee you that’s going to be moving the needle.”