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GOP rises to meet Ukraine challenge to define itself

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Several weeks ago, I predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a defining moment for the Republican Party.

While those following politics online might have picked up a few mixed signals in the hours following the invasion, the Republican Party has overwhelmingly risen to the occasion, siding powerfully with Ukraine and its leader President Volodymyr Zelensky.

It is no surprise Congressional Republicans have taken to critiquing the Biden administration’s actions leading up to and following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The GOP is the opposition party, and criticism of the administration is no different than the role Democrats played during the first and second Gulf Wars. 

More insightful is the nature of the criticism.

A Putin-friendly party would criticize President Biden and the NATO response of providing weapons to the Ukrainian military coupled with poking holes in the sanctions measures that have tanked the rouble and the Russian economy with it. In the face of Putin’s targeting of civilians and other war crimes, a party sympathetic to Russia would put forward claims of violations by “both sides” along with dire warnings of the need to avoid being drawn into the conflict and calls for neutrality.

This is the Republican response Putin would have hoped for — complicating the Western response and creating delay and paralysis.

But that’s not what is happening.   

Republican leaders in Congress have weighed in firmly on the side of Ukraine while offering scathing and relentless criticism of Putin.

More importantly, and more telling, the GOP’s leading voices are criticizing Biden and the administration for not offering more support for Ukraine, and not doing so sooner. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has criticized the administration for not closing down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline sooner. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine — a key request directly from Zelensky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called on the Biden administration to “step up its game” in getting support to the Ukraine military.

When some House backbenchers went sideways with comments that were seen as sympathetic to Putin, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R- Calif.) responded swiftly and unambiguously. After Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) called Ukraine’s Zelensky a “thug,” McCarthy responded by calling out Cawthorn publicly and by name, correcting him that it is Russia’s Putin who is the thug. McCarthy’s response in public — and calling out Cawthorn by name — is significant. McCarthy could have offered a weaker response, deflecting in public and only criticizing in private. He chose the stronger option.

For better or worse, the Republican Party is not every voice on the right, such as those on Fox News or on favorite conservative websites or podcasts. The party speaks though its leaders, and the leadership of the Republican Party has risen to the moment and offered Reaganite-level support for Ukraine, its president and its people. Perhaps sensing they are on the wrong side of history, most of the random alt-right voices who made excuses for Putin have been moved to the margins. A few have followings on social media or elsewhere, but they do not represent the solidified GOP majority. 

A wise Biden administration would seize on GOP criticism. Combined with strong public support of Ukraine, GOP demands for additional support can be used by the Biden team to keep appeasers and pacifists in his own party at bay. Failing to fully support Ukraine’s efforts to protect itself would open more opportunities for Republicans who are already on track for a very strong showing in the upcoming midterm elections. There’s no constituency for cutting Ukraine loose, either directly or through anything less than a forceful and sustained response.

The unified Republican response to the war in Ukraine represents a failure of years of Russian active measures and disinformation designed to warp the Republican Party into an ultra-nationalist and isolationist version of itself, as documented by numerous federal agencies, Congressional investigations, advocacy organizations and private cybersecurity experts. Concurrent Russian efforts to prop up populist left-wing and right-wing isolationist parties in Europe have also failed to cause confusion and delay in a unified NATO and EU response to Russia’s aggression.

Putin counted on a quick operation to decapitate the Ukraine government and replace it with a pro-Moscow supplicant. Russia’s poorly led, poorly supplied military cannot sustain a prolonged conflict when met by fierce resistance. Russia needed the West’s response to be confused, delayed and hobbled by internal political conflict. All of this has failed, and in the process, gives Ukraine a fighting chance to retain its freedom and prevail in today’s conflict.

Ron Nehring served as Chairman of the California Republican Party and was the presidential campaign spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2016.

Tags Congress Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Republican Party Rick Scott Ron Nehring Russia Ted Cruz Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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