Defense

McCarthy ramps up Ukraine blame game with Biden

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) recent claims that Biden administration ineffectiveness was to blame in part for the Ukraine war ramped up the debate over the administration’s early handling of the conflict.  

McCarthy, who has frequently joined his GOP colleagues in lambasting the administration for failing to supply enough weapons to Ukraine sooner, stepped up the finger pointing Sunday when he suggested that the Kremlin would “probably” not have attacked if the U.S. provided more weapons to Kyiv prior to Feb. 24.  

But at a moment of international strife, the claim isn’t helping anyone but Republicans, experts say.  

“It’s not a serious argument,” Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele told The Hill. “It is a political affirmation of a narrative that is put into the discourse for no other purposes than fundraising or trying to make something stick to Joe Biden.” 

The argument is a particularly thorny one for McCarthy to make given his recent history on assistance for Ukraine.  

McCarthy, along with all but one of his Republican colleagues, backed former President Trump after he threatened to withhold $391 million in military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to investigate the son of President Biden in the run up to the 2020 election. The issue led to Trump’s first impeachment in December 2019. 

“It’s very clear that the American people broadly stand with Ukraine and the Republican party understands that they were on the wrong side of that issue, politically,” said Joel Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state under President Obama turned Democrat strategist. 

“They’re trying to crawl back to it because they know that having their former president call Vladimir Putin a genius doesn’t poll well. But that was the policy they endorsed. And that’s the record.” 

The White House was quick to point out the Republican party’s track record on Ukraine Monday. 

“Just for facts’ sake, we sent a record amount of security assistance to Ukraine during President Biden’s first year in office — more than any other president in history,” press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked to respond to McCarthy’s comments.

“That’s in direct contrast with our predecessor who withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine, including Javelins, which Mr. McCarthy, who was critical of us in this moment, defended at the time as, quote, ‘the rightful thing to do’ because he claimed people believed there was corruption in the Zelensky administration.” 

She continued:” So, I don’t know if that’s a question for us as much as a question for him — what has changed in that period of time?” 

Since the start of the Biden administration, the United States has provided more than $3.2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including $2.6 billion since the start of the war. Another $800 million package is expected to be announced this week.  

With the threat of the Kremlin looming last year, the U.S. military drew from its weapons stocks to supply Ukraine in the fall of 2021 and approved another $200 million in aid in December.  

That aid hasn’t quieted some critics, however, who say if the White House hadn’t been so episodic with its support in the months before the war — when Ukraine began to ask for weapons in earnest – Kyiv would be in a better position.  

In October, after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine, “there were a lot of things that were asked for, and it took the White House two to three months to say yes to anything,” said Debra Cagan, a former American diplomat and advisor to George W. Bush. 

McCarthy, who is aiming to become Speaker should the GOP take the majority in November, said these delays were deadly in a Sunday interview with Fox News. 

“Ukraine was craving the ability to defend themselves. Had we moved the weapons to Ukraine earlier, that they could defend themselves, it would have saved thousands of lives and probably the decision of Putin not to enter,” McCarthy said.

Republicans began casting blame on Biden for the war almost as soon as it began in February, claiming a series of foreign policy blunders — notably the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August – paved the way for the conflict.  

McCarthy was among many in the GOP who bashed Biden for failing to facilitate an aircraft exchange with Poland, who had offered its Soviet-era MiG fighter jets to Ukraine in exchange for U.S. jets to replace those it was losing. 

The Pentagon at the time called the plan “untenable,” as it would have required the aircraft to be transferred to a U.S. military base in Germany and then sent into Ukraine – a move that could escalate the conflict, officials argued.  

McCarthy and others’ claims that Biden is responsible for the war — though on shaky ground — are only likely to grow once the primaries wrap up in November, according to Rubin. 

“There are candidates just coming up through the pipeline in the Republican primaries who are very aligned with Trump and they’re the ones that are going to have to be explaining the Trump policy,” Rubin explained. 

“McCarthy’s claims, in many ways, is used as a preemptive shot, the preemptive strike to inoculate them and protect them from the oncoming attacks that are going to happen when they’re tied to a president who encouraged Vladimir Putin to take over Ukraine.”  

Steele agreed that the GOP is using its attacks against Biden to gloss over its very recent history, but at the detriment of the country.  

“In their telling, this is the first engagement we’ve had with Ukraine since Obama in 2014, so we skipped the middle part where the Trump administration tried to blackmail Zelensky,” Steele said. 

“And that’s unfortunate because that’s not what the country needs right now. We need the political opposition at a time of international conflict with an adversary.” 

Tags Joe Biden Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Michael Steele Russia-Ukraine war US military support

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