U.S. midterms could have ‘negative impact’ on Ukraine if Republicans limit aid: experts

Click to play video: 'War in Ukraine becomes hot midterm issue for Ohio voters'
War in Ukraine becomes hot midterm issue for Ohio voters
WATCH: War in Ukraine becomes hot midterm issue for Ohio voters – Nov 1, 2022

In the early months of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Victor Tregubov said it was nearly impossible for Ukrainian fighters like himself to counter the Russian blitzkriegs that destroyed cities like Mariupol and killed thousands of civilians.

Then U.S. military aid began to arrive.

The equipment included long-range multiple rocket launchers that immediately improved Ukraine’s ability to strike ammunition depots, bridges and other key targets. Suddenly, Tregubov said, Ukraine had what it needed to finally put Russia on the defensive.

“It was a kind of game-changer,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces captain told Global News from Berdychiv, about 150 km west of Kyiv, where he is based after spending months on the front lines in the country’s east.

“All of the equipment that we have received from the Americans … has literally saved us during specific phases of this conflict.”

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Since the war began on Feb. 24, the U.S. has committed more than than US$17.5 billion in weapons and other equipment — far more than any other Western country. By comparison, Canada has delivered roughly $650 million in military aid.

Lawmakers have also approved over US$50 billion in additional aid that has helped the Ukrainian government provide basic services to its citizens, as well as humanitarian assistance.

But the future of that aid pipeline is being called into question by the approaching U.S. midterm elections, which could see Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and even the Senate.

Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl News earlier this month that his party won’t write a “blank cheque” to Ukraine amid rising inflation and other domestic issues, which Republicans say they want to prioritize.

Although CNN later reported McCarthy is reassuring national security leaders in his party that his comment was taken out of context — insisting he simply wants more oversight of the aid — other Republican lawmakers have voiced support for redirecting money from Ukraine to the home front.

“We can’t be the leader around the world when we have such big issues to solve in America,” Rep. Jim Banks told Fox News. Banks was one of nearly 60 House Republicans who opposed a US$40-billion aid package for Ukraine in May.

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Requests for comment were not returned by McCarthy’s office.

Republican support for aiding Ukraine in the Senate appears more solid, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently calling for even faster assistance.

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But cracks still exist and could potentially grow: 11 Republican senators also opposed the May aid package, and prominent freshman candidates have echoed McCarthy’s comments.

“We’ve got to stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually,” Ohio candidate J.D. Vance said during a September interview. “We cannot fund a long-term military conflict that I think ultimately has diminishing returns for our own country.”

That interview marked a softening of Vance’s position from before the war began, when he told a podcast that he didn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

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Click to play video: 'G7 leaders vow to back Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’'
G7 leaders vow to back Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’

If Vance and other like-minded candidates win their races, McConnell could have a harder time getting automatic support for further Ukrainian assistance — even if Republicans win back control of the Senate.

Experts don’t believe U.S. aid to Ukraine will be cut off entirely if Republicans gain power in Congress. But they agree that even a reduction or slow-down of funding and equipment would be detrimental to the war effort.

“It would have a very negative impact … because then European nations and even Canada would have to step up and provide even more (to fill that gap),” said Andres Kasekamp, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who studies NATO.

He added the rest of NATO, “would try to pick up the slack, but they would never be able to make up for it entirely, or even close to entirely.”

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A recent analysis by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy found U.S. aid dwarfed European assistance by a nearly 2-1 ratio. Yet it also found that aid accounted for a relatively small portion of the American GDP — less than 0.5 per cent. Poland, by comparison, has set aside close to 1.5 per cent of its GDP for Ukraine.

Despite the minimal economic impact, the argument from more nationalist-minded Republicans appears to be sinking in with voters.

The Pew Research Center found last month that the number of Americans who say “too much” U.S. aid is flowing to Ukraine rose from seven per cent in March to 20 per cent in September. Among definite and likely Republican voters, the number was far higher at 32 per cent, up from nine per cent when the invasion began.

Kasekamp says lawmakers are feeding that growing discontent instead of rallying citizens to continue supporting Ukraine, which plays right into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands.

“The Russians are losing on the battlefield at the moment, so they’re concentrating their energies on trying to deprive the Ukrainians of Western military support,” he said. “They’re helping to pivot the conversation toward inflation and gas prices, and Republicans are listening to that.

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“From the Russian point of view, it’s a completely sensible and low-cost strategy to try and break that Western solidarity … and they’ve been pursuing it since before the war began.”

As if to underscore the point, pundits on Kremlin-backed media have spent recent weeks actively rooting for nationalist Republicans to win in the midterms, echoing the same talking points about curbing military aid.

The campaign was further fuelled when progressive Democrats sent President Joe Biden a letter calling for a more diplomatic approach to ending the war. The letter was quickly withdrawn, with lawmakers saying it was drafted months ago and that they never supported cuts to aid.

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Experts have repeatedly cautioned against relying on diplomacy when Putin has shown no willingness to back down from his aims in Ukraine.

“You cannot negotiate with an executioner,” Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political scientist, told Global News in a previous interview.

Click to play video: 'U.S. Department of Defense announces nearly $3B of new aid to Ukraine'
U.S. Department of Defense announces nearly $3B of new aid to Ukraine

Any apparent wobble in solidarity threatens to undermine the Western alliance, where Biden has positioned himself as a leader in rallying support for the greater cause.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also stressed the importance of that alliance during a Politico podcast on Oct. 28 when asked about the rise of Ukrainian-skeptical Republicans, saying it was crucial to ensure Putin doesn’t win the war.

“I’m confident that also after the midterms, there will still be a clear majority in the Congress — in the House and in the Senate — for continued significant support to Ukraine,” he said.

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A NATO spokesperson pointed to those comments when asked by Global News if the alliance had any contingency plans for maintaining current levels of aid if the U.S cuts or reduces funding.

Kasekamp says it’s possible Democrats will try to push through another major aid package before early January, when the next Congress takes over, to ensure Ukraine has what it needs.

Ukrainian leaders, for their part, are putting a brave face on the Republican threats. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Axios that although he is “concerned” about the statements from McCarthy and others, he has faith the rhetoric will die down after the elections.

“I think we’ll fix it and I am certain that we will handle these risks effectively and that aid to Ukraine will not be cut,” he said.

Tregubov, the Ukrainian Armed Forces captain, is also holding out hope the U.S. will do the right thing.

“America can only be great by being a beacon for other countries,” he said. “So if America wants to restore its full glory, it should be as the most serious international peacekeeper.”

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