Weeks before an election that may bring the Republican Party back into legislative power, U.S. conservative leaders are expressing new reluctance over the billions of dollars the country is spending in Ukraine.
And the possibility of a shift in Washington’s support for Kyiv is serious enough that Canada must prepare for a scenario in which it is called upon to do more, says Andrew Leslie, a former commander of the Canadian Army who was also a Liberal member of Parliament.
“We should plan on the worst case,” he said, including the potential for the Republican Party to “slow down the transfer of military and financial aid to Ukraine. In which case, the rest of us will either have to contribute more or – what’s the alternative?”
The Joe Biden administration has made the U.S. the biggest supporter of Ukraine, providing nearly $70-billion in financial, humanitarian and military aid this year, according to figures tracked by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. That’s nearly five times the amount provided by the European Union, and 17 times what Canada has contributed.
But Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, cautioned this week that change is coming. “People are gonna be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine,” he told Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it.”
Republicans are expected to take a majority in the House in midterm voting in early November, with polls suggesting a tighter battle for control of the Senate.
Conservative groups have raised alarm over U.S. spending in Ukraine, calling on the White House to define the country’s long-term goals and criticizing aid that goes beyond military hardware. “We certainly have a role to play. But what is that role?” said Garrett Bess, vice-president of Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the influential Heritage Foundation. He pointed to the use of U.S. aid to fund health care and pension costs in Ukraine.
“It’s worth considering whether that’s the best contribution of U.S. dollars,” he said. Kiel Institute data show that nearly half of U.S. support for Ukraine has gone to humanitarian and financial commitments.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 59 per cent of Americans supported sending financial aid to Ukraine, in addition to weapons. It also showed that two-thirds of Republicans think the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine.
Mr. Biden this week accused Republicans of failing to understand the seriousness of Russia’s invasion. “It’s a lot bigger than Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s Eastern Europe. It’s NATO. It’s really serious, serious consequential outcomes. … They have no sense of American foreign policy.”
In Kyiv, some analysts doubted the Republican threats would amount to a serious change in overall U.S. assistance for Ukraine. Much of the Biden administration’s commitments have been locked in, including “lend lease” provisions, which speed up the transfer of military hardware.
“I’m not worried, because partly it’s about internal U.S. politics,” said Pavlo Klimkin, a long-time Ukrainian diplomat and former minister of foreign affairs. “The position of some Republicans is not to stop the critical important assistance to Ukraine. Their position is to discuss it in a different way.”
Mr. Klimkin added that he had some sympathy for the Republican arguments. “I understand the point made by a number of my Republican friends. They keep saying, ‘Look Pavlo, of course we are ready to provide this assistance, but Europeans should do more.’ “
Oleksandr Kraiev, director of the North America program at Kyiv’s Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism, said the new makeup of Congress could delay future assistance packages.
“There are some concerns that this new Republican position will only consume more time,” he said.
Mr. Kraiev added that any success Ukraine’s army has on the battlefield helps to blunt opposition to funding and reassure U.S. politicians that money spent on Ukraine isn’t wasted.
But the prospect of the U.S. falling into an economic recession next year has prompted new considerations among conservatives, who primarily back supporting Ukraine with “direct military assistance – not boots on the ground, but providing hardware and weaponry,” Mr. Bess said.
Republicans in Congress have so far supported the war in Ukraine, however, voting for three Ukraine funding measures this year. The party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has been openly supportive.
Even Mr. McCarthy’s reluctance is qualified. “No blank cheque does not mean no cheque,” said Jon Lieber, managing director for the U.S. at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
Still, he said, more scrutiny of U.S. spending could mean more demands on other countries. “It could be that we’re not going to send Ukraine another penny unless it’s matched by half a penny from the EU countries – that could definitely be one of the conditions,” he said.
Such a shift could also change demands on Canada, which has been the third-largest individual country donor to Ukraine.
“Canada should be contributing more to this existential fight for Ukraine,” said Mr. Leslie.
Ottawa did not address the possibility of changes from the U.S., with the Prime Minister’s Office saying in a statement: “Canada is steadfast in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
How best to support Ukraine remains a matter of considerable debate among U.S. conservatives. The libertarian Cato Institute, for example, has warned that the consequences of nuclear conflict outweigh all other considerations. In standing alongside Ukraine, “the United States is incurring a level of risk that should be reserved only for the defence of the most vital national interests. Ukraine has never even come close to that threshold,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at Cato.
Others dismiss Republican rhetoric as election posturing. “It’s a lot different when you’re the one actually casting the vote under the dome of the Capitol, which can have real-life consequences,” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute who left the Heritage Foundation this year after a stark disagreement on Ukraine.