The unfolding crisis in Ukraine is creating tensions between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans who back a tough military posture toward Russia, and those more aligned with former President Trump’s “America First” worldview.
McConnell has emerged as a leading proponent of the traditional Republican foreign policy views, advocating for a strong military that protects American interests and deters foreign threats around the world.
He led the effort in Congress to push back against Trump’s plan in 2019 to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in Syria.
Now he’s pushing Biden to send U.S. troops to NATO allies bordering Ukraine and military arms and intelligence to Ukraine itself.
“The United States and our partners should waste no time in helping Ukraine prepare for war. Weapons, materiel, advice, logistics, intelligence. We should be building the infrastructure to help Ukrainians sustain their resistance to Russian aggression if and when it comes,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Republican senators more closely aligned with Trump and his “America First” worldview are leery about shifting additional NATO and U.S. troops along Poland’s and Romania’s borders with Ukraine.
National Republican Senatorial Campaign Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fl.), who visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago last year, says other steps should be taken before shifting U.S. troops closer to potential hostilities with Russian forces.
“The last thing you ever want to do is have troops at risk,” he said. “So I think they ought to do the other things first.”
“I think we ought to do it in this order: Number one, shut down Nord Stream 2; number two, go ahead and sanction Russia; number three, get all of our allies to do the same thing,” he said. Nord Stream 2 is the natural gas pipeline being built under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) says Republican voters are suspicious of the U.S. getting involved in new foreign military entanglements.
“I would describe my own foreign policy views as nationalist and that means we shouldn’t be trying to build a liberal empire abroad, we shouldn’t be trying to be the world’s policemen, we need to act what’s in the best interest of America’s national security, economic security,” he said, arguing that the United States should prioritize China as “the leading threat.”
“That means that we can’t expand our security commitments in Europe,” he said, suggesting that the United States should reduce troop levels in Europe instead of sending more soldiers.
“There’s a question of repositioning troops that are already there, that’s one thing. Sending new troops, expanding the security commitment in the form of expanding NATO, I just think that’s a strategic mistake,” he added.
Speaking to reporters in Kentucky last month, McConnell warned the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “extremely serious.”
He said he advised the White House “from the very beginning” to send Stinger ground-to-air and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and to “forward deploy additional NATO troops including some of our own into Poland, Romania [and] the Baltics” immediately.
On Wednesday, he applauded Biden for following his advice.
“I welcome the President’s deployment of additional forces to the territory of NATO allies situated on our alliance’s eastern flank. I recommended he take such action months ago,” he said, noting that members of the 101st Airborne Division are leaving Ft. Campbell this week to join NATO forces in Eastern Europe.
The pro-Trump GOP wing, in contrast, is more concerned about the idea of more American troops going abroad.
Hawley said “the military is worried about escalation because they’ve said that to us,” and that voters “do not want more American troops sent to Europe.”
The Pentagon earlier this month announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Poland, Romania and Germany.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said “I think we need to carefully weigh the strategic interests that the U.S. has with relation to Ukraine.”
“I think they are less than our strategic interests elsewhere,” she said, though she conceded “the disruption in stability in Eastern Europe” that would be caused by a Russian invasion is “definitely worth considering.”
Hawley and Lummis endorsed, respectively, sending “lethal aid” and “guns, bullets and tanks” to Ukraine to help their military defense.
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said “we’re all concerned here about escalation.”
“This is not good for anybody concerned. It’s unfortunate that we are in this place and I think it’s in response to a long series of missteps, policy missteps that have generated this, going all the way to waging war on the oil and gas industry here in America, which increased energy prices globally. Those increased energy prices had a direct positive benefit to Vladimir Putin because they’re the No. 2 energy supplier in the world,” he said.
Asked if he was comfortable with McConnell’s call for a buildup of U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Poland and Romania, Hagerty said: “Here’s what concerns me: If the escalation … occurs in a way that triggers our Article 5 responsibilities under NATO, I think President Biden has put himself in a very difficult position domestically because he won’t defend our Southern Border yet he’s going to be called upon to defend the borders of other countries.”
“I think we’re in a very tough spot,” he said.
Scott, Hawley, Lummis and Hagerty are all members of a newer generation of Republican leaders who are viewed as more aligned with Trump’s efforts to reshape the GOP than older, longer-serving members of the conference who tend to hold more traditional Republican foreign policy views.
Their views are also similar to the commentary coming from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has been skeptical of how far the U.S. should go to defend Ukraine.
The differences between the two wings are not limited to foreign policy.
Hawley, Lummis and Scott also voted to support the objection to Pennsylvania’s slate of electors on Jan. 6, a moment that marked a major dividing line between McConnell and Trump spheres of influence in the Senate.
Trump, who maintains a strong grip on the GOP and is viewed by many Republicans as the party’s de facto leader, has stayed relatively quiet on the buildup of tensions with Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty.
A Washington Post analysis published last month found that Trump’s Save America PAC didn’t publish any statements centered on Ukraine other than complaining about being impeached by Democrats over his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In a statement focused on bashing Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) over comments he made last month about Biden winning the 2020 presidential election, Trump as an aside declared the United States is now “a laughingstock” compared to when he was president and “we were respected even feared” and “there were no thoughts of Russia with Ukraine.”