Russia conflict separates GOP traditionalists from newcomers – Press Enterprise


NEW YORK (AP) — As Russia ramped up its aggression toward neighboring Ukraine earlier this week, Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio branded President Vladimir Putin’s provocations a “clear violation of international law.”

The co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus called on the Biden administration to work with allies to “ensure a coordinated response to this unwarranted continued incursion into Ukrainian sovereign territory.”

But one of the Republicans running to replace the resigning Portman had a very different message.

“I have to be honest with you, I don’t care what’s happening to Ukraine one way or the other,” JD Vance said in a podcast interview. “I’m sick of Joe Biden focusing on the border of a country I don’t care about while he lets his own country’s border become a total war zone.”

The divergent responses to Europe’s most significant foreign policy crisis in generations reflect a divided – and rapidly changing – Republican party. An old guard, largely concentrated in Washington and long warning of Russian aggression, faces a rising generation of conservatives who openly question why the US should even care about Russia’s moves.

“All these people came into a party where a key policy was to stand up hard against Russia,” Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist, said of the split. “It shows how obstinate our politics have become in recent years.”

The GOP’s foreign policy approach took on new urgency after Putin launched a military operation in Ukraine on Thursday. Leading up to this action, the split in the party was reminiscent of Donald Trump’s enduring influence on the GOP long after he left the White House.

The former president remains the most popular figure among the GOP base and is already exerting his influence in the midterm elections that begin next week when he teases another presidential bid. These races could produce like-minded Republicans who will go into the fall campaign to succeed foreign policy traditionalists like Portman.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which began Thursday in Florida, offered a preview of what is to come as leaders focused their ire on both President Joe Biden’s handling of foreign policy and Putin’s norm-breaking aggression.

“We have a national leadership that I think is probably criminally incompetent at some point,” said KT McFarland, the former deputy national security adviser under Trump. “They are unable to stop what Vladimir Putin is doing.”

While slapping the American president, she expressed more serious concerns about Russia’s leaders.

“My concern is that it doesn’t just stop with Ukraine. It’s going on,” McFarland said. “Will he threaten NATO next? His lifelong goal was to crush NATO, separate the United States from Europe, and recreate the Soviet Union.”

For now, those questioning why the US should care about Ukraine’s security remain a small, albeit highly influential and vocal segment of the conservative movement. Republicans in Congress, particularly those in the Senate, have been largely unanimous in opposing Russian aggression, with some, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, advocating a more aggressive stance, calling Biden’s response “timid” and “totally unfit for the moment.”

Almost all have grown increasingly critical of Biden as tensions mount during a crucial mid-election year.

But those opposed to American involvement have powerful platforms. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the channel’s biggest star, who reaches tens of millions of viewers each night, has repeatedly questioned why Ukraine’s defense matters and even questioned why the US should be on their side and not Putin .

Candace Owens, a prominent conservative commentator, has gone even further by openly parroting Putin’s talking points.

“I suggest any American who wants to know what (asterisk) is actually going on (asterisk) in Russia and Ukraine to read this transcript of Putin’s speech. As I’ve been saying for months, NATO (led by the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are to blame,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

On Wednesday night, as the sound of explosions rang out through Kiev, Kharkiv and other areas of Ukraine, Trump called the scene a “terrible situation” and insisted Putin would never have moved under his watch.

“He sees the weakness and the incompetence and the stupidity of this government. And as an American, I’m angry about that and sad about that,” he said, calling out to Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. “It’s a very sad thing for the world, for the country, and it’s certainly very sad for many people who are being killed unnecessarily.”

It was a departure from his initial public response to Putin’s escalation, in which he offered no clear condemnation and repeatedly praised the Russian leader’s cleverness in an interview on The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show.

Critics see this mindset as symptomatic of the party’s greater shift toward authoritarianism and acceptance of anti-democratic action following Trump’s repeated efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election to stay in power.

“They’re basically declaring their support for authoritarians and dictators and don’t seem to have a problem with those kinds of judgments coming to America,” said Olivia Troye, a national security expert who advised Vice President Mike Pence at the Trump White House. “I think Americans can’t agree on how best to proceed. But we should be a united front in support of freedom and democracy.”

“What happened to the Republicans who are against Russia?” she added. “That used to be the thing.”

From the early days of his first presidential campaign, Trump has overseen a dramatic overhaul of the GOP’s traditional foreign policy stance. He won in part in 2016 by opposing the “eternal wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that the country benefited little from the interventionism and nation-building of the neocon George W. Bush era. He adopted an inward-looking “America First” doctrine that attempted to use a combination of tough talk and unpredictability to deter would-be attackers.

At the same time, Trump hugged and complimented Putin and denigrated NATO, the cornerstone of US foreign policy since its inception against Russia.

In 2016, his allies worked to remove language from the GOP platform that supported the transfer of arms to Ukraine. He repeatedly sided with Putin in US intelligence conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The hug was so startling to Russia observers that some were convinced the only plausible explanation was that Putin had some sort of dirt on him, speculation that has never been verified.

Trump was charged for the first time for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden ahead of the 2020 election while withholding military aid.

His tenure coincided with a corresponding shift in public opinion. Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans who called Russia a friend or ally rose sharply during Trump’s presidency, rising from 22% in 2014 to 40% in 2018. Democrats’ views on the relationship remained largely the same.

Today there is little support among Americans, and even less among Republicans, for a major US role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 22% of Republicans think the US should play an important role in the conflict, compared to 32% of Democrats.

Republicans are also slightly less likely than Democrats to say they are very or extremely concerned that Russia’s influence around the world poses a direct threat to the United States

Adam Geller, a Republican political strategist and pollster, warned that domestic issues have generally played a more crucial role than foreign policy in recent elections, but that could be changing.

“If there is a major war in Europe, it will quickly pop up in the matrix of issues in voters’ minds,” he said.

That would spell bad news for Biden, he said, bolstering both Republicans and independents who voted for Biden on promises of a return to normal before Trump.

But Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, said there were bigger issues at play, calling it unprecedented that Republicans have questioned the need to stand with Ukraine and ultimately NATO.

“This contradicts generations of foreign policy,” he said. “NATO is the heart and soul of all American foreign policy.”

“They are undermining NATO, there is no American presence in the world,” he added. “This is not a dispute about foreign policy.”

___ Associated Press writers Emily Swanson in Washington and Steve Peoples in Orlando, Florida contributed to this report.


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