Republicans and Democrats have deep and unbridgeable differences on a variety of issues, from vaccination mandates to immigration policy to the Iran nuclear deal. But when it comes to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the differences are not detectable without a microscope. The fight going on now is a theatrical performance staged to conceal their fundamental agreement.
Republicans accuse Joe Biden of unforgivable weakness and appeasement, invoking the specter of the 1938 Munich deal. Democrats contrast Biden’s blunt criticism of Vladimir Putin with Donald Trump’s meek deference. What is most striking about this rhetorical battle, though, is how closely the two parties are aligned on the issue.
Trump is the exception, rushing to praise Putin for a “genius” move in recognizing two Ukrainian republics as independent. But his party’s officeholders overwhelmingly part ways with him on this issue, as they did during his presidency. Nor do the likes of Tucker Carlson have much influence on either side of the aisle in Congress.
Pretty much no one thinks Putin has the right to seize Ukrainian territory, or approves of his efforts to intimidate Ukraine and NATO, or opposes the use of economic and financial sanctions to punish Russia.
Both parties, however, are willing to go only so far in supporting Ukraine. Neither favors sending American troops to fight the Russians. Trump approved “lethal aid” to Ukraine in the form of anti-tank missiles and other weaponry, and Biden has continued to do so.
Republicans demanded the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — and, after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in early February, Biden promised if Russia invaded, “we will bring an end to it.” Sure enough, when Putin ordered troops into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, Scholz called off the pipeline deal.
Yet Republicans claim that Biden brought this on by pulling out of Afghanistan. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise declared, “Weakness has consequences.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, claimed that “as a result of President Biden’s weakness and appeasement, the Biden administration is in the process of abandoning Ukraine to Vladimir Putin.”
Their verbal volleys bring to mind the psychological phenomenon Sigmund Freud referred to as “the narcissism of minor differences.” Most of the partisan disagreements are petty quibbles over the extent and timing of sanctions. Pretending that Biden is to blame for the invasion is a crude political ploy.
Biden isn’t to blame for the invasion. Even conservative commentator Walter Russell Mead of The Wall Street Journal grudgingly admitted last month, “There is only one option that would stop a Russian invasion — and that is the one that all the serious players in Washington say is off the table: dispatching an American and coalition force to defend Ukraine.”
Maybe that deployment would stop Putin, or maybe not. NATO would be at a severe disadvantage fighting on Russia’s doorstep, where the enemy has big advantages and a far greater stake. We would have the additional handicap of having to calibrate our military strategy to avoid precipitating a nuclear exchange. But there was never any chance that any president, Republican or Democrat, would go to war over Ukraine.
Republicans boast that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine when Trump was president. But Trump was the guy who withheld military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to force President Volodymyr Zelensky to come up with dirt on the Bidens. An invasion would have been a poor way for Putin to repay his compliant friend in the White House.
What has always been clear is that the U.S. has a weak hand when it comes to Ukraine and no good way to play it. Putin has always known he could use force without facing military retaliation from NATO.
He may have hoped he could get away without paying a high economic penalty. If so, he has been unpleasantly surprised.
Instead of driving a fat wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, Putin has spurred a new spirit of unity. He has virtually guaranteed that NATO will increase its spending and bolster its forces in the countries geographically closest to Russia.
He’s also managed, against all odds, to foster an effective consensus between Republicans and Democrats, who are united in seeing him as a brutal outlaw and a threat to the international order. It’s a miracle that could only have been made in Moscow.