CHICAGO — Not so long ago, congressional Republicans strenuously opposed the Russian conquest of Crimea, saw an urgent need to help Ukraine fight back and castigated the president of the United States for withholding the military aid it needed. Whatever happened to those guys?
President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call has ignited a controversy over whether he abused his office by trying to coerce the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. A whistleblower reported getting “information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
Trump’s effort to obtain incriminating material about Biden does not seem to concern GOP members of Congress. That isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how indifferent they are to Trump’s betrayal of a country whose territorial integrity and independence they once championed so fervently.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, fighting has gone on in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russian-supported separatists. The long-simmering conflict has left some 13,000 dead and put heavy pressure on the Kiev government.
At the outset, Republicans pushed to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needed to fight back. Former President Barack Obama was willing to provide an assortment of equipment and supplies but balked at delivering “lethal aid” — rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and the like. He was of the view that such aid would only increase the bloodshed of a war that Ukraine couldn’t win.
For his policy, Obama was pilloried on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama was “afraid of confronting the Russians.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “I would be sending arms to the Ukrainian army.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire described Obama’s refusal as “shameful.”
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In 2014, when the GOP controlled the House, Speaker John Boehner invited President Petro Poroshenko to address a joint session of Congress, where he pleaded for lethal military aid. “One cannot win the war with blankets,” he said. “Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.”
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who blamed Putin’s invasion on “President Obama’s trembling inaction,” was among those urging lethal aid to Kiev. When Trump approved the shipment in 2017, Cotton praised this “break from the failed Obama-era policies to make Russia pay a cost for its aggression.”
By that logic, Trump’s suspension of military aid to Ukraine (which he finally allowed in September) was a revival of Obama’s failed approach and a gift to the Kremlin. It deprived the Ukrainians of help they were expecting and put in doubt our future willingness to help.
But the heartfelt sympathy for this beleaguered country has somehow dried up. The once-fierce Cotton has gone soft, ignoring the needs of the Ukrainian military so he can obsess over bogus allegations. On Sept. 26, his office put out excerpts of his remarks in radio and TV interviews. They were all about the Bidens — with not a single expression of concern for the Ukrainians on the receiving end of Russian bombs and bullets.
If congressional Republicans were not shocked by the administration’s reversal, Ukrainians were. “It was a total surprise,” Pavlo Klimkin, who was foreign minister when word reached Kiev in August, told The New York Times. They were also mystified. “If the United States harbored concerns about any misuse of the aid by Ukraine,” reported The Times, senior Ukrainian officials “said they had never heard about them.”
In fact, they and everyone else had heard just the opposite. The Defense Department recently made a full examination of Ukraine’s efforts to combat corruption and other ills and gave the government a seal of approval. In May, the department formally certified that progress. In August, a senior Pentagon official told Politico, “The department has reviewed the foreign assistance package and supports it.”
Corruption in Ukraine did not suddenly become known in July. It has been present and well-known all along. Yet GOP members (and many Democrats) favored lethal aid for its war with Russia anyway. For Trump to suddenly make it a litmus test was totally at odds with the long-standing position of most congressional Republicans.
When Obama resisted, they accused him of undermining Ukraine to appease Putin. Today, we find, they are willing to turn their backs on Ukraine to appease Trump.