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Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored personnel carrier in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on  May 21, 2023. (AP) Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored personnel carrier in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on  May 21, 2023. (AP)

Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored personnel carrier in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on May 21, 2023. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 9, 2023

On many issues, voters won’t hear much variation in what Republican presidential candidates say on the campaign trail. Rarely do members of the growing GOP primary field break from party orthodoxy on taxes, health care, energy and immigration.

But there is one issue that has prompted a robust debate among GOP candidates: how the U.S. should treat Russia’s war in Ukraine.

On one side are candidates who have spoken skeptically of continued U.S. involvement on Ukraine’s behalf. This includes both the front-runner for the nomination, former President Donald Trump, and his closest competitor in the polls, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who minimized the war as a "territorial dispute" before walking back that description. A third candidate, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, has also expressed skepticism about how much the U.S. should aid Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The other side of the field generally says helping Ukraine fend off Russian advances an important U.S. foreign policy goal. These candidates include former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. 

The divide comes amid declining support among rank-and-file Republicans for U.S. policies that support Ukraine. 

Among poll respondents who identified as Republican or GOP-leaning, the share that said the U.S. was providing too much support to Ukraine quadrupled over a 10-month period, from 9% in March 2022 — shortly after Russia invaded —  to 40% in January 2023, according to Pew Research Center.

A May national poll by Marquette Law School found that exactly half of Republicans thought the U.S. was providing too much support to Ukraine, compared with one-third who said it was providing about the right amount of assistance and 17% who said the U.S. was providing too little support.

Here’s a rundown of what the major Republican candidates have said on Ukraine in recent months. The comments were made either when they were declared candidates or were widely considered likely to enter the primary field.

Candidates who have expressed skepticism about supporting Ukraine

Donald Trump

During and since his presidency, Trump has been perceived as close to Russia and to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including holding a friendly joint press conference with him in Helsinki in 2018. And in 2019, Trump was impeached by the House for his handling of a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which Trump suggested that he would withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the Ukrainians found dirt on Joe Biden, then Trump’s projected 2020 rival for the presidency.

Trump’s most extensive comments on Ukraine during the present campaign came during a May 10 town hall in New Hampshire, when he sparred over Ukraine with CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins.

Collins asked Trump, "Would you give Ukraine weapons and funding if you are re-elected?" Trump said he would settle the war within 24 hours, after meeting with Putin and Zelenskyy. "Within 24 hours, that war will be settled," Trump said. "It will be over. It will be absolutely over."

Collins asked Trump about whether he wants Ukraine to win the war. 

"I don’t think in terms of winning and losing," Trump said. "I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people." She continued pressing Trump about whether he wants to see Ukraine win, but he repeatedly sidestepped the question.

Ron DeSantis

DeSantis has zigzagged on Ukraine. 

He attracted wide attention March 13 with his answers to a questionnaire from then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

"While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them," DeSantis wrote, in comments Carlson shared on his show.

DeSantis offered a litany of reasons the U.S. should be wary of engaging in Ukraine: the risk of nuclear war, the difficulty of seeking regime change in Russia, the dangers of a "blank check" on aid to Ukraine, depleted U.S. arsenals and the risk of being distracted from other national security threats.

His specific concerns about how far the U.S. should go in assisting Ukraine were largely aligned with his positions as a member of Congress several years earlier — and they are broadly similar to limitations that Biden has adhered to, including not sending U.S. troops to the battlefield.

Yet the tone of DeSantis’ answer to Carlson evinced no empathy for Ukraine’s predicament, and his characterization of Russia’s invasion as a "territorial dispute" struck critics as minimizing Russia’s aggression against a neighbor it believed had no right to exist on its own.

After receiving blowback from other Republicans, DeSantis sought to walk back his comments in a March 23 interview with broadcaster Piers Morgan on "Fox Nation." DeSantis said the territorial dispute he was referring to involved the portion of eastern Ukraine now under Russian control that has historically had a disproportionately Russian-speaking population. 

In the interview, DeSantis acknowledged that Russia may not be occupying those areas "legitimately." He also said Russia’s invasion "was wrong" and called Putin a "war criminal," something Trump had been reluctant to do in the CNN town hall.

In more recent interviews, though, DeSantis has echoed Trump’s call for a settlement of the war, a position that critics say would effectively reward Putin’s aggression.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy, the only major primary candidate who has not served in public office, attracted notice in early June when he urged an armistice similar to the one that has been in force on the Korean peninsula for nearly 70 years, as long as Russia ended its alliance with China.

ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz asked Ramaswamy whether "the possibility of Russia taking over Ukraine is in our interest."

"I don't think that's a top foreign policy priority," Ramaswamy said. "I don't think it is preferable for Russia to be able to invade a sovereign country that is its neighbor. But ... I think the No. 1 threat to the U.S. military is right now, our top military threat, is the China-Russian alliance. I think that by fighting further in Russia, by further arming Ukraine, we are driving Russia into China's hands."

Ramaswamy acknowledged that his plan would likely involve "some major concessions to Russia" that "Ukraine wouldn't want to do," including "a permanent commitment" that Ukraine not join NATO, the western military alliance. 

Candidates who have urged continued support for Ukraine

Nikki Haley

Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been clear in her support of Ukraine. During her June 4 CNN town hall in Iowa, Haley was asked by an audience member why the war in Ukraine should matter to Americans. 

"This is bigger than Ukraine," she said. "This is a war about freedom. And it's one we have to win. You look at those Ukrainians, and what did they do when Russia invaded their freedoms? They moved in there, went to the front lines, and fought for their country. The women said, we're not going to stay back. They made Molotov cocktails to defend their country."

Haley said preventing war in Ukraine has broader implications for dealing with U.S. adversaries.

"The way you prevent war is not that we give cash to Ukraine, not that we put troops on the ground, but that we get with our allies and we make sure that we give them the equipment and the ammunition to win. Because when Ukraine wins, that sends a message to China with Taiwan. It sends a message to Iran that wants to build a bomb, sends a message to North Korea testing ballistic missiles. And it sends a message to Russia that it's over."

Mike Pence

Pence has said "Russian aggression" must be stopped in Ukraine because it will not stop there.

"While some in my party have taken a somewhat different view, there can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin," Pence told NBC News on Feb. 24. "There can only be room for champions of freedom."

He added, "We must continue to stand with the people of Ukraine against the violence and aggression of the Russian military. The light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it."

On April 19, Pence reiterated this view at an event at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. 

"The war in Ukraine is not our war, but freedom is our fight," Pence said. "And I believe we must continue to give the Ukrainian military the means to repel the Russian invasion and reclaim their sovereignty. It is in the interest of freedom — theirs and ours. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate naked aggression."

When he launched his candidacy June 7, Pence called out Trump for his description of Putin as a "genius," and, without naming him directly, DeSantis for characterizing the conflict in Ukraine as a "territorial dispute."

In a June 7 CNN town hall in Iowa, Pence said, "I know that some in this debate have called the war in Ukraine a territorial dispute. It's not. It was a Russian invasion, an unprovoked Russian invasion. And I believe the United States of America needs to continue to provide the courageous soldiers in Ukraine with the resources they need to repel that Russian invasion and restore their territorial integrity."

Tim Scott

Scott told Axios on March 2 that "there is nothing smart about invading countries. Every single American should stand on the side of the freedom-loving, liberty-defending Ukrainians." 

During a May 12 campaign speech in Greenville, South Carolina, Scott added that support for Ukraine is in America’s "vital national interest."

"Degrading the Russian military is in America’s best interest and solves two problems at the same time without American boots on the ground," he said. "First, it prevents or reduces attacks on the homeland. Second, as part of NATO and land being contiguous to Ukraine, it will reduce the likelihood that Russia will have the weaponry or the will to attack on NATO territory, which would get us involved."

Chris Christie

Christie has not minced words about Trump’s stances on Putin and Ukraine.

In May, Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt that Trump’s exchange on Ukraine during his CNN town hall was "the most stunning moment" of the event. "If you don’t say that you think Ukraine should win the war, I don’t know where you stand with Putin," Christie said.

The former New Jersey governor added, "I think he’s a coward and I think he’s a puppet of Putin. I don’t know why, to tell you the truth, but I can’t figure it out, but there’s no other conclusion to come to."

In a June 6 town hall at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Christie called Trump, DeSantis, and other figures skeptical of Ukraine "modern-day Neville Chamberlains," referring to the British Prime Minister who sought to avoid war with Adolf Hitler.

Asa Hutchinson

In May, Hutchinson told Fox News that he supports U.S. funding of Ukraine "because if you show weakness there, you're going to have our aggressors take more significant action, like China towards Taiwan. Russia will not stop at Ukraine. You don't need to draw a red line (but) you need to support those who are being oppressed against the oppressor, and right now that is Ukraine. Hopefully, we can stop it there."

Later that month, Hutchinson said on CNN that Trump’s negotiating skills couldn’t possibly end the war in 24 hours. "It’s a terrible mistake, a terrible position, not supporting Ukraine," Hutchinson said.

Doug Burgum

Burgum, who entered the race June 7, has said little about Ukraine, though he has generally been positive toward the country. Burgum, who is the twice-elected governor of a major oil-producing state, has typically linked U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia to energy independence.

"Putin only dared to invade Ukraine because our allies in Western Europe are all dependent on Russian energy," he said at his campaign kickoff in Fargo.

The day before he announced his presidential bid, Burgum authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he said, "When we empower American innovation and energy production, we strengthen the value of the dollar, stop China and Iran, and prevent wars such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."

Burgum’s campaign website says, "We should be fighting to unite the country against our common enemies like China and Putin."

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