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EDITORIAL

As GOP support for Ukraine frays, Democrats should remain firm

The ouster of Kevin McCarthy as House speaker shows that there is growing opposition among Republicans to backing Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

Houses destroyed during the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces are seen in recently liberated Klishchiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sept. 24, 2023.Alex Babenko/Associated Press

National elections are rarely won or lost based on foreign policy, and even the foreign policy debates in those campaigns typically aren’t really about foreign policy. They are often about fear: about the economy, about sending troops into battle overseas, about terrorism on US soil.

For Americans, the war in Ukraine, however, really is a debate over a foreign policy. In providing the billions in military support that is allowing an outmanned, outgunned Ukrainian army to resist the invading Russians, the United States is not just blocking the malicious ambitions of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. It is also defending democracy against an aggressive, expansionist autocracy. All wars are terrible, but some are more just than others. This one is safely in the realm of the just.

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But the bipartisan unity that once characterized our nation’s support of the beleaguered Ukrainians has been fraying, undermined by commentators like Tucker Carlson and politicians like former president Donald Trump, whose supporters in Congress have become increasingly adamant about ending US aid to Kyiv. For now, the anti-Ukraine faction remains a minority within the Republicans’ congressional caucus. But their influence seems to be growing, as evidenced by the tumult in Congress this past week.

First came the fight over extending federal spending legislation. Under pressure from his right flank — led by hard-core members of the MAGA-minded Freedom Caucus — Kevin McCarthy, then House speaker, demanded deep cuts to federal spending, including billions for Ukraine. When he failed to win sufficient support in the Republican caucus to enact that spending bill, he struck a deal with Democrats to pass a compromise measure to keep the federal government running for 45 days. The catch: no additional aid to Ukraine, even as spending on other domestic priorities was restored.

With that deal, the House voted to oust McCarthy as speaker; eight members of the Freedom Caucus joined Democrats in voting against him. Now, for the first time since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, serious doubt has been cast on the future of American support of the Ukrainian defense.

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The Biden administration insists that there is money in the bank to continue supporting Ukraine, provided Congress eventually endorses a new tranche of money. But will it? Fresh off its victory in ousting McCarthy, the emboldened Freedom Caucus seems likely to keep opposing new aid — and will the next speaker be able to resist their demands? Getting to yes may not be so easy.

Even if Congress eventually approves additional aid, the past week has underscored the growing resistance in the base of the Republican Party for supporting the Ukrainian effort. Trump, whose popularity among core Republicans remains overwhelming, continues to cast doubt about whether he would support aid to Ukraine if he were elected again. He has even refused to say whether he thinks the Ukrainians should win the war — a war, by the way, for their own sovereignty. He has also raised self-dealing demands, including that Congress withhold additional support to Kyiv until the FBI, IRS, and Justice Department “hand over every scrap of evidence” on the business dealings of President Biden’s family.

This is the moment, then, for Democrats to decisively articulate their support for embattled Ukraine. Next year, it seems, the Republican presidential nominee will almost certainly make China the party’s main foreign policy play. Already the Republican candidates are competing to prove who is more hawkish on Beijing. The Democrats would be wise not to be baited into that dangerous game and should instead chart a more sober course of countering China’s very real military and economic ambitions. But they would be right, politically and morally, in drawing a bright line between their support for Ukraine and the Republicans’ growing ambivalence.

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To be sure, the Republicans are not wrong in arguing that aid to Ukraine should not be open-ended support of a forever conflict. This war has the potential to grind on for years, given Putin’s obstinacy and Ukraine’s independent spirit. Other allies must step up in their support, and Ukraine must build greater self-sufficiency, to the degree that is possible. Improved oversight of US aid to Ukraine is also critical to ensure public support remains high. But even with all those things, at some point the world community needs to help broker an off-ramp to the conflict. It is not too early for that discussion to begin in earnest.

In the meantime, though, robust support for Ukraine is essential, if only to make clear to Moscow that the country will continue to pay dearly in blood and treasure for Putin’s brutal ambitions. Biden has said he will soon make a major speech on Ukraine to bolster US support, and that seems the right thing to do. The US has committed nearly $44 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the invasion, not a small amount, but also just a drop in the very large bucket of the more than $6 trillion the federal government is projected to spend this year. The investment is worth it.

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Democrats are now positioned to go down in history as the party that stood for democracy and against dictatorship. Will Republicans join them? The answer seems less clear than ever.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.