- Republicans continue to call Biden weak when it comes to Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.
- But many would not go much further than the president has in terms of his response to the war so far.
- Insider spoke to a number of GOP senators who currently oppose the direct involvement of US troops.
With a war raging in Ukraine right on NATO’s doorstep, Republican lawmakers are toeing a fine line between criticizing President Joe Biden’s response and stopping short of supporting a direct confrontation between the US and Russia.
Since taking office, Biden has signed off on billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, including lethal aid like Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger missiles, and armed drones. The president has also slapped Russia with historic, crippling economic sanctions, including personal sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Republicans continue to accuse Biden of being weak on the matter, even as recent polling shows nearly half of US voters approve of the president’s approach to the war.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, in a tweet on Wednesday said, “Biden’s Ukraine strategy is a disaster.”
Then on Thursday, Cruz said he’s opposed to having US troops join the war effort right now.
“I don’t think we should have US soldiers in direct combat with Russian soldiers,” he told reporters on his way to his Senate office, adding that “tomorrow we’ll deal with the circumstances as they arrive.”
Despite their criticism of Biden on Ukraine, Republican lawmakers in Congress are generally in lockstep with the president when it comes to what it would take for US troops to get involved in the war. A number of Republican senators told Insider that they don’t currently support sending in US troops, but noted that an attack on a NATO member by Russia would trigger a US military response.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said GOP criticism of Biden on Ukraine is politically motivated. “In case you didn’t know already, Republicans see this moment as a political opportunity to score points, not a moment to rally to Ukraine’s defense,” Murphy said in a tweet last week, responding to an attack on Biden from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Biden has firmly ruled out deploying troops into Ukraine to defend it against Russia, and rebuffed Ukraine’s calls for the US and NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. Doing so would require NATO to shoot down Russian warplanes, effectively amounting to a declaration of war. This could see the Ukraine conflict spiral into a global war involving nuclear powers.
Six of the seven Senate Republicans Insider interviewed for this story voted against then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment — Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas wasn’t around then — for withholding $391 million in aid from Ukraine and pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden, then a top political rival, ahead of the 2020 election.
Three of the seven mentioned being in touch with, having met with, or planning to visit US troops from their home states who are currently stationed throughout Europe. And only two of the seven — Cruz and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio — lent their support to the recent omnibus spending bill featuring nearly $14 billion in assistance for Ukraine.
Portman, another Senate Foreign Relations Committee member and co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said that the members of the 82nd Airborne Division who he met during a recent trip to Eastern Europe are already performing an important duty.
“They’re in Poland as a deterrence,” Portman told Insider outside the Senate chamber. “And if that line is crossed, we have Russia and Vladimir Putin on notice that we’re going to respond. As will the other NATO countries.”
He stopped short, however, of endorsing boots on the ground in Ukraine. “That’s not something I support,” Portman said.
Though the president has ruled out sending in troops, the Biden administration has repeatedly warned Russia against any aggression toward NATO members. “The United States will work with our allies to defend every inch of NATO territory, and that means every inch,” national security advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. Sullivan also said the “alliance would respond” even if Russia accidentally or unintentionally launches a strike into NATO territory.
Russian missiles on Sunday hit a Ukrainian military facility that’s hosted NATO drills roughly 15 miles from the border with Poland, bringing the war dangerously close to an alliance member.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top ranking member Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence, said the US would absolutely abide by its commitments to NATO allies.
“If any member state invokes Article Five because they feel threatened, because they’ve been attacked, because they’re about to be attacked, the US has an obligation to defend them and work with them. And we will,” he told Insider on his way to a Senate vote.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said if Putin treads on a NATO ally, the US would have to get involved.
“If Poland was attacked, I’m sure they would invoke Article Five. And I’m sure we would honor that treaty commitment,” Hawley said at the US Capitol.
That is not his preferred outcome, though.
“I’m opposed to US troops being involved and I have been from day one,” said Hawley, who some suspect may wind up in the 2024 presidential mix. Expediting the transfer of the MiGs that Poland has offered Ukraine to combat Russian jets and having the US supply all the defensive weapons possible makes the most sense right now, he said.
Last week, Poland offered to transfer its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s to a US airbase in Germany in order for the aircraft to be sent to Ukraine. The Biden administration ultimately threw cold water on this plan, out of concerns it would provoke Russia. The Russian government has warned the West against sending arms into Ukraine, saying that such shipments could be viewed as “legitimate targets.” But Zelenskyy has continued to push for more weapons from Western powers, including anti-aircraft defense systems and fighter jets.
“I think Putin thought that he was going to be able to just roll right in there and gobble up Ukraine. That isn’t happening for him. And that’s outstanding news,” Hawley said of the ongoing conflict, adding “the Russian military appears to be weaker than we had thought.”
“So now we need to do everything we can in terms of arming the Ukrainians and twisting down the screws on the Russian economy to make sure that Russia loses this bet. And that this becomes a total quagmire for them, and they ultimately pull back from it,” Hawley said.
Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, who is headed to Poland and Germany on Friday with delegation mate Sen. Jerry Moran and others, said he is looking forward to checking on the 3,000 to 4,000 1st Infantry Division members he said just got their stay extended overseas. Putting them in harm’s way sounds like a non-starter for him.
“I will do everything possible to keep American soldiers out of Ukraine and our pilots out of their skies as well,” Marshall told Insider in the tunnels below the Capitol. He’s most interested, he said, in determining what the rest of the world is bringing to the table.
“We have 102,000 American troops that are marching towards the Poland-Ukrainian border. To my knowledge, there’s less than 1,000 European troops outside of the borders of their own nation,” Marshall said of his understanding of the current situation on the ground. “We don’t want this to be an American versus Russia confrontation.”
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, another Armed Services Committee member, declined to map out any red lines or engage in hypotheticals about deploying US troops.
“We should never tell anybody what we’re gonna do,” Scott told Insider on his way through the subway beneath the Capitol.