Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As the Biden administration prepared to deploy additional US troops to Eastern Europe amid a Russian troop buildup, and members of Congress worked on drafting sanctions in case Russian President Vladimir Putin launches another invasion of Ukraine, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he thinks the United States should give into one of Putin’s demands about Ukraine.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Hawley essentially argued that the United States should declare it will not support Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO – a key Russian objective, among others. He said bringing Ukraine into the alliance would likely harm US interests and maintained that “now is exactly the right time” to make that clear.
Hawley maintains that he supports Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity and says the United States should deliver assistance to Ukraine. But he insists that Washington should make clear Ukraine will never join NATO, as Putin demands. His letter, despite the nuance, essentially places him in one of the two main branches of today’s Republican Party – the Donald Trump-Tucker Carlson branch, which preaches a kind of isolationism, strongly advocating against US involvement abroad. Meanwhile, many traditional and moderate conservatives continue to support a robust defense of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
It is unclear which branch will emerge dominant. But it is clear that the Ukraine crisis is quickly becoming a litmus test for Trumpist Republicans. Some GOP candidates running for congressional seats in 2022 are hoping to sidestep the matter altogether, while others are trying to emulate the former president’s line that Biden should send troops to the US-Mexico border instead of obsessing about Ukraine’s borders.
If the Trump-Carlson branch becomes dominant, and Republicans win control of Congress in the midterm elections, US foreign policy will be roiled. Presidents generally have more freedom of action and less congressional constraints when it comes to matters of foreign policy, but Trumpist legislators could try to undermine Biden’s efforts to resist Putin’s goal of establishing a Russian sphere of influence beyond his country’s borders.
As Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Carlson critic on this issue, noted in response to pro-Putin comments by the Fox News host, “Putin is not the only one watching us in Ukraine. (China’s) President Xi (Jinping) is watching us,” as are US allies around the world. Caving to Putin would embolden aggressive autocrats everywhere.
The Trump-Carlson wing does not appear disturbed by the global spread of autocracy. In fact, many of its followers rather admire strongmen who crush their foes, as we saw during the past administration, and in Carlson’s willingness to kowtow to Putin and his obsequious embrace of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
But Hawley’s analysis, much like Carlson’s, is patently disingenuous. He surely knows that this standoff with Putin, from the US perspective, is not simply about Ukraine. It’s about a number of basic principles, including the paramount notion that the United States cannot change its foreign policy in response to a threat of the use of force by one of its adversaries, as Putin is doing by deploying thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border.
Hawley knows NATO is not about to welcome Ukraine as a member any time soon. And he knows it is Russia that poses a threat to its neighbors, not the other way around, as Putin claims. And yet, Hawley is asking Biden to capitulate to Putin.
One can only imagine how he and his fellow critics of the current administration would lambast Biden if he surrendered to the Russian president’s threats, as he recommends.
Many Republicans in Congress support Biden’s twin-track response to Putin’s attempt to dictate the affiliations of independent countries in Russia’s vicinity. Biden has launched a muscular diplomatic offensive coordinated with NATO allies and held high-level talks with Russian officials, while warning of stiff economic sanctions and boosting the military defenses of Ukraine and now of the United States’ allies in Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Poland.
While top Republicans in the Senate – like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others – have spoken up forcefully against Putin’s designs on Ukraine, Carlson has used his television show as little more than a propaganda vehicle for the Kremlin. The nightly program brings such a reliable stream of Kremlin talking points that Russian television routinely plays lengthy clips of the Fox News host.
Like Hawley, Carlson has claimed that Putin “just wants to keep his western borders secure,” without noting that it is Russia that has crossed Ukraine’s borders, invading and seizing Ukrainian territory.
In recent years, Carlson has sided openly with Putin – at least when it comes to Ukraine. He’s doubling down now, feigning open-mindedness. “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia, but loyal to side with Ukraine?” he asks now, wondering why not side with the country that is violating multiple international agreements, where government critics have fallen out of windows or been poisoned; a country that has launched repeated malign actions against the United States.
Carlson routinely ridicules Republicans who oppose Russia on Ukraine, calling one a “moron,” another a “neocon buffoon” and yet another “ignorant.” In doing so, he’s slashing a deep gash across the GOP.
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That gash, that rift within the Republican Party, could ultimately determine what happens to the United States’ place in the world in the years to come, and how the arc of democracy bends across the globe in the near future. If the anti-interventionist wing comes to dominate the GOP, and the party takes power – whether in Congress in 2023 or the White House in 2025 – the United States will find it harder to advocate for self-determination for independent countries, and for freedom and democracy for their people.
Hawley has staked his position. He’s betting that the Republican Party, with or without Trump, will follow a Trumpian path to victory. He wants that to be his victory, too, even if it means Ukraine comes under Putin’s heel and autocracy continues spreading across the globe.