Republicans Are Divided on Russia, But Not on Biden

Senator Mitt Romney speaks with reporters just outside of the Senate chamber during a vote on Capitol Hill on February 10, 2022. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A decade ago, Mitt Romney, who would soon clinch the Republican 2012 presidential nomination, made headlines by telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Russia was “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” In a subsequent general-election debate, President Barack Obama mocked Romney thusly: “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

While Democrats largely joined in the laughter at Old School Mitt, mired in the past, Republicans generally supported Romney’s take (other than the small band of Ron Paul supporters, whose paleoconservative-libertarian approach to international affairs marginalized them as cranks). Nowadays, members of both major U.S. political parties see Romney’s alarums about Russia as more prescient than anachronistic. But Republicans are no longer one the same page about how to respond to Russian aggression.

What does unite Republicans these days is the conviction that President Joe Biden cannot be entrusted with America’s national security. Even where they agree with specific steps Biden has taken in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine, they charge him with being too late, too weak, and having too little credibility to influence the course of events. That sentiment is particularly strong among the Senate Republicans who engaged in bipartisan negotiations in recent weeks aimed at a resolution encouraging sanctions against Russia but ultimately abandoned the effort on grounds that Democrats weren’t willing to impose them immediately.

Senators Mitch McConnell, Tom Cotton, and Tommy Tuberville were prominent among those claiming that Biden should not have waited for overt Russian military action before imposing sanctions on Russia and its economic interests. The senator who probably best exemplifies the fusion of Cold War conservatism and MAGA America First unilateralism, Ted Cruz, distinguished himself well before the current crisis by demanding action to stop the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, even holding up Biden foreign-policy appointments for weeks over the issue.

Closer to the heart of MAGAland, the tendency has been to express ambivalence about the need for direct American efforts to restrain or counter Russia, alongside claims that Trump’s “strength” would have deterred Vladimir Putin from violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 45th president himself has insisted “this never would have happened with us” just before the Russian invasion began and blamed the escalation of events on Biden’s fecklessness, as the Wall Street Journal reported:

In a telephone interview with Fox News late Wednesday night, as Russia launched its invasion, Mr. Trump called the unfolding events a “very sad thing for the world and the country.” He said Mr. Biden hadn’t done enough to dissuade Mr. Putin from invading.

“He was going to be satisfied with a piece and now he sees the weakness and the incompetence and the stupidity of this administration,” Mr. Trump said on Fox News on Wednesday night.

Trump has characteristically mixed his attacks on his successor with gestures of admiration toward Putin for his shrewd ruthlessness. During a fundraiser on Wednesday, he said of the Russian president, “He’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.”

This attitude is shared by some of Trump’s closer associates like former secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a rumored 2024 presidential candidate if Trump does not run), who also went on Fox News recently to call Putin a “very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts,” requiring in response the kind of toughness exhibited by Trump’s administration. “Vladimir Putin is the same person he was during our administration. The only thing that has changed is American leadership.”

Some Trumpy politicians are going further in deploring any serious engagement with Russia over its attack on Ukraine. Missouri senator Josh Hawley opposed the bipartisan resolution calling for tough sanctions against Russia and has claimed the U.S. should be focused on China rather than Russia. Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J. D. Vance is saying the situation “has nothing to do with our national security” and it is “distracting our idiot ‘leaders’ from focusing on the things that actually do matter to our national security, like securing the border & stopping the flow of Fentanyl that’s killing American kids.” And Kentucky senator Rand Paul carried on his father’s tradition by attacking the “bipartisan War Caucus” and arguing that Ukraine should become a neutral “bridge” between Russia and the West.

In the MAGA commentariat, the highly influential Tucker Carlson has taken a tack that one analyst called “anti-anti-Putin,” arguing that conservatives should remain focused on the terrible deeds of Joe Biden instead of the relatively less threatening Putin. And far out there on the right, Ann Coulter, who has been calling for a harsher variant of Trumpism than Trump himself can provide, is arguing that the whole Ukraine crisis has been cooked up by Democrats: “Whenever you see any media talking about Ukraine, your Pavlovian response should be, Oh, I see. They don’t want me to think about immigration or crime.”

So it is very clear that anti-Bidenism is the tie that binds Republicans of every persuasion. And that extends to Mitt Romney, who attacked both Democratic and Republican administrations for being asleep at the wheel, as Fox News reports:

Sen. Mitt Romney laid the blame for Russia’s Wednesday night invasion of Ukraine at the policies of the three most recent U.S. presidents, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden

“Putin’s impunity predictably follows our tepid response to his previous horrors in Georgia and Crimea, our naive efforts at a one-sided ‘reset,’ and the shortsidedness of ‘America First,’” the 2012 Republican presidential nominee added.

In a bitter callback to Obama’s famous 2012 quip, Romney commented: “The ’80s called and we didn’t answer.” He’s one of the few Republican politicians who has been consistent in his take on Russia, though few in his party seemed inclined to follow him down the road to a new Cold War.

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Republicans Are Divided on Russia, But Not on Biden