It’s taken Republicans a little while to figure out their approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but—for now at least—they’ve settled on pretending to be the best friends Ukraine ever had. It falls apart immediately if you look at the Republican record over the past few years, but it’s what they’re going with.
Most notoriously, of course, there are these 10 words: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That’s what Donald Trump said as he withheld military aid in an attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into manufacturing dirt on now-President Joe Biden for Trump’s personal political gain. And every single Republican other than Sen. Mitt Romney thought this was just fine. Great, really. Many actively defended Trump’s actions, which often meant trashing Ukraine. But that’s not all.
In the midst of trying to defend Trump, Rep. Jim Jordan called Ukraine “one of the three most corrupt countries on the planet.” He also condemned efforts to fight corruption in Ukraine as themselves corrupt because Biden was involved.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise has pointed to the same ouster of a corrupt prosecutor in Ukraine as problematic because it involved then-Vice President Biden threatening to withhold aid if the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, wasn’t fired. “If you go back to when Joe Biden was vice president, he bragged about how he withheld a billion dollars in aid to Ukraine, when Joe Biden was vice president, because he said he wanted a prosecutor to get fired, who ultimately from reports we saw was fired,” Scalise said Tuesday. The difference here is that Biden was, as a public matter of administration policy, talking about aid that would be withheld as part of an international anti-corruption effort, with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund also calling for Shokin’s firing. It’s kind of different from a secret phone call and an ask seeking personal benefit.
According to Scalise, “President Zelenskyy had called President Trump to thank him for the leadership that he provided.” In reality, it was part of Zelenskyy’s desperate efforts to get some kind of public show of support from the United States that might help ease the threat Ukraine faced from Russia, and the call came as Trump’s informal emissaries, led by Rudy Giuliani, were pressuring him to announce the very same corrupt investigation that Trump then asked for as “a favor” when Zelenskyy asked to buy Javelin missiles.
In their effort to rewrite how Trump’s first impeachment speaks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Republican view of Ukraine more generally, Republicans like Scalise are returning to an old talking point. “When President Zelenskyy was asking for things like Javelin missiles that the Biden and Obama administration said no to, President Trump said yes and actually helped Ukraine get those tank-busting missiles that they needed and frankly, they’ve been using,” Scalise said. In that, he echoed Trump's February statement claiming, “it was me that got Ukraine the very effective anti-tank busters (Javelins) when the previous Administration was sending blankets.”
The Obama administration didn’t send lethal aid like Javelins in part because officials were concerned that the Ukrainian army didn’t have the capability to use them. But that changed over time—as we’re seeing, the Ukrainian military has dramatically improved since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. What the Obama administration did send was not blankets but UAVs, armored Humvees, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices, and more. And when Trump did send Javelins, it was only after his advisers convinced him that it would be good for U.S. defense contractors.
Now that Republicans have figured out that supporting Ukraine is their best bet, politically speaking, they are all in—to the point where you have to worry they’re going to do their best to provoke a nuclear war. Immediately after the invasion, Republicans were blaming Biden for not having stopped it. They’ve since moved on to blaming him for not doing enough to end it. “If Joe Biden won’t make him pay, the Republican Party must,” Sen. Tom Cotton said in a speech on Monday. But what does that look like when a no-fly zone would mean a world war? That’s the kind of question that needs to take precedence above making a president from the opposite party look bad. But putting anything above partisan concerns is not how Republicans operate.