A surprising meeting of the minds amid a storm of bad-faith populism.
Why are we spending $40 billion on Ukraine instead of on baby formula? the MAGA nationalists demand to know. Well, (a) the baby-formula shortage is a regulatory problem, not a funding problem. And (b) as all but the most pathetic anti-anti-Putinites understand, it’s in America’s own long-term interest to have a highly motivated foreign military smash Putin’s army on a rock for us.
Frankly, the question should be turned around. When was the last time we got as much bang for our buck on defense spending as we’re going to get from this $40 billion outlay on Ukraine? We spent $2.3 trillion on Afghanistan over 20 years and our reward was watching the country fall back into Taliban hands. For a little less than two percent of that amount, we’re helping the Ukrainians destroy fascist Russia’s major-power status on a global stage and set the Russian military back God knows how many years.
Within the past hour, despite Rand Paul’s best efforts to the contrary, the bill finally passed the Senate:
The Senate has voted 86-11 to PASS the House-passed $40 billion Ukraine aid package, sending the bill to President Biden’s desk for his signature.
11 GOP NOs:
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) May 19, 2022
It’s no surprise that the man who once famously called Russia our number-one geopolitical foe is ready to spend this money. Romney’s an old-school hawk. If we could humiliate the Russians in the 1980s by funding Afghanistan’s mujahedeen, we can humiliate them now by funding a friendly European power:
Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom while being brutally violated by Russia. I will be voting for the Ukraine bill because it is in America’s interest to do so. And it is also simply the right thing to do. I am proud to stand with the freedom-loving people of Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/iV1SlY7c81
— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) May 19, 2022
Another populist argument against aid to Ukraine is that it’s dangerous to keep this war going given the risks of escalation. I’m sympathetic to that one; there’s no higher-stakes bet than gambling that a humiliated Putin won’t go nuclear. But yanking aid to Ukraine for fear of what Putin might do would be appeasement in its rawest form. It would incentivize him to engage in nuclear brinksmanship in all of his future foreign adventures, expecting that the quivering west will back down. “Provocative weakness” is a thing, especially to a character who obsesses over strength.
Beyond that, read this thread from historian Timothy Snyder about the Putin “virtual reality” sphere. Figures like Emmanuel Macron worry that Putin needs to “save face” in Ukraine or else he’s apt to do something desperate. Snyder counters that the Russian people are in a propaganda bubble so thick that Putin can’t lose face, realistically. Even if the Ukrainians run his troops off the battlefield, he’ll concoct some narrative to sell to Russians to make it look like a victory. And they’ll eat it up with a spoon.
When Russia invaded Ukraine this February, the media quickly adjusted from saying that invasion was impossible to saying it was inevitable. Russians went along. 6/17
— Timothy Snyder (@TimothyDSnyder) May 17, 2022
It is senseless to create an "off-ramp" in the real world, when all Putin needs is one in a virtual world he completely controls. Talking of "off-ramps" just gives Russian leaders something to laugh about in what are otherwise difficult times. 8/17
— Timothy Snyder (@TimothyDSnyder) May 17, 2022
“Ending the war means thinking more about the Ukrainian people and their future, and and worrying less about problems that Putin does not in fact have,” Snyder concludes. I sense that Romney would agree.
Cruz is more of a mystery. He’s a populist, and not just any populist but one who’s hoping to inherit Donald Trump’s voters once Trump retires. He tends to keep pace with Josh Hawley in the Senate, knowing that Hawley covets the same niche. Hawley voted against the Ukraine aid bill, however, while Cruz voted for it. How come?
He gave a 25-minute floor speech in the Senate last night laying out his reasons but provided the Cliff’s Notes version to Mark Levin earlier in the day:
Putin is an enemy of America. He wants to make Americans' lives less safe and more expensive.
It is overwhelmingly in America's national security interest that Ukraine continue winning significant victories against Russia. Right now they are running out of what they need. pic.twitter.com/W4IqzJ4qa4
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) May 17, 2022
He throws populists a couple of bones, allowing that he would have preferred a less generous package and blaming Biden for creating the predicate for war through — ta da — provocative weakness. If we hadn’t withdrawn from Afghanistan so shabbily, if the White House hadn’t waived sanctions on Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, maybe Putin wouldn’t have assumed the west’s response to Russia invading Ukraine would be weak. Former Trump advisor Fiona Hill also believes Putin thought Biden would react feebly to Russian aggression:
One of the reasons Putin invaded Ukraine with President Joe Biden in the White House was that he expected the US to “sue for peace” and thought it would be better to deal with Biden than trying to negotiate with someone like Trump, whom the Russian leader had “to explain everything to all the time,” Hill, who served as the top Russia advisor on the National Security Council under Trump, said Tuesday at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event…
“You could see that he got frustrated many times with President Trump because he had to keep explaining things, and Putin doesn’t like to do that,” Hill said, adding: “Even though he loves to be able to spin his own version of events, he wants to have predictability in the person that he’s engaging with.”
There’s something in that for both parties. For Republicans, it’s evidence that Trump is right when he claims Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if he’d won reelection. For Democrats, it’s evidence that Putin badly misjudged Biden’s willingness and ability to forge a western coalition that would make this war painful for him.
Anyway, back to Cruz. Maybe he’s enough of a hawk by instinct that his desire to see Putin defeated trumps his electoral instincts to pander to populists. But I doubt it. Cruz always has a plan when it comes to the next presidential primary, and in this case he’s probably expecting that Republican voters will remain hawkish towards Russia through 2024. Further to that point, a new YouGov poll finds GOPers support sending financial aid to Ukrainians by a 58/23 spread and sending weapons by a 65/17 margin. If the Ukrainians win the war, those numbers will balloon after the fact; everyone wants to be on the winning side, after all. If so, it’ll be easy for Cruz to explain why he supported the bill in hindsight. It’ll be hard for Hawley to explain why he didn’t.
Here’s the key bit from last night’s speech in which he explains why he’s voting for the Senate bill. A MAGA hawks versus MAGA doves battle in 2024 would be fascinating, assuming you-know-who doesn’t run.
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