Pretty dramatic, although the reason for the change is unclear. Here’s what YouGov found when it asked last July whether we should send military aid to Ukraine to fend off Putin. Top row is yes, second is no, third is not sure:
A rare moment of bipartisan consensus. Seven months later, Democrats and independents are pretty much where they were last year. Not Republicans, though:
Nearly a 25-point swing in support. How come? Could be as simple as GOPers digesting seven more months of Russian escalation in eastern Ukraine and concluding that a punch in the face with brass knuckles supplied by Uncle Sam is the only thing that’ll convince Putin to back off. Note, though, that the poll from last July was taken shortly after Russian-backed rebels blew that Malaysian Air passenger jet out of the sky, killing nearly 300 people onboard. Even at the time, Putin’s men had already dangerously escalated the conflict — and yet Republicans were still decidedly opposed to arming Kiev. Why have they shifted, and shifted so dramatically? Makes me wonder if there are partisan tectonics under the surface moving opinion on this: Obama’s resisting sending arms to Ukraine and if there’s one thing Republicans believe, it’s that Obama’s instincts on foreign policy are terrible. After watching him flail against ISIS, make nice with the Castros, and chase a quixotic nuclear deal with Iran, they’re rediscovering the virtues of loud-and-proud hawkishness. With the exception of Rand Paul, whoever wins the nomination will run in 2016 on the idea that Obama is a weak leader whose various military interventions (Libya, Syria, ramping up in Afghanistan) were haphazard and executed without commitment. Supporting arms for Ukraine is a way to plant a flag on that position.
Which is not to say it makes sense. Here’s what happened when YouGov asked people if they’re confident that Obama has a clear plan for U.S. strategy in Ukraine.
Three percent of Republicans are confident that he does. Why would you want to escalate with Putin when you think our side’s being commanded by a doofus? The only explanation, I think, is that Republicans have convinced themselves that Putin’s going to escalate anyway and therefore we might as well get on with it. Here’s what YouGov found when they asked people how likely it is that war between NATO and Russia will break out within the next five years. Top row is “very likely,” then “somewhat likely,” “somewhat unlikely,” “very unlikely,” and “not sure.”
Fifty percent of Republicans think it’s likely, the only group to reach that level of confidence. There’s another reason why GOPers are trending hawkish — they suspect, not unreasonably, that Putin’s fully committed to a new Cold War, whether for ideological reasons or as a useful pretext to protect his fragile regime’s popular support in Russia. Only America can scare him into rethinking a westward push. And only Republican leadership can guarantee that America will be bold enough to try to scare him. In other words, as Putin reverts to Soviet-style expansionism, Republicans are reverting to Reagan-style hawkishness.
That’s bad news for Rand Paul 2016 but is it bad news for Putin? I think the always sensible (and usually hawkish) Michael Totten is spot on about the folly of arming Ukraine. No one believes we’d arm them well enough to make them competitive on the battlefield with the Russian army; the goal, a la Afghanistan and the Soviets, would be to give them enough weapons to bleed the bear slowly until it retreats. Create an intractable guerrilla insurgency there and let time and souring public sentiment in Russia do the rest. That’s fine if you think Ukrainians are up to the task like the mujahedeen were and if you believe that Putin would be willing to retreat to cut his losses, however belatedly. But he won’t, Totten argues. Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan: It’s the birthplace of the Russian state, as Putin himself likes to remind people, and its subjugation is a project in which he’s invested loads of his own political prestige. The self-styled strongman who’s going to restore the nation to Soviet-era glory can’t afford to let Russia’s little brother beat it in a fight, and he really can’t afford to let it happen with — shudder — American help. His image would be shattered. So he’ll go all in, which means we’ll have to go further in too. How far are Americans willing to go to keep eastern Ukraine, which most of us couldn’t find on a map even with hints, out of Putin’s hands?
Exit question: Say, what’s Rand Paul’s position on all this anyway? You can guess what Ron Paul’s position is; I’d guess it’s a fair proxy for libertarian sentiment generally. Rand said something offhand last summer about arming Ukraine, but now that we’ve gotten much closer to that actually happening, I’m curious to see if he’s still willing to do it or if last year’s endorsement was just a throwaway line to buy some cheap hawkish credibility.