With that, the two politicians leading in 2024 Republican presidential primary polls — DeSantis and former president Donald Trump — have broken with the party’s Senate leadership on Ukraine policy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said this month that “defeating the Russians in Ukraine is the single most important event going on in the world right now,” and he assured the Munich Security Conference that “people in power” in the GOP remain committed to the cause.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is a Russia hawk who is acutely aware of intra-GOP dynamics. Cotton, 45, was a strong supporter of Trump’s foreign policy. He maintains ties to the younger populist Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and J.D. Vance (Ohio) — vocal critics of U.S. policy on Ukraine — as well as to party leadership.
I caught up with Cotton in Israel, on the sidelines of the Hertog Forum for National Security, to assess the party’s Ukraine divide. “I think the media makes more of Republican divisions than they would of Democratic divisions,” Cotton says, adding that foreign-policy differences within the GOP “pale in comparison to the difference we have with Democrats.”
He believes that Republicans are focused on advancing the United States’ “vital national security interests,” as opposed to “improving the social and economic and political conditions of other peoples, much as we might like to see them improved,” and criticized President Biden for justifying the war in those terms. Biden frames the war as a clash between democracy and autocracy, Cotton says, “because he likes to use that line in domestic politics as well” to attack Republicans.
Washington should be “more forceful in the policy and more restrained in our rhetoric” about Ukraine, Cotton says. What would a more forceful policy entail? Delivering weapons that would allow Ukraine to strike “the missile depots and the firing batteries that are on Russian soil.” He’s more willing than conservative voices of restraint to risk Russian escalation.
But Cotton also believes that the United States hasn’t “taken enough diplomatic steps to get Europe to step up, especially on the economic, financial and humanitarian front.” He singles out Britain and Poland for plaudits, and France and Germany for criticism, and adds that “the E.U. itself needs to do much more” in aiding Ukraine.
Moreover, he thinks the U.S. military footprint in Europe can be drawn down. At the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Cotton says, “it was reasonable to have a rapid, relatively large forward-deployed force in Europe.” Now, with Russia’s military bogged down in Ukraine, he does not believe Moscow poses an imminent threat to NATO countries.
Some of the savings could be redirected toward military preparedness in the Pacific to deter China. Cotton says China may pose “the gravest threat we’ve ever faced, even more so than the Soviet version of Russia.”
That’s why he wants the United States to ensure Russia’s ouster from Ukraine. If the Putin regime “holds on to a sizable part of the territory they’ve gained, or even more territory” in Ukraine, it could rebuild its combat power and attack a NATO country several years later.
A continuous “festering wound” in Europe would “force us to stay in this two-front posture” — that is, defending allies in Asia and Europe — “and not in the medium and long run shift more resources to Asia,” Cotton says.
Critics of U.S. involvement say Ukraine’s depletion of the Pentagon’s weapons supplies is undermining deterrence in Asia. The slow production of weapons is “a real risk, and it’s exposed the brittleness and the fragility of our defense industrial base,” Cotton says. Pentagon officials “are patting themselves on the back” for bringing the production of a given weapon from “five years to 18 months,” he adds. “That’s a big improvement, but it really needs to be two or three months, not 18 months.”
The weapons needed, Cotton emphasizes, “are not aircraft carriers. They’re not stealth fighters or bombers. They’re missiles and rockets. They’re advanced missiles and rockets, but they’re missiles and rockets.” The Ukraine war could increase U.S. readiness in Asia if it sparks that kind of defense overhaul.
Cotton has said America’s defense budget, at 3 percent of gross domestic product, is “way too low historically.” During the Cold War, defense budgets usually exceeded 5 percent of GDP. So can Washington afford to help push Russia out of Ukraine while mounting a credible deterrent in the Pacific? Cotton: “I don’t think we can afford not to.”
Nikki Haley, a 2024 GOP presidential candidate, recently said the war is “about freedom.” Trump says it’s a dangerous folly. Cotton frames it instead as a campaign to swiftly create a power balance in Europe that facilitates Washington’s focus on Asia.
If any view can compete with Trump’s in the Republican primary, it will likely sound more like Cotton’s than Haley’s. Republicans are less likely than Democrats to prioritize democracy and human rights in foreign policy and believe China’s territorial ambitions are a greater threat than Russia’s. Meanwhile, the gap between elite European policy priorities and the GOP’s is growing more salient.
Any Republican case for supporting Ukraine must take these concerns seriously. But perhaps the most important determinant of GOP opinion will be the battlefield. Unless Ukraine is on a path to winning — and therefore ending — the war, continued aid to Kyiv could seem to be aggravating Europe’s “festering wound.” If ending the conflict requires the longer-range weapons that Cotton advocates but Biden is unwilling to give, the polarization of domestic opinion is likely to persist as 2024 approaches.