What Putin will take away from the first Republican presidential debate

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If Vladimir Putin was watching the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, he would have found one more reason to dig in for a long war of attrition in Ukraine.

Fierce rhetorical clashes over the conflict laid bare a widening split in the GOP between Donald Trump’s “America First” creed and the increasingly eclipsed hawkish internationalism once epitomized by President Ronald Reagan.

The showdown could have deep implications for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s effort to eject Russian forces from all of Ukrainian soil as it will put the multi-billion dollar American aid pipeline on which he relies in serious doubt.

If President Joe Biden wins reelection next year, he’s unlikely to desert Ukraine – though increasing skepticism among American voters about his government’s generosity towards Kyiv could make it harder to pass massive aid packages through Congress. But if Trump or another like-minded Republican wins the presidency, the US could cede its role as leader of the West supporting Ukraine’s fight for survival. This, along with Kyiv’s slower-than-expected summer offensive, could also change the geopolitical dynamics surrounding the war and increase outside pressure on Zelensky and among wavering European states for a settlement while Biden is still in the White House.

But Putin’s calculations may be shaped by the possibility of a new US president who is not committed to the war.

While Trump wasn’t on stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday – he skipped the debate, saying he was too far ahead in the primary for it to be worth his while – the populist, transactional foreign policy transformation he triggered in the party was on full display.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy acted as Trump’s stand-in, mining a deep seam of skepticism over the war among GOP grassroots voters.

“Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said. “And I think that the same people that took us into (the) Iraq War, the same people who took us into the Vietnam War, you cannot … start another no-win war. And I do not want to get to the point where we’re sending our military resources abroad when we could be better using them here at home to protect our own borders.”

Ramaswamy may not be poised to win the GOP nomination, but he represents a strong strain of thought in the party – one that is best epitomized by Trump himself, who has improbably promised to end Russia’s war in Ukraine within 24 hours if he’s elected. The only way he could do that would be to force Ukraine to capitulate fully to Putin’s demands.

The problem for Ukraine is that the 2024 GOP candidates who are most in support of continuing US assistance – in other words, most vehemently opposed to the views expressed by Ramaswamy, which are also increasingly widely shared in the GOP-led House of Representatives – have a long-shot chance to win the nomination.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who recently returned from Ukraine, warned: “This is the Vladimir Putin, who Donald Trump called brilliant and a genius. If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next.”

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, meanwhile, made an impassioned case for continuing to support Ukraine – rejecting the idea, which many Republicans now voice, that the war is a distraction from a broader and more threatening geopolitical clash with China.

“The American president needs to have moral clarity. … When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug,” the former South Carolina governor said. “So when you want to talk about what has been given to Ukraine, less than 3.5% of our defense budget has been given to Ukraine,” she added. (Haley’s figure was slightly under the actual 5% share of the US defense budget, CNN’s fact checking team found.)

“A win for Russia is a win for China. We have to know that. Ukraine is the first line of defense for us.”

Like Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence called for continued support for Ukraine, voicing sentiments that once held sway in a party that won the Cold War but now contains an influential faction that mirrors Trump’s support for Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB. Pence lectured the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, whom he called a “rookie” that America could not afford to put in the Oval Office. “If we do the giveaway that you want to give to Putin to give him his land, it’s not going to be too long (before) he rolls across a NATO border. And frankly, our men and women of our armed forces are going to have to go and fight him,” Pence said.

The closest Republican candidate to Trump in most polls is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who caused a storm earlier this year by referring to the war in Ukraine – precipitated by an illegal invasion of a sovereign country – as a territorial dispute. At the debate, DeSantis appeared keen to get credit for skepticism about the war while also trying to avoid raising fresh questions about his suitability to serve as commander in chief.

“As president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people,” DeSantis said. “That means you’re sending all this money, but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border.”

DeSantis also said he’d demand a greater effort by European powers to save Ukraine. The Florida governor then added: “I’m not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our southern border.” His comment was disingenuous, because no one – not even Ukraine’s strongest US supporters – are advocating sending US troops into the war since that would cause a direct clash with Russia that could escalate into a Third World War.

The debate underscored one of the tragedies of the war for Ukraine. However hard and heroically its people fight, they are dependent on the US and its allies for weapons needed to repel Russia’s invasion. They can’t control what Putin does, which means their fate will also be on the ballot in the US in 2024.

Sumber: www.cnn.com

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