Last week’s heated exchange at the first GOP presidential primary debate on the Ukraine War between businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley reflected growing concerns by the American people and Congress about the Biden Administration’s Ukraine policy and whether the U.S. should continue providing military aid to Ukraine.
At the heart of the Ramaswamy/Haley argument over the Ukraine War is the ultimate goal of American policy on the war. Ramaswamy’s position, though far from perfect, generally adheres to the America First principles of prioritizing the security of the American people, keeping America out of unnecessary wars, and focusing on actual threats to U.S. security like the southern border and China. Meanwhile, Haley’s interventionist position, with no exit strategy and no limiting principle on foreign aid, is closer to President Biden’s.
During the debate, Ramaswamy was the only candidate to firmly oppose more U.S. military support for Ukraine. (Governor Ron DeSantis said he opposed more U.S. funding for Ukraine unless European states stepped up to “pull their weight).”
Ramaswamy said he wants U.S. military resources to be used to defend the U.S. southern border instead of defending Ukraine’s borders. He also stated that the Ukraine conflict is not a U.S. vital interest and is worried that the U.S. is “driving Russia further into China’s arms” by giving billions of dollars to Ukraine and that “the Russia-China military alliance is the biggest threat we face and nobody in either political party is talking about it.”
Haley took umbrage at Ramaswamy’s comments, claiming that Ukraine is “a front line of defense” in Europe and called it a “pro-American country that was invaded by a thug.” Haley also claimed that Russian President Putin has said, “once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics are next.” (There is no evidence Putin has said this).
Haley personally attacked Ramaswamy for his position on the Ukraine war, accusing him of “choosing a murderer over a pro-American country” and added, “You will make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Former Vice President Pence and former Governor Chris Christie echoed Haley’s comments. Pence accused Ramaswamy of making Ukraine a “giveaway” to Putin that would lead Russia to invade NATO. He also called for peace through strength and America standing for freedom.
Although Ramaswamy’s position was far from perfect, it was largely in line with the America First approach to U.S. national security. I strongly agree with him that countering the growing Russia/China axis should be a higher U.S. national security priority than the Ukraine War.
That said, some of Ramaswamy’s proposals on the war in Ukraine are naïve and troubling. He has proposed conceding to Russia the Ukrainian territory it has seized and barring NATO membership to Ukraine in exchange for a peace agreement and Russia ending its military alliance with China. Ramaswamy also said he would end sanctions on Russia and bring it back into the world market.
These proposals are far too generous to Putin and would set bad precedents because they do not require any accountability for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Hass has proposed a better way to broker a peace agreement: make this dispute a frozen conflict with a DMZ patrolled by peacekeepers. Ukraine would not drop its demand to return to its 1991 borders, and the world would not recognize Russia’s annexation of any Ukrainian territory. Instead, a diplomatic process would begin that would not fully lift sanctions against Russia or normalize relations until it agrees to a peace agreement acceptable to Ukraine.
In addition, taking NATO membership off the table for a period of time as part of a peace settlement – possibly 25 years – would be a far better approach than permanently barring it from joining the alliance. A peace agreement also must require Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine, possibly by placing a levy on its energy sales.
It is understandable that Ambassador Haley and other Republicans at the debate rejected Ramaswamy’s approach because they did not want to reward Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. However, their rebuttals mainly consisted of platitudes, false assumptions, and wishful thinking.
Haley and other Republican debaters contended that America must continue to arm Ukraine because Russia’s invasion is immoral, violates American principles of democracy and freedom, and could lead to a future Russian war with NATO countries involving U.S. armed forces. President Biden frequently makes similar arguments and has vowed to provide a high level of U.S. military support to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
Ambassador Haley and Vice President Pence used these arguments to seize the moral high ground on the Ukraine War and to discredit Ramaswamy. But despite problems with some of Ramaswamy’s proposals, their efforts to moralize the war were not credible because they don’t have a plan for Ukraine to win or to end the war.
Moreover, the argument that Haley, Pence, and Biden have made that a Russian victory in Ukraine will be followed by a Russian invasion of Poland, the Baltic States, and other NATO countries is groundless and unbelievable. There is no evidence Putin that has ever planned to risk a nuclear war by invading a NATO country. In fact, Putin said in 2015, “[O]nly an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO.” And even if Putin had a secret plan to invade NATO members after Russia successfully occupied Ukraine, this is no longer feasible because his army has been devastated.
As I explained in a recent American Greatness article, many moderate Members of Congress have concluded the war is unwinnable and will likely become a prolonged war of attrition. Given Russia’s superior resources, especially manpower, Ukraine likely would lose such a war of attrition.
This is why President Trump said in May during a CNN town hall on whether he wants Ukraine to win the conflict, “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing, I think in terms of getting it settled so we can stop killing all those people.”
Vivek Ramaswamy has made some mistakes in his proposals to end the Ukraine War, but he realizes that the Biden Administration’s approach to the war is feckless and unsustainable. I hope Mr. Ramaswamy quickly fine tunes his proposals on the war so they are not so generous to Russia and holds Russia accountable.
Ambassador Haley is in no position to lecture Ramaswamy on the Ukraine War because her position is little different from President Biden’s, who wants to shovel U.S. tax dollars and U.S. arms at Ukraine because he is angry at Putin’s invasion but not in support of a plan to reverse it. Biden, Haley, Pence, and the other Republican debaters are oblivious to the reality that their approach likely will not only fail to improve the lot of the Ukrainian people; it probably will make it worse. They don’t seem to grasp that idealism, good intentions, and hope alone cannot be the basis of a responsible U.S. foreign policy.
All in all, the heated exchange over the Ukraine War at the GOP primary debate was valuable because it allowed the American people to see an honest debate of this crucial national security issue that the news media and the Biden Administration would prefer to sweep under the rug. Let’s hope all of the GOP debaters learned from this exchange to forge a better U.S. policy that puts the interests of America first and includes a responsible U.S. policy to end the Ukraine War as soon as possible.
Fred Fleitz served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.