Al Cross: McConnell campaigns hard for more military support of Ukraine

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has become one of the most outspoken advocates of stronger support for Ukraine, even as his party displays a deeper split on the issue.

McConnell made his position clear last Friday at the Munich Security Conference, repeatedly calling for accelerating and expanding military aid to Ukraine.

“I think we ought to be giving them what they need to win the war as soon as possible,” he told a questioner who said NATO’s incremental approach to military support was “setting ourselves up for a forever war, giving them just enough to survive but not to win.” McConnell replied, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

He said the U.S. and its allies have been “all too tentative” in making decisions, “out of some vague notion that we’re going to provoke Vladimir Putin. Ladies and gentlemen, he’s provoked, right? He’s provoked. And none of these efforts … where we’ve sort of pulled our punches in the hope that he would somehow change direction have had any impact at all.”

McConnell also said, “How many times has he threatened to do things since the war began? You can’t make the Ukrainian strategy or the NATO strategy dependent on what Putin claims he might do; then he’s determining how the war is conducted. . . . All these hypotheticals are interesting discussions, but those of us who are actually voting on these matters, I think we need to focus like a laser on what’s needed right now. That is getting the Ukrainians the weapons they need, as rapidly as they can, because winning is the answer to this. Winning is the answer.”

That last line reflects the essence of McConnell’s highly successful career, a cold-eyed focus on winning. In his Kentucky elections, he has been able to do that by making his opponents the main issue, but he is nationally unpopular, and that will undermine his stated goal of persuading Americans that they should be the “arsenal of democracy,” as he said in a speech at the conference. (He said the billions in U.S. support so far is only 0.02 percent of our gross domestic product.)

Before McConnell left for Munich, he told Fox News, “I am going to try to help explain to the American people that defeating the Russians in Ukraine is the single most important event going on in the world right now.”

He may also be trying to persuade some in Biden’s administration. An unnamed “senior U.S. official” told The Washington Post that Ukraine must be reminded that “We can’t do anything and everything forever.”

Asked about that during a panel discussion at the conference, McConnell had a blunt reply, “That’s obviously a person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” which drew a chuckle from French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. “The people who are actually elected to office and who actually make the decisions about how long America is committed to this think Russia has to lose in Ukraine, and we can’t put a time limit on it,” a key point of the panel moderator’s questioning.

 “We’re in this to win, because losing is not an option,” McConnell said. “Imagine how much it would cost all of us, all of us, if Russia won. And what about the implications in the Far East? When the prime minister of Japan says the single most important thing you can do to send a message to President Xi [Jinping of China] is to beat Putin in Ukraine, you know this has worldwide implications. So we need to change our thinking. . . . Peace through strength is the only way to deal, not only with the present, but with the future.” That won applause from the crowd.

McConnell said he was speaking for most Republicans, but he meant members of Congress. An NBC News poll last month found that Republican voters opposed “more funding and weapons to Ukraine” by 2 to 1. McConnell told the Post that Republican opponents in Congress are getting too much attention, but the issue is getting more attention as the race for the Republican presidential nomination ramps up.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox on Monday that Biden et al. “have effectively a blank-check policy with no clear, strategic objective identified, and these things can escalate, and I don’t think it’s in our interests to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea,” the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

As some of his fellow Republicans make political hay of a world crisis, it’s good to see McConnell draw a firm line. We’re in a new Cold War, escalated by a hot one. The world is a more dangerous place, and Americans need to think long and hard about it.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.