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Opinion: Washington’s turmoil plays right into Putin’s hands

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — If you’ve found this week’s spectacle in the US House of Representatives gripping and more than a little baffling, imagine how it looked for the people of Ukraine, whose life-and-death struggle to defend their country from Russia’s invasion risks suffering yet another demoralizing and dangerous blow as the result of the Republican Party’s mind-boggling infighting.

As is well known by now, a band of far-right GOP legislators removed now-former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday night, days after he prevented them from shutting down the government by reaching a deal with House Democrats to fund operations for 45 days.

That late Saturday night agreement left out urgently needed military funding for Ukraine. Ukrainians reacted with anxiety. And that was before McCarthy was dethroned and the Speaker’s chair was left empty, with the outlook for support for Ukraine in limbo as the result of almost-incomprehensible political games in Washington.

When asked by CNN staff in Kyiv, Olha Hrubryna, 60, said she’s been following events on Capitol Hill. “I think it’s awful, because the safety of our people depends on financial support,” she said Wednesday. “We will fight to the last, naturally, but (lack of support) means a lot of losses.” Volodymyr Kostiak, a Ukrainian serviceman, called it all political games related to the 2024 US elections, telling CNN, “We [Ukrainians] are hostages to this process.”

Ukrainian news outlets tried to explain this latest crisis for Kyiv at a time when the horizon is starting to look rather grim.

While the Congress tangled itself in MAGA madness, Slovakia, a member of NATO and the European Union, gave first place in parliamentary elections to the populist Pro-Russian candidate Robert Fico, who has vowed not to send “a single bullet” to Ukraine if he’s able to form a coalition as prime minister.

In the meantime, a top NATO official warned that the arsenal for supporting Ukraine is running low. “The bottom of the barrel is now visible,” said Adm. Rob Bauer of the Royal Dutch Navy, chairman of NATO’s Military Committee.

Ukrainians have been fighting ferociously to defend their country, and it’s hard to imagine that would ever stop. But the odds for victory would shrink if the US withdraws its support. And a loss for Ukraine would constitute a defeat for NATO, for the US, and for the democratic world.

A Russian victory would not only empower Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly telegraphed his wishes to reconstitute the former Soviet Union, and even larger Russian Empire, it would also embolden other autocracies – like China – to expand their borders by force.

However poorly the war has gone for Russia, which expected a swift victory, this new turn of events is playing right into Putin’s plans; plans we long suspected but have now been confirmed by his spokesman.

The Kremlin’s Dmitry Peskov described the scenario: “Fatigue over this conflict,” he said, “will grow in various countries, including the US.” He added, “Fatigue will lead to the fragmentation of the political establishment.”

Putin is counting on a divided United States, with former President Donald Trump – who declared Putin a “genius” as he moved to annex pieces of Ukraine, and never uttered a negative word about the Russian autocrat while in office – to stoke antipathy toward Ukraine, fueling it with questions about the cost of supporting it.

The European Union is trying to calm Kyiv’s fears. EU foreign ministers traveled to Kyiv this week, holding their first ever meeting in a third country as a sign of enduring support. The EU’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, said, “Let’s see what will happen in the US, but from our side, we will continue supporting and increasing our support.”

President Joe Biden has also offered reassurance, but without question there’s reason for concern.

The political turmoil and growing extremism now infecting the Republican Party could put poison in the pipeline of support.

Europeans, contrary to the claims of demagogues running for president, are spending heavily to support Ukraine. In fact, as a share of GDP, they are contributing more than the US. In some cases much, much more. But the bulk of the military assistance comes from Washington. That’s because the United States has by far the world’s largest military arsenal.

Even so, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted, claims from opponents of aid that the US is spending too much in Ukraine, and that somehow that affects spending on other areas, don’t hold up to scrutiny. Total US aid to Ukraine totals less than one-third of one percent (0.03%) of GDP, and less than 5% of the defense budget.

Krugman argues that the real reason the far-right opposes Ukraine aid is because they, the most devoted admirers of Trump, “view the Putin regime’s cruelty and repression as admirable features that America should emulate.”

I don’t know how many Republicans in Congress think the US should emulate Putin. But there’s no doubt that America’s far-right nationalists do. Just days after Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, with much of the world aghast at the unfolding invasion, white nationalists held their America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC). Their meeting erupted in a round of applause for the Russian president, with delegates shouting “Putin! Putin!”

What happens in Washington in the days, weeks, and months ahead will go a long way in determining the fate of Ukraine and the outcome of the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.

The Ukrainian ambassador in Washington, Oksana Markarova, says she’s in contact with potential incoming speakers. “I can only say that we lead a good and constructive dialogue with the vast majority of potential candidates and her teams,” she wrote.

But some of the potential candidates would spell trouble. A report card of GOP members’ votes on Ukraine prepared by Defending Democracies Together, gives Rep. Steve Scalise a score of B, or “Okay.” But Rep. Jim Jordan, the firebrand Trump supporter, scores an F, “Very Poor.” And he’s not alone. He voted against four of five bills supporting Ukraine as it sought to defend itself from a Russian invasion, which is now in its 20th month.

Depending on how it plays out, the outcome of this crisis — and of the mayhem in the GOP — will be felt acutely in Ukraine; it will affect the security of Europe, and could shape America’s standing for years to come.

Asked if Ukraine would be able to fight without US military support, 37-year-old Olha said, “Of course, we will fight — but it will be many times bloodier.”

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