When the Fox News hosts asked the eight Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage last week who would not support continued funding for Ukraine, only Vivek Ramaswamy raised his hand.
The 38-year-old entrepreneur and political newcomer has laid out a radical stance on foreign policy, featuring what his critics see as a Putin-friendly proposal to end the Ukraine war.
Ramaswamy wants to cede territory taken by Russia in eastern Ukraine in return for Moscow exiting its military alliance with China. He would also block Ukraine’s candidacy to the Western security alliance NATO and end U.S. sanctions on Russia.
It’s a position that has found little public support from fellow Republicans, but Americans are growing more tired of financing the war. And the two leading candidates for the GOP nomination, former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have shared Ramaswamy’s skepticism of U.S. support for Kyiv.
Justin Logan, the director of defense and foreign policy studies at the conservative think tank Cato Institute, said Ramaswamy is echoing popular themes presented by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson about the Ukraine war “pushing Russians into the arms of the Chinese.”
“I would suspect that you would see a continued erosion of Republican support for funding Ukraine,“ Logan said. “And then independents, who are not as partisan on the issue one way or the other, kind of calling balls and strikes, [asking if this is] good money.”
Logan, however, said ceding territory is “a little bit less popular than these more abstract ideas of breaking apart Sino-Russian alliances.”
Recent polling has shown that Americans are about evenly split on whether to continue sending Ukraine money, as some Republicans argue that tax dollars should be focused on domestic issues like disaster responses.
Meena Bose, the chairwoman of presidential studies at Hofstra University, said Ramaswamy is speaking to Americans frustrated with conditions at home and delivering them a “very simplistic” foreign policy message.
But extended scrutiny could break apart his policy platform, she said.
“It’s not clear that this will hold up,” Bose said. “This will be a topic that Ramaswamy will be pressed on in a lot more detail.”
He’s already come under fire. On the debate stage last week in Milwaukee, Wis., Ramaswamy’s foreign policy stances came under attack from former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Haley called out Ramaswamy’s lack of foreign policy experience, saying his refusal to back Ukraine was playing into the hands of the “murderer” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia,” Haley said. “You don’t do that to friends … Ukraine is a front line of defense. Putin has said once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. That’s a world war. We are trying to prevent war.”
Ramaswamy said the U.S. should refocus military strength at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think this is disastrous,” Ramaswamy said of Ukraine support, ”that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border.”
Ramaswamy said in an email to The Hill that “ceasing Russia’s growing military alliance with China” should be the foremost priority after Moscow and Beijing signed a treaty in 2001 to establish closer relations and cemented the bond in 2022.
“The Sino-Russia alliance presents the greatest military risk the U.S. has ever faced. Russia and China together outmatch the U.S. in every area of great power competition,” Ramaswamy said in the statement. “But in absence of Russia’s support, China would have to think twice before risking war with the U.S. over Taiwan.”
As part of the deal, Russia would “permanently suspend all military-technical cooperation and joint military exercises with China,” unpause a major nuclear pact with the U.S. and pull back its nuclear weapons abroad, Ramaswamy said.
Along with reestablishing diplomatic ties, Ramaswamy says the plan would bring Russia “into the security infrastructure of Europe, reducing future catalysts that Russia could use as pretexts to invade its neighbors.”
It’s unclear if Russia would even accept such a deal. Ukraine and NATO allies are also unlikely to back those terms, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly saying that Kyiv will not cede any Ukrainian territory in a peace deal.
Ramaswamy’s proposal echoes Trump’s claim that he is the one person capable of ending the war within 24 hours. The former president, however, has stayed away from offering details.
Michael Genovese, the president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University, said Trump, as the de facto leader of the GOP, can afford to be nonspecific. It also has allowed him to avoid the blowback now facing Ramaswamy.
“When Ramaswamy set out the plan, that’s when his whole argument collapsed, because it’s basically conceding defeat in giving up Ukraine to the Russians,” he said. “It’s everything that we would not as a country normally stand for.”
“Donald Trump can get away with that because he will be unspecific,” Genovese continued. “Ramaswamy being so specific, he has laid out a plan for disaster.”
DeSantis faced backlash earlier this year when he said the Ukraine-Russia war was a “territorial dispute.” He declined to raise his hand on the debate stage last week, indicating he would support Ukraine, though he said Europe should be footing more of the bill.
The candidates appear to be tapping into a growing desire among Americans to end the war, or at least scale back U.S. spending on it, but the divide among GOP candidates points to a broader debate over how America can help that happen.
Trump has suggested withholding arms from Ukraine if it isn’t moving toward peace, while President Biden insists that America should continue arming Ukraine until it ousts Russia or decides to negotiate an end to the war.
The partisan divide among voters is starting to show too. An Aug. 4 CNN poll found 62 percent of Democrats support continued funding for Ukraine, while 71 percent of Republicans oppose it.
In the coming months, the Ukraine question is likely to be influenced by Kyiv’s failures or successes on the battlefield. In its ongoing counteroffensive, Ukraine is struggling to achieve a breakthrough, as Ramaswamy pointed out.
Congress is also gearing up for a spending fight that could signal whether the strong support for Ukraine, which has so far held up on both sides of the aisle, will continue.
Ramaswamy, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle in the election. He saw an increase of unfavorability among Republicans in a poll after the debate and remains third in the race, behind DeSantis and Trump.
Bose, of Hofstra University, said it was unclear where primary voters will be in early 2024 on Ukraine. But she noted that “working with Ukraine to end the war could potentially become part of the Republican Party platform.”
“Without a doubt, the desire to see an end to the war in Ukraine strikes a chord for many Americans,” she said. “How that’s achieved is an entirely different story.”