Will Republicans cut US aid for Ukraine?

The US midterm election results could shatter unity over Ukraine assistance while spurring hawkish China policies.

Green at podium with colleagues on either side
Republican members of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene (speaking), Matt Gaetz and Thomas Massie announcing a resolution calling for an audit of US spending on Ukraine, November 17, 2022 [J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

The 2022 United States midterm elections were predicted to be a grisly affair for President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party. As it turns out, voters had other ideas.

Yes, inflation and high gas prices mattered to them but so did the fear of further losing women’s rights over their own bodies, cherished by most Americans. The result: The Democrats now have the opportunity to create a single-vote lead in the Senate.

However, they have lost control of the House of Representatives, where a razor-thin Republican majority could constrain what Biden can do for the rest of his term in office. The world needs to sit up and pay attention: A divided government will have significant implications not just for domestic governance but also for foreign policy, from Ukraine to China to sanctions and more.

Ukraine shift?

Since Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February, the US Congress has approved $68bn in aid for Kyiv and the Biden administration requested an additional $37bn last week. This financial support has for the most part received bipartisan backing.

The largest such appropriation was passed in May with broad bipartisan support and only 57 no votes in the House of Representatives – though all of those opposing were Republicans.

But the midterm elections have exposed the deep divisions within the Republican Party over just how to support Ukraine financially and militarily. JD Vance, the Republican Senator-elect from Ohio and a loyal ally of former President Donald Trump, has insisted that Congress has “got to stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually”.

The far-right conspiracy theorist Congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won reelection, declared in a campaign rally before the midterms that “under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine”. Since the vote, she has introduced a resolution in Congress calling for an audit of US spending on Ukraine.

Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader who could be the next Speaker, also said in October that under a Republican majority, Ukraine would not get a “blank cheque” any more. McCarthy’s statement can be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement that he is facing opposition towards Ukraine funding from the more pro-Trump elements in his party.

While they may represent a minority among the Republican House caucus at this point, their proximity to the former president, who is running for re-election and is still widely admired in the Republican Party, could make them difficult to ignore.

While it is unlikely the Republican Party will follow Greene’s recommendation to stop funding for Ukraine, it is possible its leadership would seek to increase scrutiny of Ukraine-related appropriations – and maybe even impose some limits on funding.

However, it’s worth noting that McCarthy is reported to have already backtracked on his “blank cheque” comments in private conversations with national security leaders, assuring them he had no intention of dumping support for Ukraine.

It’s also important to remember that while Trump’s rhetoric often came off as sympathetic towards the Kremlin, his administration still imposed a broad range of sanctions against Russia.

Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which included secondary sanctions for those who do business with Russia. His administration imposed more than 40 rounds of sanctions designations against Russia.

None of us should be surprised if Republicans seek to further expand the sanctions campaign against Moscow which, while aggressive at the moment, is still porous compared with the “maximum pressure” campaigns Washington is carrying out against rivals with smaller economies such as Iran, Syria or North Korea.

Sanctions and China: Where opposites meet

Indeed, sanctions are one area where there is broad bipartisan consensus – whichever party is in the White House or in control of Congress.

Sanctions scholars have long argued that a key reason why policymakers gravitate towards the economic weapon is its ability to signal strength and resolve to a domestic audience. Whether this is the primary reason for sanctioning is debatable but it is certainly a nearly cost-free display of nationalism for members of Congress that seems to resonate with constituencies across the country of all political stripes.

The Trump administration imposed a wide variety of measures against China, ranging from protectionist trade restrictions to technology restrictions, which targeted hundreds of Chinese firms including leading companies like Huawei.

As expected, the Biden administration has continued that approach. The administration has already signed bills such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act — which bans most imports from China’s Xinjiang province — into law and recently redoubled efforts to impose wide-ranging technology restrictions.

Expect the temperature against China to rise further in Washington, DC under a Republican-led House. There is currently a broad range of bipartisan legislation against China pending before Congress.

Congress is considering an outbound screening mechanism to scrutinise US investment in China. Other bills with broad bipartisan support, such as the Transatlantic Telecommunications Act and the Promoting US International Leadership in 5G Act, seek to keep Chinese technology out of US supply chains and those of its allies.

Many of these bills are likely to come up for serious consideration when the new Congress convenes in January. Opposition towards China is not only consistent with the Biden administration’s agenda. It is also a rare theme that binds the orthodox Washington Republican establishment, which craves US global primacy, and the party’s MAGA wing, which took a hard anti-China turn in the latter stages of the Trump presidency.

Hawkish future

The Republican takeover of the House likely brings any Biden-administration domestic, legislative agenda to a virtual halt. On the other hand, US presidents have historically tended to look for foreign policy accomplishments when domestic policy victories seem unlikely.

We might see more foreign policy activism from Biden as he looks to solidify his legacy – he is yet to announce whether he will run again in 2024.

But whatever he decides, there’s a bigger risk here. At a time when a significant war on the back of a pandemic is devastating economies and food supplies around the world, a divided Congress could spur a new era of competition between Republicans and Democrats over who can be more hawkish on foreign policy. That could affect policy on everything from China and trade protectionism to funding for Ukraine.

The Biden administration came to office promising the electorate and international community a return to pre-Trump norms.

“America is back,” Biden repeatedly told US partners.

But with the new Republican majority in the House and the spectre of disrupted unity on issues like Ukraine assistance, what’s back again is uncertainty over what an already unsteady world can expect from the US.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.