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The GOP candidates' differing takes on the war in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night eight of the Republican candidates running for president took the debate stage for the first time. And while they agreed on a lot, one major point of disagreement was Russia's war on Ukraine. Here are candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie in a debate on the Fox News Channel last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BRET BAIER: Mr. Ramaswamy, you would not support an increase of funding to Ukraine.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I would not. And I think that this is disastrous...

(APPLAUSE)

RAMASWAMY: ...That we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else's border.

RON DESANTIS: I will have Europe pull their weight.

BAIER: But you would...

DESANTIS: Right now they're not doing that.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: If we don't stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next.

SHAPIRO: The elephant not in the room, as the moderator put it, was former President Donald Trump. And in an interview with Tucker Carlson, Trump criticized Biden's handling of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: That's a war that should end immediately, not because of one side or the other, because hundreds of thousands of people are being killed.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about what this disagreement could mean for the people fighting and providing aid to the war. NPR's Brian Mann is in Ukraine, just east of Kharkiv. And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio. Hi, guys.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tom, how concerned are the war's supporters that skepticism of U.S. aid to Ukraine seems to be growing?

BOWMAN: Well, right, Ari. We heard from that debate - there's a division within the Republican Party between internationalists, like Nikki Haley, who support Ukraine and are concerned about Russian aggression spreading in the so-called American-first wing, of course, led by former President Trump. There is concern among Ukraine backers that support could erode, especially on Capitol Hill. Republican Congressman Andy Harris, who, by the way, Ari, is co-chair of the Ukraine caucus, said recently the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, does not think Ukraine can win, and he's not sure he'll support more military aid. That has concerned Ukraine supporters like Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on armed services. He told me they will have to work hard to shore up support in the coming months. Now, the U.S. already has provided around 76 billion since the Russian invasion 18 months ago. That's out of 113 billion authorized by Congress. Now, the Biden administration, Ari, is seeking another 40 billion, most of that for military aid.

SHAPIRO: And, Brian, when you talk to people in Ukraine, how aware are they that there is not a consensus here in the U.S.? And what would it mean for them if the U.S. did cut aid or try to force Ukraine to accept a peace deal that gave Russia part of the country?

MANN: Yeah. Ari, people here are watching this really closely, and they say any big drawback by the U.S. would be devastating. You know, they've paid an enormous human price resisting Russia's invasion. Also, civilian populations have suffered these very well-documented war crimes. But it's not only Ukrainians watching this debate in the U.S. You know, right now the U.S. leads a big coalition against Moscow - you know, countries like Bulgaria and Poland - that are relying on Washington's leadership. If we pulled the plug in Ukraine, it would potentially unravel that coalition. Also important to point out that the U.S. isn't only countering Russia here in Ukraine. Russia's opposed U.S. interests for years in Africa, the Middle East and in cyberspace. So, you know, giving Putin a win, as Ramaswamy described it, that would resonate well beyond the war zone where I am now.

SHAPIRO: We've been hearing for months about what a struggle Ukraine's counteroffensive has been. Tom, could that failure to make quick, decisive advances on the battlefield further erode U.S. support?

BOWMAN: No, I think it could. And really from the beginning, Ari, there were doubts in the Pentagon about how much Ukraine could achieve in this counteroffensive by the fall. People I talked with suggested only modest gains. Now, the goal, of course, in the south is to break the so-called land bridge between Russia and Crimea. That would be a huge achievement and isolate Crimea, Putin's big prize. But so far, the Ukrainians have been making some gains but face three lines of Russian defenses that are formidable. Landmines are the big problem - tens of thousands of them. Now, the U.S. and Britain have told Ukraine, you're spreading your forces too thin along the front line, and you have to concentrate those troops for a big push, a big punch in the south using the Western-trained troops to, again, break that land bridge. We'll see if they take that advice. And officials say time is of the essence because when the fall comes, the rains come, and everything just slows down.

SHAPIRO: Brian, you've been near the front lines. What do the Ukrainians tell you about how their counteroffensive is going?

MANN: Yeah. They acknowledge that it's hard. I was with Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, this week, and he said, yeah, things are slow. The Russians are actually on the offensive near where I'm at now, Russian troops attacking a Ukrainian city called Kupiansk, triggering a new wave of refugees. Reznikov dismissed that battle as an effort to distract Ukraine and divert troops. It's also worth saying the Ukrainians, while they're struggling right now, they do continue to score small victories. In the last 24 hours, we saw an amphibious assault Ukrainian officials say was carried out by their commandos in Russian-occupied Crimea. So while the big fight is grinding and costly, Ukrainians say they are still landing significant blows.

SHAPIRO: And, Tom, does that square with what you're hearing from military and other sources in the U.S.?

BOWMAN: Well, there were mixed messages again. But a Washington think tank is following all this closely - the Institute for the Study of War. They're pretty optimistic about the situation and believe the Ukrainians could soon threaten that second line of Russian defenses, the second of three. But, again, we'll just have to see. Now, Congressman Adam Smith told me he's neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the counteroffensive. He said the Ukrainians have well-trained troops, and this will all take a lot of time. But, again, if there's little progress by late fall, it will only raise more questions about continued support, especially as the presidential campaign heats up.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Brian Mann in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in the studio. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONCRETE (FEAT. WESTSIDE GUNN AND TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.