COMMENTARY: Ukraine support should be bipartisan

Perhaps no nation has rallied behind Ukraine as much as Estonia, where Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been resolute on the need to defeat Russian forces -- and the power of imperialism unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This leadership has come at a cost. Estonia is suffering from war-induced inflation, and the small Baltic country is the most significant contributor to Ukraine based on GDP, donating about 44 percent of its military budget.

The support was expected to cost Kallas in last week's national election as populist politicians ran on reining in or even ending Ukrainian aid. But Estonian voters held their ground and gave Kallas' center-right Reform Party more of the vote than in the last election, meaning the prime minister will return to lead a governing coalition.

Estonia has been "at the forefront to support Ukraine in any dimension," Marie Jourdain, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council's Europe Center, told an editorial writer. Jourdain, a former French Ministry of Defense staffer, added that Eastern European nations have "an appreciation about how existential this is." She also noted that Kallas' stance was a signal not just to Estonians but also to Europeans and Americans.

But recent polls suggest American and even European alacrity is lessening, jeopardizing Ukraine, which depends on allied arms and aid to prevail. The slippage of support in the U.S. is increasingly partisan, reflecting the political splits manifest on so many other issues.

In a December poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for instance, there is a 21-percentage-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on "sending additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government" (favored by 76 percent of Democrats but only 55 percent of Republicans). An even wider divide appears on "providing economic assistance to Ukraine," with 81 percent of Democrats in favor compared with only half of Republicans.

January data from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reports that while overall support is softer than last May, similar partisan differences are intensifying over time: 63 percent of Democrats are in favor of "providing weapons to Ukraine" (down from 71 percent in May) compared to only 39 percent of Republicans in favor (down from 53 percent in May). Regarding "sending government funds directly to Ukraine," Democrats are again more resolute than Republicans, with 59 percent in favor (down slightly from 63 percent in May) compared with only 21 percent of Republicans (down from 28 percent in May).

These and other data show that when the initial AP-NORC poll was taken, "partisan positions on the issue were not as clearly staked out," Jennifer Benz, the AP-NORC Center deputy director for public affairs research, told an editorial writer. She added that one key factor was Rep. Kevin McCarthy making "controlling spending on Ukraine a key point in his campaign for House speaker."

The partisan gaps are "more being driven by our domestic discourse" than an assessment of the war itself, Emily Sullivan, a research assistant on public opinion and foreign policy for the Chicago Council, told an editorial writer. She pointed to an assessment on the state of the war that found 27 percent of Republicans believe "Russia has the advantage," compared with 23 percent of Democrats. In comparison, 23 percent of Republicans believe "Ukraine has the advantage," while 32 percent of Democrats do (overall, 48 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats believe "neither side has the advantage").

GOP support, Sullivan added, "got tied up in conversations" about inflation (data also apparent in the AP-NORC poll). And rising costs across the pond are also pounding down support for Ukraine in some European countries, according to an Economist/YouGov poll.

The Chicago Council poll shows that growing partisan separation means more Republicans favor urging Ukraine "to settle for peace as soon as possible so that the costs aren't so great for American households" (63 percent of Republicans favor this view compared with 36 percent of Democrats). Conversely, 61 percent of Democrats but only 33 percent of Republicans support "for as long as it takes, even if American households have to pay higher" consumer prices.

But rewarding Russian revanchism would only invite more of it and could send an incentivizing signal to China, which would ultimately be far more economically, militarily and geopolitically costly.

Kallas advocates "that Russia needs to go through a strategic defeat and renounce imperialistic ends because (Putin) would not stop in Ukraine," Jourdain said. "The legitimacy she gained and the fact that the whole (Estonian) population, which is suffering a lot from the consequences of the war ... still decided to go on for Ukraine because it's more important" gives a "big message" to the West about what it takes "to actually live up to your values and to the survival of your own identity and your country and the future of the European Union and NATO."

This "big message" shouldn't be heard and heeded unequally based on party identification but supported because of longstanding values previously embraced by Americans of all political persuasions.

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