Veterans’ Groups Splinter Over Ukraine Crisis

WASHINGTON — An antiwar alliance of veterans that emerged from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and spanned the political spectrum is splintering badly over the US response to the threatening moves of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia against Ukraine.

The fracturing is more ideological than partisan: Some groups on the left that opposed the war in Afghanistan are siding with President Biden’s deployment of thousands of troops to Eastern Europe, while other liberals are staunchly against it. Some conservative groups and lawmakers oppose the deployments, while others are pressing the president to go further, arguing that he has not been tough enough.

The complex dynamics among veterans’ groups that had been united just months ago reflected both general exhaustion with war among American voters and shifting domestic politics on the right and the left.

Mr. Biden approved the deployment of 3,000 troops to NATO allies, including Poland and Romania, but said he did not intend to send troops to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. The administration has also described a range of possible responses should Mr. Putin decide to invade Ukraine, including economic sanctions targeting Moscow.

VoteVets, a left-leaning group that lobbied to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly dispatched former generals to Capitol Hill to shore up Mr. Biden’s position.

Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, said people steadfast in their positions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were struggling to justify their support for a muscular response to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. US troop deployments can be seen as “a way to prevent war,” he added, and even “those who are tied to the anti-forever-war dynamic” are having to adjust “to a different problem set.”

The group’s strongest conservative partner in ending the “forever wars,” Concerned Veterans for America, has taken a firm position against any American actions that could leave either Ukraine or Russia believing Washington has made a security commitment to Kyiv. The group opposes deploying troops to Eastern Europe and selling American weapons to Ukraine.

Common Defense, a group that leans further left than VoteVets and also pressed for an end to the wars, has landed somewhere in the middle on Ukraine.

“We certainly don’t want us to get involved, but if we have to would support the president,” said Naveed Shah, the group’s political director.

The ideological fragmentation is similar on Capitol Hill and among national security policy experts. Even conservatives who have traditionally hewed to a pro-democracy line have taken a position against what they call “expansionist foreign policy” in standing up to Russia now.

“This is definitely not a left-right thing,” said Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-author of an article expressing opposition to American support of Ukraine, arguing that the United States is stretched too thin abroad.

“If you consider the broad swath of the restraint or antiwar movements, there are a lot of different groups under that umbrella,” she said. “The antiwar left says we should avoid conflict altogether, and we are saying the same thing, but for different reasons.”

For some groups aligned with Democrats, the motivations for supporting Mr. Biden are clear after four years of a president who admired Mr. Putin and was hostile to NATO.

“The progressive position here is to avoid war,” Mr. Soltz said, adding that “buzz words like ‘forever war’ don’t hold up when you talk about Putin. While the US was playing games in the Middle East for 25 years, Russia was rebuilding its military.”

That is not a universally held position on the political left. Last month, Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, released a statement with Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and a leading antiwar voice in her party, expressing concern that “new troop deployments, sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions and a flood of hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal weapons will only raise tensions and increase the chance of miscalculation.”

In a recent television interview, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, decried the “military industrial complex” and added: “I believe that the Biden administration is well within their right to counter Russia’s aggression diplomatically, but there is not a military solution to this problem.”

Other liberal-leaning veterans’ groups aligned with VoteVets on the wars against terrorism are concerned that helping Ukraine could lead to a military intervention and have pushed for diplomatic solutions.

“While Americans are concerned about Ukraine, poll after poll shows this sympathy doesn’t translate into support for any form of military intervention,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute and a Marine veteran. “The incessant promise that the next military intervention is different has largely fallen on deaf ears among vets and outside the Beltway.”

On the Republican side, while there is significant support for Mr. Biden’s efforts, a populist strain is evident.

The Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, have both suggested that the United States has no role to play in the fate of Ukraine. Former President Donald J. Trump said recently, “Before Joe Biden sends any troops to defend a border in Europe, he should be sending troops to defend our border right here in Texas,” a talking point that some other congressional Republicans appear to be grabbing as well.

But even among some Republican lawmakers less overtly aligned with Mr. Trump and his isolationist tendencies, the reception has been tepid. Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, for instance, has said that he is against sending more troops to Europe.

“The White House and many foreign policy commentators want to simply write it off as ‘Russian disinformation’ or Tucker’s affinity for Putin,” said Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America. “But it is really another example of the shift in the larger foreign policy debate.”

The Secure Families Initiative, which represents military families, expressed wariness of the United States “nearing another endless, unwinnable war,” according to a statement released in response to the developments in Eastern Europe.

“We’ve focused on reinforcing the administration’s stated guardrails regarding these deployments,” said Sarah Streyder, the group’s executive director and an active-duty military spouse. “Any time troops deploy, it’s a potentially life-changing event for the military families back at home, and so we don’t take the decision lightly even if it turns out to be the most strategic choice.”