By Tara John and Luke McGee, CNN
(CNN) — Ukraine and its allies will be at the whim of American voters once again next year if the winner of the US election is not as enthusiastic about defending democracy on the European continent as President Joe Biden has been over the last fifteen months.
Former President Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has refused to say whether he believes Ukraine should win the war against Russia, and his main challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has hedged on the conflict, describing Russia’s unprovoked invasion as a “territorial” dispute.
Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Thursday about Trump’s comments, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak highlighted “strong support” in the US for funding Ukraine, adding that his meetings with congressional leaders in both parties this week indicated a willingness to support the country’s ongoing efforts to defend itself amid Russian aggression.
“Obviously, it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on domestic politics here. But I did spend a good amount of time in Congress yesterday talking to leaders from both parties, and I think there is strong support for the efforts that America is putting in to support Ukraine,” Sunak said in an exclusive interview at the presidential guest residence Blair House, moments after meeting with Biden.
“I think there’s an acknowledgment, as I said, that the values that we’re fighting for are universal. They’re values that America has always stood up for, which is democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” he added.
In apparent nod to Trump, who has bemoaned that NATO countries were not meeting the security alliances’ spending commitment of 2% of their GDP, Sunak added: “I think it’s entirely reasonable for people to ask: is everybody doing their bit? I’m proud to say the UK is. Behind the US, we’re the next largest contributor to the effort to support Ukraine. And more broadly, when it comes to defense spending, we’re one of the few countries that invests 2% of our GDP in defense.”
It is a position he has spoken to other leaders about, he said. “I think it’s reasonable and right that we expect other countries in the NATO alliance to increase defense spending up to those levels. And that’s something that I speak to other leaders about as well,” Sunak replied.
Asked what Sunak’s relationship would Trump would look like, he said that the so-called special relationship between the two countries had endured “regardless of almost who is sitting in these various jobs, and that’s because the values between our two countries are so aligned that we see the world instinctively in the same way.”
The comments come after the British leader met with Biden at the White House, where both men spoke about the country’s close relationship and their shared perspective on Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military has been stepping up shaping operations in recent weeks, attacking Russian targets like fuel depots and weapons dumps far behind frontlines – which typically precede a major advance by ground forces. But the collapse of Nova Khakovka dam may complicate Ukraine’s planned counter-offensive, while also flooding Russian defenses on the frontline.
Both Ukraine and Russia have blamed the other for the dam burst. Sunak said it was “too early to definitively say” who caused the collapse. “But if it does prove to be an intentional attack by the Russians, it would fit a pattern of behavior that we’ve seen throughout this war, which is Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure.”
The UK was the first country to give Ukraine long-range missiles, prompting Moscow to warn that NATO members could effectively become direct parties to the war.
When asked how Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond if UK missiles were used by Ukraine to strike targets in Russia, he said one has to remember that Ukraine, the West and NATO did not cause the war.
“This war was just an act of unprovoked, illegal aggression on Russia’s part,” he said.
At 43, Sunak is the youngest leader in the G7 club of industrial democracies while Biden is the oldest at 80. Sunak noted their age difference meant that Biden’s foreign policy experience, especially around China, was “particularly valuable to me as someone who is newer to this.”
“I find that President Biden’s experience is incredibly helpful, particularly on issues like China. I think there are, you know, few leaders anywhere who have spent as much time talking to [China’s] President Xi [Jinping],” he said.
Despite two changes in its leadership in the past 12 months, the UK has remained at the forefront of nations supporting Ukraine, coming second in total financial support only to the United States.
Under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK pushed European and other Western allies to supply Ukraine with lethal defense systems and tanks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly thanked Johnson for this, with Ukrainians going so far as to rename streets in Kyiv after the former British leader.
Sunak has continued with this policy, most recently pressing allies to push forward in supplying Ukraine with fighter jets.
His talks with Biden come at a turning point in the Russia-Ukraine war, following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam and ahead of a widely expected counteroffensive meant to retake territory.
In his news conference on Thursday, Biden also said he was confident that Congress would continue providing support for Ukraine.
“The fact of the matter is that I believe we’ll have the funding necessary to support Ukraine as long as it takes,” Biden said. “I believe that we’re going to get that support, it will be real.”
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