The Trump factor that looms over Ukraine

Chris Good

Ukraine’s fate depends on many factors, but to hear some tell it, one looms large: former US President Donald Trump’s 2024 political campaign. The last time the words “Trump” and “Ukraine” were associated prominently, the then-president was being impeached for allegedly threatening to withhold military aid from Kyiv while seeking a political favor. Trump has strenuously denied wrongdoing.
Five years later, much has changed – and much has not. But to some, Trump’s return to office would be a determining factor in Europe’s first major war since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Given Trump’s publicly friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration’s chaotic nature, some wonder if he would slow or stop the supply of US arms that is keeping Ukraine in its fight for survival. Taking into account Trump’s unpredictability, apparent skepticism of NATO and history with Ukraine, it’s difficult to say anything with certainty. His past impeachment saga only complicates the calculation. “We don’t forget that in Europe, by the way,” said Polish Member of European Parliament and former Foreign and Defense Minister Rados?aw Sikorski of Trump’s impeachment over his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “My working assumption is if Donald Trump were president now, he would make a pilgrimage to Moscow instead of to Kyiv,” he told CNN. “I’m scared,” said one member of the European Parliament’s defense subcommittee, speaking on condition of anonymity, of the danger Trump’s 2024 campaign could pose to Ukraine and to European security writ large.
The US commentariat hasn’t said much on the topic. But “they’re talking about it in the rest of the world,” as one former senior US military commander put it. “And of course, it’s not just about Ukraine; it’s about everything. Is there going to be continuity” in US foreign policy, “or is there going to be … this sort of unpredictable chaos and volatility?” Indeed, they are talking. Conversations with senior European officials from across the continent reveal varying degrees of concern that Trump could return to office and yank US support from Ukraine, leaving it to rely almost solely on help from Europe. That would put Kyiv in a very difficult spot: US weaponry is playing a determinative factor on the battlefields of eastern and southern Ukraine, as military experts see it. Without US weapons, Ukraine could face a 10-year conflict and 2 million casualties, retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who formerly commanded US Army Europe, suggested to CNN. (For what it’s worth, Javelins-the weapons Trump stalled before later delivering-attained folklorish status in Ukraine’s successful defense of Kyiv from Russia’s onslaught last February and March.) Elsewhere in the Republican Party, others have questioned an open-ended US commitment to Ukraine. Last October, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said there should be no “blank check” on US military aid to Ukraine, though he has also said he strongly supports helping Kyiv and will back military aid as long as he leads the US House.
For his part, Trump has not shied away from commenting about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, but Trump himself told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in a late-March interview that Putin would not have launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine had Trump been reelected. “I used to talk to him about it. I’d say, ‘Better not do it,'” Trump said. “We had a very friendly conversation about it. I said, ‘Hey, Vladimir … you can’t go into Ukraine.'” In a March radio interview with Hannity, Trump pointed out that Russia seized parts of Georgia during the US presidency of George W. Bush, Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula during the tenure of former President Barack Obama, but nothing during Trump’s first term. Under Biden, “it looks like they’re going to take over everything. The whole thing. They’re going to go for the whole enchilada,” Trump said. Trump also suggested to Hannity that he could’ve negotiated a deal that “at worst” would have seen Ukraine cede some predominantly Russian-speaking territory to Moscow. “You could’ve worked a deal, and now Ukraine is just being blown to smithereens, and people are dying,” Trump told Hannity in the same interview. As CNN’s Stephen Collison notes, Trump responded to a questionnaire from (now-former) Fox News host Tucker Carlson about the war in Ukraine and US involvement, with this comment: “The death and destruction must end now!” Trump’s words and actions have not always aligned perfectly. As a result, much of the concern about a potential second Trump term revolves around unpredictability. To understand that, we can look to the first Trump presidency. During his first term, Trump warmed to Putin in public, while his administration took a tough line on Russia at times. In his infamous conversation with Zelensky, Trump alluded to a DNC server and a desire for Ukraine to conduct a political investigation, but his administration significantly boosted US support for Kyiv by approving a large commercial sale of weapons in 2017. During Trump’s tenure, the US Treasury also applied additional sanctions to Russia, including over its aggression in Ukraine.
Still, from the perspective of some US allies, Trump’s administration was a disconcerting mess. Typically, the US national-security bureaucracy moves deliberately. Public statements of any importance are usually “cleared” by multiple layers of staff. Foreign policy is set by a process in which the State Department, Pentagon and White House National Security Council debate and coordinate. Where matters of diplomacy and international security are concerned, predictability, consistency and engagement are prized. Trump’s administration, by contrast, involved constant policy whiplash. For instance, Trump reportedly surprised GOP congressional leaders and his defense secretary, who was on vacation, by announcing on Twitter that transgender people would be banned from military service (President Joe Biden later overturned the ban). And, memorably, a nuclear standoff with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un played out, again, on Twitter. As importantly, Trump questioned America’s commitment to NATO. The transatlantic alliance is built on a charter that stipulates all members must respond to an attack on any member. Having called NATO “obsolete” before taking office, Trump only later publicly endorsed NATO’s Article 5 collective-defense pact in June of that year. Last month, Trump told a conservative gathering in Florida that he had explicitly threatened fellow NATO leaders that the US would not defend them from Russia if they didn’t increase defense spending to meet the alliance’s benchmark. That said, there appears to be broad agreement that on the underlying issue – calling for NATO allies to meet the alliance’s defense-spending benchmarks – Trump was right. During Trump’s presidency, several European NATO members increased their defense spending as a share of GDP.
Trump’s reported denigration of allied leaders over the phone wasn’t great, either. A conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron was said to have been “near-sadistic” by one source who spoke with CNN’s Carl Bernstein in 2020. Bernstein also reported Trump had told then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May she was weak and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel she was “stupid.” The White House responded to Bernstein’s report by touting Trump’s negotiating skills. “It was impossible to deal with them,” said the member of European Parliament who spoke on condition of anonymity. For one, allies didn’t know where shared information might end up. For another, the EU lawmaker said the Trump administration “didn’t even care” about European allies and their concerns. As a coup de grâce, Trump maintained a friendlier stance toward Putin than his critics would have liked. His joint appearance with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, where Trump suggested he took Putin’s word about 2016 US-election meddling over that of the US intelligence community, also has not been forgotten in Europe. Later, Trump tweeted that he had great confidence in US intelligence while stressing the need to get along with Russia. Then there’s Trump’s history with Ukraine, specifically. Having stalled weaponry once, can we expect him to do it again, if he reenters the White House? “I do,” said Sikorski, the Polish MEP and former minister, “because there is, objectively speaking, a groundswell of isolationist views in the US, particularly on the right side of the aisle, and he is the spokesman for it.” All of this produces unease. Luxembourgian Defense Minister François Bausch doesn’t think Trump will return to the White House. But, Bausch said to CNN, “It would really be a nightmare” if the US elected a president who would depart from US-European solidarity and recent steps to jointly support Ukraine. Bausch expects Trump might well do so, were he to secure a second term in the White House. For its part, Europe has held together in the face of Putin’s aggression. But it has also struggled, as it has for much of its existence, to consolidate defense policy and prove itself capable of acting meaningfully without US weapons, money and leadership. In light of Putin’s war, Europe has grown more interested in defense spending. Countries now all have “national shopping lists” for weaponry, said German Member of European Parliament Hannah Neumann. But without better coordination, Neumann told CNN, bidding and procurement can see Europe’s countries work at cross purposes.
Those less concerned about Trump voice several views. One is that he probably won’t win in 2024. Another is that if he does, he’ll be constrained by subordinates and a strong bipartisan consensus on backing Ukraine. Others point out that Trump did ultimately approve lethal aid for Ukraine, including Javelins, when he was president. Then there’s the possibility that Ukraine’s military will turn the war decisively in its favor before American politics enter the conversation. “I wouldn’t put odds that [the war in Ukraine is] over by the election or January [2025], but you could have a sense of what’s possible,” the senior former US commander said. That success could mitigate any temptation, by any future president, to wind down US support. “Of course, we hope that something [like that] happens,” Sikorski said. “That gives us some time to hopefully sort it out.”