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No, Trump would not have stopped Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The Hill recently reported a sobering statistic — the majority of American voters believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if Donald Trump had still been in office. Although a more detailed breakdown of the survey results reveal the typical partisan divide (i.e. Republicans more strongly believe former President Trump would have prevented a Russian invasion), the survey nevertheless suggests a fairly uniform opinion that Putin invaded Ukraine simply because he viewed President Biden as weak. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are incorrect, and the survey exposes a severely flawed understanding of the causes of the Ukrainian conflict.

For over a decade, Putin has made clear that he views the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” As a former KGB intelligence officer, Putin laments the demise of the Soviet empire and is deeply consumed by a desire to restore Russia to some semblance of its former greatness. Indeed, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, declared that “Putin’s main interest is to try to restore the old Soviet Union.” This assessment has long been shared by historians and scholars, who have carefully documented Putin’s desire to restore Russia as a global superpower. As a result, Putin’s explicit foreign policy objective of rebuilding a ‘Greater Russia’ inherently contains imperialistic aspirations that would not be dissuaded by any American president — including Trump.

The survey also suggests that the average American citizen has little understanding of the causes of war. To a certain extent, this is understandable since such topics are only discussed at the university level and only in very specific courses on international relations. Consequently, most Americans are unaware of one of the fundamental causes of war known as the “security dilemma” — a circumstance in which the defensive policies of one country inherently threaten another country. According to the security dilemma, efforts by Western allies to bolster their defenses and expand NATO will inherently threaten Russia. Every effort by NATO to shore up its defenses is interpreted as a direct existential threat by Russia. As Putin declared last December, “It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep. Is it going too far to demand that no strike systems be placed near our home?” 

The logic of the security dilemma therefore argues that individual decision-makers including Trump, Biden and Putin are all tangential to the greater military struggle playing out on the European chessboard. It is balances of military power — not individual leaders — that determine the likelihood of war.

Nevertheless, the American public appears to have forgotten that Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was largely isolationist and compromised longstanding alliances. Retired Marine Corps generals even argued that Trump’s foreign policies weakened America’s global standing and strengthen its adversaries. They argued that “such moves will only embolden rogue nations, global terrorists and nonstate actors who threaten to dismantle our democracy and way of life and the world order.”

It should also be recalled that Trump singlehandedly sought to undermine NATO and rejected multilateralism. In 2016, Trump suggested that he would not support NATO allies unless they first fulfilled their financial obligations. In other words, support for allies would be based on monetary preconditions — not immediate security threats such as those emanating from Moscow. Even more dire, Trump considered withdrawing the United States from NATO — a disastrous proposal that many believed would have bolstered Russia. Michèle Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense, argued that it “would be one of the most damaging things that any president could do to U.S. interests… And it would be the wildest success that Vladimir Putin could dream of.”

With respect to Ukraine, Trump has a clear track record of undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and security. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump suggested that the United States should accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In many respects, his comment was a modern-day equivalent of appeasement that harkens back to the acquiescence of Hitler’s expansionism. His shocking perspective also stood in stark contrast to other Republicans who actively sought to support Ukraine against further Russian aggression.

Perhaps most damning was Trump’s decision in 2019 to temporarily withhold nearly $400 million of military aide to Ukraine. His pronouncement was a politically motivated attempt at extortion to advance personal interests as he sought to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine. The U.S. Government Accountability Office declared Trump’s scheme violated federal law and was subsequently impeached by Congress.

Finally, Americans should be reminded that Trump has publicly regarded Putin (and other dictators) with great fondness and affection. Trump has praised Putin’s ruthless authoritarian policies, noting that he has “great control over his country.” As Russian forces now invade Ukraine in stark violation of international law, Trump has congratulated Putin for what he called a “savvy” move and a “stroke of genius.”

No, Trump would not have stopped Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the counterfactual is more plausible — Trump’s foreign policies actually served to embolden Putin and weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance. Trump’s hostility toward Europe has ultimately been destructive, undermining the security of both the United States and its western allies — including Ukraine. 

Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisor in Baghdad, Iraq, and was a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security and Counterterrorism. 

Tags Donald Trump Jeffrey Treistman Joe Biden National security Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin White House

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