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‘It’s not a pretty picture:’ What a second Trump presidency could mean for Ukraine

by Owen Racer May 27, 2024 9:44 PM 7 min read
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio, United States on March 16, 2024. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
by Owen Racer May 27, 2024 9:44 PM 7 min read
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Former U.S. President Donald Trump has remained largely silent about foreign policy lately. Amid his hush-money trial in New York City, he has focused on attacking campus protesters over the war in Gaza, criticizing U.S. President Joe Biden, and attempting to undermine court proceedings.

As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Trump has barely mentioned Ukraine or articulated any policy positions regarding the country or Russia’s war against it.

With less than six months away from the U.S. presidential election, Trump’s vague past remarks on foreign policy, his public admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the varied views within and outside the GOP are shaping the discourse in his absence.

“I will have the disastrous war between Russia and Ukraine settled,” Trump claimed in early 2023 at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “It’ll take me no longer than one day."

Despite posting frequently on his social media network Truth Social, he has mentioned Ukraine only a few times in recent months.

“We should never give money anymore without the hope of a payback, or without ‘strings’ attached,” one of Trump’s Truth Social posts read in February. Another from April said, “As everyone agrees, Ukrainian Survival and Strength should be much more important to Europe than to us, but it is also important to us! GET MOVING EUROPE!”

Donald Trump speaks at a presidential campaign event at Crotona Park in the South Bronx in New York City on May 23, 2024 (JB Lacroix/GC Images)

Trump’s calls for Europe to provide more aid and his repetition of the claim that Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine had he been in office are among his few public comments on the issue.

Experts on the topic, like Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, are critical of Trump’s claims.

“He talks about ‘they haven’t paid their money to NATO,’ he doesn’t understand it’s not about paying money to NATO, it’s a commitment to devote 2% of your GDP to defense spending,” Pifer said.

“That’s someone who doesn’t understand the American national security interest in having a stable and secure trans-Atlantic region.”

Strategic silence

Last month, as the U.S. Congress passed $61 billion in U.S. aid for Ukraine, Trump’s strategic ambiguity, at least, was loud and clear. He softened his opposition to aid in April, aiming to avoid public backlash as his trial for falsifying business records began. He publicly supported U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson as he navigated the aid package’s passage.

Johnson did, however, include a provision, supported by Trump and many Republicans, directing the president to seek repayment of $10 billion in economic assistance starting in 2026.

A "Trump 2020" hat is seen as U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks in opposition to funding for the war in Ukraine on the House steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., United States, on Sep. 26, 2023. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump’s insistence on a loan reflects a sentiment among the MAGA right, influenced by Russian propaganda, that the war is an easily solvable border dispute.

Without specifics, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he can resolve Russia’s war in Ukraine before Inauguration Day. Privately, he has said he would pressure Ukraine to cede territory to Moscow, including Crimea and the Donbas, according to The Washington Post.

“I will say certain things to each one of them that I wouldn’t say to the rest of the world, and that’s why I can’t tell you much more than that,” Trump said in a March interview with former aide Sebastian Gorka, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin.

At a rally in New Jersey this May, Trump mentioned Ukraine in the context of claiming that the Palestinian militant group Hamas wouldn’t have attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, nor would Russia have invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, if he had been president.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump repeated the same remarks at a rally in New York City this May.

Admiring autocrats

Trump has voiced in public his admiration of autocratic leaders like Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Despite this, many Americans fail to grasp the dangers a second Trump presidency could pose, according to Jacob Heilbrunn, author of the new book, “America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators.”

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Heilbrunn told the Kyiv Independent, noting the false belief that Trump fits into traditional presidential molds.

“(Electing Trump) is the equivalent of electing Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin to become President of the United States,” Heilbrunn said.

Heilbrunn predicts Trump will immediately abandon Ukraine, while others suggest his presidency could exacerbate the conflict in other ways.

Michael Kimmage, a Cold War historian who held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio for the State Department during the Obama Administration, posits two scenarios: the war could continue as before, or the United States could become more deeply involved.” Kimmage himself believes Trump might escalate the war to distinguish himself from his predecessors or to strengthen his case for holding negotiations.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Currently, the void left by Trump’s limited comments on Ukraine has been filled by conservative voices: Former CIA Director and Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently criticized Biden administration restrictions on Kyiv using U.S.-supplied weapons on targets in Russia. He also told the BBC that the U.S. hasn’t provided Ukraine with the resources needed to win the war.

And in a recent New York Times essay, “What Trump Could Do in Foreign Policy Might Surprise the World,” Curt Mills, executive editor of The American Conservative, repeated themes of Trump being a skilled negotiator and that his return to the White House “could offer surprising opportunities for peace.”

“Who is going to be in front of Trump is what actually matters,” Mills said, who spoke with the Kyiv Independent about the team forming around Trump and the impact they might have on policy toward Ukraine in a presumptive Trump 2.0 administration.

“The bar has been lowered unbelievably,” Mills said, discussing what has become possible for a U.S. president to do. “If Trump doesn’t withdraw from NATO it’s going to be a surprise.”

Pifer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, emphasized the concerns over a possible U.S. withdrawal from NATO, given Trump’s experience in staffing decisions in his first term, and the loyalists he is likely to bring into a second term.

Ominous silence

While a recent NYT/Sienna College poll indicates that Ukraine is not a top issue for U.S. voters in crucial swing states, and the more than a dozen Republicans who voted to pass the $61 billion aid package faced no backlash in their subsequent primaries, foreign leaders and conservative politicians continue to visit Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, convinced they can influence his thinking on Ukraine.

Orban, after visiting in March, said Trump wouldn’t “give a penny” to Ukraine, while former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said he’s tried to convince Trump that aiding Ukraine is in U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, the Trump-affiliated America First Policy Institute (AFPI) recently published a national security book advocating that any future U.S. aid to Kyiv be contingent on Ukrainian participation in peace talks with Russia. One of AFPI’s chairpersons is Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s former trade ambassador and a current policy adviser.

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in the South Bronx in New York City, United States on May 23, 2024. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

As U.S. cable networks no longer air Trump’s speeches, speculation on how Trump feels about Ukraine is growing, and current GOP leaders are speaking up.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican of Kentucky, told ABC News in April that Trump’s silent support for Speaker Johnson was crucial for passing the aid package, potentially swaying part of the Republican party towards a more engaged global stance and away from Trump’s isolationism.

However, A CBS News poll that surveyed U.S. voters found that among Republicans, Trump remains the most trusted source for information on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Republicans who trust Trump are also unlikely to support further aid to Ukraine, according to the poll.

If his voters put their trust in him to inform them on the war in Ukraine, some also put their faith in him to end it.

One Trump supporter at his rally in New York City this May, Drew, a 25-year-old who requested only his first name be shared, said he believes Trump’s priority is to end the war immediately.

“I think he can do it, I think he has good negotiation skills and has prior experience with Putin and Zelensky.”

Politico: Biden to shift public focus from Ukraine to economy during election campaign
“Now that the supplemental passed Congress, it is naturally less of a salient issue,” Politico wrote, citing one senior administration official.
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