So then, let’s imagine the alternate universe in which Trump won the 2020 elections for some ambiguous value of “won,” and was in charge of officially responding to the invasion of Ukraine. This is the man who blocked military aid to Ukraine as Russian troops conducted false flag operations on Ukrainian soil, and who otherwise supported pro-Russian separatists as means of pressuring the Ukrainian president into voicing support for an anti-Biden conspiracy theory cooked up by now-seditionist Rudy Giuliani. It’s the man who has repeatedly claimed that Russia did not interfere with American elections (it did) and that actually, it was Ukraine who did that. (It did not.)
I imagine you see where this is going just from that brief introduction, which is why any Republican claiming that we’d be much better off if Donald Trump was in charge of responding to Russian aggression is unsubtly pushing the idea that the United States would be much better off if—as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was willing to argue outright—we told Ukraine to f–k right off and let Putin annex the country for the sake of sating his personal needs.
There are limits to what the United States can do short of military-to-military conflict, but Biden so far seems to have managed to pull off two key victories that have already largely foiled Putin’s original goal of swiftly invading the country, installing a puppet government, and effectively annexing all of Ukraine. The first was a risky—perhaps very risky—decision to disclose American intelligence discoveries about what Vladimir Putin had personally “decided” to do. These were moves that made it clear that this country has been effectively listening in while he made them. American intelligence gave especially pointed warnings on what false flag operations Russia’s army and operatives were planning to use to justify an invasion.
The end result was a complete collapse of those false flag campaigns. Didn’t work. When Russian troops finally began to cross the border, there was no alleged military justification that would hold up to even the most modest scrutiny. The original Russian plan was to claim Ukraine was on the verge of a genocide against pro-Russian separatists and that Russia was mounting a valiant effort to go “rescue” them. Nobody, absolutely nobody who is not on Putin’s own payroll was willing to pipe up with such claims as Russian tanks began to move. The Russian propaganda effort not only didn’t work as means of blunting world opposition to Putin’s assault—it didn’t even work inside Russia itself, where citizens have easy access to international news and state media no longer has the sort of tight control Putin himself has been used to.
These were risky moves for Biden in that each public disclosure of an intelligence victory threatens to expose how that intelligence was gathered. By publicly announcing what Putin himself was telling his own top officials, Biden was both risking future information gathering and, not incidentally, sending Putin himself into deeper paranoia as he watched Russian plans get exposed one by one on international television. By specifying specific false flag operations being readied by Russian operatives, the United States made each operation pointless even as it began. It too carried risk of both exposing American intelligence capabilities and potentially discrediting American warnings if the American side got things wrong.
What would Donald Trump have done in this situation? We know precisely what he would have done.
There’s no plausible scenario in which Trump would have sought to undermine Putin’s confidence by exploiting American intelligence against him. He would not have gone in front of television cameras to announce that Putin—who Trump has repeatedly praised as “smart” for looking to annex a desired country through military force—was a liar in the midst of creating murder-focused propaganda clips in order to justify his belligerence.
Once the war began, it’s been clear that the United States has been aggressively sharing intelligence on Russian movements and capabilities with Ukraine’s defenders. This, too, is something Donald Trump would have angrily chafed at. It goes against his entire anti-intervention, pro-Putin persona. It’s not clear anyone among his own military suck-ups could have convinced him to allow it.
On the contrary, Trump’s obsessive collection of every clown Republicanism had on offer suggests that Trump’s government would take the exact opposite approach:
The second of Biden’s rather remarkable victories has been a truly unprecedented international sanctions regime against Russia, one that was made possible, again, by the complete dismantling of Russian false flag justifications for the war. The Russian economy is now in freefall after being walled off from international banks. European unity is so complete that even infamously neutral Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. Russian planes are barred from European Union airspace. There is now serious talk of hunting down the mega-yachts and real estate of Russian oligarchs and seizing them.
Would Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have launched such an effort? Would Trump have coordinated it? Would Trump have insisted on the harshest possible sanctions, sanctions that would especially wound the very oligarchs who have bought into so many of his own real estate operations as part of the international community’s most effective remaining means of laundering embezzled money?
There’s no Republican hack who can make the claim with a straight face. If history is any guide, the same Republicans would be lining up to insist that Trump was being “smart” by refusing to provoke Putin and his fellow oligarchs during These Trying Times.
While longtime Russia hawks in the Republican Party are fairly beside themselves with new and oft-ambiguous demands that Biden do much, much more to counter Russia’s new aggression, the large and gooey Trump-obsessed center of Republicanism is currently making a far different argument.
By launching all these sanctions against Russia for the invasion of a sovereign European nation, they fume, Biden will be increasing gas prices. It will be his fault when gas prices increase.
The message? It would be better for Russia to topple Ukraine than for Americans to be asked to deal with increased prices at their local gas pumps. That is how much democracy is worth. Nothing, if it requires sacrifice. A pandemic does not deserve to be battled if it requires the sacrifice of wearing a strip of cloth—better to just let the deaths happen. Democracy does not deserve to be protected, either here or abroad, if the results include momentary inconvenience for the moms and pops who make up Republicanism’s new fascist base.
Again, it is a sentiment that Carlson has been expressing a bit more freely than most. Not what should we do, but why should we care. The party has seemingly already decided that if defending Ukraine economically will cause increased gas prices for an unknown period of time, then they intend to hang that around Biden’s neck as midterm argument rather than unite around the premise that preventing untold death is a bit more damn important.
That leaves the most vacuous of all Republican arguments, the alternative universe claim that if Donald Trump was now president, Putin’s Russia would not have dared to attack Ukraine at all. After all, Putin never ordered an all-out occupation of Ukraine during Trump’s presidency, therefore Trump must have been “deterring” him from doing so.
The reasons for Putin’s change of tactics are, however, almost absurdly obvious. Putin did not mount a full offensive against Ukraine during Trump’s tenure largely because there was no need to. Putin’s efforts to sabotage the European order were progressing so successfully that launching a new shooting war would have only worked to shoot himself in the foot. Putin’s focus and the source of a great deal of his own person paranoia is the presence of NATO, an international military partnership meant to counterbalance Soviet-now-Russian adventurism in eastern Europe. The bumbling performance of Russian forces in Ukraine may explain much about Putin’s previous paranoia, as it now does seem that NATO forces are so vastly better equipped and managed than Russia’s versions that the non-nuclear Russian military would be minced into oblivion if it came to direct NATO-Russia combat.
If Putin is now suddenly screaming about his nation’s nuclear arsenal, it may be because NATO is receiving new, televised evidence that the non-nuclear Russian military is far less of a threat than NATO countries had long feared.
Putin’s most essential goal has been the dismantling of NATO, thus freeing Putin to undertake more aggressive military actions to recapture the breakaway nations that abandoned Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Donald Trump not only did not object to Putin’s goal, but championed it himself. Trump publicly insisted throughout his term that the United States needed to retreat from all its foreign military commitments, including NATO, and his advisers are said to have prevented him from an announcement that the United States would be leaving NATO entirely by convincing him to hold off until after the 2020 elections. But Trump’s public disgust for NATO and his crass belligerence towards its other members had already thrown NATO into disarray. If Putin’s goal was to see the end of NATO, then Donald Trump was his single greatest world asset capable of making it happen.
If Putin’s most essential goal was merely the weakening of Ukraine’s defense, Trump was asset No. 1 in that plan, too. Trump was willing to take even extralegal actions to block Ukraine from getting weapons Congress had specifically designated for its defense, stalling the military aid for months while attempting to squeeze the Ukrainian government for crooked announcements demonizing Trump’s expected election opponent. Trump had surrounded himself, from the beginning, with Republican operatives from Manafort to Giuliani who had worked or were working obsessively to discredit the legitimate Ukrainian government while pushing conspiracy theories hatched or aided by Russian-backed oligarchs looking to recapture Ukraine’s government for their own use.
It seems likely, then, that if Trump had won those 2020 elections that Putin would be now invading Ukraine in the face of a NATO that had either been stripped of its United States backing or a NATO paralyzed with inaction as Trump insisted that the invasion of Ukraine was none of NATO’s business. As this was happening, Giuliani—a seditionist in this timeline, but merely an eager puppet in the other—would be elevating whichever pro-Russia Ukrainians Putin had predesignated to form his new puppet government.
Giuliani and the rest of Trump’s circle would be insisting that the Zelenskyy government was the illegitimate one, and the Putin version legitimate. The airwaves would be filled with those statements. America would effectively back whatever government Putin propped up in Ukraine. Whatever sanctions either Congress or Europe sought to impose as a result would face fierce opposition from the American Dear Leader and his Republican retinue. Manafort would be reprising his role as kleptocrat-enabler willing even to endanger the lives of U.S. soldiers during ratf–king operations meant to discredit or kill Ukrainians who resisted.
We know how it would turn out because we have been there before, with these exact players and these precise ideological declarations.
The reason Russian autocrat Putin did not order a full invasion of Ukraine during the Trump years is transparently obvious. Trump was doing more to weaken both NATO and the Ukrainian government than any other human or government on the planet. Merely stirring the pot with useful internet propaganda was a dirt-cheap means of discrediting European democracy and stoking fellow far-right strongmen in other European countries. Every day that passed under Trump’s management was a day that brought Putin closer to the end goals of dismantling NATO as a unified anti-Russian deterrent and discrediting Ukraine’s anti-Putin, pro-western government in preparation for a new Russian push to retake the country.
Republicans saying that none of this would have happened if Trump had remained in charge are half right: Putin would not be fighting to capture and occupy Ukraine in the face of near-unanimous and devastating international sanctions because Trump and the Republican Party would have handed over Ukraine on a platter.
Enough, then, of this ridiculous gaslighting. We all know how Trump would have “responded” to Putin, because every time Trump interacted with Putin it was to suck his kleptocratic toes in the hopes of selling the man a new Trump-branded condominium. We know how Republican leaders would have “responded” to Putin because those Republicans, from Manafort to Giuliani to the various Republican lawmakers who jetted off to Moscow to offer up their personal Russian support during Trump’s term have made careers out of supporting Russian corruption even when it directly damaged the United States and actively undermined European democracies. It’s all on video, and none of it meshes with CPAC Republican fantasies about how glorious Dear Leader and his various crooked minions would have thwarted Putin by being “smart” and doing “smart” things in his general direction.
Trump sought explicitly to undermine and end American involvement in NATO. Trump sought explicitly to weaken sanctions against the Russian oligarchy. Trump explicitly denigrated the elected Ukrainian government as supposedly corrupt, as retaliation for that government refusing to be corrupt on his behalf, even going so far as to claim that it was the Ukrainians, not his friend Putin, who were attacking our own democracy. Trump sat down in front of television cameras only days ago to praise Putin’s cleverness in attempting to take Ukraine for his own.
And then he went to CPAC, and everyone applauded, and the Republican activists assembled voted overwhelmingly that their past Dear Leader ought to be their next Dear Leader when the next elections roll around. Nobody is bullshitting anybody here. The Republican fascist movement has allied itself with international strongmen just as Trump himself sought to snuggle up to every last one of them. With any luck, Putin’s adventure will once again prove that such strongman almost never meet good ends.
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