The crisis in Ukraine has dramatically transitioned into a new chapter.
Now frequently labelled the most alarming military conflict in Europe since World War Two, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine has been met with shock and condemnation. However, among the most powerful global nations and alliances, a reluctance to put troops on the ground has meant a response largely made up of support for the Ukrainian military and severe sanctions.
Yet, despite US President Joe Biden aligning with his European and NATO allies in confronting the escalation, including individual sanctions for President Putin and members of his inner circle and the freezing of their assets across the West, the internal reaction from across the Atlantic has been disjointed, even bizarre – one that is indicative of a deeply fractured Washington.
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In stark contrast to most of the western world, a somewhat-supportive, practically congratulatory tone has emerged from former-President Donald Trump, and many of his Republican compeers have since fallen in line, or at least failed to condemn his praise.
In a shocking interview on ‘The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show’ on Tuesday, the same day that President Biden instated an initial wave of sanctions following Putin’s recognition of the independence of two seperatist regions of Ukraine, Trump commended Vladimir Putin’s actions as “genius” – and even described the Russian President as “pretty savvy.”
Donald Trump: “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. […] I said, how smart is that? And he’s going gonna go in and be a peace keeper. That’s the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border.” pic.twitter.com/p4DbAyIqA7
— The Hill (@thehill) February 23, 2022
Before delving deeper into Trump’s interview and what we can learn from it, the overarching message was this: if he was president, the situation in Ukraine, and anything else damaging to Biden’s presidency, would have been avoided. For a Republican Party already lined up for a successful takeover of Washington later this year, expect this message to be frequently repeated by the GOP in the months leading up to November’s midterms – and it is an argument that could certainly prove effective.
According to a Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris Poll released on Friday, 62% of Americans concur that the Ukrainian invasion would not have gone ahead with Trump in the White House. Even more tellingly, the divides along party lines underscore why Trump has taken this particular angle – whilst 38% of Democrats felt that Putin would not have invaded under Trump’s tenure, a staggering 85% of Republicans agreed.
The de-facto leader of the GOP made sure to position himself squarely in opposition to a situation that is increasingly hurting Biden’s image domestically, with this same poll finding that a majority of Americans (59%) believe Putin carried out his assault on Ukraine because he saw Biden as weak. After stating that if he had been President “this never would have happened,” Trump meandered back to the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, and claimed that, if his plans had been carried out instead, “we would have gotten out with tremendous strength and dignity and power and respect. Instead, we look like we surrendered.”
The former president also linked the escalation in Ukraine to Chinese tensions with Taiwan, and warned that “China is going to be next.” When asked by host Clay Travis if he meant “they’re [China] gonna go after Taiwan?” Trump replied – “absolutely. Not with me, they wouldn’t have.”
Notably, just hours after the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced, Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s airspace, realising fears that the crisis in Eastern Europe could ignite the long-standing tensions in the region.
Make no mistake, Trump’s reluctant loss in the 2020 election did not remove him from influence, and he is still the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee – if one is to believe a myriad of polls.
By these same indications, Trump’s inevitable 2024 campaign will be far from a retirement of his notorious (but successful) 2016 rhetoric, and he even claimed in this recent interview that Putin’s deployment of Russian troops into Ukraine was not only “wonderful,” but that America “could use that on our southern border.”
Lauren Witzke, the Delaware GOP’s candidate for Senate in 2020, has nothing but praise for Putin and “his Christian nationalist nation”: “I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.” pic.twitter.com/oQ2nhlVGCR
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) February 24, 2022
Trump’s attitude towards President Putin is a far cry from Republicans of the past. Conservative leaders used to rally supporters around opposition to the Soviet Union, and as recently as 2012 the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, labelled Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Now, for anyone doubting Trump’s king-maker position in the Republican party, look at the GOP reaction to his praise for Vladimir Putin.
For some Republican leaders, they are finding themselves in a strange balancing act of Russian justification and hawkish ‘America First’ isolationism, all while backing up whatever stance is taken by the former-president to appease his devoted voter base.
Potent examples of this recently have been America’s most watched cable news anchor and conservative figurehead Tucker Carlson, who has hardly been critical of the Russian President, and in several speeches given at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Biden’s unsettled presidency was frequently blamed for the crisis in Ukraine. This same conference saw Trump appear as the prime-time speaker on Saturday evening, where he repeated his description of Putin as ‘smart’ and its connection to President Biden’s perceived weakness.
Trump calls Putin smart, says NATO is not so smart, and calls our leaders dumb pic.twitter.com/lEEymSPSby
— Acyn (@Acyn) February 27, 2022
It would be inaccurate to imply that Trump’s staggering adulation of Putin’s actions did not also cause a wave of controversy and condemnation, and plenty of America’s political elite, including those in Trump’s own party, have strongly opposed both Trump’s words and Putin’s actions. In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described Putin as a “thug”, Lindsay Graham, a habitual Trump apologist, labelled the Russian President a “war criminal”, and Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the House Republicans, said that “Putin must be held accountable for his actions.”
Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a frequent Trump critic, also tweeted on Wednesday that “Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America,” and his statements instead aid America’s “enemies.”
Fundamentally, though, whilst Trump’s sharp turn away from ritual GOP attitudes towards Russia and departure from the west’s collective opposition to the escalation in Ukraine is certainly controversial, it may be more of a reflection of the contemporary chasm in Washington than anything else right now.
For Biden and his Democratic colleagues, the spiralling situation in Eastern Europe only seems to look worse and worse for a party with majorities (albeit fragile and unpredictable) in Congress and minimal options. Come November, Trump’s Republicans will certainly be planning to point to a pre-pandemic nostalgia, when Ukraine was not under attack, the US economy wasn’t suffering under sanction-worsening inflation, and life was – true or not, and unbelievably or not – more stable under Trump.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Former US President Donald Trump. Featured Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore