Praise of ‘savvy’ Putin, attacks on aid and a 2024 campaign pillar: Why Trump’s comments on Ukraine matter

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Donald Trump made clear his admiration for Vladimir Putin. A year on, the former president is honing his attacks on the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy as he readies for 2024, Richard Hall writes

Friday 24 February 2023 13:01 GMT
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US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting in New York
US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting in New York (AFP via Getty Images)

Long before Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Donald Trump ensured that the eastern European country would play a central role in US politics for years to come — both foreign and domestic.

It was the then-president’s infamous phone call to his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he pressured him to investigate his political rival and future opponent Joe Biden, that led to his 2019 impeachment.

Mr Trump also held up some $400m in aid as Ukraine battled with Russian-backed separatists in its southeast, and as the threat from Moscow grew larger, as part of that pressure.

When the Russian invasion finally came, on 24 February 2022, Mr Trump was no longer president, and both Democrats and Republicans united in their fulsome support to aid Ukraine’s defence. In 2022 alone, Congress appropriated more than $112bn in military and economic support for the country as it fended off the Russian attack.

But Mr Trump is gearing up to run for president again in 2024, and is still the erstwhile favourite to win the Republican nomination. So where does he stand on Ukraine today, one year into the war? And what has he said about the conflict over the past year?

Mr Trump’s first reaction to the invasion came on the eve of the first attack, when Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear his intentions to launch what he called a “special operation” after declaring two breakaway regions of Ukraine were independent.

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Mr Trump said in a radio interview with “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show.”

“He used the word ‘independent’ and ‘we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy,” Mr Trump added.

The next evening, at an event held at his Mar-a-Lago resort, he doubled down on those remarks.

“‘Trump said Putin’s smart.’ I mean, he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart,” he said. “He’s taking over a country — really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, just walking right in — this would have never happened, ever in a million years, would have never happened. And I know him really well.”

From that point on, Mr Trump’s frequently claimed that the invasion would not have taken place if he was still president.

“If I were in Office, this deadly Ukraine situation would never have happened!” he said on 24 February 2022.

His soft praise of Mr Putin, and criticism of his successor in the White House, would become a theme over the next year. It followed a period in which Mr Trump, as a candidate and as president, often expressed admiration for Mr Putin and sided with him over America’s own intelligence services over their assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

As the invasion progressed, Mr Trump frequently sought to characterise Mr Biden as having been duped in some way by the Russian president

(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

"Putin is playing Biden like a drum, it’s not a pretty thing ... to watch," he told CPAC on 26 February, two days after the invasion began.

Even as Russian forces surrounded the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and he faced criticism from many in his own party, Mr Trump refrained from criticising the Russian president, and continued to direct his fire at the Biden White House.

“The RINOs, Warmongers, and Fake News continue to blatantly lie and misrepresent my remarks on Putin because they know this terrible war being waged against Ukraine would have never happened under my watch … There should be no war waging now in Ukraine, and it is terrible for humanity that Biden, NATO, and the West have failed so terribly in allowing it to start” he said on 1 March.

By the middle of 2022, Mr Trump began to criticise the massive amounts of economic and military aid from the US to Ukraine.

“The Democrats are sending another $40 billion to Ukraine, yet America’s parents are struggling to even feed their children,” Trump said in a statement issued through his Save America PAC in May.

His allies in the Republican Party began to take note, and signs of disquiet over support for Ukraine began to emerge in the GOP.

Ahead of the midterm elections, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy warned his party would not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they won the majority, which they did.

By October 2022, Mr Trump was beginning to call for a negotiated settlement to end the war, without offering specific details about what a settlement acceptable to both sides would look like.

“With potentially hundreds of thousands of people dying, we must demand the immediate negotiation of the peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in World War III and there will be nothing left of our planet all because stupid people didn’t have a clue,” he told supporters at a rally in Arizona.

“They really don’t understand … what they’re dealing with. The power of nuclear. They have no idea what they’re doing,” he added.

In recent months, as Mr Trump has entered campaign mode with an eye 2024, he appears to have honed his line of attack on Ukraine, combining a criticism of the huge costs, globalism and dire predictions of a Third World War — problems that he claims to be uniquely equipped to solve.

December 24, 2022
December 24, 2022 (Reuters)

In many ways, it is a continuation of his America First slogan that formed the basis of his 2016 campaign: the money going to Ukraine should be being spent here at home.

“If I were president, the Russia/Ukraine war would never have happened, but even now, if president, I would be able to negotiate an end to this horrible and rapidly escalating war within 24 hours. Such a tragic waste of human life!!!” he said in late January.

“World War III has never been closer than it is right now,” Mr Trump said Tuesday in a video in which he pledged to “clean house of all of the warmongers and America-Last globalists in the Deep State, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the national security industrial complex.”

And this week, Mr Trump has repeatedly lambasted Biden for making a trip to Kyiv.

“You have a president going to Ukraine and you have people in Ohio who are in desperate need of help,” he said at an event in Palm Beach.

If Mr Trump is successful in 2024, it seems likely that US support for Ukraine will be significantly reduced. And even if he isn’t successful, there are signs that he has moved the needle within his own party when it comes to Ukraine.

Ron DeSantis, his main rival, has this week echoed Mr Trump’s comments on the war as he sought to downplay the threat from Russia.

“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that and steamrolling, you know, that has not even come close to happening,” the Republican governor said on Fox.

“He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home,” Mr DeSantis said of Mr Biden’s visit, referring to the southern border.

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