Russian President Vladimir Putin’s path toward threatening an invasion of Ukraine is marked by reckless actions. In this move toward defiance of international norms, Putin has been subtly encouraged by former president Donald Trump, a fellow traveler in recklessness.
If Putin does march into Ukraine, one consequence ought to be severe damage for Trump’s political future. Yet it probably won’t work out that way. Trump’s supporters seem ready to forgive him anything, including cheerleading for dictators. But before it’s too late, we should examine how Putin has broken through the guardrails with Trump’s silent acquiescence or outright approval.
The record of Trump’s fawning comments is embarrassingly long. In March 2014, he tweeted: “I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire.” In August 2015, he told Fox News: “Frankly, I’d get along great with him.” In April 2016, he enthused: “We’re going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia.” Most egregiously, Trump encouraged Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (“Russia, if you’re listening …”) Even after the U.S. intelligence community presented him with hard intelligence about Russia’s sabotage in January 2017, Trump publicly minimized it.
At the Helsinki summit in 2018, Trump actually took Putin’s side on the election-meddling issue — over that of his intelligence advisers. (“I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”) Daniel Coats, then director of national intelligence, rebuffed Trump.
Trump has been doing Putin’s work of destabilization for him. Russia historically has dreamed of strengthening polarization in the United States and weakening our democracy. That turned out to be Trump’s approach to governing — to the point of trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election result. Now, as Putin contemplates a move into Ukraine, he beholds an America weakened by political division bordering on dysfunction. He sees a moment of opportunity.
Putin tests the limits, not just under Trump, but with all recent U.S. presidents. Moscow has tried to destabilize elections across Europe. Russian intelligence operatives twice tried to murder defectors in Britain, and intelligence sources tell me they even considered a hit job in the United States. When U.S. forces were challenged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Russia stayed on the sidelines.
Trump’s response to Putin’s defiance of norms has often been to normalize Russian behavior. When Bill O’Reilly, then with Fox News, called Putin a killer during a February 2017 interview, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. … Do you think our country is so innocent?”
Putin took his recklessness into space last month, in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis. Russia fired a missile at one of its own satellites to test such shoot-down capability. In the process, the Russians created a massive debris field with at least 1,500 traceable objects in low Earth orbit — each of which could destroy another satellite. Russia had been warned against such a destructive action, but they did it anyway.
Why did Russia conduct such a dangerous test, which endangered even its own cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station? Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) thinks Putin wanted to show the world he could be that ruthless: The message, King told me, was: “‘We don’t care about norms, standards or responsibility. We’re showing that we’re ready to do it, whatever the world thinks.’”
Now Putin takes his defiance to the Ukraine border. Biden has mobilized a coalition to punish Putin with severe economic sanctions if he crosses the line, while also seeking a diplomatic solution. That’s a path to de-escalation, but the Kremlin wants to keep the world on edge. Asked Thursday if the Ukraine standoff could become another Cuban missile crisis, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov answered, “You know, it really could come to that.”
Trump supporters blame Biden for making Putin think America is in retreat. There’s no question that the world is worried about U.S. resolve after the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, but in the Ukraine crisis Biden has behaved with the right mix of firmness and diplomacy.
Putin and Trump share the same playbook. Defy and disrupt; plead innocence when confronted; negotiate through intimidation. They act like pro wrestlers with fake theatrical bluster, but the danger is all too real. The rule of law is a noble concept, but it needs to be enforced.