While President Trump was “all by myself in the White House” over Christmas, watching the “guys out on the lawn with machine guns,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin seemed to be contemplating another war with Ukraine. While his top aides issued threatening statements, the Ukrainian government and some Western observers warned of suspicious movements of Russian aircraft and equipment. The Institute for the Study of War reported on Dec. 23 that “the data suggests Putin is preparing to attack.” Analyst Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center judged an invasion unlikely but concluded that “Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity.”
So far, nothing has happened, though Russia continues to hold the two dozen sailors it captured when it assaulted three Ukrainian ships near Crimea on Nov. 25, and it is still hindering shipping to several Ukrainian ports. But Putin’s maneuvering points to how the United States’ adversaries are likely to react to the steadily increasing chaos of the Trump presidency. They will spend 2019 testing how much they can gain at the expense of a U.S. president who has sidelined most of his national security team and has been making a display of his ignorance of and disregard for U.S. interests.
If there is to be no U.S. response — and so far, there hasn’t been — Putin has reason to step up military attacks on Ukraine ahead of its presidential election in March, which he hopes will unseat pro-U.S. incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Now that Trump has declared that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria, expect Tehran to entrench more forces and missiles near the border with Israel. While the government of Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be happy with that, it has taken its own advantage of Trump’s passivity, launching what the Associated Press described last week as “what could be the largest construction binge in years” in the occupied West Bank.
The leader whose calculation of Trump’s weakness may matter most is China’s Xi Jinping, who reacted to Barack Obama’s retreat from enforcing U.S. red lines by taking over much of the South China Sea. Xi and Trump are engaged in a trade negotiation that could be crucial to the fortunes of both countries this year. China starts at a seeming disadvantage: U.S. tariffs already have helped induce a sharp slowdown in consumer spending and a 25 percent drop in the Shanghai stock market, the largest decline in the world in 2018.
But Xi no doubt has been listening as Trump has revealed an obsession with U.S. stock prices and anxiety over their decline. Last week, Trump predicted the markets will rebound “once we settle trade issues .” Xi’s most likely conclusion: He can wait Trump out. Beijing will offer to settle the trade war for token measures, such as a promise to buy more U.S. products. Xi will bet that Trump won’t seek to truly break Chinese mercantilism if it means more plunges in the Standard & Poor’s 500.
Meanwhile, China’s step-by-step bid for hegemony over East Asia will continue. Xi will quietly encourage North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to continue resisting any denuclearization deal with Trump that doesn’t include a withdrawal of U.S. forces and assets from the region. After all, he would have heard Trump say that Patrick Shanahan, the inexperienced former Boeing executive he appointed to fill in for departed defense secretary Jim Mattis, agrees with him that “we’re giving military protection to countries that are very wealthy, and they’re not doing anything for us.” In Trump’s mind, that means South Korea.
Putin was no doubt listening to that rant in front of the Cabinet, as well. He would have heard Trump defend, of all things, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan while dumping on the performance of U.S. commanders there. He would have heard him describe Syria as “sand and death.” And he would have noted that there was not a word about Ukraine, despite Russia’s unprovoked attack on the Ukrainian ships, illegal restriction of commercial shipping and deployment of forces capable of initiating a new ground offensive.
Any other U.S. president would have by now taken common-sense steps to deter Putin from further aggression, in conjunction with allies such as Germany, Britain and France. Allied ships would be appearing in the Black Sea and stopping at Ukrainian ports, and teams of observers from NATO would be deploying in eastern Ukraine to monitor Russian activity. U.S. diplomats would be negotiating with the European Union on a new round of sanctions on Russia, specifically in response to its naval belligerence.
But Trump has no interest in such matters, and he has driven off or stopped his ears to the advisers who might explain them to him. He wallows in his ignorance and his prejudices, all alone in the White House. Ukraine, and all other nations that used to depend on the United States, are on their own.