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So what is Trump’s position on the threat to Ukraine?

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in New York on Sept. 25, 2019, during the U.N. General Assembly. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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correction

This article originally inaccurately summarized a description of Clinton Ehrlich's affiliation while he worked in Moscow. It has been updated to quote the description directly.

Former president Donald Trump would like very much for people to view him as President Biden’s inevitable opponent in 2024. The stronger that perception, the less likely it is that some usurper such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) will start building power to run against him. And the stronger that perception, the more attention Trump himself will draw between now and then.

While he no longer has the same platform on social media that he once did (Twitter and Facebook took a dim view of his efforts to overthrow Biden’s election), he still releases frequent messages on the website of his political action committee. He still conducts interviews (albeit almost exclusively with sycophantic right-wing outlets), and he still holds rallies. Part of his attempts to reinforce his position as head of the party is acting as if he is the head of the party, a bit of theater he enjoys.

In the moment, this raises an interesting question: What’s Trump’s position on the increased aggression that Russia is demonstrating toward Ukraine? And, more important, if Russia were to invade, how would Trump react?

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No statements centered on Ukraine have been published on his PAC’s website. Or, rather, none about the current tension. There are a number of statements in which Trump fumes about Democrats, mentioning Ukraine as a way of complaining that he was unfairly impeached for his efforts to get that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to aid Trump’s reelection bid.

At his rally in Arizona over the weekend, Trump mentioned the issue only cursorily — and solely to attack Biden.

“Biden has utterly humiliated our nation on the world stage,” Trump said. Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not only threatening Ukraine,” he continued — “I don’t know if you’ve been reading about this, but now he’s threatening to go into Cuba and Venezuela. That’s a lack of respect, and we never had that problem, did we? There was no problem with Putin and Ukraine” when he was president, Trump insisted.

That, of course, offers its own realm of exploration. Trump’s relationship with Putin was not only obviously warm, but Trump tried to frame his affection for the authoritarian leader as a benefit. That he would be friends with Putin was positioned as somehow reflecting a positive development for the United States. After all, he said, Putin wasn’t his enemy.

His comments at the Arizona rally carried an implied criticism — Putin is saying he will do this bad thing because he’s not scared of Biden — but Trump doesn’t actually say it’s bad. He doesn’t say what Biden should do, except to somehow generate war-averting respect. So what’s Trump’s idea?

It has long been the case that Putin’s machinations against Ukraine have gotten a pass from America’s political right when the president is a Democrat. In 2014, Republicans made arguments similar to Trump’s in Arizona: It was happening because Barack Obama was weak. Trump made a similar point in an interview that year.

“Putin can’t stand Obama, and I understand that, and Obama can’t stand Putin, either, but he can’t stand him,” Trump said. As for Ukraine? Let Europe pay for defending it. Let rich Germany deal with the problem.

This became a central part of Trump’s political pitch: apathetic isolationism. Asked in August 2015 whether Ukraine should join NATO, Trump shrugged. “If it goes in, great,” he said. “If it doesn’t go in, great.”

It’s an approach that has paid some dividends. Trump was often hailed by both his supporters and members of the establishment-hostile left for having not started any new conflicts as president (although his interactions with Iran in early 2020 certainly pushed that envelope). He preferred palling around with strongmen (his way of engendering “respect” from Putin or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un) to leveraging American power to keep them in check, a pattern his supporters framed as dovishness.

Of course, Trump was also once again reflecting the instincts of the base back at it. He benefited personally from the right’s similar affection for strongmen, as evidenced in the response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

At an event last year, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) spoke about Putin.

“I went to St. Petersburg once,” Crenshaw said. “The Putin fan base is very interesting. There’s, like, mugs with him in sunglasses and helicopters and fire behind him.”

“They like a strong man,” Kelly replied. “They don’t want this whole Brooklyn, pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking man that they are creating here. I don’t want that, either.”

It’s an example of how the political right and Trump’s allies give him cover for his approach to Putin. But there’s also an explicit effort by one of the right’s loudest voices to not only passively criticize Biden but also to actively defend Putin — an effort that could make it easier for Trump to shrug at any potential conflict.

On Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson aired a segment focused on the increasing evidence that Putin is preparing to move Russian troops into Ukraine.

While the media has focused on the pandemic, he scoffed, “the country has inexorably been moving closer to what could be an incredibly destructive war with Russia. Our media is encouraging that war.” After an interlude to mock MSNBC’s coverage, he pivoted to a very specific frame for the conversation: “You have to ask yourself, why is this happening? Why are the Russians so upset? Why are we moving towards some kind of conflict?”

Why is Putin so upset that he — no doubt wringing his hands and lamenting his lack of choices — might invade another country? To answer that question, Carlson invited on a man named Clinton Ehrlich, whom he described as a “Russian policy researcher.” Ehrlich’s current job is as a computer scientist at a blockchain company, but he did attract some attention for his views on Russia back in 2016 when he wrote a deeply Putin-sympathetic assessment of that year’s presidential contest in the United States for Foreign Policy magazine — as he was living in Russia and affiliated with what the editor of the magazine described as “Moscow’s top state-run, foreign-policy think tank.”

“I’m not hiding the fact that I like Russia,” he told BuzzFeed at the time. This was a person to whom Carlson turned for “clarity” on the subject.

Carlson and Ehrlich agreed that Russia was frustrated that Ukraine might join NATO, which Carlson framed as being equivalent to “Mexico under the direct military control of China.” This, of course, ignores that Russia and Ukraine are already geopolitical opponents, with the seizure of Crimea overlapping with extended (though limited-in-scale) fighting in Ukraine’s east.

The point here is neither to defend the idea of armed conflict emerging in Europe nor to defend a particular position on the prospect. It is certainly not to endorse American involvement in a potential war in Ukraine. It is, instead, to point out that the former president and current Republican leader’s position on the question is unstated — even as it poses a particularly tricky set of questions about how he might respond. It is also to reinforce that many of Trump’s allies are inherently sympathetic to Putin’s tactics and that some, like Carlson, are working to actively support Russia’s position. Trump hasn’t spoken out against Putin’s demonstrated aggression, and he has a foundation from which not to do so.

So I put a simple question to the man who wants once again to be president: What would you do?

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