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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened Russia and sparked strong opposition to his imperialist aggression.
Yet, before and after the war began, former President Donald Trump complimented President Vladimir Putin of Russia for his good judgment and strategic vision. In a radio interview with a conservative outlet, Trump said, “This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. I said, ‘How smart is that?’… Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.” On Saturday evening, Trump criticized the invasion but again claimed “Putin is smart.”
But, as reporter Peter Baker observed, “Putin seems to have achieved the opposite of what he ostensibly wanted.”
So it’s ridiculous to see Putin as savvy. His actions have led to economic hardship for Russia, the prospect of a quagmire in Ukraine and the strengthening of NATO.
Beforehand Putin gave absurd rationalizations, like saying he wanted to de-Nazify a nation led by President Volodymyr Zelinskyy, a Jew with family killed in the Holocaust who was elected by 73 percent of Ukranians. Putin’s claims that this was a defensive, limited “special military action” were likewise not credible.
The Ukranians have given Russia a real fight and the international community is nearly united against Putin.
As Politico notes, “it was [President Joe] Biden and his team’s patience and close consultation with European allies that has led to the extraordinary unity now on display,” which includes military support, restricting airspace, and immense financial sanctions on Russia, Putin and his oligarch allies.
Putin wanted to weaken NATO, a defensive coalition that Trump denigrated. Trump told aides in 2018 he backed withdrawing the U.S. from NATO, in a second term and the other night called NATO leaders “dumb.” But, rather than weakening NATO, which Putin wanted, it’s been strengthened. That’s not savvy or smart leadership.
Rationalizing Russian aggression has come from a few on the far left, with blame for the invasion in part aimed toward NATO. But this group lacks influence among Democrats.
In contrast, Trump is not the only prominent figure in the American right to hail Putin. As Rep. Liz Cheney noted last week, “As Russian forces invade Ukraine, Russian TV features Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tucker Carlson praising Putin.”
For years a segment of American conservatives has heralded Putin, a murderous, authoritarian kelptocrat. In 2017, Christopher Caldwell of the Claremont Institute wrote that Putin “is a hero to populist conservatives around the world and anathema to progressives.” “By conventional measures such as border protection and nationalism, Caldwell said “Putin would count as the preeminent statesman of our time.”
Support has also flowed the other way. Despite Trump claiming that Russia didn’t help him during the 2016 election, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Russians for participating in activities aimed to help Trump. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee documented these efforts, many involving one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who worked to undermine support for an independent Ukraine and removed a pro-Ukraine plank from the 2016 Republican platform.
Trump was impeached two years ago for trying to extort Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, withholding military equipment Congress had authorized in order to try to harm Joe Biden’s election prospects. Trump lawyer Rudy Guiliani participated in this effort and successfully got Trump to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine because she would not participate in the extortion plan.
Only one Senate Republican — Mitt Romney — voted to convict Trump. Romney explained, “The president asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The president withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders.The president’s purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.”
Republicans with less integrity than Romney may proclaim they stand with Ukraine now. But to the extent that they didn’t hold Trump accountable for extorting Ukraine and refuse to criticize Trump’s praise of Putin, they look like captives of political fear, afraid of the Republican base that still backs Trump.
Ukraine deserves all our support in fighting and thwarting Russian expansionism. Let its national anthem hold true: “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom.”