Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 20 March 2024

 Trump’s betrayal of Ukraine

Handing Putin an unearned and undeserved victory will only hurt the US and its global standing

Martin Wolf · Mar 20, 2024

Donald Trump, still no more than a candidate for the US presidency, may soon hand his friend, Vladimir Putin, victory over Ukraine. This would be incredible if one were not used to such outrages. Did anybody imagine, before Trump’s emergence, that a man who tried to overthrow the result of a presidential election would be the Republican candidate in the next one?

Last August, the Biden administration asked Congress to provide funds for Ukraine, disaster relief and strengthening control of the southern border. This was designed to achieve bipartisan support. Trump opposed it, because he wanted to ensure Joe Biden’s failure. Obedient to their master, Senate Republicans failed to pass the bill. But the Senate did in the end pass one that would give assistance to Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel and the civilians of Gaza. That then got stuck in the House of Representatives. This is because Trump’s poodle, Speaker Mike Johnson, refuses to put it to a vote, knowing that it would pass and fearing, it seems, that Trump would punish him by trying to prevent his re-election to the House in November. Like most strongmen, Trump prizes loyalty above everything.

As Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic noted in a recent column, “For outsiders, this reality is mind-boggling, difficult to comprehend and impossible to understand.” So it is. But it is vital to do so, because it tells us something profound about events in the country that has been the leader of the west since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Ukraine has fought the Russian behemoth to a standstill over two heroic years, despite being outmanned and outgunned. The heroism of the Ukrainians is even more remarkable than that of the Finns in the winter war of 1939-40 against Stalin’s armies. Putin’s so far unsuccessful war has also cost Russia heavily. According to CIA director Bill Burns, “two-thirds of Russia’s prewar tank inventory has been destroyed, and Putin’s vaunted decades-long military modernization program has been hollowed out”. Sir Roderic Lyne, former British ambassador to Russia, writes that “western estimates of Russian losses, killed or seriously wounded, range between 300 and 350 thousand, with over a hundred thousand dead . . . Casualties are set to approach half a million by the end of this year.” Moreover, he adds: “A third of the budget is being spent on defence . . . If spending on internal security is added, the figure amounts to a whopping 40 per cent of budget expenditure.”

Ukraine has achieved this against Putin’s revanchist dictatorship at minimal cost to western countries. Nato soldiers are not even being called upon to fight. For the US, the damage inflicted on Russia by the Ukraine war has been a colossal bargain. (See charts.)

Yet now, Trump and his acolytes seem set on handing Putin an unearned and undeserved victory. We know from Russian crimes in occupied regions the horrors they would inflict if they won. But there is more at stake even than that. If the US now abandons Ukraine, it will shake its alliances to their foundations.

How has Trump managed to exercise such control over his party? The answer is much of the Republican base is loyal to him personally. The Republicans are a cult. Armed with this support, Trump controls party legislators, by exploiting their cowardice and their careerism. This makes the next election at least the most important since 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected.

What might happen if Ukraine were indeed abandoned? Evidently, it will raise questions about US reliability everywhere. Above all, allies will doubt guarantees. How might they respond? One possibility is a dangerous surge in nuclear proliferation. Another is the remaking of alliances into ones less dependent on the US. Yet another is an attempt to do deals with China and Russia. In a transactional world, that is what many sensible players will do.

It is not hard to understand that many Americans resent allied freeriding on their resources and their will. This is a classic collective action problem: countries that will not make a difference to outcomes are tempted to be free-riders. But a superpower cannot freeride. Its retreat from the world will reshape it. That is what it tried to do between the two world wars. It did not end well. It is unlikely that a world from which the US has withdrawn would be to its liking.

Moreover, if it did so, it would, as Harvard’s Graham Allison notes, be doing so at precisely the wrong time. Ukraine is certainly not a free-rider. It is instead paying with its blood for the right to be a free and democratic country in an unequal fight against the neighbourhood bully. What it seeks is also perfectly affordable financial and military assistance.

This war has done far more than inflict great damage on Russia’s military. It has also revitalised Nato itself. Its members increasingly understand the imperative of raising defence spending. Europe’s sleeping giant, Germany, finally recognises the need to strengthen its armed forces. Not least, Finland and Sweden, both highly capable, have joined the alliance.

What lies ahead is likely to be a long war of attrition, before the Russians realise they will not be allowed to erase Ukraine. The role of western allies is only to supply-money and weapons. This should not be beyond their capacity or will. After all, Ukraine will continue to supply the manpower. To abandon them now in their hour of great need would demonstrate catastrophic western weakness at a moment of potential success: Russia would rejoice; the western alliance would crumble; and many would conclude that the US is in irreversible decline. For the US and the world, this truly is a decisive moment.

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