Analysis by Thomas Jäger: If Putin now hopes for Trump, it will backfire for him
Despite numerous defeats, Russia continues to try to get the support of its Ukrainian partners to give in – so every change of government opens up a potential opportunity for them. The biggest prize is in the United States: Trump promised that if he was re-elected, he would not give a cent to Ukraine.
Many observers agree that Russia cannot successfully defend its land grab in Ukraine, let alone take full control of the pseudo-annexed territories, as long as Ukraine is supported in its defence. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, intended to turn the country into a Russian protectorate, has failed. Even the minimum goal of achieving the land bridge to Crimea by incorporating Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation cannot be met.
Because what President Putin had expected did not happen: the government of Ukraine collapsed and the population happily welcomed the occupiers; that the EU states in the dispute with each other give in to blackmail with the energy supply; and that the US is not heavily involved in Ukraine because of its focus on the conflict with China.
Russia’s search for rifts between supporter states
But Russia continues to try to achieve these conditions because it is the only way to win the war that it will otherwise be unable to complete militarily. That is why it is bombing Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure in order to break the will of the population to resist and to urge the government to give in. Therefore, it continues to seek rifts among Ukraine’s supporters through incentives and pressures, exploiting disinformation and threats of hybrid measures.
Any change of government potentially opens up the possibility that support will be reduced. However, neither Sweden nor Italy have recently changed their position. The greatest price of possible change of government beckons in the USA. Even for the midterm elections, Russia had high expectations that a landslide victory for the Republicans could lead to extensive restrictions, or at best to the end of support for Ukraine.
About the expert
Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger has held the Chair for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne since 1999. His research focuses on international relations and American and German foreign policy.
Is Putin backing Donald Trump for re-election?
Trump’s stray candidates promised that with a Republican-dominated Congress there would not be a penny left for Ukraine. As you know, things turned out differently. The Democrats retained the majority in the Senate, and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is so narrow that it is insufficient for such sweeping policy changes.
But there will be a re-election in two years. Then former President Trump will probably be up for re-election. Seen from today, he is by no means without a chance, even if nobody knows how the world and the USA will look in two years, which topics will dominate the election campaign and which problems will depress the voters. Could it be that President Putin is still banking on Trump’s re-election and possibly doing something to win the war in Ukraine because the US stops supporting its defense?
Russia hopes for “dirty deal”
In any case, this is the consideration brought to the discussion by François Heisbourg, who says that Putin can hope for a “dirty deal” with the re-elected Trump in order to triumph over Ukraine. When asked if Putin could still win the war militarily, Heisbourg replied, “Only if Trump comes back to power and the Americans turn their backs on Ukraine.” President Putin would be wise not to count on that.
Firstly, the last two elections in the USA have shown that Trump primarily mobilizes those voters who vote against him and his like-minded people. Even if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee, re-election is uncertain. Second, Trump cannot hands-free overturn Ukraine policy, either with regard to his allies or his Republican base and lawmakers. But it makes sense to ask how Trump views Ukraine policy.
Overconfidence and national-populist sprinkling
Trump’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine is typical of him, consisting on the one hand of overconfidence and on the other of national-populist tinges. His basic message is that this war would not have started if he had been in the Oval Office.
He garnishes this with the false postscript that even the Democrats – his political opponents – would admit that the war in Russia never happened under Trump. He is silent on the question of whether his calculated unpredictability, military deterrence or a diplomatic agreement would have ensured this.
At the same time, he says that the war is too expensive, that the soldiers should be deployed on the southern border of the USA instead of in Eastern Europe, and that the money is urgently needed for the citizens of the USA. And of course, which is never absent from Trump, Biden is not at all able to understand what he is doing. Since the war is not the dominant topic in the American public, he can leave it at these statements.
Trump has an open account with Zelenskyj
In the case of Trump, it must also be noted that he still has a score to settle with President Zelensky. Trump also sees international politics as a personal dispute, which, according to Trump, can only be about Trump. His demand that Zelenskyy order investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter before US military aid was paid to Ukraine earned him the first impeachment, although Zelenskyy said there was no blackmail. But Trump is resentful.
In a personal meeting with Zelenskyj in 2019, Trump demanded that he finally solve the problem in Ukraine with Putin. When Zelenskyy asked him if he would visit Ukraine since Obama hadn’t come, Trump replied that he knew people from Ukraine, even became a Ukrainian Miss Universe when Trump owned the competition before he sold it. This is typical of Trump’s self-centeredness and says little about expected engagement.
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No political decision in favor of China
Perhaps more significantly, Trump took a hard line against China, and the close ties between Russia and China would prevent him from making policy decisions in China’s favour. A victory for Russia over Ukraine would be just that. The tough competition with China and Russia is also one of the few political positions on which a large majority of Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree.
There are deviations from this line with regard to the war from the left (“we risk our nuclear destruction”) and the right (“Putin preserves conservative values” and “Ukrainians get too much money”), but the majorities in both chambers of the Congresses are so big that even a future president has to take them into account.
Why supporting Ukraine can be crucial to his electoral success
Finally, American financial and military aid to Ukraine enjoys broad popular support. According to Gallup in October 2022, it is slightly more pronounced among Democrats (79%) and independents (64%) than among Republicans, but even there it is 50 percent. Among older US citizens, a key constituency for Republicans, three-quarters support Ukraine’s goal of retaking all of its territory.
Trump is also speculating on the constituency that is openly sympathetic to Russia and includes QAnon and “white supremacy” conspiracy supporters. Their spokesman Spencer called Russia the “only white power in the world”. But the “white fratricidal war” has alienated this group from Putin, as has the goal of denazifying Ukraine. For Trump to be successful in the elections, he would have to be much more considerate of those voters who advocate continued support for Ukraine.
Trump as mediator between Russia and the US?
In October, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán called on Trump to act as a mediator between Russia and the US. Since Ukraine could only go to war because it was supported by the US, both powers would have to agree to end the war. Orbán said Biden couldn’t do this because he said terrible things about Putin. The terrible things that Putin ordered and had carried out apparently do not stand in the way of Orbán’s negotiations. Since Orbán also named Merkel as a mediator at the same time, it was unclear whether it was bad satire or a clownish fit.
In any case, Trump did not take up the proposal, although he used to praise Orbán and compare it to himself. “Like me, a little controversial”. Orbán would currently be alone in the EU in supporting a “dirty deal” between Russia and the USA. Here, too, a new American president in 2024 would first have to get used to the reality of American politics in Europe.
Putin cannot wait two years
After all, Putin cannot wait until January 20, 2025, the inauguration of the next US president. Even if the war will not end quickly, the prospect of another two years of mobilization, economic and financial sanctions and failure to implement military goals can change the situation in Moscow so much that Putin’s priorities change.
One risk for the EU would be that Trump, as president, seeks a perverse compromise with Putin, as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Foreign policy as a caricature. How the US deals with Russia will depend more on whether US foreign policy in 2025 still sees Russia as a great power in its own right, or whether Russia policy is aligned with China policy because Russia will be significantly dependent on China.
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