Behind the scenes

Would Putin have invaded Ukraine with Trump in the White House?

Former president claims Joe Biden is viewed as weak on the world stage

Donald Trump is touting his presidential credentials by claiming that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if he had won the 2020 election.

This “horrific disaster would never have happened” if “I was the president”, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida shortly after the war broke out.

“Under our administration, Russia respected America just like every other country respected America, but now Joe Biden is seen as weak,” the former US leader said. Vladimir Putin had an “affinity for Ukraine”, Trump added, but he had warned his Russian counterpart to “never let it happen”.

Trump ‘countered Russia’

A poll by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies found that 63% of Americans believed that Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if Trump had remained in power. This view was held by 85% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats, according to the survey of more than 2,000 voters as Russia launched the assault last month. 

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley has also claimed that the invasion “never would have happened” under the former US president’s watch. Haley told NBC’s Meet the Press last week that Trump “countered Russia” with his White House actions, including sanctioning Nord Stream 2, increasing spending on US military and making the country energy independent. 

United on Nato

The claim that Putin would not have dared invade with Trump in power has been trotted out by a string of high-profile Republicans.

But “not only does this sort of talk needlessly turn our foreign policy into a partisan issue, it is also resting on assertions that are offensively disconnected from reality”, argued Nicholas Creel, an assistant professor of business law at Georgia College and State University. 

In an article for Newsweek, Creel wrote that the “only conceivable reason” why Moscow might not have invaded during a second Trump term was that with a US president “hellbent” on undermining or even withdrawing from Nato, such an assault might not have been necessary.

Trump has “never passed up an occasion to speak flattering words” about Putin, Creel added. Yet this flattery is “anything but the talk of someone who we can have expected to take a strong stance against the ruthless Russian dictator”.

The Zelenskyy evidence

Marie Yovanovitch, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, has suggested that Trump’s infamous attempts to withhold military aid from Ukraine during a 2019 phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have emboldened Putin.

Yovanovitch told Meet the Press earlier this week that the release of the phone call transcript during Trump’s impeachment trial “showed the world that we had an administration that was willing to trade our national security for personal and political gain”.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has said that his former boss “made clear” to Putin how little he cared about Ukraine. Asked whether the former US leader would have acted to prevent the invasion, Bolton told Vice News that “you never know with Trump”.

“It depends on what time of day it is, it depends on what he thought his political benefit would be at any given moment,” Bolton said. “I don't think ultimately he would have stood in Putin’s way.”

‘A stark warning’

Joe Concha at The Hill has concluded that “logic agrees” that Putin would not have invaded under Trump. Russia did not invade any neighbouring countries when Trump was in power from 2017 to 2021, Concha noted.

But with Russia now advancing into Ukraine, “it's hard not to connect a dot back to the deadly debacle of the US withdrawal of Afghanistan last August”, when the Taliban took Kabul faster than the Biden administration expected.

Ultimately, though, the question is “irrelevant”, said Concha. “Hypotheticals aren’t helping brave, resilient Ukrainians in their fight against Russia – and it doesn't matter which president or ex-president is to blame.”

Actually, it does, argued Jordan Gans-Morse, political science professor and faculty director of the Russian, Eurasian and East European studies programme at Northwestern University.

The opportunity to reflect on how the Ukraine conflict might have unfolded with Trump in the White House serves “as a stark warning” to elect “level-headed US presidents” and to create a “safeguard against an itchy presidential nuclear trigger finger”, Gans-Morse wrote in article for NBC News.

With the “non-negligible possibility that Trump could return to the presidency in 2024”,  the latter is “imperative”. 

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