(CNN) Donald Trump may have just put Ukraine on the clock.
The ex-president’s refusal to say whether he wants President Volodymyr Zelensky to win the war after Russia’s unprovoked invasion — along with his absurd claim that he could end the conflict in 24 hours — escalated the prospect that Ukraine’s destiny will rest in the hands of US voters next year.
The Republican frontrunner‘s comments, in a CNN town hall meeting in New Hampshire, was the latest sign that the politics of the war in the US could become more strained as the 2024 campaign ramps up, creating new pressure on Zelensky’s coming offensive to deliver a decisive blow in the second year of the conflict.
The prospect of a Trump return to office could also offer an incentive to Russian President Vladimir Putin to prolong a war that is exacting a terrible civilian toll and racking up huge Russian casualties in the hope he could exploit any decrease in the multi-billion dollar US aid flow to Ukraine.
And Trump’s decision to insert himself squarely into the debate reflects deepening political calculations for several key players in the war. That includes both President Joe Biden, who staked his legacy as a defender of democratic principles in the US and abroad on Ukraine’s survival, and Putin, who presided over a scaled-down Victory Day parade in Moscow this week after failing in his war aim of crushing Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Battlefield developments could dictate the course of the war long before the November 2024 election. And making equivocal judgments about any comments the ex-president makes is risky, since he often seems to live day-by-day and minute-by-minute rather than following months-long strategic blueprints.
Nevertheless, Trump’s unwillingness to refer to Putin as a war criminal despite evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and an International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest renewed intrigue over the ex-president’s motives in repeatedly genuflecting to the Kremlin strongman.
Yet Trump’s personal and political motivations for creating a campaign issue out of Ukraine, and his capacity for politicizing the multi-billion dollar US lifeline of weapons and ammunition for Zelensky’s government should not be underestimated. In New Hampshire, Trump showed that he views the war as a perfect vehicle for his populist nationalism, claiming that the rest of the world is ripping the US off and that Biden is more concerned with protecting the security of foreigners than the economic needs of Americans.
This message could be especially powerful in the event of any recession next year that could hurt Biden’s reelection bid. It’s also unclear whether Biden would want to enter the critical months of his campaign still sending billions of dollars in Ukraine despite highlighting his leadership of the West as a major foreign policy success.
For now, the prospect of a Trump return to office is a long-term concern for Ukraine, as it fights to eject Russian forces from its territory in a long-awaited counter-attack and relies on the staunch support of Biden who has reinvigorated the Western alliance in its support. After all, the next election is 18 months away and Trump may not win the GOP nomination or the presidential contest. Some recent polls have detected a softening of support for the prominent US role in supporting Ukraine — especially among Republicans — a factor Trump is trying to exploit, although GOP support for Ukraine in Congress remains firm despite high-profile anti-Zelensky rhetoric from some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill.
Trump’s transactional worldview
For Trump, the entire question of Ukraine boils down to a dollars and cents equation — much as he appeared to view NATO while in office as little more than an international protection racket.
“We’re giving away so much equipment, we don’t have ammunition for ourselves right now,” the ex-president said at the CNN town hall. And, he added, “we don’t have ammunition for ourselves we’re giving away so much” — comments that tapped into a seam of isolationism in the modern-day Republican Party.
When he was asked by CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins whether he believes Putin should stand trial for alleged war crimes, Trump replied: “I’ll say this: I want Europe to put up more money.” That comment paralleled one of the most enduring applause lines of his 2016 campaign in which he accused US allies, like those in Europe and in Asia, of enriching themselves under a US defense umbrella.
On one hand, Trump’s comments are an affront to generations of US foreign policy orthodoxy based on the idea that making the world safe for democracy and standing up to tyrants is in core US political, diplomatic and commercial interests and is a multiplier of American power.
Yet his threats toward US allies, especially in Europe, while sending shock waves through the transatlantic alliance, did result in some European powers increasing their own defense spending toward NATO’s recommended 2% of GDP threshold for member states. It is sometimes difficult however to distinguish between the Trump effect and more European defense spending because of a growing concerns about Russia — even before the Ukraine invasion.
But Trump is also correct that the US has spent more in Ukraine’s defense than the EU — a mighty economy — that is geographically far closer to the war zone than the United States. The Biden administration has committed a total of $36.9 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in an extraordinary effort that has effectively made it a de-facto NATO client and effectively thwarted one of Putin’s war aims in keeping Kyiv out the Western orbit.
European Union institutions have pledged about 3.6 billion euros in military aid to Ukraine, but individual member states have given over 10 billion euros more in combined contributions, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Britain — no longer an EU member — has additionally sent more than 6 billion euros’ worth and, as CNN’s Jim Sciutto exclusively reported on Thursday, has delivered “Storm Shadow” cruise missiles to Zelensky’s forces ahead of the coming offensive. (One dollar is currently equivalent to 0.91 euros.)
Like the United States, Europe has also offered tens of billions of dollars in other kinds of aid, grants and loan guarantees to Ukraine but Washington remains the top donor. Trump’s transactional view of the Western alliance reflects his very narrow view of US security interests and foreign policy, which has not changed since his first term in office, when he cut US financial contributions to NATO.
It also ignores the way the combined US-Europe partnership rooted in American military might has not only largely kept the peace in Europe for nearly 80 years but has made the Western bloc the most prosperous and democratic political experiment in history. His first administration turned the US from a guarantor of global stability into a major disruptive force — and he’s already signaling a second one would deliver more of the same.
But his complaints about European defense spending did get support from an unlikely source on Thursday: EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.
“I was not a fan of President Trump, but I think he was right in one thing — Europeans doesn’t share their part of the burden,” Borrell said in Brussels on Thursday.
Zelensky is unruffled by Trump’s complaints
Still, Ukraine should probably be worried that if Trump returns to power he would relish obliterating Biden’s legacy, in the same way that he pulled out of the Paris climate accord and trashed the Iran nuclear deal — diplomatic centerpieces of the Obama administration.
And the ex-president may harbor particular resentment toward Zelensky after his attempt to get the Ukrainian president to announce a corruption investigation against Biden ahead of the 2020 election led to his first impeachment.
New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, a frequent Trump critic and potential 2024 presidential candidate, described Trump’s town hall performance as “weak,” “wimpy” and lacking leadership in an appearance on the “Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
“Ukraine has to win the war,” Sununu said, adding that the US had never had a better chance to “put our foot down on that tin can army of Russia.”
Trump’s former defense secretary, Mark Esper, told CNN “This Morning” on Thursday that Trump’s comments sent the “wrong message” not least because they could suggest to China that it could wait out the determination of the US and its allies to deter any invasion of Taiwan.
America’s friends abroad however stressed on Thursday that for now at least, Trump’s intentions for Ukraine were hypothetical.
Zelensky himself shrugged off Trump’s comments in an interview with European public broadcasters.
“Who knows where we’ll be [when the election happens]?” he said, according to the BBC. “I believe we’ll win by then.”
And British Defense Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace said in the House of Commons on Thursday that he was confident that Americans would support Ukraine whoever was in the White House.
“The US President today is President Biden. I have a good relationship with him, as do the Government,” said Wallace. “I know that the decent and good people of America would recognize that their rights are just as important as those of the people of Ukraine. Their Constitution upholds rights. I think that is what will unite them, and I am confident that whoever comes next as president will continue to support the battle to uphold human rights.”
But this week has been the clearest reminder yet that Trump, who last year called for the “termination” of the Constitution, may not share those values.