On Tuesday (22 February) the former US President Donald Trump said in a radio interview that Vladimir Putin was “very savvy” for sending troops into Ukraine. The Russian president’s decision to declare the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic as independent was “genius”, Trump said.
“By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable,” continued Trump, a president who was impeached (the first time) because he was believed to have withheld lethal aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump, at his 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki, also appeared to support Putin’s claim that he had not interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, even though US intelligence agencies had asserted otherwise, making it hard for many — including me — to believe that he would stand up to Putin.
And at a fundraising event at his Mar-a-Lago resort on 23 February, just hours before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Trump repeated his remarks. Putin had “taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions”, Trump said. “I’d say that’s pretty smart.” Even after reports that explosions were going off in Kyiv, Trump called in to Fox News to say that this was happening because Putin saw Joe Biden’s “weakness”, and once again spoke “of a rigged election” (despite Trump’s insistence to the contrary, the 2020 US presidential election was neither rigged nor stolen). He also said that Zelensky put on “a pathetic display” in asking Putin not to invade.
Leaving aside Trump’s continued and consistent admiration for Putin, the wider Republican party response has also been illuminating. Shortly after President Biden delivered a speech announcing sanctions on Russia on 22 February, the House Republicans’ Twitter account tweeted a photo of Biden walking out of the room. The tweet read, “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.”
The old saying goes that politics stops at the water’s edge, an idea that American politicians should present a united front to the rest of the world. That has not been true in the US for some time. Barack Obama didn’t have bipartisan support for the deal to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. Trump was far from the only Republican presidential candidate in 2016 who vowed to tear it up, or who promised to leave the Paris climate agreement.
There’s disagreeing with policy, and then there’s using an invasion of another country as an opportunity to score points over something as ridiculous as not facing the audience while leaving the room. While there is still some measure of bipartisan support when it comes to standing up to Putin — Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, for example, has been outspoken in his condemnation of the Russian president, though he, too, said this situation would not have happened if Trump were in office — it is far more muted than the rumble of domestic turmoil.
An irony in all of this is that, in a way, it proves Putin’s point about the US and democracy. Fiona Hill, the Russia director in Trump’s National Security Council, has argued that Putin believes that the United States is weak. Others have observed that Putin knows America is divided.
Those divisions were not caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the crisis has highlighted just how deep the divisions run. Putin is wrong about many things; waging all-out war on Ukraine is, to borrow from the late historian Barbara Tuchman, a march of folly. I hope that he was wrong in his prediction that liberalism is obsolete.
But he is right that America’s leaders — and, indeed, Americans — are profoundly divided. That Trump’s first instinct was to circle the conversation back to his own personal grievances suggests that, even on the subject of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those divisions will remain deep.