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As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second year, Vladimir Putin’s best hope for “victory” may lie with the two leading GOP candidates for president.
Having failed to achieve an easy political takeover of Ukraine and suffered massive military losses, Putin’s best option is to stalemate the war and wait for U.S. and European support for Kyiv to splinter.
Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are already enabling Putin’s strategy by publicly proclaiming their willingness to cut off Kyiv. The neon-lit message to the Kremlin: Just drag this war out until 2024, when Trump or DeSantis return the GOP to power.
Meantime, the MAGA clique in Congress — who oppose any help for Ukraine — have made clear they will press the weak House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to block any robust new aid when the current Ukraine aid package runs out by mid-summer.
If there is one urgent reason for Joe Biden to fast-track the critical weapons systems Ukraine still needs to make a territorial breakthrough, it is MAGA’s willingness to help Putin snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
It is truly depressing to watch two potential GOP presidential candidates spout utter nonsense about Ukraine and know that this nonsense can influence voters. Although polls show U.S. support for aiding Ukraine remains relatively strong, it is sliding, and more so among Republicans.
Perhaps some MAGA mavens still believe Trump when he proclaims he could “end the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours,” and all it takes is “getting people in a room and knocking heads.”
But Trump’s conviction that he and his favored despots could resolve conflicts face-to-face failed miserably with North Korea, Iran, Turkey and China. As for Putin, whom the former president said he trusted more than U.S. intelligence agencies, the Russian leader ran rings around his ill-informed American counterpart.
Had Trump won in 2020, judging by his previous behavior, he would have abandoned Ukraine to the mercy of his pal Putin. One can only assume that, if re-elected in 2024, Trump would inform Ukraine it had to accept life as a Putin-controlled police state.
As for DeSantis, Trump’s most potent challenger for the 2024 nomination so far, we now know he’ll try to camouflage his minimal foreign policy experience by adopting the MAGA line on Ukraine.
The Florida governor has openly dismissed the idea that Russia poses any threat to American allies or values. He has obviously never spoken with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, Moldova, Finland, or Sweden — nor pondered why the latter two countries, which border Russia, are suddenly so eager to join NATO.
On Fox News, DeSantis blasted Biden’s surprise trip to Ukraine. He added, “I don’t think it’s in our interest” to get involved in a proxy war over Ukraine.
It is beyond disgraceful to denounce a sitting president’s brave visit to Kyiv to stand up for democracy against despotism.
How far we have come from the days of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin in 1963, or Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “Tear down this wall” speech in the same city, even though Putin is trying to exploit Western weakness to reinstate Cold War divisions by force.
This is not a proxy war, Mr. DeSantis, but a war in which Ukraine is battling to defeat a war criminal willing to use his military to devour a neighboring country, something that hasn’t happened in Europe since World War II. If the West allows Putin to destroy Ukraine, use of such force will become the new normal — not only for Putin but for a China emboldened by U.S. internal divisions.
It is imperative that Biden preempt MAGA willingness to let Putin achieve his goal.
A broken Ukraine, abandoned by Washington, would signal that NATO and the West were unwilling to counter Russian or Chinese violence. Would Trump or DeSantis defend NATO members Lithuania, Estonia or Poland if Russia nibbled at their territory, as some Russian officials have threatened? Probably not.
What must be done to preempt a MAGA surrender to Putin?
First, the Biden team must make every effort to coordinate bipartisan support for Ukraine aid in Congress, where the GOP’s Senate leader Mitch McConnell and key House Republicans like Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, still understand the importance of aiding Ukraine.
Second, the White House must speed up critical weapons deliveries, including tanks, air defenses and ammunition — and long-range ATACMS missiles. And it must do so before the current aid package runs out.
Ukraine does not need to regain all its territory within the coming months, but it must be enabled to cut Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in the south of the country and do so soon. This would isolate key Russian bases in Crimea and force Putin to recognize he cannot win a military victory. Only when this happens might negotiations become possible.
Finally, President Biden must speak more clearly and more often to the U.S. public about our strategic stake in a Ukrainian victory, and why Putin’s invasion threatens the values that most Americans cherish.
Ukraine can push the Russians out, but only if the U.S. and NATO allies (listen up, France and Germany) treat this war as a challenge to themselves as well as to Ukraine — and urgently speed up weapons deliveries.
And only if Trump and DeSantis, along with MAGA Republicans, are prevented from convincing Putin he need only hang on until 2024, when a newly elected GOP president would likely permit him to win.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email her at [email protected]
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