Forget the polling, impressive though it may be. To grasp how poorly Putin’s war is playing with Americans, observe MAGA trying to retcon Trump as a Russia hawk. Even Trump has gotten into the game, scrambling to revisit his recent tribute to Putin’s “genius” strategy in seizing eastern Ukraine:
It wouldn’t be the first time he’s retconned his opinion about a war once he realized which way the winds of public opinion were blowing.
John Bolton, Trump’s former NSA turned strident critic, has been making the media rounds to counterprogram the attempt to rehab Trump as tough on Russia, specifically the argument that Putin would have been too frightened to invade Ukraine with Trump in the White House. I think there’s a grain of truth to that idea, though. Trump wasn’t a hawk on Russia but plenty of his deputies in the natsec establishment were. Remember, this is a guy who employed Fiona Hill. One of his great difficulties as president was that there just weren’t enough top-notch like-minded isolationist Washington GOP experts for him to staff up with, forcing him to hire and rely on people who didn’t share his vision of detente with Russia. One comical example was when the very hawkish Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, announced impending sanctions on Russia only to have Trump voice his displeasure privately afterward and insist on walking them back.
There’s no better example of disjunction between Trump and his aides than Bolton himself. He’s a hawk of hawks, a guy who had no business working in a top position for the most dovish Republican president in many decades. But Trump liked Bolton’s “toughness” in his interviews on Fox News so he elevated him to National Security Advisor. It was a marriage destined to end in a bitter divorce. And it did.
One can imagine Putin assessing that situation and not knowing what to make of it. Trump was friendly to him, sure. Trump was loudly skeptical of NATO. Trump cared little enough about Ukraine that he held back military aid because he wanted political dirt on Biden from Zelensky in return. But Trump was also surrounded by characters like Bolton, Hill, and Haley, people who understood foreign policy vastly better than he did and might be capable of influencing him. Putin may also have considered Trump’s narcissistic thirst for public adulation in gauging how he’d react to an attack on Ukraine. If the American people demanded “strength” in responding to Putin, would the promise of becoming a popular war president tempt Trump into turning on Russia?
In other words, I don’t think Putin feared that Trump would lift a finger to stop an invasion of Ukraine if left to his own devices. But knowing how hawkish the Pentagon and State Department are, and how unpredictable and … underinformed Trump is, Putin might have reasonably worried that Trump would fall under their sway and suddenly he’d have lost a rare ally in the U.S. at the highest levels of power.
Of course, it’s also possible that Putin’s calculus had little to do with Trump. That’s what Bolton told Newsmax recently:
John Bolton pushes back on Newsmax host: "[Trump] barely knew where Ukraine was…It's just not accurate to say that Trump's behavior somehow deterred the Russians" pic.twitter.com/ICRmmeJ8C3
— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) March 1, 2022
He elaborated in an interview with Vice News, claiming that Trump once asked Putin his assessment of Zelensky and didn’t push back when Putin implied that Moscow thought he was a lightweight. Putin may have taken that as a sign of U.S. disinterest in Ukraine. Bolton also claimed recently that he thought Trump might have eventually “given away” Ukraine to Putin because, when push came to shove, he simply didn’t care about the country’s fate. Trump has always admired displays of ruthlessness by authoritarians, after all; his “genius” comment about Putin last week flows directly from his deep belief that “strength” means establishing one’s dominance over weaker entities. It’s hard to imagine him suddenly abandoning that belief if the invasion of Ukraine had happened on his watch. More Bolton:
A lot of people ask the question, ‘Why did Putin wait until Biden was president? why didn’t he attack when Trump was president?’ which is often offered by Trump supporters to show how tough or how insane people thought Trump was, and that Putin waited for Biden.
But during the election campaign things just kept getting worse for Ukraine. And Putin, like a lot of other people, probably thought that Trump would win, and he was just going to wait. But once the election was over, and Biden obviously won, a lot of damage had been done.
You still have people in the United States who think the DNC server’s there, that Hunter Biden’s making zillions of dollars there, that sort of thing. And it all stems from this Trump obsession, based on his own political future, that really made sensible conversation about bilateral U.S.-Ukraine issues very, very difficult. To the extent that there was an unnatural environment created, it made it that much easier for Putin. I don’t think it was dispositive, but it was a factor, that’s for sure.
My guess is that Putin held off on attacking Ukraine while Trump was president because he wanted to give Trump time and political space to pursue the project of withdrawing the U.S. from NATO. Which, by the way, Trump reportedly did. According to a book published last year by two WaPo journalists, he spoke privately in meetings of leaving NATO and pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea but preferred to wait until his second term rather than risk a political backlash by giving the orders before the 2020 election. Putin may have calculated that it’d be foolish to make a move on Ukraine before the task of dissolving NATO had been completed since doing so would have risked undercutting Trump by uniting the west — which is precisely what happened this month after he finally pulled the trigger.
Moreover, as a Twitter pal put it recently: If Putin feared that Trump would thwart his takeover of Ukraine, why the hell would he have meddled in the 2016 campaign to try to help Trump? From the 2017 DNI report on Russia’s interference:
Trump was also a great help to Putin’s project of undermining American legitimacy, especially the legitimacy of American elections. One of Putin’s core grievances against Ukraine is that, as a democracy on Russia’s doorstep, it’s a living example to Russians that they can have a functioning democracy too. Part of his motive in smashing Ukraine is to demonstrate that democracies are weak and corrupt. Trump ranting every five seconds about how corrupt the USA’s elections supposedly are is a propaganda boon to that effort.
Absolutely perfect: Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya peddles Trump's Big Lie.
“… with the support of the United States, where the legitimately elected president of the country was overthrown.” pic.twitter.com/p2dZhM3nm3
— The Recount (@therecount) March 2, 2022
There’s another theory to explain why Putin waited to invade Ukraine until Trump was gone, though, and it happens to be backed by lots of recent evidence. Maybe he’s just … a garbage strategist? Imagine how bad you’d need to be at geopolitics if your lifelong goal was to splinter NATO and reorient Germany from west to east and you somehow managed to achieve this outcome in a week:
Absolutely astonishing poll from Germany: After Russia's attack on Ukraine and Berlin's 180-degree turn on foreign policy, 78% of Germans support an immediate boost of defence spending by €100bn. Let me repeat: 78%! I cannot overstate how much of a shift this is. https://t.co/lpiSLNKIjB
— Marcel Dirsus (@marceldirsus) March 1, 2022
Consider the possibility that Vladimir Putin not only isn’t fully rational but isn’t a strategic “genius” at all. What other possibility is there at this point, frankly?