Posted on March 4, 2023



Or Else What?

No, Trump did not deter the Russians


Daniel Clark



If there's one thing that everyone seems to know about the war in Ukraine, it's that the Russians would never have invaded if Donald Trump had been president. In fact, it's such an absolute certainty that nobody ever feels the need to explain why. But if you had to explain it, how could you?

The simple fact that Russia did not invade Ukraine during the Trump presidency is not itself very convincing. To this point in the Biden administration, China has not invaded Taiwan. Does this mean the Chinese are afraid of Biden? North Korea has not launched a missile strike into South Korea. Do the North Koreans fear Biden, also? We have no idea how many variables factored into Vladimir Putin's timetable for invading Ukraine. It might be that the only reason he didn't do it during the Trump years is because Trump did not win a second term.

A deterrent, by definition, is an implied consequence that dissuades another party from acting. There were supposed to have been consequences in 2019, when Iran shot down an American drone over international waters, but a funny thing happened on the way to the retaliatory strike: nothing. "We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, 'How many will die?'" the president tweeted. "'150 people, sir' was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone." That might have been a perfectly reasonable deliberation had he made it behind closed doors, far earlier in the process, as he surely had the opportunity to do. It's unthinkable that he was so incurious about the effects of his own decision until the very last moment. What happened instead is that he had already made a well informed decision to launch a strike, but then got cold feet just minutes beforehand. What's more, he did it in full view of the entire world.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," Trump said in August of 2017. "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." By the end of that year, the Norks had resumed nuclear testing. In 2019, they restarted their provocative missile launches into the Sea of Japan. Kim Jong Un boasted of creating a "new strategic weapon" and suggested he might deliver America a "Christmas present." No fire, no fury. Not that there necessarily should have been, but he had very publicly promised that there would be.

None of this comes as any surprise or disappointment to Trump's most ardent supporters. If anything, they would have more likely turned against him had he ever backed up his threats, because his "America first" platform is perversely characterized by a simple-minded peacenik foreign policy that shrinks from the projection of American power. Trump's son, Donald Jr., boasted that "Donald Trump is the first president in modern history who did not start a new war." Oh, is that how America has gotten involved in wars in the past? Because our presidents "start" them? That's not a very America-firsty point of view, but it is the one to which he, tragically, has led most of the Republican Party.

President Trump has actually surrendered a war on America's behalf, needlessly choosing a defeat that the enemy had no ability to inflict upon us. Not only hasn't this been held against him, but his more libertarian-leaning followers count "ending the forever wars" among his greatest accomplishments. He has repeatedly said that the U.S. should have never invaded Afghanistan in the first place, without ever offering an alternate course of action in response to 9/11.

Trump himself instinctively reaches for "warmonger" as his go-to insult for anyone who disagrees with him. One could write a whole thesaurus of negative descriptors that might be applied to Hillary Clinton ("frigid, screeching, pinko nag" comes to mind, just for example). "Warmonger" doesn't even make the first cut, yet he has called her that repeatedly for many years. This is not a man who inspires fear in America's adversaries, least of all Putin, who knows him well.

Anyone who is hopeful that returning Trump to the White House will pacify the Russians should consider Kaliningrad Oblast. The former German territory, which was ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, has been geographically isolated from the rest of Russia ever since the Baltic States regained their independence in 1991. Last June, Lithuania cut off the delivery of goods to Kaliningrad Oblast through their country from the Russian mainland, in accordance with European Union sanctions. If Putin eventually succeeds in taking Ukraine, he might then move on to Lithuania, whose actions he could cite as a threat to the territorial integrity of Russia. His broader tactical purpose, however, should be apparent to Trump enthusiasts, experts in three-dimensional chess that they are.

Lithuania, unlike Ukraine, is a member of NATO. An attack against it would trigger Article 5 of the NATO charter, which holds that an attack against one member state should be considered an attack against them all. At that point, the United States would be left with two options. Either, (a) it leads its NATO allies in a direct military confrontation with Russia, or (b) it declines to act, thereby exposing NATO as a fraud, leading to its dissolution.

Now, let's assume Donald Trump wins the 2024 election, and is once again president when the time comes for Putin to make a decision on invading Lithuania. Everybody knows that Trump does not value NATO, and also that he prides himself on his avoidance of war . He is not going to lead England, Germany, France, Poland, etc. into World War III over a Lithuanian blockade of Kaliningrad Oblast, regardless of its greater geopolitical ramifications. If Putin thought he might, then that would be a very convincing deterrent. If, instead, Putin only sees Trump as a means of ridding himself of his nemesis NATO, then a second Trump presidency would only fuel a Russian invasion of Lithuania.

Trump likes to employ Ronald Reagan's slogan, "peace through strength," but there's more to strength than the possession of military hardware. It also entails an ability to lead that Trump has clearly illustrated he does not possess. In 2019, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan demanded that American forces be withdrawn from Syria in advance of a Turkish offensive, and Trump immediately complied. As Erdogan's army rolled in to rout the Kurdish forces who had been so instrumental in our fight against ISIS, Trump penned an embarrassing letter, begging the brute to "work out a good deal" and not to "let the world down." In closing, he childishly warned, "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" Whether Erdogan was a fool in this situation is open to interpretation, but he was undoubtedly the tough guy. Trump was not.

In that situation, Trump could have prevented an invasion without taking any action at all, because the presence of American soldiers in Syria was all the deterrence he needed. Instead, he obediently removed that deterrent, thus creating the conditions that allowed the Turkish aggression to take place. So what was it about him that presumably stopped the Russians from moving into Ukraine? Did he threaten to slap a tariff on borscht? Might he have shamed Putin by putting on a biglier, bestier military parade than Russia has ever seen? Was Putin afraid that Trump would go on Truth Social and nickname him Little Drunky Vladdy No-Shirt?

Well, what, then?



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