Editor’s Note: Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington. He is also a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and has written for many national publications. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion at CNN.
There was a lot to disagree with during former President Donald Trump’s CNN town hall on Wednesday night. For many political pundits and politicians, his observations on the war in Ukraine were no exception.
Trump’s answers to several questions on the conflict generated immediate pushback for being insufficiently supportive of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, including from many members of his own party.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is challenging Trump for the 2024 nomination, declared that “Trump reminded everyone tonight of his support of Russia and his willingness to sell out Ukraine. A weak position that will not win the war.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s exploring a presidential run, blasted Trump as a “puppet of Putin.”
There were certainly some howlers in Trump’s statements, but it’s a mistake to instantly dismiss all of his points – especially given that GOP support for intervening in the war is dropping. As of January, only 39% of Republicans supported giving US weapons to Ukraine and just 21% supported financial assistance, compared to 53% and 28%, respectively, since the war began a year ago.
While it was understandably controversial when Trump demurred on whether he wanted Ukraine to beat Russia, he said that in the context of calling for a much-needed resolution. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he said. “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people.” Plenty of wars throughout history have ended in diplomatic settlements rather than outright surrenders.
Some observers simply scoff at the thought of Ukraine sitting down with Russia at the negotiating table and compromising for the sake of a peace agreement. But that all but relegates the parties to what could be endless war.
Although we may like to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin eating humble pie as he withdraws his forces in defeat and disgrace, US intelligence officials behind closed doors have acknowledged that Ukraine likely doesn’t have enough combat power to win the war outright.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said in March that the war “probably will end somewhere, somehow at a negotiating table.” In November, senior Biden officials reportedly pressed Ukrainian officials to at the very least keep diplomacy on the table. And European officials are reportedly anticipating a US-led peace push after Ukraine reclaims more territory in its expected counteroffensive. The major difference between the Biden administration and Trump on the Ukraine question seems to be not whether talks should happen, but when.
Another point Trump gets right is the vast disparity between the US and its European allies on the issue of assistance to Ukraine, even if he grossly exaggerates the amount of US aid. “I want Europe to put up more money,” he commented during the town hall. “Because they’re laughing at us.”
Rich European governments taking advantage of Uncle Sam’s generosity is, of course, a common theme for Trump; his rhetorical fights as president with Germany, France and the entire NATO alliance were underpinned by this notion. But Trump isn’t wrong to bring up this disparity.
There is a cavernous difference between Washington and Europe on what has been sent to the Ukrainian army since the war began. The US has delivered more than $37 billion in military aid to Ukraine since February 2022; the next on the list is the United Kingdom at $5.7 billion. Though that’s roughly proportionate to the gap in GDP between the two countries, Germany, the fourth-largest economy on the planet and the biggest in Europe, has sent approximately $3.9 billion, or only about half as much proportionate to GDP as the US has. And both the UK and Germany are much closer to Ukraine.
Trump is also correct to mention the difficulty the US faces in replacing its own military equipment even as it continues to send hundreds of millions of dollars in ammunition, air defenses and artillery rounds to Ukraine (though he overstated it when he says the Pentagon doesn’t have ammunition left for itself). America’s industrial defense base is struggling to keep up. “The huge needs of Ukraine are driving challenges in supplying material to combat operations at a level I did not anticipate,” former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Adm. James Stavridis, wrote last month.
Trump’s positions on Ukraine can understandably generate moral outrage at times, but the practicalities need to be weighed. Trump danced around anchor Kaitlan Collins’ question Wednesday of whether Putin is a war criminal despite the man being single-handedly responsible for invading a sovereign country, trying to wipe out its identity and leading a military that has tortured civilians. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest on March 17, making him a wanted man.
Even so, there is a good case to be made that addressing the issue of Putin’s accountability as the war goes on will only complicate the prospects of a negotiation down the line. As Trump said, “I think it’s something that should not be discussed now. It should be discussed later … if you say he’s a war criminal, it’s going to be a lot tougher to make a deal to get this thing stopped.”
Indeed, some well-respected experts in international law argue that telegraphing a future war crimes tribunal for Russian political and military leaders will make the war “existential” for those who reside inside the Kremlin’s walls. The question must be asked: What incentive does Putin have to stop the fighting if a war crimes prosecution awaits him?
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To be clear, some of what Trump said at the town hall about Ukraine was incorrect. Plenty of absurd lines came out of his mouth, in particular his description of Putin as a “smart guy.” Though Trump acknowledged the Russian made a “tremendous mistake” in invading, it was worse than that. Putin decided to launch a war of choice that cut it off from its biggest energy consumer in the West, embarrassingly misassessed that victory would be quick and assumed regime change in Kyiv could be achieved on the cheap, among other egregious blunders.
Moreover, Trump’s claim that he could negotiate an end to the war within 24 hours if he were back in the White House is pure delusion. The Ukrainians and Russians are nowhere near the point of exploring talks on a ceasefire, let alone on their systemic political disputes and it’s all but certain that no talks will happen until the end of Ukraine’s next counteroffensive. Even then, it could take many additional months or more of attrition before the two sides are exhausted enough to come to the table.
The temptation with Trump is to reject whatever he says. But on the biggest international news story of the year, the former president actually makes some sense. The pundits and politicians who are so quick to mock him should remember that what he’s saying now is likely to resonate with more voters as the conflict drags on.