Rich Lowry, Syndicated columnist.
More than a year into the Biden presidency, Vladimir Putin has invaded a sovereign neighboring country and, of course, everyone knows who’s to blame — Biden’s predecessor.
In an instance of misdirection for the ages, a spate of commentary has pointed the finger at Donald Trump for supposedly creating the predicate for Putin’s brutalizing of Ukraine.
There’s no doubt that Trump has long had an apparently uncontrollable reflex to say warm things about Vladimir Putin. He foolishly mused about pulling out of NATO. And his withholding of aid to Ukraine for a partisan political purpose — to pressure the Ukrainian government to uncover dirt related to the Bidens — was a tawdry abuse of power (and led to his first impeachment).
No one should hold Trump up as a paragon, but to blame him for sparking a delayed-fuse geopolitical cataclysm that just happened to explode on Biden’s watch is wholly ridiculous.
Trump critic retired Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, who had a star turn as a witness at Trump’s first impeachment, says Trump emboldened Putin and left Ukraine unprepared to defend itself. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch says Trump sent the world the message that Ukraine was a mere pawn. A piece in The New York Review of Books says Trump “paved Putin’s way.”
There is no support for this argument in a world where facts and logic — or basic chronology — mean something.
First of all, Russia had grabbed Crimea and started a long-running war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, long before anyone had any idea that Donald Trump would run for president, let alone win. It clearly didn’t take Trump to give Putin the idea that he could get away with invading Ukraine — he invaded Ukraine and got away with it under the administration of Barack Obama, when, by the way, Joe Biden was vice president.
It is now widely acknowledged that the sanctions back then were too timid, a concession that Obama officials let Putin off too lightly. Surely, that must have figured into the Russian leader’s calculation whether to invade yet again.
Then, there’s the fact that Barack Obama steadfastly resisted providing Ukraine lethal aid — after it had already been invaded. Bipartisan opposition to Obama didn’t move him. He believed deeply in the appeaser’s logic that it would be too “provocative” to give Ukraine weapons simply to defend itself.
Again, Trump had nothing to do with this misbegotten decision; indeed, he criticized it.
Trump’s offense in 2019 was to delay military aid — including Javelin missiles — that Congress had approved for Ukraine, in a reversal of Obama’s policy. If Trump never should have engaged in this self-interested gamesmanship, he released the assistance by September 2019.
Another line of argument is that Putin didn’t invade Ukraine during the Trump administration because the Russian leader was already getting everything he wanted from Trump, including the destabilization of NATO. The outward expression of Trump’s doubts about the alliance, though, largely took the form of loud complaints about European countries skimping on defense spending, which were completely justified.
Indeed, it’s perverse that Angela Merkel was made into a great heroine of Western statesmanship at the same time she maintained a pathetic level of defense spending and deepened Germany’s energy dependence on Russia in a way that was more dangerous than anything Trump said or tweeted.
And it wasn’t Trump who told Biden to execute a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, to give Putin the gift of a summit after he menaced Ukraine the first time, to remove sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to speak forthrightly about Western divisions at a pre-invasion press conference, or to forgo preemptive sanctions.
All of that is on Biden, and all of it — especially the Afghan fiasco — had to make an impression on Putin. Now, it may well have been that Putin was undeterrable, but that makes it all the more outlandish and dumb to blame a former U.S. president for his depredations.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.