As Russian President Vladimir Putin lays the groundwork for an invasion of Ukraine, Republicans in Congress have been laying the groundwork to blame President Joe Biden for failing to prevent an attack.
But it’s former President Donald Trump, recently retired military officials and diplomats told The Daily Beast, who may bear more responsibility for the looming crisis with Russia than Biden.
Trump, whose relationship with Russia has been famously complicated, pushed back on providing aid to Ukraine in 2017. Trump was reportedly reluctant to provide security aid, in part, because he wanted Ukraine to pay the United States back. That year, Putin made his case to Trump during a 2017 meeting that Russia had sovereignty claims over Ukraine.
Trump has also parroted and played into Putin’s rhetorical arguments on territorial expansion. Trump told world leaders during a private dinner in 2018 that Crimea—the peninsula of land in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine that Russia annexed by force in 2014—actually did belong to Russia because everyone there speaks Russian.
In a more hard power sense, Trump also withheld military aid to Ukraine in 2019, conditioning the aid on a political “favor.” In withholding the funds, which had been appropriated by Congress for security assistance to Ukraine, the Trump administration violated the law, the Government Accountability Office later determined.
During the infamous July 2019 phone call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Trump, Zelensky was still asking for Javelin anti-tank weapons. And while Trump held the security aid back, Ukraine became more susceptible. Ukraine was deprived of weapons, artillery, training, and advisers, leaving it weak and in the lurch. Ukrainian soldiers eventually began resorting to stuffing straw in empty uniforms and carrying around logs to make it seem like they had anti-tank missiles on their shoulders, The New York Times reported in 2019.
Even when Trump eventually relented and did provide aid, he made it a condition that the equipment not be used for war.
The delay in supplying Ukraine with top military equipment—as well as Trump’s overall dismissiveness of the security realities on the ground in Ukraine—has had lasting consequences, strengthening the Kremlin’s resolve to take further action in Ukraine today, according to Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe.
”He absolutely did not appreciate and understand the significance of what was happening,” Hodges said of Trump. “And that’s what I think was most valuable to the Kremlin is that they see the American government didn’t appreciate or understand or frankly even care that much in that administration what was going on.”
Hodges told The Daily Beast that Trump’s disregard emboldened Putin and caused damage that’s now ratcheting tensions up.
While the political blowback of any bloodshed or catastrophe in Ukraine in the coming weeks will no doubt fall on Biden—tanking his approval ratings further just as the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan did—it is the lingering rot from the Trump administration that created much of the conditions ripe for an attack.
“There is no comparison to President Trump and President Biden when it comes to Putin—one showers him with compliments and one calls him what he is: a killer,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who led a trip of senators to Ukraine in recent days, told The Daily Beast.
Hodges agreed that Biden had taken a considerably different—and considerably better—approach to Putin and Zelensky.
”It is ridiculous for anybody to say that somehow the Trump administration was better on Ukraine or better on Russia than the current administration,” said Hodges, who also previously served as the head of NATO’s Allied Land Command.
Of course, Republicans see the situation very differently. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has already laid the blame for an attack that hasn’t happened yet at Biden’s feet.
”It is a result of a year of Joe Biden’s impotence and incompetence towards Russia in particular and in foreign policy more generally,” Cotton said during a press conference this week, calling out decisions he thinks Biden has made, like when he was allegedly “looking the other way at the Colonial Pipeline hack.”
Even those offhand remarks reek of major revisionism. Russian hackers hit Colonial Pipeline with a ransomware attack last year, after which Biden responded by calling out Russian actors, warning the United States could respond with a cyberattack of its own against Russia—a marked departure from Trump, who frequently looked the other way at Russian cyber and information operations. Biden also told Putin himself to cut it out.
But Republicans believe the developing crisis with Russia and Ukraine is proof that Biden has been soft.
“Many of my Democratic colleagues were quick to criticize President Trump, claiming that he didn’t do enough initially to push back harder on Russian aggression,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday. “And then now they realize how much more he did.”
But Steve Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that’s just invented political garble.
”It’s just political BS if you have Republicans saying, ‘Well the Trump administration was tougher,’” Pifer told The Daily Beast. “There was a total disconnect between the administration and Trump. I’m not sure the way that Trump talked about Russia, I’m not sure he fully understood what his policy was.”
Still, Republicans have either forgotten or are recreating Trump’s role in the current standoff. Some are bizarrely blaming the Democrats’ legislative agenda for an impending invasion. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said the left’s “election takeover hysteria” had “overshadowed what’s happening right now between Russia and Ukraine.”
But there are lawmakers who are trying to avoid this kind of blame game to show a unified resolve against Russia. A bipartisan group of senators who went to Ukraine this past week have purposely been trying to avoid letting the Russia situation devolve into the familiar partisan lines.
“That was the purpose of the trip, to have Republicans and Democrats there, showing Ukraine—showing Russia more importantly—that despite the sort of divisions you see in Washington between Republicans and Democrats on other issues, we’re going to be together,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who just returned from the trip, said on CNN Tuesday.
“We are all in agreement on the need to forge a path forward that imposes severe consequences on Putin if he acts out,” Shaheen also told The Daily Beast, emphasizing there is bipartisan agreement on that.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who went on the trip to Ukraine as well, stressed during a GOP press conference on Wednesday that lawmakers and the Biden administration were indeed unified.
Those messages are perhaps more important than many Republicans believe.
Bret Schafer—who, as the head of the information manipulation team at Alliance for Security Democracy, tracks Russian information operations—said Russian state media actually does pick up on this kind of partisan infighting in the United States.
”You do see this direct amplification when a senator essentially says Biden’s policies to Russia have backfired—that gets picked up,” Schafer told The Daily Beast. “Even if at times the statement is: ‘He’s been too weak on Russia,’ it’ll just get picked up.”
“What they’re looking for,” Schafer continued, “is a fractured response. The division is the key.”