It is interesting to speculate on whether Vladimir Putin would have held back from invading Ukraine with a different U.S. president.
The United States has always been a bulwark against Russian aggression going back to the Cold War. But in modern times, the various presidential administrations have attempted to live and let live with Russia, although the U.S. did respond to Russian aggression in Georgia and Crimea. Some American presidents in the 21st century have tried to improve relations with Russia, whether that meant “getting a sense of Putin’s soul” during the George W. Bush administration or hitting the “reset” button on Russian diplomacy during the Barack Obama administration.
Trump and Russia
The Donald Trump White House was different.
There was little judgment on Russia’s human rights record or calls to promote democracy in Russia from 2016 to 2021. Accusations of Russian collusion during the 2016 election dogged Trump throughout his tenure. But Trump was not usually judgmental of Russian internal affairs and did not interfere in questions of sovereignty.
That’s not what the majority of Americans believe if you take into consideration one poll having to do with Trump and the invasion of Ukraine. ixty-two percent of Americans, according to a Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris poll taken at the beginning of the war, believed that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if Trump were still president.
This logic likely had to do with perceptions that President Joe Biden is weak. This perception was most widely shared after the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has said that Putin would have foregone an invasion had Trump won his 2020 re-election campaign. In August, Kushner said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt that Trump had “no problems” with Russia during his presidency. In an interview with Newsmax, Kushner also said there’s a “zero percent” chance there would be a war in Ukraine if Trump were still president.
Others Think That Biden Exhibited Stronger Leadership
Creel thinks Biden made a strong gesture in support of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, while Trump did not care about Ukraine joining the alliance. It was Biden who was the strong one, and Trump the weaker president when it came to Ukraine support, Creel wrote.
Russia also preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton and Biden. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a jovial reception at the White House in 2017 during the Trump era, and members of Russia’s parliament were pleasantly surprised and clapped their hands after learning of Trump’s win over Clinton in 2016.
Biden has remained steadfast against Russia, according to some observers such as Associate Professor Jessica Pisano at the New School for Social Research. Pisano believes that it was Biden who was resolute in his support of NATO and stood up to Putin when it came to Moscow’s territorial ambitions. Pisano points out Biden’s decision to share intelligence with Ukraine during the run-up to the invasion allowed the Ukrainians to better prepare for war.
It seems that beliefs about which president was “tougher” break down by party and according to overall support of either Trump or Biden. In the poll cited above, Republicans were more likely to believe that Trump would have stopped the Russian invasion, and Democrats thought that Trump would have no effect on the outcome.
Trump: Putin Stroke of ‘Genius’
Trump described Putin with the words “smart,” “genius,” and “savvy” when the invasion first began. Trump also fanned the flames of Biden’s perceived weakness in an interview with Fox News early in the war. “[Putin] was going to be satisfied with a piece and now he sees the weakness and the incompetence and the stupidity of this administration,” Trump said.
So, it comes down to politics and party membership. Those who support Trump believe that Putin would not have invaded if the real estate executive had remained president. And those who are more in favor of Biden give Trump zero credit when it comes to a Russian policy that could have prevented the war.
Putin himself, though he preferred Trump to Biden and Clinton, was more driven by his yearning to restore the Soviet empire. Putin does not think Ukraine is a real country, and that its territory rightly belongs to Russia in the first place. Thus, territorial ambitions drove him.
Who sat in the White House at any given time did not matter. Republicans and Democrats in the United States are free to fashion their own theories about whether Trump could have stopped the war. The Kremlin could not care less.
Expert Biography: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.