If ignorance were a virtue, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would be saints. Their responses to Fox News star Tucker Carlson’s policy questionnaire demonstrate that they don’t understand the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War and have nothing to offer for its resolution. Indeed, their suggestions would result in the very thing they claim they want to avoid: a potentially disastrous American war with Russia.
Trump attributes the war to “our incompetently handled pullout from Afghanistan, and a very poor choice of words by Biden in explaining U.S. requests and intentions.” Really? So, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale genocidal war because of a couple of mistakes made by President Biden? Not even Biden’s realist critics, who blame everything on NATO enlargement, would find Trump’s point compelling.
Trump’s solution to the war is even more bizarre: the war “must end, NOW! Start by telling Europe that they must pay at least equal to what the U.S. is paying to help Ukraine.” How badgering the Europeans has any relationship to ending the war “NOW” is unclear. What if they drag their feet? What if they pay up? Just how will that end the war?
Trump’s second step is equally absurd: “Next, tell Ukraine that there will be little more money coming from us, UNLESS RUSSIA CONTINUES TO PROSECUTE THE WAR.” Poor Trump. He doesn’t understand that, since Russia is committed to continuing the war, his statement amounts to a “blank check” for Ukraine.
So, how are all these wonderful goals to be attained? “The President must meet with each side, then both sides together, and quickly work out a deal. This can be easily done if conducted by the right President. Both sides are weary and ready to make a deal.” Would that convincing a Russian dictator to end a genocidal war that he must win to survive were that easy!
DeSantis’ comments are more coherent but equally wrongheaded. Most alarmingly ignorant is his claim that this war, which has brought death to hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and destroyed large swaths of southeastern Ukraine, is nothing more than a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.” Is DeSantis serious? Does he really believe that the issue is a sliver of land? And if it is, why destroy the very land and the very people Putin claims as his?
Like Trump, who has no eye for self-contradiction, DeSantis doesn’t realize that, if his description of the Russo-Ukrainian War as a territorial dispute is correct, then Adolf Hitler’s absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia and invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union also amount to picayune territorial disputes into which the United States should have refrained from becoming “further entangled.” Ditto for the Pacific theater: after all, why go to war over a dispute over some harbor in Hawaii? Why start a civil war over a dispute over a fort off the coast of South Carolina? Or, for that matter, over British colonies?
So, what should the United States not do about the war? Once again, DeSantis doesn’t realize the depth of his ignorance and the degree of his self-contradiction: “The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table.”
For starters, no one envisions the deployment of American troops in Ukraine or Russia. And no Ukrainian policymaker wants to attack Russia. A responsible and well-informed American president would know that. But, notice that, since these eventualities will not happen, DeSantis is effectively providing Ukraine with a blank check as long as it refrains from doing what it has no intention of doing.
DeSantis gets it wrong again when he argues that pursuing “regime change” in Russia “would neither stop the death and destruction of the war, nor produce a pro-American, Madisonian constitutionalist in the Kremlin.” But just which Western leader seriously wants regime change? If anything, U.S. and European policymakers are absolutely fearful of such an outcome. Moreover, if and when Putin’s downfall comes—an eventuality that growing numbers of sane Russian analysts consider highly likely—it will be due to domestic Russian politics and growing elite criticism of Putin’s unwinnable and self-destructive war.
DeSantis is right to suggest that a Madisonian constitutionalist is unlikely to replace Putin, but he’s dead wrong in saying that “History indicates that Putin’s successor, in this hypothetical, would likely be even more ruthless.” Quite the contrary, both Russian and world history persuasively suggests that tyrants are usually followed by power struggles that produce better winners. After all, who followed Joseph Stalin? Nikita Khrushchev, who introduced the thaw. And who followed Leonid Brezhnev? Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced glasnost and perestroika.
The moral of the story is simple. Ignorance is no way to pursue a foreign policy. Like Trump and DeSantis, Russia’s Führer is no genius. Putin proved that he doesn’t understand Ukraine by invading it. Trump and DeSantis proved they don’t understand Russia and Ukraine by proposing silly and self-contradictory solutions. Were either of the two to become president and confront Putin, the likelihood of continued disastrous mistakes by both sides would rise exponentially.
And war with Russia would become a far more distinct possibility than today.
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”