Speaking at a Republican presidential town hall this week, former President and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump boasted that he would resolve the Ukraine invasion in a single day.
The notion that an 18-month-long conflict could dissipate in a span of 24 hours is pretty absurd. Even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky rejected this claim, alluding to the four years Trump spent in office unable to address the escalating tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.
“It seems to me that the sole desire to bring the war to an end is beautiful. But this desire should be based on some real-life experience,” Zelensky said in translated remarks. “Well, it looks as if Donald Trump already had these 24 hours once in his time. We were at war, not a full-scale war, but we were at war, and as I assume, he had that time at his disposal, but he must have had some other priorities.” The Ukrainian leader specifically noted that Kyiv had been battling Russian proxies in the Donbas region since 2014, and Trump was in office from 2016-2020.
Donald Trump’s 24-Hour Boast
Perhaps Trump was suggesting that he could “end the war” in 24 hours by urging Zelensky to cede territory to Moscow. Obviously, Biden could also take that approach. But Zelensky has given no indication that ceding territory is a possibility.
These remarks are not the first time Trump has claimed that the current situation in Ukraine would be different if he were in charge. In a March interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump claimed that “Putin would have never gone into Ukraine. I used to talk to him about it — I said ‘better not do it.’ And he wouldn’t have — we had a very friendly conversation about it: I said, ‘Hey, Vladimir, you can’t go into Ukraine.’”
In the past, Trump has pointed out that Democrats were in office both times Putin invaded Ukraine. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama was in office when Russia invaded Crimea. In February 2022, Biden was in office. While this is obviously true, Trump fails to mention that Putin never withdrew Russian forces from Ukraine during his own presidential term. Trump has also expressed that his personality played a role in Putin’s decision not to invade Ukraine. Other analysts, including former Trump officials, have expressed alternative explanations.
Trump’s Distaste for NATO
John Bolton, who served as Trump’s National Security Adviser, told news outlets that Putin believed Trump’s view of NATO was favorable for Russia. In 2018, Trump said, “I met them (NATO) last year. Stoltenberg, Secretary General, great guy, of NATO. Big fan. No one was paying their bills. Last year I went, a year ago. We picked up $44 billion. Nobody reports it. I just left recently and we’re going to pick up at least another, close to a $1 billion extra. I said to him, ‘you got to pay your bills.’”
Among the 31 countries that make up the intergovernmental alliance, the U.S. is by far the biggest military spender. When Trump suggested that other NATO allies don’t “pay their bills,” he was referring to the fact that the majority of member-states were not meeting the requirement to commit 2% of their GDP on defense. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, a number of European Union countries have ramped up their defense budgets.
What Prompted the Invasion?
For Putin, the existence and expansion of NATO represents a direct threat to the Kremlin’s chief long-term objective: to resurrect Imperial Russia. NATO was created in the aftermath of World War II to officially secure peace in Europe — while unofficially countering the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Analysts across the political divide might disagree on America’s proper role in NATO, but Putin’s distaste for the organization is unquestionable. The possibility that Trump might have actually made moves to withdraw the U.S. from NATO could thus have pushed Putin to hold off his full invasion of Ukraine. But the Kremlin chief’s fundamental ambition is to restore a historic Russian Federation that includes former Soviet blocs like Ukraine. It is improbable that Putin would have nixed his invasion plans fully for Trump.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.