ANALYSIS — Donald Trump has mostly given President Joe Biden a pass over Russia’s flirtation with invading Ukraine and possibly installing a puppet government in Kyiv.
“It’s very high,” Biden told reporters Thursday while departing the White House for an infrastructure event in Ohio, when asked about the chances for a Russian attack. “They have not moved any of their troops out.
“They’ve moved more troops in, No. 1. No. 2, we have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation. Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, to attack Ukraine,” he added over the hum of an idling Marine One.
Asked if he thought that meant Russian President Vladimir Putin will indeed give the ‘go’ order, Biden was direct in answering.
“Yes,” Biden said. “My sense is that it will happen within the next several days.”
The 46th commander in chief’s prediction seems like natural fodder for Trump — who some political strategists say is showing every sign of mounting a 2024 White House bid — to bludgeon his would-be 2024 foe.
Curiously, however, the 45th commander in chief has been mostly silent on the matter.
The last statement from Trump about the Ukraine tensions came on Jan. 24: “What’s happening with Russia and Ukraine would never have happened under the Trump Administration. Not even a possibility!”
Since then, the former president has been focused a bit on endorsements for the 2022 election cycle — but mostly on another, in his words, “Russia, Russia, Russia” matter.
Trump and his top remaining surrogates are pushing a claim that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign — even after it had been officially folded — spied on his campaign and the Executive Office of the President in the early months he occupied it.
While Biden administration officials and military experts warn a Russian incursion into Ukraine would lead to 50,000 people being killed, Trump is suggesting his opponents at home meet the same fate.
“This is a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate and those who were involved in and knew about this spying operation should be subject to criminal prosecution,” he said in a Feb. 12 statement. “In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.”
Independent national security journalist Marcy Wheeler has dubbed the latest MAGA moment just another baseless conspiracy theory fed to Trump, this time by former Pentagon official Kash Patel.
“This is Kash Patel garbage in, and Kash Patel garbage out,” Wheeler told MSNBC. “And Donald Trump is saying he wants to kill people over it. It’s that simple.”
Trump has been focused recently on a few choice issues: the 2020 election, multiple federal and state probes of his business organization and offspring, and raising millions of dollars for unclear purposes. He has very specific reasons to stay largely mum on Ukraine, though: His still-unexplained deference to Putin and how Moscow’s military modernization went unchecked during his term.
‘Weakness invites aggression’
Compared to the lean years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has steadily rebuilt its military forces.
“Russian military forces that are more capable under more varied circumstances than was the case in the first two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” states a report from the RAND Corporation, a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. “Russian capabilities have improved to the point that a hypothetical Russia strike against the Baltic states or other U.S. NATO allies would pose a serious challenge to NATO.”
To be sure, Putin’s military modernization began well before Trump came to office. But it was furthered during Trump’s term, and his administration took few moves to make it harder for the Kremlin to obtain the myriad sophisticated items it needed to build a 21st century combat force.
As Putin’s new-look troops have Ukraine surrounded on three sides, Trump has mostly left it to his congressional allies to criticize and question Biden over his handling of the crisis.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending, has been among the most vocal Biden critic, saying he has done too little to change Putin’s mind.
“They’re telling us the invasion is imminent. But they’re not telling Putin with clarity what happens if you invade,” the South Carolina Republican told ABC News on Sunday, referring to Biden administration officials.
“He (Putin) should be punished now. What I can’t get over is that the world is allowing him to do all this without consequence,” Graham added. “The guy took the Crimea in 2014. … So I’d like to hit him now for the provocation and have sanctions spelled out very clearly, what happens to the ruble and his oil and gas economy. I think that’s what’s missing.”
House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul on Wednesday offered this critique of the president’s approach thus far: “Weakness invites aggression.”
“The Biden administration plan is not working. And we’re on the cusp of an invasion,” the Texas Republican told Fox News.
McCaul warned Biden’s inability, so far, to convince Putin to withdraw all his forces from the border area is allowing the enigmatic Kremlin boss to draw closer to his twin goals of controlling a country widely known as the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union while also expanding his economic reach.
“This is really, cornerstone, all about energy,” McCaul added. “He wants to control the Black Sea. So he wants Mariupol and Odessa ports in the Black Sea to control energy.”
‘All roads lead to Putin’
Republicans frequently bring up their desire to install new sanctions related to the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline as a tool to alter Putin’s possible invasion plans. Their insistence on including those penalties, which Democrats viewed as unhelpfully dividing Washington and European allies, helped sink a bipartisan Senate sanctions measure.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a potential GOP leader during a potential second Trump term, like McCaul, is fond of bringing up Nord Stream 2 as a Biden failure.
“Unfortunately, it started with the Keystone XL pipeline,” Cornyn said on Fox, referring to a U.S.-Canada oil pipeline, the fourth phase of which Biden canceled, citing environmental, among other, concerns.
“And now we’re talking about Nord Stream 2 pipeline that supplies Germany from Russia, and whether that should be completed or not,” he added. “But it seems like the Biden administration cares more about European pipelines than it does one that would supply energy here in the United States.” (The European pipeline has been completed but is awaiting certification.)
The latter comment from a man Trump often has chummily referred to as “Big John” seems like a natural line for Trump. The 45th president was outspoken in his opposition to the project, tying Germany’s — and other European allies’ — dependence on U.S. military protection and technologies to their purchasing fuel products from Russia.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” he said at a meeting with other NATO leaders in 2018. “So we’re supposed to protect you against Russia, and you pay billions of dollars to Russia — and I think that’s very inappropriate.”
Yet, Trump has not used his near-daily statements to hammer Biden over allowing the pipeline to be completed. Nor has he crafted the statements to paint Biden as an incapable commander in chief, even as his allies continue banging such drums.
“This is not the last president America will have. If Russia invades the Ukraine, you will destroy the U.S.-Russian relationship for decades,” Graham said. “And every president in the near term will be put in a box when it comes to dealing with Russia.
“We’re talking way too much,” Trump’s sometimes golfing buddy added, “and we're doing too little.”
The man Graham concedes would, should he seek a second term, cruise to the GOP nomination is talking little about the Ukraine standoff.
One of Trump’s domestic nemeses long ago offered a possible reason for that.
“Just as I have said to the [former] president: With him, all roads lead to Putin,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in June 2020. “I don't know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, or financially.”