Ruth Deyermond, Juliet Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley investigate the Trump administration’s Russia policy and implications for the Russia–Ukraine war
Despite a wide range of ongoing legal proceedings, former US President Donald Trump appears on track to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency. While the domestic and international implications of a second Trump administration are difficult to predict fully, one area of concern is how his possible re-election might affect United States’ and western support for Ukraine.
Drawing on their research in International Affairs, Ruth Deyermond, Juliet Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley answer questions about the Trump administration’s approach to Russia and Ukraine, Biden’s role in coordinating the West’s response to the invasion and the ways a re-elected President Trump might affect the US response to the conflict.
How did the Trump presidency affect US support for Ukraine?
Juliet Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley: In many ways, Trump continued the foreign policies from the Obama administration. The United States maintained Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia, the US and NATO increased their military presence in eastern Europe, and the Trump administration (eventually) approved military aid to Ukraine, including the sale of Javelin missiles. But Trump himself was never committed to supporting Ukraine; his approach to Ukraine was highly erratic and created great uncertainty about enduring US support.
He initially refused to meet with Ukraine’s president, fired the US ambassador to Ukraine, peddled falsehoods about Ukraine, and supported Russian claims on Crimea and Donbas. Trump had strong negative views of Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership — calling Ukraine corrupt and ignoring his advisors on how to handle Russia–Ukraine relations. Most significantly, US–Ukrainian relations became embroiled in Trump’s attempt to extort accusations of corruption about Joe Biden and his family from President Zelensky, leading to articles of impeachment by the US House of Representatives.
Overall, Trump’s orientation towards Ukraine was consistent with his transactional beliefs, his lack of knowledge about Ukraine, his affinity for Putin, and his tendency not to listen to, and sometimes even go against, his own bureaucracy.
Ruth Deyermond: The Trump presidency created uncertainty about US support for Ukraine because different parts of the Trump administration were saying completely different things about it. On the one hand, official statements condemned Russian aggression and strongly supported Ukrainian sovereignty; on the other, Trump’s off-the-cuff comments implied he might recognize Crimea as Russian territory ‘because everyone who lives there speaks Russian’.
The priority for Trump and his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, always seemed to be developing good relations with the Russian government — not supporting Ukraine. The Republican-controlled Congress was so concerned that Trump would try to lift sanctions against Russia that they passed legislation to prevent it. Then there was the suspension of military aid to Ukraine for domestic political advantage, as an attempt to pressure Zelensky into re-opening an investigation into Hunter Biden. So, US support for Ukraine seemed to depend on who was talking, and what they wanted. That created profound uncertainty about whether the US was a reliable, consistent supporter of Ukraine against Russian aggression.
What caused the incoherence in the Trump administration’s foreign policy?
Ruth Deyermond: The factors driving Trump’s foreign policy incoherence were a product of Trump himself. One of them was that he came to the presidency with no knowledge or experience of foreign policy and seemingly no desire or ability to learn. Another was the very high turnover of key foreign policy officials — in just one term, Trump had two secretaries of state, two permanent and two acting defence secretaries, and four national security advisors. Appointments seem to have been made on the basis of perceived personal loyalty to Trump himself rather than with any concern for a shared worldview or consistent policy position. That meant people holding foreign policy positions could have very different views from their predecessors. This chaos was further compounded by the fact that Trump was either unable or unwilling to reconcile administration policy with his own views — often, he went one way and his own spokesperson and the State Department went another.
Of course, we can’t tell with certainty what caused this divergence or the motivations for Trump’s decisions, because the Trump administration was exceptionally poor at record keeping. While there is never full transparency in foreign policy decision-making, no other post-Cold War presidency has come close to the Trump administration’s lack of transparency.
Read Ruth Deyermond’s full article on the Trump administration’s Russia policy here.
What role did the difference in personalities between Trump and Biden play in influencing the western response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Juliet Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley: Trump’s views about Russia and Ukraine, his leadership style, and his foreign policy inexperience would have made an immediate and strong condemnation of Russia unlikely. He would have been reluctant to coordinate with NATO partners due to his general distrust and specific disdain for the alliance and would have distrusted his intelligence community’s warnings about the invasion. With his self-confidence and personalization of foreign relations, Trump would have believed that he, uniquely, could reason with Putin and would have initially resisted sanctioning Russia and militarily supporting Ukraine. Even if he changed his mind eventually, the critical moves to assemble an anti-Russian coalition would have been delayed, possibly allowing a quick Russian victory.
Biden’s personality helped produce a very different outcome. With considerable foreign policy experience and a sociable style, Biden trusted his advisors and NATO allies, even to the point of unprecedented sharing of intelligence. Biden’s belief system includes a strong commitment to the transatlantic relationship. He also has a high affinity for Ukraine, based on his time as VP, and a strong dislike of Putin — once calling him a ‘killer’. Biden’s self-confident and emotionally expressive personality helped produce a swift and coordinated reaction, with strong support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia.
Read Juleit Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley’s full article on what a Trump presidency might have meant for the West’s response to the initial invasion here.
What would be the likely foreign policy impacts on the Russia–Ukrainian war of a Trump presidential victory in 2024?
Juliet Kaarbo, Kai Oppermann and Ryan Beasley: Trump’s personality would likely matter less than it would have during the initial crisis stage, when presidential involvement had greater consequence, because the sanctions regime and support for Ukraine are now in place and would be difficult even for him to unravel.
Trump’s claim that he would solve the conflict ‘in one day’, however, suggests that he might bypass his advisors to negotiate some kind of settlement. But his pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine views would not make him an honest broker during any negotiations and his past actions would undermine the legitimacy of any ‘deal’ that might be struck. Trump’s transactional style and ‘respect’ for strong leaders, unlike Biden, might prompt him trying to convince Xi Jinping to pressure Russia, but his ambition, self-confidence, narcissism and unilateralism might ultimately prevent any meaningful Chinese involvement.
A re-elected Trump might not even focus on Ukraine, as his sustained attention on policy matters is never guaranteed, and his penchant for suppressing dissent might stack his advisory system against anyone advocating otherwise. Not knowing how circumstances might change in Ukraine makes it difficult to predict how Trump would respond, but the uncertainty another Trump presidency would create for European allies might itself weaken the united western front against Russia.
Ruth Deyermond: Trump’s re-election would have significant impacts even when compared to his fellow republican presidential candidates. Trump was never typical of his party on many aspects of foreign policy — for example, on Russia he was completely out of step with both Republican-controlled houses of Congress and the other candidates in the 2016 presidential election, as well as with most of his own administration. While much of the party has moved closer to him on many issues (including Russia) there are still many senior Republicans with very different views to Trump, even on the populist wing of the party; it’s impossible to imagine Trump calling Putin a war criminal, as Ron De Santis has done, for example. If Trump is re-elected, we might well see a downgrading of support for Ukraine, a renewed attempt to placate the Russian government and uncertainty about the US commitment to NATO. All of that would obviously have serious implications for security in Europe and beyond.
A Trump presidency may well return US foreign policy to the incoherence of 2017–21 because there is no indication that Trump has learned from his first term — and given the extent to which incoherence was a product of his personality, it seems unlikely that he would be able to do so. If the Republican candidate is another populist with no political background, similar problems might well emerge as they encounter the norms and constraints of government. A more conventional Republican would not present these challenges to coherence, but currently the chances of such a candidate even gaining the Republican nomination seem remote. If there is a Republican president in January 2025, it currently looks likely to be Trump, which would be deeply problematic for US foreign policy coherence and credibility.