By Max Boot

March 11, 2024

The Washington Post


Ukraine’s ammunition is running low, and its front-line positions are in danger of crumbling before a looming Russian offensive. The Senate passed a bill that included $60 billion in desperately needed aidfor Ukraine, but House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) still won’t give it a floor vote in the House. Why not? The explanation can be summarized in two words: Donald Trump. Johnson knows that the former (and possibly future) president’s most fervent followers stand ready to oust him if he dares to advance aid to Ukraine. If Nikki Haley were the presumptive Republican nominee, the aid package would have passed long ago.

It’s no secret that Trump is pro-Russia — and specifically pro-Vladimir Putin. Elected with Russian help in 2016, Trump never, ever criticizes the Russian dictator, even after the recent death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a Russian penal colony. Trump has gone from inviting Russia in 2016 to meddle in the U.S. election (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing”) to, in 2024, inviting Russia to invade NATO countries that don’t pay enough for protection (“I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want”). Less well-known than Trump’s affection for Russia is his disdain for Ukraine — but that also has been evident for at least a decade. Trump has a long and troubling record of regurgitating Russian propaganda and airing deranged conspiracy theories about Ukraine — a country that Putin, like many Russians, views as a wayward province of Mother Russia.

Just a few months after Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Trump lauded the Russian dictator’s move, saying Putin was “so smart” and that “he’s done an amazing job of taking the mantle.” According to Trump, “people in the Ukraine” were “marching in favor of joining Russia.” On July 31, 2016, Trump, by then the GOP presidential nominee, assured ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that Putin was “not going into Ukraine,” while insisting that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” That is exactly what the Kremlin itself was claiming.

Trump’s pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine tilt carried over into his presidency. Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, recounts in her memoir how reluctant Trump was to meet with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. After Trump finally sat down with Poroshenko in June 2017, he stressed two points, Yovanovitch wrote: “The first was that Ukraine was a corrupt country, which he knew because a Ukrainian friend at Mar-a-Lago had told him. Trump’s second point was that Crimea was Russian, as the locals spoke Russian.” Of course, Russia is even more corrupt than Ukraine, and the vast majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians have no desire to be ruled by Moscow.

In 2018, Trump became convinced by his conspiracy-theory-mongering attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and two of his shady, Soviet-born associates — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — that Ukraine was plotting against him. The president eagerly embraced what U.S. intelligence later assessed was likely a Russian disinformation campaign that blamed Ukraine, not Russia, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and claimed Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, were implicated in Ukrainian corruption. The crux of this nutty theory turned on a supposedly missing server from the Democratic National Committee that the DNC’s cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, somehow spirited away to Ukraine.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton recounted in his own memoir that during a May 23, 2019, White House meeting with his senior advisers, Trump railed against Ukraine: “I don’t want any f—ing thing to do with Ukraine. They f—ing attacked me. … They’re corrupt.” In his fury, Trump ordered Yovanovitch’s recall from Kyiv; Giuliani and his pals had convinced him that she was part of the supposed Ukrainian cabal against him. During Trump’s notorious July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump demanded that Ukraine turn over the DNC server and provide dirt on the Bidens. To encourage Zelensky to comply, Trump halted weapons deliveries to Ukraine. That led to his first impeachment.

When Putin launched a broader invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Trump hailed it as an act of “genius,” “smart” and “savvy.” In a May 2023 town hall in New Hampshire, Trump wouldn’t say whether he wants Ukraine or Russia to win the war. In a Truth Social post last month, Trump argued against providing aid to Ukraine “without the hope of a payback.” His son, Donald Trump Jr., has slammed Zelensky, regarded by millions as a heroic figure, as “an ungrateful international welfare queen.” Trump has been claiming that he would end the Ukraine war “in one day” — which could be accomplished only by forcing Kyiv’s capitulation.

Trump has also been demanding that Congress impeach President Biden based, in part, on allegations that he and Hunter Biden profited from corrupt connections in Ukraine. The MAGA case has fallen apart after a special counsel recently charged FBI informant Alexander Smirnov — the chief source of these allegations — with lying to FBI agents.

Smirnov claimed close ties to Russian intelligence, which, if true, would hardly make him unusual in MAGA circles. One of Trump’s campaign managers in 2016, Paul Manafort, worked for pro-Putin oligarchs in Ukraine and Russia. One of his closest colleagues was Konstantin Kilimnik, who was described by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a Russian intelligence officer. Such connections have led to endless, unconfirmed speculation that Trump has been blackmailed or paid off by the Kremlin. But there could be a simpler explanation for Trump’s puzzling affection for Russia and his concomitant antipathy toward Ukraine.

Fiona Hill, who was the top Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, told me that Trump has long been marinating in a “primordial soup of Russian propaganda.” She said Trump knew a lot of wealthy Russians in South Florida (some of them did very profitable business with him), and they convinced him that “Ukraine isn’t a real country. They’re corrupt, they’re poor, they’re weak.”

Then, of course, there is Trump’s well-documented affection for Putin; as Hill put it, “Trump thinks Putin is a badass, and that’s how he sees himself as well.” Hill told me that, in the Trump-Putin conversations, Putin reinforced Trump’s negative view of Ukraine. In general, the former KGB officer has been masterful in manipulating Trump by playing on his vanity. Trump is pathetically pleased anytime Putin compliments him.

Some analysts hope that House Republicans might finally relent on Ukraine aid if only because they don’t want to be held responsible for Ukraine’s defeat. But I would bet Trump has a different calculus: Just as he torpedoed a bipartisan Senate immigration bill because he doesn’t want to deliver any wins for Biden, so he might now see political benefits from Ukrainian defeats that he can blame on his opponent.

Whatever Trump’s actual thought process — and it is admittedly difficult to decipher his often contradictory and conspiratorial statements — the ultimate upshot is clear: He has turned a Republican Party that once prided itself on standing up to the “evil empire” into Putin’s poodle. The Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election, which might have helped swing a contest that Trump won by a razor-thin margin, could turn out to be one of the most consequential covert actions in history. It might allow the Russian dictator to win in Washington a victory that his troops could not win on the battlefield.


Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, he is the author of the forthcoming “Reagan: His Life and Legend.” Twitter