Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on March 1, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
IT SEEMS unlikely that Donald Trump believes in karma. But if he did, the former president would have to acknowledge that the fates have passed a crushing verdict on his attempt to shake down Volodymyr Zelenskyy, shortly after he became Ukraine’s president in May 2019. Indeed, almost everyone Trump sought to denigrate through that nefarious scheme has been richly vindicated; and everyone he sought to advance—including mainly himself—has been tarnished.
In the light of current events in Ukraine, it may be worth rehearsing the details of Trump’s attempted shakedown. With his re-election battle looming, he had planned a muckraking campaign against his probable opponent, Joe Biden. The Democratic veteran’s son, Hunter Biden, had once sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. And Trump and his cronies were convinced that Biden Junior had been involved in corruption at the firm; or at least that they could convince American voters that he had been.
In a call with Zelenskyy, a former comedian who once provided the Ukrainian voiceover of Paddington Bear, Trump attempted to recruit him to his scheme. Zelenskyy was hoping to secure an Oval Office meeting with Trump and more American weapons to counter a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. But Trump cut him off and asked that Zelenskyy “do us a favour” by looking into “Biden’s son”. The Ukrainian, wary of putting himself in the middle of a domestic American row, could not promise that. So Trump retaliated by withholding $400 million of Congress-mandated military aid to Ukraine.
This led to the Republican president’s first impeachment trial, after the details of Trump’s shakedown effort—his “perfect call”, he called it—were leaked. And though he was saved by the partisan loyalty of most Republican senators, Trump suffered the indignity of having his plot publicised in embarrassing detail. This convinced Mitt Romney, a principled conservative senator from Utah, to vote to impeach and remove him from office. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” he said.
Trump’s vengeful supporters were so outraged that they have ever since been rubbishing Zelenskyy and his besieged country. Last month, Tucker Carlson, a pro-Trump blowhard on Fox News, said that, if forced to choose between Russia and Ukraine, he would plump for the former. He called Ukraine a “pure client state of the United States State Department.”
The war that has since erupted in Ukraine is, of course, much more than a moral verdict on American politics. But from a navel-gazing American viewpoint, the symmetry between the disaster in far-off Ukraine and the domestic politics that has played a small part in it is hard to ignore.
The Russian leader that Trump spent four years as president fawning over is now indiscriminately shelling Ukrainian cities, a war crime, which is estimated to have killed at least hundreds of civilians so far. There will be no more room for Putin apologism now. Zelenskyy, resolutely rallying Ukraine’s defences from a bunker in Kyiv, has meanwhile been embraced across the West and beyond as a global hero of democracy.
Biden has won lesser yet notable plaudits, having for months accurately predicted Putin’s aggression and helped rally Ukraine—including with weapon supplies—against it. Romney, still a rare voice of moral courage among American conservatives, this week praised the Democratic president’s diplomatic efforts almost as fulsomely as he had damned Trump’s.
Cheerleaders for Trump’s pro-Putin and isolationist views are meanwhile being marginalised, silenced, or are turning tail. Carlson, on second thought, is now much less keen on Russia. “I don’t think anybody approves of what Putin did,” he said, as the bombs began to fall on Kyiv and Kharkiv. “I certainly don’t.”
This could end up being of great political consequence. Opinion among Republican voters, which warmed considerably towards Putin under Trump’s leadership, has also swung sharply. Republicans are now almost as anti-Putin and pro-Ukraine as Democrats are. They also tend to back Biden’s policies in response to the crisis—which include stuff sanctions on Russia, military supplies for Ukraine and a promise that no American troops will be sent to join the fight. It is a long time since Americans have looked so united on any issue; or Trump so marginal.
HOW MUCH OF a role he played in emboldening Biden and weakening Zelenskyy is debatable. Yet it is worth underlining how good it is for Ukraine, Europe and the rules-based international order that Trump is no longer president. Especially as the crisis appears to be bringing out the best in his successor.
The septuagenarian Democratic president has had a tough time in the job he spent decades pursuing. Indecisive and prone to inarticulacy, he never looked like a compelling presidential candidate until the alternative was Trump. And the crisis he inherited, wrought by Covid-19 and the economic shocks it has caused, perhaps doomed his presidency from the start. He is now as unpopular as Trump was. Yet the quiet competence of his administration, staffed by discreet professionals, is incomparable to the White House circus Trump ran. And the Ukraine crisis has shown its qualities at their best.
Having concluded way back in October that Putin was intent on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the administration began arranging its own counter-measures early. They were never going to involve direct military action. The administration mainly set about alerting its fellow NATO members, helping to reorganise their military defence and pre-emptively designing sanctions that could be slapped on Russia. It did so, most intriguingly, with an extremely bold use of intelligence.
This involved circulating US intelligence reports on Putin’s designs on Ukraine as swiftly and widely as possible. In November, America and its British allies released details of what they alleged was a Russian plot to topple Zelenskyy’s government. They then publicised an even more elaborate Russian scheme to engineer a pretext for invading eastern Ukraine by means of a “very graphic propaganda video” purporting to show attacks by Ukrainian troops that would have included “corpses and actors who would be depicting mourners.”
This was as risky as it was novel. Had Putin been planning no more than a series of training exercises on Ukraine’s border, as he claimed he was, America would have looked hysterical and unreliable. No doubt, its intelligence agencies made that point forcefully. Spooks hate to risk publicising their methods with their intelligence. Yet the administration’s transparency paid off. The seriousness of America’s warnings persuaded even reluctant NATO allies such as Germany to start shipping supplies to the Ukrainians and planning sanctions. They also helped force Russia onto the back foot. American spooks picked up intercepts of Russian officers complaining that their schemes kept being broadcast by the Americans—and they publicised this too.
BY THE TIME Putin was ready to launch his invasion last month, the US-led NATO alliance looked as united as it had been for many years. The disunity wrought by Biden’s disorderly retreat from Afghanistan appeared to be forgotten. And Putin’s bad faith had been so amply established by the intelligence-based messaging that he gave up on even bothering to suggest a pretext for his invasion. (Unless, that is, his deranged claim to have invaded in order to root out drug-addled Nazis counts as one.)
As soon as the shooting started in earnest, America’s and its allies’ efforts shifted to punishing the Russian economy. And again this effort has been more vigorous and effective than expected. To avoid major disruption to their own economies, which were already beset by high inflation, the Western powers elected not to sanction Russian energy exports. But instead of allowing this inevitably controversial decision to become a talking point, they meanwhile slapped extremely aggressive sanctions on Russia’s financial sector—to the extent of freezing a large part of its central bank’s foreign exchange reserves.
The effect of this on the Russian economy is already disastrous. The ruble lost 40 per cent of its value overnight. Around half of the central bank’s foreign exchange reserves has been frozen. Banks are seeing half-mile queues for cash as panic on Russian high streets sets in.
The Europeans are also targeting the richest Russians—the so-called ‘oligarchs’ who seized the heights of the old state-owned economy in the 1990s. Roman Abramovich, the Ukrainian-born billionaire who has owned Chelsea Football Club for two decades, has put it up for sale. He apparently wants to cash out of the club rather than run a risk of his great wealth being confiscated. On March 2, police in Hamburg seized a yacht, reportedly the world’s biggest by tonnage, belonging to the oligarch Alisher Usmanov (a former part-owner of Arsenal Football Club). Satellite imagery, rather hilariously, suggests another five oligarch-owned yachts have congregated around the Maldives, which does not have an extradition treaty with America.
Economic sanctions can be useful tools. Yet they are essentially a defensive measure, of questionable effectiveness in changing an opponent’s policy aims. The war will be decided chiefly by the Russians and Ukrainians themselves—albeit with a constant risk of NATO being drawn ever deeper into it. The nuclear sabre-rattling Putin has already indulged in—by moving Russia’s strategic threat to its highest state of readiness—shows how dangerous that could be.
The Biden administration recognises this. It has batted back any suggestion that it might enforce even a limited no-fly zone over Ukraine. Unlike the badly led British government, it has also sensibly resisted talk of trying Putin for war crimes. The urgent priority is to persuade him to end the war; such talk can only make that harder.
For America, the strategic repercussions of Putin’s war could be profound. America’s national security strategy envisages the country locked in a great-power competition with Russia and China. Yet its military planners no longer allow for a possibility that it might have to fight two major wars in different theatres. Putin’s war, the most serious act of Russian revisionism since the collapse of the Soviet Union, seems likely to spark calls for additional military spending and contingency planning to revise that.
The war’s political fallout in America may be harder to predict. Most Americans tend not to care much about foreign policy—but when they do care, as during World War II, the Vietnam War and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, big political shifts may follow.
This war is most unlikely to rise to that level. Yet the modicum of unity and shift away from Trump that it has already elicited could be significant. In theory, it should give Biden an opportunity to restore his popularity. That could in turn diminish the prospects of the president’s party losing control of Congress at the mid-terms in November.
Such a recovery is clearly possible. In their first flush of admiration for Zelenskyy’s heroism, American and European voters have signalled their recently dormant appreciation for a moral and righteous cause. And Biden, as Romney articulated rather better than the president can, has put himself on the right side of it in this crisis. The question is whether any other Republicans will give him credit for that.
They so far have not. To the contrary, most Republican policymakers blame the Democratic president for the crisis, even as they call for essentially his policies. “If Donald Trump was president none of this crap would be going on,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a pocket-sized Trump fanboy. “Biden is weak and Trump was strong.” It is a ludicrous argument, plainly intended to curry favour with the former president and excuse Graham’s role in voting to exonerate Trump for coercing Zelenskyy. Yet such liberal-bashing is also tremendously popular with Republican voters. They are also minded to give Biden little or no credit for his diplomatic efforts in this crisis.
The country has rarely broached a major foreign policy crisis in such a politically divided state. It makes it hard to see how Biden can reap much political benefit from the crisis. That would be unjust. It probably also makes it even likelier that Trump, who has all but promised to run against him again in 2024, will do so and win. In that case, all bets on America’s posture towards Russia and Ukraine would be off. And Putin’s prospects of controlling both would rise.