Winning the War in Ukraine, Part #6
A number of members of the international community in Ukraine have started despondently entertaining a scenario that President Trump might win the November 2024 United States General Election, and be re-elected President for a second term from January 2025 following his first term that ran from 2016 to 2020. If President Trump wins the election, it is despairingly observed, then he will abandon American support for Ukraine and therefore all the efforts currently underway on the part of the West, coming from both government and the NGO sector, will be wasted as Ukraine is fed to the Russian wolves courtesy of President Trump’s imagined cosy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In fact the reality is not nearly as straightforward as that. While it appears tolerably clear that Mr Trump will be the Republican Party nominee for President in the November 2024 US General Election, it is far from clear that he will win against incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden. It is far too early to call that election, which like Mr Biden’s victory against Mr Trump in November 2019 is likely to be closely fought in a number of key battleground States that are of disproportionate relevance. This is due to the “electoral college” system of electing US Presidents in which each state carries a certain number of votes proportionate that (mostly) go in their entirety to one candidate or the other, depending upon which candidate a majority of the voters in that State support. Therefore large swing States (I.e. where the vote is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and which carry a significant number of votes in the electoral college) become particularly important. US Presidential elections can be won or lost on the basis of a few electoral Districts within such States.
Secondly it is far from clear that Mr Trump would reverse the current staunchly pro-Ukrainian US Government policies on Ukraine; or that he would be able to even if he wanted to. A lot of the anti-Russian measures adopted by the US Government, including comprehensive and exceptionally tight sanctions, and military and fiscal support for Ukraine, are enshrined into law and the United States Congress might not be prepared to change the law. The composition of the United States Congress after a November 2024 General Election is impossible to predict at this stage. Any US President is bound by Congressional legislation and should be become US President again, Mr Trump may find his hands firmly tied by the current law in pursuing a pro-Ukrainian policy. It is true that the US President is the Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces; but the United States is not formally at war with Russia so this is of marginal relevance.
Moreover the institutional consensus within Washington DC, amongst foreign policy experts, State Department officials and others, is that a solidly pro-Ukrainian foreign and defence policy at the current time is essential to deter further Russian territorial and military aggression which has the risk of destabilising other parts of Europe and dragging the United States into a more complex European war in support of her NATO partners. This logic will not be lost upon Mr Trump who, for all his imagined closeness with Vladimir Putin (they did meet at a summit in Helsinki in July 2018) is unlikely to lose sight of the risk of spiralling defence spending if the United States is forced into a war in support of NATO allies suffering from Russian aggression.
Then there is the question of whether Mr Trump is legally able to become the next US President, even if he wins the electoral college voting system. He has rather a lot of legal problems, particularly of the criminal variety. Various criminal trials are underway or anticipated and if Mr Trump is found guilty he may face prison time. If so then a series of somewhat obtuse legal questions may arise, such as whether he can pardon himself (arguably, for federal convictions, but such an assertion is highly controversial; less likely for State convictions; Mr Trump faces both types of charge) and whether the various immunities and privileges accorded to a sitting US President entitle him to be promptly released from prison so that he may undertake his duties as President. We have no idea how the US courts will rule on these freakish and unusual questions - if these issues ever reach the courts. This is all a complete unknown.
Nevertheless what we can say with some certainty is that if Mr Trump becomes President for a second time, then it will be easier for Mr Putin to negotiate a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine with the West, which is financing Ukraine’s military campaign, than if Mr Biden remains in office for a second term. Presumably - although we cannot be sure - Mr Putin would be content with a peace deal over Ukraine in which the current borders of Russian occupation of Ukraine become recognised in some de facto way even if no Western states - including the United States under Mr Trump’s political leadership - will formally recognise Russia’s occupation of what it calls the “new territories” - Crimea and parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts - as being a legally effective annexation. We cannot be sure, because Mr Putin may not crave a peace treaty at all in which case Mr Trump will have nothing to negotiate with Mr Putin about.
One possibility is that Mr Putin relishes the prospect of indefinite war because an endless conflict in Ukraine diverts attention from latent domestic political dissatisfaction with the moribund state of the Russian economy and questions of succession of power in the Russian Federation after Mr Putin’s retirement or (more likely) his death. Put bluntly, indefinite perpetuation of the war in Ukraine may be keeping Mr Putin alive both politically and physically, as it provides him with ample pretext to use the Russian security and intelligence services to run a totalitarian state in which political dissent is ruthlessly suppressed and therefore it is exceptionally hard to depose the Russian leader from office except through his death by natural causes.
Notwithstanding, on the hypothesis that Mr Putin does wish to negotiate a peace agreement relating to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine then Mr Trump is surely the better global interlocutor than Mr Biden. For this reason Mr Putin will wait until the outcome of the November 2024 US General Election is clear before making any substantial overtures towards peace - if he wants any peace at all. Mr Putin’s intentions are fungible; whatever he might be thinking now may change over the course of the next thirteen months. So for that matter are Mr Trump’s intentions. Before we know what Mr Trump really thinks about continued support for Ukraine in response to her invasion by Russia we will have to see whether he wins the November 2024 US General Election and there are a lot of reasons, as recapped above, why he may not do.
Mr Trump is not in the category of “conviction politicians”; he does not form strong ideological views, campaign upon them, and then pursue policies consistent with them. Therefore whatever he may say during the course of the General Election campaign about Ukraine (and he is unlikely to say anything as there are few votes to be gained by talking about Ukraine in terms suggesting a withdrawal of US commitments and only votes - namely those of Ukrainian Americans, Polish Americans and the like - to be lost), this is not a reliable guide to what his policies towards Ukraine are likely to be should he win the 2024 General Election and there is no legal impediment to his taking office.
All this means that the conflict in Ukraine is destined to continue at least until November 2024 with no significant change likely in the attitudes of either Ukraine or Russia. Even if Mr Putin is prepared to make peace on the basis of de facto recognition of Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, this is no basis for any sort of peace agreement because neither the Ukrainian People nor President Zelenskiy of Ukraine will accept it. Such terms are absolutely unthinkable to Ukraine and also unthinkable to the vast majority of right-thinking European and American people as well. It would set the most appalling precedent for the future of Europe and for the acquiescence of Russian military aggression if any such peace were made on this basis. Hence the war must continue until the outcome of the November 2024 US General Election is known.
That is over a year away. The time should be spent wisely, to try to change the dynamic of the war which has remained largely static since the Russian evacuation of occupied Kherson in early November 2022. The front line has not changed significantly since then but both sides are now fighting in the shadow of the possibility of the global geopolitical dynamic relating to the war in Ukraine changing in November 2024. Hence there is approximately one year of heavy fighting anticipated. During this period the West should put in every last ounce of energy to provide military support to Ukraine, because there is no time better than while the current US President Joe Biden, who is known to be highly sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, remains in office. It cannot be excluded that as of January 2025 he will no longer be so, and it would be foolish not to plan for this contingency. Any military gains over the Russian Federation that can be achieved within the period of certain continuation of the conflict up until November 2024 will strengthen the hand of the next US President, whoever that may be, in any negotiations that may take place after the next US General Election - if any occur.
Moreover the West is likely to tire still further of military and financial aid to Ukraine as time goes on, and the relative short-term attitude of Western foreign policy compared to the foreign policy of Russia in which the President is effectively in office for life, is likely to diminish as time proceeds. This is something the Russian President is banking on: he can keep going with this conflict for longer than the Western attention span which is tied to electoral cycles whereas his is not because he knows he will always win every election. Hence there is no time like the present to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces in making every effort to obtain gains over the Russian occupiers on the battlefield, with the most pro-Ukrainian US President imaginable shortly to enter the last year of his current term. The West needs to maximise and intensify its efforts immediately, and galvanise the Ukrainian Armed Forces into achieving some successes of some kind as soon as possible. We should not allow Russia to seize the initiative over the 2023 / 2024 winter period as she did last winter by seeking to disrupt power and heating supplies in free Ukraine. We in the West should assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces in planning a military offensive over the winter season that takes the initiative away from the Russians.
It is no secret that many in Europe do not relish the prospect of a Trump victory in November 2024 but those of us in Europe have neither the right nor indeed any power to influence the US elections which will be decided principally upon domestic American issues based upon the democratic and legal procedures of the United States. Whoever is elected President in November 2024, and irrespective of the subsequent composition of the US Congress, European political leaders and others will need to work with the next US administration to achieve our common Euro-Atlantic goals in the war in Ukraine. We in Europe must not shy away from a possible American electoral outcome that for now remains a real prospect. Instead we must plan for the different eventualities that may arise and also understand that this future uncertainty is currently an ingredient in perpetuating the war in Ukraine, because it feeds into the political calculus of Russian President Vladimir Putin.