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Donald Trump appeared to be on the defensive about a week ago after his adulation for Vladimir Putin landed him in political hot water. It prompted him to issue a ludicrous written statement in which he claimed responsibility for NATO’s rescue.
As we argued shortly after, the only thing endangering NATO’s existence was Trump himself, who not only constantly disparaged the organization but also voiced an interest in leaving NATO completely on multiple occasions. According to all accounts, it was a strategy he wanted to carry out in a second term.
In light of this, John Bolton, who served as Trump’s White House national security adviser during his first term, told The Washington Post late last week that he believes Trump would have pulled the US out of NATO if he had a second term. That wasn’t a surprise observation, but it’s worth noting because of its potential significance:
Let’s take a step back and think about how a phrase like this fits into the bigger picture.
For Trump and his supporters, the fact that Putin did not attack any of his neighbors during Trump’s presidency is a source of tremendous pleasure. Putin launched offensives against surrounding nations in 2008, 2014, and 2022, but he showed caution between January 2017 and January 2021.
This, we’ve been told, is unmistakable evidence of… something.
Two pillars support the normal line from the right. The first is the notion that Trump was so powerful and unpredictable that the Russian autocrat was too terrified to provoke him. The second is the view that by withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US indicated to Moscow that we are weak and unconcerned about foreign military aggressions.
The first argument is so ludicrous that its astonishing Republicans would even bring it up. Trump went to almost ridiculous lengths for four years to please Putin, to the point that the then-American president’s own director of national intelligence later confessed he felt Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin.
It’s not much better with the Afghanistan assertion, which is a favorite of many top Republicans. Putin’s interest in Ukraine dates back much further than last summer. There is evidence that Russia began assembling military forces along the Ukrainian border months before US troops left Kabul.
Putin’s years-long objectives in Ukraine would have been thwarted if President Biden had agreed to keep thousands of American troops in Afghanistan, according to all we know about recent events. (Moreover, if the right is serious about this line of discourse, it could raise some unpleasant concerns regarding the geopolitical implications of Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban to end the decades-long conflict.) Was this a hint of Moscow’s weakness?)
So, if the traditional Republican answer isn’t the real reason, what is it?
In a recent post that drew an unusual degree of backlash, I argued that Putin acted with caution throughout the Trump administration because he didn’t want to meddle with a good thing. The underlying notion — which I’m delighted to see others agree with — is that Trump’s actions are consistent with Moscow’s interests and that an invasion of Ukraine would throw the balance off.
Putin wants to destabilize NATO, and Trump did exactly that. Putin sought to weaken the European Union, and Trump made no effort to show his contempt for it. Putin wants to assist authoritarians, and Trump sided with them. Putin desired to harm Ukraine, and Trump responded by launching an extortion scheme that threatened to harm Ukraine. Putin intended to damage the American political system, and Trump was unnervingly active in his attempts to do so.
To put it another way, why would Putin upset the apple cart when Trump was already driving it in the Kremlin’s favor?
However, Bolton has provided a plausible alternative explanation: Putin perceived an American president moving in a direction that pleased Moscow, and he was waiting for Trump to complete the task.
Postscript: In case it wasn’t clear, this isn’t an endorsement of Bolton’s hyper-hawkish worldview, which I’ve been brutally critical of on numerous occasions over the years.
Rather, because of his powerful role on Team Trump, Bolton’s perspective on stories like these counts.