The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently authored an interesting column in which he candidly acknowledged his surprise at the vehemence of Europe’s reaction to Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine.
According to Friedman, far from seeing it as a contained, regional conflict, Europe has experienced a grim awakening to the prospect of yet another ruthless, power-mad dictator setting his sights on their lands and lives, in a way that evokes nothing so much as the horrors of World War II.
This invasion — with Russian soldiers indiscriminately shelling Ukrainian apartment buildings and hospitals, killing civilians, looting homes, raping women and creating the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II — is increasingly seen as a 21st-century rerun of Hitler’s onslaught against the rest of Europe, which started in September 1939 with the German attack on Poland. Add on top of that Putin’s seeming threat to use nuclear weapons, warning that any country that interfered with his unprovoked war would face “consequences you have never seen,” and it explains everything.
Friedman observes that the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s belligerence has prompted an unusually unified response by the powers that now dominate the European continent. Consider Germany’s radical, almost overnight transformation of its military budget; the virtual stampede of Sweden and Finland toward NATO membership; Poland’s ready welcome and admittance of Ukrainian refugees; and the harsh economic sanctions imposed by EU member countries. These actions are all indicative of a collective realization that the implications of Putin’s actions go well beyond his claimed objectives.
But there is another subtext informing this European reaction, one which Friedman studiously sidesteps: the reality that the commitments of the United States can no longer be counted on to defend Europe, thanks in large part to the memory of Donald Trump’s administration—specifically Trump’s peculiar sycophancy towards Putin and the Russian Federation.
Catherine Belton, formerly the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, writing for The Washington Post, relies on Russian sources to explain how the long-term perspective of Putin’s aims reflect his perception of Western weakness and vacillation when faced with the prospect of the slow, grinding assault he envisions for Ukraine.
Putin “believes the West will become exhausted,” said one well-connected Russian billionaire, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Putin had not expected the West’s initially strong and united response, “but now he is trying to reshape the situation and he believes that in the longer term he will win,” the billionaire said. Western leaders are vulnerable to election cycles, and “he believes public opinion can flip in one day.”
Belton’s sources believe that the impact of global inflation, higher energy costs, and potential food shortages will gradually erode public support in Europe for continuing punitive sanctions on Russia. She quotes close Putin ally and fellow former KGB head Nikolai Patrushev (who Putin briefly placed in charge of the country while he was undergoing surgery three weeks ago), expressing his conviction in multiple interviews since the Ukraine invasion that Europe will fall into crisis as a result of its sanctions against Russia—particularly its energy sanctions—“in which rising inflation and falling living standards were already impacting the mood of Europeans, while a fresh migrant crisis would create new security threats.”
Of course, Patrushev is an ideological bobblehead to Putin, infected with the same zealotry and delusional fanaticism in his hatred of Ukraine. But his opinions are not without basis. In the United States, after all, despite what may be the most singular threat to the NATO alliance in 70 years, 57 Congressional Republicans voted against providing military and economic aid to Ukraine. In the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul held up that aid for days, citing what he described as concerns about rising gas prices and economic fallout to the U.S. resultant from aiding the Ukrainian people. He was joined in opposing that aid by 11 Republican senators, including Missouri’s Josh Hawley, who claimed that the aid did not reflect the goals of what he believed should be a “nationalist” foreign policy.
The anonymous Russian billionaire’s reference to “election cycles” is particularly telling. Lurking in the shadows of Patrushev’s, Putin’s, and Hawley’s sentiments—and still fresh in the mind of our European allies—is the specter of Donald Trump, and the unfortunate possibility that in 2024 he may once again, as Commander-in-Chief, preside over the NATO alliance.
It doesn’t take a genius to project what that would mean for NATO, for Ukraine, and for the remainder of the Western world still clinging to the promise of democracy in the face of autocracy and incipient fascism. Trump—more than “arguably,” and despite the declamations shrieked by the American right—owes his first administration’s existence to Russian meddling. He very likely would not have been elected president without Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and he made that fact abundantly clear in his obsequious pandering to the Russian leader during his four-year tenure in office.
A second Trump term would be a gift to Putin like no other, and one can easily imagine a Republican Congress already prostrate in its gratitude to comply with whatever Trump directed—overtly or through intimidation—in terms of the “Ukraine question.” The people who guide Trump’s mercurial and infantile persuasions on foreign policy are not only anti-democratic, they are assiduously pro-autocrat, and implicitly (if not explicitly) pro-Putin. Putin represents an unrealized ideal to them, in his blithe and cruel exercise of power, his dominance over opposing public opinion, and his pseudo-religious brand of ethno-nationalism.
This twisted ethic that prioritizes self-interest with a winking acceptance of national treachery was already fully in bloom during Trump’s administration, and there is no reason to expect it not to resurface in full measure—with a vengeance—if Americans are foolish enough to give him a second opportunity. Stripped of its forceful pretensions, NATO, as it is currently constituted, exists only because of U.S. leadership at its helm. Trump, who threatened to abandon NATO unless it complied with his spurious whims, will surely dissolve this country’s commitment to that alliance with a just a small bit of prodding from his Russian benefactors, carefully coordinated with their complicit media allies in the U.S. Putin knows this; in fact, he doubtlessly holds that certitude tenderly and close in his heart.
Europe also knows this, and that is why they are reacting to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the way they are, by arming themselves with the prospect of American abandonment of leadership like none since World War II. They are sensibly hedging their bets—and fortifying their defenses—against the face of a terrible, uncertain future: an America they can no longer trust.
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