Ukraine has good reason to worry about the outcome of America’s 2024 election. So do all those who see Russia’s criminal war not just as aggression against an individual country, but — like Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 — a deliberate attack on the entire rules-based international order. China’s designs on Taiwan are clearly influenced by what happens in Ukraine.
The United States is again the last best hope, the indispensable nation leading the defense of that order and the universal human values it represents. The Republican candidates aspiring to confront those momentous geostrategic challenges offer very different approaches to Russia’s aggression, especially as it is linked to Communist China’s expansionist plans in the Indo-Pacific and is abetted by the illegitimate regimes in North Korea and Iran.
Some question whether Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a challenge to America’s interests at all — indeed, whether it should even be seen as international aggression rather than as a mere Russo-Ukrainian “border dispute.”
Last month’s Republican debate illustrated the intra-party differences in perspective and how the candidates could be expected to address the issue if they were in office.
Most expressed strong support for a U.S. commitment to help Ukraine, but there were two outliers.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who previously called the Ukraine war a mere border controversy, opposed further unconditional aid because “You’re sending all this money, but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border. […] European governments need to step up [and] pull their weight, which they’re not doing right now.” Actually, as former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley noted, 11 NATO countries each contribute a higher share of their GDP to support Ukraine than does the United States.
Entrepreneur and political and foreign policy novice Vivek Ramaswamy said Ukraine is “not a priority for the United States” and Washington should devote its resources “to prevent the invasion of our own southern border.” He declared China as the “number one security threat to the United States” and suggested that Ukraine is an unnecessary distraction.
Haley also linked the Ukraine war and the China threat, but to make the opposite point: “A win for Russia is a win for China. We have to know that. Ukraine is the first line of defense for us.”
The hitherto nationally unknown governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, demonstrated surprising foreign policy acumen by reinforcing Haley’s point.
“We act like that letting Russia win in the Ukraine is like a gimme, as opposed to a gift to China. Russia has become China’s gas station. […] We need anti-ship missiles on Taiwan. The way that you have a war never start, which is the goal, the way you have peace through strength, is that you actually have strength, you actually have deterrence.”
But the most concerning statement about America’s commitment to the defense of Ukraine — and eventually also to Taiwan — came weeks before the debate from the man who chose not to participate in it but is most likely to win the nomination: former President Donald Trump.
“I would tell [President Volodomeir] Zelensky, no more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin, if you don’t make a deal, we are going to give him a lot. We are going to [give Ukraine] more than they ever got if we have to. I will have the deal done in one day. One day.”
In other words, Trump would have the warring parties freeze the situation on the ground with Russia still occupying one-fifth of Ukraine — a very attractive outcome for Putin under the circumstances, ashis forces are incrementally losing territory in Ukraine’s counter-offensive. True to form, Putin praised Trump’s idea:
No wonder Putin is widely seen as hoping that Trump will return to power.
But, even if Biden remains in office, Putin seems confident he will achieve his geostrategic goal. That is because, bluster aside, Trump’s stated strategy is essentially the policy the Biden administration is already following: Help Ukraine stave off total Russian occupation and reverse the fruits of the 2022 invasion, but leave in place most of the gains it made in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea during the Barack Obama-Biden administration. Biden may ultimately decide to follow Trump’s more precipitous approach, as he did in his disastrous abandonment of Afghanistan without bothering to insist on the conditions laid out in Trump’s flawed Doha agreement with the Taliban.
Given Biden’s long and well-known history of inconstancy on national security matters, it is not at all inconceivable that, pressured by anti-war Democrats and isolationist Republicans, he could throw in the towel and insist that Zelensky get the best territorial settlement he can out of what may otherwise an interminable stalemate. After another year of grinding, inconclusive combat in Ukraine, and with the election looming, he could well seek the same defeatist outcome Trump boasts he would achieve in a day of high-stakes negotiations.
Biden’s continuing denial to provide Ukraine the weapons it needs to decisively defeat Russia and liberate Ukraine for fear of provoking Putin’s further escalation sets a very bad precedent for Taiwan’s long-term security.
Biden may now be haunted by the prospect of creating a new protracted foreign policy morass with no extrication option before the 2024 election.
As the amateur national security strategist Ramaswamy put it in the debate, “You cannot start another no-win war” — exactly what Biden’s halting weapons deliveries and operational restraints on Ukraine are producing.
Americans respect and admire the heroic people of Ukraine, but they also should pity them, subject as they are to the passing whims and fears of U.S. politicians. After all the horror and monstrous cruelty Ukrainians have already suffered at the hands of Putin the war criminal, they must now endure the likelihood of a forced capitulation during either a second Trump or a second Biden term. Meanwhile, the people of Taiwan also have reason to worry about their fate.
There are three U.S. political scenarios that can still save Ukraine, uphold international law, and help deter China:
(1) Republican primary voters miraculously muster the courage and wisdom to unify around one of the five or six respectable candidates as an alternative to Trump;
(2) Democratic leaders prevail upon Biden to step aside; or
(3) if, as expected, Trump prevails in a splintered field and Biden refuses to drop out, then Ukrainians and Taiwanese, like Americans themselves, may have to pray for deliverance by an independent, no-nonsense U.S. president offered up by a third party.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.