Opinion | Ukraine and its supporters should prepare for Trump 2.0

If Donald Trump returns to the presidency and tries to halt or drastically reduce U.S. military, economic and humanitarian support to Ukraine — as he has indicated he would — Ukraine would not be the only country to suffer. Russia’s likely resulting gains in the conflict would further destabilize Europe and undermine U.S. credibility worldwide. Work must be done before the 2024 election to put Ukraine in the best possible position to endure whatever a newly elected Trump might do.

The Biden White House is already warning Congress that if it doesn’t authorize more Ukraine aid soon, the spigot will run dry by year’s end. But even if the United States continues to fund Ukraine’s war effort until the end of next year, the money would be running out just as the next Congress and perhaps a new administration commence.

Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, has declined to commit to continuing military assistance for Ukraine, and has said he will simply solve the conflict “in 24 hours.” His GOP allies consistently amplify Russian propaganda against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And Trump has refused Zelensky’s invitation to Kyiv.

In a second term, Trump could pull the United States out of NATO, or at least out of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the more than 50-nation coalition Washington leads. While NATO leaders don’t want to get involved in U.S. politics, several told me they are gravely concerned about Trump’s possible abandonment of the Ukraine aid effort.

“This scenario would not be favorable for Ukraine. It would be favorable for Russia,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said when I spoke with him at last month’s Halifax International Security Forum. “It would show which side we have chosen.”

But between now and next November, the Biden administration, European countries and the Ukrainian government can take several steps to bolster Ukraine’s position and insulate the assistance effort from Trump’s whims. Indeed, quiet discussions of such steps are already underway in some capitals.

“The United States is our closest ally and our best friend. We’ve always counted on that relationship,” Canadian Defense Minister Bill Blair told me. “But we are certainly looking forward to whatever contingencies may come to make sure that we’re prepared.”

One key opportunity to bolster Ukraine’s long-term prospects will be the NATO summit that President Biden will be hosting in Washington next July. At last year’s summit in Lithuania, Biden threw cold water on Ukraine’s path toward NATO membership, saying he didn’t think Ukraine was “ready.” But in 2024, the United States and Europe can do more to get Ukraine closer to being ready.

Blair said more resources should be devoted to helping Ukraine reform its institutions and root out corruption. Anusauskas told me Ukraine should be given a clear sign that NATO is moving its membership forward — such as by opening a NATO office in Kyiv. If Trump returns, any NATO consensus on advancing Kyiv’s bid would be unlikely.

Meanwhile, the United States should also speed up delivery of arms to Ukraine and pre-position more weapons and munitions in Eastern Europe. Trump could, on Day 1 of a second term, cancel all pending arms deliveries to Ukraine. But it would be harder to get Ukraine or NATO allies to send things back. Moving more arms closer to Ukraine now would have the added benefit of shoring up the security of European allies.

The Biden administration and Ukraine supporters in both parties should also lay out a long-term security assistance plan for Ukraine, modeled after President Barack Obama’s 10-year security assistance plan for Israel. This is especially needed because even if Biden wins reelection, Trump-allied Republicans in Congress are sure to continue attempting to cut U.S. assistance.

Finally, both Democratic and Republican leaders need to expand efforts to convince their constituents that aid to Ukraine is worth the money. Zelensky’s team, too, should broaden its U.S. outreach beyond D.C. After all, no long-term Ukraine assistance effort will be sustainable without the continued support of Americans.

This is the choice of American people,” Estonia’s defense minister Hanno Pevkur told me, “but it is job of both parties to explain why it is important.”

Keep in mind that if Trump were to return to office and end assistance to Ukraine, the war would not end. Russian President Vladimir Putin would probably keep advancing. The United States could get drawn into a wider war. And Chinese President Xi Jinping would be encouraged to move aggressively against Taiwan. Ukraine’s supporters must act now to mitigate these risks.

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