What Would a Trump Administration Mean for the War in Ukraine?
With the failure of the Ukrainian offensive, the Biden administration now seems to realize that Ukrainian victory is highly unlikely, and that at some point there will need to be negotiations. However, it hopes to defer this problem until after the next elections, when it can no longer harm Biden at the polls—or it becomes a Republican administration’s worry, which, at present, most likely means a Trump administration. Echoing the Biden administration’s stance, all other major players involved in the war in Ukraine also seem to be waiting for the next U.S. presidential election.
It is of course a long time until the next U.S. presidential election, and much may happen in that time both in the U.S. and Ukraine, but, at present, opinion polls suggest both that Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate and that he stands a good chance of beating Joe Biden. A second Trump presidency seems likely to mean greatly reduced support for Ukraine, possibly combined with a U.S. push for a peace settlement. Without very high levels of U.S. military aid ($61.4 billion to date), it will be impossible for Ukraine to continue the fight.
A second Trump administration is a prospect that European governments dread, but that they cannot influence. Nor do they have the ability, unity or will either to initiate negotiations themselves, or to substitute for U.S. military aid to Ukraine. They are therefore also in waiting mode.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian establishment is in a state of great confusion and division. Awareness is dawning that the chances of complete victory are slight, and time is not on Ukraine’s side; but the government has declared so often and so publicly that a compromise peace is unacceptable (especially concerning even a temporary territorial compromise during a ceasefire) that it will be extremely difficult for them to agree to talks, unless they come under massive public pressure from Washington or suffer a severe military defeat.
As for the Russian government, it senses that time is on its side, and also appears willing to wait in the hope that Russia’s far greater reserves of manpower and ammunition combined with Western and Ukrainian war weariness will eventually force Ukraine to accept Russian terms (albeit ones that would probably be far less than Moscow hoped for when it launched the war). Vladimir Putin—who is poised to run for reelection in the spring—also hopes that a Trump administration would promote such a settlement.
Russian hopes are, however, qualified by the previous Trump administration’s actual record in office. The Mueller and Durham reports have debunked the allegations both of covert links between Trump and Vladimir Putin, and that Russian interference played a critical role in the 2016 elections. Even more importantly, the Trump administration did nothing at all in practical terms to seek a new relationship with Russia.
On the contrary: during Trump’s term, the offer (however deferred) of NATO membership to Ukraine was not withdrawn; the United States went on arming and training the Ukrainian armed forces; and, accusing Russia of cheating, Trump withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Trump made friendly statements about Putin, but these led to no practical results whatsoever. In part, this is because economic sanctions on Russia are controlled by the U.S. Senate, and Trump has never had the attention, the skill or the influence to seriously sway Senate votes. A Trump promise to lift sanctions on Russia—highly important to the success of any peace settlement—would therefore very likely be blocked.
It can of course be argued that Trump was so uninterested in actual policy, and his administration so dysfunctional and chaotic, that his senior officials acted in direct contravention of the president’s wishes. Certainly, if Trump had really wished for compromise with Russia, to appoint Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Gen. H.R. McMaster to his team was nothing short of lunacy on his part. There is therefore concern in Moscow that a future Trump administration would simply not be able to deliver a peace settlement, let alone one that would stick. Trump has stated publicly that as president, he would “end the Ukraine war in 24 hours,” but he has provided no details at all about how he would do this.
The question therefore arises whether a second Trump administration will be more disciplined and united, and there are efforts in the conservative camp—like Project 2025, which provides a blueprint for conservative control over the different branches of federal bureaucracy—to ensure just this outcome. Should Trump, if elected, appoint someone like Sen. J.D. Vance to a top position, this would obviously create a strong voice in his administration for compromise with Russia. This would be even more so if Trump’s legal troubles keep him from running and instead he supports someone like Vance as president.
Then again, given the deep divisions within the Republican establishment, and the bitter hostility to Trump on the part of the U.S. bipartisan foreign and security establishment as a whole, it would be extremely difficult for a Trump administration to find people with the qualifications to serve in senior foreign and security policy positions. Some former officials who would in principle support compromise with Russia over Ukraine have already indicated in private that they would never serve in a Trump administration.
On the other hand, it is possible that U.S. establishment thinking will also shift over the course of the next year. Indeed, as is clear from articles and remarks acknowledging the failure of the Ukrainian offensive, this process has already begun. If the existing stalemate continues, or Russia makes significant new gains, the United States will ultimately be faced with a choice between either accepting a settlement, or intervening directly on the side of Ukraine—something that President Joe Biden and the vast majority of U.S. politicians have explicitly ruled out.
U.S. problems elsewhere may also increase the view presently held by a Realist section of the Republican Party that the United States is dangerously over-extended, and that it is necessary to seek compromise with Russia in order to concentrate on the greater threat from China, and on support for Israel. Growing conflict in the Middle East could strengthen this view in Washington. So could a new crisis with China over Taiwan or a new major terrorist attack on the United States.
A frightening escalation of nuclear tension with Russia as a result of some unintended clash between Russian and NATO forces could also shock Americans into a desire to bring the Ukraine conflict to an end. In any of these situations, a President Trump might find quite strong support for an effort at a peace settlement in Ukraine. He would also of course face bitter opposition, within the United States, from some European governments, and from many Ukrainians.
Any peace settlement based on the existing battle lines in Ukraine, even if it included Ukrainian neutrality, would fall far short of what the Russian government hoped for when it launched its invasion in February 2022. By far the greater part of Ukraine would remain independent of Moscow and closely aligned with the West. It would also of course fall far short of Ukrainian hopes of defeating Russia completely and recovering all territory lost since 2014.
For a hypothetical future Trump administration to achieve a peace agreement minimally acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow, it would take exceptionally skillful diplomacy, as well as a U.S. readiness to accept China as an equal partner in the peace process, and to reach out to India and other countries of the “Global South” for help. These are not features that have been characteristic of U.S. policy in recent years—least of all the last Trump administration. Therefore, for Ukraine, the most likely result of a Trump administration may simply be radically diminished U.S. support, causing Russia to make new gains on the battlefield and, perhaps, leading to an imposed peace.
Anatol Lieven is director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the Quincy Institute. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead shared in the public domain.