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There are still many months to go before the US presidential election. But Donald Trump is already having a deeply malign effect on American foreign policy. At Trump’s behest, Republicans in Congress are blocking military aid for Ukraine.
Although the US Senate may agree an aid package this week, Republicans in the House of Representatives remain completely intransigent. As a result, it seems increasingly unlikely that military aid for Ukraine will get through Congress in the coming months — or even this year.
The consequences of that decision could be disastrous. Ukraine is already suffering from a shortage of ammunition — in particular artillery shells. That will become more acute this year, with increasingly dangerous results.
Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a frequent visitor to the frontline in Ukraine, says the situation there is now “extremely serious”. The ammunition shortage has already led to an increase in Ukrainian casualties. With no certainty about when new supplies of materiel will arrive, the Ukrainian military is finding it impossible to plan future operations.
The shortage of weaponry is also having an effect on the willingness of Ukrainians to volunteer for military service. The mounting pressure on the Kyiv government is part of the explanation for the public falling out between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhny.
One piece of positive news for Ukraine was last week’s agreement that the EU will provide €50bn in new financial support for the Ukrainian government. In a joint letter to the FT, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and four other EU leaders also called for an increase in European military aid.
But European production lines are not yet ready to fill the munitions gap left by the Americans. That will take until at least 2025, and makes the second half of this year potentially very dangerous for Ukraine.
Watling believes that the consequences of the munitions shortage “will initially be felt slowly and then felt fast”. He warns that “when it reaches the point that the consequences are very obvious, it will already be too late”.
Trump and his Republican party supporters do not seem to care. They are apparently prepared to risk a Russian victory — if it even slightly increases Trump’s chance of defeating President Joe Biden in November.
Some of the Republican reluctance to pass new aid for Ukraine is driven by genuine scepticism about the war. But most of the foot-dragging is simply about Trump’s refusal to give Biden anything that looks like a “win” ahead of the presidential election.
Last year, the Republicans demanded that military aid for Ukraine be tied to new measures and money for border security in the US. The Democrats have agreed. But Trump and the Republicans are refusing to take yes for an answer. Trump evidently wants to run on the idea that Biden has presided over chaos and failure — stretching from the southern border to Kabul and Kyiv.
If the freedom of Ukraine and the security of Europe are collateral damage in Trump’s bid to win back the White House, the former president seems to regard that as a price worth paying.
It is even possible that he would welcome a Ukrainian defeat — if it came in time for the presidential election and enabled him to bash home his favourite claims about the Biden administration’s weakness and failure.
Of course, Trump could not do any of this on his own. The connivance of Republicans in Congress is critical. Trump’s victories in the presidential primaries have persuaded most Republicans — always feeble in their opposition to him — that they need to fall in line even more slavishly. If he continues to demand that no aid for Ukraine goes through Congress, Republicans in the House of Representatives will almost certainly deliver for him.
Those in Washington who take American global leadership seriously are understandably aghast. Senator Mark Warner, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on X that “If we don’t honour our commitment to Ukraine, there’s not a single nation — friend or foe — that will fully trust us again.” Bill Burns, director of the CIA, has said that for the US to abandon Ukraine now would be a mistake of “historic proportions”. The decision would be all the more incomprehensible because — in contrast to the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan — the US military is not doing the fighting and dying.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin must be unable to believe his luck. Except, in some ways, it is not luck but the pay-off for a long-term Russian investment. Trump calls allegations that the Kremlin worked to get him elected in 2016 “the Russia hoax”. But there is plenty of evidence of Moscow’s interference designed to favour Trump — such as the hacking and release of internal Democratic party emails in the middle of the 2016 campaign.
Even now, Putin takes any opportunity he can to stroke Trump’s out-of-control ego. Russian school textbooks have endorsed Trump’s favourite conspiracy theory that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen.
Putin has made a long-term bet on Trump. Unless there is a last-minute change of heart in Congress, that wager may finally pay out — on the battlefields of Ukraine.