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What would Trump's and Biden's second-term policy on Ukraine look like?
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What would Trump’s and Biden’s second-term policy on Ukraine look like?

Foreign policy experts differ over what direction U.S. Ukraine policy will take if Donald Trump returns to the White House, with predictions ranging from more robust U.S. support to heavy pressure on Kyiv to concede all the land it has already lost.

Should Biden win re-election, most say, Ukraine policy will likely remain largely unchanged, with the possibility of even stronger sanctions on Russia.

Vague statements and personal feelings

Trump’s position on Ukraine and Russia’s war against it has been vague, contradictory and, perhaps, evolving.

On February 22, 2022, just two days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine “savvy” and “genius.”

The following year, during a May 2023 CNN town hall, Trump refused to say which side he wanted to win in Ukraine or to commit to providing Ukraine further military support.

“We’re giving away so much equipment, we don’t have ammunition for ourselves right now,” he said.

Trump told Fox News in July 2023 that he would tell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “No more. You have to make a deal,” while also telling Putin: “If you don’t make a deal, we will give them a lot. We will give them more than they ever got, if we have to.”

In April this year, Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform: “Why isn’t Europe giving more money to help Ukraine? … Why can’t Europe equalize or match the money put in by the United States of America in order to help a Country in desperate need? As everyone agrees, Ukrainian Survival and Strength should be much more important to Europe than to us, but it is also important to us! GET MOVING EUROPE!”

Also in April, The Washington Post detailed what it called Trump’s “secret, long-shot plan to end the war in Ukraine,” reporting that it included pushing Ukraine to cede Crimea and the Donbas region to Russia.

In May, however, the newspaper reported that Trump, during a fundraising event, had “suggested that he would have bombed Moscow and Beijing if Russia invaded Ukraine or China invaded Taiwan.”

Still, experts who talked to VOA noted that Trump has unpleasant personal associations with Ukraine.

His July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy led to Trump’s first impeachment over allegations that he improperly sought help from a foreign power to boost his reelection chances. In February 2020, a majority of the Republican-led Senate acquitted him.

On the other hand, some experts believe that Trump wouldn’t want to be seen as a president who lost a war.

“We do know that Trump perceives himself as a strong man and does not want to be associated with foreign policy failure,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “And a Russian victory in Ukraine if Trump is president would look very much like a foreign policy failure.”

Two wings of the Republican Party

The Republican Party is divided over Russia’s war on Ukraine war and support for the embattled country.

A pro-Trump faction — informally dubbed the MAGA (Make America Great Again) wing — views Russia as a “declining power” and thus believes the war “needs to be settled as quickly as possible so that it does not drain the security resources of the United States,” Sergiy Kudelia, an associate professor of political science at Texas’s Baylor University, told VOA.

The other Republican faction seeks more robust support for Ukraine to defeat Russia.

If that second wing prevails, said Kudelia, a second Trump administration might provide even more support to Ukraine than the Biden administration.

Possible clues of how a new Trump administration would approach Russia-Ukraine policy can be found in plans put forward by two pro-Trump policy projects. One of them is Project 2025, also known as the Presidential Transition Project, produced by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

In its “Mandate for Leadership,” Project 2025 favors an approach between “isolationism and interventionism”:

“Rather, each foreign policy decision must first ask the question: What is in the interest of the American people? U.S. military engagement must clearly fall within U.S. interests; be fiscally responsible; and protect American freedom, liberty, and sovereignty, all while recognizing Communist China as the greatest threat to U.S. interests. Thus, with respect to Ukraine, continued U.S. involvement must be fully paid for; limited to military aid (while European allies address Ukraine’s economic needs); and have a clearly defined national security strategy that does not risk American lives.”

The other plan, put forward by the America First Policy Institute, would make future U.S. military aid to Ukraine contingent on its leaders engaging in peace talks with Russia:

“Specifically, it would mean a formal U.S. policy to seek a cease-fire and negotiated settlement of the Ukraine conflict. The United States would continue to arm Ukraine and strengthen its defenses to ensure Russia will make no further advances and will not attack again after a cease-fire or peace agreement. Future American military aid, however, will require Ukraine to participate in peace talks with Russia.”

For his part, Michael Kimmage, a professor of history and department chair at the Catholic University of America in Washington, told VOA that it is difficult to predict how a re-elected Trump would conduct policy toward Russia and Ukraine:

“He’s just a person who changes his mind often and responds often quite emotionally to events, sometimes in his personal life, sometimes in domestic politics, sometimes in international affairs. So I think it’s fair to say that the Trump presidency would be a roller coaster.”

What about a second Biden term?

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, the U.S. Congress has provided $175 billion in aid to Ukraine at the Biden administration’s request. Washington has imposed numerous sanctions on Russia and led the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of about 50 countries coordinating military assistance.

In his address on June 6, the 80th anniversary of the Allied storming of Normandy, Biden compared the fight against Putin to the fight against Hitler in WWII.

Biden said last December while urging Congress to approve funding to support Ukraine that failure to do so would embolden other would-be aggressors and encourage Putin to attack a NATO country, which the U.S. is committed to defending:

“Then we’ll have something that we don’t seek and that we don’t have today: American troops fighting Russian troops.”

Recently, the Biden administration partially removed restrictions on Ukraine using U.S.-provided weapons against military targets in Russia.

Kimmage said that in a second term, the Biden administration would likely maintain its currently policy of providing military aid to Ukraine. However, he said that given it would have fewer political considerations in its final term, the Biden administration might be more aggressive in imposing sanctions against Russia:

“It’s not as if they’re determining their foreign policy on the basis of the election in some crude fashion, but there are limits and constraints, and those would be very different in a second term where Biden can no longer run for reelection in 2028. So, he would be quite a bit freer.”