The Insider

In Ukraine, a stalemate beckons

If Trump becomes president, could Nato fracture?

February 07, 2024
No longer at ease: Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, has used the war in Israel as a pretext to divert funding away from Ukraine. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy
No longer at ease: Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, has used the war in Israel as a pretext to divert funding away from Ukraine. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy

Two years after the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a stalemate beckons. Worse, Nato itself may fracture if Trump wins the US presidential election in November, which could lead to an outright Ukrainian defeat and a rampant Russia threatening Europe at large. 

Ukraine is short of soldiers, in the face of relentless brutal war of attrition. After Zelensky’s initial success in preventing a complete Ukrainian collapse in February 2022, he has been unable to dislodge Russia from most of the eastern territory it seized, or from Crimea, annexed by Putin after his 2014 invasion. 

With further US support now in the balance, there is the nightmare scenario that Ukraine runs short of vital munitions and equipment as well as troops, forcing Zelensky or a successor to recognise Russia’s gains and maybe even enabling Putin to advance further. 

European support for Ukraine, which exceeded US support even before the latest Trump crisis, ought to prevent a complete Ukrainian capitulation to the status of a vassal state of Russia, in any scenario. Crucially, there is no sign of a weakening of Ukrainian political will to resist, despite political and tactical friction between Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders, most recently his commander in chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi. After the horrors of Russian attacks and occupation, there are no illusions in Kyiv about the worthlessness of any deal with Putin, even if a Ukrainian leader were minded to negotiate one. 

As with all dictatorships, the sudden collapse of Putin could also happen at any moment, either for health or political reasons. So it is far too soon to write off the prospect of a Ukrainian victory.

But the pessimists now have the upper hand over the optimists, and that will remain the case if Trump looks set to win. And anything short of Russia being forced to give up its territorial gains of the last two years will be an existential crisis for Europe and Nato, as all Europe’s neighbours with Russia face—and fear—Russian destabilisation and possible incursion. 

It is not just direct US support for Ukraine which is at stake. International economic sanctions on Russia, and on Putin’s elite in particular, depend crucially upon relentless US engagement. If this weakens or ends, Putin’s ability to sustain his war effort, and his kleptocracy, will be hugely enhanced. 

The fundamental issue is that Trump, uniquely among modern American leaders, subscribes neither to European values of democracy and liberty, nor to Europe’s territorial integrity. This has become far clearer in Trump 2.0 than in his pre-2020 incarnation, when traditional Republican sensibilities held more sway. He has no intrinsic problem with a stronger Russia and a weaker Europe, particularly if that serves his political interests in fighting Biden and the Democrats. Hence Tucker Carlson’s extraordinary mission to interview Putin in Moscow this week. 

The Israel-Hamas war has enabled Trump to advance this position much more easily, by arguing that aid to Israel should be prioritised. Hence Mike Johnson, the latest speaker of the House and a Trump puppet, pushing this week to advance billions of dollars in military aid to Israel without accompanying assistance for Ukraine. As for Putin, he ostensibly supports Palestinian resistance, but in reality has been keen from the outset to exploit Hamas as a means of distracting the west from the battle for Europe.

If Trump wins and if Ukraine looks likely to collapse, Europe will be forced into new collective defence arrangements, without the US, for the first time since the Second World War. There are huge “ifs” in that sentence. But nonetheless a terrifying possibility has suddenly emerged before us. Let’s hope it is fleeting.