As former President Trump solidifies his front-runner status in the Republican 2024 presidential primary race, his views on the Russia-Ukraine war paint an increasingly stark contrast with GOP leaders in Congress.
On Wednesday, he pledged to end the Ukraine war within 24 hours of taking office and refused to say which side he wants to win the war.
“When I’m president, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours,” Trump said in a CNN town hall Wednesday night, adding he would meet with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They both have weaknesses and they both have strengths, and within 24 hours that war will be settled, it’ll be over.”
Analysts are dubious of Trump’s ability to execute on his pledge, though his criticism of America’s leading role in supporting Ukraine could complicate what has been a largely united response on Capitol Hill.
Jeffrey Treistman, a professor of national security at the University of New Haven who has studied Russian affairs, said Trump “provided zero evidence of how he would stop the war.”
“There’s nothing to substantiate that claim, and the probability and likelihood of being able to stop the war within 24 hours is very slim to none. That’s the facts,” he said.
On Wednesday, Trump also said he wanted “everybody to stop dying” but also avoided saying whether Russia or Ukraine should win the war.
“I don’t think in terms of winning or losing,” he said. “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people.”
Critics blast Trump’s Ukraine remarks
The former president’s comments drew immediate scorn from some of his Republican rivals and more vocal opponents on the national stage.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a 2024 GOP presidential hopeful, said Trump’s stance was a “weak position that will not win the war.”
“Trump reminded everyone tonight of his support of Russia and his willingness to sell out Ukraine,” Hutchinson tweeted.
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) referred to Trump as “Putin’s puppet.”
“Despite how ridiculous that is to say, I suspect he would try to do it by turning Ukraine over to Putin and Russia,” Christie tweeted.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a Trump critic, said: “The only person I think who would really be celebrating from last night would be Vladimir Putin.”
“When asked who should win, Russia or Ukraine, he didn’t say Ukraine, and I find that a startling disclosure,” Romney added.
Reduced GOP push for peace talks
While a coalition of far-right Republicans have supported the idea of pushing for negotiations with Russia, that position appears to be declining within the party, said a former senior U.S. diplomat in Eastern Europe who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The quasi isolationists are weaker today than they were two months ago,” said the ex-diplomat, pointing to a letter signed by just 19 GOP lawmakers urging President Biden to pursue peace talks.
Prior Ukraine bills have received opposition from dozens of Republican congressmen, making the letter “a very dumb thing for them to issue, because it underscored their weakness.”
The former diplomat, who now works at a think tank, said the “high-water mark” for Ukraine skeptics was an interview Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gave to then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March, when he called the war a “territorial dispute.”
DeSantis faced immediate blowback and walked back the comments days later. And now Carlson has left Fox News, taking a key critic of U.S. policy toward Ukraine off the air.
U.S. pressure toward peace talks is largely seen as helping Putin, as any successful negotiation in the near future would mean ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia.
Putin illegally annexed four Ukrainian territories last year in the east and south of the country, which his forces continue to occupy.
The Biden administration has been steadfast in supporting Ukraine’s goal of retaking its territory and letting Kyiv decide when the time is right for negotiations.
However, the U.S. has been ambiguous about Ukraine’s desire to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin illegally annexed in 2014, likely leaving some wiggle room for an eventual peace deal.
McConnell, McCarthy back Ukraine
Most Republicans have consistently backed arms transfers to Ukraine and don’t see an end to the war anytime soon. Both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have offered robust defense of ongoing Ukraine support in recent days.
“I do think that we have enough support within Congress to sustain this for a good deal longer,” McConnell said this week. “All the leadership in the House and Senate in my party is very much in favor of defeating the Russians.”
When asked about Trump’s comments, McCarthy said during a press conference Thursday that House Republicans have “been very clear about the atrocities that Russia and Putin have presented to this world.”
“I think we have been very clear in our votes as well,” he said. “I think we lead with exactly what we’ve been doing.”
Zelensky on Thursday played down the potential threat to the US-Ukraine partnership.
“Who knows where we’ll be” when the 2024 election rolls around, he told the BBC. “I believe we’ll win by then.”
American public support is waning
Still, Trump is leaning into a growing divide in American opinion over continued military support for Ukraine in a war has no end in sight.
A survey from the Pew Research Center published this week found the number of Republicans who say the U.S. should focus on problems at home rather than paying attention to issues overseas increased to 71 percent this year from 65 percent last year.
The number of Americans who share that view overall is at 55 percent, up 4 percentage points from last year.
Trump has said the war never would have started in the first place on his watch, but in his presidency, Trump was criticized for his warm comments toward Putin, whom he called “savvy” and a “genius” after Russia invaded Ukraine.
The former president also refused to call Putin a war criminal Wednesday, even after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader in March.
Treistman, of the University of New Haven, said Trump weakened NATO by threatening to withdraw from the western security alliance and likely emboldened Putin’s efforts toward Ukraine.
He said concerns about how long the war will last are valid but stressed that low intensity conflicts can drag out.
“But that’s not necessarily, from a geostrategic standpoint, a bad thing,” he said. “We can use this as an opportunity to weaken a brutal dictatorship.”
Meanwhile, the former U.S. diplomat doesn’t see Trump’s rhetoric posing a significant threat to current American policy unless he reached the White House.
And even then, the ex-diplomat noted, Trump’s words didn’t always match his actions toward Ukraine and Russia. Trump ultimately sent javelin missiles to Ukraine, something former President Obama resisted doing, and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats who were identified as spies.
“It’s worth pointing out that when Trump was president, he said many things that were naive, but the overall policy of his administration overall — I can point out parts where it was not good — was not bad,” the former diplomat said.
Alexander Bolton contributed.