Donald Trump’s public adulation for Vladimir Putin last week was almost cartoonish in its inanity. The former president described the Russian leader’s military offensive as “genius” and “very savvy.” Though the Republican now expects people to believe he was merely agreeing with others’ assessment of Putin, the transcript clearly shows Trump volunteering his praise.
Soon after, the former U.S. leader kept going, issuing a written statement touting Putin and admonishing his own country’s president. At a Mar-a-Lago event, Trump again told an assembled audience how “smart“ Putin is for launching a military offensive against his neighbor.
Over the weekend, Trump appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), reiterated his belief that Putin is “smart,” denounced his own country’s leaders as “so dumb,” and said the Russian autocrat is playing President Joe Biden “like a drum.”
As a matter of patriotism, Trump’s critics might be tempted to wonder exactly whose side the former president is on. But there’s another problem: The Republican has spent the last week suggesting that Putin is some kind of strategic “genius,” masterfully executing a “savvy” plan.
And that’s not just unpatriotic, it’s also bonkers.
Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote in a Washington Post analysis yesterday that Putin, by launching this war, “has lost and lost badly.”
For 15 years he has coasted on an inflated reputation as a tactical genius and strategic opportunist.... Oops. In the air, Russia has yet to establish air supremacy over Ukraine. On the ground, Russian forces have gained some territory but nothing has come fast or easy. Russia’s expectation of rapid decapitation via special forces and paratroopers has come to naught. Every day Kyiv does not fall and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posts something on social media is a day when Putin’s reputation for tactical mastery (and the Russian military’s reputation for competence) gets dented.
It’s difficult to identify literally anything Putin has gotten right in this crisis. He thought Western alliances would fracture, but they didn’t. He thought NATO members would be divided against one another, but they’re not. He thought Ukraine’s government would quickly collapse, but it’s persevered. He thought the Ukrainian military would struggle to fight, but it’s proven far stronger than expected. He thought the Russian military would assert its dominance and prove its might to the world, but it’s done largely the opposite.
An Axios report added over the weekend, “Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in days what decades of American prodding and pressure couldn’t: Getting Germany and other European nations to unite, expand defense spending and strategic thinking, and do more to protect themselves and others.... [Putin has] spawned a new coalition of the willing that spreads from Europe, to U.S. companies, to Russians in the streets.”
Just as notably, Putin knew Western sanctions were inevitable, but he was confident that the Russian economy was largely insulated. As of this morning, the ruble’s value has collapsed, and the country’s stock market has closed.
Trump shed light on his values when he celebrated Putin as much of the world did the opposite, but he also shed light on his tactical thinking when he described a disastrous military offensive as “genius” and “very savvy.”