Why Trump Should Care about Ukraine: Peter Rough on the Republican Outlook on the War

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On October 16, 2023, Peter Rough joined the Fletcher International Security Studies Program to discuss the outlook on U.S. aid to Ukraine. Rough, who earned his MALD degree in 2013, is the director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Prior to Fletcher, he worked for the George W. Bush administration, including on President Bush’s memoir “Decisions Points.” He spoke about the work of the Hudson Institute, the current shift toward great power competition between the United States and China, and the partisan divide on U.S. support for Ukraine.

Rough presented four perspectives on further aid to Ukraine from Washington’s viewpoint. The first perspective supports U.S. isolationism. Rough posited this camp believes that the United States, surrounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, is inherently predisposed toward isolationism. Isolationism lay dormant during the Cold War but was existentially challenged by attacks such as 9/11 and the Boston Bombings. Ultimately, however, Rough suggests U.S. foreign policy isolationists believe the United States should “pull up the drawbridge” and leave the defense of Ukraine to Europe. 

The second perspective belongs to those prioritizing China in U.S. foreign policy. This camp, Rough suggests, believes that every engagement outside the Indo-Pacific is a strategic distraction from the threat of China and that Japan is now perhaps America’s most critical ally. This school of thought is epitomized, Rough suggests, by Bridge Colby, the principal author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and Senator Josh Hawley, who recently remarked that “the Chinese Communist Party understands that if our resources are tied up in Ukraine, those are resources we can’t use to deter a Taiwan invasion.” Hawley has been criticized from both the right and the left for presenting a false choice between aid for Ukraine and aid for Taiwan.

Rough argues that the third perspective includes the majority of the Democratic Party. This approach attempts to balance the necessity of arming Ukraine and deterring Russian aggression with the risk of nuclear escalation. The result, Rough argues, has become an increasingly protracted conflict buoyed with just enough support to continue fighting, but not enough to win. While Ukraine may not have the capacity to receive and operate F-16 fighter jets in February 2022, Rough argues that much of the equipment in question, including ATACMs, Stingers, Mi-17 helicopters, and F-16s, could have been sent earlier. 

Finally, the fourth camp is pushing the Biden administration for more aid to Ukraine. This coalition, according to Rough, recognizes that Putin’s nuclear threats are calculated to scare off Western allies, and are by no means new. Rough makes the point that if U.S. public support is required for further aid packages, and if domestic concerns and the 2024 elections are likely to distract from Russia’s war of aggression, the Biden administration should make substantially larger requests to Congress before next spring. Rough credits Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican presidential nominee Nikki Haley, Senator Tom Cotton, and Congressman Mike McCaul as leaders from this camp. 

He said the U.S. public opinion will sway D.C.’s outlook on Ukraine, and these four camps will shift as the conflict changes and unfolds. Rough also reminded listeners not to discount the role of leadership in the Russia-Ukraine war. Biden remains committed to supporting Ukraine, as evidenced by the administration’s request to Congress for $106 billion, which is primarily military assistance to Ukraine and Israel. Rough also cautioned that while Trump has famously promised to end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours if elected, he also does not like to lose. A major Ukrainian military and territorial loss may harken back to U.S. embarrassment associated with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is a scene that Trump, if reelected, might try and avoid.

Putin’s likely course of action is impossible to predict. Rough also advised attendees against crediting the influence of Putin’s orbit on his decision-making process. “Putin listens to Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, Rough said, quoting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “This is entirely his war.”

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