Trump on Ukraine: 'I Don't Think in Terms of Winning and Losing—I Think in Terms of Getting It Settled'
He's not wrong about that.
During a chaotic and at-times combative interview on Wednesday night, former President Donald Trump made at least one sensible point: Ending the war in Ukraine is more important than the notion of who wins it.
"Do you want Ukraine to win this war?" asked CNN's Kaitlan Collins at one point during a broader discussion of how Trump would handle the now 15-month-old conflict if he returns to the Oval Office.
"I don't think in terms of winning and losing," Trump said. "I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people." Later, he stressed that same point: "I want everybody to stop dying. They're dying. Russians and Ukrainians. I want them to stop dying."
That is…entirely sensible. More than that, it's probably the most humanitarian message that a leader of the United States could send. There have been an estimated 350,000 casualties* on both sides and untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians have died since Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to roll his military into Ukraine in February 2022. Ending the bloodshed ought to be the primary goal of American foreign policy with regard to that war, which is not a conflict that has a direct bearing on the United States.
Naturally, Trump was immediately attacked for questioning whether America's goal ought to be something other than Russia's defeat. Former New Jersey Gov. (and Trump adviser-turned-possible-opponent) Chris Christie tweeted that "Trump refused to say tonight that he wanted Ukraine to win the war with Russia. More proof that he continues to be Putin's puppet."
But there's nothing wrong with pushing for an end to the conflict. Indeed, the most important part of any war is figuring out how to end it—not how to funnel a seemingly endless supply of weapons to one side or the other, which has been America's chief role in the Ukraine conflict to date.
With the notable exception of World War II—which has, unfortunately, taken on a mythological role in American military and political culture—most major wars do not end with one side achieving total victory and the other being thoroughly defeated. That's simply not how wars end.
A singular focus on "winning" or "losing"—as if war were a football game, not a destructive and wasteful loss of resources and human lives that runs the risk of extinguishing life across the planet if it gets out of hand—is counterproductive at best. It's also somewhat sociopathic. No one wins a war. You win by getting it to stop, then try to make the best of the circumstances at that point.
In the case of the Ukraine war, there's no realistic scenario in which Russia is thoroughly defeated. Putin's goal of annexing large parts of Ukraine, however, has clearly been thwarted. Negotiations and diplomacy will have to sort out what the border between the two countries will look like, but that's the norm in the aftermath of every conflict—not a concession to Russia. Yes, Putin's aggression is abhorrent and wrong. He's been forced to pay a high price for it. But not every negotiation with an aggressor is the 1938 Munich Agreement, and diplomacy is essential to ending any conflict.
Trump being Trump, his views on the Ukraine conflict are not all as sensible as believing that the war should end quickly. At one point, he bizarrely and falsely claimed that America's military support to Ukraine meant that "we don't have ammunition for ourselves."
He also claimed on Wednesday night that he'd be able to end the war in a day if re-elected, apparently as a result of his close friendship with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
If that's the case, then what is he waiting for? If Trump truly believes he has the ability to end the war and desires that the war end, every passing day in which he does not use his incredible negotiating power to bring about its end makes him somewhat culpable for the ongoing slaughter. He does not need to be president to call his supposed friends.
Of course, Trump does not actually have that ability. But he's happy to use the promise of ending the war to bolster his own political ambitions. Just like he was happy to make a deal to send arms to Ukraine as long as those weapons were connected to a promise that the Ukrainian government would investigate Joe Biden prior to the 2020 election—the infamous "quid pro quo" at the center of Trump's first impeachment. Now that he has nothing to gain from arming Ukraine, he's of course opposed to sending Ukraine arms.
Even Trump's anti-war bona fides only extend so far. He's reportedly asked advisers about whether it would be possible to send American troops into Mexico if he gets a second term in the White House.
Still, Trump has demonstrated for years that he generally has the right political instincts when it comes to matters of war and foreign policy. He was right to reject the absurd neoconservative view that saw the post-9/11 wars as anything other than an utter disaster. (Trump's demolition of Jeb Bush and declaration that the Iraq War was "a big fat mistake" during the South Carolina primary debate in 2016 was arguably the very moment when Trump became the new de facto leader of the Republican Party.) Now, he's right to reflexively question the nonsensical idea that one side or the other must clearly "win" in Ukraine for the war to end.
He's also probably right that there's political hay to be made by running against the military-industrial complex and the bipartisan pro-war national security state. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of Republicans believed the federal government should focus on domestic issues rather than foreign conflicts, and that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to support sending arms to Ukraine.
A more competent and less authoritarian potential presidential candidate should take note. Until then, Trump will continue to prosper politically for being willing to say something that's wrongly perceived as being out of bounds in Washington: that it's good for wars to end.
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the estimated number of casualties in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.