Trump Is a Danger to U.S. Security

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His isolationist views and erratic thinking and style would post even greater risks in a second term.

When I became President Trump’s national security adviser in 2018, I assumed the gravity of his responsibilities would discipline even him. I was wrong. His erratic approach to governance and his dangerous ideas gravely threaten American security. Republican primary voters should take note.

Mr. Trump’s only consistent focus is on himself. He invariably equated good personal relations with foreign leaders to good relations between countries. Personal relations are important, but the notion that they sway Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and their ilk is perilously wrong.

Mr. Trump’s most dangerous legacy is the spread of the isolationist virus in the Republican Party. The Democrats long ago adopted an incoherent melding of isolationism with indiscriminate multilateralism. If isolationism becomes the dominant view among Republicans, America is in deep trouble.

The most immediate crisis involves Ukraine. Barack Obama’s limp-wristed response to Moscow’s 2014 aggression contributed substantially to Mr. Putin’s 2022 attack. But Mr. Trump’s conduct was also a factor. He accused Ukraine of colluding with Democrats against him in 2016 and demanded answers. No answers were forthcoming, since none existed. President Biden’s aid to Ukraine has been piecemeal and nonstrategic, but it is almost inevitable that a second-term Trump policy on Ukraine would favor Moscow.

Mr. Trump’s assertions that he was “tougher” on Russia than earlier presidents are inaccurate. His administration imposed major sanctions, but they were urged by advisers and carried out only after he protested vigorously. His assertions that Mr. Putin would never have invaded Ukraine had he been re-elected are wishful thinking. Mr. Putin’s flattery pleases Mr. Trump. When Mr. Putin welcomed Mr. Trump’s talk last year of ending the Ukraine war, Mr. Trump gushed: “I like that he said that. Because that means what I’m saying is right.” Mr. Putin knows his mark and would relish a second Trump term.

An even greater danger is that Mr. Trump will act on his desire to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He came precariously close in 2018. The Supreme Court has never ruled authoritatively whether the president can abrogate Senate-ratified treaties, but presidents have regularly done so. Recently enacted legislation to stop Mr. Trump from withdrawing without congressional consent likely wouldn’t survive a court challenge. It could precipitate a constitutional crisis and years of litigation.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to thwart the Beijing-Moscow axis. While he did draw attention to China’s growing threat, his limited conceptual reach led to simple-minded formulas (trade surpluses good, deficits bad). His tough talk allowed others to emphasize greater Chinese misdeeds, including massive theft of Western intellectual property, mercantilist trade policies, manipulation of the World Trade Organization, and “debt diplomacy,” which puts unwary countries in hock to Beijing. These are all real threats, but whether Mr. Trump is capable of countering them is highly doubtful.

Ultimately, Beijing’s obduracy and Mr. Trump’s impulse for personal publicity precluded whatever slim chances existed to eliminate China’s economic abuses. In a second term, Mr. Trump would likely continue seeking “the deal of the century” with China, while his protectionism, in addition to being bad economic policy, would make it harder to stand up to Beijing. The trade fights he picked with Japan, Europe and others impaired our ability to increase pressure against China’s broader transgressions.

The near-term risks of China manufacturing a crisis over Taiwan would rise dramatically. Mr. Xi is watching Ukraine and may be emboldened by Western failure there. A physical invasion is unlikely, but China’s navy could blockade the island and perhaps seize Taiwanese islands near the mainland. The loss of Taiwan’s independence, which would soon follow a U.S. failure to resist Beijing’s blockade, could persuade countries near China to appease Beijing by declaring neutrality.

Taiwan’s fall would encourage Beijing to finalize its asserted annexation of almost all the South China Sea. Littoral states like Vietnam and the Philippines would cease resistance. Commerce with Japan and South Korea, especially of Middle Eastern oil, would be subjected to Chinese control, and Beijing would have nearly unfettered access to the Indian Ocean, endangering India.

And imagine Mr. Trump’s euphoria at resuming contact with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, about whom he famously boasted that “we fell in love.” Mr. Trump almost gave away the store to Pyongyang, and he could try again. A reckless nuclear deal would alienate Japan and South Korea, extend China’s influence, and strengthen the Beijing-Moscow axis.

Israel’s security might seem an issue on which Mr. Trump’s first-term decisions and rhetoric should comfort even his opponents. But he has harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the Oct. 7 attacks, and there is no foreign-policy area in which the absence of electoral constraints could liberate Mr. Trump as much as in the Middle East. There is even a danger of a new deal with Tehran. Mr. Trump almost succumbed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s pleading to meet Iran’s foreign minister in August 2019.

Mr. Trump negotiated the catastrophic withdrawal deal with the Taliban, which Mr. Biden further bungled. The overlap between Messrs. Trump’s and Biden’s views on Afghanistan demonstrate the absence of any Trump national-security philosophy. Even in the Western Hemisphere, Mr. Trump didn’t carry through on reversing Obama administration policies on Cuba and Venezuela. His affinity for strongmen may lead to deals with Nicolás Maduro and whatever apparatchik rules in Havana.

Given Mr. Trump’s isolationism and disconnected thinking, there is every reason to doubt his support for the defense buildup we urgently need. He initially believed he could cut defense spending simply because his skills as a negotiator could reduce procurement costs. Even as he increased defense budgets, he showed acute discomfort, largely under the influence of isolationist lawmakers. He once tweeted that his own military budget was “crazy” and that he, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi should confer to prevent a new arms race. Mr. Trump is no friend of the military. In private, he was confounded that anyone would put himself in danger by joining.

A second Trump term would bring erratic policy and uncertain leadership, which the China-Russia axis would be only too eager to exploit.

This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

In Moldova, Kremlin imperialism is on the ballot

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Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Moldova’s much larger neighbor, has overshadowed the dangerous reality that Moldova itself is also a battlefield between Russia and the West for dominance in the territory of the former Soviet Union. And while Moldova is small (population of about 3.25 million), its politics are just as complex as other independent states once part of the USSR.

When the USSR and the Warsaw Pact fragmented, there was talk in both Moldova and Romania, a former Moscow satellite, of reuniting as one country. Interest in reunification dissipated for a variety of reasons, however, from disputes about their long history to practical difficulties to lack of popular support. Many factors that kept the countries separate continue to manifest themselves in Moldovan politics today, often intermixing with critical contemporary issues. In hindsight, reunification might not have left Moldova as vulnerable as it now is, but the moment has passed for the foreseeable future.

An even more intricate, more threatening problem is the status of the pro-Moscow rump “state” of Transdniestria, which still had Russian troops on its soil, although not at levels like the Red Army’s prior garrison. Transdniestria, on the left bank of the Dniester River, is one of several “frozen conflicts,” remnants of the chaos from the USSR’s dissolution, and a convenient way for the Kremlin to keep Moldova unstable and imperfectly sovereign. It is an open sore both for Moldova’s legitimate government and for bordering Ukraine: a locus of smuggling, trafficking, and other criminal behavior.

Not only is it a thorn in Ukraine’s side because of the illegal activities, but because it could also cause trouble “behind the lines” for Kyiv and its military in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Had Russian forces reached Transdniestria during the invasion’s early stages, or even today, they would likely have been given free rein there, outflanking Ukraine’s defenses.

Moldova’s current president, supported by a parliamentary majority coalition, is Maia Sandu. I had the occasion to meet her in late August 2019 in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, just months after she became prime minister. An economist, she had worked in Moldova’s Ministry of Economy and Trade and briefly at the World Bank in Washington, and she later served several years as minister of education. Then and now, she was perceived as pro-American and anti-corruption.

After leaving the Education Ministry, Sandu formed her own political party, Action and Solidarity, and contested and lost Moldova’s 2016 presidential election to Igor Dodon of the pro-Russian Socialist Party. Dodon was still serving in 2019, and I met with him after seeing Sandu on the trip. Dodon rejected the view that he was pro-Russian, saying he wanted to be neutral between Russia on one hand and NATO and the European Union on the other.

Exemplifying the complex politics of former USSR states, after the 2016 election, Sandu and Dodon formed a parliamentary coalition, supported by the U.S., the EU, and Russia, to oust then-incumbent Prime Minister Vladimir Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc, an oligarch, presided over enormous corruption, including what Moldovans call “the heist of the century,” involving more than $1 billion disappearing from three Moldovan banks. Curiously, this political struggle did not implicate Transdniestria, notwithstanding the high stakes involved.

As prime minister, Sandu’s principal objective was to recover from “the heist,” reduce corruption, and make Moldova attractive for foreign investment, which is critical for economic growth.

When I spoke with her, Sandu was interested in working with newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom I had met the day before in Kyiv. They were discussing digitizing customs enforcement to help squash illicit commerce through Transdniestria, thereby increasing Western confidence in their respective anti-corruption efforts, and bolstering legitimate economies in both countries. Sandu was sufficiently successful and adept enough politically to defeat Dodon in their second contest for the presidency in 2020. Her anti-corruption, anti-Russia-subversion programs have had mixed success — COVID obviously wasn’t helpful, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine produced substantial economic problems, especially high consumer energy prices.

Nonetheless, Sandu has declared for reelection and has committed to hold a referendum on membership in the EU, which her base supports. Her supporters did well in November’s local elections, but not well enough to signal clearly she will be returned as president later this year. It now appears that Sandu and Dodon will face off for the third time, although no one predicts victory in November’s first round of voting, which will have the usual plethora of candidates. Almost certainly, therefore, there will be a Sandu-Dodon runoff in December, as in 2016 and 2020.

Whether Sandu can win a second presidential term is uncertain. What is certain is that Moscow’s efforts to subvert Moldova’s government as part of the effort to reestablish the Russian empire are real and substantial. Sandu’s defeat is central to this strategy’s success, and we will find out by the end of 2024 whether the Kremlin prevails.

This article was first published in The Washington Examiner on January 4, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

Western weakness could still allow Putin to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat 

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This is a decisive year for Ukraine, and whether the West can show Russia, China and Iran the strength of its resolve 

By Ambassador John Bolton

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on January 3rd, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.

President Volodomyr Zelensky’s December 21 Washington address to both houses of Congress was a dramatic reminder of how critical Europe’s biggest land war since 1945 is for the US, the UK and the Nato alliance. Summing up the 10 months of relentless combat since the Kremlin’s February 24 invasion, thanking the West and (being a savvy politician) especially Congress for its assistance, Zelensky made it clear that more was needed. He closed by saying, “Happy Victorious New Year!” 

Let’s hope Zelensky’s wish comes true, because 2023 is likely to be Ukraine’s year of decision. If Washington and London don’t get Ukraine right over the next 12 months, the negative consequences will be felt far beyond the present battleground. It will be all downhill in dealing with China, Iran, North Korea and others who will see anything less than an unambiguous victory for Kyiv as evidencing Western weakness, which they will not hesitate to exploit. While the nuclear ambitions of Tehran and Pyongyang are massively threatening, and while resisting China’s existential threat will be the West’s major endeavour in this century, the urgency of Ukraine’s fate cannot be ignored. 

This is no time to pat ourselves on the back. Despite significant advantages, including the fighting spirit of Ukraine’s population; substantial weapons and intelligence assistance, especially by London, Washington, and Eastern Europe’s stalwarts; and the appallingly poor performance by Russia’s forces – land, air, and sea – the war is now at a stalemate. Economic sanctions have impaired Russia’s economy, but Ukraine’s economy is in worse shape, with substantial portions of its physical capital literally being ground into dust. Finland and Sweden have made the stunning decision to join Nato, but Russia’s commercial and military partners have not yet deserted it in its hour of need, sadly including Turkey, whose Nato membership should be at issue in 2023 if president Erdogan is (probably through fraud) re-elected. 

The real issue is Western unity and resolve. Neither is guaranteed. Start with Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende (“sea change”) in Berlin’s foreign policy shortly after Russia’s invasion. He announced that Germany, in 2023, would more than meet Nato’s 2014 Cardiff commitment for members to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence matters; created a 100 billion euro fund for weapons procurement; and committed to spend 30 billion of those euros to purchase 35 nuclear-capable F-35s to replace Germany’s ageing Tornadoes. 

However, little has actually happened, and the pledges are in doubt. Germany’s regular 2023 defence budget will be smaller than 2022. The 2 per cent target is now a target for 2025, maybe, which is little better than what Angela Merkel promised when she was chancellor. None of the 100 billion euros has been contracted, and the F-35 purchase appears stalled by bureaucratic infighting. Good thing there’s not a war going on in Europe. 

By comparison, Japan recently announced that it will more than double its defence budget in the next five years to achieve Nato’s 2 per cent target, and in so doing will become the world’s third largest military, after the US and China. It’s the kind of performance that reinforces former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar’s proposal, made over 15 years ago, to take Nato global, starting by admitting countries like Japan, Australia, Singapore and Israel. 

Then there’s France. Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron have clashed about what to “give” Russia to reach a diplomatic resolution. As recently as December 4, Macron said, “one of the essential points we must address, as President Putin has always said, is the fear that Nato comes right up to its doors,” which has long been a Kremlin talking point. There is, of course, no evidence that Ukraine ever constituted a threat to Russian security, or that Nato has ever been anything but a defensive alliance. Worse, however, Macron also said, “we need to prepare… how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table”. The aggressor deserves no security guarantees merely for showing up to discuss reversing its aggression, rather than actually doing something concrete, like withdrawing its forces to Russian territory. 

The United States also has problems. Since the American media enjoys critiquing internal political splits among Republicans more than those among Democrats, its reporting has highlighted signs of opposition to Washington’s continued assistance to Ukraine from a small number of isolationists on the Right, ignoring the much-graver threat from Leftist “progressives”. 

A few Republicans, reflecting their disdain for serious geostrategic work, did indeed skip Zelensky’s address. Progressives, however, have groused at length on Ukraine, most recently in an October 24, 2022 letter to President Biden. Thirty House Democrats urged him “to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push”. Their suggested conditionality was music to Moscow’s ears, although the resulting firestorm led to the letter’s quick withdrawal. The co-signatories, however, apologised only for making a timing error in the letter’s release (because of the approaching mid-term elections). They made no criticism of the letter’s substance. With the new Congress convening today, expect to hear more from the progressives. Fortunately, neither Russia nor Ukraine shows any desire to negotiate. 

From Moscow’s side, there is continuing disturbing news about Belarus. Since the invasion, Putin has engaged his counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, in intense personal diplomacy, meeting, for example, twice within a week at year’s end, in Minsk and then St Petersburg. Public readouts of the meetings did not mention Ukraine, but there is little doubt it was a principal subject of discussion. Belarus recently complained about a stray Ukrainian missile hitting its territory, a classic pretext for later military action. 

Russia’s abysmal military performance may continue in 2023, Putin’s political position may be weaker, and economic constraints may grow. But every day that passes without the withdrawal of Moscow’s forces from Ukraine risks adding to strains within the West. US and UK leaders still need a strategy to give the Ukrainian people that “Happy Victorious New Year!” 

Putin Must Go: Now Is The Time For Regime Change In Russia

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By Ambassador John Bolton

This article was first published on October 4th, 2022, in 19fortyfive. Click Here to read the original.

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” President Biden said of Vladimir Putin in March, a month after Russia’s second unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, in remarks the Washington Post called “the most defiant and aggressive speech about Russia by an American president since Ronald Reagan.”(  Biden’s staff, however, immediately backpedaled, saying, “the president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”  Later, Biden himself dutifully resiled from regime change.(

Why the angst?  There is no long-term prospect for peace and security in Europe without regime change in Russia.  Russians are already discussing it, quietly, for obvious reasons.  For the United States and others pretending that the issue is not before will do far more harm than good.

Notwithstanding recent Kyiv’s military advances, the West still lacks a shared definition of “victory” in Ukraine.  Last week, Putin “annexed” four Ukrainian oblasts, joining Crimea, “annexed” in 2014.  The war grinds on, producing high Russian casualties and economic pain.  Opposition to Putin is rising, and young men are fleeing the country.  Of course, Kyiv’s civilian and military casualties are also high, and its physical destruction is enormous.  Hoping to intimidate NATO, Moscow is again rhetorically brandishing nuclear weapons, and has sabotaged the Nordstream pipelines.  Europe worries about the coming winter, and everyone worries about the durability of Europe’s resolve.  No one predicts a near-term cease-fire or substantive war-ending negotiations, or how to conduct “normal” relations with Putin’s regime thereafter.

To avoid the war simply grinding along indefinitely, we must alter today’s calculus.  Carefully assisting Russian dissidents to pursue regime change might just be the answer.  Russia is, obviously, a nuclear power, but that is no more an argument against seeking regime change than against assisting Ukrainian self-defense.  White House virtue signaling already empowers the Kremlin, accusing us of “satanism,” to claim America is trying to overthrow Russia’s government even though Biden is doing no such thing.   (  Just to remind, the Kremlin has been doing this to us for many decades.  Since we are already accused of subverting the Kremlin, why not return the favor?  

Obstacles and uncertainties blocking Russian regime change are substantial, but not insuperable.  Defining the “change” is critical, because it must involve far more than simply replacing Putin.  Among his inner circle, several potential successors would be worse.  The problem is not one man, but the collective leadership constructed over the last two decades.  No civilian governmental structure exists to effect change, not even a Politburo like the one that retired Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban missile crisis.  The whole regime must go.

Actually effecting regime change is doubtless the hardest problem, but it does not require foreign military forces.  The key is for Russians themselves to exacerbate divisions among those with real authority, the siloviki, the “men of power.”  Disagreements and animosities already exist, as in all authoritarian regimes, exploitable as dissidents set their minds to it.  Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank outside the Russian White House in 1991 evidenced the fracturing of the Soviet ruling class.  Once regime coherence and solidarity shatter, change is possible.

Inside Russia’s military, intelligence and internal security ministries, there is almost certainly shock, anger, embarrassment, and despair about Moscow’s performance before and during the current invasion of Ukraine.  As in many coups in third-world countries, the likely leadership for regime change will not come from the top flag officers and officials, who are too personally invested in the Putin regime, nor from the ranks of enlisted personnel or lower-level bureaucrats.  It is from the colonels and one-star generals, and their civilian-agency equivalents, where the most-likely co-conspirators to take maters into their own hands.  These are the decision-makers whom the dissidents must identify, persuade and support to facilitate regime change.  Obviously, the desired interim outcome is not an outright military government, but a transitional authority that can hold the ring while a new constitution is formed.  This stage alone is very risky business, but unavoidable given Russia’s current domestic political structures.

Outsiders can assist in many ways, including augmenting dissidents’ communications internally and with their diaspora, and significantly enhanced programs to transmit information into Russia (complicated by the long decline in US information-statecraft capabilities).  Financial support, especially given Russian economic conditions, and not necessarily in large amounts, can also be critical. What Washington says publicly about regime-change should be concerted with the dissidents and other foreign allies.  Keeping our actions covert may be impossible, but there is likely no need to ballyhoo them. 

Some will object that foreign involvement would compromise the dissidents, affording Putin propaganda openings.  The short answer is that he is already making this point, and will continue, whatever we say or do.  Our metric should be whether the dissidents themselves value outside help.  Most likely, their cost-benefit analysis will welcome the assistance more than they fear Putin’s anti-American rhetoric.  Russians have heard it all before.  

What follows the Putin regime is ultimately the most critical question. Russians are already considering their options, as they should, since it is primarily their task to form a successor government.(  Enough mistakes were made after the Soviet Union dissolved that humility in future planning this round is fully warranted, and highlights why immediate research and planning is necessary.  

Washington’s obvious strategic objective is having Russia aligned with the West, a fit candidate for NATO, as we hoped after the Soviet Union’s breakup.  Others may be unhappy about such a new Russia.  China can hardly welcome the collapse of a regime that is turning into Beijing’s junior partner, if not an outright satellite.  Chinese efforts to support Putin, even militarily, cannot be ruled out.

While Russian regime change may be daunting, America’s goal of a peaceful and secure Europe, episodically pursued goal for over a century, remains central to our national interests.  This is no time to be shy.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Putin’s resolve hasn’t collapsed. He may be planning his most outrageous gambit yet

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This article first appeared in The Telegraph on August 12th, 2022. Click here to read the original article.

Be prepared for Russia to halt hostilities and exploit European weakness in a brazen attempt to secure many of its objectives 

Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv shortly after its February 24 invasion, kill or overthrow Volodymyr Zelensky, and seize all of Ukraine, will be a landmark case study for future political and military strategists. So will Russia’s subsequent decision to fight a World War I-style offensive, primarily in eastern Ukraine, grinding out a few miles or less in new territorial gains every day. 

And so will the next phase of the war, as summer turns to fall. In all probability, it will depend more on political strategy than military affairs. Unquestionably, the military state of play is a critical variable, but in the coming months of the war, intangible, hard-to-measure, hard-to-predict political variables could have the dispositive role. Accordingly, Nato and other Ukraine supporters must start thinking now (and should have been thinking long before today) about how to prevent Moscow from seizing the diplomatic high ground and bring the conflict to at least a temporary halt on its terms, not Kyiv’s. The next ninety days is a useful time frame, especially in America, with nation-wide congressional elections looming on November 8. 

At present, Russia is still fighting its excruciatingly slow and painful style of offensive operations, almost entirely in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Absent dramatic changes in the next ninety days, there will be no daring Russian armor attacks, no effective use of air power, and no significant, newly-initiated, cross-border incursions. In American football, this ground-game strategy is called “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Moscow’s casualties have been high, debilitating logistical and personnel problems persist, domestic public opinion is mixed and uncertain at best, and international sanctions have strained (albeit not visibly altered) the Kremlin’s war effort. 

Ukraine appears to be readying a “southern strategy”, perhaps aimed to retake Kherson and to punch through the current lines to reach the Black Sea near Mykolaiv, thereby severing direct Russian land access from the Donbas to Crimea and adjacent territories. US, UK, and other Nato deliveries of high-end weapons are finally entering into significant usage on Ukraine’s front lines, although not at levels and in time-lines Kyiv’s military would like. Ukraine has kept a generally effective lid on disclosing its actual military casualties, but these may well be higher than generally understood in the popular Western imagination. And casualties among affected civilian populations, not to mention property and infrastructure destruction in the most contested regions, have been substantial. 

Accordingly, one entirely possible scenario, perhaps even the most likely, is that the war simply grinds on, with no discernible end point, certainly not in the next ninety days. This, however, is where Russia’s political calculations may be dispositive. Before and during the conflict, the West has repeatedly underestimated Russia’s long-term resolve and its cost-benefit analysis about its gains and losses. Eager to personalise “Putin’s war” to show its purported domestic Russian unpopularity, Western leaders have failed to see how widespread – and how deep – is Russian feeling that Ukraine and other former Soviet republics were illegitimately torn away from the rodina, the motherland. People may tire from reading Putin’s 2005 view, but this is his core belief: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” 

Minimizing the loss of “historical Russia”, in turn, leads to underestimating the Kremlin’s willingness to suffer what seem to foreign observers to be disproportionately high casualties for relatively modest territorial gains. It may also help explain why Russia’s war of attrition is acceptable to Moscow where it might not be in the West. In America’s Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was harshly criticised (called a “butcher” by some) for his 1864-65 campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as was William Tecumseh Sherman for his 1864 “march to the sea” from Atlanta to Savannah. Grant’s war of attrition against Lee and Sherman’s swath of destruction brought the secessionists to final defeat, the Union’s blunt strength crushing the Confederacy. Similarly, in the 1939-1940 “Winter War” with Finland, Moscow also bled profusely, but persevered to victory. 

So, there should be no surprise that Russia’s resolve has not collapsed. Nonetheless, Putin can certainly see the risk that sufficient supplies of sophisticated weapons and other war materiel from Nato in Ukraine’s hands will jeopardise the gains Russian forces have made to date. Putin also knows that support for Ukraine in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, is not what Nato leaders make it out to be, and that President Biden’s actions (as opposed to rhetoric) during the conflict have hardly been consistent with deep resolve. Finally, signs of disagreements within Ukraine’s political leadership are now appearing – not as yet disabling, but increasingly visible nonetheless. 

Russia thus has a difficult political decision to make. Putin will not want to lose opportunities to retake more Ukraine territory, especially since he is far from his initial goals. Even more importantly, however, he does not want to be caught with Russian forces in broad retreat, where any diplomatic effort would be taken as a sign of weakness. Westerners who believe Putin is inadequately aware of the human and material costs suffered by Russia’s military are kidding themselves; he knows all too well he needs a respite if he can get one on his terms. 

In such circumstances, Russia’s best option may be this. In the next ninety days, Putin announces, with a straight face despite its obvious falsity, that the Kremlin has achieved its objectives. Accordingly, he has ordered all offensive military operations halted, demands Ukraine do the same, and calls for immediate ceasefire negotiations to establish an agreed line-of-control between the forces. Putin will have to grit his teeth to do this, but he knows that a cease fire will give Russia time, years perhaps, to rebuild its military, restore its economy, and perhaps reabsorb more pliant, weaker parts of the Russian empire, from Belarus to Central Asia. 

Moscow will be calculating that it can catch Kyiv unaware. Obviously and understandably, Zelensky, left to his own devices, would flatly reject halting the conflict with Russia still holding perhaps 25 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. He knows full well that any purported “cease-fire line” could become the new Russia-Ukraine border. Unfortunately, Zelensky may not be in a position to give a “Snake Island” response. 

Without a prior agreed-upon diplomatic strategy with Nato, optimally from now forward, Zelensky is vulnerable to political weakness in the United States and key European Union members, which Putin knows and is prepared to exploit. Winter is coming, as they say. Germany and much of Europe are deeply concerned about Russia’s considerable leverage over their energy supplies. And, let’s be honest, many Western Europeans are tired of this war. Continuing economic turbulence, whether inflation, recession or both, only reinforces the angst that, in just 6-9 months, this has become an “endless war” that needs ending. Proclaiming the need for humanitarian relief in war-torn Ukraine, they would seize the chance of a “cease fire” to return to pre-February 24 relations with Russia. 

Ukraine and Nato need diplomatic agreement now against this pre-emptive Russian ploy, which may rapidly gain the initiative regardless of battlefield developments. Indeed, in the coming weeks, Russia’s inclination to spring a “cease fire in place” will increase as its prospects for substantial further military gains recede. 

The most important element of a Western counter-strategy will be to make clear at once that all sanctions against Russia will remain in place until the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory. Eliminating the sanctions is central to any Russian expectation of reviving its economy and military, thereby to reinitiate hostilities at some future point. If sanctions looked to be effectively permanent until full Ukrainian sovereignty was restored, Putin’s gambit would fall at the first hurdle. Many other issues, including reparations, prisoners of war and accountability also need resolving, but the key point is to stop Russia from consolidating its territorial gains through a scam, unilateral “ceasefire”. 

Will France and Germany agree to such a counter-strategy? Will Biden be so weak before the November elections that he will jump at the chance for a diplomatic “win” to enhance Democratic prospects on November 8? Achieving real Nato unity on a hardline political stance against Russian efforts to split the West and leave Ukraine in peril will require considerable heavy lifting. Now is the time to start, and underlines why a new government in London, as resolute on Ukraine as Boris Johnson, is so critical. 

The Case For American Leadership

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This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner on June 27th, 2022. Click here to see the original article.

This week, President Joe Biden attends the G-7 summit in Germany and a NATO summit in Spain. 

These meetings of the free world’s major economic powers and its paramount political-military alliance are particularly significant. America and its allies, seeking recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, have spent their way into dangerous inflation and the face grim prospect of an imminent recession. NATO is engaged in proxy military hostilities with Russia in Ukraine as Europe’s worst land war since 1945 grinds on, producing death, destruction, and global economic consequences. Looming above all else is China, the existential threat for the West’s foreseeable future. 

In Henry Luce’s “American Century” (his 1941 aphorism), these diverse, menacing circumstances evoked calls for U.S. leadership to solve the West’s problems. Such calls still ring out today, but few seem to know what they mean. In the United States, the low-grade infection of isolationism persists, questioning why events in the wider world should concern us so much. Ironically, this skepticism is reinforced by reflexive demands for “leadership” that prize heading the parade without actually knowing where the parade is going. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate to consider what “American leadership” means and why we have it. 

We should dispense first with the myth that from independence, America had an almost entirely domestic focus, emerging only reluctantly into international affairs in World War I. Hardly. Transforming 13 weak colonies into a transcontinental giant was no mere domestic affair, marked as it was by foreign conflicts — starting with the undeclared 1798-1800 Quasi-War with France and against Barbary pirates in 1801-1805, as well as huge territorial expansion, culminating in 1900 with U.S. control over distant lands such as Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines. 

This is not the history of an insular, inward-looking people but the most successful and enduring expansion since ancient Rome. The immeasurable economic capabilities resulting from territorial growth, the flood of immigrants to America, and our determination to maintain free, constitutional, representative government, along with soaring trade, travel, and communications, created the basis on which modern U.S. leadership rests. Three hot wars in Europe in less than a century, starting with the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War, followed by the Cold War, did the rest, decimating Europe and ending its global empires. 

China’s empire is now the last one standing. Nostalgia for quieter times internationally has been out of date for at least a century. The issue today is whether to continue the way of life we now enjoy by acting in our own interests, together with friends and allies, to protect against common threats. It is a false choice to think we can turn away from the rest of the world and bear no consequences domestically for doing so. We exercise international leadership because we thereby better protect America’s interests, not because we feel charitable toward others. We can choose to abandon U.S. interests, as some advocate, but make no mistake: No one else will protect them for us. The absence of American global leadership produces not greater stability but either growing anarchy or the emergence of hostile powers seeking to advance their interests to our disadvantage. 

President Biden should demonstrate this week that America is still capable of providing leadership to confront unprovoked aggression, whether from Russia or China; handle our economies responsibly, undistracted by fanciful economic theories and social ideologies; and strategize on global challenges ahead. Whether Biden is capable of so doing is entirely another question, and his record does not provide much confidence. 

NATO is not as allied with Ukraine as the president’s rhetoric suggests; he apparently has no idea that heedless expansion of the money supply has created the inflation now endangering the global economy, and whether he understands the China threat remains to be seen. The real test of U.S. leadership lies not in international diplomatic theatrics, but in hard battles over seemingly mundane, often mind-numbing subjects like the federal budget. One such ongoing struggle is over the size of our defense budget, which has suffered for 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lulled into spending the “peace dividend” in non-defense areas, the West’s ability to deter and resist growing global threats has not kept pace. 

Even as domestic government spending needs drastic reductions to combat inflation, we also need a significant increase in defense capabilities across the full spectrum of military threats. The 2024 presidential contest has already begun. It is not too soon, during 2022’s congressional campaigns, to debate not just budget numbers but America’s place in the world and why our international leadership benefits us and our allies. Our greatest strength is not our political leaders but the people themselves. Treated like adults by politicians, we are fully capable of doing what is required to safeguard our way of life. Let’s see which candidates grasp that reality. There we will find the next president. 

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2006, he was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. 

Biden must decide what ‘victory’ in Ukraine means — and if he’ll do what it takes to win it

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This article appeared in The New York Post on May 5th 2022. Click here to view the original article.

President Joe Biden’s responses to Russia’s attack on Ukraine comprise a series of failures.

First, he failed to deter the invasion itself, the devastating consequences of which are unfolding daily. Second, US intelligence grossly overestimated Russia’s military competence, briefing Congress that Kyiv would fall in days and the whole country in weeks.

Third, US and allied assistance has repeatedly been behind the curve, with Ukraine saved primarily by its own soldiers’ grit and Russian military ineptitude.

Congress is nearing approval of $40 billion in new aid. Many now talk not merely of “saving” Ukraine but of “victory.” Of course, it would be helpful to know what we mean by that.

Without defining our objectives (and Ukraine’s) more precisely, we will remain in today’s semi-coherent muddle, even as we enter what Ukraine’s defense minister calls a “new, long phase of the war.”

Moscow’s unprovoked aggression launched a war primarily about territory. President Vladimir Putin and many Russians believe Ukraine and other Soviet territories were illegitimately sundered from the rodina, Mother Russia, and they want them back. Ukrainians, with equal passion and far more justification, want full sovereignty and territorial integrity, as mutually agreed among all Soviet republics when the USSR dissolved on Dec. 31, 1991.

Defining “victory” is becoming more urgent. Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to consider an immediate cease-fire, which Moscow undoubtedly saw as a sign of weakness. At a minimum, before negotiations start, we should know what we are negotiating for, which at the moment we do not.

Importantly, defining “victory,” or at least agreeing upon a common set of Ukrainian-NATO goals, is where allied unity is most likely to fracture irreparably.

Putin knows this for a certainty. The veneer of alliance unity, incessantly touted by the Biden administration and its media scriveners, already conceals enormous differences in the strategy and implementation of both economic sanctions and military assistance.

While acceptably resolving the conflict requires settling many contentious issues — Russian reparations and accountability and Russia’s post-conflict relations with the West to name a few — the major dispute is over territory and sovereignty. We can predict, as can Putin, that many of our “allies” will perform poorly during the negotiations. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, himself revealed that French President Emmanuel Macron pressured himlast week to cede Ukrainian territory to Russia so Putin could save face. Zelensky, quite properly, refused.

The combatants’ opening positions are clear. Russia will insist on uti possidetis (roughly, “keep what you hold”), with each side maintaining control of the territories they respectively dominate on the day hostilities stop (whether by unilateral action or mutual cease-fire).

That will be the Kremlin’s position in any short-term cease-fire — and for the long term, in effect permanently. Indeed, this reality underlines why Russia will likely keep grinding away militarily, still hoping to increase the total territory seized since February 24.

Whatever the terms of any cease-fire, Ukraine will surely insist on quickly regaining sovereignty and territorial integrity over its borders as of the USSR’s dissolution, thus requiring Russia to withdraw both from areas seized since February and those taken in 2014, including Crimea. As of now, Zelensky sees no reason to accept anything less.

The United States should endorse Ukraine’s position, which is, indeed, what we have theoretically asserted since 2014. Implementing that position, however, implies that we provide weapons and intelligence assets not simply to stop Russian advances but to retake considerably more lost ground than Ukraine has achieved to date.

Yet it is far from clear that Biden believes in victory or accepts the necessary implications. He personally decided against transferring Polish MiGs to Ukraine, fearing that doing so would be “escalatory.” Ukrainian pilots, though, no longer want MiGs but American F-15s and F-16s and appropriate training. Is Biden prepared for that?

What happens in future negotiations is unknowable, but it would be a significant blow to American credibility globally to come as close as Ukraine has to defeating a superpower only to give away at the negotiating table what has been won at such a high cost on the battlefield. We do not have forever to make up our minds.

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump, 2018-’19, and US ambassador to the United Nations, 2005-’06.

Twilight of Turkish Democracy

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This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on April 22nd 2022. Click here to view the original article.

Turkish democracy has reached a turning point. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decade strongman rule has reversed his country’s progress toward a liberal society. On April 6, the Turkish President secured the passing of new electoral laws that will make it more difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament, thereby inhibiting opposition coalitions and allowing him to use state resources to organize his own campaign events. These changes will make it harder for opponents to challenge Erdogan’s tightening grip on the Turkish electoral system. 

As Erdogan prepares to run for re-election in the coming year, the importance of a vibrant and functioning Turkish civil society cannot be overstated. And it could not be more at risk. 

These changes are the latest in a string of moves designed to dismantle what remains of Turkey’s once-promising democratic architecture. Erdogan’s authoritarianism has galvanized resistance in the form of an opposition coalition — the “Nation Alliance” led by the Republican People’s Party — while the dire state of the economic, social, and political situation in Turkey has catalyzed vibrant anti-government protests against inflation and for women’s rights and academic freedom. 

The June 2023 elections will be a crucial test for pro-democracy voices in Turkey to rebuild their institutions. Their success will depend on their ability to bolster Turkey’s most at-risk hallmarks of free and fair elections: transparency, non-interference in voting, loser’s consent, and a free press. 

They face an uphill battle. President Erdogan’s regime has curtailed media access, undermined an open campaign process (though bribery, intimidation, and violence), and is now seeking to further obfuscate the voting process through blatantly undemocratic reforms. 

Erdogan’s campaign to degrade free media has made Turkey one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The government now controls 90% of the country’s media through regulatory bodies like the High Council for Broadcasting; the Press Advertising Council, which allocates state advertising; and the Presidential Directorate for Communications, which issues press cards. 

Under Erdogan, censorship laws have also been wielded as a weapon against online political discourse. A 2020 media law imposes requirements on social media platforms to remove content at the command of the Turkish government or else risk punitive fines. Facebook and Twitter have submitted to Turkish government censorship, closing another avenue for healthy political discourse among Turkish voters. 

Outside of media and online discourse, civil rights activism in general has been targeted by Erdogan’s regime. Reporters Without Borders has said that “questioning authorities and the privileged is now almost impossible” under Erdogan. Opposition parties are also increasingly persecuted by the regime, making effective political resistance increasingly difficult. In 2021, the state Prosecutor argued that the pro-Kurdish HDP party was working toward breaking the “unity of the state.” The Constitutional Court forced the closure of the party and banned 451 elected officials. These most recent reforms take further aim at the opposition, legalizing the use of state resources when the President is campaigning for himself while other ministers will be barred from doing the same. 

In prior elections, Erodgan’s government has conducted systematic campaigns of intimidation. In Ankara, a local election was marred by claims of vote-rigging. Kurdish communities in particular face acts of intimidation and voter suppression. The government militarizes voting centers in the Kurdish region, claiming the security forces must “protect” against the threat of attacks by Kurdish terrorists. The People’s Democratic Party reported that political activities were banned from organizing in the streets. Under threat of intimidation by the state, Kurds are stripped of their right to vote freely. 

In 2019, in what may prove a premonition of the 2023 elections, Erdogan showed that he is willing to directly interfere with democratic processes to try to cling to power. 

He commanded that the Higher Electoral Commission rerun the Istanbul mayoral election after his party lost in spite of systematic irregularities that had actually worked in its favor. Despite his best efforts to intervene, his party also lost the re-run. The subsequent blowback shows it is not a foregone conclusion that Erdogan can get away with electoral interference in 2023. 

The global pandemic and war in Ukraine have precipitated economic volatility and internal political turmoil. However, the free world cannot lose sight of the importance of Turkey’s upcoming elections, which will be watched by many of the world’s autocrats in waiting, keen to find out what they can get away with. Erdogan has systematically undermined every one of Turkey’s major democratic institutions to create a deeply skewed playing field. Holding his regime to account requires coordinated action from the international community, illumination of his thuggish tactics to suppress political minorities, and real consequences should he fail to make meaningful progress to restore civil discourse within Turkey. 

Progress here means releasing imprisoned journalists to restore some semblance of a free press, allowing NGOs to effectively monitor the upcoming election, and cessation of hostilities against and censorship of opposing political voices. The international community should wield sanction power (as it has against Russia), turn-off foreign military sales, and level severe consequences should Erdogan fail to achieve these objectives. 

John Bolton is a former UN ambassador and White House National Security Adviser. He serves as an advisor for the Turkish Democracy Project.