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Opinion: MAGA’s gift to Putin

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — When Donald Trump became president in 2017, Russians popped champagne corks across Moscow, secretly and publicly. Trump’s victory, they believed, would be beneficial for the Kremlin. Today, the bubbly must be flowing again. Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t even have to wait until the 2024 election and Trump’s possible return to the White House to have cause for celebration.

Trump is already proving fantastically useful for Putin.

The former president and his MAGA loyalists are wrapping up an invaluable gift for the Russian leader just in time for the second anniversary of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With every passing day it looks like they’re going to force the United States to break its word and all but abandon Ukraine – along with other war-torn regions and Indo-Pacific defense.

For a moment, it looked like the US Congress would behave responsibly. It was odd that urgently needed aid for Ukraine was included in a border security bill. But the bill, painstakingly negotiated and containing almost everything Republicans had demanded to deal with a crisis at the border, was suddenly torpedoed by Trump’s Republican allies.

Never mind that MAGA activists had spent years suggesting nothing mattered more than controlling the border. Never mind that the legislation imposes the toughest restrictions in decades. Never mind that it includes the support that Ukraine needs to fight a war that is of vital importance to the United States and its allies, along with funding for Israel’s war against Hamas, humanitarian aid for Gaza, and funding for operations in the Red Sea, where the Iran-backed Houthis are launching missiles at ships and near Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by China.

No, the bill was declared dead by Trump’s allies because the former president decided it was bad for him.

Trump has made it clear that he wants chaos at the border, so he can campaign on the issue, blaming Biden. Solving it, he said, would be a “gift” to Democrats.

For Trump, the worse things are in the United States, the better his chances of capitalizing on discontent and portraying Biden’s administration as a failure. That’s why he said he hopes a recession, an economic “crash,” happens before the end of the year.

It’s an astonishingly cynical tactic for a man trying to convince voters to put him in charge. It may or may not work at the polls, but it’s already turning policy-making into a deliberately counterproductive mess. Incredibly, he expects his supporters in Congress to vote against bills that they believe would benefit their country. It’s the reverse of patriotism.

Trump’s congressional toadies quickly fell into line even before they saw the border bill. And after he threatened anyone who supported it with the “end of their career,” many Republicans who might have wanted to support it quietly peeled away.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) declared himself “gobsmacked” by the result. Republicans got everything they demanded, he wrote on X, then they “killed it.” 

Barring a miracle, the legislation is doomed and with it, very likely, the prospects for substantial US aid for Ukraine.

Imagine the joy in Moscow!

CIA Director Bill Burns earlier this year described abandoning Ukraine as a mistake of “historic proportions.”

Former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney noted the long-term repercussions. “On Trump’s orders,” she wrote on X, Republicans are not just discarding the border security deal – they’re also abandoning America’s allies in Ukraine. “Trump and the (GOP) are losing the war on purpose in an inexcusable betrayal that will strengthen America’s enemies for years to come,” she added.

The machinations of Trump and his allies are turning the United States into a weaker, less respected force in the world. The country looks dysfunctional and unreliable, incapable of solving its problems and keeping its word even on matters of the greatest urgency.

If Trump’s main reason for sabotaging the border security deal has been perpetuating a problem that hurts Biden, hurting Ukraine and helping Russia doesn’t exactly run counter to what he has told us about his views.

It’s not just that he’s found it so difficult to express any criticism of Putin, or that when Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 Trump gushed, calling Putin’s moves “genius … pretty savvy!” (Although he later did condemn the invasion, somehow blaming Biden for it.)

When asked in a CNN town hall last year if he wanted to see Ukraine win, he dodged the question, boasting that he would end the war “in one day; 24 hours” and complaining that the US was giving too much ammunition to Kyiv.

The statement was almost universally interpreted as signaling the end of US support followed by pressure on Ukraine to give up land to the Russian invaders if he became president.

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky called Trump’s statements “very dangerous.”

With a none-too-subtle sign that the way for a Putin victory would be eased if Trump wins, there’s little incentive for Putin to wind up the war anytime soon.

Supporters of aid to Ukraine (and Israel) are not giving up. There’s talk of a separate bill of aid for Ukraine, but Trump’s supporters have echoed his skepticism. A standalone bill on Israel aid was already introduced, but it hasn’t made much headway.

Western support for Ukraine is not selfless. NATO members – especially those previously subjugated by Moscow – believe if Ukraine loses, Russia would be emboldened to attack them. Just this week, an assessment by Denmark’s intelligence service concluded it’s very likely that Russia intends to use “military force” against NATO. Moscow, it said, wants to increase its presence in the Baltic Sea and has raised its willingness to take risks.  Trump, a NATO skeptic, has cast doubt on his willingness to have the US defend its NATO allies.

This is the Russia that some MAGA members are embracing. Tucker Carlson, the disgraced former Fox provocateur, is in Moscow now interviewing Putin. Russian media are giving him breathless celebrity treatment. No wonder. Carlson, whom Trump has previously said he’d consider as a potential vice president, parroted Putin’s fabricated talking points to justify his invasion of Ukraine, as did other members of MAGA’s far-right media.

As Trump derails aid, Ukraine’s once-vaunted resistance of the Russian invaders is faltering. Ukrainians are still fighting bravely and achieving some spectacular wins, but they are fast running out of ammunition. The failure to replenish their arsenal is causing more casualties.

More Ukrainians are dying, it’s safe to say, as the result of the shameful turn of events on Capitol Hill.

Ukrainians are stepping up their production of drones and artillery pieces, and Europe is trying to fill the gap. The European Union just approved $50 billion in additional aid; the Netherlands just pledged to send more fighter jets, and European countries are rushing to expand production, but that takes time.

The US holds by far the world’s largest military arsenal. Without Washington’s help for a fledgling democracy that is confronting what is arguably the most aggressive of America’s foes, Russia could emerge victorious.

For the United States, its democratic allies, and global stability, that would have immeasurably damaging consequences.

For Putin and his regime, no amount of champagne would be enough to do justice to the significance of that win.

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