The day before Vladimir Putin sent his army on its murderous rampage into Ukraine that culminated in the recent slaughter of hundreds of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, former president Donald Trump expressed his effusive support for the Russian president. On Feb. 22, he stunned the world by describing the autocratic leader, who had already overseen the murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Chechnya and Syria and annihilated democracy in his own country, as a “genius” and “savvy.”
Trump’s slavish praise of Putin, as he was patently preparing to launch a bloody, full-scale invasion of a pro-American democracy, fits a bizarre pattern of coddling, embracing, and praising Russia’s dictator going back to his early calls for Russian help in providing him with email dirt on Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump’s pro-Putin campaign reached its lowest point when he infamously announced in Helsinki in 2018 that he did not believe the unanimous findings of his own country’s 18 intelligence agencies when they said they had found vast evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Instead, he shocked and dismayed his own country’s intelligence professionals and announced that he trusted the wily former KGB operative Vladimir Putin when he proclaimed his and the Russian intelligence community’s complete innocence.
Trump then went so far as to parrot a Putin-led dezinformatsiya (disinformation) campaign and try to convince Americans that Ukraine had somehow interfered in the election to hurt Hilary Clinton and help his candidacy, not Russia’s infamous cyber-hacking GRU intelligence service.
Hand in hand with Trump’s brazen and consistent praise for the Russian dictator-for-life, whom he described on March 7 as “a friend of mine,” went a campaign to discredit and undermine the democratically elected, anti-corruption leader of Ukraine, Volodoymyr Zelensky. Trump infamously tried to extort President Zelensky into manufacturing dirt on candidate Joe Biden when he secretly halted a bi-partisan Congress-mandated shipment of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine’s hard-pressed frontline forces in 2019. When the Ukrainian leader did not comply to this mafia-style quid pro quo “offer you cannot refuse” from the leader of the world’s most powerful country, an infuriated Trump began to lash out at Zelensky and his nation and said “Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of ‘terrible people.”
All of this signaled to Trump’s friend, Putin, that the American president did not have Zelensky’s back if war broke out. This was because Ukraine, unlike notoriously corrupt Russia (ruled by the world’s richest man, Putin), was somehow “a corrupt country,” and not a frontline ally in the defense of free Europe that was worthy of U.S. support.
But, as the recent horrific images came out of Ukraine of a Russian missile-blasted maternity ward, of a refugee-packed theater with the word “children” written in bold letters on either side of it that was deliberately bombed to bloody ruins by the Russians, and of millions of terrified Ukrainian men, women and children fleeing their burning homes, villages and towns, it seemed that praise for the Russian leader, who had so much innocents’ blood on his hands, would no longer be morally acceptable or politically expedient. After all, Zelensky, who famously refused to be evacuated from his country and rallied the outgunned Ukrainians against the murderous Russian killer of 5,000 people in Mariupol, was seen by the world as a hero in a desperate war against a modern day Hitler.
But, on March 28, Trump doubled down on his praise for the Russian leader, whom President Biden boldly (and correctly) called a “war criminal” and a “butcher,” by smiling and proclaiming to his followers at a rally in Georgia “But they ask me, ‘Is Putin smart?’ Yes, Putin was smart. And I actually thought he was going to be negotiating. I said, ‘That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.” The Russians’ so-called “smart negotiations” in Ukraine have included crushing civilians with tanks, as well as raping girls as young as 14, and executing women for standing up to them.
Trump’s effusive words for admiration for the murderous invader of free Ukraine are an insult to dead Ukrainians and to all Americans who have given their lives fighting Russian/Soviet aggression in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and elsewhere. His unpresidential, sycophantic adoration of an invading dictator are also a far cry from the bold, defiant words of Winston Churchill, whom Trump has compared himself to, when the British Prime Minister united his people in standing up to Hitler’s invasion of free Europe.
As sickening evidence of a massacre of men, women and children emerges from the bloody mass graves of Bucha, including some unbearable pictures of bound civilians who were shot execution-style in the back of the head and others who were raped and tortured before killed by their Russian torturers, it is high time for Trump and his followers to unambiguously condemn Putin as a butcher of civilians and a mass murderer. Having dabbled for five years in coddling the anti-American and anti-democratic Russian leader, the time has come for the party of the great Cold Warrior, Ronald Reagan, to return to its Russian-defying roots and stand united by their party’s paramount leader in Churchillian defiance against a murderous dictator who is no “friend” of America or its core values.
Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of the fieldwork-based book The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest and a history of Russia’s wars with the Chechens titled Inferno in Chechnya. He previously worked for the U.S. Army and CIA in Afghanistan and is a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. His website can be found at: brianglynwilliams.com.