Donald Trump still has the capacity to shock even seasoned observers of American politics. And he did just that when he responded to Russian aggression toward Ukraine by praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactical “genius.” Displaying his unique brand of international solidarity, Trump joined a right-wing radio show on Tuesday and hailed Putin’s announcement that he would send Russian troops into Ukraine as “peacekeepers.”
Trump’s not concerned about peace, of course. If he were, he would be hailing the anti-war demonstrators who oppose Putin’s actions and celebrating the brave resistance to the war by the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta, where editor Dmitry Muratov and the staff decided to print their next edition in both Russian and Ukrainian. “We will never recognize Ukraine as an enemy, or the Ukrainian language as the enemy’s language,” said Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. “Finally, only the anti-war movement of Russians, in my opinion, can save life on this planet.”
Muratov is wise in his assessment of the strikingly large protests that have broken out in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities. They are significant and have inspired another form of international solidarity from officials and activists with long histories of criticizing US foreign policy, including many who joined the mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq 19 years ago. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is among those who have stepped up to hail the anti-war protesters who, despite police crackdowns on protests and arrests of anti-war activists such as Marina Litvinovich, have rejected the notion that Putin’s imperial ambitions are the stuff of “genius.”
Needless to say, that’s not what Trump and his compatriots are doing. Instead of standing on principle, they are busy apologizing for—and, in some cases, explicitly embracing—the excesses of the oligarchs and strongmen they are so prone to admire. Trump, a former commander in chief, went to the most jaw-dropping extremes, with a cavalier celebration of Putin’s plan to “keep peace” by invading a sovereign country.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine…as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent, a large section of Ukraine,” the former president told radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton. “I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy. I know him very well. Very, very well.”
Trump’s amen corner in conservative media, and in much of the Republican Party, echoed his line, which went soft on Putin and tough on Biden. Complaining about President Biden’s efforts to rally opposition to the Russian invasion, Ohio Republican US Senate candidate J.D. Vance said, “We’re talking about a border 5,000 miles away between Ukraine and Russia. That’s what our leaders are focused on. If we had leaders half as concerned about their own border as they were about the Ukraine-Russia border, we would not have a border crisis in this country.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson ripped into the Biden administration’s criticisms of the Russians and griped, “Hating Putin has become the central purpose of America’s foreign policy.”
Trump and his acolytes are revealing themselves as allies of oligarchs in Russia and the United States—and of the wars they initiate.
Contrast their statements with the position taken by Americans who have consistently opposed this country’s wrongheaded wars and who now oppose Russia’s wrongheaded war. Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and US diplomat who resigned in protest over the US invasion of Iraq, recounted that as many as 1,600 Russians have been arrested for protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just as Americans were arrested when they protested against the Iraq invasion in March, 2003. “The citizens of the United States and citizens of Russia don’t want war. However we keep having leaders that seem to think they can get away with war and they do!” observed Wright on Thursday, as she highlighted the role of anti-war demonstrators who “hit the streets with signs and banners with our concern so leaders and media see visible opposition to war.”
The anti-war demonstrators in Moscow and St Petersburg, who hit the streets shouting “No to war!” were undoubtedly seen by Putin. And they were seen by Americans who recognize the necessity, and the bravery, of their activism.
The anti-war mobilizations drew praise from progressive unions in the United States, such as National Nurses United, and from artists such as Molly Crabapple, who has amplified messages from Russian activists and declared, “Every invasion is a crime. US in Iraq. Turkey in Afrin. Israel in Lebanon. Russia in Ukraine.”
Environmentalist Bill McKibben retweeted video of anti-war marchers in Moscow and said, “I deeply admire, and fear for, these brave people. Before Americans start complaining about rising gas prices, we should think hard about their courage.”
The marchers drew high praise from Bernie Sanders, who was in the forefront of advocating for diplomacy before the invasion, who raised concerns about NATO expansion when few others did, and who continues to champion efforts to de-escalate tensions. Like other critics of Trump, the senator decried the former president’s “genius” talk, saying, “It is outrageous, if unsurprising, that Trump would praise Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine as an act of ‘genius.’ It should concern us all that Putin is exactly the kind of leader Trump would like to be, and that so few Republicans have the courage to say this out loud.”
Sanders emphasized the need for “serious sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs, including denying them access to the billions of dollars that they have stashed in European and American banks.” And the Vermont senator highlighted the bravery of anti-war protesters across Ukraine and Russia, noting how “even as the Ukrainian people are bravely resisting this aggression, anti-war protests have taken place in 40 different Russian cities, and at least 1,000 Russian citizens have been arrested for opposing the war.”
“Today, I stand in solidarity with those people” added Sanders. “In an authoritarian country like Russia, protest is an act of enormous courage.”
The senator, along with US anti-war leaders and activists who have recognized the Russian protests, is speaking a vital truth that Donald Trump will never understand. If there is genius to be found in Russia today, it is not in the suites of Putin and the oligarchs. It is on the front page of Novaya Gazeta, and it is on the streets where anti-war protesters gather.