On February 16, it was reported that Alexei Navalny, the preeminent figure in Russia’s political opposition, had died in prison. In 2021, Joe Biden threatened Vladimir Putin with “devastating consequences” in such an event. Yet now that it had occurred, he seemed loath to follow up on the admonishment. “That was three years ago. In the meantime, they faced a hell of a lot of consequences,” he said, in reference to sanctions and casualties in the war against Ukraine. Nevertheless, as one author observed, these repercussions “were almost entirely [due to Putin’s] disastrous invasion of Ukraine, rather than [to] his treatment of Russia’s most famous dissident.” In fairness, Biden also stated that the United States was exploring further options for penalizing Moscow. However, the fact that the administration had failed to plan a response to Navalny’s death despite warning signs is itself concerning.

Rhetorically, the commander-in-chief’s response was glaringly tepid. It recalled his infamous comment that the Russian regime might not face major American retaliation if it limited itself to a “minor incursion” into Ukraine. While news of Navalny’s death was initially shocking, the White House’s response makes it disturbingly understandable. Why not dispose of the man, if this is all the pushback one need expect?

Against this backdrop, one might be forgiven for thinking that, despite all Biden’s bluster about confronting the Kremlin, likely Republican nominee Donald Trump would be a better president for the Ukrainians. After all, Trump’s foreign policy was obviously more assertive than Biden’s. Ukraine, somewhat exceptionally, is seen as an area in which the former president could be much more conciliatory than the current one, and might even allow Moscow to triumph. The dilemma arises: should observers give more weight to Trump’s overall foreign-policy record or to his questionable rhetoric towards Russia?

In January, Boris Johnson summed this issue up neatly in his column for the Daily Mail. There was, he wrote, “every chance, under Trump, that the West w[ould] be stronger, and the world more stable.” Trump, Johnson contended, had been far tougher and more effective than both Obama and Biden when confronting Iran, Bashar al-Assad, freeloading NATO allies, and, by implication, other foreign-policy problems. However, Johnson confessed to some degree of concern over what the Republican’s policy towards Ukraine might be. Ultimately, his conclusion from Trump’s past policies was optimistic: “I simply cannot believe that Trump will ditch the Ukrainians.” Mike Pompeo recently made a similar argument, telling an audience in Kiev: “Let the reality of the Trump administration and its policy towards Ukraine suggest to you what the second Trump administration looks like.”

Appeals to Trump’s record are indeed persuasive. The burden of proof is on those who suggest that his policies during a second term would radically differ from the ones he pursued during his first, and is all the heavier because he never misses an opportunity to brag about how he dealt with Putin. Therefore, the possibility that US support for Ukraine would cease during a new Trump presidency appears remote.

Still, the question remains: in his effort to end the conflict in Eastern Europe quickly, would a second Trump administration significantly increase military aid to Ukraine in the hopes of rapidly rolling back Russian gains, or hastily push for a peace treaty allowing Russia to keep most of its captured territory? Johnson’s article makes clear that he believes the former is probable.

Retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg of the Trump-linked America First Policy Institute outlines a significantly different strategy in an op-ed prominently featured on the Institute’s website. Based on Trump’s own comments, Kellogg opines that the presidential hopeful might threaten Putin with unprecedented arms deliveries to Ukraine, but this would serve to facilitate negotiations with the goal of peace following a “ceasefire along the current lines.” While Kellogg’s vision includes “security guarantees” to Ukraine, the prospect of not recapturing occupied territories may be unacceptable to some.

Then again, the Biden administration seems to have no interest in anything more than a stalemate, either. Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies, has chided the president for his half-measures regarding Ukraine, writing that Washington seems not to desire Ukrainian victory at all. Rather, he reasons, the White House likely “wants to force a sordid deal on Kyiv, one in which Ukrainians hand over large parts of their country, including Crimea.” This explains, for him, the administration’s apparent determination to give Ukraine almost no long-range weaponry sufficient to strike targets in places like the Crimean peninsula. Jonathan Sweet and Mark Toth likewise argued, in September 2023, that “Washington still cannot decide if it really wants Ukraine to win.” Sweet and Toth criticized the administration for hyper-focussing on equipping Ukraine with defensive weaponry and failure to provide the “precision deep strike capabilities” needed to push Russian forces back.

Of course, Biden could be bolder as a lame duck during his second term, and thus support Ukraine more vigorously. Yet there seems little reason to expect such a change. After all, the president has been downright reckless in his quest to become the new FDR, his “likely” violation of the Constitution, and his withdrawal from Afghanistan. Timidity did not seem to plague him in those cases. More pertinently, Andrei Piontkovsky and Frederick Starr trace the US government’s weakness in countering Putin back to “the Burns-Sullivan philosophy of appeasement.” The Biden White House’s weakness on Ukraine seems ideological, and thus likely to persist into a second term.

Still, it is a popular truism that Trump’s approach to foreign policy is unpredictable. So how, faced with differing opinions, can we hope to assess what his strategy regarding Ukraine will be? Perhaps the main clue will be the people with whom the former president surrounds himself. It is telling that the famous Project 2025, described as a “presidential transition project” that collects staff for a potential Republican presidency beginning in 2025, works under the watchword “personnel is policy.” 

The identity of Trump’s running mate will be especially significant given how central vice presidents have been to US foreign policy for the past few decades, including during the ex-president’s first term. Supporters of Ukraine should therefore pay heed to Trump’s pick for this post, a choice nearly always announced in either July or August. The best-case candidate from their perspective might be Robert O’Brien, national security adviser from 2019 to 2021. This talented foreign-policy architect has been unequivocal: “We’ve got to win this thing in Ukraine.” O’Brien does not seem to be among Trump’s likeliest choices for vice president but may receive some other job in the real estate tycoon’s next cabinet. It will also be interesting to which positions, if any, figures like Mike Pompeo and Ben Carson are recruited.

If elected, Donald Trump will enter the White House at a decisive time. Mark Galeotti has argued that Western sanctions are creating “bottlenecks” in the Russian economy, with the government taping up the cracks in ways unsustainable in the long run. “Perhaps most strikingly,” he writes, “the 2024 budget is built on the assumption that defense spending can be cut back in 2025.” Hopefully, a second Trump presidency will prove that such hopes were in vain.