Editorial: If Trump were still president, where would Ukraine be today?

Ukraine’s stunningly successful counteroffensive against Russian invaders in recent days is cause for hope, even exhilaration, not just for Ukrainians but also for freedom-loving peoples around the world. It would have been hard to imagine just a few short weeks ago that the lumbering Russian army would be faltering badly, and yet that seems to be what’s happening.

Seizing the initiative in the 7-month-long war, Ukrainian forces claim to have liberated more than 2,000 square milesof territory in the northeastern region of the country, including strategically important towns. Russian soldiers are pulling on pilfered civilian clothes and pedaling away on stolen bikes in a panicked dash for Russian-held territory, according to reports. They’re leaving behind military vehicles, weapons and supplies, not to mention several thousand dead comrades. Most military experts seem to agree that for now, at least, Vladimir Putin is losing his “war of choice.”

Yes, there’s reason for hope, and yet hope must be tempered by the sober reality of war. An old baseball superstition comes to mind: Never pack up the equipment until the very last out. Ukraine’s David vs. Goliath struggle with a ruthless foe is likely still in the middle innings.

Except for more than a 100,000 Ukrainians who have found refuge in this country, Ukraine’s desperate struggle seems far away. And yet, miles do not measure cords of connection. Putin’s “cold war” tactic against the European Union, cutting off natural gas supplies as winter sets in, affects energy prices in our own country. Even Texas, the nation’s leading natural gas-producing state, has felt the effects of higher prices.

Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products influences food prices worldwide; it also results in serious shortages for impoverished nations, particularly in Africa. And, of course, our ongoing military support of the Ukrainian effort is costing us billions.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is teaching us a valuable lesson. As the besieged nation holds on, we are learning that the presumed strength of autocrats is deceptive. Putin, of course, is the model, but he has his imitators around the world. He has his admirers in this country, as well, where MAGA faithful see in former President Donald J. Trump a Putinesque autocrat this nation needs. Never mind that the former president has little patience with the difficult, deliberative obligations of a democracy; for his mobilized base, that’s the secret of his success.

Imagine if MAGA’s man — and Putin’s pal — were still in the White House. Lacking both the ability or the inclination to organize an alliance of western European nations, he would have wreaked unholy havoc on Ukraine’s existential struggle to survive. Imagine if there had been no intelligence sharing, no economic sanctions, no massive infusion of weapons, no declaration of united moral purpose. If Trump were still president, it’s likely that Ukraine already would have buckled, despite the heroic efforts of the Ukranian people and their unlikely leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy (the man our former president basically tried to extort). If our 45th president had won a second term, Russia’s brutal dictator, an inspiration to autocrats from Belarus to Brazil, would be looking for new nations to conquer.

Fortunately, Donald Trump is not in the White House, and if the fates smile kindly on us, he never will be. President Biden’s stance on Ukraine, regardless of what you may think about his other policies, has been strong and steadfast, pledging resources and vowing from the get-go that the United States will defend “every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”

Fortunately, Vladimir Putin is not the latter-day Peter the Great he presumes to be. If he gets what he deserves, he’ll be in the dock of the International Court of Justice one fine day.

He might not, of course, despite our fondest hopes. With his larger store of weapons and ammunition, he can still level Ukrainian towns and cities and inflict misery on civilians. Even if his soldiers refuse to fight in the north, they’re still fighting in the south of the besieged country. If he gets desperate, he could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons or allow the destruction of the nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia.

Anne Applebaum, writing in the Atlantic magazine under the provocative title, “It’s Time to Prepare for a Ukrainian Victory,” acknowledges that victory is now conceivable, if not inevitable. She points out potential land mines on the road back to stability for Ukraine. “A cease-fire imposed too early could be treated, by Moscow, as an opportunity to rearm,” she writes. “Any offer to negotiate could be understood, in Moscow, as a sign of weakness.”

A cease fire and a negotiated end to the fighting is the ultimate objective, but the Ukrainians are not there yet; they are still fighting for their survival. Where they are, for now, was best expressed by Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, as quoted by Applebaum. “We have learned not to be scared,” he told a Kyiv audience a few days ago. “Now we ask the rest of you not to be scared too.”

And where are we? Where is the world’s “beacon of democracy?” Ukraine’s test is immediate. We are approaching a November test and then, two years from now, an even more challenging one in the form of a contentious 2024 presidential election. Will the beacon’s flame flicker? Will it go out? The world watches.