The real reason Putin played a pussycat during the Trump presidency

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Republicans have long had a toughness fetish. Going back to the early days of the Cold War, its flip side has been the insinuation that Democrats are weaklings ready to sell out the country to its enemies, with the GOP eager to serve proudly and unapologetically as America's lone defenders abroad.

No one should be surprised that the script has already been updated to account for recent distressing events on the border separating Russia and Ukraine.

Late last week, conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt observed in a tweet that "the tyrant Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and will do so again in 2022 but did not do so between 2017 and 2020." Without mentioning his name, Hewitt implied Putin became a pussycat because of Donald Trump's steadfast leadership as president.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

But wait — wasn't Trump Putin's lapdog for the entirety of his presidency, famously refusing to say anything remotely critical about him and even siding with Putin's denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election against evidence provided by America's own intelligence services?

No doubt realizing the absurdity of the claim, National Review's Rich Lowry (and others) leapt in a few days later to add a layer of nuance to the assertion. It's not that Trump was tougher than President Biden, but that he was more erratic: "The sheer unpredictably of Trump, his anger at being defied or disrespected, his willingness to take the occasional big risk (the Soleimani strike), all had to make Putin frightened or wary of him in a way that he simply isn't of Joe Biden."

There may be some truth in this revision of the thesis. Trump was indeed volatile, impulsive, and capricious. It's certainly possible that Putin feared a move against Ukraine could spark a massive military response from Trump.

But it's far more likely he hoped for something very different. As Jonathan Last pointedly suggested on Tuesday in his newsletter for The Bulwark, Trump expressed his desire on numerous occasions for the United States to withdraw from NATO altogether. He did so while campaigning for president in 2016. He did so as president. And apparently, he even made clear to advisers he hoped to make it a reality after he won re-election in 2020.

Since such a withdrawal is Putin's fondest wish, it makes far greater sense to suppose his relative restraint during the Trump presidency was a function of a reasonable expectation he might get everything he wanted without having to fire a shot. Only now, with a less … unorthodox American president in charge, has war become Putin's only means of advancing his more immediate aim of ensuring NATO moves no closer to Russian territory.

Putin didn't play nice guy from 2017 to 2020 because he was afraid of Donald Trump. He did so because he knew he had nothing to fear from the fanboy in the Oval Office.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.