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Opinion | Trump’s ‘peace plan’ would mean Ukraine’s defeat

When I read a recent news article by my Post colleagues headlined “Inside Donald Trump’s secret, long-shot plan to end the war in Ukraine,” my thoughts naturally turned to another election in which another Republican presidential candidate was widely reported to have a “secret plan” to end another war. Richard M. Nixon did not actually make that claim himself about the Vietnam War during the 1968 campaign. Instead, he made a vague promise to “end the war and win the peace in the Pacific” and let voters imagine he knew how do that.

Nixon’s strategy, as it turned out, consisted of going to Moscow and Beijing to win over North Vietnam’s principal allies, while dropping hints that he was a “madman” who was willing to use nuclear weapons if Hanoi did not stop fighting. To further increase the pressure on Hanoi, he stepped up bombing of North Vietnam and invaded Cambodia to clear out communist sanctuaries.

None of Nixon’s machinations produced what he promised: “peace with honor.” In 1973, he signed a peace treaty that pulled all remaining U.S. forces out of South Vietnam but allowed North Vietnam to keep between 140,000 and 300,000 of its own troops in the south. A little more than two years later, North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam. The south’s fall demonstrated, for neither the first nor the last time, that the surest way to end any war is for one side to win and the other to lose.

That brings us to the “very stable genius” and his current plans to end the war in Ukraine. If elected again, Trump claims he would end the war in 24 hours, but he has been cagey about how he would pull off this miraculous feat, supposedly so that he could maintain his flexibility to negotiate.

Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, proclaimed after meeting with Trump last month that the former president’s formula was simple and cynical: “He will not give a penny in the Ukraine-Russia war. Therefore, the war will end, because it is obvious that Ukraine cannot stand on its own feet.”

Trump aides told The Post that Orban’s statement, which sounded entirely plausible to me, was “false,” even though Trump has not publicly contradicted it. The aides explained that the presumptive GOP nominee’s actual plan is to push for “Ukraine to cede Crimea and Donbas border region to Russia” in return for an end to the Russian invasion.

If that is Trump’s plan, it is more preposterous than anything Nixon ever contemplated during the Vietnam War. It displays a witches’ brew of arrogance, ignorance and defeatism.

Start with the arrogance: Trump regards himself as the world’s greatest dealmaker despite a long track record, going back at least to 1990 and his first casino bankruptcy, indicating the opposite. As president, he was very good at abrogating treaties — including the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal — but not very successful at negotiating new ones. He announced the Abraham Accords but did not personally negotiate them, as Jimmy Carter did with the Camp David Accords, and he renamed the North American Free Trade Agreement rather than truly renegotiating it. His summits with Kim Jong Un did not produce North Korean denuclearization; Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction program is considerably more advanced now than it was when Trump and Kim met in Singapore in 2018.

Of greatest relevance to the conflict in Ukraine was Trump’s ill-fated attempt to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan. His 2020 deal with the Taliban was as one-sided as Nixon’s Paris peace accords with the North Vietnamese: Trump’s negotiators agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops within 14 months and free 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to become a haven for international terrorists. The Taliban was not required to stop fighting or reconcile with the Afghan government.

Once President Biden had finished pulling all U.S. forces out, the Taliban launched an offensive that led to its swift takeover of the entire country. Trump now calls the exit from Afghanistan the most “embarrassing moment in the history of our country” and tries to blame it all on Biden, but he set the retreat in motion.

There is no reason to suppose Trump would have any greater success in ending the war in Ukraine without betraying U.S. allies. He seems to have fallen for Russian propaganda — which is prevalent on the MAGA right — suggesting that the war in Ukraine is a minor border dispute that can be easily resolved by handing over to Moscow the Russian-speaking regions it covets: Crimea and Donbas. But, even leaving aside the morality of sacrificing another country’s territory to a brutal aggressor, there is no indication that Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin would be satisfied for long with only a small piece of Ukraine.

The current conflict began, after all, with a Russian blitzkrieg aimed at taking Kyiv. That war plan strongly suggests that Putin, who has repeatedly denied that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, wants to control all of Ukraine. Then, in September 2022, Putin annexed four provinces of Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Though Russian forces now control almost all of Luhansk, they occupy only parts of the other provinces. (I recently visited Kherson and met with its Ukrainian governor.) Donetsk is part of Donbas region along with Luhansk, so if Trump were to try to turn over Donbas to Putin, he would be ceding territory that Russia hasn’t actually conquered. Is he even aware of these important details? Doubtful.

Yet even sacrificing Crimea and Donbas would be extremely unlikely to satisfy Putin’s imperial ambitions. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president who is now the deputy chairman of its Security Council, last month unveiled Moscow’s own “peace plan,” which calls for the unconditional surrender of Ukraine and its absorption into Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church, which is a handmaiden of the Putin regime, has declared the conflict in Ukraine a “holy war.”

Even if Putin promises to respect Ukrainian sovereignty as part of a peace deal, there is no reason to accept his assurances at face value. He has a long record of breaking promises and violating treaties, such as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia joined with the United States and Britain to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons. Putin likely would use any cease-fire to ready his forces for another major push on the Ukrainian capital.

It is possible, admittedly, that Putin might eventually abandon his maximalist objectives if he were convinced that his military forces were headed toward defeat. But Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year failed, and Russia is now reportedly readying a major offensive that has the potential to break through Ukrainian lines. The defenders are running critically low on ammunition because Trump’s allies in the House have been blocking the passage of aid to Ukraine. The top U.S. general in Europe warned last week that Russia’s 5-to-1 advantage in artillery shells could soon become 10 to 1 if U.S. aid isn’t forthcoming.

Why on earth would Putin make any concessions now, when he surely thinks he is winning — and he knows that Trump might be back in the White House in less than a year? Trump’s defeatist “peace plan” will only convince Putin that victory is within his grasp. Given Trump’s long record of revering Putin and reviling Ukraine, a Russian victory might be precisely the outcome Trump is seeking to achieve.

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