Ohio senator J.D. Vance accused of playing Putin’s game • Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance is auditioning to be former President Donald Trump’s running mate.

And just as Trump has a history of taking positions that align with those of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, Vance’s critics say the Ohio senator’s words about Ukraine must be music to Putin’s ears.

This year, Vance has taken to the New York Times, the Senate floor and even flown to Munich to blast American policy toward Ukraine. He’s voted against support for the beleaguered country. And he’s called for immediate negotiations to end the war.

The problem is, some experts say, the manner in which Vance wants to do all this would only embolden Putin to try to expand Russia’s boundaries and undermine neighboring democracies even further. Past autocrats have been quick to abandon their promises when they decide they want more territory and think they can get away with grabbing it.

“I don’t know whether (Vance is) just naive, or whether he is sinister, but either way, his policies go against the interests of all Americans and all citizens of the free world as it relates to Russia and Ukraine,” said Bill Browder, an American-born investor turned human-rights activist.

Putin repeatedly tried to imprison Browder after he got the U.S. and other western governments to pass sanctions against Russian human-rights abusers. He’s now known as one of Putin’s “fiercest enemies.” 

Vance’s office declined to respond on the record to detailed questions for this story. 

In recent public comments, Ohio’s junior senator conceded that Putin might not be the nicest guy. But Vance said he has more pressing priorities than opposing the Russian president.

“There are a lot of bad guys all over the world, and I’m much more interested in some of the problems in East Asia right now than I am in Europe,” Vance said in February.

What Putin wants

Not only does that cast aside many of the U.S.’s staunchest allies, it completely misunderstands the threat posed by Putin, said Tetiana Hranchak, a Ukrainian researcher who fled Putin’s invasion and now is a visiting scholar at Syracuse University. 

She said that to understand Putin’s goals in Europe, one must understand that he sees himself as a successor to people like Joseph Stalin and Peter the Great. In Putin’s mind, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were a great humiliation at the hands of Russia’s greatest enemy — the United States-led West, Hranchak said.

“Putin is obsessed with three goals: Power. Greatness. Revenge. He’s not interested in democracy. He’s interested in the complete subjugation of other people,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “He wants to create a new Eurasian empire and get even with the Western world and avenge the defeat in the Cold War. He’s trying to separate Europe from the USA and establish his own control of all European countries and it doesn’t matter to him how much it costs.”

In February, when he went to the international security conference in Munich, Vance condemned Putin over the suspicious death of Alexy Navalny, the leader of Russia’s political opposition, whom Putin had imprisoned.

“I’ve never once argued that Putin is a kind and friendly person,” Vance said.

However, Vance has doggedly clung to the policy that Putin probably most wants to hear from a U.S. senator and top candidate for vice president — that the United States should stop paying to help Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion. Vance justifies himself by saying Ukraine’s resistance is futile.

“I go back to this question about ‘abandoning Ukraine,’” Vance said in Munich. “If the package that’s running through the Congress right now, $61 billion of supplemental aid to Ukraine, goes through, I have to be honest to you, that is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield.”

Shared burden

The senator has also argued that Germany and other western European countries aren’t paying their fair share to defend their interests in their corner of the world, thus leaving the United States to shoulder the burden.

“For three years, the Europeans have told us that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to Europe,” Vance said in April. “And for three years, they have failed to respond as if that were actually true. Donald Trump famously told European nations they have to spend more on their own defense. He was chastised by members of this chamber for having the audacity to suggest that Germany should step up and pay for its own defense.”

Trump has long complained that U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization aren’t pulling their weight in the mutual-security alliance. Trump has even threatened to quit NATO altogether.

Putin was undoubtedly delighted at the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal. That’s true in part because Russia fears NATO security guarantees that have crept closer to Russia’s borders, Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote in the New York Times in 2022. In addition, Democracy is a requirement to join NATO, and Putin fears that its presence in his neighborhood threatens his own, undemocratic power, Robert Person, associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy, and Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote in the Journal of Democracy the same year.

And the argument that Germany and other NATO allies aren’t paying their share when it comes to Ukraine is debatable. 

When support for the beleaguered country is considered on a per-capita basis, the United States is only the 16th most-generous country, according to data compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. In addition, Germany in January said it expected to devote 2% of its GDP to defense this year, the notional target that Trump has complained that NATO members not meeting.

Difficult numbers

As he works to become Trump’s No. 2, Vance has argued that Ukraine simply doesn’t have the manpower and the United States doesn’t have the weapons-making capacity to throw out the Russians and restore Ukraine to its 1991 boundaries. The math just doesn’t add up, he argued in an April column published in the New York Times.

“Ukraine needs more soldiers than it can field, even with draconian conscription policies,” Vance wrote. “And it needs more matériel than the United States can provide.”

Kupchan, an expert on European security, said that Vance is likely correct that Ukraine won’t be able ultimately to restore its 1991 boundaries, but that Vance is wrong when he badmouths U.S. support for the country. 

Putin was emboldened to invade Ukraine in early 2022 after the United States and its NATO allies didn’t stand more forcefully against the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

While Ukraine faces daunting numbers, Putin faces bleak math of his own as Russia hemorrhages men and matériel. Calls such as Vance’s to stop U.S. support and try to force Ukraine to make immediate concessions would only embolden Putin, Kupchan said in an interview last month.

“I think that the goal is to wait out the Russians,” Kupchan said. “Now the Russians are waiting us out. They’re waiting for J.D. Vance and Donald Trump and other opponents of aid to Ukraine to win because then (Putin) can have his way with Ukraine.”

Kupchan said that Ukraine should shift to a defensive posture and that at some point, it might have to cede territory in Crimea or its far east to Russia. But the way to get Putin to stick to any deal is to show him that Ukraine and its supporters are in it for the long haul, he said. 

“We need to flip the script,” Kupchan said. “We need to make it clear to the Russian leadership and the Russian people that we have more staying power than they do. Ultimately, the Russians are going to tire of this. They’ve lost somewhere around 350,000 people dead and wounded. This is a war that is imposing very considerable costs on Russia. The key here is to make sure that we convince Putin that we’re going to stay the course. It’s only then that I think you’ll see him cease and desist.”

Future battles

Putin’s program is widely seen as an expansionist one, and if the United States doesn’t pay to help Ukraine resist him there, it could end up paying much, much more to fight him in a place such as Poland.

“If we cut off funding for Ukraine, Putin has a much higher chance of winning,” said Browder, whose dissident lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured and beaten to death in a Russian prison. “And if Putin wins in Ukraine — putting aside the unbelievable, catastrophic humanitarian disaster that would happen — he would move on to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are NATO allies (which the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend.) 

“And then I can imagine somebody like J.D. Vance arguing, ‘We shouldn’t be members of NATO. Why would we go to war with Russia over little countries that most Americans couldn’t find on a map.’ And if he succeeded in that argument, Putin would take those countries and move on to Poland. Poland is a NATO member as well. At that point more reasonable heads would hopefully prevail and say, ‘Well, we have to protect Germany.’”

As it is, said Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States is paying relatively little to support Ukraine.

“The aid that we’re providing is virtually a rounding error in the U.S. defense budget,” he said. “But by providing that aid to Ukraine, we are grinding down the military capability of one of America’s primary adversaries.”

Questionable arguments

In an April speech on the Senate floor, Vance scoffed at fears of an imperial Putin.

“You hear all the time from folks who support endless funding to Ukraine that unless we send resources to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will march all the way to Berlin or Paris,” Vance said. “Well, first of all, this doesn’t make any sense. Vladimir Putin can’t get to western Ukraine. How is he going to get all the way to Paris?”

That ignores, of course, that Ukraine has been able to keep Putin out of its western reaches thanks in large part to support from the United States — support Vance wants to end. When an additional $61 billion in Ukraine funding came to the Senate floor in April, Vance voted against it.

Also in his Senate speech, Vance raised what seemed an odd analogy to U.S. involvement with Ukraine.

“Now, in 2003, I was a high school senior, and I had a political position back then: I believed the propaganda of the George W. Bush administration that we needed to invade Iraq, that it was a war for freedom and democracy, that those who were appeasing Saddam Hussein were inviting a broader regional conflict,” Vance said, explaining that he joined the Marine Corps to serve in the war. “Does that sound familiar to anything that we’re hearing today? It’s the same exact talking points 20 years later with different names.”

Except the facts then and now are vastly different.

In Iraq, the Bush administration whipped up fears of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and undertook an invasion while inspectors were still searching for them. The enterprise foundered because its architects apparently didn’t grasp the immense nation-building they’d have to do with a population that wasn’t thrilled by U.S. presence. Ukraine, by contrast, has a legitimate government begging for U.S. assistance.

Two decades after the U.S. invaded Iraq, President Joe Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine to avoid a “hot” war with nuclear-armed Russia.

Said Browder of Vance’s stance on Ukraine: “I don’t know why (Vance) is doing it, but it’s obviously an intentional and pro-Russian position.” 

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First appeared on ohiocapitaljournal.com

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