The Trump-Putin axis will continue to haunt the GOP throughout the war in Ukraine

The longer the savagery of Russian President Vladimir Putin drags on in Ukraine, the more the conflict calls into question Donald Trump's relentless fealty to a man who is increasingly viewed as perpetrating genocide against the Ukrainian people.

The headline of one of Wednesday's lead stories on Politico read, "As Ukraine war intensifies, questions from first Trump impeachment linger."

The story notes that Trump withholding military assistance from Ukraine in exchange for a political favor from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may seem distant, but it has "a direct tie-in to today’s war."

In the piece, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump summarily ousted from the position, says she still harbors many unanswered questions about the entire episode.

But with so many books being written by key Trump administration figures, Yovanovitch expects the truth will out eventually.

“I expect ... that there will be more details forthcoming,” she says.

Indeed, keep 'em coming.

But the basic fact that Trump tried to kneecap Ukraine and Zelenskyy must remain top of mind as Republicans try to blame some fallout from Putin's war, such as higher gas prices, on President Joe Biden. In fact, by acquitting Trump during his first impeachment trial, Republicans blessed Trump's role in weakening Ukraine and emboldening Putin.

But Trump's first impeachment scandal is just one discrete part of an entire “litany of Trump-Russia intersections," as The New York Times put it in a remarkable piece featuring Russia expert and former Trump national security aide Fiona Hill. In a single paragraph, the Times connected these dots:

1. Trump's decades-long pursuit of business opportunities in Moscow.

2. Trump's persistent Putin worship.

3. Trump campaign aide J.D. Gordon weakening support for Ukraine in the GOP's 2016 platform.

4. Gordon dining with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak that same week.

5. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone asking WikiLeaks through a third party to send along forthcoming Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian hackers.

6. Trump announcing: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

7. The Seychelles islands getaway in which military contractor and Betsy DeVos sibling Erik Prince huddled with the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund to establish a pre-inaugural backchannel to Russia.

8. Former Trump 2016 Campaign Chief Paul Manafort sharing internal polling with Russian intelligence operative Konstantin V. Kilimnik.

9. Trump’s mysteriously undocumented two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, after which Trump publicly sided with Putin over the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

10. Trump & Co. spreading Russian disinformation in 2019 asserting that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to help Clinton.

11. Trump’s pardoning of both Manafort and Stone in December 2020.

12. Trump more recently calling Putin a "genius" and soliciting him to release dirt on President Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

That's a succinct dirty dozen, and it's still just the tip of the iceberg. But all of these threads teased out over the course of the last handful of years is exactly why the phrase "Trump-Putin axis" is so resonant, particularly in light of Russia's corrupt war and the unconscionable war crimes Putin is committing in Ukraine.

Fiona Hill: Trump said he wanted more than two terms in the White House—and he wasn’t joking

Fiona Hill is a longtime Russia expert who has repeatedly distinguished herself as someone willing to speak boldly, from the strong warning she offered about Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. democracy during her testimony at Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings to her statement soon after Russia invaded Ukraine that using nuclear weapons would be in character for Vladimir Putin.

Hill’s expertise on Putin—she co-authored a biography of him—inflects her read of Donald Trump, who she was able to observe in detail during her time as senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council in his administration. New York Times Magazine look back at Trump’s treatment of Ukraine highlights an important passage from her recent memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century: “In the course of his presidency, indeed, Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors.”

RELATED STORY: Fiona Hill: Putin tried to warn Trump he would go nuclear, but Trump didn't understand the warning

In the Times piece, Hill offers more thoughts on that basic assessment, describing how “He would constantly tell world leaders that he deserved a redo of his first two years,” because, “He’d say that his first two years had been taken away from him because of the ‘Russia hoax.’ And he’d say that he wanted more than two terms.”

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When interviewer Robert Draper suggests Trump was joking, Hill responded, “Except that he clearly meant it.”

Hill also heard David Cornstein, Trump’s ambassador to Hungary and a longtime friend, say similar things about Trump’s ambitions. “Ambassador Cornstein openly talked about the fact that Trump wanted the same arrangement as Viktor Orban”—the prime minister of Hungary, one of the autocratic leaders Trump so admires—Hill told Draper, “where he could push the margins and stay in power without any checks and balances.” 

But it was the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that fully clarified for Hill who Trump is and what his ambitions are. “I saw the thread,” she told Draper. “The thread connecting the Zelensky phone call to Jan. 6. And I remembered how, in 2020, Putin had changed Russia’s Constitution to allow him to stay in power longer. This was Trump pulling a Putin.”

Yeah. And U.S. institutions and democracy were strong enough to withstand it once, but we can’t afford a second attempt. Especially since, as Hill also told Draper, “Putin has been there for 22 years. He’s the same guy, with the same people around him. And he’s watching everything”—everything that happens through U.S. elections and changing administrations. 

As Hill warned during her impeachment testimony, “President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.” Donald Trump is at this point Putin’s eager ally in doing that.

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Not that we’re surprised, but isn’t failed President Trump even a little sick of himself constantly whining about losing the 2020 presidential election? Okay, I know: He didn’t lose it, it was stolen. He could have been a contender. Blah, blah, blah. 

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But his recent appearance on Real America’s Voice show, Just the News, with hosts John Solomon and Amanda Head was mindboggling even for the twice-impeached ex-president.

Trump didn’t waste time, talking about how the president of Russia, the man who has illegally invaded a free and Democratic-run country, leaving untold Ukrainians dead or refugees, should dig up dirt on his (Trump’s opponent) and now the sitting head of the U.S.

Last time I checked, Putin is not an ally to the U.S. Will the idiocy never end?

“As long as Putin is not exactly a fan of our country, let him explain… why did the [former] Mayor [Yuri Luzhkov] of Moscow’s wife [Elena Baturina] give the Bidens (both of them) $3.5 million,” Trump asks.

“I would think Putin would know that answer to that. I think he should release it. I think we should know that answer,” he continued. 

Extended clip is worth watching: "As long as Putin is not exactly a fan of our country... I would think Putin would know the answer to that. I think he should release it... you won't get the answer from Ukraine... I think Putin now would be willing to probably give that answer." pic.twitter.com/JFGcBk4Kxd

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2022

This is just more of the same rhetoric Trump has been ranting about since his loss in 2020. 

In response to Trump’s latest blathering, Rep. Ted Lieu tweeted: “Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and a butcher. Here are two responses—President Biden: This man cannot remain in power. Trump: Please help me, Vladimir. I am damn proud of our current President. And nauseated by the former President.”

Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and a butcher. Here are two responses— President Biden: This man cannot remain in power. Trump: Please help me Vladimir. I am damn proud of our current President. And nauseated by the former President. https://t.co/lO3CEnJ54d

— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) March 30, 2022

According to Newsweek, author, journalist, and attorney Seth Abramson wrote, "President Biden is America's commander-in-chief; we're at the brink of open war with Russia; Putin is unambiguously an enemy of America.

"So one would expect any info Putin releases about our commander-in-chief to be a lie—and yet Trump now begs for Putin's aid. Open treachery.”

DNC Chair, Jamie Harrison tweeted: “Trump, the leader of the GOP, loves Putin more than he loves America. It has been evident for a while that the man seriously needs some professional help.”

Trump, the leader of the GOP, loves Putin more than he loves America. It has been evident for awhile that the man seriously needs some professional help. #GOPSoftOnRussia https://t.co/EqcMVn1SwT

— Jaime Harrison, DNC Chair (@harrisonjaime) March 30, 2022

Solomon, a former Fox News contributor, and formerly the editor-in-chief at the conservative newspaper The Washington Times, is also a big proponent of pro-Trump content, with multiple citings of his columns used as evidence by the GOP against impeaching Trump on allegations of pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden. 

"Solomon’s reporting on Burisma, Hunter Biden, and Ukraine election meddling has become inconvenient for the Democratic narrative," House Intelligence Committee ranking GOP member Devin Nunes said in his statement during the Trump impeachment hearings

According to the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, while writing for The Hill, Solomon pushed the false Uranium One conspiracy, alleging that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sold a share of America’s uranium to Russia in exchange for a huge donation to the Clinton Foundation.

And Solomon played a key role in helping Giuliani launch the investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden

"I really turned my stuff over to John Solomon," Giuliani told The New York Times.

Co-host, Amanda Head, a notorious anti-masker, began her career as a model, actress, and singer, and was the first freshman to win the Miss Auburn University beauty pageant. She is best known for her turn as a vlogger for The Hollywood Conservative, launched in 2016. 

What has yet to remain clear is why the Republican party refuses to call a traitor a traitor. Perhaps they’re afraid of a poison Russian pill, or of simply losing a midterm seat to a more qualified and ethical opponent, but either way, someday, (I hope) the GOP will realize that as the party once known for its “values,” lost them long ago. 

One of Trump’s closest White House advisers admits that ‘it’s hard to describe how little he knows’

The disgraced former president’s top national security adviser has been doing a slew of interviews the past few weeks. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, John Bolton, like most former national security advisers, has found himself being asked for his opinion on rapidly changing events. John Bolton’s bona fides as a truly terrifying warmonger span decades, and he has been critical of Trump—for a price. Bolton says what most of us already know: Trump’s extortion attempts, in the form of holding back military aid from Ukraine in order to dig up dirt on then-candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, is a big part of the reason Vladimir Putin did not invade Ukraine until now.

“He obviously saw that Trump had contempt for the Ukrainians. I think that had an impact,” Bolton told VICE earlier this month. Bolton goes on to detail a phone conversation Trump had with Vladimir Putin, shortly after Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected, during which Trump asked Putin how he felt about him. According to Bolton, Trump’s lack of knowledge and backbone in that conversation likely reinforced Putin’s belief that Trump didn’t have strong feelings in support of Ukraine’s leadership.

Trump’s choice to bring Bolton on to replace H.R. McMaster was considered ominous at the time, since Bolton’s No. 1 foreign policy idea has always seemed to be “invade everybody.” But Bolton was in the rooms where Donald Trump conducted foreign policy discussions and played little brother to Putin. “Trump had no idea what the stakes were in Ukraine,” Bolton said.

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Bolton also pointed out that Trump’s general dislike of NATO, and his work to undermine NATO, worked in favor of Putin’s position. Trump’s interest in Ukraine, according to Bolton’s book, only perked up in “the summer of 2019 when [Trump] realized that he could have the possibility of holding up the obligation and delivery of substantial security assistance [to Ukraine] in an effort to get access to the Hillary Clinton computer server that he felt was in Ukraine, finding out about Hunter Biden’s income in Ukraine, and all of these things in this spaghetti bowl of conspiracy theories. That was the first time he really focused.”

In fact, Bolton explained to VICE, Trump’s lack of curiosity for anything is profound. “It's hard for me to describe how little he knows,” Bolton tried to explain. This true mediocrity is why Trump’s reasoning for things is so whimsical and useless. He has no context or knowledge for much of anything. “He once asked [then-White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly if Finland was part of Russia. What he cared about was the DNC server, and Hunter Biden, and the 2016 election, and the 2020 election. That's what it was all about. And I think he had next to no idea what the larger issues were.”

As a result, Vladimir Putin didn’t have to be aggressive about much of anything regarding U.S. policy in the region. “I think one of the reasons that Putin did not move during Trump’s term in office was he saw the president’s hostility of NATO. Putin saw Trump doing a lot of his work for him, and thought, maybe in a second term, Trump would make good on his desire to get out of NATO, and then it would just ease Putin’s path just that much more.” In another interview, Bolton said of Trump’s threats to pull out of NATO, “I think Putin was waiting for that.”

Bolton’s beef with Trump has also led him to rail against the right-wing narrative that Trump was tough on Putin, with the U.S. under Trump applying sanctions to Russia. “In almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining about it, saying we were being too hard,” told Newsmax when that ultra-right-wing outlet tried to get him to go along with the narrative that Biden was at fault for everything in the history of ever.

Bolton, in an interview with the Washington Post earlier in March, Bolton said that he believed Vladimir Putin’s lack of open invasion of Ukraine during the Trump administration was possibly predicated on the Russian dictator’s belief that Trump would pull the United States out of NATO during a second term in office.

Arguably the saddest exchange between Bolton and VICE’s interviewer is the one when Bolton says he is unsure what Trump would have done if Russia had invaded Ukraine when Trump was in office. He joked, “He never got that server! Those Ukrainians wouldn’t give him the server!” The interviewer remarked that Ukraine probably wished that this mythical server with Hillary’s secret plans existed so they could have ingratiated themselves to Trump. Bolton’s reply, also clearly joking (or half-joking, at least) sounds like something Trump and the MAGA world would have held up as proof, not the absurdist joke it would have been:

“They should have given him a server and said, ‘Hey, we found that—may have been erased, but here's the server.’”

Trump’s Ukraine extortion campaign didn’t begin or end with ‘I would like you to do us a favor’

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine didn’t come from nowhere: Russia had invaded and annexed part of Ukraine in 2014 and there has been an ongoing war ever since, with thousands of people killed on both sides. Donald Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine came in the midst of that war, and have to be understood in that context. Trump had very real leverage over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because Zelenskyy was desperate for U.S. support during a war and Trump used that leverage to apply pressure over a period of months.

Trump’s pressure campaign wasn’t just that of a larger country against a smaller one. It was against a smaller country at war with a larger one, where the aggressor in that war—Russia—was watching and reading the tea leaves about the United States’ level of support for Ukraine. Again and again, Trump left Ukraine hanging and let Vladimir Putin know that U.S. support for Ukraine was conditional at best.

The House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry report from 2019 lays it out in detail, as Asha Rangappa noted. From the moment Zelenskyy won his election in April 2019, Trump was dangling the possibility of public shows of support and then yanking them back. In their initial phone call after Zelenskyy’s win, Trump invited him to the White House—an invitation Ukrainian officials then sought to pin down and make real, without success. Trump initially said he would send Mike Pence to Zelenskyy’s inauguration with the U.S. vice president’s presence standing as visible evidence of support, only to keep Pence home and send Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead. This was as Rudy Giuliani was ramping up his efforts to get Zelenskyy to announce investigations into supposed corruption involving the Biden family and supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Trump explicitly connected his reluctance for a White House visit for the Ukrainian president to Ukraine having supposedly “tried to take me down” in 2016. This was false. As Russia expert Dr. Fiona Hill said in her impeachment inquiry testimony about claims that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. elections, “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”

Next, Trump personally froze nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine—aid appropriated by Congress and supported by officials throughout the federal agencies responsible for sending it, except those who were first and foremost Trump loyalists. And a quid pro quo was repeatedly communicated to Ukraine: Make a public announcement of investigations into the Biden family and interference in the elections if you want the White House visit and the military aid. No actual investigations are needed. Just the public announcement of them.

“On July 2, in Toronto, Canada, Ambassador Volker conveyed the message directly to President Zelensky, specifically referencing the ‘Giuliani factor’ in President Zelensky’s engagement with the United States,” according to the impeachment inquiry report. “For his part, Mr. Giuliani made clear to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker, who were directly communicating with the Ukrainians, that a White House meeting would not occur until Ukraine announced its pursuit of the two political investigations. After observing Mr. Giuliani’s role in the ouster of a U.S. Ambassador and learning of his influence with the President, Ukrainian officials soon understood that ‘the key for many things is Rudi [sic].’”

This pressure ratcheted up with Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskyy, the one in which he responded to Zelenskyy’s request to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” And it became still stronger as the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid continued to be frozen. 

On Aug. 28, 2019, Politico reported on the hold-up of the aid. The following day, Ambassador William Taylor sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a first-person cable in which “He explained the ‘folly’ of withholding security assistance to Ukraine as it fought a hot war against Russia on its borders. He wrote that he ‘could not and would not defend such a policy.’” But on the same day, with the aid freeze now public, Trump cancelled a trip to Warsaw for a World War II commemoration event, a trip on which he was scheduled to meet with Zelenskyy. Instead, he sent Pence.

At the meeting, President Zelensky expressed concern that even an appearance of wavering support from the United States for Ukraine could embolden Russia. Vice President Pence reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine, but could not promise that the hold would be lifted. Vice President Pence said he would relay his support for lifting the hold to President Trump so a decision could be made on security assistance as soon as possible. Vice President Pence spoke with President Trump that evening, but the hold was not lifted. 

Zelenskyy—the guy who has stayed in Kyiv at the risk of his own life during Russia’s invasion—buckled under the pressure. He booked an interview on CNN to announce the investigations Trump was demanding. Instead, as more of the story of the extortion campaign trickled out and the House announced investigations, Trump unfroze the aid. 

Trump’s pressure on Ukraine—on Zelenskyy—wasn’t just about one phone call. And the pressure wasn't just about the specific military equipment Ukraine wanted. It was about sending a message to Putin that U.S. support for Ukraine was wobbly. 

Cawthorn’s Ukraine take isn’t so shocking if you’ve been paying attention to Republicans since 2016

This week, Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s take on Ukraine makes him stand out. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn said in a video obtained by North Carolina news station WRAL. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

It’s a bold statement, coming at a time when 61% of Republicans have a positive view of Republican President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to one poll—and Cawthorn did try to walk it back a little. But Cawthorn isn’t so out of step with his party if you look at the last few years rather than the last few weeks. For that matter, some prominent Republican voices continue to boost Vladimir Putin and suggest that Ukraine had it coming. 

The loudest Republican with the biggest platform carrying Putin’s water at this point is Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who most recently jumped on board with Russian disinformation claims that the U.S. and Ukraine have a joint bioweapons program. Also buying into the bioweapons lab propaganda was Rep. Thomas Massie—one of the three Republicans who voted against a House resolution supporting Ukraine—who attached his concern about the issue to a tweet by Glenn Greenwald. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has been critical of Putin recently, but she appeared at a white nationalist event less than two weeks ago at which Putin and the invasion of Ukraine were cheered on, and as recently as January, Greene was one of a significant number of prominent Republicans—led by Donald Trump—who were arguing against U.S. support for Ukraine.

Going back a little further than that, during Trump’s first Ukraine-centered impeachment, a standard Republican talking point was that Ukraine was incredibly corrupt, “one of the three most corrupt countries on the planet,” according to Rep. Jim Jordan.

But the groundwork for the extortion attempt that led to Trump's first impeachment had been laid years before that, in large part by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose work for pro-Russian candidates and the oligarchs who supported them contributed both to political turmoil in Ukraine in recent decades and to the Republican move toward support for Putin. In one key incident, supposed grassroots anti-NATO protesters who attacked U.S. Marines doing exercises with the Ukrainian military were not so grassroots after all—they were plants set up by politicians for whom Manafort consulted. That incident in turn was cited by Putin when he annexed Crimea, as evidence that people there would welcome the Russian move.

With Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager—consulting with Russian oligarchs and employing a Russian spy all the while—military support for Ukraine was removed from the platform at the Republican National Convention. And all of that is before Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine while pressuring Zelenskyy to help Trump destroy Biden’s 2020 chances.

So Madison Cawthorn’s anti-Ukraine comments may seem shocking this week. But it’s not that Cawthorn is out of step with his party’s last several years of Ukraine-Russia policy. It’s just that he’s apparently too slow on the uptake to change his message quite as quickly as his fellow Republicans did.

Fiona Hill: Putin tried to warn Trump he would go nuclear, but Trump didn’t understand the warning

If you remember the name Fiona Hill, it’s likely because of her testimony in Donald Trump’s first impeachment inquiry, at which she distinguished herself as a forceful, knowledgeable, and fearless public servant. Hill is a Russia expert who was speaking about her time as the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council under Trump. She offered a strong warning about Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. democracy in that testimony. So she’s an interesting and important person to hear from about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—even as we should keep in mind that Hill is known as a Russia hawk and speaks from that perspective—and Politico’s Maura Reynolds gives us that chance with an in-depth interview.

It’s scary stuff, even beyond Hill’s warning that Putin really might use nuclear weapons—and in fact that he had tried to warn Trump about his willingness to do so (only Trump didn’t understand the warning). “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?” Hill said. Running through Russia’s recent history of poisonings with radioactive polonium and the Novichok nerve agent, Hill concluded, “So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.”

She continued, “It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared. That’s exactly what he wants us to be. We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”

Hill faults the United States and NATO on failure to be prepared for contingencies, going back years. “I think there’s been a logical, methodical plan that goes back a very long way, at least to 2007 when [Putin] put the world, and certainly Europe, on notice that Moscow would not accept the further expansion of NATO. And then, within a year in 2008, NATO gave an open door to Georgia and Ukraine. It absolutely goes back to that juncture,” she told Reynolds. “Back then, I was a national intelligence officer, and the National Intelligence Council was analyzing what Russia was likely to do in response to the NATO Open Door declaration. One of our assessments was that there was a real, genuine risk of some kind of preemptive Russian military action, not just confined to the annexation of Crimea, but some much larger action taken against Ukraine along with Georgia. And of course, four months after NATO’s Bucharest Summit, there was the invasion of Georgia. There wasn’t an invasion of Ukraine then because the Ukrainian government pulled back from seeking NATO membership. But we should have seriously addressed how we were going to deal with this potential outcome and our relations with Russia.”

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, though, is not mostly about NATO, in Hill’s assessment. It’s not even entirely about restoring the borders of the Soviet Union. Hill thinks Putin is looking back further in time.

“I’ve kind of quipped about this, but I also worry about it in all seriousness—Putin’s been down in the archives of the Kremlin during COVID looking through old maps and treaties and all the different borders that Russia has had over the centuries,” she said.

“He’s said, repeatedly, that Russian and European borders have changed many times. And in his speeches, he’s gone after various former Russian and Soviet leaders, he’s gone after Lenin and he’s gone after the communists, because in his view they ruptured the Russian empire, they lost Russian lands in the revolution, and yes, Stalin brought some of them back into the fold again, like the Baltic States and some of the lands of Ukraine that had been divided up during World War II, but they were lost again with the dissolution of the USSR. Putin’s view is that borders change, and so the borders of the old Russian imperium are still in play for Moscow to dominate now.”

Domination doesn’t necessarily mean occupying or annexing another country. “You can establish dominance by marginalizing regional countries, by making sure that their leaders are completely dependent on Moscow, either by Moscow practically appointing them through rigged elections or ensuring they are tethered to Russian economic and political and security networks,” Hill noted. “You can see this now across the former Soviet space,” including Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Belarus, with Ukraine being “the country that got away.”

Putin’s determination to break Ukraine could mean occupation, but, Hill said, “What Putin wants isn’t necessarily to occupy the whole country, but really to divide it up. He’s looked at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other places where there’s a division of the country between the officially sanctioned forces on the one hand, and the rebel forces on the other. That’s something that Putin could definitely live with—a fractured, shattered Ukraine with different bits being in different statuses.”

Putin is also engaged in what Hill describes as “a full-spectrum information war.” In that information war, “You get the Tucker Carlsons and Donald Trumps doing your job for you. The fact that Putin managed to persuade Trump that Ukraine belongs to Russia and that Trump would be willing to give up Ukraine without any kind of fight, that’s a major success for Putin’s information war.”

Hill said that the response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine must go beyond NATO. “I’m not saying that that means an international military response that’s larger than NATO, but the push back has to be international,” she clarified. That means an economic response that goes beyond sanctions.

”Sanctions are not going to be enough. You need to have a major international response, where governments decide on their own accord that they can’t do business with Russia for a period of time until this is resolved. We need a temporary suspension of business activity with Russia,” Hill said. “Just as we wouldn’t be having a full-blown diplomatic negotiation for anything but a ceasefire and withdrawal while Ukraine is still being actively invaded, so it’s the same thing with business. Right now you’re fueling the invasion of Ukraine. So what we need is a suspension of business activity with Russia until Moscow ceases hostilities and withdraws its troops.”

And, Hill said in a conversation that repeatedly invoked World War II as a precedent, Putin will not stop at Ukraine unless the response is such that he has no choice. There’s a lot more there. Agree or disagree with her, Hill’s take as an expert not just on Russia but on Putin specifically is worth reading in full.

Rep. Elise Stefanik shifts her message on Russia-Ukraine, at least for nearly two minutes

Rep. Elise Stefanik, who was a key part of the Republican effort to fight Donald Trump’s first, Ukraine-related impeachment in the House, has a message for the people of Ukraine. It’s not an apology for her support of Trump’s extortion of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an attempt to gain an election advantage over now-President Joe Biden. But—and this is big coming from Stefanik—her message sticks to Ukraine and Russia without overtly attacking Biden.

Last week, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Stefanik was part of a statement from House Republican leaders that blamed Biden for “appeasement,” and she released her own statement railing as much against Biden as against Putin. So her new video message (see below) to the people of Ukraine and to Zelenskyy is a real departure for her. Is that because, in speaking in theory to Zelenskyy, she wanted to avoid echoes of Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine in an attempt to get Zelenskyy to manufacture a scandal about Biden? Is it in some minor way a recognition that Biden’s approach—assembling a major international response with devastating sanctions on Russia—is looking more successful than Republicans were hoping? 

Either way, what Stefanik also isn’t doing is putting distance between herself and Trump. While her descriptions of Putin as “a gutless, bloodthirsty, authoritarian dictator” and a “war criminal” are a far cry from Trump’s descriptions of Putin as “smart” and “savvy” and “genius,” Stefanik is part of a broader Republican pattern of criticizing Putin while refusing to answer questions about Trump’s praise.

But Stefanik’s role in defending Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine makes her approach here particularly nauseating. This is someone who rose to prominence in her party by participating in stunts intended to disrupt the impeachment inquiry, and relentlessly tried to use the inquiry into Trump’s extortion effort to promote the very thing he had been getting at to begin with, dragging Biden and his son Hunter into her questioning at every opportunity. For her to act like she has had the welfare of the people of Ukraine at heart all along is staggeringly dishonest. But then, the entire Republican approach to this issue is staggeringly dishonest.

My message to the people of @Ukraine and @ZelenskyyUa: The United States of America stands firmly with you against Russia’s unprovoked and heinous attack on your country. pic.twitter.com/s4d96sWxb2

— Rep. Elise Stefanik (@RepStefanik) March 1, 2022

To the people of Ukraine, the United States of America stands firmly with you against Russia’s unprovoked and heinous attacks on your country. Your bravery, sacrifice, and resistance against a gutless, bloodthirsty, authoritarian dictator is a beacon of hope for freedom and democracy around the world.

A beacon of hope, but I’m not going to say a word about my party’s leader calling those unprovoked and heinous attacks “savvy.”

As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I was honored to lead a bipartisan group of congressional members to Ukraine in 2018. I met with the wonderful Ukrainian people and experienced the beauty of your culture and country. Most importantly, I saw firsthand the importance of the security partnership between our two countries to counter Russian aggression, combat Vladimir Putin’s disinformation, and defend democracy and freedom. Today, I remain committed to strengthening that partnership by working with my colleagues to increase military support for the Ukrainian armed forces and establish strong and effective deterrents to counter Putin’s hostility.

It cannot be emphasized enough that these are the words of someone who defended Trump for withholding $400 million of military aid from Ukraine in an effort to gain political advantage at home. 

Additionally, we are working to sanction Putin and his corrupt oligarch cronies immediately and permanently terminate construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline, end Russian energy exports around the world, and provide additional military and financial support to Ukraine. I will not stop fighting until Ukraine receives the resources it deserves and Putin is cut off and isolated from the international community. As you continue your fight against the evil desires of the war criminal Vladimir Putin, all of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people are in our prayers and we will stand behind you in support of this fight for your country. Never stop fighting for a sovereign, self-governing, and free Ukraine.

As GOP blames Biden for Russia-Ukraine, remember these words: ‘I would like you to do us a favor’

There are 46 Republicans in the Senate today who in 2020 voted against convicting Donald Trump for withholding military aid from Ukraine in an attempt to get President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to dig up or manufacture dirt against a political opponent Trump feared. (Fifty-two Republican senators voted to acquit Trump, but six are no longer in the Senate.) The specifics here are important as we consider how those Republicans are responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and how they are characterizing President Joe Biden’s response.

During a 2019 phone call, Zelenskyy said, “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost. ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Javelins are an anti-tank weapon and have been essential in Ukraine’s defense against Russia. All you really need to know about Trump’s response is that it began, “I would like you to do us a favor though ...”

Trump froze $400 million in military aid to Ukraine as he made his extortion attempt, only unfreezing the aid months later after a whistleblower complaint about it. That frozen aid, coupled with his “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” as a direct response to Zelenskyy’s ask for more Javelins were at the center of Trump’s first impeachment, on which Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator to vote guilty.

Romney voted guilty, and Sens. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama were not in the Senate at the time. Every other Republican in the Senate—along with all 195 Republicans who voted in the House—voted against holding Trump responsible. (And Hagerty, Lummis, Marshall, and Tuberville absolutely would have voted not guilty given the chance.)

Trump has praised Vladimir Putin as Russia invaded Ukraine, and insisted that the invasion would not have happened if he had been in office. Trump is now claiming credit for NATO’s strength (after he threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO) and for U.S. military aid to Ukraine, all part of his campaign to insist that this would not be happening if he were in the White House. In reality, what Putin would or wouldn’t be doing if Trump was in the White House is a mystery, but what we absolutely know is that if Putin invaded Ukraine, a Trump-led United States would not be taking a leading role in a major international diplomatic response.

Republicans, meanwhile, have largely either dodged answering whether they’re with him on his view of Putin or have tacitly supported Trump’s stance.

The Republican talking points are much more focused on blaming Biden than on blaming Putin. “Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine is reprehensible,” House Republican leaders said in a group statement last week, before moving directly to their real interest. “Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action.” These are people who literally voted against impeaching Donald Trump for withholding military aid to try to create a scandal that would harm Biden’s chances in 2020. Many House Republicans followed their leaders in blaming Biden more than they blamed Putin, and the same is true in the Senate.

And no wonder. Once Trump got Republicans to back him in attempting to extort elections help from Ukraine, where wouldn’t they go with him?

Putin uses fabrications about Russians and Ukrainians being ‘one people’ to justify aggression

Vladimir Putin has been bullying Ukraine for many years. But that’s not all. Now, in addition to massing Russian military forces along the border—surrounding his neighbor in what can only be seen as preparation for invading that country—he’s lying about Ukrainians’ very identity in order to snuff out their independence.

Americans know a little something about breaking away from a country with whom we share much in terms of cultural roots. Thanks to history, we also know that when powerful countries start remaking the borders of Europe by force, it opens the door to massive bloodshed.

The lies Putin’s telling these days have a very specific purpose, designed to buttress his bullying. The primary lie is that there are no Ukrainians. He denies their existence as a people, as a community that possesses a national consciousness. They’re really just Russians, you see. That’s why it’s not wrong for Vlad to remake or even erase a border that his country agreed to respect in 1994. He openly violated that treaty in 2014 with his military incursion into the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine—where he both provided material support for pro-Russian separatists and sent some of his own troops as well—not to mention his outright forced annexation of Crimea. Russia has been violating the agreement consistently ever since.

One of our country’s most highly regarded experts on Eastern Europe, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” This is why Putin wants to delegitimize the concept of Ukrainianness. It’s all part of his plan to bring them under his thumb and restore his country’s status as a world power, and also perhaps shore up his political position at home in true Wag the Dog fashion. Invasion seems to be imminent.

NEW: The US believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, and has communicated that decision to the Russian military, three Western and defense officials tell me.

— Nick Schifrin (@nickschifrin) February 11, 2022

WHO’S WHO IN UKRAINE?

Who are the Ukrainians? More importantly, who gets to address that question? Putin clearly believes that the answer to the second one is himself, as he laid out his falsehood-laden response to the first one. This took the form of a Jul. 2021 document titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The two groups are, he claimed, “one people—a single whole … a single people” who have “a common faith, shared cultural traditions … language similarity.” The misinformation was strong in this piece of Фигня.

The article runs through a recitation of historical events extensive enough to make one long for an invasion just to bring it to an end. This 1000-plus year “history” dating back to the medieval state of Kievan Rus’—a loose federation of East Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe that existed from the late 9th to the mid-13th century—is presented in a one-sided fashion that paints the development of a Ukrainianness that exists separate from Russianness as simply false, and as merely the result of foreign influences, ranging from Poles to the Catholic Church to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Political scientist Ivan Krastev noted: “Putin looks at Ukraine and Belarus as part of Russia’s civilizational and cultural space. He thinks the Ukrainian state is totally artificial and that Ukrainian nationalism is not authentic.”

It’s bad enough when a pundit or entertainer tries to define what is and what is not authentic about another group. When the guy doing it has the firepower to actually conquer that group’s country, now we’re talking about a whole other kind of danger.

As for today’s Ukraine, Putin made clear in his missive that he sees himself as the sole and rightful arbiter of what that sovereign nation’s borders should be: “Apparently, and I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kiev simply does not need Donbas.” In other words: Russia ain’t leaving eastern Ukraine as long as he’s calling the shots. On a side note, Russia doesn’t “need” Donbas either, or benefit in material terms from having some degree of control over it—unless they want a region well-situated to mass-produce Panasonic tape decks.

Finally, Putin presented his conclusion: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Now that’s what I call an abusive partner. Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, recently offered a slightly different phrasing that perfectly captures Vlad’s thoughts on the matter: “Marry me, or I’ll kill you.”

An analysis of Putin’s essay at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank focused on international affairs, noted that it had “been likened in some quarters to a declaration of war” against Ukraine. The analysis included commentary from two experts. Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, stated:

Putin’s delusional and dangerous article reveals what we already knew: Moscow cannot countenance letting Ukraine go. The Russian president’s masterpiece alone should inspire the West to redouble its efforts to bolster’s Kyiv ability to choose its own future, and Zelenskyy should respond immediately and give Putin a history lesson.

Danylo Lubkivsky, director of the Kyiv Security Forum and a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine, added:

Putin understands that Ukrainian statehood and the Ukrainian national idea pose a threat to Russian imperialism. He does not know how to solve this problem. Many in his inner circle are known to advocate the use of force, but for now, the Russian leader has no solutions. Instead, he has written an amateurish propaganda piece designed to provide followers of his “Russian World” ideology with talking points. However, his arguments are weak and simply repeat what anti-Ukrainian Russian chauvinists have been saying for decades. Putin’s essay is an expression of imperial agony.

UKRAINE’S HISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE

Despite Putin’s propaganda—and the document discussed above is just one part of a far-reaching Russian campaign—the Ukrainian people have a long record of expressing an independent national consciousness, of fighting for their independence from Russia as well as other neighboring states. There’s far too much in his diatribe to refute point by point, but suffice it to say that his denial of Ukrainians’ collective existence is far from fact-based. It’s hard to accept the objectivity of a self-styled historian of Ukraine who, in 2008, Putinsplained the following to then-President Bush, “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state.”

In reality, in the late nineteenth century, at the same time as other peoples in Central and Eastern Europe, proponents of a Ukrainian sense of peoplehood—nationalists, they called themselves—emerged and began building a movement. At the end of the First World War, these Ukrainian nationalists fought to create an independent state out of the chaos in the region, but were defeated. The part of their country that had been under Tsarist Russian control was ultimately absorbed by the Soviet Union, with a newly independent Poland taking the portion that had been part of Galicia, a previously Austro-Hungarian province. At the end of the Second World War, the USSR grabbed that territory from Poland as well.

Since 1991, when the Soviet Union broke apart, Ukraine has been independent, and sought to carve its own path outside of Moscow’s shadow. The current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has cultivated what one Ukrainian journalist described as: “an inclusive Ukrainian national identity transcending the barriers of language, ethnicity and memory that have so often served to divide Ukrainians.”

TRUMP REARS HIS ORANGE HEAD

Zelensky is none other than the man whom our disgraced former president tried to bully into becoming a stooge in his quest to slander Joe Biden. Those actions led to the first impeachment of The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It, thanks in part to the brave actions of whistleblowers like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. In fact, Trump as well as numerous right-wing politicians and media figures have all but openly sided with Putin on Ukraine, as Daily Kos’s Mark Sumner thoroughly presented here (and here, on Fucker Carlson specifically).

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman

Vindman, who was born in Ukraine and came with his family to the U.S. in 1979 at the age of three, served as director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and was the top expert on Ukraine in the White House under Fuck a l’Orange. He has urged the U.S. to provide significant defensive military support to Kyiv, and wrote passionately in December about how the land where he was born has evolved since claiming its freedom when the USSR disintegrated:

Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has made major strides in its experiment with democracy. Despite worrying instances of government-backed corruption—undeniably, there is still more work to be done—Ukraine has made hard-fought progress on reform in the midst of war. Six presidents, two revolutions and many violent protests later, the people of Ukraine have sent a clear message that reflects the most fundamental of American values: They will fight for basic rights, and against authoritarian repression.

PARALLELS WITH CHINA AND TAIWAN

We may be seeing some similar developments farther East. After more than seven decades of separation from the mainland government of China, and four decades as a vibrant democracy, the people of Taiwan have increasingly begun to see themselves as having a separate national consciousness as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. For many Ukrainians as well as Taiwanese, the fact that their countries are committed to democratic values, which their erstwhile “big brother” countries reject only serves to heighten their desire to define their separate sense of peoplehood. Both of the larger brothers consider their counterpart’s independence to be a grave offense they cannot abide.

People in Taiwan and China are absolutely paying attention to what’s happening between Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing—please note the warm meeting between their leaders at the Winter Olympics, hosted by China—not to mention the shared belief that a great power should be able to dominate within a self-defined sphere of influence, offer Putin support for his actions that could counteract potential punishment imposed by the West.

Ultimately, the lies Putin enumerated mask an even more profound truth, one that has nothing to do with an argument about the legitimacy of a particular national identity. Even if Russians and Ukrainians had been “one people” a thousand years ago, or even a thousand days ago, who cares? Things transform in an instant.

DECLARATION(S) OF INDEPENDENCE

Prior to the American Revolution, most of those who were allowed to participate in the political life of the American colonies, as well as their wives and children, defined themselves as English. Nevertheless, they maintained a “right,” as the Founders argued in the Declaration of Independence, to change their minds. Sometimes, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” Ukrainians, who want to look west rather than north, and who want democracy rather than autocracy, have made the same judgment regarding Russia.

We know what the Russian president is, and what he wants. This is a man who says the quiet part out loud. He actually lamented the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He added that the event represented not the liberation of tens of millions but instead “a genuine tragedy.” Why? Because “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

The borders of Russia should apparently encompass everywhere Russian people live—with the caveat that Putin himself defines who is Russian. It’s up to no one else other than the self-proclaimed father of the Russian people, the bridegroom to Mother Russia, who will gather together once again all his wayward children, including the ones who ran away from home and never want to go back. Please note his foreign minister’s characterization of the countries once under the sway of the Soviets as “territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.” As for Ukraine specifically, the head of Vlad’s national security council proclaimed in November that it was a “protectorate” of Moscow.

The type of “we’re all one people” ethno-nationalist claptrap Putin has been spewing on Ukraine is at least an echo, even if not a direct parallel, of the language Adolf Hitler used in 1938 to justify the Anschluss that forcibly joined Austria to Nazi Germany and to justify taking the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, as well as aggressive action toward Poland. In all these cases, Hitler claimed that he was simply reuniting people who shared German ancestry—German blood. To clarify, Putin is talking more about shared Russian culture than blood ties, and there’s no evidence he is bent on genocide or world domination.

Nevertheless, a great power committing this kind of aggression—now threatening to commit even more of it—and using this kind of tribal nationalism as a pretext, is something that Europe has not seen for almost a century. It cannot be allowed to succeed, and thankfully President Biden and our European allies are taking steps to make sure that it doesn’t.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)