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Trump’s vague Russia-Ukraine peace plan casts shadow over battlefield

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Donald Trump holds no elected office, but the Republican presidential candidate’s vague Ukraine policy is already being felt in that country. Allies of the former president, who faces numerous legal challenges amid his campaign to return to the White House, have blocked aid to Ukraine in Congress for months, leading to profound shortages on the battlefield.

There are some signs that that impasse could end soon. However, what happens next if Trump returns to the White House is unclear. The candidate has only offered a hazy outline of how he would handle the war in Ukraine, suggesting he would push both Russia and Ukraine to negotiate and claiming he could reach a deal to end the war in “one day.” His answers on key areas, like whether Russia could keep the territory it has seized, remain unknown — leading to pushback from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who last year called on him to release his plan and “not waste time.”

Trump has been more specific on U.S. aid to Ukraine, which he has criticized as an “endless flow of American treasure” to Kyiv. As congressional debate over funding to Ukraine dragged on last month, Trump outlined a new vision of American foreign assistance: It should be a loan.

“It can be loaned on extraordinarily good terms, like no interest and an unlimited life, but a loan nevertheless,” Trump wrote in an all-caps message to Truth Social on Feb. 10, adding that if a country “strikes it rich sometime in the future,” the money would have to be repaid.

That proposal has won support from some more traditional Republican foreign policy figures, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who met with Zelensky in Kyiv on Monday. “I informed him that given the crisis at the United States’ southern border and our overwhelming debt, President Trump’s idea of turning aid from the United States into a no-interest, waivable loan is the most likely path forward,” Graham announced that night.

However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who met privately with Trump in Florida on March 8, has described the aid plan differently. “He will not give a penny into the Ukraine-Russia war and therefore the war will end,” Orban told a state-run Hungarian television channel following their meeting, adding that “the Europeans are unable to finance this war on their own, and then the war will end.”

With the election still half a year away and its outcome is still highly uncertain, Trump is a long way from office. In America’s political system, however, that matters little. Though Ukraine funding made its way through the Senate — without the backing of Graham, despite his previous support for Ukraine — it has been held up in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has refused to put it to a vote.

Polling suggests that the majority of the public and a significant number of Republican voters support aid to Ukraine. Johnson is widely considered to have stalled on the vote out of concern that Trump could set his supporters on him, punishing him and preventing his reelection this year. “Like most strongmen, Trump prizes loyalty above everything,” the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf wrote this week, dubbing Johnson “Trump’s poodle.”

Last week, Johnson suggested he may finally come forward with a vote on Ukraine aid. But this Washington dogfight has been felt on Ukrainian battlefields for months. In December, Ukrainian forces told The Washington Post that a shortage of artillery shells on the front line had led to canceled attacks. “Our gunners are given a limit of shells for each target,” a member of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, which is fighting in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, told my colleagues.

That was said months before Ukrainian forces lost the eastern city of Avdiivka, prompting a disorderly retreat that left significant numbers of troops missing or captured. Ukrainian forces, estimated to be at a numerical disadvantage of roughly 7-1, were also lacking antiaircraft defenses that could defend against Russian-guided aviation bombs, officials told The Post.

Some European partners are attempting to fill the gap left by the United States, but few have anything close to the capacity that the United States can provide. One recent analysis by the Estonian government found that Europe’s collective artillery output is roughly 50,000 shells a month, not all of which goes to Ukraine. Ukrainian officials, however, have warned that they need 200,000 shells a month.

U.S. officials have warned that Ukraine could see a potential collapse if it continues without a supplemental aid package and that even if it survives the storm, countless lives will have been lost. Even if aid is turned back on imminently, the losses already felt cannot be erased.

Miroslava Luzina, a translator and independent political consultant, offered a message to Johnson.

“[Johnson’s] actions or his political stance is actually costing lives,” Luzina told Post contributing columnist Jim Geraghty in Kyiv, referring to a recent attack on Odessa that left at least 20 dead. “So, he is the cause of more people getting dead at the front line, and behind the front lines, and in the occupied territories.”

A Trump peace plan could well spark further bloodshed. Trump may genuinely believe his calls for negotiation and warnings about aid will lead to an end to the fighting. But the early evidence from both sides is that they intend to dig in harder.

“It would be ridiculous for us to start negotiating with Ukraine just because it’s running out of ammunition,” Putin said last week in an interview with Russian media outlets. “Possible negotiations are not a pause for rearming Kyiv, but a serious conversation with security guarantees for Moscow.”

Though Putin has said he remains open, ultimately, to negotiations, a leaked document of his terms for peace in 2022 suggests a price that Ukraine could not pay. As the Wall Street Journal summarized it, the objective remains the same: “Turn Ukraine into a neutered state permanently vulnerable to Russian military aggression.”

Accounts of life under Russian rule in occupied parts of Ukraine suggest an even worse fate, with deportations, kidnapping and forced reeducation of large portions of the population. The war has largely united Ukrainians against Russia, while Zelensky and his top aides have repeatedly suggested that while they seek peace, they also won’t give up agree to terms that could see the country remain divided.

Even before Ukraine was flooded with Western aid, its forces were able to deter Russia’s most ambitious designs on Kyiv in early 2022. The country is desperately trying to build up its domestic arms industry. And while European partners may struggle to make up for America’s deep pockets, recent comments by France’s Emmanuel Macron and other leaders suggest they may be willing to meet a Russian escalation in other ways.

If this is all part of the plan, it certainly isn’t one for peace. The fight for Ukraine has not become more peaceful, but more desperate — and all this without Trump having won office.

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