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Fearing Ukraine if Trump returns, some in Europe are now trying to reach out

VILNIUS, Lithuania – As many in Europe worry about the possibility of a second presidency Donald Trump Fearing this could end US support for Ukraine, some of Russia’s most ardent enemies are choosing a different course: being nice to the Trump camp.

To that end, Lithuania’s ruling party, a steadfast supporter of Ukraine, last month organized meetings between Ukrainians, Baltic politicians who want increases in military spending to counter Russia, and a group of former Trump administration officials. Also present were members of pro-Trump groups such as the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative group skeptical of helping Ukraine.

Leading the participants from Ukraine was Oleksandr Merezhko, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee and an ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Reaching out to the Trump camp, he said, was simply an acknowledgment of Ukraine’s dangerous vulnerability to the quicksand of American politics.

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“As we fight for our survival, we cannot afford to antagonize Biden or Trump,” Merezhko said. “If we make the wrong bet, we risk losing our country.”

Trump has not detailed his plans for Ukraine if he is re-elected, but many of his supporters are strongly opposed to helping the country fight Russia.

The outreach effort included discussions about what a second Trump administration could mean for Ukraine and the future of NATO, according to Merezhko and other participants.

One Trump supporter wanted to know why American taxpayers should pay for the war in Ukraine, they said. Aid advocates urged Ukraine and its Baltic backers to frame their support for Russia in economic terms that would appeal to Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy.

“Helping Ukraine gives Americans jobs,” Merezhko told experts at the meeting of the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute, another Trump-backing think tank in Washington.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has estimated that about 60% of the $113 billion Congress approved to help Ukraine would be spent in the United States on U.S.-made weapons and U.S. military personnel.

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Zygimantas Pavilionis, a Lithuanian lawmaker who organized the meeting, said that instead of confronting Trump and his base, Ukraine and its supporters should befriend them and explain that “there is a huge American interest in the fight” against Russia .

However, since Trump won the Iowa caucus in January, many European leaders and politicians have struggled to come to terms with the prospects of another Trump presidency.

Alicia Kearns, a Conservative member of the British Parliament and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, described the possibility that American voters would re-elect a man she called a sexual abuser and an indicted criminal defendant as “completely mind-boggling.”

But she too has reached out to the Heritage Foundation, joining a group of European lawmakers this year to visit the organization’s offices in Washington. Kearns did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron met with Trump himself.

And on Wednesday, President Andrzej Duda of Poland, a strong supporter of Ukraine, met the former president in New York to discuss NATO and Russia’s invasion. Duda’s chief of staff described their conversation as “excellent.” Trump, who had very good relations with the right-wing Polish president during his presidency, said he was “completely behind Poland.”

Trump’s relations with Zelenskyy, by contrast, have been overshadowed by the former president’s anger over his 2019 impeachment, centered on accusations that he used U.S. military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.

Anxiety about Trump’s return has been most acute in Eastern European countries, which fear his movement will stray from Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. Reagan is praised in the former communist east for what many see as his role in bringing down the Soviet Union.

Donald Tusk, Poland’s centrist prime minister who is a bitter political rival of Duda, expressed angry dismay in February when pro-Trump Republicans in Congress blocked a $60.1 billion aid package for Ukraine. “Shame on you,” Tusk said. “Ronald Reagan must be rolling in his grave today.”

The only leader in the region who openly cheers for a Trump victory and an end to support for Ukraine is Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary.

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After meeting with the former president in February, Orban claimed Trump told him he “won’t give a cent” to Ukraine if he wins in November. But it is unclear whether Trump actually said this or, as many suspect, whether Orban projected his own views onto the former president. Trump’s spokespeople are not saying that.

Robert Wilkie, a participant in the Vilnius rallies and Trump’s veterans affairs secretary, downplayed Orban’s comments. “Just look at Trump’s track record,” he said. “Ukrainians got guns when he was president and Putin stayed on his side of the border.”

Instead of panicking, Wilkie added, Ukraine and its supporters “should claim that they are on the front line against one of the three powers on the planet that is very open about the displacement and, if necessary, destroy the United States.” These, he said, are Russia, Iran and China.

Kurt Volker, the United States special representative for Ukraine during Trump’s presidency, said he too had doubts about Orban’s statement.

“My advice to all my European friends is that when it comes to the possibility of Trump being re-elected, don’t make any assumptions about what his policies will be,” Volker said in an interview during a recent tour of Eastern Europe.

Avoiding assumptions about Trump’s plans for Ukraine, he said, is especially important for those in Europe who, unlike Orban, are horrified by the prospect of the former president’s return. “If you don’t like Trump because of his personality and complain about him publicly, you are just setting the table for disaster,” Volker added.

The belief that Trump and his allies can be influenced over Ukraine underpinned the March meeting in Vilnius.

Pavilionis, the organizer, said that while “Trump is a bit crazy and you never know how he will react,” his return to the White House could turn out better for Ukraine than many expect.

During a visit to Washington in January, Pavilionis said he was surprised by the isolationist mood in Trump’s movement. But, he added, as President Trump was “much better for our region than Obama,” who refused to send weapons to Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Trump reversed that policy and sent Javelin anti-tank missiles. He also expanded the US military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.

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Instead of worrying about Trump’s campaign promise to end the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours,” Pavilionis said, Ukraine and its allies should understand that Republicans are much more concerned about containing China and Iran then about saving Ukraine or strengthening NATO.

That, he said, has made it necessary for Ukraine and its European backers to build bridges with the Trump camp and present it with a simple argument: “Stop Russia and you stop China and Iran,” he said.

The same pitch was also made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In January, he visited the Heritage Foundation, whose mission, according to chairman Kevin D. Roberts, is to “institutionalize Trumpism.”

“Ukraine must prevail,” Stoltenberg said, framing the war in the context of China, whose challenge to American power is Trump’s main foreign policy concern. “China,” Stoltenberg said, “is paying close attention to what is happening in Ukraine.

“China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are increasingly aligned,” he said, arguing that “while China is the most serious long-term challenge, Russia is the most immediate.”

Before Stoltenberg spoke, however, Roberts made it clear that Ukraine could be a tough sell. “Heritage will now and never contribute to putting a foreign country’s border before ours,” he said.

But others at Heritage are making the case for Ukraine against Russia, as are some Trump-connected experts at the America First Policy Institute, like Wilkie.

“American first does not mean America alone,” Wilkie said. The Baltic states and other supporters of Ukraine, he added, have nothing to fear from a second Trump presidency.

“The fact is that we had peace in that part of the world for four years, but then he left office and everything exploded,” Wilkie said. “That’s no coincidence.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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