Trump threatens to out-crazy Putin

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Donald Trump made big news last week — and it wasn’t his conviction on 34 counts in Manhattan on Thursday.

It’s what Trump said a few days before. According to the Kyiv Independent’s retelling of a May 28 story in the Washington Post, the former and possibly future president “suggested at a fundraising event that he would have bombed Moscow in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.” He also said he would “attack Beijing if China invaded Taiwan on his watch.”

Surprisingly, Trump’s comments didn’t appear to ring alarm bells in the American media, perhaps because we’re used to him making outrageous statements that may or may not mean anything. But his bellicose language about China may mean that he’s serious about bombing Moscow were it to engage yet again in some egregious form of aggression, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere.

In effect, Trump’s comments made him into America’s equivalent of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s loony former president and prime minister who regularly threatens the West with nuclear incineration. Here’s a recent gem: “The choir of irresponsible bastards from among Western elites calling for sending their troops to the nonexistent country [i.e., Ukraine] is expanding. … In that case, none of them will be able to hide either on Capitol Hill, or in the Elysee Palace, or in Downing Street, 10. It will be a global catastrophe.”

Since Medvedev’s comments are surely vetted by the Kremlin, he and Putin are obviously playing bad cop/good cop in the hope of keeping policymakers and publics in Europe, the United States and Ukraine off balance and terrified. The strategy has worked, inasmuch as the West continues to fear that Medvedev might really mean it and that nuclear Armageddon is an endgame the Kremlin might seriously consider.

That using nuclear weapons would invite massive U.S. retaliation, elicit condemnation by most countries (including China) and genuinely threaten humanity with extinction — all because Russia believes it cannot exist as long as a “nonexistent country” continues to exist — may strike some as the height of irrationality, and others as business as usual for the mysterious Russian soul.

Trump is speaking for himself, but his willingness to rattle sabers does resemble Medvedev’s loose talk. Ironically, the comparison is both worrisome and welcome.

One could easily and persuasively argue that the last thing the increasingly unstable world needs is another warmonger inclined to talk fast and loose about war and the possibility of the world’s end. It’s hard to imagine how such language could settle nerves and promote reasoned discussion. One’s natural instinct is to cry, “Stop it! Both of you are acting like madmen.”

But why should the Russians have a monopoly on mad talk? Why should they be the only ones to instill the fear of destruction? Isn’t it time they got a taste of their own medicine? After all, Russians have historically liked to engage in bluster, act crazy and drive a hard bargain.

That strategy has often worked, because most people understandably fear mad dogs foaming at the mouth. So why shouldn’t the tables be turned on the Russians? The worst that can happen is that Medvedev will redouble his unhinged language. The best might entail the Russians — or at least some of them — coming to their senses.

Uncertainty can cut both ways. It can increase fear and thereby promote aggression, or it can increase fear and thereby promote reconciliation. In short, promoting uncertainty is a risky strategy, one that most reasonable people eschew — and one that the risk-loving Trump welcomes.

Ultimately, these verbal attacks and counterattacks are not about Medvedev. He’s too weak and too disrespected by Russian elites. They’re about Putin. Many have convincingly argued that he’s not a risk-taker and never has been one. After all, his decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 was an enormous blunder, but it was based on his belief that the war would be over in three days. Trump’s bluster may therefore terrify Russia’s great leader: Keep in mind that Putin was so fearful of getting infected by Covid that he spent most of two years in bunkers.

Given Trump’s unpredictability, we have no way of knowing whether his threats to bomb Moscow and Beijing should be taken seriously — just as we don’t know whether Medvedev should be taken seriously. Chances are that neither of them knows for sure as well.

And that may be the scariest thing. Were we confident of Trump’s and Putin’s rationality, we might take solace from the fact that their saber-rattling is intentionally geared at only scaring the pants off the other guy. But, alas, complete confidence would be misplaced, as even many of their supporters admit.

Which leaves us with, potentially, the worst of all possible worlds: Two loose cannons firing indiscriminately at each other and at everybody else.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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