Skip to content
Trump’s Proposed Ukraine ‘Deal’ Threatens European Security
Go to my account

Trump’s Proposed Ukraine ‘Deal’ Threatens European Security

The continent’s leaders can’t afford to wait to see how the U.S. election turns out.

Emmanuel Macron of France and Viktor Orbán of Hungary talk during the European Council Summit in Brussels, Belgium, on March 22, 2024. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Less than two months after rattling NATO allies by saying that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” with those not meeting their defense spending targets, Donald Trump has Europeans on tenterhooks again. According to Washington Post reporting, Trump’s plan to “solve the war in 24 hours,” as he promised in January 2023, consists of pressuring Ukraine into giving up Crimea and the Donbas in exchange for a peace deal.

The plan, revealed by those who claimed to have discussed it with the former president, amplifies the already existing uncertainty surrounding the immediate future of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. It also seems consistent with earlier revelations by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who said last month that Trump was planning to end the war by threatening to withdraw all U.S. support to Kyiv.

Of course, Trump claimed that he was merely describing his “negotiating tactic” to get European nations to spend more on their defense. And Trump defenders will note that he also mused about threatening Putin to “give [Ukrainians] more than they ever got, if we have to,” to force the Kremlin into accepting the settlement.

What matters is not so much Trump’s hubris, nor his disregard for the agency of the two belligerents. The key fact is that Europe, outside of Ukraine and Russia, does not enter Trump’s calculations in the slightest.

Of course, the odds, and details, of a negotiated settlement can be affected by developments on the battlefield in the coming months which in turn hinges on whether Congress passes the newly proposed aid package for Ukraine. Regardless, both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have an interest in striking a deal in the next four years. As president, Trump would want to be seen striking deals, no matter how ill-advised. Putin, meanwhile, will see an opportunity to extract favorable terms from someone he thinks he can manipulate. It is hard to see how such an agreement can be anything but a win for Putin, giving him an internationally recognized claim to territories that Russia has seized while potentially buying him time to reconstitute his military.

From Trump’s perspective, there is little to be gained from including others—most notably the Europeans—in negotiations. As president he showed little regard for partners and allies’ interest on matters such as withdrawing from Afghanistan or northeastern Syria. And being on the receiving end of U.S. assistance, Ukraine would have little leverage over Trump. Further, while many Europeans would be horrified, others would applaud the deal, providing Trump and Putin the added benefit of dividing and weakening the European Union.

Trump’s plan would have at last two unequivocal supporters: Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Robert Fico of Slovakia. Neither is a major player but each is perfectly capable of throwing sand into the gears of unanimity-based NATO and EU decisions. Austria, Malta, and others could accept the settlement with relief, whatever its terms, by virtue of their indifference to the Ukrainian cause, their geographical distance, or both.

For most Europeans, however, the choices would be immensely problematic. This is especially true for the smaller and most exposed nations in Eastern Europe, starting with the Baltic states, who consider the U.S. security guarantee as their life insurance against Russia. They would face a Hobson’s choice between condoning an illegal seizure of territory by Russia and antagonizing their defender of last resort (against the same Russia).

Poland and the Nordic countries would be equally troubled by the situation. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has berated Republican legislators over their reluctance regarding aid to Ukraine, and responded forcefully to Trump’s comments about NATO. Whether a deal handing over Ukraine would make Warsaw stop looking across the Atlantic, or whether the Poles would square the circle without jeopardizing the U.S. security umbrella is an open question. Either way, the position of Poland, which is the main platform for the military support to Ukraine, and which will chair the EU Council in the first half of 2025, will be pivotal for the whole continent.

But what would other major players do?

France would be a likely candidate to oppose the deal—not so much because of Emmanuel Macron’s newly found hawkishness but rather because of France’s structural attachment to Europe’s and its own “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

Simply acquiescing to a U.S.-imposed deal detrimental to European security would nail the coffin over French ambitions to rally other Europeans around ideas of “strategic autonomy,” giving way instead to a destabilized Europe. Macron’s repeated calls to change the approach to the war and resort to “strategic ambiguity” could be seen as testing waters on a French continental leadership without the U.S., with mixed results. Yet, should Paris feel that it is isolated in Europe in its opposition to the agreement, it might prefer trying to shape the terms of the deal rather than attacking it head on.

The United Kingdom would find itself in a position similar to Poland or the Nordics. The attachment to the “special relationship” is real, especially after Brexit, but so is British support for Ukraine and the role the U.K. has played on NATO’s eastern flank under successive Conservative governments. Moreover, if Trump comes back to the White House in January 2025, his counterpart in Downing Street will probably be Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, unlikely toforge a warm relationship with a prospective MAGA-dominated U.S. administration. Parliament would find it hard not to join a common pro-Ukrainian axis with Europe’s continental powers, even if it meant sacrificing Britain’s traditional Atlanticist commitments.

Italy is a wild card, torn between Giorgia Meloni’s dedication to the Ukrainian cause and her Atlanticism, helped by her good relations with the Trump wing of the GOP. Would Italy’s long-standing attachment to the European project win the day, or would Meloni try to act as a mediator with the White House?

What is most dispiriting is the looming lack of leadership from Europe’s biggest power: Germany. Berlin has continued its long-standing policy of taking strategic cues from Washington, for better or worse. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been careful to hide behind Washington on questions of Germany’s lethal assistance to Ukraine, and in February 2024 he said that there could be no victory in Ukraine without the United States.

But given the state of German politics and the country’s political culture, there is something inherently attractive about the prospect of peace with Russia, even if it comes from the much-reviled Donald Trump. Such attitudes are not shared universally across the ruling “traffic light” coalition but are certainly prevalent among Scholz’s fellow social democrats, especially as they face an onslaught from populist quarters on the far left and the far right.

If most European leaders would be presented with unenviable choices, for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an internationally recognized revision of borders by force would not be too problematic, as it would set the scene for a prospective legitimization of Turkey’s claims in Cyprus, as well as for further expansionism of Turkey’s close partner, Azerbaijan. At the same time, Erdoğan would surely be displeased if he were missing from the deal photo op.

From the war’s onset, Turkey has presented itself as a putative honest broker, hosting the initial talks in March 2022, mediating Ukrainian grain exports issues, and doing small favors to both parties of the conflict—selling drones to Kyiv, while also facilitating sanctions evasion for Russia and closing the Black Sea Straits to vital military assistance to Ukraine. For Europeans, Erdoğan’s prominent, visible role in the negotiations would only compound the humiliation and drive home the sense of Europe’s sheer irrelevance.

In short, it is hard to see Europe responding with unity to a Trump-led initiative to “end the war” with a real estate-like deal. Common ground would become even harder to reach within the EU or NATO in a further polarized European debate.

That said, Europeans can take steps to prevent such a scenario and to hedge against its adverse effects. The most important one is to pre-empt Trump’s temptation to end an inconclusive conflict next year. Europeans should try harder to convince Trump’s entourage of the self-inflicted dramatic consequences for U.S. interests of a Ukrainian capitulation.

More importantly, Ukrainians must be given a decisive advantage on the battlefield and to reverse the narrative of a likely Russian victory before the U.S. presidential election. A part of the answer is about communication. President Macron’s “strategic ambiguity” is helpful in keeping Russians on their toes about what European nations might do, as opposed to being reassured that there are things that Europeans will not do. The more important element of Western assistance, of course, involves actual aid: provision of munitions, kit, and new weapons systems that Russians are not in a position to counter. Think long-range, high-precision artillery air defenses and air power, among others.

Europeans should challenge Vladimir Putin’s bet that the “as long as it takes” coalition will crumble the day Trump is elected. Russia’s economy is the size of Italy’s. Over a longer horizon, its productive capacities are no match for those of Europe, should Europeans take the challenge seriously. And that remains true regardless of what happens in the United States in November.

Policy and military planners also must take seriously the need to continue with some version of the U.S.-led efforts to coordinate military support to Ukraine, such as the “Ramstein Group”, only without the Americans and a subset of Europeans. What capabilities can be backfilled quickly and by whom? Can non-European partners be helpful? The success of the highly imaginative Czech initiative to supply Ukraine with 155mm shells provides an encouraging blueprint for the all-hands-on-deck approach that might be needed if the West indeed fractures in the Trump era.

Foolish and short-lived as a Trump-Putin deal might be, it may well become a reality. European military chiefs and diplomats should be war-gaming scenarios in which Europe is presented with different versions of a fait accompli in Ukraine. Behind the scenes and publicly, like-minded leaders should be talking about future “coalitions of the willing.” A united front formed by the United Kingdom and France—joined, of course, by the likes of Poland—seems necessary to break through the hesitations that a Trump-Putin deal would engender across the continent.

The reason is simple. The temptation to return to business as usual would be strong should a peace deal, however hare-brained, appear on the horizon. But peace on Russia’s terms is no peace at all. Even if it somehow became politically feasible for Ukraine to accept it, no one should be under any illusion that a U.S.-approved territorial grab by Russia would be the end of the war. If anything, it would whet Putin’s appetite for more, giving him a chance to regroup, re-arm, and attack again—in Ukraine, in Moldova, or even in the Baltic countries, especially if Trump continues to display his disdain for NATO’s Article 5. 

Make no mistake, this may be the hardest test Europeans, including the British and the French, would face since the end of World War II. But failing the test risks a similar conflagration, not to mention condemning some hundred million Europeans to life under tyranny. The time for Europe to act is now.

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.