Europe should offer Trump a Ukraine deal he can’t refuse

Joseph de Weck is the Europe director at Greenmantle. He is the author of “Emmanuel Macron. Der revolutionäre Präsident.”

With United States President Joe Biden and his predecessor currently tied in the polls, Europe is waking up to the possibility that Donald Trump may well win back the White House. And preparing for another potential Trump presidency is now preoccupying European minds.

As it stands, Europe’s biggest fear is that the Republican firebrand could cut U.S. support for Ukraine. 0/31/austin-blinken-ukraine-israel-funding-00124513" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Republicans in Congress are already blocking $24 billion in new Ukraine aid, and since the Hamas massacre on October 7, many in the U.S. argue that transferring scarce munitions to Kyiv could undermine Israel’s war efforts.

At the same time, Europe’s leaders are under no illusion: In the short-term, Europe cannot replace the weapons, intelligence and diplomatic backing that Kyiv is receiving from the U.S.

What Europe does have, though, is money — which might just be the key to convincing Republicans to stand by Ukraine.

Trump is, at times, surprisingly honest. In an interview this spring, during which he claimed he would end Russia’s war against Ukraine within 24 hours, the former president refused to answer whether he hoped Kyiv or Moscow would win. Instead he replied: “You know what I’ll say? I’ll say this. I want Europe to put up more money . . . They think we’re a bunch of jerks. We’re spending $170 billion for faraway land, and they are right next door to that land and they’re in for 20. I don’t think so.”

For what it’s worth, criticism of “forever wars” is a vote-winner in the U.S., but for Trump, the Ukraine calculus is primarily financial. “I don’t have to believe in Feng Shui, I do it because it makes me money,” once said the man who furnishes his hotels according to the harmonious design practice.

And much like the principles of Feng Shui, Trump doesn’t care for Europe’s security order either. He could, however, be tempted into it — if it seems profitable.

As president, Trump was initially skeptical of delivering arms to Ukraine until his staffers persuaded him that weapons exports would be lucrative for U.S. industry and that Kyiv would pay.

The same logic also motivated his thinking on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. While most U.S. leaders opposed the pipeline because it would undermine Ukraine’s security, Trump’s opposition was largely motivated by a desire for Europe to buy U.S. LNG rather than financing Moscow.

Thus, Europe should take advantage of this focus on money to ensure aid for Ukraine, and announce a multiyear purchase of U.S.-made arms for Kyiv. This would help Ukraine, it would help Europe, and it would also help the transactional Trump see that he, too, has something at stake.

It would cost Europe roughly €45 billion a year to cover the bill for America’s Ukraine support. That’s 0.3 percent of the European Union’s GDP, or roughly the difference between the 2 percent NATO target and what Germany actually spent on defense in the last two years.

And a package of long-term arms purchases would bind Republicans to supporting Ukraine. Neither Trump nor Ukraine-skeptics in Congress would be likely to cancel Europe-funded contracts that support U.S. industry. Meanwhile, Ukraine would get a multiyear guarantee on the arms it needs.

Transatlantic checkbook diplomacy may seem crass, of course, but it’s nothing new. During the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Germany declined to send troops to join the coalition chasing Iraq out of Kuwait, deciding to contribute 17 billion Deutsche Marks instead.

Also, if Trump wins in November next year, Brussels will naturally pivot toward talking money anyway. And it would be better off doing so preemptively for a few crucial reasons.

For one, it would signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Western support for Ukraine won’t decline. The earlier the Kremlin knows it can’t win by waiting, the better.

Moreover, even if Biden is reelected, Republicans will probably end up controlling at least one U.S. legislative chamber. So, Europe will need Republican support even without Trump.

And finally, Europe is battling severe war fatigue. Polls show that support for Ukraine is dropping, which means European leaders should act now, while they have the political strength and public backing to do so.

On a recent summer night on a café terrace in Paris, I heard an American tourist ask smokers at a neighboring table what he would have to pay for them put out their cigarettes. One of them replied in utter shock: “This is Europe! Not everything can be bought here!”

Yet, for Europe to tie the U.S. to Ukraine, “how much?” is, indeed, the right question.

Regardless of the 2024 presidential election’s outcome, Europe would be well advised not to put all its eggs in the U.S. basket and look to strengthen its own defense capabilities and industry. But Ukraine’s needs are short-term. A big multiyear package to buy U.S.-made arms for Ukraine would thus be a major investment in European security.

It would be a humiliating offer, surely. But it would be a deal Trump couldn’t refuse.