The “What If” Game

A favorite game of history lovers is the “what if” game.  A version of the “what if” game is currently being played on a popular TV program, a show that imagines what America would be like if Germany and Japan had won WW II.  Another popular program imagines life in our country if Russia had been first to land on the moon.  

Others have written about what our nation would be like if the South had won the Civil War, and, soon after 9-11, a friend shared his view of what he was certain would have happened if Al Gore had won the 2000 election instead of George W. Bush.

What makes the “what if” game so popular is that it can’t be faulted because what the game imagines never happened.  

I have been thinking about the “what if” game ever since Putin invaded Ukraine.  What I’m pondering is not what the world would be like if Putin hadn’t invaded, by something that seems much more probable.  What if Putin had invaded Ukraine in Donald Trump’s time in the White House?  

The more I have thought about this, the more I’m convinced that there’s at least one other person who played the “what if” game with Ukraine.  That person is Vladimir Putin.  Putin must have played and replayed the “what if I’d invaded Ukraine when my friend Trump was president” question ever since his invasion ran into unexpected resistance.   

First of all, it’s public knowledge that Trump considered and maybe still considers Putin a friend.  Most of us remember our shock when Trump took Putin’s word over US Intelligence when Putin told him that Russia had never influenced our presidential election.  Then, in his first responses to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Trump called Putin “smart” and “savvy.” 

Second, Trump had denigrated NATO from even before his election in 2016.  Trump described NATO as no longer relevant and seemed to want for NATO to fade away.  Putin must have cheered when he heard that. 

Third, Trump was impeached the first time, albeit not convicted, because of his shameful and possibly illegal treatment of Ukraine.  Ukraine for Trump was just a pawn to be played in a larger game. 

Fourth, lest we assume that Trump’s views of Ukraine, Russia, NATO, and Putin are out of step with Republican views, consider which party in Washington is currently flirting with the position that we should reduce our support of Ukraine and let Ukraine defend herself.  Hint: It’s not the Democrats.  

All that led me initially to believe that Putin is kicking himself for not invading when Trump was president.  But then I thought, “If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would have been so much easier when Trump was president, why didn’t Putin take that step?”

One possibility is that Putin wasn’t prepared militarily to invade Ukraine at the time.  That seems hard to believe, given that he’d already invaded Crimea and Georgia.  

Perhaps another reason that Putin hesitated to invade earlier was his belief that a quick victory in Ukraine, which is what Putin and his generals were confident would happen, would have led Americans to decisively reject Trump in 2020.  Here I believe Putin would have been right.  We would have blamed Trump for weakening NATO and for coddling Putin, thereby repeating Neville Chamberlain’s failure to stand up to Hitler in 1938.  

Better, Putin might have reasoned, to invade when he did, believing that a quick victory would take down Biden and NATO at the same time and be the first step in his master plan to remake the map of Europe.  Had that happened, Putin’s face in future history books would have appeared under the heading “The Decline of Democracy.” 

But Putin miscalculated.  He miscalculated the charisma of President Zelensky.  He miscalculated the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people.  He miscalculated the resolve of NATO.  He miscalculated the leadership of the US under President Biden.  He miscalculated the belief and hope in democracy that the majority of people in the world still have.  

Putin miscalculated.  Thank God.