With millions of Ukrainians fearing for their lives Wednesday night amid reports of an imminent Russian invasion of their country, former President Donald Trump said Russian leader Vladimir Putin was “pretty smart” for sparking what could be the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II.
“He’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart,” Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, according to New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher and video footage obtained by the pro-Democratic group American Bridge. “He’s taking over a country, really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, just walking right in.”
The former U.S. commander in chief added, “This would have never happened, ever in a million years,” and said he understands Putin, seemingly suggesting that President Joe Biden is mismanaging the situation in Ukraine, where Putin has decided to support Russian-backed separatists’ bid to break up the country and has dispatched Russian troops. Biden this week imposed sanctions on Russian institutions and officials and warned far tougher action could follow.
“Now they laugh at us,” Trump said of U.S. adversaries, according to Goldmacher.
When Trump was president, he suspended military aid to Ukraine ― despite the Ukrainian government’s ongoing fight against the separatists ― to force the country to seek incriminating information about Biden’s son Hunter. He also told fellow world leaders that he recognized Russia’s claim to the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which Putin invaded in 2014 in a move that most countries view as a violation of international law, according to a BuzzFeed News report. And Trump repeatedly rejected U.S. intelligence reports that said Russia aided in his 2016 election victory, saying he believed Putin’s denial of any such plan.
Trump and many of his right-wing allies have repeatedly praised Moscow in recent days, blaming the Biden administration for the uptick in tensions in Europe.
He’s taking over a country, really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, just walking right in.Donald Trump
Most national security experts instead identify the roots of the crisis in Putin’s decision late last year to begin amassing his troops along Ukraine’s border ― a policy that has now led to the buildup of more than 150,000 Russian forces. On Tuesday, Trump called the Russian strategy “genius” and described the deployment as “the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen,” referring to Putin’s claim that he is sending Russian soldiers in to maintain peace in Ukrainian areas that are controlled by pro-Russia rebels.
While most powerful GOP lawmakers have pushed the party’s traditional hawkish line in responding to the Ukraine-Russia flare-up, conservatives have struggled to craft a coherent narrative on the issue because of the growing strength of pro-Russia sentiments within the Republican movement.
Amid the stateside debate, dozens of foreign policy analysts spent Wednesday night tracking Russian troop movements toward Ukraine, and Ukrainian commentators said they were too nervous to sleep as they faced the threat of an all-out conflict over their country’s independence.
“We believed, we had a dream, we lived for it,” tweeted Kyiv Independent reporter Illia Ponomarenko. “If the world closes its eyes on yet another grand act of aggression for the sake of false stability, it will be a warm welcome for an even greater war. Very soon.”
Once Putin confirmed that a military operation was beginning in Ukraine, Trump made further comments on Fox News that deflected blame from the Russian leader.
The fighting “all happened because of a rigged election,” Trump said, again promoting the lie that Biden did not legitimately win the presidency.
Putin “sees the weakness and the incompetency and the stupidity of this administration,” he continued, before Fox News host Laura Ingraham cut away from her call with Trump to broadcast an urgent United Nations session on the Ukraine crisis.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.