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Vindman discusses U.S. options on Russia-Ukraine tensions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Is Russia about to invade Ukraine? No one knows for sure including, possibly, Vladimir Putin himself. The U.S. and Russia talked about it for nearly eight hours in Geneva today. And NATO members will meet with Russia on Wednesday. Our next guest has thoughts on how the U.S. might deter Putin and help encourage a prosperous democratic Ukraine to boot. Alexander Vindman is a former Ukraine expert on President Trump's National Security Council.

Colonel Vindman, welcome. Good to speak with you again.

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Yes, good to speak to you again, too.

KELLY: So, as you know, the U.S. is warning of maximum consequences for Russia if it attacks Ukraine - economic and otherwise. You aren't convinced that is enough to protect Ukraine. Why not?

VINDMAN: Well, maximum consequences in this context is limited to options outside of really the defense and security realm.

KELLY: You mean, if it's sanctions - if that's what they're talking about.

VINDMAN: If it's sanctions. That's exactly right.

KELLY: And you think sanctions won't work why? - because the U.S. has sanctioned Russia for years now, and it has not stopped Russian aggression and militarism toward its neighbor?

VINDMAN: That's right. And also because Russia is actually hardened against sanctions. They've dealt with the world of sanctions - fairly severe sanctions - starting with 2014. And in addition to that, in addition to a hardening against the economic sanctions, in addition to indigenizing technologies and supply chains to Russia, they've also built a massive warchest - $620 billion - that gives them a significant cushion to ride through some of these sanctions. And the last part on the sanctions that should be noted is Russia and China continue to converge. It's far from an alliance, but still there's a high degree of cooperation and interoperability. And the Russians are counting on the Chinese to ease the shock of whatever sanctions the U.S. applies. So I think sanctions by themselves again are not going to be sufficient.

KELLY: OK. So from your perspective, what would work? What's the broader set of policy options you want?

VINDMAN: Frankly, I don't know if there is much that we can do that could work. But I think if things - meaningful things that could have an effect include forced posture changes in Europe. That's boots on the ground in NATO territory. I could definitely see a merit to some U.S. presence in Ukraine, but I think that's unpalatable to this administration. So what I think is - should be palatable is positioning troops in Europe - in Poland, in Romania, in Bulgaria, in the Baltic states - to reassure them that the U.S. will be there and live up to its obligations under NATO Article 5.

KELLY: Although, as you just acknowledged, President Biden has made clear, if anything, he wants to bring American troops home, not send more overseas.

VINDMAN: That's partially true. I think he wants to extract from direct commitments to contingencies to military operations. But that's not necessarily the same as consolidating U.S. military presence in the United States. But one of the cornerstones of U.S. security is our access in basing overseas. That's not the same thing as putting troops into harm's way. That's not the same thing as combat operations. It's a deterrent and a hedge against aggression from other powers.

KELLY: As I said at the beginning, no one knows for sure whether Putin will invade. But based on what you can see now, based on your military expertise, where would you rate the chances - scale of 1 to 10?

VINDMAN: I would say, I'm somewhere at an eight, which is pretty amazing. I - this weekend, as I was thinking about these meetings unfolding, I kind of had the pre-combat patrol, pre-battle jitters of recognizing something really serious was coming.

KELLY: And why? What was it you were looking at that was giving you the jitters?

VINDMAN: Because right now, as far apart as the sides are, Russians have laid out a maximalist position. The U.S. said it's not willing to negotiate on very principled positions - I agree with those positions - on sovereign states determining their own orientation and rolling back the clock on the NATO alliance back to 1997. I don't see - and Russia's main focus here, which is achieving a failed state in Ukraine - how we could overcome these things. There is - the most likely scenario in my mind is a major military offensive in Ukraine. I hope I'm wrong, but that's what I see. The less likely scenario is some sort of diplomatic negotiation with some off ramps, with some face-saving measures, where the Russians can say, well, we are in the midst of negotiations - we might be able to achieve what we want. I find that hard to believe that we'll head in that direction.

KELLY: Did I just hear you say Putin's goal here might be achieving a failed state in Ukraine? Why...

VINDMAN: That's exactly right.

KELLY: why? Why would he want that?

VINDMAN: Well, mainly because he needs a weaker state in Ukraine for two probably - primarily two reasons. The first one is Ukraine as a success makes Russia - the Russian exercise of managed democracy a failed experiment. If Ukraine can transition to a democracy, why can't Russia do the same thing? And two, really there is a deep fear of Ukraine slipping out of Russia's sphere of influence.

KELLY: Alert listeners may recall, Colonel Vindman, that you served on Trump's National Security Council until he fired you after you testified in the impeachment inquiry. I bring it up because among the questions that emerged during impeachment was, what is U.S. policy on Ukraine? Who is running it? Understanding listening to you that you don't agree with every aspect of Biden administration policy on Ukraine, in your view, is it now more coherent? Is it clear what the U.S. policy is?

VINDMAN: It's clear in the way it's been clear over the past 30 years, which is to say that it's still muddled. During the Trump administration, we had a coherent, consistent policy that would look similar to the policy of the Obama administration or the Bush administration in certain ways, except for the chief executive. The president was completely at odds with what we - what the national security community thought was in the best interests of the United States. Now we have kind of a more consistent policy that doesn't really express a broad vision on what Ukraine could mean for U.S. national security. It could mean easing the burden of facing a highly capable, highly adversarial Russia in the long term because where Ukraine goes, I could see Russia following. And that's the part that's really missing from this broader vision on what Ukraine means to U.S. national security. It's a linchpin. There's only probably about a handful of places around the globe that are as meaningful as Ukraine in terms of geopolitics.

KELLY: So...

VINDMAN: So that part is missing.

KELLY: In simplest terms, if I'm hearing you right, your argument would be, yes, the U.S. has a coherent policy on Ukraine now, but it's just not as good a policy as the U.S. could have. Is that where you land?

VINDMAN: That's exactly right. And it's not just from the U.S. side. I think the Ukrainians are only now, after 30 years of independence and trying to come out from underneath the thumb of the Russian Federation, are turning to our understanding the role that they could play in regional security and European security. And that's a healthy thing to see. It just has taken a long time to get here.

KELLY: We've been speaking with retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

Colonel Vindman, thank you.

VINDMAN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.