2 former U.S. officials on America's next steps in the Russia-Ukraine war
Ret. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was born in Ukraine and testified in the first impeachment hearing against Donald Trump.
Ret. Col. Larry Wilkerson served as Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the Iraq war.
The two men have unique personal, professional and military histories that have brought them to two very different views on what the U.S. and Europe must do now as Russia continues its attack on Ukraine.
We’ll hear them both.
Ret. Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia on the White House’s National Security Council under President Trump. Military fellow at the Lawfare Institute and senior advisor to VoteVets. (@AVindman)
Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002 — 2005). Served 31 years in the U.S. Army.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re joined by two guests who have considerable and unique experience at the highest levels of American foreign policy, national security and the military. Those experiences have led them to two different perspectives on what the United States should do as Russia’s attack on Ukraine grinds on. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is with us. He served as director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia on the White House’s National Security Council under President Donald Trump. You’ll also remember that he testified in Trump’s first impeachment hearings.
Vindman was the national security staff member who blew the whistle on Trump’s 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which Trump appeared to press Zelenskyy to investigate the Biden family in exchange for further U.S. military support. Vindman later wrote a memoir of the experience titled ‘Here, Right Matters.’ Today he’s a military fellow at the Lawfare Institute and senior advisor to VoteVets. Alexander Vindman, welcome back to On Point.
ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Hi back. Thanks for having me back on.
CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He served for 31 years in the military and in public service, most notably as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell for a dozen years, including during the run-up and launching of the Iraq War. Today, he’s a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Colonel Wilkerson, welcome back to On Point.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to talk in depth about your views on what the United States should do. So let’s just start with what President Biden has done. Most recently, that speech this weekend in Poland, where the president said of Vladimir Putin:
‘He’s a dictator intent on building an empire, and that will never erase a people’s love for liberty.’ And then:
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN [Tape]: Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. For free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness. We will have a different future, a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibility. For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Biden adlibbed those last words and international reaction swiftly followed. The Kremlin said ‘personal insults further undermined relations between the U.S. and Russia.’ European leaders distanced themselves from the remarks. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the West’s goal remains achieving first a cease fire quote and then the withdrawal of Russian troops by diplomatic means. And Macron also said if we want to do that, we can’t escalate words or actions.
Now, the White House quickly engaged in some cleanup. Here’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem yesterday:
ANTONY BLINKEN [Tape]: With regard to the president’s incredibly powerful speech yesterday, I think the president, the White House made the point last night that quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else. As you know, and as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else for that matter. In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question, it’s up to the Russian people.
CHAKRABARTI: Alexander Vindman, let me start with you because, you know, I don’t necessarily want to gaffe or no gaffe. I’m not sure that that’s what really matters. But I am curious about what you both think about whether there’s significance to the president speaking in the way that he did. Insofar as, Does it undermine whatever the U.S. has, ultimate goals might be regarding Ukraine?
VINDMAN: I don’t think so. Frankly, I think there’s a great deal of consistency between Secretary Blinken and the president’s words. The president was not saying that he did not change the prescription or the policy of regime change. He’s just saying this man can’t stay in power. This is something I’ve said on multiple occasions that this is the beginning of the end. This major foreign policy, national security miscalculation on the part of Putin is going to lead to his downfall. It’s not just that he engaged in a unprovoked war, it’s that he’s isolated his country from the entire world.
It’s a pariah state as long as he’s in power. I think that’s the message that the president is communicating, and it was clarified by Antony Blinken. I think some of the other clarifications were less helpful in terms of couching this as a gaffe or not. I don’t think it was a gaffe. I think he was just speaking from his vast experience that this is the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, how do you respond to that?
WILKERSON: I don’t necessarily disagree with Col. Vindman. Let me just point out what I’m sensing … and what I’m hearing. Is that people within the U.S. government, such as Victoria Nuland, and people probably more dangerously as it was for me in 2002 and 2003 with regard to Iraq. People outside the government, like Senators Graham, Cotton, even Mitt Romney and John Bolton, whom you and I know well, and General Philip Breedlove, the new actor on the scene, but certainly not a new actor in Ukraine.
They’re all putting enormous pressure on what I consider to be a faltering president. Up to this point, he’s been very good, I think. They want to destroy Russia. They want regime change and they will not accept anything less. And they want it just as they did in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Iran. This is fraught with peril. And I think not least for Europe, especially Germany, my German friends, I’m talking with them almost weekly. Now, almost daily. And for America, economically, financially. And just think about it for a moment. People forget Russia is a part of Europe, and certainly from the Urals westward, it is. This is a really dangerous situation, and I’m not sure the president is going to be able to continue to stand up against them, and that’s what worries me.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. So yeah, go ahead.
VINDMAN: I have to say I don’t agree with that. I think this president has shown a great deal of fortitude and leadership. Frankly, in certain regards, probably leading in ahead of his staff and his staff then has to catch up. And we see some of that play out with this whole gaff nonsense. In fact, I agree with Colonel Wilkerson, that this is a very, very difficult situation. It’s a geopolitical earthquake, as I’ve described it. I think it’s likely to lead to a regime change in Russia, eventually.
The thing that concerned me when I looked at the situation starting to unfold half a year ago, is that we still have to contend with a belligerent Vladimir Putin, a more aggressive Russia until 2036. You know, two more terms in office after he wraps up his current term in 2024. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think the fact is that the pressure is on Vladimir Putin, and on the elites are going to result in some sort of breaking point. It could be, on one hand, a much, much greater repression. There they have not cleared all of the different limitations on repression, and we’re heading in that direction.
But I think it’s going to be bigger than that. I think that the isolation of Russia is going to lead to a backlash from the middle class. It’s going to lead to salaries for law enforcement. These repressive tools are not receiving their compensation, they’re due as far as they’re concerned and the body bags coming back by the thousands. That’s another kind of pressure. And most decisively, it’s the battlefields in Ukraine. It’s the lack of success on the battlefields, on the ground in Ukraine that are going to be the decisive factor to whether Putin could achieve any of his aims or claim a legitimate victory. I think that’s increasingly unlikely.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, go ahead.
WILKERSON: Well, I’m not so sure that the media hype in this country, and it is intense. I’d almost call it propaganda that Russia is losing, so to speak, is all that accurate. When I look at their military actions and what they’ve done, where they really are critical and crucial for Russia, if I’m looking at it from their military perspective. Along the northern rim of the Black Sea, they’ve been fairly successful. If they go on to Odessa, I think that’ll be a step too far. But they will have control of that area, which gives us a sort of a leverage on talks, for Zelenskyy to sit down and to come up, as Anatol Lieven pointed out the other day in a really fine article, come up with some sort of diplomatic political solution that we can accept.
So that’s one part of it. Another part of it is I don’t have any problem with Putin leaving, but he’s got to leave because the Russian people want him to leave. Not because of something we’ve done, even if it’s perceived that way. It has to be perceived by the majority of the Russian people that they did it, and not the United States. And I will say quickly it has to be perceived that way by the rest of the world, because we are fast becoming a country that people are retreating from the currency of, retreating from the international financial system, a system we set up immediately after World War II, and seeking other havens for investment.
We have about a trillion dollars of Russian oligarch money invested in the West today, and much of that is in the United States. One of the things, as the Guardian pointed out recently, that keeps us from really doing effective sanctions on the Russian oligarchs is because our oligarchs are in league with them, including some of our bigger banks. And they don’t want that to happen, and they put pressure on people so that it won’t happen. This is a very convoluted and complex situation financially, economically and otherwise, and we don’t need this. We don’t need to bring Russia to its knees. But there are some people who want to do that.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Vindman, we’ve just got about a little over a minute before next break, but go ahead and respond.
VINDMAN: Sure. First of all, I agree that this has to be internal change. The U.S. shouldn’t be perceived to be involved in regime change, so there’s no question about that. With regards to the successes, I think actually there’s a defeatist attitude that resulted in the U.S. staying its support for Ukraine for too long. The successes that the Ukrainians achieved have been vast. I laid out the scenario where the Russians would attack from the northeast and south, but they don’t have the combat power. They don’t have the force to achieve their objectives in the northeast.
And they’re going to have reduced limited territorial gain where Ukraine sustains itself as a sovereign independent state. I think there is a great deal of doubt whether Russia may even be able to achieve its limited objectives. And if it does, this leads to protracted war. And that’s where the U.S. could be off the sidelines, which is where the U.S. has largely been, and provide Ukraine with the kinds of equipment it needs to preserve the world order. Where more powerful states can’t attack perceived weaker states and then snap up pieces of territory. That’s not a world we want to live in.
CHAKRABARTI: This hour, we’re listening to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Colonel Larry Wilkerson. As I said, they’ve served at the highest levels of American national security, foreign policy and in the military as well. And we’re listening through to their differing views on what the U.S. should do right now regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We’ll have a lot more when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today we are joined by retired Colonel Larry Wilkerson and retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, and they’re giving us their views on what they think the United States should do right now regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which has now surpassed one month long. We’ve got some questions here that have come in gentlemen from On Point listeners. This is Mike from Virginia. And here’s what he wants to know.
MIKE FROM VIRGINIA [Tape]: Why don’t they find a way to cut the head of the snake? Target Putin with a cruise missile, the CIA to tell them where he is at what time and just take him out? I think the Russian people will lose the will to fight, and Ukraine will get their borders back and the world will be a lot better place.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, this is actually a question that we get quite frequently these days. And you said earlier, you know, I think at a high level, we just presume that people understand why sending a cruise missile to the Kremlin might be a bad idea. But explain in detail why you think U.S.-backed regime change or decapitation in Russia would be a bad idea?
WILKERSON: Well, let’s start with it’s a violation of international law and a violation of the laws of war. And let’s give a demonstration of when we tried to do it in 2003 with two B-2 bombers, each equipped with 2,000 pound satellite guided bombs, and they flew to Iraq, 19-hour flight, and they flew in order to kill. We won’t admit that, I don’t think, we were going to decapitate Iraq. We were going to get Saddam Hussein.
The bombs fell, the bombs exploded, and they killed a bunch of civilians at a place called World Farms because Saddam was not where the intelligence said he was. So that’s one reason it’s against international law. And other reason is that it starts something that states have agreed over time, especially since about 1948. They just don’t want to do to each other. I’m not saying that they don’t try from time to time, but it’s not a good thing to do. And that would be an absolute guarantee that the U.S. would be perceived as causing regime change in Russia.
CHAKRABARTI: And Colonel Vindman, the caller Mike also made the presumption that the Russian people would automatically lose the will to fight. Do you think that would happen?
WILKERSON: Given Russia’s history, I would think that would be a first a shock, and it would probably be more of a disadvantage for the other side of this war, than it would an advantage. Because if you want to steal the Russian people and the feeling that they’ve been violated, that’s a clear way to do it. I don’t care how bad the dictator is.
VINDMAN: Well, I think in this case, Mike, the listener, hit on something that’s actually quite true. That this is Putin’s war and that if Putin wasn’t in power, this would largely probably come apart. I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that his own senior leadership, except for a very, very small inner circle, wasn’t aware of this. And it doesn’t enjoy a great deal of support. Certainly, he doesn’t enjoy a great deal of support from the troops on the ground that are reluctant. But that doesn’t fundamentally change, I think, what Colonel Wilkerson hit on. Is that this is not the kind of world we want to live in, where you could assassinate a foreign leader and institute your own regime, your regime preferences.
That’s not aligned with U.S. values. It’s not aligned with U.S. interests, more importantly. Because it is probably more like this is one of those situations that is almost certainly likely to lead to a major escalation and probably nuclear war, because Russia is a nuclear power. So on that basis alone, from an interest standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But yes, it is Putin’s war, and he’s the one that could turn this on a dime, and end this war.
CHAKRABARTI: So I promise you, in a minute, we’ll step away from the question of U.S.-backed regime change in Russia. But Colonel Wilkerson, you said something very interesting a couple of minutes ago. You know that you were obviously, you were there in the room in 2002, 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq War. And the pressures that came from key members of then the administration of President George W. Bush.
Now, of course, the president himself at the time was very amenable to the idea of invading Iraq. I don’t actually think that President Biden is necessarily amenable to the idea of regime change in Russia. At least his staff is saying that he is not. But can you tell us a little bit more of what does that pressure look like, what is going on right now that feels so familiar to you.
WILKERSON: The pressure is very complex. I try to teach this to my students, and I’m afraid many times I fail. They probably teach me more than I teach them. But this business of being in the White House, and being subject to so many different influences at the same time that you were subject to very powerful influences that are very telescoped. And that’s your secretary of state, your secretary of defense, maybe some of your friends in your network and so forth. Maybe the Congress. It’s an extraordinary situation for a president, especially one who’s not very experienced.
And let me just say that gives me some hope here, because I’ve known Biden for some 30 years. He is probably the most experienced in foreign and security policy president we’ve had in a long time. That said, there are still these forces out there that are constantly working. Look at what was reported this morning. I think it was Der Spiegel about General Breedlove. And what General Breedlove has been doing ever since his tour in Europe, and maybe even before that, in conjunction with the CIA and possibly even some little green men from the U.S. side. And by that, I mean Erik Prince-type men.
He’s been really fomenting things over there … to keep the thing going, to keep the low level guerrilla war going in the eastern provinces to the eastern oblast. So you’ve got some really nefarious creatures out there who are putting pressure on Biden. And then you’ve got the biggest pressure of all. And that’s the domestic public opinion. Your poll ratings, your potential for your party being reelected in the next election, the midterms. All of these things weigh heavily on you, and I think that’s one reason you slip up, get emotional and make comments like Biden did in Poland.
VINDMAN: I’m sorry. I think I feel necessary to respond to at least one of the points, so I’m familiar with Victoria Nuland. I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m close to her, but I’m generally an admirer of her skills with that part of the world. And I’m familiar with General Breedlove and I’ve seen him in action recently. I think these are all committed public servants, either in or out of uniform or out of government, and they want to do what they think is best for us National Security Trust. In this case, I would frankly agree with them that we are not doing enough.
We’re sitting on the sidelines of this major geopolitical earthquake, a war between the largest country in the world and the largest country in Europe that has every possibility of spilling over. And they’re trying to figure out how to end this war relatively quickly before it becomes a protracted war. And Putin resorts to doubling down and looking for opportunities and vulnerabilities that ultimately drag the U.S. in. And that’s I mean, I’m not sure about all of the features that Colonel Wilkerson mentioned about General Breedlove’s activities, but my interactions with him suggest that he is doing what he thinks is right, and I agree with him on many of the things he’s looking at. And I’m far from a war hawk.
CHAKRABARTI: So just for clarity’s sake for listeners. Victoria Nuland is the assistant secretary of state right now.
WILKERSON: May be the secretary of state later on, which worries the hell out of me.
CHAKRABARTI: So this is exactly why I’m so grateful that both of you could be with us today. Because the two of you have been in those rooms, those spaces where decisions are made, where debates are hashed out, that have an impact on millions and billions of people. So let me just get down right to it. And Colonel Vindman, let me start with you right now. If you were standing in the Situation Room or in the Oval Office, and you had to summarize what you think the United States goals should be at this moment regarding what’s happening in Ukraine. What would you say to the president?
VINDMAN: Sure. So first, this is very unique, from my perspective. It’s a pretty unique White House, a very insular White House with really only a handful of voices reaching the president with any influence. Everything else is kind of a background noise, so not having a long, long relationship with him. I probably wouldn’t be a voice that resonates. But I think what I would counsel is that we, the U.S., is on the sidelines. It doesn’t have to get deeply involved in this war. It probably, the best thing we could do is frankly help the Ukrainians be decisive on the ground. And that’s upping the kinds of support we provide them, that’s providing them with unmanned combat, aerial vehicles that even the battlefield with Russia. Russia’s biggest advantages are for long range fires, these ballistic missiles that come screaming in from hundreds of kilometers away, planes on airfields relatively close to Ukraine helicopters.
That’s what’s sustaining this war, because they’ve taken punishing losses on the ground, with regards to the ground forces. The ground force commanders are the ones that have led this military. The Russian military for decades. So it’s already receiving punishing blows from the Ukrainians defending their homes with somewhat minimal support, I would say, from the West. I think we need to up that support. So the Ukrainians could end this work quickly and compel a diplomatic solution. That’s how this ends. This ends with a negotiation where Putin doesn’t feel like he’s above it or he doesn’t need to negotiate with Zelenskyy. He’s forced to go to the negotiating table, and there’s an accommodation to be made there. That’s the way I would look at the situation and U.S. commitments to Ukraine.
CHAKRABARTI: So Colonel Wilkerson, we’ve actually already had several people on the show who have said something very similar to what Colonel Vindman just said there. To essentially assist in arm and support the Ukrainian military, so much so that it can take those actions necessary on the ground to defeat Russia. Now, in previous interviews, I’ve heard you expressed some concerns even about that idea of increased U.S. military assistance.
WILKERSON: I have some problems with the calibration of that sort of thing. If there are geniuses in the military and in the White House and elsewhere in the security apparatus, who can do that fine. But I’ll quote you what Powell used to say all the time: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.
Calibrating that kind of support is difficult, so if you are going to try that and I do agree with Colonel Vindman that that’s what we really should be doing. Then you need to air on the light side rather than the heavy side, because the heavy side produces a stalemate, and protracted war and probably an even greater tragedy than we already have.
And what I’m hearing right now is that Zelenskyy himself and the people around him, I assume, have made progress in what they’re calling the Ukrainian-Russian talks. To the extent that a settlement that provides for meaningful integrity, sovereignty, independence, statehood for Ukraine is possible. And that’s the best solution. So calibrating the support so that you don’t get beyond that possible solution, I think is very important. And yet I’ll still point out that it’s extraordinarily difficult to do, especially when you have people salivating on the sidelines to get more and more arms in there because they make a profit from it.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, if I can just pursue that a little bit more with you, I think you just then got to what one of your primary concerns is. Because I think last week I heard you say in an interview that the additional several billion dollars that the Biden administration has committed to Ukraine, that really ultimately the only people who profit from it are the defense contractors in the United States. But let me ask you, I mean, if that is the case, but that is what is necessary to provide the kind of material and military support to Ukraine. Perhaps so be it right now.
WILKERSON: Well, you have to come to that conclusion in a circumstance like this, I think where it is going to be critical and key to bringing about a negotiated and diplomatic solution, but you have to be very cautious as you do it. And if you’re president, and this is one thing I try to teach my youngsters too, if you’re president, what you say at the top should be the order of the day. Often when it’s implemented on the ground, you wouldn’t even recognize. And that’s what you have to always consider. Clausewitz called it the friction of war, and indeed, with the U.S. and its system, the friction is enormous.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Vindman, do you want to respond to that?
VINDMAN: Yeah. So I think we seem to fundamentally agree that we need to be careful about the kind of aid we support, and help Ukraine advance the cause of politics and diplomacy through military successes. My view is that Vladimir Putin has still not shifted off his maximalist demands. … He does, in fact have a country of 140 million people. The depots of military equipment are vast and deep, and he could keep feeding equipment in, even though his most advanced portions of his military have really have been hammered pretty hard.
My prescription would be to give the Ukrainians more, and I think Colonel Wilkerson would be surprised with how much of the administration, the top echelon, agree with him. That it has to be very, very, very carefully metered in. And to me, that comes across as too careful. Because the bar for a broader confrontation is very, very high. Russia is already bogged down in Ukraine with a punishing war. They are not interested in a conventional war with the U.S. I think the aperture for capable systems, beyond what they’re receiving, beyond the Javelins. These are the anti-tank missiles and the stingers that are short range air defense.
The apertures should be opened up to medium and long range air defense. There’s plenty of stuff in the inventory for Soviet-era equipment that the Ukrainians could operate. I think the Turks have actually established a interesting template. They’ve provided unmanned combat aerial vehicles that have been very effective for the Ukrainian military. That aperture should be opened up for U.S. unmanned combat aerial vehicles. And that’s what resolves this issue.
That’s what prevents it from becoming a grinding war of attrition, a stalemate. A sharp conclusion with regards to Russia losing the important parts of its military that allow it to sustain this campaign. With long range fires, aerial bombardments, when it runs out of that, then it has no choice but to negotiate. And that’s what I hope to see, because otherwise this does become a protracted war with risks of greater involvement from NATO and the U.S. over the long term.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, Colonel Wilkerson, we’ve got a minute before our next break. You take that last minute.
WILKERSON: Well, I just say that going back to Clausewitz again, war has its own dynamics and you do the sorts of things, you exceed the sorts of balance that I was talking about before. And you do the sorts of things that really cause problems for Russia, that causes them to double down. The most common for the last 5,000 years of warfare, the most common mistake commanders make, presidents, dictators, whatever, U.S. generals, is reinforcing strategic failure.
And you don’t want to force Putin into a point where because he has great depth, actually, that’s Russia’s massive strategic advantage. He has great depth and he has depots and he has people producing arms and so forth. So you could track this for a long time. And if you make the enemy, as Sun Tzu said, cornered, and don’t give him an exit route, he is apt to strike out with everything he has. And that brings me to my principle concern in this whole conflict. And that is that the Russians have published doctrine, published military doctrine that they will use tactical nuclear weapons. Now the format for it is an attack on the CSTO, presumably by NATO, and they would use those weapons.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, go ahead and finish your thought on Russia’s published a doctrine regarding nuclear weapons.
WILKERSON: We know from the Swedes, the Finns, the Norwegians and others who actually had observers at their core level exercises in ’14, ’15, ’16 so forth. We know what they thought about NATO’s advantage and precision guided munitions, and they couldn’t counter it. So they came up with a doctrine that they would essentially use low yield tactical nuclear weapons on the flanks and the nose of any penetration into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, their equivalent of NATO, should it occur.
And that doctrine is there. We’ve responded to it. We responded to it by backing out of the intermediate nuclear force treaty, so we could build similar weapons. Again, that treaty eliminated most of those weapons, if not all of them. And so it’s a very dangerous thing we’ve done. But let me say something else too. In your interim there, you mentioned the climate crisis. This is a huge problem. The head of the delegation for both Russia and Ukraine to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate, on the Climate Crisis that published this report on February 28th.
A daunting report, if you read the technical section, essentially condemn the invasion. Certainly, one understands the Ukrainian head doing that, but the Russian head did it too, brave man. He, I hope he’s still alive, and they did it for the reason that I’m going to state now. There is a bigger crisis roaring down the track at us and we need to get these little crises, and I mean that, underhand in order to meet that one, or we’re going to be going the way of the dinosaurs, and it’s not going to be very far into the future. It’s in my grandchildren’s lifetime that this is going to happen.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Vindman, go ahead.
VINDMAN: OK, so I’m not sure if I would agree with the largest country in the world going into the largest country in Europe as a little crisis. It’s not. Just think about the scale of that on a map, that takes a large part of the landmass of the Earth in war, and the expansion is pretty high. But I think this is one of the dangers, that Vladimir Putin is a KGB case officer. He preyed on our hopes and fears for two decades. The hopes that there was more that we could do, that we can bring Russia into the democratic world, that we could work with them on climate change. But we forget that there were not a willing partner for many of these efforts.
And then he also preyed on our fears, fears that our devolution relationship would set up a dynamic of hostility between the two nuclear powers. We probably need to set aside some of those, some of that wishful thinking about Russia, certainly as long as Vladimir Putin’s in office. And take our policy direction from where we actually could receive legitimate outcomes. So don’t say we need to engage, we need to prioritize Russia. Because it’s the biggest country in the world. When we know that Vladimir Putin is not going to be a cooperative counterpart to our aspirations. We invest in places like Ukraine where we know that there are willing partners. They want to be part of the democratic world.
They want to integrate into Europe. … This is one of the reasons that we found ourselves in this war. We look the other way too often. And Vladimir Putin doubled down. And this is from his earliest days, the Chechen War, interfering in Ukraine in 2004, resulting in the Orange Revolution. Going to war against Georgia, assassinating his opponents with nuclear and chemical agents, interfering in our elections. It’s not because we did too much. It’s because we did too little. It’s because we looked the other way. That’s a huge mistake. That’s one of the lessons we should have going into managing this conflict. It’s not that we are going to do too much in this situation to help Ukraine, where this is, will decisively end, and it’s that we’re likely to do too little. And that’s how this becomes a protracted war.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Vindman, can I just jump in here for a quick second? I’m listening very, very carefully to what you’re saying. And emotionally, at this point in time, just speaking for myself here, watching Russia, you know, raze to the ground Ukrainian cities is very, very, very difficult. Because here we have a U.S. ally that’s being invaded, attacked and destroyed.
But when I hear you talk about all the terrible, really terrible things that Vladimir Putin has done over time. I hear echoes of the same kinds of remarks that were made regarding Saddam Hussein, for example. And those were the reasons offered, some of the reasons offered, to justify an invasion essentially, but a massive escalation regarding Iraq. And look where that got us. So for people who are hearing those same echoes, what would you tell them? Why is this different?
VINDMAN: That’s an interesting analogy. I would say that for me, a student of Russia, a student of Vladimir Putin and working on the National Military Strategy in 2016, I laid out the same case that we had some wishful thinking about our adversary, and that there was going to be an increasing likelihood of a confrontation between the West and East.
Now under that, if we were creeping in that direction under the previous Bush and Obama administrations, we lurched forward with a Trump administration. Because greater opportunities opened up, looked like the U.S. was internally fractured, weak, distracted that the divide between the U.S. and NATO’s alliance was going to be something that would really enable Russian power. Fracturing the NATO alliance would allow President Putin to use pressure bilaterally against states, weaker states, smaller states, the Baltics, for instance. And we missed those signals.
We missed those signals because we thought that, you know, this is a far off hazard. We were looking at transactional near-term risks consistently, and we didn’t want to really ratchet up the support to Ukraine in a big way to make it unpalatable for Vladimir Putin. We thought that it would look like it was too provocative. I think my lessons learned here is based on the fact that we’ve seen this play out with Russia. And again, it’s not been because we’ve done too much. It’s because we’ve done too little to challenge Russia’s growing aggression through two decades of leadership.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, let me turn back to you here. Because I do know what you said about climate change, but in terms of like massive long term challenges to the world, I would include the sort of fundamental shifts that have happened because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
I mean, we have Germany basically putting down its, you know, 70 year long, essentially pacifist stance and investing a great deal more in its military. Perhaps Finland looking to join NATO, we’re watching to see what China is going to do. So in that respect, all of these things make this situation with Vladimir Putin feel light years different from what you and Secretary Powell, et cetera, in the Bush administration were dealing with regarding Iraq. And what would you say to that?
WILKERSON: Well, I’ve got news for Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. … NATO’s been falling apart since George W. Bush. Just look at the relationship that he established with Chancellor Schroeder and what Powell had to do to keep the transatlantic relationship alive. NATO began to fall apart when the old military mantra began to be non-applicable, and that mantra was NATO was formed to keep the U.S. in, Russia out and Germany down. Well, Germany’s up, Russia is a very different state, and the United States, is trying again desperately to reestablish its previous hegemony over Western Europe and Western Europe is resisting.
And well, they should resist, they’re 740 million strong now counting Russia. And I say that intentionally. Counting Russia. Their GDP is the equivalent, if not slightly more than America’s, and they constitute along with China, India, America and Europe, the three poles in the world. And we need to begin to recognize that. As … a Russian journalist said, we really need and this is keeping us from that, and I hope we get a political settlement soon so we can start to deal with this, especially before we get a new president in 2024, who might be the governor of Florida right now.
That’s a whole new deal. We need to deal with this. Europe needs to stand up politically, economically with Russia in it and establish its own security architecture and its own security identity. That’s desperately needed. So the powers in the world can get on to meet these new challenges, like revivify nuclear weaponry and also the climate crisis.
We’re not going to get there if we keep dealing in these things like Ukraine, like Syria, like Yemen, and we forget all about these other places. In Yemen, people have been dying for 10 years by huge numbers, and we’re not even paying any attention to it. But we focus on Ukraine because they’re white and they look like us. The same things happening in other countries, too. This is a distraction. It’s a brutal, savage distraction. But it is that and we cannot let that distraction keep us from the bigger crises.
VINDMAN: So I guess I mean that those comments are at least six weeks out of date. This is a struggle between the struggle for the direction of the 21st century. Do we want a 21st century in which democracies determine their own destinies or do a handful of states? Russia, according to Vladimir Putin, it’s Russia, China and the U.S. dictate terms for the rest of the world. That’s what we’re fighting for here.
WILKERSON: It’s a struggle for the rest of the planet.
VINDMAN: But that’s simply not true that this is a small scale sideshow. This is the direction of the 21st century. The authoritarian regimes are on the rise. They see their way of life, their leadership as the dominant force in the 21st century. We still believe in values, in a western liberal order in self-determination, sovereign states get to choose their destinies as per the UN charter. That is what the struggle is about. It’s much, much bigger than this, and it has every possibility of spilling over into a much, much longer war with larger parties involved. What we have to recognize is —
WILKERSON: Article five is not operative. Is that what you’re saying?
VINDMAN: Ukraine has actually saved us in a huge way. If this war had ended quickly, it would have set a template for China to do the same thing. It would set the template for Iran to be belligerent in its portion of the world and use military might. We don’t have to worry about that because the Western world has consolidated in such an amazing way to resist authoritarianism. Resist naked wars of aggression, that China now has to be thoughtful about. Does it want to pursue a Taiwan scenario? Unlikely.
Because it knows that the economic and potentially the military cost, it has to reevaluate its assumptions. Same thing for other authoritarian regimes. This is a pivotal battle for the direction of the 21st century, a struggle between democracies and authoritarianism. And right now, it’s the Ukrainians that are fighting it largely on their own. The least we could do is provide them some support so they could win and preserve the kind of prosperity for the West that we all wish we could live in.
WILKERSON: Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries on the face of the Earth.
VINDMAN: That’s not true.
WILKERSON: It had to revivify itself in the last year or two.
VINDMAN: It’s making steady progress.
WILKERSON: They haven’t had anyone in the presidency of that country who wasn’t a first class oligarch stealing money from everyone around.
VINDMAN: That’s not true. This current individual came out as an actor …
WILKERSON: This is media hype.
VINDMAN: That’s not true. I have studied this region.
WILKERSON: You sound like a neo-conservative. …
VINDMAN: Your assertions about tactical nuclear weapons were also wrong. We just didn’t have a chance to talk about it. Vladimir Putin, actually Dmitri Medvedev underlined the uses of tactical nuclear weapons. That was in case of an existential threat to the regime. You tried to clarify it by saying it was —
WILKERSON: You want to make the government existential threat to the regime. You and your colleagues want regime change in Moscow.
VINDMAN: That is not true. It would be Ukraine defeating Russia on the battlefield. Shocking as it is. That’s what’s shaping up for the reality.
WILKERSON: Well that won’t do it.
VINDMAN: Well it has very little to do with what we’re doing.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so gentlemen, let me just let me just step in here for a second. First of all, I just want to say I welcome this debate and I wish we had more than two minutes remaining, unfortunately, to really sort of pull on each one of the threads that both of you are bringing here. But I literally have one minute to give to both of you for this last thing, because we keep getting questions from listeners who really want to understand how to view this moment.
I mean, we got a question from Mary in Charlottesville, Virginia, who said, How is the USA different from the Russian Federation right now? And she points to bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, saying Saddam Hussein had WMDs. She said, Let’s talk about oligarchs. Let’s talk about American oligarchs who then, in her words, introduced their halfwit progeny to elite institutions that boost you into the 1%.
How is this different from Russia’s oligarchy? And then she says, you know, you talk about propaganda and the war. What about the propaganda that Americans consume all the time? You can blame it on Facebook, but who lets Facebook operate unhindered? She wants to understand that there’s meaningful differences between the United States and Russia, and we’re down to about 30 seconds here. And Colonel Vindman, I’ll let you go first.
VINDMAN: Well, I think Colonel Wilkerson, I would probably agree on much of that, much of it the caller’s commentary. I think the difference here is the Ukrainian people. They’re the ones that are struggling and fighting for their independence. They’ve tasted it for 30 years and not being under Russia’s control, they’re going to they’re going to take over their own national interests the way they wish, which is to fight and defend their homeland.
That’s how this is resolved. We are a kind of a marginal player here with regard to support. They’re going to fight the struggle for independence on their own. We could either sit it out and hamper our long term national security interests, or we could help. And then we live up to our values and our interests in that regard.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, you get the last 30 seconds here.
WILKERSON: I’ll be really quick. In the balance of things in the world today. I would not sacrifice Ukraine if I could save it, but I would sacrifice it in a heartbeat, all 44 million of them, if it meant stopping a nuclear holocaust that would envelop the world. And that’s what we’re talking about with this new emphasis on the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. And the potential for their use, and putting someone in a corner where he ultimately might do something like that and start a general exchange. And as far as the war going any wider, I don’t see it doing that as long as Article five is operative. Because he knows an attack on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro of all places is a nuclear umbrella attack.
Foreign Affairs: “America Must Do More to Help Ukraine Fight Russia” — “Kyiv is still standing. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still leading. Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, has still not brought Ukraine to its knees.”
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