‘Baggage from a severely harmed relationship’
Retired Lt Col Alexander Vindman is doing an enormous amount of doom scrolling at the moment.
He is checking in on friends, and using Telegram channels to track events in Ukraine. He may be best known for telling authorities about a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky in which the American president asked Zelensky to open an investigation into then-presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son. Trump implied that sending Zelensky anti-tank missiles and a security package depended on it.
The Record spoke with Vindman about the cascading events that have taken us form a controversial phone call to the largest territorial aggression in Europe since World War II. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Dina Temple-Raston: So I realize it's not a straight line from a controversial phone call to where we are now, but could you remind us about how this all started?
Alexander Vindman: President Zelensky had just recently been sworn in as the president of Ukraine. I had scheduled a phone call to show U.S. support for this new, inexperienced, energetic, earnest leader to lead his country towards democracy. All the while, [presidential advisor] Rudy Giuliani was talking about Ukrainian corruption, and Ukraine interfering in elections, and how Ukraine was an enemy of Donald Trump. But I was trying to get the president to lift his freeze on all these weapons and to signal to Russia that the U.S. would be there also. Basically Donald Trump undid all that. He created a massive scandal that resulted in Ukraine becoming radioactive for several years when it should've been making those strides to be too big to fail, too big to attack.
DTR: So let me start with the first part, because I think most people don’t remember there was this great animus for Ukraine. Where do you think that came from?
AV: It came from perceived slights. Donald Trump as a candidate had some uninformed opinions on [the annexation of] Crimea, for instance, and he received some criticism from the [Ukrainian] ambassador here. Ukraine was also at the center of the controversy when Paul Manafort, President Trump's campaign advisor, was caught up in a corruption scheme and a fraud scheme. Ukraine was also a useful, useful tool to distract from the criticism he had been receiving about his campaign's collusion with Russia. So instead of saying that it was Russia's fault, he bought into the Russian propaganda — it’s actually a theme that they advanced — that it was Ukraine that was behind the interference. That’s where he was with Ukraine, I think, in hindsight.
DTR: Can you talk about, as you're in that room and listening to the phone call, kind of what you were hearing and what was going through your head?
AV: I'm allowed to talk about it because a lot of this is in the public record. I came into the call with a sense of hope that we could normalize the relationship. [Ukrainian President Volodymr] Zelensky, as you can see, is very charismatic, very, very smart. He had a way with people. So I thought that he had a fair chance of maybe persuading Donald Trump. At that point, I didn't realize [Trump’s] animus [toward Ukraine]. But you could hear it in President Trump's tone. He was monotone and I think I kind of slumped down in my seat. As soon as I heard his tone, I knew it wasn't gonna be a good conversation.
And really the only time his tone changed is when he used that now infamous line, ‘I need you to do us a favor, though’ in response to President Zelensky’s request to purchase more Javelins — these [missile] systems that are so critical on the battlefield in Ukraine. These are the systems that are allowing Ukraine to punch above its weight and to resist a global superpower.
These are the systems that President Zelensky was asking for. These are the systems that President Trump was denying when he said, ‘I need you to do us a favor.’
DTR: You predicted in a New York Times article and in a Foreign Affairs article in December and January that there would be a full-scale Russian invasion from air, land and sea. You expected Putin to invade.
AV: Vladimir Putin is basically the same person he's been throughout the entire entirety of his rule. We see really quite quickly his authoritarian streak in his bent towards a use of hard power. He's a KGB officer. He's a case officer, and he knows how to prey on his targets, whether he’s using hope or he’s using fear – the two kinds of basic approaches. For a little while, not for very long, he used the hopes. He dangled those hopes for the multiple resets [of Russo-U.S. relations] that the U.S. was engaged in.
He also employed fear. Russia became increasingly belligerent. There were some notable speeches in 2005, but he's speaking to his own population about states and state relations.
And he said that there's only a few states that are actually sovereign. Everybody else is a subordinate. In 2007, he challenged U.S. leadership at the Munich Security Conference. By 2008, just on the heels of the announcement that Ukraine would ultimately join NATO, he invaded Georgia and orchestrated a provocation and then launched a war in Eastern Ukraine.
And then from there, he's off and running.
We have an ongoing eight-year war in Ukraine. You have Syria. Assassinations in Germany of opposition leaders. More opposition leaders were getting knocked off in Russia. And all this was met with little resistance. And then of course, using chemical weapons – nuclear-grade materials – to poison Russians who opposed him in the UK. These were very powerful nuclear agents that could have easily killed hundreds, actually thousands. Then the attacks on our elections. The use of illicit finance to prop up far-right parties and then bounties [for killing] U.S. soldiers [in Afghanistan]. All these things didn't really receive a significant response.
DTR: So there are two different scenarios on how this ends. One is the Julius Caesar scenario in which people within the Kremlin end Putin’s rule and then the second one is that he drives all the way to Kiev and manages to install a puppet government. And there's sort of a low-grade war for a long time. What do you see happening?
AV: It's definitely not the second one, because those dreams are dead and Ukrainians killed those dreams with their resistance and their desire to be a free people. What I mean by that is Putin thought that Ukraine would fold – Ukrainians would invite Russian forces in, that Russia would be able to conduct a shock-and-awe campaign and do very little damage, strike strategic targets and roll into cities. Instead, what you have unfold is a stiff resistance. He's going to need a lot more troops. At the same time, Putin is facing protests at home and he's facing eventually body bags coming back in large quantities. Pressure is going to build. So it's not going to be that easy from a military perspective, but the palace coup thing is interesting. I think there's a possibility, but he's been very effective at suppressing opposition. A palace coup is an interesting idea, but they're all really tied into Putin's network. And the question is which one of them has the fortitude to do that.
This is the part about war that becomes endlessly complex and it's hard to figure out what's going to happen in the next day or two, let alone how things could play out in the next month. I can assure you of one thing: This is not going to end the way Putin wanted. He envisioned an easy operation. He envisioned a limited response. Instead he's become the most unifying figure in European history in generations. He's unified the whole world in opposition to him. And he's unified Ukraine and its people like no leader has before. So it's not going to end the way Vladimir Putin wants. The question is how much blood is spilled, how much human suffering there is.
DTR: Do you think he's going to stop at the border or do you think he's going to go further and as he gets more desperate, does that calculus change?
AV: It does. He's cornered. He's not calibrated to backtrack – he's calibrated to double down. It is unlikely that he's going to escalate. He has the nuclear bludgeon, but if you use that, it’s mutually assured destruction. He's not suicidal. He's not a mad man. He loves himself, and he wants to build a legacy and — how do you build a legacy if you destroyed the world? That's not a formula for success. The American public is rightly concerned, to a certain degree, about this nuclear saber rattling. But now when you see a Russian military that's so underperforming, there is zero confidence in that Russian military facing off against the enormous power of NATO.
DTR: What about his cyber arsenal?
AV: He does have cyber, but the geometry gets complex there, too. If he uses cyber against the West, the U.S. uses cyber. What happens when there are casualties as a result of large cyber employment? If he attacks critical infrastructure and that goes down and American lives are lost, then there's going to have to be a response probably above and beyond cyber.
DTR: Is it possible that Zelensky didn't move forces and all that other stuff because he didn’t want to give Russia the ability to say there was a provocation?
AV: Um, if that's the case, I would say that would have been a poor military calculation. From his standpoint, he didn't think war was coming.
DTR: This is exactly what you wrote in a Foreign Affairs article – you saw this coming.
AV: Well, that was on the heels of a New York Times piece that I published at the beginning of December that kind of said war was all but certain. We needed to bring to bear the sanctions that are now rolling in after Russia attacked; we should have started introducing them beforehand. And these weapons that are flowing in now, we should have brought them in before. And the troops that are flowing in now, we should have brought them in beforehand on the conclusion that this was nearly unavoidable by the time we got to December.
And, again, Volodomyr Zelensky had to make some decisions about his country and he didn't think it was going to happen. But if there was a clear assessment that it was going to happen and we warned him, we were warning him for weeks then.
By that point, that war was coming. Then the actions that you, they can no longer legitimately be considered as provocative — it's defensive.
DTR: And do you think he got that? Or did he maybe make some mistakes, because he’s a new leader?
AV: I think that's part of it. I will be the last person to give him criticism — he doesn’t deserve criticism right now. You know, this is something for history and historians, or once we're past this conflict to kind of mark down and attribute to wishful thinking, but that pales in comparison to his accomplishments and to him saving his country.
But I think there's something to be said about the fact that yes, he was somewhat inexperienced and the baggage of the Ukraine scandal caused a friction in the U.S. relationship that also adversely affected his ability to absorb the advice we were giving him. We kept Ukraine at arms length, then all of a sudden, we come in and say ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling.’
We didn't spend a huge amount of time building that relationship. We weren't like a trusted friend saying, ‘Look, we've been working together for years. This is coming. What can we do to help you?’ We just kind of helicoptered in and then offered this advice, you know, all of these things are endlessly complex with a lot of different factors. But that's not a negligible one, that there was baggage from a severely harmed relationship.
I’ve certainly sensed the importance of Ukraine for a while. When I testified in front of Congress, people immediately latched onto the fact that I was born in Ukraine even though I came to the U.S. when I was four years old. But my commentary and my analysis was all about U.S. national security and what it meant for U.S. national security to have a strong partnership with Ukraine. That just didn’t translate. It was thousands of miles away, too far away, for people to kind of understand why it's important to support Ukraine, why we wanted to do everything we could to avoid this war, because now there's a war between the largest country in Europe and the largest country in the world by land mass.
And all of my experience and knowledge suggested that what I thought was going to happen wasn't gonna happen every day, wishing that I was wrong.
DTR: And now it's happened
AV: And now it's happened. And now we're seeing events unfold faster than governments could manage them. And the prospects of a larger confrontation are very, very likely also.
DTR: People who didn't think much about Ukraine have shown a huge amount of support — I've just been kind of stunned how everybody's rallied.
AV: That's true to a certain extent, but is that meaningful support? I have a question about it. I mean, yes, people are like, showing some support, but is there a mobilization to send aid or people contributing resources, people reaching out to their congressmen? We live in such a prosperous country where things are so easy. We just don't understand real hardship.
And I hope we never have to experience anything like that, but we may. We're at the point where some mistakes have been made over the course of a long time and we haven't stayed entirely true to our values and our interests. And we might be paying the cost.
Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”