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A former national security official explores what could be next in the Ukraine war

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After months of discouraging headlines about Russian advances and atrocities, in recent weeks, a turning point. Ukrainian forces successfully pushed back Russian troops from territory they had taken months ago, with some reportedly even fleeing on bikes and in ransacked civilian clothes.

We wanted to know what has contributed to this turn of events and, to the degree possible, what could come next. So we called someone with a deep background in the region and deep knowledge of the capabilities on both sides. That's retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He served as the director for European affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration until he testified against former President Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals. Mr. Vindman is now a fellow with a number of foreign policy and civic groups, and he is with us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thank you so much for talking with us once again.

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Thanks for having me on, Michel. I'm looking forward to it as always.

MARTIN: So Ukraine's successes, as I understand it, have been aided by increased aid from the United States, including long-range artillery weapons and better sharing of intelligence. What else do you think the U.S. and NATO can do or should be doing to help ensure more successful efforts in the future?

VINDMAN: So first, I think we should all, as Americans, be proud of the fact that we were able to help Ukraine in achieving this liberation of its territory. The reason that the Ukrainians, in part, were able to realize some of these objectives in a rapid manner is because we provided them with these very, very capable rockets, these now well-known HIMARS rockets that are effective to about 80 kilometers, 50 miles. The Ukrainians were extremely successful at targeting Russia's ammunitions depots to the point where Russia started to run out of artillery for their cannons, and Ukraine was able to break through without suffering significant military losses in the attack.

MARTIN: What do you make of the concerns that if Ukrainians have access to longer-range missiles, they could shoot further into Russia and essentially spark World War III? I mean...

VINDMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Ukrainian officials have pledged in writing not to do so, but do you think there's any validity to those concerns?

VINDMAN: I think it's illogical. Before you get to a nuclear war, you get to a conventional war. Before you get to conventional war, you have to have some prospect of success. Russia is not going to engage in the folly of fighting NATO when it is having disastrous campaign against Ukraine. That's why when I hear, you know, Jake Sullivan talk about providing these long-range rockets to Ukraine being the cause for World War III when he's addressing a group of policymakers and thinkers in Aspen just recently, it's shocking. It doesn't make any sense to me.

MARTIN: Well, you've written about this, and then, of course, you've gotten - there's been an interesting back-and-forth about this. And you say that, look; if Ukraine - this is a piece you recently wrote for "Foreign Affairs." You said, if Ukrainian democracy is going to prevail, U.S. foreign policymakers must finally prioritize dealing with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be. Your argument being that the U.S. is still prioritizing Russia and allaying their sensitivities to the detriment of taking a more forceful stance to support a country that's trying to be a democracy. And, you know, obviously, there are those who disagree with that. They say, you know, Russia remains a nuclear power. There is no choice but to be concerned about allaying their sensitivities. Do you still feel, after all this time, that the U.S. is prioritizing Russia over Ukraine?

VINDMAN: They're prioritizing the notion of what they would like our relationship to be. They want a post-war Russia that we could have a cooperative relationship with over the reality that we are locked in a cold war. Of course, we want to, you know, mitigate the risks of a broader confrontation, but we don't do that by metering in aid to Ukraine and protracting a war over the course of months, maybe years. We do that by helping Ukraine be victorious on the battlefield and foreclosing Russia's ability to conduct a long war.

We should also watch and learn from the signals that Putin is sending. He has been clear. If he is blocked in his military aspirations, he will take a step back and look at other potential solutions. Around Kyiv, he didn't decide to use nuclear weapons or escalate against the West that was providing weapons at the time. He decided to take a more limited objective to Ukraine. He is somebody that is been around for a long time. His objective is to live to fight another day, and it's not a recipe for escalation. It's a recipe for a shorter war, less risky war for the United States, a war that doesn't result in spillover beyond what we are already seeing, this hybrid war between the U.S. and Russia, into a hot war.

MARTIN: And what about for Putin? I mean, you've said it several times that the Russian president isn't suicidal. Forgive me. This is an area of speculation. But I'm wondering what you see as the fate of the Russian president or how this scenario ends for him?

VINDMAN: Within weeks of the beginning of this war, I was comfortable saying that this was the beginning of the end of Putin. I put a mark on the wall, somewhat speculative, that the 2024 election in Russia, this would be an opportunity for him to step aside, still pull all the strings, but put a different face on Russian leadership. But there are other factors that have now started to come into play.

I think we are starting to see increasing unrest inside Russia. There is a nationalist tide rising against Putin. Putin has emboldened, enabled, nurtured nationalism inside Russia as part of the conservative Russian identity. I think that might turn around to bite him in the end because this is a wing of the Russian power structure that is saying Russia should somehow do more. I mean, there is no silver bullet here. There's not much more that Russia can do. So I think this internal pressure is going to continue to build. And the release valve for Putin for a long time was this notion that he could just wait out the West. The West was weak; the West is inherently fractured, and he just needed to wait for those divides to materialize. That's looking increasingly unlikely. So he doesn't have a lot of really good options.

MARTIN: Alexander Vindman is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. He served as director for Eastern Europe and Russia on the National Security Council during the Trump administration.

Alexander Vindman, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this expertise with us once again.

VINDMAN: Thank you, Michel. I'm glad to be on with you again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.