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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Alexander Vindman: An Urgent Warning For Ukraine About A Second Trump Presidency

Former Director for European Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council, Alexander Vindman is the Ukrainian native who got ensnared in Donald Trump's first impeachment investigation. Since the Russian invasion of his native Ukraine, he has been urging more Western support for Kyiv. The coming NATO summit is key, but so to are the 2024 U.S. elections.

Alexander Vindman

Alexander Vindman, key witness during former U.S. President Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry.

Sevhil Musaeva

KYIV — The story of Alexander Vindman could become the plot of a Hollywood movie. Born in Kyiv, he and his twin brother immigrated to the United States at the age of three and a half years, alongside their family. Later, he pursued higher education and a career in the military, serving in the Iraq War where he suffered a severe injury and was subsequently awarded the Purple Heart. He then shifted his focus to a diplomatic career, working in U.S. embassies around the world.

In 2019, as the Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council of the White House, Vindman was one the few officials allowed to participate in a conversation between the then-U.S. President Donald Trump and newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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It was during this conversation that the then U.S. president asked Zelensky for a "favor," calling on him to help with an investigation into Trump’s primary electoral rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden.

Vindman decided to testify about the attempt to pressure the Ukrainian president, and became one of the key witnesses in the impeachment case against Trump. In February 2020, the Republican-majority Senate voted against the impeachment. A few months later, Trump lost the election to Joe Biden.

Vindman's testimony in the Senate cost him his career. He has since focused on academia, recently completing a doctoral program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vindman has been serving as an expert and commentator on Ukraine and Russia, consistently advocating for the West to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles and aircraft.

Vindman arrived in Kyiv ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius, where he spoke with Ukrainska Pravda:

Woefully inadequate

UKRAINSKA PRAVDA: We are meeting in Kyiv, the city where you were born, the city that Vladimir Putin thought he could capture in three days. The full-scale war has now been ongoing for a year and a half. How do you feel in Kyiv at the moment — both as a native of this city and an American military analyst?

Personally, I feel a sense of pride for my country. My brother and I were born here. We immigrated to the United States when we were very young, around three and a half years old.

My father used to share many stories about life in Ukraine, but as an American, they didn't really resonate with me. But now that I have worked in this region and interacted with the Ukrainian people, I feel a sense of pride in my heritage.

From a professional standpoint, I have years of experience working with the people here, which has instilled great confidence in them. There are very few places in the world where people would be as ready to resist if they perceive unfair treatment. That's the spirit of the first Maidan - the Revolution of Dignity. It's a fight for justice.

I believe the same applies to the battlefield. I wasn't among those analysts who predicted Ukraine's downfall. I always said that Ukraine would be effective. But I didn't realize just how effective Ukraine would be and how ineffective Russia would be.

Even before the war began, despite not being part of the government, I was involved in advisory groups for the White House and the National Security Council, where we discussed what was happening. I was convinced that war was approaching, and I firmly believed that we needed to do more to try to prevent it and arm Ukraine to counter Russian aggression.

Unfortunately, we didn't do enough.

UP: Do you understand why?

I actually understand it quite well.

After I left the government, I pursued my doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University. My research focused on U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine since 1991. I realized that we often bought into the idea of "Russian exceptionalism" and the idea that Russia was a superpower.

The U.S. hoped for cooperation with Russia and feared a deterioration of relations could lead to a new Cold War.

At the same time, they could have explored the advantages of cooperating with Ukraine.

Ukraine, of course, faced certain challenges in the 1990s and early 2000s during the time of (Leonid) Kuchma, but when the Orange Revolution took place, there was a significant turn towards Western integration. We had a tremendous opportunity for potential cooperation with Ukraine, which we did not take advantage of, once again because of Russia.

How much has this major war changed things? It provided the U.S. with a clearer picture of Russia as an adversary. But we still haven't abandoned our desire to somehow bypass this war and normalize relations with Russia, at least partially. This sentiment is evident in our actions.

Our woefully inadequate arms supplies to Ukraine are a result of our failure to determine what our future relationship with this region will be. We still believe that it will revolve around Russia. We do not provide enough weapons because we are concerned about internal stability in Russia.

Fear is still what guides our relationship.

Donald Trump (Right), Volodymyr Zelensky (Left)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in September 2019.

Shealah Craighead/White House/ZUMA

Build momentum

UP: This is probably why Ukrainians still don't understand the position of the United States and, perhaps, other Western countries. What would our victory look like to you: a return to the 1991 borders; a seat at the negotiating table as soon as the opportunity arises; or perhaps the collapse of Russia?

I don't think even the U.S. has defined it in any way. This lack of clarity frustrates many observers who wonder what U.S. strategic goal with respect to Russia and Ukraine is.

But it's worth saying that we support Ukraine's desire to establish its sovereignty and territorial integrity within its 1991 borders. When I was in the White House, we drafted a declaration on Crimea, clearly stating that Ukraine's territorial boundaries are its 1991 borders.

The price and human cost of getting it back may be too high.

I am a bit of a pragmatist. I believe that Ukraine will face highly significant challenges on its way to liberating Crimea. Crimea may well not be part of the equation during the initial resolution to halt the fighting. But it may be within the framework of a final settlement. This is mainly because the price and human cost of getting it back may be too high.

But this does not change the trajectory that Western society and Ukraine want to pursue. Crimea may return in five to ten years.

Nevertheless, the situation continues to evolve. We just saw a military uprising in Russia because of how badly the war is going for them. It's possible that Ukraine will start to build momentum and put Russia in an increasingly precarious position that could change the dynamics concerning Crimea.

F16 training has begun

UP: Can we expect more from our partners? Before we started the interview, we discussed [the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine] Valery Zaluzhny, who said that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is going to be extremely difficult without ATACMS and F16s.

I advocated for supplying airplanes, missiles, and everything else we could offer to Ukraine.

For a long time, the U.S. government decided not to do so based on deep fears of escalation that turned out to be misplaced.

That changed, and we have just started training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, but this should have been done a year ago.

UP: Every day is important to us because the lives of our military are at stake. Zaluzhny put it this way: an offensive without airplanes is like going forward with a bow and arrow.

The U.S. government or the U.S. Army would never have fought without air power. We would never operate without air cover.

It's absurd that we expect the Ukrainians to perform miracles without it. But I think that General Zaluzhny's interview will probably have an impact. He is very well respected.

Ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11 and 12, the Biden administration is already facing some criticism. How can Ukraine encourage this administration to consider its NATO accession more seriously? My role is to stimulate this discussion and address other practical matters - the provision of ATACMS, the coordination of aircraft delivery timelines, augmentation of tank supplies, armored personnel carriers, artillery, etc. These are equally important. They are crucial in assisting Ukraine to achieve its primary objective - winning the war before the situation escalates and leads to significant losses.

Russia will be in a difficult situation by the end of this year. Judging by the way the war is developing, Ukraine is going to destroy most of Russia’s manpower and equipment. Russia will have to decide whether it will continue this war indefinitely.

To do that, it has to mobilize hundreds of thousands more troops, wait months for them to learn some basic skills, and put them back into combat to conduct another offensive on the Russian side. Or wait for negotiations. All we could do to help this process is to help win more victories, more weapons systems, and give clearer guarantees for Ukraine's integration into NATO.

This could push Russia to negotiate rather than double down its war effort. But if Russia decides to escalate, it will have to put the entire country on a military footing and use all of its economic power to produce weapons and train personnel for a long, long war.

2019 inauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky

Alexander Vindman (far left) at the 2019 inauguration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Mykola Lazarenko / The Presidential Administration of Ukraine

The DT disaster scenario for Ukraine

UP: What will definitely impact the war are the U.S. presidential elections. You have your personal history with former President Donald Trump. What do you expect? Is it possible that he will be reelected, and how would that affect the war?

If Trump were to be elected, the world would find itself in a challenging position. I believe that American democracy would be weakened, possibly irreversibly. Having Trump serve a second term without any constraints would be a catastrophe for the United States.

The war between Russia and Ukraine represents arguably the most significant threat to U.S. national security and global stability. It encompasses a significant portion of the globe engaged in conflict.

I think we should be deeply concerned about this underlying trend of populists and nationalists. We thought this era had largely passed since World War II. However, it remains an ongoing threat that we must confront face-to-face and allow our systems to develop “antibodies” against such leaders.

It is almost certain that Trump will secure the Republican nomination, given his strong support, let's say approximately 20%, which is sufficient for him to succeed in the primaries.

On election day, we will have a choice between two individuals. One of them would undermine democracy, while the other would preserve our functioning system and support Ukraine.

Ukraine should do is distance itself as much as possible from U.S. politics.

Regarding the outcome, it's clear to me that Trump cannot win. The reason he cannot win is that he already lost to Biden in 2020 by a significant margin. Since then, he has lost some of his defenders following January 6. People have abandoned him. Now, he is facing charges of mishandling classified information—national security information—which further erodes his support.

Therefore, it's highly unlikely that he can win the general elections, but he will come close to it.

UP: What should Ukraine do in case Trump becomes president?

Trump would be a disaster for Ukraine, and there is no way to establish a relationship with him. He is pro-Putin and anti-Ukrainian.

I think the main thing Ukraine should do is distance itself as much as possible from U.S. politics. It should not take sides.

However, at the same time, if Ukraine faces criticism, it should stand up for itself. It cannot simply say, "Well, we don't want to provoke the president. We don't want to provoke the Republican candidate." That is the wrong response. Ukraine needs to stand up for itself. President Zelensky is excellent in this regard. If someone attacks his country, he should defend it just as he defended it against Russia.

UP: But without American support, it will be very challenging for us to defend our country...

-If Trump is elected, there will be no support from the U.S. For Ukraine, the best outcome is to achieve victory sooner than later. A decisive victory in this cycle of hostilities and a demonstration of long-term support from the U.S. and the EU would be the way to end this war through negotiations before the 2024 elections when the situation will become significantly more tense.

I am almost certain that this time we will not invite Ukraine to NATO. But, honestly, many people will try to exert as much pressure as possible on the U.S. government and NATO...

UP: It seems that the White House itself is against Ukrainian joining NATO now...

The situation may be a bit more complicated. In my opinion, the EU wants to appear overly conciliatory.

If a genuine agreement were reached regarding Ukraine's accession to NATO, we might witness resistance once again, potentially even from (French President Emmanuel) Macron himself. When faced with the need to sign something that contradicts his inclination to maintain relations with Russia, he may hesitate.

However, the issue at hand revolves around the resistance from decision-makers in U.S. national security, as they perceive it as potentially provocative. Yet, this challenge lies in the realm of perception. While I may not possess all the solutions, I remain confident that there is a way to integrate Ukraine into NATO without triggering an escalation of the war.

Ukraine is not a NATO member until all countries vote in favor. The invitation itself would send a powerful signal to countries, especially on the Eastern flank, that would quickly vote in favor. Then a much more challenging process would begin...

UP: When do you think Ukraine will win this war?

There is a high probability that we will start serious negotiations towards the end of this year. I believe by then, the war will take a more predictable turn. It has already lasted over nine years. I think it is best to end it as soon as possible, for the sake of humanity and the sake of Ukrainians.

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