Comment la guerre entre l'Ukraine et la Russie a changé les États-Unis, avec le Dr. Alex S. Vindman

22 février 2023 - 38 minutes d'écoute

Alex S. Vindman, ancien directeur des affaires européennes au Conseil national de sécurité, rejoint les coanimateurs de Doorstep, Nick Gvosdev et Tatiana Serafin, pour évaluer l'impact de la guerre actuelle entre l'Ukraine et la Russie sur les priorités nationales et internationales des États-Unis. La visite historique du président Biden dans la capitale ukrainienne et sa rencontre avec le président Zelenskyy renforceront-elles l'alliance occidentale et consolideront-elles la politique américaine à l'égard de l'Ukraine ? Qu'est-ce que l'Ukraine peut attendre de plus de ses alliés ? Et en fin de compte, à quoi ressemble la victoire pour l'Ukraine et les États-Unis ?

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NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, looking at this news week, Nick, of a presidential visit to Ukraine, a historic visit, many discussions at the Munich Security Conference, and a great many questions about what is happening next as we reach the first anniversary of the second invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Today we are honored that Dr. Alexander Vindman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and director of the Informed American Leadership program at the Vet Voice Foundation, is joining us to try to figure out where we are today and what we can expect over the next maybe year, if we can do that, in this ongoing war and this upheaval in geopolitics in a very important time. Let's start now.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Alex. We so appreciate you taking the time in your busy schedule. Also, thank you for your service to our country. We want to say that from the bottom of our hearts.

We are approaching and in the week of the one-year anniversary of the second invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the year and what is to come. I know many outlets have done that. Certainly there was a big surprise with President Biden going to Ukraine on Monday and meeting with Zelenskyy in a show that garnered so much exuberance—my WhatsApp was blowing up with family, friends, and reporters from Poland and Ukraine emailing me all sorts of euphoric pictures. Though I am the optimist in this podcast versus Nick's somewhat pessimism, I want to ask you: Is this exuberance real?

When I say that I am particularly struck by a sentence in your latest Foreign Affairs piece: "The next six months will witness a great deal of human tragedy." With the reports just from yesterday from the ministry in Ukraine of Russia targeting 11 attacks in three Eastern regions and the complete suffering and tremendous refugee crisis that sometimes does not get spoken about in the news I am wondering if this euphoria is just that, or have we reached a point where there is a real resolve to provide the support that Ukraine needs and not be slow about offering aid and help?

ALEX VINDMAN: Tatiana, first let me say that I think I am the biggest optimist in this discussion. The answer is that there should be optimism over the future, but we should recognize the difficult road ahead. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe—more than 1,000 km east to west, a population of 45 million—has basically been put into an enormous amount of turmoil. It has been in a state of war for nine years, but the past year has witnessed a full-scale war from Russia, which has resulted in some 8 million people fleeing Ukraine to live overseas and another 5 million displaced persons. That is a significant portion of Ukraine's population that has been displaced and whose lives have been thrown into chaos.

The human toll in terms of casualties, deaths, and injuries has been enormous. Tens of thousands have been killed and injured. If you calculate the Russian losses—I think this is a conservative number—Chairman Milley talked about well over 100,000 killed and severely injured. By Ukraine estimates it is probably closer to 200,000, and I think that is not too far off the mark in terms of the scale of losses for the Russians. The Ukrainian losses are somewhat more opaque, but they have also reached the level of tens of thousands.

Russia's campaign for a large portion of the last year due to frustration—and it will continue this way for the remainder of this war—has been to punish the civilian population because it cannot achieve its military aims fighting the Ukrainian military, so it will strike out with its dwindling resources of cruise missiles and drones at the Ukrainian population, thinking that that somehow is going to break their spirit.

The visit of President Biden is momentous. We should remember that there have not been that many presidential visitors to Ukraine since Ukraine's independence in 1991. President Clinton visited three times, the last time in 2000; President Bush visited once in 2008 as his second term was winding down almost as an afterthought. He did it immediately preceding that notorious North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Bucharest summit in 2008, days before, in which frankly the United States and the West went too far but not far enough. We went too far as in we provoked Russia, but we did not provide any of the security guarantees that would have averted or deterred Russia by granting Ukraine a membership action plan and a path to NATO membership.

Then there was a long break in presidential visitors. Vice President Biden visited on multiple occasions as vice president, but President Obama and President Trump did not visit Ukraine. So from 2008 to 2023, that is 15 years for a country that by many accounts—and certainly by my own assessment—was going to be probably the greatest friction point between East and West and was going to be a flashpoint for a broader war. If that was not completely evident in 2005 with the Orange Revolution, Russia asserting a desire to use military means to achieve its political aims in 2008 with Georgia, and then in 2014 with the first phases of this war and annexation of portions of Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, and Crimea, it was apparent, and we did not do too much.

President Biden gets a lot of credit for this visit, but frankly he could not have avoided a visit. It was not a very closely-kept secret that he was going to go there. For weeks there were discussions about the fact that the president was likely to go there. It made the Secret Service quite anxious, and I am sure there was a lot of pushback from his own bureaucracy, including the Department of Defense.

He ultimately made the decision to go, in part politically, in part because he is sophisticated and has been in government for a long time, he understands the stakes, and he could not go to Poland for a second time and not cross into Ukraine, and he couldn't simply cross the border, put a toe into Ukraine, and call it good. He had to in certain ways follow the lead of other allies, the French and the British in particular. There are too many Western leaders to count at this point who have crossed into Ukraine and traveled to Kyiv, so he would have looked extremely weak and would have been vulnerable politically.

To wrap this up, I think he did the right thing. He was courageous. In a way he tested the Russians' own resolve and this theory that Russia has zero interest in a direct confrontation with NATO. He stated to the Russians that he was going there, not asking permission. Basically he said, "I'm going there and that's it." The Russians stayed away and would not put the president's life in jeopardy. It may very well have been the safest time in Kyiv since the beginning of the war.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of the optics I think that is important, and that is something that the Zelenskyy administration is very good at, taking the optics of world leaders, appearing virtually at summits but not only summits. At the Oscars, at the Grammys, all these different events Zelenskyy has made his presence felt throughout the past year. I think for that portion of the optics it was a great coup in that sense.

I look at and study social media reactions—that's where I'm going with this—and I think of one of Zelenskyy's strongest points has been selling himself as this brave leader, the defense of freedom, and that has resonated in the West in particular—perhaps not in other parts of the world, but we can talk about that in a minute—in a way that is surprising to me. I read in Rolling Stone about musicians who are buying drones for Ukraine. There are all of these subgroups you don't typically expect to be very active in the war. Sean Penn at the Berlin Film Festival putting out his movie Superpower.

Here in the United States, do you know what I am waiting for? I am waiting for my political action figure of Zelenskyy. There is a company called FCTRY, and they make these little figures like Biden and Kamala, and they have a Zelenskyy figure. It is their first international figure. There are these political action figures, and I think that is such an interesting reach of messaging. In a sense if there is this idea that on the ground there is much to be done, I feel—and I want your feedback—there is this great big win for Ukraine on social media.

ALEX VINDMAN: It is well understood that Russia is highly effective at propaganda, particularly effective in the Southern Hemisphere. At times it throws so much spaghetti at the wall that some of the propaganda narrative picks up steam in European capitals. Certainly it is the cornerstone of many a conspiracy theory, but it is amazing how in this war at a critical moment Russia has been caught flatfooted.

In fact Volodymyr Zelenskyy has shown himself to be a master at media relations, information operations, and basically selling facts about this war and packaging them in a way that resonates with the Western public and the democratic world in a way that I don't think any other leader has. If you go back to niche figures during World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt were exceptionally effective, but they were effective within the American and British polity or there was some sort of crossover appeal.

The fact is I don't think there has been anybody like Zelenskyy who has garnered so much broad appeal. Maybe there is nobody else who has been better suited for it because he is a showman and he is an actor. He is also a very, very charismatic leader. When I met him it was immediately apparent. He was endearing and earnest, a lot of things that came to light during this war.

I think that is likely to be the case all the way through the conclusion of this war. He has emerged not just as Ukraine's leader—and he has embraced this role—but as a leader of the free world. I think that is the role he has cast for himself and the role that he is going to continue to play.

I don't mean that in a pejorative way. It is an important thing for leaders to communicate with their constituencies. In this case it is not just the Ukrainian population where he needs to maintain morale, but he needs to maintain the base of support in the Western world, and he has been extremely effective at doing that.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You have anticipated the question that I wanted to direct to you, which is sustaining support. Certainly I think that no other Ukrainian leader when we look at who was running for president back in 2019, if it had been another candidate elected, would have been able to play this role that Zelenskyy has, not only within Ukraine but in terms of mobilizing this degree of international support. Just a shout-out to Tatiana, whose article about Ukraine's digital strategy in Orbis is a leading piece exploring these trends.

The question I think then is the sustainability question. Russian propaganda definitely was on the back foot, but one thing that I have seen coming out of Russian-connected social media channels was to do the, "Why is Biden striding in St. Michael's Square in Kyiv when he should be in East Palestine, Ohio, because of the accident?" That leads to the domestic support question.

You have served in government, you served at the White House, you are continuing your involvement in understanding the dynamics of American leadership. Are you concerned that there could be over time a falloff of U.S. domestic support or where Americans say, "We have given enough, we have done enough, we are going to turn somewhere else"? Are you concerned that as we move from 2023 into 2024 that what looks to be a relatively bipartisan consensus with a few exceptions on this will get taken over by the American election campaign and people who are supportive today of President Biden's approach will want to be less supportive when it is a presidential election year? What is your sense about sustainability moving forward?

ALEX VINDMAN: In government I focused on Russia and Ukraine. Since leaving government I worked on my doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins. I just finished my dissertation. What I am saying is that I couldn't study this issue more closely. It was a concerted effort for a while.

I was initially quite concerned about the notion of "Ukraine fatigue." There certainly have been periods of Ukraine fatigue in the past. There was Ukraine fatigue that set in after 2014 relatively quickly. There was a kind of Ukraine fatigue that set in after Ukraine denuclearized in the mid-1990s, in part because the rationale, the interest basis, for engaging with Ukraine evaporated, and Ukraine actually took some steps in an antidemocratic direction with growing corruption. Losing the values and the interest proposition is basically the kiss of death for foreign policy. You need to have both of those in play to have a functional relationship and at least one or the other to have some sort of relationship. So I have been thinking about this question of Ukraine fatigue for a while.

Part of my conclusion here is that we are in a hyperpolarized society. You cannot get two Americans to agree on pretty much anything from either side of the spectrum. In spite of this Ukraine still enjoys overwhelming support. Even in the latest round of polling Ukraine has probably taken a 5 percent dip from a massive high. It still enjoys 75 percent support for the American population at large saying that we need to do more to support Ukraine. That is pretty amazing in this era of hyperpolarization.

I think what you have with Putin both in the media coverage in Russia but also in Putin's commentary this morning pandering to the extreme right is preaching to the choir. That is a sliver of hardcore population. Probably the hardcore amounts to 5, maybe 10 percent. There is softer support that probably extends all the way out to 20 percent. This is the "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) world. This is also the base of support for Trump. Frankly large parts are driven by former President Trump's deep, deep animus toward Ukraine.

That is not going to change. Those people are not going to be persuaded. I would say large portions of the American public might take their eye off the prize in terms of a busy agenda including upcoming elections, but if the question is raised to them point-blank, Ukraine will still enjoy a high degree of support.

What I do fear a little bit is—as we get into the political season, not probably through the rest of this year but maybe about this point next year or deeper, when we get into primary season—the moderate wing of the Republican Party is going to be attacked by the MAGA wing of the Republican Party with these anti-Ukraine, isolationist narratives. What makes me feel better about this, although this is going to be a fight and is going to potentially jeopardize probably not the next round of funding but the serial funding after that, is that you will have this narrative start to creep in, but a lot of these candidates fully understand that they need to curry favor with a constituency that supports Ukraine. A lot of these candidates are in places where there is a large Eastern European community or a Ukrainian community. Ohio has a massive Ukrainian population.

I guess when all is said and done we may see something similar to the 2022 midterm elections with a rejection of the extreme wing of the Republican Party and continued support—but under pressure and probably with some compromises with some calls for oversight of funding with the Executive Branch being called to account for how resources are spent—and we will also see a different wing, a traditional wing, of the Republican Party be highly critical of the president for not doing enough. That is Mitch McConnell, that is Rogers and McCaul, more traditional Republicans, saying: "This is the most important geopolitical event of 2024 and one of the most important crises that the United States has faced in a generation; why are we not doing enough?" I think it is going to be coming from all sides, ultimately settling in a place of continued support for Ukraine but with danger signs, and we should be alert to those danger signs.

Part of my mission with my efforts with the Institute for Informed American Leadership is to continue to explain to the American public at large why this is important, continue to talk to Congress based on relationships built there, and continue to engage with the White House on how to potentially deliver this kind of content to the public. That is one of the key areas that I am focused on for the next couple of years because of the criticality to U.S. national security.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the ways that we can deliver the message to the public is the media. As a journalist I am very curious: Can you talk about how you think the media has covered Ukraine? What are some deficits? Where can we do better? What needs to be done?

The beauty over the last couple of years is that so many young Ukrainians speak English and are part of the tech world, and I think that has enabled this communication to flow into the West. What is your analysis of media coverage and messaging? What more can we do with messaging?

ALEX VINDMAN: I will start with a broader critique of media and how our system operates. It is a pretty stark contrast when you go to Canada or to Europe and you hear in-depth analysis and discourse around critical topics. That means that you might not be able to get to all of the news out there. Certainly you won't get to the feel-good fluff, but you are covering the important topics in depth.

The way we do our coverage in six-minute sound bites or something like that on the high end is not conducive toward analyzing information. Even people who are skilled analysts of difficult topics have to communicate in short sound bites where you might get one, two, or three ideas across but only in wave tops. Operating on that kind of dynamic makes things challenging.

We have a very, very busy news cycle at any given time. We are still dealing with the aftermath of an insurrection, an effort to steal the election, we are dealing with a radicalized far-right mainstream party that is, if not fully radicalized, significantly swayed by far-right elements, and that has to get coverage. What happens here at home is going to determine what resources we can apply abroad. No question about it. There are all sorts of other traditional issues that creep into the news cycle as well.

The question is, how can we continue to carve out some space for the two or three enduring and persistent threats out there and cover them consistently? There are reporters who do this exceptionally well. There are people who have been extremely focused. A friend of mine, Ali Velshi on MSNBC, has made it a point to cover Ukraine in detail, Nicolle Wallace also.

There are a few other folks who fit in the category who consistently recognize the implications of this war and have covered it, but it is not ubiquitous, and certainly you have a whole media ecosystem that operates in opposition to what would be a healthy discussion, a narrative that would easily and has consistently fit in well with the Russian media landscape. The same kinds of messages that the Russians have in their propaganda channels are carried by Fox News. It is shocking, but word for word, if you set aside the names and replace them with a Russian-sounding name, it would be the same thing. That is a challenge.

I guess the best we can do is to make sure that we have a very, very skilled journalist corps and we try to pick the best commentators for the topic. That is a difficult one because a 24-hour news cycle means that you take what you get, and that means that oftentimes you get folks who don't have the deep expertise and the regional expertise—maybe some functional expertise; you get some senior military who have some experience in the region, you get some diplomats—but you don't get too many people who can talk diplomacy, warfighting, and economics cross-cutting. It is a challenge. I don't know.

Maybe this. I talk through this whole thing, and I would settle on this one point. Maybe what networks should do or should have done at the beginning is figure out who their experts were on this topic within their cohort of journalists and basically have that person consistently follow the story and talk about it as a swath of their show on a repeated basis. There are people out there. Bianna Golodryga from CNN has a lot of experience in the region and understands it. There are a number of different reporters, but we just don't seem to operate that way.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I broaden it beyond the media and ask your assessment of the analytic community as a whole? For many years after the Cold War Central-East Europe was not a particular area of study. It wasn't encouraged. Obviously 9/11 and the War on Terror shifted our emphasis toward the Middle East, and then the pivot to Asia sent those demand signals.

You said that you interact with members of Congress, people in the administration, and elsewhere. Do you think we have a cadre of regional experts and functional experts on questions like energy and economy who are not Moscow-centric in their approach? Do we have gaps, are those gaps being filled, or do you think they will be filled by a next generation that do not see this part of the world through the starting point of Moscow?

ALEX VINDMAN: The answer is, no, we don't have the right people, yes, we have huge gaps, and I am modestly optimistic that we will get the right people in eventually who are trained on Russia and China in particular who are groomed to be senior leaders and are best equipped—like in the Cold War to face off against the Soviet Union—to deal with the enduring challenges of Russia and China.

Think about who we have in leadership right now. We have folks who grew up in government with a large portion of their time consumed by the Global War on Terror. We don't have those Russia hands. It would be great to see a national security advisor or a deputy national security advisor steeped in Russia and Ukraine.

You framed it properly. It is not necessarily just about Russia, but it has to be balanced with Ukraine. There are a lot of folks who were almost too close to the Russia problem set and looked at everything through the Russia lens: How do we preserve the possibility of a cooperative relationship with Russia? How do we avert a Cold War?

That is what governed 20 years of policy with Putin that basically set us down the path of a confrontation. If we at every turn looked to, let's say, moderate our criticism of Russia because we want them to be cooperative on the Global War on Terror, climate change, and arms control, when you have an Orange Revolution unfold in Ukraine and Russia is playing a hand as a nefarious actor trying to steal that revolution and we basically sidestep criticism there and don't offer enough support to Ukraine because we don't want to upset Russia, that sends some powerful signals to Putin on what should be his behavior.

That was relatively early on. We are talking about 20-plus years of a consistent approach where Putin thought that he could prey on our hopes and fears and effectively act with impunity. Even now we are still deeply governed—we are starting to shed some of this baggage—by fears of escalation that are misplaced, and we don't recognize that in fact the imperative for Putin is regime survival and that regime survival necessitates avoiding a confrontation with NATO. Therefore there is pretty much nothing we can do except for direct confrontation with Russia that would precipitate a conflict. That means we could provide all the support we know that Ukraine needs and that Ukraine is asking for with almost no risk.

Instead we are still colored by "What happens if Russia collapses, what happens if Russia loses too badly, what happens if there is an escalation," even though the U.S. government has clearly gotten a lot more comfortable about the limited risk of escalation. That is why we have Patriots and Abrams tanks coming in.

But we are not there yet, and it is going to take a generation of folks who probably have a broader regional understanding and have been raised on understanding the challenges of Russia and Ukraine in what was formerly was known as the Near Abroad that could prescribe policy recommendations that are not purely Kremlin-centered, that are not the kinds of policies that precipitate checking Kyiv speeches out there or insufficient support when this war first started nine years ago. But it takes a long time for the bureaucracy to catch up.

I wrote about this in a piece in the summer. I think it was called, "Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia," and I laid out in detail the dearth of expertise in this area.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Considering all of that, considering the great euphoria over Biden's visit, the optics that it gave the continuing war, where we need resources, and what we could do better, can you take a stab at what the next three months might look like? I am not even going to say year because we did not even predict we would be here a year a year ago. We just didn't. Do we know what spring might look like? Do you have a sense of what we should be looking for as journalists, as constituents, and as citizens?

ALEX VINDMAN: I am going to be ambitious here and take a stab at the next year since I wrote an article about this.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Oh, great.

ALEX VINDMAN: What we are facing is already an evolving Russian offensive with thus far limited gains. Russia is going to continue to pour thousands of troops in. Ukraine is almost surely going to successfully defend. "Successfully defend" means that they might have to give up territory, but they are basically sapping the strength of the Russian army.

Eventually we are going to get to the point where Russian culminates and runs out of offensive capability and switches to the defense. That is what happened in the prelude to the battles of Kharkiv and Kherson, where Ukraine liberated massive swaths of territory. That is what we are facing probably in the late spring, summer, or maybe late summer timeframe.

We should recognize that Russia gets relatively weaker and Ukraine gets relatively stronger every day this war continues. Russia does not have the trained personnel. It is burning through its equipment and digging deep into Soviet-era equipment. Ukraine is getting advanced Western equipment in significant numbers. It is getting tens of thousands of its troops trained. It is keeping them in reserve for this counteroffensive that they are planning and fighting now with currently on the frontline lots of reserve troops in play.

What you can see is a low probability that Ukraine is going to destroy the Russian military entirely, meaning that they achieve such a staggering operational and strategic effect—let's say they break all the way through to Mariupol and sever ground lines to Crimea. You could see that resulting in a collapse of the Russian lines in general. That is maybe a little bit farfetched, but you could see Ukraine making significant gains, threatening limited Russian supply lines, and probably starting to threaten Crimea in a way that ultimately compels Russia to start to think about negotiations, where Putin recognizes that he does not have the military means to achieve his political aims and switches to more earnest negotiations and looks to retain some of the gains that he had from the past year of war or from 2014.

The longer this war goes the less chance that Ukraine is going to be willing to negotiate, so I think it gets dangerous in the six-to-nine-month time horizon where Ukraine has been successful, sees an opportunity to potentially reestablish its internationally recognized borders, and is less apt to negotiate. That is probably about the same time that Putin then starts to consider negotiating, and there is going to be a huge mismatch there. Then he has to decide whether he escalates to nuclear weapons, because that will be the only thing he has left. He may very well do another call-up, but that is unlikely to do the trick.

The one game changer here is China. If China comes in with support, then we all have to reevaluate how this war goes. That could be a recipe for protracted proxy warfare, but otherwise I think this war is going to start to enter a negotiation phase—still a hot war but a negotiation phase—toward the end of this year.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We look forward to seeing your predictions come true, and we are going to keep eyes on China. Thank you so much for your time today.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

ALEX VINDMAN: I appreciate it.

I might just say one other thing. For the folks who would watch this podcast I don't think this is going to be a revelation, but to the American public at large I try to make the point that this is not simply about a humanitarian cause to help Ukraine liberate itself from oppression. It is not about democracy in a remote country.

It is about the rules-based international system at large. It is about direct risks to a system that has allowed the United States to prosper and flourish, and we should recognize that for a modest investment, for 5 percent of our defense budget, Russia's conventional military capability has been rendered almost irrelevant for a decade or two. That is a pretty effective use of a defense budget. I think it is important to recognize that this is directly in the U.S. national security interest.

Thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation and talk to your listeners.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs est un organisme indépendant et non partisan à but non lucratif. Les opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position de Carnegie Council.

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