Q&A with Alexander Vindman on the war in Ukraine

The Tribune spoke with the former Army officer about why he believes Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart bear some responsibility for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2020, file photo Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council who testified during the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill, walks down the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. Vindman was escorted out of the White House complex on Friday, Feb. 7, according to his lawyer. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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It’s worth remembering former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment came as a result of his alleged attempts to blackmail Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid and weapons already authorized by Congress.

Trump’s alleged extortion was disclosed by former U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who listened in on the call as a staffer on the National Security Council. He would later testify during Trump’s impeachment inquiry. The Senate acquitted Trump of those charges in 2020.

Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, Vindman has become a much-sought-after expert on the conflict in Europe. During his military career, the Ukrainian-born American was the director for Eastern Europe and Russia for the National Security Council. He also served as an expert on Russia for the Joint Cheifs of Staff and was an attache for the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Vindman has been a vocal critic of Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart, for their support of Trump. He argues their failure to hold Trump accountable in both of his impeachment trials helped encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

Vindman spoke at length with The Salt Lake Tribune last week. This conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

You warned of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention to invade Ukraine when many others were doubtful he would take that step. Now you’re loudly saying the U.S. needs to do more to provide military assistance to Ukraine. The current situation can become a wider conflict. Can you talk about how we got to this point?

We have to recognize how we got here and learn from our mistakes. It’s really 22 years of failed policy towards Russia and towards Vladimir Putin that got us here. Vladimir Putin is a KGB case officer. He’s well-practiced in exploiting hopes and fears.

The hopes were early on that we could have a thriving relationship with him. It could be economic, trade. It could be their cooperation on the (United Nations) Security Council. It could be their cooperation on climate issues. It could be them being a good actor in their part of the world. Seeking to avoid harming that, we basically set aside other relationships like Ukraine.

And then fears, the fear that somehow the relationship could spiral with a nuclear power and that we need to do what we could to arrest it. Vladimir Putin is masterful at this.

We put our aspirations and our efforts in a relationship that was unlikely to bear fruit instead of seemingly less important countries, although now we see how important Ukraine is.

At the same time, Putin kept prodding and testing. He engaged in multiple wars, whether that was domestically in Chechnya or in Georgia, with a neighbor. Then Ukraine and Syria, and the attacks on the US with regards to our elections. He made all sorts of attempts in different areas that there wasn’t much cost for. Most of the time we were creeping towards a confrontation as Putin was emboldened and thought he sensed weakness and could operate with impunity.

Under the Trump administration, we lurched. What Putin got with Trump was basically a like-minded kindred spirit. Somebody that had a similar conception of the world and really appreciated authoritarianism and this notion of unchecked power. In his catering to and cheerleading of Vladimir Putin, we also had this scenario where somehow Trump was an adversary to our most important relationships and alliances and drove wedges and introduced fractures. All of these things were affecting Putin’s calculus for his own ambitions around Russian power.

So as you move through the entire Trump tenure, you see a Putin that really doesn’t have to do much because a lot of his aspirations are being realized by Trump. After Trump loses power, he tries to steal an election and causes an insurrection. Putin reads that as the U.S. is vulnerable and distracted. It’s polarized and fractured. That’s when he starts to build up forces. These things start to unfold in the spring of 2021, just weeks after the insurrection.

Putin also notices that Trump doesn’t go into quiet retirement. He continues to sow discord. Trump maintains his capture of the Republican Party and folks like Mike Lee, who Trump knows he can either intimidate or entice with power. And he continues to provide this perception that the Republican Party is no enemy of Russia and half of the political elites are supportive of Russia. As Putin is building up his forces, Biden is trying to indicate there are costs to Putin’s aspirations that there will be severe sanctions.

But then you have folks like Mike Lee that voted against sanctions. He’s one of two senators to vote against sanctions in 2017, kind of cheerleading against a cost to Putin’s all-but-certain offensive against Ukraine. So why should he be concerned when all the indicators are key Republican leaders are supportive of Russia’s position that Russia is the good guy and Ukraine is somehow the enemy of the United States? That’s why we find ourselves with a war in Europe that has every single possibility of spilling over into something bigger the longer it goes on.

In 2016, the Republican Party removed a section supporting Ukraine from its platform at the behest of Donald Trump’s campaign. It’s almost as if you could draw a straight line from then to our current situation.

That’s exactly right. It’s amazing how much continuity there is in Trump’s and Republican’s behavior here.

Shortly after the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mike Lee is one of two outliers in the Senate that doesn’t believe more should have been done to impose costs on Vladimir Putin for interfering in our elections. The rest of Congress gets together to say we can’t have a foreign power step in to undo our democracy, but Mike Lee serves the role of an appeaser and provides encouragement that there’s not a lot of appetite to punish Russia for this kind of behavior, which sends a signal to Vladimir Putin that these kinds of things could continue.

We should also recognize that the events of the past several years, because of somebody like Trump and somebody like Sen. Lee, you end up in a situation where they made Ukraine radioactive politically for the remainder of the Trump administration. The Republicans didn’t want to be seen as too close to Ukraine because they would run afoul of Trump.

So instead of hardening Ukraine, making it less palatable for Russia’s attack, the signals were green light, move forward because costs are going to below.

I don’t understand the motivations of somebody like Sen. Lee. In the effort to hold President Trump accountable for corruption and abuse of power in the first impeachment, it was clear to me what was at stake. It was not about some far-off country. It was directly about our own electoral system and the way our process is supposed to work for free and fair elections. The president was looking to tip the odds in his favor by getting President Zelenskyy to conduct this investigation. It was crystal clear to me because I said in my testimony that this was about national security and the fact we needed a strong relationship with Ukraine to avoid an outcome where the U.S. has a real possibility of being drawn into a war the longer this goes on.

Now you see some of these Republicans pivoting because they recognize they basically walked into an ambush. They were cheerleading for the enemy. They were undermining our ability to avoid this war, and the American people will not tolerate that kind of behavior when Ukraine is locked in a life or death struggle, a David versus Goliath struggle, against an authoritarian tyrant that’s looking to destroy all the things we hold dear here. It’s freedom. It’s democracy. But it’s also the people of Ukraine defending their homes. You have people like Lee trying to pivot away, but his record speaks for itself. How many times did he vote against funding for Ukraine?

You’ve talked about Sen. Lee’s votes against military aid for Ukraine and his opposition to sanctions on Russia. In 2019 Lee flew to Moscow, where he discussed the possibility of lifting sanctions on Putin and Russia.

The record again speaks for itself. He didn’t deny the fact that sanctions came up, and he’s on the record discussing whether sanctions make sense. These are things that really are frightening because Lee should know better. Instead of talking about increasing the cost to deter Vladimir Putin and his increasingly belligerent behavior, he’s appeasing him and saying we should reduce sanctions because we need a good relationship with Russia.

I’m not sure if that’s foolhardy or what else is motivating someone like that to undermine U.S. national security in such a way.

I went back and reviewed your testimony during the first impeachment hearing. Rep. Chris Stewart started his questioning, wondering why you had elected to wear your uniform during the proceedings, which seemed odd at the time. What do you remember about that?

I don’t remember everything, but there are a couple of interactions I remember clearly. Stewart was one of the. It was the “aw shucks, I’m your friend, thank you for your service.” If I recall correctly, he served in the Air Force.

He was like, “we’re on the same side,” then proceeded to attack me for the fact I wore a uniform. Of course, I’m going to wear a uniform. I’m obligated to appear in front of Congress, not just because I was subpoenaed but by statute. I’m an active duty serving officer.

He was trying to portray me as someone who was wishing for attention, which is the last thing I wanted. I just wanted to continue my career and be able to help the United States navigate the things we’re experiencing today. I could have been doing that if I didn’t have folks like Stewart attacking my character and making me radioactive.

We should remember this was part of a concerted effort from the White House to attack witnesses. To cast a shadow over their testimony. This whole uniform thing was something that really kind of dragged out for days. Why is Vindman wearing a uniform? Because I’m an officer in the military. That’s a relatively straightforward thing to explain.

In terms of the substance of my testimony, I understood the power dynamics. You have President Zelenskyy trying to avoid the exact outcome we have today. This is in 2019. He literally was just sworn into office a couple of months before. He’s trying to build his own power base as a brand new, very popular politician. He’s trying to introduce reforms and anti-corruption measures to drag Ukraine into the western orbit. And you have the President of the United States acting like a Mafia don trying to extort him.

It was a Herculean task for Zelenskyy to withstand the pressure from Trump to just announce an investigation. How easy would that have been? That was kind of foretelling the kind of man he is right now, not just the Ukrainian leader, but a world leader. The fortitude he had that he was not going to be intimidated. He was going to stand his ground and try to do the right thing and not be subject to this intimidation.

We should recognize the enormous pressure on Zelenskyy from Trump by withholding this $400 million in aid. There was no other way to understand it except as an effort to extort this investigation. It was abundantly clear to me, and that’s why I didn’t quibble. I didn’t mince words. I said this was a demand for an investigation in exchange for that aid and for this meeting. And there’s somebody like this transparent, superficial Congressman Stewart trying to pretend he’s friendly. Asking, ‘was it a favor? Was it a demand?’ Clearly, it was, and now we see the consequences of him and his counterparts in the Senate failing to hold Donald Trump accountable.

You could see a quite reasonable alternative reality in which Trump was held accountable, and he was impeached. We would not be in this position where we’re on the cusp of world war but for people like Mike Lee and Chris Stewart.

Do you think people understand the military aid President Trump was holding up during that phone call was the same weapons Ukraine is using to defend itself now?

It’s amazing the single skill Trump has is developing this narrative that somehow if he were in charge, we would not be in this war. That is to me the most absurd of conclusions because, of course, there would be this war. But it would be with U.S. complicity and it would be without the response of the international community with regards to condemnation. We would be in a situation where Putin would be conducting this war, but with the absence of NATO and with these states on the borders with Russia and with Ukraine vulnerable to attack.

So, this whole idea that somehow we would be avoiding this? No. We would be on our heels. We’d be in a situation where basically Putin would be able to walk in. The Ukrainians wouldn’t give up, but Putin would be able to realize his aspirations there because they wouldn’t be getting these thousands and thousands of missiles. Then he would grab Moldova and Georgia and snap up Belarus where he basically has control over Lukashenko, the dictator there, and then start threatening the Baltics. We would be in a much more powerless situation.

We need to remember the cheerleaders, the people that were really leading the charge to defend Trump. In the first impeachment, Mike Lee was one of the most important figures. He went so far as to say not only did Trump not do anything to warrant impeachment, he didn’t do anything wrong.

What do you think of Republicans who supported Trump or defended his support of Putin now rooting for Ukraine and Zelenskyy?

They were on the wrong side all the way up until the days before this war. Trump was on the wrong side just hours before this war saying how brilliant Putin was. Lee was attempting to arrest our ability to put U.S. forces to secure our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. That was days before the war started. Now they’re trying to recast themselves because they know they walked into a trap and are out of step with the American public that is very supportive of Ukraine.

I won’t pass up an opportunity to point this out. It’s clear to me that they were complicit, that Sen. Lee and Congressman Stewart have blood on their hands. They emboldened Putin. They indicated that an opportunity existed for him to pursue this course of action, and they’re going to have to deal with the consequences. The candidates who are running against them this year should ask them about their blood-soaked hands from this humanitarian catastrophe, and more importantly ... the dangers they put this country in.

I’ve been screaming and jumping up and down about the fact that this war was going to happen, and we needed to do more to avoid it.

You can criticize the Biden administration all you want, but it was the Republicans that were backing Trump and the pro-Putin line that were critical in suggesting that this opportunity existed. It should be abundantly clear that these folks were complicit, and they put this country in danger because this war has every possibility of being a protracted war and a war that can pull the U.S. in. My urgency right now is to help the U.S. recognize that we have a role to play right now. We need to open up the spigot, break the dam, and provide Ukraine with every bit of equipment it needs to survive in short order. That could reformat Putin’s thinking about achieving his political aims through military aggression. The sooner we do that, the sooner we end the prospect of this war expanding. The longer it goes, the more tepid we are, the more we get guys like Mike Lee thinking about ways to cater to Putin, the greater the chance the U.S. gets thrown into something like a bigger war. That’s what I’m trying to avoid right now.