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Vindman says U.S. aid to Ukraine sends message of 'premier military capability'


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Washington on Wednesday was a reminder of how much the war in Ukraine has defined 2022, both for his country and ours. And in many ways, Zelenskyy's visit, during which he met with President Biden at the White House and spoke at a joint meeting of Congress, was an elaborate way of thanking America and a request to keep the aid coming. Here's President Zelenskyy speaking in Congress on Wednesday night.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Our two nations are allies in this battle, and next year will be a turning point. I know it - the point when Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom.

LIMBONG: Just two days after that speech, Congress approved a new package that puts total U.S. aid to Ukraine at almost a hundred billion dollars, much more than any other country. With the U.S. so committed to Ukraine, we wanted to understand what the next phase of the war might look like. Joining us is retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He was a member of the National Security Council as director for European affairs and was part of the U.S. delegation to meet President Zelenskyy when he was first elected in 2018. Alexander Vindman, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


LIMBONG: In addition to billions more in aid, the big news this week seems to be the U.S.'s decision to supply Ukraine with a Patriot surface-to-air missile system and the training to use it. For those of us who may not know anything about Patriot missiles, how will the weapons system change the dynamic in the war?

VINDMAN: It adds significant capabilities. But probably more important than what it does on the battlefield - defending the skies over Ukraine against particularly challenging threats, not just the cruise missiles or the drones Russians have been firing, but potentially even ballistic missiles that the Russians might import from Iran - more important than those tactical capabilities is the message it sends. We're sending a premiere military capability, the best we have in our arsenal for air defense - we're sending it to Ukraine. And that actually probably also indicates that we're prepared to send additional kinds of support, maybe even tanks and planes, depending on how this war shapes up.

LIMBONG: I think there's some due hesitancy about getting entangled in what could be a protracted conflict. So can you make the case - how do the people in the U.S. benefit from the country's support in this war?

VINDMAN: That is the exact point that most Americans should be concerned about. The way I look at this war, as it continues and as it expands, I think about World War I, I think about World War II and how those wars went on for years before our involvement and ultimately dragged us in. Long wars have a tendency to go off in unforeseen directions. And we could see a long war between Russia and Ukraine expand in that Russia becomes increasingly frustrated and increasingly casts around for, you know, the most extreme means to pull out a win from this war.

And it does so incrementally, where we almost don't sense the danger. It occurs where they take little bites out of deterrence, and, ultimately, they cross the red line. And then the U.S. has to take action. That's why providing the - you know, more support to Ukraine now, helping Ukrainians liberate their territory before Russia goes through this escalatory process, is, frankly, securing U.S. interests. It's not the fact that we're giving too much to Ukraine. It's that we're doing too little.

LIMBONG: Is there an outcome to this war - right? - that the U.S. would be actually willing to live with but that the Ukrainian people might not?

VINDMAN: The best-case scenario for long-term national security of the United States is to help the Ukrainians achieve their national security aims, liberate their territory and demonstrate that there is no profit. There is only folly in these types of campaigns.

LIMBONG: So what you're saying is our goals are all intertwined. They're locked in together. There is no deviation.

VINDMAN: You know, that's - it's a good way - it's a good follow-up question. I laid out what I think is absolutely required in this case. I think there are still folks in the U.S. government that are prepared to negotiate away Crimea in the same way that we negotiated away or compromised with Putin building his kind of sense of impunity to act. You know, there are really a lot of academic realpolitik practitioners out there that talk in this way. But there are probably folks in U.S. government - and there's a tension between folks that, you know, see the error of the way we conducted our policy with Russia, and there are those folks that are comfortable with doing more of the same, preserving the status quo.

LIMBONG: Wait, how so?

VINDMAN: Because I think it's that group that says that Russia - we need to have, you know, normalized relationships with Russia, even though Russia, by many accounts now, including the EU, is a state sponsor of terror. There are many that believe that purely because Russia has a large nuclear arsenal, that we need to figure out how to get back to normal. There is no getting back to normal with Russia. We just have to deal with a sense of heightened tension and heightened insecurity because Putin's been in power for 20 years and believes he could get away with attacking the West and not suffering significant costs.

LIMBONG: As long as Putin is in power, is there any way to lower the pressure without further aggression?

VINDMAN: Look, I believe that Putin is still a rational actor that is casting around for a way to pull out a win in this scenario. And the win is likely to end up being just regime survival - not territorial gains in Ukraine, but ultimately, he's going to fall back on regime survival as his win and the ability to keep his country intact. So what that means is in the spring and summer, when he's failed on the battlefields in Ukraine, Ukraine liberates more and more territory, he's going to find out - find a way to ease tensions, take what he can get, live to fight another day. And on that basis, I see him staying in power, at least for the foreseeable future, and potentially then looking for off-ramps to ease relationships between East and West.

So I guess the answer is we're in a period of heightened tension after 20-plus years of Putin being increasingly provocative. We have to ride it out, make some good decisions, not let him walk away with a win that allows him to think that he could, you know, take another bite at the apple of Ukraine or other territories around his periphery and learn these hard lessons of how authoritarian regimes behave when they're not challenged, when they're not held to account.

LIMBONG: That was retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." Alexander Vindman, thank you for joining us.

VINDMAN: Thank you for having me on. Happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.