By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
It’s time to bring Alexander Vindman back into the U.S. government. In this day of appalling Republican cheerleading for Vladimir Putin, a cold-blooded killer, the superbly-credentialed Vindman has shown himself to be a man of impeccable character and vision about the current crisis in Ukraine.
To recap, Vindman’s honorable history:
As the old, cynical expression would have it, no good deed goes unpunished. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was penalized by former President Donald Trump and his cronies for doing his duty. Because Vindman obeyed a legal subpoena to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, and provided evidence leading to Trump’s first impeachment, Vindman was fired from the National Security Council (NSC), deprived of promotion to colonel, as well as to attendance at the prestigious United States Army War College for which Vindman had already been chosen, and essentially forced into retirement.
As NSC director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia, Vindman had an extremely valuable expertise to contribute to U.S. policy on Ukraine and Russia. And given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vindman’s loss of his position is a great loss to our nation.
Within the last few months, as a private citizen, Vindman has written numerous articles—published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and others--warning about Russia’s coming aggression against Ukraine and discussing how it should have been handled. In the past days, just before and after the Russian invasion, his appearances on news shows, analyzing Putin’s strategic actions, have been ubiquitous. But this is not the same as having access to the latest classified information and being in a position to advise the government directly.
Vindman--A Profile in Integrity
In his role on the NSC, Vindman was present on the phone call in which Trump tried to extort a public announcement from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that Ukraine would investigate then-candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Zelensky was asking for greatly needed security aid and a diplomatically significant White House visit. Trump famously tried to twist Zelensky’s arm, saying he would do it, but with the condition that first, “I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
Concerned about the call’s legality and its possible national security implications, Vindman appropriately reported it up his chain of command. And when subpoenaed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, he obeyed the law, honoring the subpoena and testifying in both closed and public sessions.
At the public hearing, Vindman said he recognized that his testimony before the committee “would not be tolerated in many places around the world.” He said, “In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command…would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life. I’m grateful…for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.”
Vindman then directly addressed his immigrant father, who had brought his family to the United States when Alexander and his twin brother Yevgeny were only three years old. Vindman’s father had been a civil engineer and member of the Communist Party in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, but left because he became disillusioned with the communist system and institutionalized anti-Semitism. The Vindman family is Jewish.
Lt. Colonel Vindman ended his statement by addressing concerns his father may have had about his challenging power: “Dad, I'm sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
But Vindman was not fine. President Trump and his son, Donald, Jr. denounced Vindman on Twitter, leading Vindman, in concern for his family’s safety, to request protection from the Army.
Furthermore, before his testimony, Vindman was in line for a promotion to full colonel and had been accepted to the prestigious War College. Afterwards, he was fired from Trump’s NSC, and although the army left his name on the promotion list, the Trump administration held up promotion of everyone on the list—hundreds of other officers also due for promotion—in order to prevent Vindman from getting his. The War College opportunity disappeared as well.
Trump’s minions also pressured the Army to dig up dirt on Vindman in order to stop the promotion, and the Army caved in, doing an investigation which ultimately found nothing—but was conducted behind Vindman’s back.
It became clear to Lt. Colonel Vindman that if he stayed in the military—especially if Trump were reelected—he would no longer be permitted to work in the area of his expertise or be given other important or rewarding work. So, on July 8, 2020, after 21 years in the military, which he saw as part of his family, Vindman announced he would retire.
Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, also worked at the NSC and was also due for a promotion to colonel. The Trump administration vengefully removed him from the NSC as well. But his brother stayed in the military, and President Biden gave him his promotion to colonel.
Since leaving the military Vindman has become a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute, and author of the memoir, Here, Right Matters: An American Story. He is also a Pritzker Military fellow at the Lawfare Institute, a board member of the Renew Democracy Initiative nonprofit, and a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylavania’s Perry World House.
In August 2021, Vindman told NPR’s “Fresh Air” that his new book is meant to present an affirmative view of doing the right thing, but “not because there are inherent rewards.”
He said, “There are never inherent rewards for just simply doing the right thing. Actually, there are inherent rewards from doing the wrong thing because usually that’s what the payoff is, and that’s why people do it. But for the right thing, it's being able to live with it.”
In February, Vindman filed a suit against several Trump allies, including Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and former White House deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino, alleging that they intimidated and retaliated against him while he testified in Congress, and thereby violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The complaint, aiming at something larger than just the damage done to Vindman himself, alleges that the witness intimidation and obstruction of justice aimed at Vindman: “sent a message to other potential witnesses as well: cooperate and tell the truth at your own peril.” If Vindman wins the suit, the nation will have obtained at least some accountability for at least one of the many scurrilous actions of the Trump administration.
Vindman Takes on the Putin Cheerleaders
Departure from the military has freed Alexander Vindman to speak out publicly in a way that that is considered inappropriate for those in active service, and Vindman has not been reticent to do so. When Trump, Pompeo, and Tucker Carlson complimented Putin on his invasion of Ukraine, Vindman responded.
As widely reported, Trump waxed enthusiastic on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, saying, “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’ Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, it’s independent, a large section of Ukraine.’ I said, ‘How smart is that?’”
Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State in the Trump Administration, had the nerve, in a Fox News column, to claim President Biden has been weak towards Putin and “doesn’t know that it takes strength to defend America and keep us out of war” while Pompeo simultaneously kept himself busy licking Putin’s boots, calling the thuggish dictator “very savvy” and “very shrewd” and adding, “I consider him an elegantly sophisticated counterpart and one who is not reckless but has always done the math.” Pompeo had also previously called Putin a “very talented statesman” who “knows how to use power,” and said we should “respect that.”
Finally, on February 22, Tucker Carlson a nakedly open propagandist, questioned why it is disloyal to side with Russia, saying both on his show and on Russia’s RT network: “Why do Democrats want you to hate Putin? Has Putin shipped every middle-class job in your town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked your business? Is he teaching your kids to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Does he eat dogs?”
The next day, because Vindman had accused Republicans of encouraging Putin to attack Ukraine, Carlson brought Vindman’s Ukrainian heritage into it, saying that "your job is to take up arms in defense of Alexander Vindman's home country, or else you're evil."
Vindman shot back in a tweet: “Hey TuckyoRose, Yes, I 100 percent support defending my homeland. That’s why I did more than talk, I served 21 years in the U.S. Army. What did you do besides sow discord amongst Americans, cheerlead for our enemies, and weaken us, inviting attacks on the U.S?” “TuckyoRose, of course, was a play on Tokyo Rose, the nickname for the Japanese propagandist who, through radio broadcasts, tried to destroy the morale of American soldiers during WWII.
To MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, Vindman said of Trump, Pompeo and Carlson, “When blood starts to flow as a result of them cheerleading for Vladimir Putin, they will own this.”
I second that thought and will go Vindman one further—where’s Joe McCarthy and his Un-American Activities Committee when we legitimately need them?
Vindman’s Nuanced View of Russia’s Aggression
In his memoir, Here, Right Matters, Vindman writes that the U.S. has always had a hard time understanding how Russian leadership thinks, and that when there is a lack of understanding, there is a tendency to fill that gap by expecting the adversary to think like us.
He writes, “When things then don’t go the way we expect, we get into a muddle of anxiety which leads to self-deterrence. Unable to game out the risks realistically, we fear taking any action at all. We can imagine a million things going wrong, and instead of figuring things out well enough to take some well-calculated risks, we become paralyzed.”
Vindman does not accuse the U.S. government of being paralyzed. But he does suggest that it has a tendency to “self-deter.” In The Atlantic, the New York Times, USA Today, and Foreign Affairs, between December 2021 and last week’s invasion, Vindman sets out his view of Putin’s strategy and what he feels the U.S. should have done if it had not fallen prey to self-deterrence.
In December, Vindman warned, in the New York Times, “Mr. Putin — no doubt picking up on the decreased American appetite for foreign entanglements over the last few years — has seized his chances with encroachments on Ukrainian sovereignty…. Even interference in Western elections is just another tactic to weaken the West and create a privileged sphere of Russian influence.”
In January, Vindman wrote in USA Today, “Vladimir Putin is an aggressive thinker, but he is not irrational. He will take all that he can as long as the cost is bearable. While diplomatic efforts to dissuade him were necessary and important, they came without the movement of troops and equipment that would have significantly raised the costs of invasion.”
Vindman gives the Biden Administration credit for bringing together NATO allies and getting them to agree to impose sanctions. He also gives due credit to the Administration for reacting to the warning signs with consistently powerful statements of its commitment to defend NATO’s eastern borders, and Ukraine’s right to sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination. And in Foreign Affairs, he wrote that the U.S. commitment to peace and diplomatic resolutions “has been commendable.” In addition, Vindman has given credit for the use of sanctions.
But Vindman also argues that in focusing on diplomacy without an equal emphasis on “hard-power tools,” the Biden Administration “missed an opportunity to head off the crisis….”
While Vindman is not advocating the United States go to war for Ukraine, he suggests that that a show of force along with an “ambiguity of intention,” would have served the West and Ukraine better than diplomacy alone.
Specifically, he has suggested that Biden’s open acknowledgment in December that he would not send American troops to fight in Ukraine removed the possibility of strategic ambiguity. Vindman argues that the implicit threat of U.S. and NATO intervention would have forced Putin to consider the risks of further escalation. In Vindman’s view, telling Putin that U.S. interests end at NATO’s borders “emboldened Mr. Putin to ignore international norms.”
Vindman also questions the U.S. refusal to provide Ukraine advanced weapons systems (Patriot missiles, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles) on the grounds that the weapons were too sophisticated for its armed forces to handle. He argues that their possession might still have affected Russia’s decision concerning invasion. Again, Vindman has only suggested a “more active level of U.S. engagement that avoids crossing into military adventurism.” Apparently, the West is now sending weaponry, but it is coming more than late.
Vindman has become a prize "get" for TV bookers
Vindman has noted that the situation would be far worse if Biden’s predecessor were in office. Still, he expresses the view that Biden’s administration has been reactive when it should be proactive, and that Biden’s senior advisers seem to have recommended narrow, low-risk policy options, which were bound to fail in accomplishing the desired effect.
Overall, Vindman’s analysis makes sense. It seems to me, based on Putin’s past performance, that he will continue to take territory—even beyond Ukraine—until he thinks someone will stop him. That’s what would-be conquerors do. I also think that Putin has counted on the West’s fear of the crisis turning into World War III to deter them from acting against him.
The one element to which I do not think Vindman gives sufficient weight is the damage Trump did: the accumulated effects of Trump’s persistent obsequiousness to Putin; the divisions that Trump, under Putin’s tutelage, created here at home; and Trump’s somewhat successful effort to divide and weaken NATO—which forced Biden to expend energy restrengthening that alliance, energy that could have been directed more forcefully and immediately at Russia’s behavior earlier on. All this may also have contributed to Putin thinking he could invade Ukraine with total impunity.
Although former Lt. Colonel Vindman is continuing to contribute his expertise to our national foreign policy conversations, it is really too bad that the government lost the kind of access to his analyses it would have if he were still working for the NSC. Whether or not Biden ultimately agrees and applies Vindman’s insights, it would be more than useful for the country to have them as this crisis evolves.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.