As the United States increases military assistance to Ukraine with advanced weapons like the Patriot missile defense systems and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, former U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice tells VOA Ukrainian that Washington should provide all the military assistance Kyiv needs to push back Russian forces.
Rice believes that engaging in negotiations now would likely be fruitless or beneficial to Russia. In an interview Thursday, she also said other countries’ concerns about provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin should not deter them from assisting Ukrainians who are willing to fight for their country and for the international rules-based system.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post published an op-ed written by Rice and Robert M. Gates, a former defense secretary, arguing for the U.S. and its allies to dramatically increase military assistance, above all, with mobile armor, to enable Ukraine to push back Russian forces.
Rice is a director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think tank. She served as national security adviser (2001–05) and as secretary of state (2005–09) in the administration of former President George W. Bush.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: You have called for Washington to provide Ukraine with more powerful weapons. Some in the U.S., including many Republicans, consider that the U.S. is already assisting Ukraine too much. What would you say to that?
Condoleezza Rice: I would say that we are assisting Ukraine greatly, and we have appropriated the monies through Congress to assist even more. It is more of a call for urgency that we need to get Ukraine the tools it needs to continue pushing back the Russian aggressor.
In fact, we probably could have predicted months ago that Ukraine would need air defenses because the only thing left for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin was to use terrorist tactics and have missile attacks against Ukrainian civilian centers. We could have predicted that.
So, let's be ahead of the curve and get Ukraine what it needs. The United States has to remember that every time we've waited, in 1914, 1941 and 2001, we've always had to enter. This time around, no one is asking for our troops. The Ukrainians are willing to fight and suffer to sustain an international system in which it is not acceptable to extinguish your smaller neighbor by military force; that is what is at stake here. America has a tremendous interest in sending a lesson to the Russians that it will not be allowed.
VOA: One of the main arguments against that position is that it can provoke Putin to escalate, including the nuclear option.
Rice: I don't know how much more you can provoke Putin. He's tried to extinguish his neighbor. He's engaged in terrorist tactics. They are engaged in war crimes. When I hear people say you might provoke Putin, I think, what more is there to do? When you think about nuclear, it's not a zero possibility, but I think that Putin does care, oddly enough, about his international standing. To do that would make Russia a large North Korea, a pariah state in the future. Not just have we warned Putin, but he's been warned by the Indians and by the Chinese that the nuclear option shouldn't even be considered. We cannot deter ourselves and the Ukrainians by trying to deter something that I think is unlikely.
VOA: Not on the official U.S. level, but at a certain level, there is a push for Ukraine to start negotiating with Russia at this point. You seem to think otherwise.
Rice: Yes, negotiations and diplomacy follow the situation on the ground, not the other way around. We need to make sure that when there are negotiations, and there will eventually be, Ukraine is in the strongest possible position. That is not now. We are seeing that the Russians are making a push in Donetsk [region] again. Vladimir Putin declared Donetsk and Luhansk to be Russian territories. He can't negotiate away Russian territory. To ask for negotiations now is likely going to be fruitless and to leave the Russians in a better position than they would otherwise be if we allow the Ukrainians to push them back further.
I would be the last person to say when negotiations should begin. I think we have to say that for the Ukrainian people – who have suffered war crimes, suffered the destruction of their territory and seen Ukrainian citizens taken away by the Russians – to tell them to negotiate now seems to me not something that we can defend as Americans.
Right now, our job is to help Ukraine to help us to reestablish that the kind of thing that the Russians did is simply not going to succeed in the world of 2023. If you look at those pictures, they look like they are from 1939. We did this once, and it did not turn out so well. So let us make sure that Ukraine has what it needs to fight our fight.
VOA: You met and you knew Putin personally. In your opinion, is he a rational actor now? Can he engage in a rational dialogue, or is he beyond that point?
Rice: He is rational in the sense that he understands what he is trying to do. We have seen shifting Russian priorities. At first, it was to go to Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government, and then it dialed back to the east and the south to cut off Ukraine at Odesa. When that wasn't possible, they moved back again.
So, I think he's rational. But to be rational doesn't mean that you don't have ambitions that are ideological, that are emotional. I think this is about reconstructing the Russian empire, and you cannot have an independent Ukraine and reconstruct the Russian empire. There is something deeply emotional about this for Putin. That does not mean [it's] irrational.
But it does mean that it is something deeply emotional and perhaps right now not negotiable in his way of thinking. You have to help Ukraine, let him see that no matter how much he would like to achieve that, it's not going to happen. Then we will see whether rationality takes over.
VOA: You were secretary of state in 2008, during the Bucharest NATO summit when Georgia and Ukraine were denied the Membership Action Plan. In retrospect, do you think that was a mistake?
Rice: We in the Bush administration argued for Ukraine and Georgia to have MAPs at the Bucharest summit. But NATO is a consensus organization, and the consensus was not there. So, we did the next best thing, which was to express that Ukraine and Georgia would be a part of NATO one day.
I don't like leaving a vacuum in international politics. When you think about it, geographically, we have protected Poland and Romania, and others on the periphery of Ukraine, because they have an Article 5 guarantee. By not even giving Ukraine a pathway to NATO membership, perhaps that left a vacuum.
I think now, with the bravery of the Ukrainians, what one thing that Vladimir Putin has done is driving Ukraine closer to NATO, not as a member but as a beneficiary of everything NATO can provide short of troops.
Someone said Vladimir Putin managed to end German pacifism and Swedish neutrality within a year. I think we will see NATO with Sweden and Finland as members. I would never have dreamed of this when we were there in 2008. It has come at a great cost to the Ukrainian people, and I do not want to minimize it. When we succeed in helping Ukraine to repel Russian aggression, whatever that means, whatever that final settlement is, we will have changed the face of Europe for the better. For that, we have the Ukrainian people to thank.
VOA: What about now? Would you still argue for NATO to accept Ukraine even before the hostilities are over?
Rice: I think it is difficult to do that because it comes with a guarantee that I would not want to test, frankly, and give Putin a kind of moral victory. I think where we are now – if we are, as Bob Gates and I argued, fully committed to Ukraine's defense through what we can provide so that the Ukrainians can defend themselves – that's where we need to be.
Now, the time will come when – I think [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has said this – when we have to think about how to secure Ukraine in the future and what kinds of security guarantees there need to be. But I think that is for another time. Let us do everything we can right now to repel the aggression and do it with a sense of urgency so that when we get to the reconstruction period after the war, Ukraine is in a stronger position.
VOA: There seems to be a good consensus between the Ukrainian and U.S. administrations about how the Ukrainian victory would look – restoring Ukraine's sovereignty over all its territory within internationally recognized borders - and holding Russia responsible for its actions. What would the Russian defeat look like?
Rice: I don't want to talk about the Russian defeat. I'm hoping that there is, from the Russian perspective, an understanding that they already have not achieved their goals. Since they have not already achieved that, there has already been a defeat. You know, people were talking about Kyiv falling in five days. We know that the Russians went with their dress uniforms for the parade in Kyiv. So much has already been accomplished when it comes to what Russian goals initially were. Now the Russian goal is to hang on to the territory they illegally annexed. That's the next goal that we need to have with pushing the Russians back from their intended ambitions. Then we'll see where it goes from there.
I think if we focus on the task at hand right now, it is to make sure that they cannot secure illegally the annexed territory. There is the battle going on in Donetsk [region] as we speak; that will be the battle for the south. By the way, they also didn't succeed in the south, which they had intended to do, you know – Kherson is under attack, but it's free. In a war, it's good to keep the long-term goals in mind, but winning the short-term goals is more important as you move forward.
VOA: Should the U.S. administration and expert community prepare for the possibility of Russian rupture so as not to repeat the situation in 1991?
Rice: No doubt, we ought to be planning for all contingencies, but I'm still hopeful that the time will come when a different Russia can emerge. There were signs of it. A lot of those people left Russia when this started – young entrepreneurs, people who wanted to be part of the knowledge-based revolution. Tatiana, I taught some of these Russians in my classes at Stanford. There will be a different Russia one day, and hopefully, it will come about peacefully.
VOA: Going back to 2008, do you believe that the response to Putin's aggression in Georgia should have been much stronger and then again in 2014 in Ukraine? Would you blame the Bush administration and the subsequent Obama administration for not responding strongly enough and thus creating conditions for Putin to go on the full-scale invasion?
Rice: I don't know what more we could have done about Georgia. Frankly, I believe we stopped the Russian ambition to take Tbilisi. They clearly wanted to overthrow [former Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili.
Let me use this as an opportunity to appeal to Georgia on behalf of Misha Saakashvili, who is ill and under arrest. He is a man who I would hope we would understand his historical role and the humanitarian circumstances there. But we did stop them from Tbilisi. Georgia remained an independent country. Yes, Russia was able to seize the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but unfortunately, there were already peacekeepers there, which was a mistake made much earlier. I would have liked to see stronger sanctions after Georgia. Of course, we got into a financial crisis, and there were other economic issues.
Crimea, perhaps there could have been stronger sanctions. The one thing that I will say about Crimea is that the Ukrainians and we – Europe and the United States – used the time between the annexation of Crimea and now to build a very impressive Ukrainian defense force. The Ukrainian military fights like a modern military; they fight with deception and maneuver, which is partly why the Russians are having such trouble. They fight like a 20th-, 19th-century force.
I think Ukraine got stronger after the annexation of Crimea. I think Ukraine started to heal some of its internal conflicts, and clearly, a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity emerged, even with those in the east. While I would have hoped we would have done more, that time was not lost.
VOA: Were you surprised by the Ukrainian response, and is there anything you want to say to Ukrainians directly?
Rice: Everyone was surprised by the Ukrainian capabilities, maybe not by the response. I've been to Kyiv many times, and I have been to other parts of Ukraine. I know how strong the identity is of the Ukrainian people. I know how much they love their language, which is very different from Russian. I tell people I speak very good Russian. I can make mistakes in Ukrainian because they're not the same language. Yes, I know all of that. But you had to marvel at the unity of the country, the willingness to sacrifice, and the skill of the Ukrainian forces. I would say to the Ukrainian people: Thank you. Thank you for standing up for the principles and values that we have espoused for all of these years – of individual liberty, freedom and the right to determine one's future. America, I believe, is with you. Americans, I believe, are with you.
I'm just so grateful that Ukrainians have responded in the way they have. It's very tough, and it will undoubtedly continue to be tough. But I hope that the Ukrainian people also believe, as I do, that we will be there with you when the aggressor has been repelled and it's time to rebuild.