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Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman discusses Zelenskyy's push for more U.S. aid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will be in Washington, D.C., today to make one final push for Congress to approve billions more in funding for Ukraine's fight against Russia. That funding is being held up because Republicans want money for border security to be attached to it. They have until the end of the week. Now, we've talked before about the politics of this. But right now we wanted to focus on the battlefield implications, so we called retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He is the former director of European affairs for the National Security Council, and now he directs the think tank Institute for Informed American Leadership. Good morning, Lieutenant Colonel. Thanks for joining us once again.

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what are Ukraine's options if the U.S. Congress chooses not to continue to send money to Ukraine?

VINDMAN: The outlook with funding appropriated by Congress is bleak. Absent funding appropriated by Congress, it looks like a catastrophe. The challenges that Ukraine faces over the course of 2024 are insufficient resources being applied by Western allies. I think we hit our high water mark in 2023 with what the West could pull out of its depots and stockpiles. There is less coming right now, not sufficient industrial base manufacturing to fill the holes. That's a major problem.

The Russians are also surging in their activity. They've allocated about 10% of their GDP, 40% of their state budget towards this war effort. They are now manufacturing lots of ammunition. They're producing drones. They're gaining superiority. And that doesn't include the fact that there's quite a possibility that after the presidential elections in Russia in March, Putin will feel even more comfortable calling up thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of troops in a mass mobilization with the intent of overwhelming Ukraine. So it's a tough situation even with funding. If funding is not passed, it's a crisis. And this is a very, very dangerous game of brinksmanship being run by the Republicans.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you - just to be sure I'm clear on this, you're saying that kind of Russia is stepping up its war preparations. It's stepping up its manufacturing. It's stepping up its production of materials and so forth. I mean, we've seen Putin's overtures to China. There are reports of security arrangements with North Korea sort of happening. So you're saying that this is in preparation for the expectation or the hope that the U.S. funding will not continue?

VINDMAN: They were doing this even without any of the machinations in our Congress or the absence of funding. They were just ramping up on the expectation that they needed to do more. They weren't being successful in the first year and a half of war, so over the course of the summer, they significantly ramped up. We're now in a situation where the gap between what the Russians are applying to this war and what Ukraine can muster is getting larger already. Absent funding, it becomes a chasm.

So this is why it's absolutely critical that the Republicans stop playing games, stop pandering to the base. I think ultimately you do have more Republicans that are supporting Ukraine's war effort. But it's the calculations around the base that is driving their idea that they could extract concessions from the White House, and that is just simply dangerous. And that's why Zelenskyy is passing through. He is trying to, you know, use his - all his charisma and charm to try to convince these Republican holdouts that this is absolutely essential, not just for Ukraine but for U.S. national security.

MARTIN: So let's say Congress does continue to fund Ukraine. Is there a smarter way to do this?

VINDMAN: There absolutely is. The fact that we need to not just accelerate the provision of systems that we have - so we can't have such a kind of slow, methodical timeline on air power, on artillery. We need to ramp up the industrial base. We need to fundamentally change the way we train or help train the Ukrainian forces. Their staffs need to be trained for combined arms. Logistics is broken, so they can't maintain the things that we've provided them because of the way that we've - it's entirely on us that we've not provided them the materials to support our equipment that we've gifted them. So there's a number of things that we need to do. We just need to reformat for a much, much more contentious, difficult war.

MARTIN: That is the retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He's the former director of European affairs for the National Security Council, and now he heads a think tank, the Institute for Informed American Leadership. Lieutenant Colonel, thanks so much for joining us once again.

VINDMAN: Thank you, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.