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Putin miscalculated what a hard slog the war in Ukraine would be, Rice says


International outcry continues this morning after Ukraine said a Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. With the attacks ongoing, we turn to a leading voice on Russia and Eastern Europe - Condoleezza Rice. She brought her expertise to the National Security Council for President George H.W. Bush and then as national security adviser and secretary of state for President George W. Bush during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the following occupation. What lessons could be learned from the past, and what lessons can we take from Russia's invasion of Ukraine now? Our co-host, Rachel Martin, spoke to the former secretary of state.


In your estimation, was this war in Ukraine predictable?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I don't think that the war, as it has unfolded, was predictable. But I think that it was predictable that Vladimir Putin would eventually try and realize through some means his dream of reconstituting, really, the Russian empire. So perhaps he thought this was his last chance to pull Ukraine back from the West. What was unpredictable, maybe even to Vladimir Putin, was that this would be such a hard slog for the Russian armed forces, which have not been able to subjugate the Ukrainian people, despite the extraordinary force that they've thrown at them. And so he miscalculated. But even if it's the miscalculation, I do think that to come to this point, there is something going on with him that is less calculating, less rational, in a sense, than before.

MARTIN: I want to ask another question about the resistance - I mean, these posts from Ukraine's president, photos of civilians being attacked by Russian forces...

RICE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Which are all horrific. I was recently struck by this video of a group of women. Not sure if you saw this. They've joined Ukraine's military. They're all dressed in fatigues, face masks, automatic rifles in their hands - saying, we have taken our children to safety; now we're fighting, and, quote, "we will destroy the enemy on every inch of Ukrainian land." Is Putin prepared to occupy a democratic country and fight an insurgency like this?

RICE: This has to be a moment of truth, if you will, in Russia about whether or not - you know, they're a little bit familiar with insurgencies, and they know that they can be very, very tough. It's hard to imagine that they want to actually try to bring their soldiers into the center of a city like Kyiv and watch 60-year-old women shoot their soldiers every time they come around a corner. That won't be a pretty picture. And it looks to me that what they are trying to do instead is to bomb the populations into submission, make it so difficult for the Ukrainian people that eventually the Ukrainian leadership, just to save their people, will have to negotiate in some way.

MARTIN: President Zelenskyy keeps asking for a no-fly zone. Do you agree with the Biden administration that to issue a no-fly zone would trigger a, quote, "full-fledged war in Europe," as Secretary Blinken put it?

RICE: Well, no-fly zones are a very, very serious undertaking. And it's easy to throw it around. It sounds defensive. But you would probably have to suppress Russian air defenses. You would have to be prepared to shoot Russian aircraft out of the sky if, in fact, that they were attacking. And so I do think it risks wider war. And if I could wave a magic wand and go back a little bit and arm the Ukrainians more quickly and more fully with the kinds of munitions that we now see going in, maybe even earlier with air power, that could have done this, but I think that at this point, a no-fly zone is probably, wisely, not in the offing.

MARTIN: You say you wish you could go back in time and have the U.S. be funding, sending more military aid to Ukraine. I must ask, then, about President Trump's phone call, now infamous phone call, with President Zelenskyy in which President Trump appeared to be withholding military assistance in exchange for a Zelenskyy investigation into President Biden.

RICE: Well, let me just say, this should have started after the Crimea invasion in 2014. That's when the arming of the Ukrainian forces should have started. And I have said publicly, I think that the call was inappropriate with President Trump and President Zelenskyy. But the Trump administration actually did then arm the Ukrainians with lethal weapons for the first time in our history. And so had we continued that and maybe accelerated it, we might be in a better position now.

MARTIN: It seems so complicated to give Ukrainians air power right now. The U.S. has turned down Poland's offer of fighter jets for Ukraine because of concerns that Putin would see this as a sign of aggression. How do you get around that?

RICE: Well, it is hard once the war has begun to figure out how to get MiGs and Sukhoi aircraft to the Ukrainians because they're going to have to fly from somebody's airbases, and one can understand why the Poles might feel that that would make them a target. So...

MARTIN: Do you think NATO should own this and send these planes?

RICE: Look; I'm not on the ground and familiar with the ins and outs of the real difficulties they may be facing in getting the planes there. But I do think that we need to figure out a way to continue to deny the Russians air superiority. The good news is they haven't been able to establish air superiority. If we can continue to get Javelins and Stingers into the Ukrainians, the Russians are going to have a tough fight trying to fly low. So while I hope they can find a way to get the fighter aircraft there to enhance Ukraine's capabilities, I hope we can also accelerate this ground-to-air war that appears to be at least bringing down some of the Russian Air Force and particularly their helicopters.

MARTIN: There are only so many ways this can end. Could you lay out what you believe to be the most likely scenarios?

RICE: Well, I will give you my hopeful scenario, which is that the Russians have had enough, that they recognize that the goal of overthrowing the Zelenskyy government, bringing the Ukrainian people into submission, is not going to be realized and that Vladimir Putin - who, after all, controls the narrative inside Russia at this point - decides that he is going to dress this up as victory.

MARTIN: NATO and the U.S. are now in this bind, wanting to support Ukraine's defense without further provoking Russia in a way that could broaden the war to other former Soviet republics or even beyond. If the young democracy of Ukraine dies in Vladimir Putin's hands, what does that mean for the liberal world order, as someone who studies democracy?

RICE: It's disastrous for the liberal world order. It's disastrous for Europe. It's disastrous for all the values that we hold dear. And that's why we can't let Ukraine lose. Ukraine is the last defensible territory between the Russian military and our Article 5 commitments to the Baltic states and Poland and Romania, and so I think we have to throw everything at it that we can that the administration believes will not widen the war, do it as quickly as we can. And I just want to say one other thing.

MARTIN: Please.

RICE: This is not the fault of the Russian people. And I ache for them, which, for 30 years, they have come out of their isolation - the ability to travel, the ability to go to school in California and in London and in Boston. And this is a horrible time for them, too. And my greatest hope is that when this is over - and God willing, it will be over - that Vladimir Putin does not think he can continue to be president of Russia because who can imagine Vladimir Putin ever again walking into No. 10 Downing Street or into the White House? His is an isolated Russia. And once we have hopefully helped Ukraine save an independent Ukraine, we have to turn to the question of, what is Russia's future?

FADEL: That's our co-host, Rachel Martin, speaking to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She's now the director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.