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West gave Putin the impression he could get away with anything. Alexander Vindman speaks to capacity crowd at CIUS’s 2023 Shevchenko Lecture in Edmonton

Mar 23, 2023 | Life, Community, Canada, Featured, Politics, News

Alexander Vindman speaks at CIUS’s 2023 Shevchenko Lecture

Jars Balan,
Marco Levytsky
For NP-UN

After a hiatus as a public presentation due to the COVID pandemic, the annual Shevchenko Lecture—established more than half a century ago by the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Edmonton and subsequently hosted in partnership with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies—was delivered at an in-person event on 7 March 2023 by Lt. Col. (retd.) Dr. Alexander Vindman. His talk at the University of Alberta, titled “The Russia-Ukraine War: Roots and Geopolitical Context,” drew a large and attentive audience of more than five hundred, including members of the Canadian military. Vindman, who last December completed a doctorate in international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, is renowned for his principled and courageous testimony in October 2019 at the Congressional impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. His candid firsthand account concerning the now infamous July 2019 phone call that the former US president made to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—in which he tried to pressure the Ukrainian government into launching damaging investigations into his rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, in exchange for releasing weapons already approved by Congress—earned him widespread public respect as well considerable enmity from Trump and his apologists.

Appointed to the National Security Council in 2018, having previously served at US embassies in Moscow and Kyiv as Foreign Area Officer for Eurasia, Vindman has closely followed developments in Russia and Ukraine for more than a decade and a half. Well ahead of other experts, he came to the conclusion that an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. In the course of his distinguished military career, Lt. Col. Vindman received several commendations and meritorious service medals, in addition to being awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq while serving with US forces. He retired from the US military in July 2020 when his promotion to the senior military officer rank of full colonel was abnormally delayed by the administration—allegedly in retribution for his deposition, after he was escorted from White House grounds along with his twin brother, Colonel Yevgeny Vindman, who was then the senior ethics official with the National Security Council.

While Dr. Vindman’s doctoral dissertation critically examines US policy toward Russia from 1991 to 2004, his presentation in Edmonton focused primarily on US and Western policy dealing with the Kremlin during Vladimir Putin’s tenure as Russian president. The 2023 Shevchenko Lecture and an interview given by Vindman to CIUS’s Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program are now available online—the lecture on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=bdNfJKFTK_A and the interview on CIUS’s Forum for Ukrainian Studies (ukrainian-studies.ca). During the interview Dr. Vindman is equally as frank as he was during the lecture and has the opportunity to reflect in more detail on the level of support provided to Ukraine by the Euro-Atlantic Alliance (“a bit of negligence, I think”) and Canada (“has really kind of supported Ukraine on the cheap”), nevertheless declaring, “The most important conclusion is that Russia has failed in its project of subordinating Ukraine, destroying Ukraine as a sovereign independent state. It is no longer feasible for Russia to win through military force.”

He said that throughout Putin’s more than 20-year tenure, the US and NATO in general looked the other way as Russia began to upend the rules-based international order giving Putin the impression “that he could get away with just about anything”. This led to his decision to launch a full-scale invasion in 2022. They bought into the idea of Russian “exceptionalism” as a world nuclear power discounting other players in the region. This was the policy of realpolitik as opposed to standing up for Western values of democracy and a rules-based international order.

The West was also late in supporting Ukraine with arms assuming that either Putin was bluffing when he mobilized his troops along Ukraine’s border or that the war would be over so quickly that it made no sense to provide Ukraine with weapons that could fall into Russian hands. This was a tragic mistake “because knowing that a war was coming, we missed the opportunity to deter Russian aggression and even now we’re playing catchup.”

However, Ukraine has proven itself on the battlefield showing it was underestimated. “We should in reality be experiencing a surge of support for Ukraine. Not just support for as long as it takes but for whatever it takes. But we’re still seeing the challenges of overcoming Russian exceptionalism.”

“For a student, such lectures allow you to tap into a specific knowledge base that an experienced speaker possesses and be aware of the key messages they want to convey as well as ask any of your questions to get even more specific answers,” said Artem Mamadzhanov, a student in the School of Public Health, and one of the Disrupted Students and Scholars that CIUS have been able to support from its DUSS initiative.
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Dr. Vindman was born in Kyiv to a Jewish family, emigrating in 1979 to the United States as a three-year-old with his identical twin brother, Yevgeny, an older brother, Leonid, and their widowed father. Fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, after obtaining a bachelor’s in history Vindman earned a master’s degree from Harvard University in Russian, East European, and Central Asian studies.

Dr. Vindman’s visit to Edmonton was his first to the Canadian prairies as well as his introduction to the Ukrainian Canadian community. On the day of his lecture, he was joined for lunch by Alann Nazarevich and Lubomyr Markevych of the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Edmonton, who invited him, and by Lt. Gen. (retd.) Paul Wynnyk, former Commander of the Canadian Army and Vice-Chief of the Defense Staff.

“What really got my attention regarding Alexander Vindman was when he stated in a May 22, 2022 interview on MSNBC where he stated that ‘my belief is that Russia is a near-spent force’. Azovstal had just fallen on May 17, 2022 and yet at this dark time Vindman was the first to state that Russia is a near-spent force,” explained Nazarevich.

“Then the Kharkiv counteroffensive took place in September 2022 and this showed that Vindman clearly knew something on May 22, 2022 that was not obvious to the rest of us. He showed himself to be a top flight analyst of the Russian war in Ukraine. When I proposed Vindman to be the Shevchenko lecture, it was an instant and popular choice supported by all on the committee.”

The following morning Vindman was interviewed on Edmonton CTV’s “Morning Live” show, after which, accompanied by CIUS Director Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, he was taken by Jars Balan of CIUS’s Kule Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies on a tour of the historic Ukrainian rural settlement area in Kalyna Country, east of Edmonton. The day’s itinerary included visits to Scotford, Bruderheim, Jaroslaw, Star, Lamont, Chipman, and Mundare, with the highlight being a guided tour of the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village by the provincial museum’s director, David Makowsky.

Dr. Vindman continues to actively support Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression through various volunteer endeavours and his frequent media appearances. His twin brother, former Col. Yevgeny Vindman, a military lawyer who retired in 2022 due to the damage done to his career by retaliatory measures of the Trump White House, is likewise active on behalf of Ukraine and is currently involved in documenting war crimes committed by Russian state officials and occupying forces on the territory of Ukraine.

By Jars Balan, director of the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, with additions by Marco Levytsky

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