He’s Fresh Back From Ukraine. Here’s What He Saw.

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As Russia continues its unprovoked war against Ukraine, the situation on the ground becomes more dire. Ukraine has managed to push Russian troops back from many of its cities, but the mass graves and buildings reduced to rubble are indications that the conflict is far from over.

How do the Ukrainian people feel? And what do they want from us?

Jim Carafano, a Heritage Foundation vice president who oversees the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, visited Ukraine last week and he has answers to those questions. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

Carafano joins the show to share what he knows about what’s going on in Ukraine.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: My guest today is Jim Carafano, vice president at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy here at The Heritage Foundation. Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Carafano: Hey. It’s great to be with you.

Blair: Now, Jim, I understand you just got back from Ukraine, where you visited with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and some other Ukrainian officials. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about that visit?

Carafano: Yeah, sure.

It was bizarre. Because I was in the military for 25 years, and in 25 years, I was never in a combat zone, and in the past couple of months, I’ve now been in two combat zones. So I think it’s true; it’s more dangerous to be at Heritage than it is to be in the army.

… We had a research group of international researchers who were hosted, actually, by the Polish government. And we visited Ukraine and saw a lot, talked to a number officials, but we did have an hour meeting with President Zelenskyy, which, actually, it turned out afterward was right when they discovered another mass grave. And so he didn’t let on, but he was actually bearing that burden as he was talking to us.

I found him to be very serious, incredibly well informed, very thoughtful, strongly patriotic, and really dedicated to fighting for his country. And so I think all those things are true.

Look, I won’t talk about the specifics of the meeting, because it was private and off the record. But I’ve said this publicly, so I’ll repeat it here; I think what’s very important for Ukrainians, and for President Zelenskyy in particular is, bipartisan support in the United States for Ukraine is important, and to do that, he really needs to speak to both sides.

And let’s be honest, President [Joe] Biden was really shamed into supporting this war, but he’s supporting it, which means his party is going to support it. But we have to explain to American conservatives why this is in the national interest, why taxpayer money is worth it, and why these people are worthy of our service.

And [the] president, he has a global image, but he needs to be serious and to be honest. Things like being on the Vogue cover and speaking to rock concerts—and I know he’s trying to spread—I think a lot of Americans don’t perceive that as what they need to see from. They need to see him being the serious leader that I really truly believe he is. He is not corrupt.

And the other issue is, again, people say, “How can you prove to us our money is well spent?”

Look, Ukrainians know that corruption is a problem in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy was elected to office to battle corruption. He is, I believe, truly committed to that, and he’s also fighting a war, but I think he has an obligation to really communicate to American people that he is just as serious about dealing with corruption, making sure American tax dollars are well spent as we are, that he has a commitment to that and a commitment to good governance.

Because look, … that’s the future of his country, and we need to see more of that side of him. And I think that’s fair.

Blair: Now, Jim, you did say that we need to make the point to American conservatives that this is a war worth fighting. Can you make the argument? Why should we be involved in this war?

Carafano: Well, actually, I think what really brought home some of the things I saw—so, I would put three points on there.

One is supporting an independent Ukraine is in America’s interest, right? It’s not a vital interest, we’re not going to fight there like we did on D-Day, but it is. And the reason for that is really simple. It thwarts the designs of the Russians and the Chinese.

For the Russians, it’s never been about Ukraine, and don’t let anybody tell you any different. Ukraine was just the next big step into reabsorbing all the post-Soviet states, dictatorial control over Central Europe, NATO dissolves, the U.S. is marginalized.

And who is the biggest victor in that? Who is the biggest cheerleader for that? It’s the Chinese. The Chinese want a Europe that is distracted, disorganized, and divided.

So Ukraine thwarts their efforts, and that is in America’s interest.

And it’s achievable, I think, would be the second point, which is, look, there would not be a Ukraine today if it was not for U.S. military aid.

Now, look, we could talk about what the Europeans have done. Some have done great, some have done not so great. To be honest, the Europeans have done a lot of things, that’s important. But the reason why we have a Ukraine today is because of U.S. military aid. And the Ukrainians are putting that to good use. They are doing the fighting and the dying for their country, and they are using that aid.

And we could talk a lot about oversight and efficiency and accountability, but the one thing I think is pretty clear is that military aid is going to the Ukrainian military and they are using it to defend their country. I think that’s indisputable.

And I think the third thing actually came home to me while I was there, which was the announcement that they discovered yet another mass grave.

I was in Bucha, which is probably the high watermark of the Russian advance toward Kyiv. But this is another mass grave that was discovered in recently liberated territory; murder, executions, obvious torture.

And it just reminds that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a global actor. Anybody that thinks that letting him loose on the world stage, being the ruthless bloodthirsty leader that he is, that that’s a good idea, and that somehow America wouldn’t pay a price for it, that’s just nuts.

So I think for all those reasons, America wants a Ukraine that will succeed. And if there are things that we can do that are efficacious, that serve the American taxpayers, that serve our interests, it makes sense.

That’s one of the reasons why we actually complained about the last supplemental bill, which was designed to provide money for Ukraine. It wasn’t that we didn’t think that supporting Ukraine was worthwhile. Our notion is, where’s the debate here? Where’s the administration’s strategy? Where’s the fiscal responsibility?

You’re spending trillions of dollars in domestic spending, most of it that’s useless and leftist, and it’s all deficit spending. We should be doing less of that. And matter of fact, we should reprogram some of that if there is useful things we should do.

And where are the conversations about what we’re doing on the civilian side, humanitarian aid? That that is right and efficacious and it’s not fueling corruption?

So it was never for us about not supporting the Ukrainian people; we think that’s just smart foreign policy from the United States; but it’s not smart foreign policy to do a smart thing in a stupid way.

Blair: Now, from your time in Ukraine with Zelenskyy, with some of these officials on the ground, is this a war that Ukraine can win?

Carafano: Yeah, if by ”win” you mean an independent Ukraine that is free and can defend its own territory, I think the answer to that is yes.

And in particular, here’s why.

Ukraine’s on the offensive right now. People have probably seen that in the news. They’ve taken back quite a lot of territory. Winter comes earlier there than it does in Washington, D.C. The winters are really cold. If anybody’s been in the military, they know it’s hard to operate in the winter. The Ukrainians have had eight years of fighting in the winter because they’ve been fighting the Russian since 2014.

Plus, I think the Russians, who have great difficulty mobilizing a lot of men and material for a major counteroffensive, particularly in the wintertime—recently they’ve seen T-62 tanks on the battlefield with the Russians. These are like three generations ago tanks. So I think Ukraine can hold territory, and that means we’re going to get through the winter.

So that, I think, will put Ukraine in a stronger military place.

Blair: Now, you mentioned the winter. Why is the winter so explicitly bad for the Russians? You would expect that the Russians would maybe have some experience fighting in winter conditions.

Carafano: Well, one is, it depends on what you’re doing. It’s a lot harder to be on offense than defense, I think for kind of natural reasons, when you’re operating in extremely cold weather and bad conditions.

The other is, the Russians’ last winter performed abysmally.

One of the really telling things for me was the enormous cases of frostbite. And having been in the military and actually been operating in the field in conditions like that, frostbite is not about dry socks. That’s a leadership issue; [noncommissioned officers] and officers who make sure that the soldiers take care of themselves in an appropriate way.

So when you see a lot of frostbite cases in a military, it’s not so much a failure in clothing and equipment as it is a failure in leadership.

Nobody thinks the Russian army’s going to get terribly better. I mean, they attacked with the cream of the crop of their military. They’ve plowed through that. So now they’re throwing into line mercenaries, people from other countries, prisoners that have been paroled out of jail, old people, like my age. I could just imagine myself with an AK-47 charging at Ukraine.

So it’s hard to believe then, in terms of fighting on the ground, the Russians are going to get any better, particularly in the worst part of the year.

Blair: I want to go back to something you were talking about earlier, where there was just an announcement while you were there about some of these mass graves that had been discovered.

I mean, I think that, rightfully, a lot of Americans are rightfully horrified by these stories coming out about Russian atrocities.

What were some of the reactions that the leadership in Ukraine—and I’m sure you had the opportunity to speak with some Ukrainian people, what were their reactions to these?

Carafano: Well, we were just leaving as this news was coming out. So we really didn’t have a chance to talk to a lot of people.

It’s not an easy place to get to. So you fly to the Polish border, it’s a 10-hour train ride to Kyiv. You’re doing that with blackout curtains because nobody wants to be advertising that you’re doing this stuff. And so there wasn’t a lot of time to spend with a lot of people on the ground.

… Look, Ukrainians are fighting for their country. I mean, nobody can say, “Well, we’re throwing money at these people and they’re just taking our money.” They’re fighting and dying. And there is a resilience and a courage.

And here’s the irony, a huge part of Ukraine is ethnically Russian. Most of them speak Russian and they watch Russian soap operas.

There’s more of a sense of Ukrainian national identity now than there’s ever been. These are people that want to fight for their country.

And to me, this gets to the biggest issue, if I could, my concern is Ukraine could win the war and lose the peace.

And what I mean by that is they can win on the battlefield and hold onto their country, but that if the reconstruction of Ukraine isn’t done right, the needs of the people are not going to be met, the politics won’t move forward, the corruption won’t get fought. And you can wind up with a weak, aid-dependent country that’s actually more vulnerable to Russian undermining and influence than it was in the past.

We don’t have an awesomely great track record on nation-building. Matter of fact, nations don’t build nations, nations rebuild themselves.

These large international institutions, financial institutions, they actually do a pretty bad job. The big giant [nongovernmental organizations], they’re mostly about getting money to deliver aid, not necessarily to deliver outcome.

We see money trickle down to the people on the ground, not meeting basic needs and services, and so much money being thrown at a country, that instead of fighting corruption, it fuels corruption.

So getting the reconstruction piece right, that is so, so important. Otherwise, we’ll have put good money after bad and Ukrainians will have done all this incredible sacrifice and it’ll just be wasted.

Blair: And given that, what should America be doing right now? Are we continuing the pattern that we’ve been doing before? Are we doing something different? Are we going to look toward the future? What should America’s role in this be?

Carafano: Well, look, first of all, I think the military aid’s important. If anything, I would push more military aid faster and more aggressively.

The logistics pipeline for military aid going into Ukraine is operating at about 60%. That means you could put 40% more resources through that pipeline and the Ukrainians could absorb it and effectively use it.

The sooner we get arms and ammo to the Ukrainians, whether it’s Americans or somebody else, the faster the war will end.

And ironically, it’s not all U.S. military aid. There are a lot of countries around the world, for example, that have Russian arms and ammo that the Ukrainians could use and countries which don’t necessarily lend that to them because they don’t want to annoy the Russians. Many of those countries are also our friends. Our president should be leaning on them to kick it over.

I think on the supplemental spending, we have to be more fiscally responsible. Matter of fact, they tied the next supplemental spending to a larger package of wasteful spending. I don’t see how conservatives can stand for that. I mean, we’re never going to help people by bankrupting the American taxpayer. And indeed, we undermine support for legitimate foreign policy when we do wasteful proliferate spending.

So I’d like to see more focus in the aid package. I’d like to see a discussion about offsets and using some of the many trillions of dollars that Biden has gotten to use all for basically leftist toy projects, science projects in the United States and repurpose some of that for legitimate foreign policy needs rather than just throw more deficit spending on the fire.

And I think we need a government that’s more serious about the reconstruction effort.

Look, let’s be honest, right now, the Ukrainians will tell anybody anything they want to hear to just get more money because, look, half the economy vaporized overnight. I mean, they’ve got to pay to keep the lights on. And so they just want money and they’ll promise anybody everything. But that’s not going to cut it.

We need policies that are going to fight corruption, improve governance, get to the people, empower people at the local level, build jobs back from the ground up. That’s how we’re going to have a stronger Ukraine.

Blair: Well, Jim, as we wrap-up here, my final question for you is, as you were on the ground with these people, as you were talking with them, what was the general atmosphere, what was the attitude amongst the Ukrainians? How do they feel about how this conflict is going?

Carafano: Well, I think there was a great amount of resilience and a great amount of determination from the highest leaders to people in the street that we talked to.

I’ll also say, there was a lot of thanks for America. I mean, the American taxpayers should know that the people of Ukraine, that they are free today because of the American taxpayer, and Ukrainians will be the first people to tell you that.

There was also a lot of respect for us. I mean, for The Heritage Foundation, that we showed up. Not everybody was there. We were there. They do not doubt our commitment to Ukraine and they understand that our perspective is, “We have to do what’s right by you, but we’ve got to do what’s right by the American taxpayers.” They not only respected that, they were like, “Gee, we wish we had more politicians in Europe that felt that way.”

So they’re going to fight for their future. And a win for them is a win for the West. There’s no question about that. But like I said, it does no good to win a war if you lose the peace. And I think we have to keep our eye on that ball.

The other thing, I think, which is really important and people don’t recognize, is, this is just as much about China as it is about Russia. Putin is China’s stalking horse. They’re angry at the Russians today because the Russians failed. They’re not angry at the Russians for invading another country, murdering people and dumping them in a hole. They’re angry that the Russians weren’t able to finish the job.

So a blow to Russia is also a kick in the teeth to the Chinese Communist Party. And I’m all for that.

Blair: I think we all are. That was Jim Carafano, vice president at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy here at The Heritage Foundation. Jim, very much appreciate your time.

Carafano: Thank you for having me.

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