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 believes that engaging in negotiations now would likely be fruitless or beneficial to Russia.
Rice is a director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think tank. Under former President George W. Bush, she served as national security adviser (2001–05) and as secretary of state (2005–09).
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.
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.
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: 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. 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: 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. 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.