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“Nobody Is Asking for American Troops to Fight in or for Ukraine”: Rep. Tom Malinowski on Putin, NATO, and the Prospect of War


With more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy military equipment amassed on Ukraine’s borders, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s threat of invasion has forced President Joe Biden and the NATO alliance into a defensive position, left calibrating the appropriate response to the Russian ruler. As tensions spiked last week, a bipartisan congressional delegation of 11 traveled to Brussels and Kyiv to assess the situation. Among the group was Congressman Tom Malinowski, a former diplomat and State Department official who now represents New Jersey. Malinowski spoke with Vanity Fair about his interactions with U.S. allies and Ukrainian officials, and shed light on the geopolitical dynamics of the moment and what options President Biden has at his disposal. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Vanity Fair: Can you talk a little bit about the Congressional delegation you and ten of your colleagues took to the region? Is there anything you can share about who you met with or your main takeaways when you went over there? 

Representative Tom Malinowksi: We went as a bipartisan delegation, Democrats and Republicans, to deliver a message of support for Ukraine, to make clear to the Russians that what Putin is doing is only going to increase our determination and that of our NATO allies against any potential Russian aggression. It’s striking to me that Putin has been so successful at uniting everybody around him to be against him. He’s united the Ukrainians; despite their political and linguistic differences, Ukrainians are absolutely together in wanting to defend their country against this potential attack. He has united the European Union and the NATO alliance. He’s even united Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress, which is quite a feat.

Was there anything surprising or unexpected that you learned while on the trip? 

What the Ukrainians stressed to us is that they’ve been living through this for seven years now, since the Russian invasion of 2014. Sometimes it may seem to Americans that the Ukrainians are not, in effect, panicking enough given the presence of over 100,000 troops poised to strike along their borders. But they point out that Russia invaded their country years ago, that they’ve lost more than 10,000 people in the fighting that ensued and they’re constantly subjected to so-called hybrid warfare—cyber attacks, efforts to destabilize the government. In recent weeks, a campaign of fake bomb threats, which are being called into schools and shopping centers and offices across the country to disrupt people’s lives. So they’re pretty stoic about it. They know this is serious, but they want us to understand that they have been living through this for some time and they don’t want to give Putin the cheap victory of ruining their economy and undermining their democracy simply by threatening to invade without actually moving a single tank across the border. 

President Zelensky has downplayed those tensions, dismissing the idea that an invasion is imminent. There was that one address in which he told Ukrainians to “take a breath,” to “calm down.” What are your thoughts on that position that he’s struck?

I understand where he’s coming from. He worries that if people panic too much they will start taking their money out of the bank, they will start leaving the country, and investment in trade deals with Ukraine will come to an end. It would be, in effect, as if Ukraine were under economic sanctions, even if Russia never invades. So again, he wants to deny them that cheap victory. At the same time, we have stressed to him and to others in the government that they have to take the possibility of an all-out Russian invasion seriously and that they need to be prepared for it. My sense is that they do understand that very well. 

There is this unification against Putin, against Russia. But there does also appear to be a growing chorus—from some on the left, from Russia, from some in Ukraine—that it is the U.S. and President Biden stoking tensions and pushing the idea of an impending military conflict. What are your thoughts on that narrative?

It would be as if somebody put a loaded gun to your head and then blamed you for stoking tensions by complaining about it. Russia has not just amassed troops and tanks along Ukraines borders on three sides. It’s put in place logistical units, blood banks, everything you would need to launch an invasion of the country. To then complain that the people pointing that out and expressing alarm are responsible for stoking tensions is patently ridiculous. But it is also a classic example of misdirection propaganda, which no one should fall for.

The U.S. is in a very different place than it was 15 years ago; there’s not really an appetite in the U.S. for a military entanglement abroad, especially, given the freshness, I think, of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Do you have a sense of President Biden’s thinking on the situation and what his considerations are?

It’s important to note that nobody is asking for American troops to fight in or for Ukraine. When we were meeting with President Zelensky in Kiev, that was one of the first things he said: “We’re not asking for you guys to fight for us. We’re perfectly prepared to fight for our own country. What we’re asking for is that you do everything you can to deter Russia from attacking us—threatening sanctions, helping us build up our own military and that you work hard on diplomacy to give the Russians an off ramp if Putin ultimately decides he wants to take one.” 



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