Ryan Lizza: Have you been involved in discussions on the Ukrainian security program that is part of the omnibus, either sanctions or additional security assistance?
Daniel Vajditch: I would say Sen. [Pat] Toomey, the top Republican member of the Banking Committee, is pushing for those sanctions.
Lizza: He’s pushing those sanctions you’re talking about?
Vajditch: We are really grateful to him for doing this. We met him recently. He understands the consequences. But he also understands the importance of this sanctions infrastructure that we need to create. That’s the foundation, the financial penalties. What do you do next on the energy side? Just like with Iran, we create these escrow accounts in various countries and markets around the world where the Russians are. They can continue to sell their oil and gas, but all or at least some of that money goes into those escrow accounts and we hold it until the Russians pull out of Ukraine and possibly engage in other other forms of behavior change. So it’s a model that I think is even more applicable in the case of Russia than some would argue in the case of Iran.
What are the counter-arguments? Well, this particular Europe cannot stand a cut off from Russian oil and gas. Well, on gas, we don’t think that’s true. First of all, it’s the end of winter. They don’t need gas right now. At this time, winter is over. They have seven months and we have seven months to work with them to build up their reserves for next winter. They have over 150 billion cubic meters of import capacity. That’s more than what Russia exports to Europe, combined with the ability to look at a few other energy resources on the gas side, because you can switch gas to other forms of energy. You can temporarily look at coal, you can look at nuclear.
I know these are tough questions and I’m not someone who necessarily disagrees with Europe or our own energy transition or our movement towards renewables, but we can’t subjugate ideology and the ambition in the renewable energy space to geopolitics right now, at least not for the next 12 to 24 months. This is our plea to the administration. It’s our appeal to the Europeans – I also say the Ukrainian appeal – that we may have to deprioritize some of these things temporarily so that we can continue to cut the energy from Russia in the short term, because it is the only thing they are going to understand.
Lizza: Are you talking about Germany using more nuclear and coal? This is not something the Biden administration controls.
Vajditch: This is where I come back to their flawed philosophy of the recent past where I try not to focus on it or dwell on it. But you know, they continue, quite frankly, to submit a lot of American politics to Germany and what the Germans would or wouldn’t do. I mean, so far the Germans haven’t wanted to do anything.
Right now they are doing something but, but look at Kharkiv, look at Ukraine, look at Kiev, look at Mariupol. That’s what it took for the Germans to realize that they had to do these things. So do you really want to continue to pursue a policy where you say we have to be in tune with the Germans when it’s taken them all this time to get there?
Lizza: Well, everyone seems pretty impressed with how quickly Germany changed a lot of policies.
Vajditch: I am. But that only goes to show how low expectations were. I’ll tell you something I heard today, literally before I went to dinner, from people around the president [Volodymyr] Zelensky. There’s a narrative circulating in Ukraine among very smart, pro-American people that the United States is withholding Ukraine’s security aid and real aid because we want to use the Ukrainians to exhaust the Russians .
Lizza: Just cannon fodder, basically.
Vajditch: I try to convince Ukrainians that this is not true and that it gives too much credit to many people. But that just reflects…
Lizza: It doesn’t really make sense, if you think about it. I mean, if you wanted to exhaust the Russians, you would supply the Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry to basically kill the invaders. On the contrary, the argument gives the impression that you want…
Vajditch: The argument of these people is that it is calibrated.
Lizza: So it’s slow.
Vajditch: It’s slow. It is being calibrated. They assess where the Ukrainians are and where the Russians are and how to essentially maintain the status quo.
Lizza: It feels like the Iran-Iraq war, where we basically liked the fact that they were fighting each other. As if that’s what they thought.
Vajditch: It’s a very good analogy and I think it’s exactly the right analogy. Again, I don’t think that’s true and I tell Ukrainians that’s not true. I hope I have some credibility with them to be able to tell them that. But I say this because it reflects where Ukrainians are and how they feel right now. They believe they are getting so little support from the United States that they are starting to come…
Lizza: So little despite everything?
Vajditch: Again, they feel that the United States is not doing all it can to defeat Russia. Let me put it this way: “The United States is not doing everything it can to defeat Russia…
Lizza: Well, it’s true. Were not.
Vajditch: …in order to allow the war to continue. And again, I can’t stress how much I disagree with this, but I just want to stress this, where there are very smart, logical, pro-American Ukrainians inside and outside the government. I think this is something that should be noted. It’s indicative of something in terms of where they are and what they’re thinking.
Lizza: Do they understand the American position on the no-fly zone?
Vajditch: I feel like they don’t. I don’t think they do. They will continue to push for this. But you know, I really emphasized helping with safety when I talked to people.
Lizza: Stingers and javelins.
Vajditch: Stingers, Javelins, and let’s fix the problem of fighter jets.
Lizza: So that’s an example where you’re able to explain to your Ukrainian counterparts what’s doable, rather than being told by the Ukrainians, “Hey, you know, come upstairs and talk to [Sen. Bob] Mendez and [Secretary of State Antony] Blinker.
Vajditch: Absoutely. It’s a two-way street. It must be. Again, we are not doing what my firm was founded for.
Lizza: If you went into Menendez’s office or into administration sources, the Pentagon or the State Department and argued for a no-fly zone, you would be ridiculed. It’s a non-starter.
Vajditch: Listen, I’m telling you where the center of gravity is right now. Could this change? You know, we literally see — and I don’t think it’s exaggerated — a genocidal desire or ambition in Ukraine. I mean, they want to depopulate parts of Ukraine. They tried. Fortunately, they failed. So the question is, if it continues, I don’t know. I don’t know if it moves. But right now, the center of gravity on both sides of the aisle is against a no-fly zone. But I know that President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Kuleba and others will continue to push for this.