Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council staffer who gained prominence during ex-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment process, has said Russia and China are joining forces to “weaponize” corruption, and asserted that Western democracies need to unite to better defend the liberal order.
Speaking at an April 21 anti-corruption forum, Vindman said there are signs that Russia and China are sharing “best practices” for eroding democratic societies by strengthening criminal networks and extending corrupt practices. They are likewise leveraging a “firehose-of-falsehoods” approach to spreading disinformation.
Just as Russia and China are increasingly coordinating actions, the leading democracies must work together to defend their open system. “The democratic world needs to converge in much the same way [as its opponents] to push back,” Vindman said at the forum, which was hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. (Disclaimer: Eurasianet is housed at the Harriman Institute.)
The intensifying competition for global influence is increasingly focused on the problem of grand corruption, and Ukraine at present is a battleground for the rival state-building visions.
Russia in recent weeks has staged its military along Ukraine’s border. Vindman indicated the buildup is an outgrowth of Russia’s displeasure over a crackdown on Russian-oriented oligarchs in Ukraine, in particular sanctions imposed in February by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration on a Kremlin-friendly mogul, Viktor Medvedchuk.
The buildup, Vindman added, was a message to Zelensky to “back off” entities and individuals in Ukraine aligned with Russia, which wants to dash Ukrainian ambitions to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic system. The military buildup poses an “acute and immediate” threat to Ukrainian national security, he said, while emphasizing that strengthening the anti-corruption framework in Ukraine was “equally important” as a national security issue for the country.
Ukraine has created an array of institutions and systems to contain corruption in recent years. But despite considerable progress, graft remains a stubbornly persistent feature of the country’s political and economic life, thanks in part to Russian interference.
“Endemic corruption provides an environment for Russia to claim Ukraine is a failed state,” thereby slowing the Ukrainian’s government reform momentum, Vindman explained.
Vindman expressed support for the Biden Administration’s interim national security guidance, which contains heightened recognition of the threat posed by global grand corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the need to combat it.
“If we degrade corrupt networks [used by such countries as Russia, China and North Korea] we advance U.S. national security interests,” Vindman said. For Ukraine, he added, redoubling efforts to contain systemic corruption is “about the most important national security activity that [the country] can undertake.”
Vindman retired from the army as a lieutenant colonel last summer after his dismissal by then-President Trump as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. The firing was widely seen as retaliation for Vindman’s testimony during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University.
An effective response to Russian and Chinese efforts at forging a new, non-rules-based economic order requires much stronger coordination between the U.S. and European national security communities and their respective law-enforcement establishments, Vindman said. He also called for more U.S. and EU support for non-governmental groups and media organizations to monitor global financial cash flows.
“There needs to be lots more communications,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”