Former Governor and Ambassador Jim Gilmore at Ferrum College. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Former Governor and Ambassador Jim Gilmore at Ferrum College. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

The speaker at Ferrum College on Monday night went after Tucker Carlson.

He blasted The Heritage Foundation.

He ripped into the Conservative Political Action Committee.

And he all but called Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, a traitor.

What kind of left-winger did Ferrum bring to campus to indoctrinate the students? None at all. The speaker in this case was “a lifelong Reagan conservative” – former Gov. Jim Gilmore and, more to the point for this talk, former Ambassador Jim Gilmore.

We Virginians remember Gilmore as the “no car tax” governor, and he’s still happy to talk about that if you’d like, thank you very much. Gilmore, though, is now spending much of his time talking about foreign policy, particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and why the United States must do what it can to make sure that it does not succeed. It’s that talk that brought him Monday night to Ferrum as the inaugural speaker of the new Gentry Locke lecture series sponsored by the Roanoke-based law firm. Gilmore spent the time sounding a dire warning, and criticized those both left and right who have suggested that the United States quit its support of Ukraine. “For me, it’s a mission,” he said.

Long before Gilmore was ever involved in state politics, he was a U.S. Army officer, serving with a counterintelligence unit in Germany during the Cold War. With that background, and his service as governor from 1998 to 2001, Gilmore’s most recent public service makes more sense. From 2019 to 2021 he was the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group he confesses he had never heard of until he was in the running to become ambassador. It’s a relic of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which defined the world order at the time, and which Gilmore says is all the more relevant today. The Soviet Union wanted the Helsinki Accords because it felt that the pact would ratify its hold over Eastern Europe. The West, Gilmore said, agreed to the accords because we wanted people in those countries to be able to travel more freely in the West. The West was playing a longer game. “The Russians lost that gamble,” he said. “They lost because Western influence is so great and their empire collapsed.”

That was then. This is now. “Europe is not a stable place,” Gilmore said. “It has never been a stable place. It remains a very unstable continent, in my view” – and one where two world wars started. He warns that “the Serbs are determined to regain Kosovo and the only thing stopping them is NATO.” But the big threat to European security – and world security – is farther east, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gilmore said that when he was ambassador he would often talk with Ukrainians about the Russian threat; by that point Russia had already forcibly annexed Crimea and seized part of eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region. He said Ukrainians then always told him that if Russia moved to a full-scale invasion they would fight. He was incredulous. The idea of Ukraine standing up to a nuclear superpower more than three times its population seemed ludicrous. He said he’d always ask them – with Gilmore, it might have been more like an interrogation: “What do you mean you’re going to fight? What makes you think you can do that? The response was, ‘What choice do we have?’”

We now know two things: That the Russian Army is not nearly as strong as we thought it was, and the Ukrainian Army – now Western-trained and Western-equipped – is pretty good. And that the Ukrainians will fight tenaciously for their homeland. The Ukrainians, Gilmore said, know the Russians in a way that we don’t. He showed a slide of a statue in the capital of Kyiv. Outside one government building is the national symbol: St. George fighting a dragon. “They are very clear who the dragon is,” Gilmore said. “It’s Russia.” The Ukrainians aren’t the only ones who understand, either. He points out that Finland and Sweden now want to join NATO. “These people are neutral from the get-go,” he said. “They get hives when they think about joining up with somebody.” But they understand what it’s like to live in the shadow of Russia.

This statue of St. George fighting a dragon stands outside a government building in Kyiv, Ukraine. Courtesy of Jim Gilmore.

Gilmore was unsparing – and bipartisan – in his criticism of America’s handling of Russia, particularly our dealings with Vladimir Putin. “Almost all American presidents have made mistakes with this guy,” he said. Leonid Brezhnev wanted to preserve the Soviet order but knew he needed access to Western technology. Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet order but knew he needed access to Western technology. Putin, Gilmore said, wants none of those things; he wants to restore the Russian empire, and American presidents haven’t fully realized this until too late. George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed he could see his soul. Barack Obama told Putin he’d have more “flexibility” to work together after he was reelected. “Trump made every effort to work together with Vladimir Putin,” Gilmore said. “None of this worked. He is what he is.”

Gilmore likewise criticized President Joe Biden for repeating those same mistakes. Biden was too eager to seek a summit with Putin, Gilmore said. He lifted certain sanctions. He extended the START arms control treaty without insisting on new conditions. “He was sending a signal – that we wanted to get along, that we were willing to compromise,” Gilmore said. Then the American withdrawal from Afghanistan sent another signal. “Americans sent a very strong message, that we were willing to abandon our friends.” When Biden suggested early on that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine might not warrant a full-fledged American response, “I said, ‘Buckle your helmets on, here it comes.’”

From Gilmore’s point of view, Putin had every reason to expect the Ukrainian defense to crumble quickly and for the West to acquiesce in his conquest. “Putin is looking at ‘what is my risk here?’ He was all in. This was a big deal for Putin. This is his moment in history where he was going to reassemble the Russian empire, and after the first nibbles the next move is the big boy, Ukraine. He made a decision that this is his moment to reverse history.” We know now how that is working out. “He made a fundamental miscalculation,” Gilmore said. The Ukrainians fought back – tenaciously and well. And “President Biden made a 180-degree reversal and decided to stand firm,” Gilmore said. “If President Biden had behaved the way he was implying at the beginning of his administration, Ukraine would have been conquered. But he’s a stand-up guy and I support him on this.” (Just not other things. Gilmore spent part of the fall campaigning for Republican congressional candidates and is now devoting some time to helping Republican candidates for the General Assembly next year.)

Gilmore ran through the list of Russian atrocities in Ukraine: murders, rapes, “hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children taken away from Ukraine and put in foster homes in Russia,” cities leveled.

“The question of many Americans is ‘So what?’” Gilmore said. “These are not our children, these are not our cities. Many Americans say it’s not our business, it doesn’t make any difference” to us what happens in some faraway land. “I’m here to state clearly: It matters,” Gilmore said. “If the Russians are able to conquer Ukraine, they have changed the rules of the world order and at that point, military conquest and violence is the rule of the day. That will be the new order. If they fail, we go back to the Helsinki Accords and we go back to a more civilized world.”

Gilmore is as clear and strong on this as he ever was about doing away with the so-called car tax, the state’s personal property tax. He sketches out a grim future if Russia prevails, one where it may not reassemble all of the old Soviet empire but takes in some parts of it – the Baltics, for instance – and intimidates Eastern Europe. A Russian victory in Ukraine would also encourage China to invade Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province that must be reunited with the Communist mainland.

“If this continues, at some point America will have to engage – it will have no choice,” Gilmore said. “America has never allowed a hostile power to control the Pacific, or Europe, at the same time. It is an existential threat to the United States of America. The Ukraine war is our last chance to avert this.”

Strong words, but Gilmore goes stronger.

Forrmer Governor and Ambassador Jim Gilmore on a recent visit to Ukraine. Courtesy of Gilmore.

“This is a whole new world we’re in,” he said. “We’re in a shooting war with a nuclear power – that’s never happened before. In Japan and Germany, you could invade them, crush them, arrest their people. You can’t do that here.” The best we can hope for is to do what Biden has done – provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs. “We have no choice but to keep these people fighting for their own victory.”

And yet, he said, the battlefield isn’t simply in Ukraine. “The whole globe is really the battlefield right now,” Gilmore said. “We can still lose this. The discussion you see in your newspapers – ‘Why are we sending money to Ukraine? We have problems here. Why don’t we negotiate?’ I’m no fan of negotiating on bad principle. Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Adolf Hitler. I’m a lifelong Reagan conservative. I am ashamed of some of my fellow conservatives in the U.S. today. I am ashamed of Tucker Carlson, who I agree with on many things, who is on TV asking why [we support Ukraine]. I’m ashamed of The Heritage Foundation, which is starting to talk like that. I’m ashamed of CPAC, where I’ve received an award. I’m ashamed of Marjorie Taylor Greene, saying if Republicans take over the House, not another penny for Ukraine. This is the Russian message.”

(Gilmore recently wrote her a public letter, making the same point.)

Gilmore points out that there are liberal elements of the Democratic Party raising the same questions, but there’s always been a part of the Democratic Party that has tended to be more pacifist. “I’m more worried about the Republicans,” he said, because those Republicans criticizing aid to Ukraine are departing from the Reagan doctrine that he believes is the party’s traditional core and are reverting to the same kind of isolationism we saw in the run-up to World War II. If Russia prevails in Ukraine, “do you think this is the end?” Gilmore asked. “People of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia don’t think this is the end. … Putin has put us in a position where we either have to support Ukraine to the bitter end or we fold.”

Gilmore’s talk is dreary, which he apologizes for and says he intends to work on as he continues to give it. He says he’s actually optimistic. His presentation ends with a picture of Thomas Jefferson. “That’s our guy,” he said. “I am certain that the long battle we’re in we’ll win because of that guy.” Authoritarians can prevail for a time but ultimately have trouble controlling their own people. “The spirit of liberty cannot be stamped out. The Russians say they are afraid of us because we want to try regime change – that’s exactly what we ought to do. Democracy and liberty are on the march. I absolutely assure you we will win” – it’s just a matter of how and when.

Ideas prevail in the end, he said, although for now the big idea is to keep Ukraine supplied with weapons. “The Ukrainians are a sophisticated army, trained by the West,” he said. The Russians have turned out to be shockingly shambolic. “Their best soldiers are dead. Their tanks are mostly destroyed and their industry is not able to replace them. The Russians just took 300,000 off the street and will throw them into Ukraine in the winter, with no weapons, no training. They’re all going to get killed.” How long will Russians stand for that?

Gilmore says he’s given this talk about a dozen times now and hopes to give it more, to anyone who will listen. He’s also working on a book about these issues. He recognizes that the stakes are high and dangerous. “Even if we wind up in a general war, we’ll win it. I just don’t want to see it,” he said. “My speech is not about causing war. My speech is not about supporting war. My speech is about averting war.” In effect, if we don’t help the Ukrainians fight now, we’ll wind up fighting ourselves somewhere.

It’s enough to make one lose sleep. Gilmore said he’s resolved this in his own mind with this thought: “It’s not up to me.”

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.