Feb 22, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Ex-Trump adviser calls on U.S. to prepare for Ukrainian government in exile

Robert O'Brien
Photo: Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump's former White House national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, says the U.S. must develop plans to recognize a Ukrainian government in exile in the event Russian troops depose President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Driving the news: O'Brien told Axios if Russian troops invade Kyiv, he doesn't see "any circumstance" in which Zelensky can remain, given U.S. warnings about Russia's alleged possession of a "kill list." He also urged President Biden to publicly vow never to recognize a Russian puppet government in Ukraine.

  • It was not immediately clear whether the Biden administration already has begun preparing for such contingencies.
  • The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment on Monday night.

Why it matters: While Western attention is focused largely on military developments on Ukraine's borders and how to respond with sanctions, O'Brien is the first former top U.S. official to call for a long-term political plan for whatever comes next.

  • In an interview Monday with Axios, he compared his proposal to the government-in-exile framework used during World War II, when officials from Poland, Norway, Belgium and other occupied countries relocated to London and maintained diplomatic relations with the Allies.

Details: Funding for a government in exile would likely have to come from foreign aid, including the European Union, O'Brien said.

  • He said steps should to be taken to preserve Ukraine's seat in multilateral institutions and access to Ukrainian assets and diplomatic facilities.
  • The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other international institutions should deal only with the legitimate Ukrainian government, which could set up an office in London, Warsaw or another friendly European capital.
  • O'Brien suggested a prospective framework for lawsuits against Russia for damages caused by the invasion, under a model such as the United Nations Compensation Commission for Kuwaiti claims against Iraq after the Gulf War.

O'Brien said the West also should support an insurgency to fight back against the Russians in "occupied Ukraine," and potentially help organize elections outside of Ukraine for expats and refugees.

  • "You could just create an enormous political, diplomatic, legal headache for the Kremlin," he said.

Between the lines: Unlike some Republicans close to former President Trump, O'Brien believes helping Ukraine defend itself is in the U.S. interest and won't detract from U.S. efforts to address China's aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

  • "We've got one of our major adversaries looking to change the land borders of Europe through conquest," O'Brien said. "We haven't had such conduct since 1938."
  • "China's watching what's happening in Ukraine," he added.
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