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Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discusses Russian invasion of Ukraine, women’s leadership

| Thursday, April 28, 2022

Political scientist and diplomat Condoleezza Rice, the 66th U.S. secretary of state under President George W. Bush, came to campus Thursday to address members of the Notre Dame community in a wide-ranging discussion hosted by University President Fr. John Jenkins at the Jordan Auditorium in the Mendoza College of Business. 

Rice, who currently directs the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, graduated with a master’s degree from Notre Dame in government and international studies in 1975. She also served on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1994 to 2001. 

Evaluating the war in Ukraine

Rice, a long-time expert on the Soviet Union and Russia, said she was not surprised by Putin’s aspiration but rather that he acted upon it. She said the recent Russian moves did not have to do with security interests or NATO expansion. They were related to a more wide-ranging vision of Russia’s imperial future, she said.

“I know Putin. I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the years,” Rice said. “I knew that he had this aspiration for the restoration of the Russian Empire. It really is this kind of nostalgia for empire and it’s hard for us to understand because we thought people stopped thinking that way a hundred years ago.”

She recalled a conversation with Putin when he revealed his ambition. 

“He told me once ‘Condi, you know us.’ He said ‘Russia’s only been great when it’s been ruled by great men like Peter the Great and Alexander II.’ Well, those are his heroes,’” she said.

Condoleezza Rice at Notre DameMax Petrosky | The Observer
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with University President Fr. John Jenkins on world affairs, college sports and more during a talk at the Mendoza College of Business Thursday. Rice graduated from Notre Dame with a master’s degree in government and international studies in 1975.

She said Russia had miscalculated several key factors about the decision to invade Ukraine, primarily the scale of the West’s reaction and the Ukrainian reception toward their invaders.

“You’re looking at someone who certainly miscalculated as to who the Ukrainians are. He was fond of saying Ukraine is not a real country, really believing somehow that these Russians would see them as liberators,” Rice explained. “They went with five days of fuel, five days of food and their dress uniforms for the parade. That just shows the mentality about the Ukrainians. [Russia] didn’t know they see themselves as a separate people.”

Russia overestimated the ability and competence of its military, she said.

“Most important is [Putin] actually thought his military was good. It’s been one repeated failure after another. Now to be clear, what the Russian military lacks and competence it makes up for in brutality. And that’s what you’re seeing now is just the wanton destruction of civilians since they couldn’t take Kyiv,” she said.

Rice also explained that Putin is in a paranoid state after spending two years in isolation during the pandemic. 

“He’s a germaphobe. He went to his dacha and didn’t see anybody,” she said. 

During this time in isolation, he began to develop a “deluded view of history,” she said. 

“By many reports, he spent a lot of time with Russian mystics during this time, who kind of reinforced his notion of the importance of him as a messianic leader,” she said. “It’s a picture that would make the Romanovs and Rasputin proud. The only problem is, this is a major country with a major economy with a major military and nuclear weapons. And so it’s a different thing.” 

 As the war in Ukraine continues, Rice said the result of the conflict will have wide-ranging implications.

“My view a month or so ago was ‘Let’s find an off-ramp for everybody. Maybe Putin can declare a little bit of a victory here or there.’ I now think if he wins in any way, the international liberal order is done,” she said. “How long can [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy watch the wanton execution of his people without trying to strike a deal? That is really what it comes to, but from the point of view of the international community, it is better if Putin loses.”

When addressing the response to the Russian invasion by China, Rice said China is on “a balance beam” and that although Chinese state media has been parroting Kremlin narratives, it cannot afford to sever its trade ties with the West.

Rice said she is “not that worried” about the war escalating to nuclear conflict. She argued Putin did not want to confront NATO militarily. She added that NATO has never been more united, quoting a friend who told her Putin had “managed to end Swiss neutrality and German pacifism in the matter of a month.”

Discussing women at Notre Dame

Jenkins moved the discussion to the 50th anniversary of female students at Notre Dame. When she was a master’s student, Rice lived in Lewis Hall, which doubled as the graduate women’s dorm and the convent at the time.

Rice recalled that in those early years of women at Notre Dame, Grace Hall was going to become a women’s residential hall and students protested under the mantra of ‘no lace in Grace.’ Rice said the University has advanced since those days.

“Fortunately, 50 years later, it’s a marvelous thing to see that our great institutions in this country have become more inclusive and more diverse over time. Nobody thinks anymore about the fact that I believe schools or Notre Dame or other places were places that women could not go to school,” she said. “If you ask a 10-year-old about that, they would kind of think you lost your mind. And so we tend to forget that it has to be an active decision to make these institutions more inclusive to change them and Fr. Hesburgh was very brave.”

Rice offered advice to those who, like her, are the “first” to break barriers.

“Frankly, if I’ve been waiting for a Black female Soviet specialist role model, I’d still be waiting.

“So you might be the first and then when you are first, acknowledge it and move on because you’re not there to be a first, you’re there to be whatever you are. Own it so that you have prepared equally and you know you belong in that room. Don’t let somebody else’s side week’s glance, throw you off course because maybe you belong there even more than they do,” she added.

‘It’s the Wild West’: Reacting to the beginning of the NIL Era

With regard to recent developments regarding name, image and likeness (NIL) in college sports, Rice expressed concern.

“You’ll also get this opportunity at this four-year degree that increases your lifetime earning potential by a million dollars. And you get to do it in an environment in which you need all of these other people who will be a part of your life for a long time whether you succeed as a professional athlete or not, and we somehow lost that central value proposition and it’s become about exploitation and there’s too much money and there’s too much of this,” Rice said.

She defended the role of money, however, saying that football programs bring universities enough funding to allow them to fund other sports and opportunities.

Rice referred back to a commission she and Jenkins both served on for the NCAA. During their time on the commission, they advised the NCAA to allow athletes more freedom with the use of NIL. However, she said the NCAA needs to institute some guidelines.

“Let’s put some guardrails around it … now it’s the Wild West,” she said. “And I think there are all kinds of abuses of it taking place but they’re not abuses because there are no rules. So I think we’ve got to try to get back to first principles.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misquoted a word in one of Rice’s quotes. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Isa Sheikh

Isa Sheikh is a first-year in Stanford Hall and serves as associate news editor. A history and political science major hailing from Sacramento, he enjoys reading The Observer on the 11th floor of Hes, sipping Cinderblock Coffee in the morning, and re-reading the same Didion essays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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