Putin and the Presidents: Julia Ioffe (interview) | FRONTLINE
the last time we talked to you about that remarkable National Security meeting that Putin had just as the war is being launched he also delivers a speech that day about what he called the special military operation known as the Empire live speech and sort of remarkable looking back at it how much of it is about America and is about the West when he's talking about invading Ukraine what do you take from his focus on the United States in that speech his focus in that speech is mainly the U.S it's NATO it's not Ukraine you come away from that speech thinking that Ukraine is just a proxy Battlefield and in the months ahead of that uh Speech and as the war continues to play out Russian State tv Kremlin State TV picks up that line and runs with it not just the Empire of Lies line but the fact that Russia isn't fighting Ukraine Russia's fighting U.S and NATO forces in Ukraine that Ukraine is just a puppet of the US and NATO and the war is really Ukraine has nothing to do with anything that this war is really a war between Moscow and Washington and Moscow and Brussels that's sort of amazing that he sees it as a conflict with the United States actually can I can I add something else yeah please and in his most recent speech in his speech ordering the partial mobilization of the Russian population the speech in which he calls up 300 000 men with some military experience on September 21st 2022 a speech he makes because the Russian military is losing in Ukraine so badly it's losing so much territory to the Ukrainian military what he says is uh actually we're having great success in the back rooms and the corridors in around the conference tables of the negotiations with our Ukrainian counterparts we've reached a negotiated settlement with our Ukrainian Partners but it is the Americans they're American Puppet Masters who have told them no rip up all these negotiations rip up these settlements we will not take this you have to keep fighting and this is the pretext he gives in the speech on September 25th announcing the mobilization that uh that is the pretext for pushing further ahead with this war instead of seeking to sue for peace does he believe that he's at war with the United States I think he does believe that he's at war with the United States with Russia here too right I I think everybody here understands I think all sides understand what is at stake in this conflict right and the con and what's at stake is not allowing Russia to swallow up more of Ukraine not allowing Russia to topple the rules-based international order that has been in place in Europe since the end of World War II which is a regime that Putin has been seeking to topple and who is the guarantor of that order it is the U.S he has spoken about it openly he spoke about it at Munich in 2007 he has been speaking about it pretty much his entire presidency and so I would say that he does probably believe that that he is fighting the U.S on the
ground in Ukraine of course his soldiers are fighting U.S missiles U.S equipment so it's not such a far cry for him to make that argument when Putin invaded Ukraine he was punished by the U.S and by a coalition of countries that were led by the U.S that were kind of organized and spearheaded by the U.S the NATO
States the countries in the indo-pacific that were American Allies right if Putin really were just were not fighting the U.S we're only fighting Ukraine that wouldn't have happened Biden's rhetoric about facing down dictatorship and defending democracy the warnings that the White House has issued to Putin before the war now in response to Putin's invoking the nuclear threat again and saying I'm not bluffing it is very clear that Moscow and Washington are in fact in conflict in Ukraine so let's go back to the other conflict that he comes out of which is the Cold War one of the things we're interested in the American presidents and when we go back and you look at the rhetoric of American presidents who framed the Cold War in very ideological terms the evil empire the battle for freedom for Vladimir Putin who's trained as a KGB agent how is he seeing the Cold War how is he seeing the American talk of it being about freedom and good and evil the type of rhetoric that was coming from American Presidents I think Vladimir Putin sees American talk of Human Rights democracy Freedom as a cynical fig Leaf something that the U.S uses to cover itself as it cynically pursues its interests across the globe as it pushes its agenda across the globe much the same way that Moscow when it was first the capital of the Soviet Union and then Russia did across the globe invoked the cause of socialism in pursuing its job a political interests Putin understands that that was a fig leaf and a lie and that it was just invoked to cover some pretty kind of hard real politique considerations and calculations and there's a lot of projection happening much as there is on the American side there's a lot of projection happening in Putin's mind that if we were doing this the Americans must be doing this too and all of this stuff about democracy Freedom human rights is just a veneer is just a facade to make this kind of these cold cynical calculations more palatable to people around the globe and to the American public in that speech in February when he's announcing the war he looks back at the fall of the Soviet Union and he says we lack confidence for only one moment but it was enough to disrupt the balance of horses in the world as he's watching Gorbachev and Yelp and interacting with Americans leading the country at that point what is he seeing about Russian greatness about strength how is he perceiving Yeltsin and Gorbachev I think he sees Tov he perceives as a weak and naive man who pursued the wrong reforms I think Putin doesn't like liberal reformers he doesn't respect Russian Soviet leaders who have opened up Soviet Society both internally and to the world he doesn't have a great deal of respect for Nikita he has nothing but contempt for Mikhail gerbachev in fact he didn't go to his funeral when he died just recently he he scorn on Groucho for handing Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic he sees these leaders as naive and weak and giving in to basically what he sees as lies about The Human Condition right and he thinks that these leaders fundamentally misread the Russian people he believes that the Russian people can only be led with an iron fist and through toughness and that Russia can only be represented abroad through great strength and a projection of strength that if Russia presents itself with kindness and moderation and openness that the West will take advantage of it that there has to be some kind of swagger machismo aggression and that is the only thing that the West understands and that in some ways that's the only thing that Russians internally understand so when he looks back at the leadership of Khrushchev gurbachov he sees people who made fundamental miscalculations and he sees uh is somebody who destroyed a great country and show off as somebody who nearly destroyed a great country but was prevented by doing so by e who sees back the reins of control a neostolinist who cracked back down tightened back up you know battened down the hatches and projected force and strength both at home and abroad with Gorbachev also I think Putin believes that Gorbachev got rolled by the West and he has convinced himself of what we know is an absolute fiction he truly believes that Gorbachev was promised by American and Western European leaders that NATO would not expand even though Gorbachev himself many times said I never asked for such a promise and I never received such a promise not from West German leaders not from British leaders not from American leaders but it is something that Putin keeps invoking he has kept invoking throughout his presidency and he invoked many times in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 he kept saying that we were promised Russia represented by Mikhail gorbacho for promised that NATO would not expand a single inch Eastward and basically we were lied to and that this is kind of the root of all of our discontent the root of our feeling like we can't trust the West this is basically the chickens coming home to roost and um this is the root of our argument that this is all created by NATO expansion but again no such promise was ever asked for or made but in his mind that is the kind of quintessence of Gorbachev that he was rolled by the West again Gorbachev was out there making treaties with the West that Putin thinks were treaties made by a loser right because Putin doesn't believe in win-win situations if the other side is winning at all it me it means that you are losing by the exact margin that the other side is winning Gorbachev in the late 80s as the Soviet economy was collapsing and there were increasing shortages of goods basic goods and food Gorbachev was begging the U.S for economic aid just to kind of keep the country together and fed and I think Putin sees that as humiliating weakness that you're basically panhandling groveling in front of your enemies the fact that Gorbachev allowed these princelings around him the presidents of or the heads of the republics of Russia Ukraine and Belarus to get together behind his back and dismantle this great Empire is to him the ultimate weakness and it is an inability to control your subordinates inability to spy on them sufficiently and to control their movements and their you know what they do it's I think to him Gorbachev was just one of the most despicable leaders of Russia and the fact that when Gorbachev died he did not go to his funeral tells you everything you need to know there are these meetings where American presidents are trying to understand Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton is the first one George W bush famously says that he looks into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw his soul I mean did we have any idea who Vladimir Putin was did American presidents have any idea of who Vladimir Putin was I don't think Russians really knew who Vladimir Putin was he was still a relatively unknown guy he uh you know was a pretty gray functionary who didn't have much of a public footprint and the other thing about Vladimir Putin is he actively shaped the impression he made on American presidents on December 31st 1999 Boris Yeltsin nominates him to be his successor and then in March of 2000 he has to get elected president kremlin's been artists and political strategists have just three months to slap together a presidential campaign and they get these three Hotshot political reporters who interview Vladimir Putin his friends and relatives and they basically slapped together this Memoir which is basically a long q a and call it in the first person and they put it out there as a kind of introduction to the Russian people of who this man is one of the people they interview is his childhood friend the cellist who later becomes basically a Putin shell company but when Putin starts working in the KGB this friend starts asking him but what is it you really do what is it you really do in the KGB and Putin tells him I'm a specialist in communicating with people and this is something that this friend keeps repeating later he says my friend is a specialist in communicating with people and you see it later when Putin starts communicating with American Presidents you can see how he shapes himself in accordance with whoever it is he's talking to so when he meets George W bush he knows that he's talking to a born-again Evangelical Christian who has had a literal come to Jesus moment and so in one of his first meetings with George W bush he brings this little cross that means a lot to him where that his mother uh took to Jerusalem to have it uh Sanctified in Jerusalem that he used to wear all the time and happen to survive a fire at his family dacha where everything everything in his house burnt up he barely survived he had to basically repel out down the house on a sheet naked in order to get out in time and one of the only things that survived this house fire was this little cross and he brings it to his meeting with George W bush and tells him this story about how his mother who barely survived the siege of Leningrad his mother who lost one son to disease and infancy another son to hunger during the siege of Leningrad who had him at an impossibly old age of 41 had him secretly baptized in the Soviet Union how much her faith meant to her even in the Godless Soviet Union that she gave him this cross and then she then went and Sanctified it in Jerusalem at the at the savior's grave and that this ha and that this cross then miraculous miraculously survived a massive house fire when nothing else did and it made a massive impression on George W bush and after that is when George Libby Bush as I looked into his eyes and I saw his soul so because he because because he's a specialist in communicating with people it's amazing because he often sends the other signal and we've heard people thought about meetings that he had where even at the same period even in 2001 with Americans where he is standoffish and he does the famous Putin slouch and he's argumentative but it's all part of him projecting power in one situation or trying to win somebody over to that calculating in what he does remember for him projecting strength is important he grew up in a rough neighborhood he grew up on the streets he was always very short very slight in stature which is a liability in the places he grew up and he talks about how he grew up on the rough streets kind of scrabbling that he was a punk that he didn't get into the Pioneers because he was a punk because he had so many disciplinary problems and that he then took up Judo in order to compensate for this right and so you have to constantly be projecting strength so that people don't mess with you and so he's clearly trying on one hand to kind of get through the armor to endear himself to an American president but also trying to project strength right so don't mess with me but also you can trust me but don't mess with me so he's trying to do both and again was George W bush who was the very first world leader to call George W Bush on September 11 2001.
it was Vladimir Putin and what did he say when he called George W Bush on September 11th he said you know I'm so sorry Etc but he said we've been facing terrorism from radical islamists for years now now you know what we've been facing let's work together on this and that's where this uh counter-terrorism cooperation between the U.S and Russia grew out of and it was one of the very last things to go when Russia invaded Ukraine it was one of the only things to survive the invasion of Crimea in 2014 the poisoning of Sergey scripal in 2018 it survived all these things including you know the meddling in the American election in 2016. it started that day on September 11th when Putin called to say he was sorry knowing you know that if he beat the crowd if he made it first he would make a big impression on the American president and that if he made himself relatable if he made the American president understand that the Russian people have also been dealing with terrorist threats and terrorist attacks that he could Forge some kind of alliance between Russia and the U.S and then it would make them peers rather than have make the American president look down on Russia look down on the Russian president and yet we know that six years later in Munich he's going to give a speech that's reminiscent of the one that he is before Ukraine I mean what happens in between I think first it's Iraq it's the invasion of Iraq it's the fact that Putin says don't do it and George W bush not only doesn't listen to him but completely evades though one of the only International bodies where Russia still has a veto still has real geopolitical power which is a U.N
security Council and the way in which the U.S brushes Russia Russia's concerns off really drive home to Putin that America doesn't care about what Russia thinks it really drives home to Putin that Russian stature has not recovered from 1991 that Russian opinion still doesn't matter that it doesn't really count for anything in Washington that maybe if the Soviet Union had said if you invade Iraq we're going to do X Y and Z Washington would have stopped to think but when a post-soviet Russia says it it's easy to just completely brush off I think that really stung and then the color revolutions where America says we're spreading democracy Freedom human rights but really these are former Soviet republics these are right on Russia's borders and Putin sees them just as cia-sponsored regime change he sees it as old Cold War Games he thinks you know you guys are still doing the same old stuff you haven't changed your stripes at all and you know you just toppled Saddam Hussein now you're toppling my guys in basically former Russian colonies places that he still thinks are his right places that he still thinks belong to Russia and America is still running ngos and helping um Democratic activists and uh the Democratic press inside Russia and so he thinks oh they're coming for me next and in 2007 at in Munich he gives a speech and we've talked to people who are there and they say it was shocking and it was head snapping did we pay attention to it did we understand the depth of what he was expressing there I think people understood what he was saying but I don't think people took it seriously because Russia in 2007 was still poor was still had a very weak military uh that still hadn't rebuilt and modernized after the Soviet collapse it was still easy to dismiss Russia in 2007 and I think that only added to Putin's Fury the fact that he came out and said what he's what he thought he said I'm telling you I am angry I am angry he mentioned Iraq numerous times in that speech he said I warned you that exactly this would happen that you're going to Lop off the head of the Iraqi government and that you would unleash chaos because you can't just do that you can't just topple a government and not replace it with anything that everywhere America goes it brings Bloodshed and Chaos that it's just imposing its will on other countries that this has nothing to do with democracy that America is hypocritical Etc again very reminiscent of the speech he gave in February of 2022 but unlike in February 22 nobody took him seriously because Russia in 2007 was just not a serious player on the global stage and that only reinforced Putin's drive to be taken seriously I mean it's so interesting because he perceives this threat he perceives that America is a threat to Russia is a threat to him that the U.S is organizing demonstrations that in other countries that are undermining his power and in America it seems like there's not even a sense that Russia is a threat remember 2007 our Obsession was terrorism our Obsession was the Middle East in every University everybody was trying to learn Arabic everybody wanted to be a terrorism specialist and a Middle East specialist in Washington that was the focus of all of our foreign policy all of our national security um and nobody cared about Russia Russia was a forgotten Backwater it was a joke if anybody said that Russia was a security threat they would have been laughed at you know I graduated college in 2005 four years after 9 11 which happened during my freshman orientation and I chose to study Soviet history I wanted to focus on Russia and I remember my parents saying why it's in irrelevant country it's a country without a future you will find no work ever focusing on Russia that's not where things are going in the world right um it's yeah it's amazing that sort of inattention or not knowing what's going on and at the very end of the Bush Administration the last real conflict and thing that you can look back on from trying to understand Ukraine is Georgia before that is this question about Georgia and Ukraine and being admitted to Nato at this point where bush has got his freedom agenda and apparently is one of the you know inside the White House there's an argument about it but he feels pretty strongly and and and Putin and Putin tells him in Bucharest exactly what he thinks and what he thinks to this day he tells him George what are you doing Ukraine is not a real country it is something he believed all along and he believes it to this day you know it is something that is now echoed across all of Russian propaganda that there's no such thing as Ukraine there's no such thing as Ukrainian culture as Ukrainian language it was all just made up in the last hundred years or the last 20 30 years and Putin was expressing it openly to George W bush in 2008 at Bucharest he said George this is not a real country and how important was that decision there's obviously we've talked to people and there's a debate on both sides about whether they should be admitted or not but but in the end it's a compromise that they're going to make a statement about it but it's not a they're not going to be immediately part of the application process how important is that decision I think it's massively important in that this compromise was the worst of Both Worlds for both Georgia and Ukraine it left them both massively vulnerable to the invasions that would both come for both of them it basically waved the red flag in front of the bowl it was extremely provocative for Russia Russia said it would be provocative it asked NATO to please not do this NATO did this anyway under the leadership of George W bush it provoked Russia and made Russia angry specifically at these two states but then NATO did not provide any protection for these two states so then it then left them basically twisting in the Wind right in the path of this bull that it had just provoked and what ends up happening just a few months later is Putin invades Georgia very quickly lops off 20 percent of its territory which it has still not gotten back and the U.S NATO the West does absolutely nothing about it which then shows Putin that he can do the same thing in Ukraine that he can do the same thing in his backyard it's a reassertion that this is his so-called near abroad his backyard the former Soviet colonies these places that he thinks still belong to him and to Russia that he can get away with lopping off chunks of territory from them and that when the U.S says we'd like them to join NATO but not right now that means probably never and they'll probably never do anything it deepens this process that you see that you see in Putin after this point which is this quest to show the hollowness of Western institutions the hollowness of Western rhetoric this idea that the West is decadent and weak and lacks the manhood to back up its words with actions that the West will threaten it will say we will do this and we will do that but if Putin were to actually cross a certain line they'll be too scared to do anything and that's why I think he'll often now drop the nuclear threat because he thinks it will again get into Western heads American heads and make them back down because he believes westerners are cowards and feckless and again lacking in the manhood to do anything to back up their rhetoric I think that really makes it clear how important that moment was it is remarkable how he even with Connolly's the right thing we stand by our friends but they didn't how did they stand by our friends how did America stand by its friends in Georgia I mean what did what did they do when it happened a whole bunch of nothing I mean it definitely sent a message and then so the next Administration comes in this is the Obama Administration and Joe Biden is playing a prominent role in shaping that policy and he goes to Munich and he lays out Biden lays out the Obama foreign policy and part of it is the reset with Russia having seen what we just thought Georgia did the reset implicitly mean moving on from that not putting that in the top of the agenda not responding to actions like that I think that's exactly what the reset meant I think the reset meant okay that was the last guy and we ran on being Auntie last guy right Obama ran on being the anti-bush on the idea that had he been president he wouldn't have gone into Iraq he wouldn't have made a lot of the aggressive foreign policy decisions that bush had made and so let's just you know take a step back take a breather and let's reset our relationship with much of the world including with Russia and so you have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arriving in Moscow standing there with foreign minister Sergey lavrov with this giant reset button where ironically it says not reset in Russian but overload because they misspelled it it says which means overload rather than reset and he you know lavrov points it out to her and they have a real like a good laugh on camera but they press it anyway and the idea developed by Michael mcfaul who then becomes the ambassador to Russia for the Obama Administration a few years later is that we can have dual track engagement with the Russian government we can talk about on one track things that are our common interests counterterrorism space Innovation you know economic cooperation and then on the second track the U.S can also reach out to opposition activists Democratic activists journalists and continue promoting and supporting people who align with the U.S on not just American
values but what we believe are Universal values which of course the Kremlin thinks is Biden goes there in 2011 which is in the middle of that period after the in the middle of the sort of Arab Spring before the protests happened in Moscow and he meets with Vladimir Putin and one of the stories that which which month was that this was in uh March of 2011. there's two stories that come out of it but one that I'd like to ask you about is Michael McFall says that one of the things that Putin tells to Biden is we only look like you that Russians America look the same but we don't share your values and you don't understand us what would Putin be trying to convey in telling Biden that this is a sentiment I'd heard expressed by some Russians and actually some foreigners living in Russia who said it would be easier to understand Russians if they were just purple because it was in fact confusing to westerners to Europeans and to Americans to deal with Russians who look European who look white and you expect them to act like westerners like white Western Europeans when in fact they are quite different and wired quite differently and have quite different cultural expectations and wiring um and that created quite quite a few misunderstandings I lived in Russia at the time and what I could never get across to Russians was that Americans really are that idealistic and they really believe what they're saying about democracy about Freedom about human rights that this isn't just cynical lying that this isn't just a cynical fig Leaf in trying to take over oil wells in the Middle East and Russians even the most liberal Russians often wouldn't believe me they would think they would equate idealism with stupidity and this would fit their stereotype of Americans as stupid and then I would come back to the U.S and Americans couldn't understand how cynical Russians were that they really didn't believe pretty much anything they said that there was always a lot of machinations going on and that there was just that they really were that comfortable lying to you to your face um and no matter how long these parties dealt with each other in government through diplomacy they still never understood this fundamental thing about each other the Russians thought the Americans were as cynical as they are and the Americans couldn't understand that the Russians were always lying it's fascinating especially in that period where there's all this talk about democracy and it's seen by such such a threat by Putin and also all this talk about cooperation remember during this time the state department is organizing all these trips to the uh to Russia for example by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to meet with tech entrepreneurs in Russia for example they bring they organize a trip for Dimitri Medvedev who's then the president to Silicon Valley and he goes to Twitter's offices and he starts a Twitter account and he sends his very first tweet from Twitter's offices right and there's all these um and and Arnold Schwarzenegger then the governor of California meets with Dmitry Medvedev and there's this whole sense of of oh we're actually going to be friends now we're actually gonna bury the hatchet that these two countries are actually going to finally start seeing eye to eye they're going to bury their old suspicions they're going to start cooperating around this time uh Russia and the U.S start talking about NATO opening up an air base like an actual physical base on Russian territory to help Transit NATO troops and material to Afghanistan like there's a lot of cooperate a lot of cooperation around space happening around counter-terrorism a lot of things are happening during this period that make you think that oh the reset is actually working the new start treaty is science is signed there's a lot of disarmament talks so it does seem like there is a lot of cooperation between Moscow and Washington happening and that the reset is actually successful but by the time we get to Crimea clearly that will be a final or penultimate Breaking Point what's the calculation that Putin makes at that point about the American president and the response I think one of the things that's worth noting is is just how differently um Putin saw Obama and how to Putin Barack Obama was young and naive and black and all those three things were very important uh Putin is from a generation of Russians who are extremely racist so there were a lot of um there were a lot of lectures that Putin read to Barack Obama that staffers called the Airing of Grievances pretty much every phone call between Putin and Obama began with like a 45-minute lecture that basically didn't happen once Joe Biden became president there was not a lot of respect that Putin that lavrov that a lot of people in the Russian government and in Russian Society had for Barack Obama because he's black there were a lot of extremely racist memes uh going around Russia amplifying Barack Obama's black Heritage equating him to a monkey showing him eating a banana Etc just extremely vile racist memes that were echoed in the Kremlin the fact that he was also quite young and idealistic made Putin see him as kind of a Gorbachev type somebody who could be rolled somebody who could be outmaneuvered quite easily uh somebody who could be filibustered he didn't have a whole lot of respect for Obama he saw him as as weak and as somebody he could make quick work of and you think that went into his calculation and deciding that he was going to seize Crimea that he didn't see Obama as a threat I'm I'm sure he did I'm I'm sure he thought that uh that given how Obama didn't respond in Syria the way that Obama didn't enforce his own Red Line in Syria that Obama said you know uh Mubarak must go and then did nothing about it that Assad must go and then didn't do anything about it didn't enforce the red line he drew in Syria I think he figured there wasn't all that much he was going to do um if he invaded Ukraine and snapped Crimea off there's this phone call we had in the first film of Obama talking to Putin and he just lied to him at the Manila the little green men they're not ours and Obama says of course we know they're yours is that what explains why Putin would do something like that with Obama yeah he thought he was a young stupid black man it's it's kind of the long and the short of it and the response from the Obama Administration to what happens in Crimea to what happens in the East what lesson does Putin take from that the lesson Putin takes from the sanctions and the pushback that he gets from Europe and America in 2014 is that these are sanctions that he can work around that they're painful yes they hurt his economy yes they bogged down his army or his kind of fake AstroTurf separatist Army in the East yes but they didn't take Crimea back and they didn't completely shut Russia off from the world and so he can kind of he can work within that framework they hurt Russia but they didn't kill Russia and so whatever doesn't kill us makes makes us stronger and if anything Russia can adjust Russia can you know you get these terms inputs the machine we can replace all the things that we can now not import because of import bans either our own or Western import bands we can replace with our own domestic Goods we can learn to make Italian burrata at home we can make great wine in Crimea we can make fancy technology at home and to some extent they're successful the Russian agricultural sector begins to Boom uh the Russian restaurant scene for example takes off because uh restaurateurs have to make make do with what they have and get creative with the produce they do have in Russia because they can no longer import oysters from France for example um and people learn to live and Russia learns to live with the with the sanctions that were imposed in 2014 and so going into 2020 and by this point Trump the Trump Administration has imposed some sanctions sanctions that Putin has also learned to live with the feeling in Moscow going into 2020 is look they're going to sanction us all the time anyway we don't really understand why and these sanctions are never going to be taken off and we've seen that we can live with pretty much any sanctions so let's just do what we're going to do and factor in these sanctions as the cost of doing business basically as overhead rather than deterrence because we we saw that in 2014 they were painful but not fatal and that's probably what's going to happen again they didn't anticipate the sanctions being as severe and as Swift and as unified and as crippling as they were in 2022 when Putin is watching Trump especially on NATO to start what is he seeing and how is he perceiving Trump so Putin is somebody who is again a specialist in communicating with people sees Trump as a very easy subject to manipulate somebody who is vain somebody who's easily distracted somebody who uh is quite stupid and he I mean he is constantly manipulating him there are stories of Putin purposely bringing a young beautiful woman as a translator with him and then showing her off to Trump and saying see look what and and Trump being completely distracted by this young beautiful woman uh the fact that Trump speaks in short simple declarative sentences and that Putin can understand that that's his level of English that gives him extra time to speak and formulate his thoughts back to while the translators are working that gives him extra time to formulate his thoughts back to Trump the the vanity that he sees in Trump that he can flatter him that he can say oh he's a colorful person and that it gets mistranslated as brilliant and then Trump thinks oh this this strong leader of a superpower that has nuclear weapons thinks I'm brilliant you know that that just a couple compliments will go such a long way with this man that he can basically his Security Services can try to influence an election that and that Trump is then and influence it in Trump's favor and that Trump is then told about it and Trump loves him forever as a result uh because he sees Putin as his ally right it's it's all of this is allows Putin to just constantly be eating his lunch right and Putin knows this very well and everybody who was in the room with them ever just saw how masterfully Putin manipulated Trump always thought that you know they were two guys two equals two strong men just you know gapping it up and dividing the world and conquering it but everybody could see that Putin didn't hold Trump in particularly high regard that he saw him as gullible and stupid and easily manipulatable and that he was just you know the Russian expression that he was just you know making ropes out of him just braiding him like a braid just did he see Trump as weakening the United States [Music] absolutely I on the sidelines of the 2018 NATO Summit uh I ran into one of Dimitris old advisors and I said you know how do you see Trump back in Moscow and he said to us he looks like a wrecking ball our Wrecking Ball they saw Trump as destroying the edifice of America and NATO from the inside without Russia having to do a whole lot themselves without Russia having to lift much of a finger the other similarity too is the way that Trump talks about both America talks about other countries in that very cynical manner that Putin had right Putin would basically plant talking points with him that Trump would Echo Trump would just say things that Putin told him later in public he would say Ukraine is a really corrupt country Crimea is Russian everybody there speaks Russian and wants to be part of Russia where did he hear these things he heard them from Putin you know and he would just Echo them it was it was just too easy and I think because it was so easy Putin didn't have a lot of respect for him he was not a worthy adversary for Putin I mean and then he watches January 6 happen and Putin who had been shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union and who had watched um as you say in Libya had watched other countries Fall is now watching the U.S Capitol what would he be drawing from that I imagine he was delighted to see January 6th I imagined that he saw a country on the brink of collapse a country that was at war with it with itself again without Russia really having to do all that much that um you know if America was going to war with itself then Putin could have a free reign in Europe because America would be too consumed fighting with itself chasing its own tail to do much about it because it was so consumed with its own problems and because it had come to think that the rest of the world was too much of a distraction because of everything Trump had said about how alliances are actually Financial burdens about how NATO was an obsolete institution etc etc so I I imagine I don't have any proof of this but I imagine that Putin watching January 6 happening was basically for him a green light to you know start start planning things in Europe how does Biden come in and understand and approach Vladimir Putin begins his presidency so Biden comes into the White House having dealt with Putin already and having dealt with the issue of Ukraine and the war and the occupation of Ukraine already for the last two years of his vice presidency not only that he is a seasoned foreign policy National Security Insider from his 30 years in the Senate his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he's also bringing with him some of the best minds and the top practitioners of foreign policy in the Democratic party he's bringing with him Jake Sullivan and Toria Newland and Tony blinken and a lot of other kind of younger staffers that I think a lot of Americans have never heard of but who are really really know their stuff or really believe in their mission and are really at the top of their game and really want to right this ship after four years of the basically damage that Trump has wrought to the ship of state and because so many of these people have already worked in the Obama Administration and Biden himself has already worked in the Obama Administration they understand that no reset is possible with Putin that every Administration before this one has come in trying to do some kind of reset by Any Other Name some kind of uh restart of a relationship with Putin and they understand that that's not possible that Putin is the same that Putin says what he wants that he does not see a partnership with the U.S as possible and that they have to take him at his word and that the best they could hope for is essentially containing Russia until Putin goes away and until there's a new government a new regime in place that basically nothing constructive nothing positive is possible while Putin is the President of Russia that is the mentality that Biden and his foreign policy staffers bring with them to the White House in January of 2021 and then they get this briefing that the forces are math thing that it looks like an actual invasion of Ukraine could be mounted what kind of alarm does that set off inside the White House what are the stakes at that moment for President Biden well you also have I mean before that you also have the Biden Administration trying to maintain this relationship with Russia right throwing Putin enough bones enough phone calls enough Summits enough meetings to keep him happy to keep him feeling like you know Biden says Putin is a worthy adversary feed his ego just enough to keep him from doing anything crazy but not actually do anything with him right and at one point one of Biden's advisors tells me look we'll do a summit once a month if we have to to keep him from doing anything crazy and as Angela Stant once said they wanted to park Putin but he didn't want to be parked he wanted to be the number one problem of everybody in the whole world but especially the number one priority the number one threat the number one problem that the White House was dealing with I mean so when they do have that Summit in June which was controversial apparently inside the administration but the reason as you understand it was to show a level of respect so that he doesn't have to go and take a dramatic action to get attention well he did he had this massive buildup of troops outside outside Ukraine on the Ukrainian border that spring in April and he only starts pulling those troops back once he gets a call from Biden and once he gets the promise of a summit right and it's seen as a kind of pacifying of Vladimir Putin okay we'll give him a summit fine if that keeps him from invading Ukraine if it gets him to draw down his forces fine what's it to us and there was a feeling in the fall that maybe he'll take another Summit maybe we'll do some more phone calls and maybe he'll take something smaller and he'll draw down his forces again that maybe we can pull another kind of another kind of Geneva and get him to back down again but very soon it becomes clear that this is different for Putin that he's not going to take any of the exit ramps that the Biden Administration is putting out there for him that he's blowing through every single exit ramp one by one and that he's just stepping on the gas harder and harder and harder and how big a moment is that for Joe Biden he must be realizing that this could be one of the most significant moments of his presidency this question of whether Putin is going to invade or not I think it's a huge moment for for Biden and his staffers I think it's a massively frustrating one because this is not what they wanted to be dealing with they have domestic concerns that they want to deal with there is the pivot to Asia that every Administration since Bush wants to do right they want to get out of the Middle East they want to stop dealing with Russia there are other concerns there's a whole wide world out there outside of the Middle East and outside of Russia that this White House wants to deal with they don't want to get stuck here and when they realize that this is going to be the thing that defines their presidency geopolitically there's a kind of frustration and anger that Putin has kind of Trapped them into into this that they won't be able to focus on and accomplish all of these big lofty things that they had been planning for for the by the first Biden term why can't they he calls them in video conferences there's lots of Shadows of clumsy there are public statements and warnings at press conferences why can't Biden with all of the threats with all of the rallying allies why can't they dissuade Putin show him that he shouldn't partake this course of action because Putin wants Ukraine because it's fundamentally an unbridgeable Gap because this has nothing to do with NATO this has nothing to do with respect this has nothing to do with the European secure it has nothing to do with any of the things Putin is saying publicly Putin wants Ukraine he wants this pan Slavic super state with Moscow as the capital that uh basically folds Ukraine and Belarus into itself whether officially or unofficially he wants Ukraine he doesn't think it's a real country I don't know how you compromise with somebody who just wants Ukraine right like that's not a something you could build a bridge across and after what's happened with Georgia with Crimea he thinks he can get away with it it's not that he thinks that he can get away with it he thinks that he can manage the consequences he thinks the consequences won't be bad enough that he won't be able to deal with them he thinks he'll be able to manage the economic Fallout he thinks the war will be fast he believes the faulty intelligence he's getting he he believes that ukrainians will greet Russian soldiers with open arms and as liberators he believes that ukrainians are basically just Russians who have been brainwashed to think that they're ukrainians he doesn't understand that Ukraine has undergone a profound shift that he has started in 2014 that before 2014 there was a significant chunk of the Ukrainian population that was nostalgic for the Soviet Union that was nostalgic for Russia that did see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian that he by invading eastern Ukraine and taking Crimea has set in motion a Ukraine ukrainianization of society that will greet him with Fierce resistance in February of 2022 he is not getting this intelligence and when he is he doesn't believe it so he makes a series of miscalculations uh that lead him to believe that the war will be fast that he will conquer Ukraine very quickly and leave a little rump State around leviv that he can just Chuck to Poland or to Europe and that whatever sanctions Biden will be able to Cobble together with a divided NATO he also believes NATO is still very mad at Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan without giving them much notice he thinks NATO is very divided against itself that America's very divided against itself that they won't be able to present a united front and therefore whatever sanctions they'll be able to muster he'll be able to weather them much like he's been able to weather every wave of previous sanctions he is shocked by the unity he's shocked by the severity of the sanctions he is shocked by the resistance his army is meeting on the ground and he's shocked by his Army's performance I think he didn't realize that the corruption that has had eaten away at everything in Russian Society had also eaten away at the core of his army that everybody had been stealing and lying inside the Army in the fsb2 so I think he just thought the war would go differently and that the punishment would be less severe and that he'd be able to weather it because the war would end sooner there's a lot of miscalculations there with his own abilities and with what the response would be from Ukraine and what the Ukrainian Army would be capable of was he also underestimating the American president and the allies absolutely I think he also bought into a lot of the talking points that had been coming from the American right about Biden being old and sleepy and slow I think he saw how the withdrawal from Afghanistan was managed and made note of that it showed him in America that was weak that was on the outs with its allies and not really communicating well with them and that that had driven such a big wedge between America and its NATO allies that they would never be able to get on board with America about sanction to implement sanctions about Ukraine he thought Europe was so dependent on Russia for its energy that they would they would never dare to sanction Russia the way the way they did he made a series of miscalculations that made him really overplay his hand because the images that Europe saw a land war of that size that looks just like World War II happening in Europe where a lot of the most vicious fighting in World War II happened triggered a lot of trauma and memories for Europeans that um brought them together in a way that they themselves didn't anticipate and made them react with a force they they didn't end a resolution a resoluteness that they didn't anticipate if I suppose Joe Biden and those around them who you know he'd been on the one side of the javelin debate after crying me out on the other side from Obama and surrounded by Victoria Newlin and others I suppose that that response was informed by their experiences and how important was that the U.S response and
weapons and that kind of support to Ukraine well it is interesting that it was actually the Trump Administration that gave Ukraine javelins and that they proved so crucial in the first few weeks of the Russian invasion in stopping the attack right you see Ukrainian soldiers dancing around with javelins and just taking out Russian tank after Russian tank and it also showed I think the Biden Administration that these weapons don't escalate they the fight they stop the fight they bring the cost home to Russia and that if you give the ukrainians enough weapons to win they can win and once Russia has taken such a massive step um and once the ukrainians are winning and can show what a paper tiger the Russian military is it in and of itself reduces the threat to Nato if that makes sense I mean as we talked about at the beginning just to come back that now there is this conflict between the US and Russia and is there an irony in the fact that Putin saw himself in this war with the United States when the US wasn't paying any attention to him and now he has the war that he had imagined he has the war that he has imagined but he's also mortally wounded by it he is no longer a strong man that seems completely Invincible that everybody is terrified of there is this unmistakable stench of weakness about him before everybody had to wait for him it was his signature power play he made Queen Elizabeth the second wait for him he made the pope wait for him for 45 minutes now he has to wait for the president of Kyrgyzstan he has to wait for the president of Turkey he's getting dressed down by the president of India he is getting the cold shoulder from the president of China he looks incredibly weak he looks like he's losing control of his own population after announcing that he's mobilizing just 300 000 people he looks incredibly weak and there's nothing worse for a strong man than than looking weak he has literally nothing else my last question and then I'll just see if there's any follow-ups or anything I missed but how dangerous does that make him because we talked to you about this last time now he's weakened at home he's weak in Ukraine he's invoking the nuclear threat more than once how dangerous is he how dangerous is this moment I think the weaker he is and the worse he's doing on the battlefield the more he seems to be losing control at home the more likely it is that he is going to use some kind of nuclear weapon tactical or otherwise because this is an existential fight not for Russia but for him if he loses the war it's over for him and he does not want that to happen he doesn't want an end like Muammar Gaddafi's and My worry is that he will literally do anything to prevent that from happening thank you I think Michael could we just get one kind of answer from you that so that we're not just lionizing Joe Biden in this situation and maybe he deserves it but are there things about Biden that are the bad news that suggest to you things that we should worry about we should in the watching of these moments these critical moments My worry is that the Biden presidency ends before this war does and that there is a trump presidency or a trump-like presidency or a trump president or a trump-like president in the white house before this war ends because I do think for all his mistakes in Afghanistan and domestically I think the Biden Administration has done a terrific job in managing this war and I worry about what a less Resolute successor one who's worried about um let's say a more isolationist contingency in their party one who's more eager to please Vladimir Putin uh would do Julia do you really think it's going to last two more years not at this point not at this as though I was worried but I think this is this will be over real soon one last question if Putin throws a nuclear weapon in One Direction or another even on an empty Island just to show that he can what should the American president do does it Force Biden's hand um first of all I don't think he's going to use a nuclear weapon on an empty Island I think he's going to use it on the battlefield and yes it absolutely forces the American president's hand and it has to because using a nuclear weapon for the first time since World War II has to elicit some kind of resp response from the strongest biggest military on Earth and some kind of precedent has to be set because as we saw with Putin if he is not shown that this kind of behavior will not stand he will do it again and he will do something far worse later and if not him than some other actor something has to be done to show him or future actors considering considering such a move that it is absolutely unacceptable otherwise all our future Wars will include tactical nukes on the battlefield is there anybody close to him who can tell him to knock it off to not do this that has that kind of the throwaway with him maybe but as we've seen in the last few months that he was in many ways a moderating figure in his administration that there were people far far to the right of him and far more extreme than him that he was kind of holding back he was resisting immobilization for months even though there were many people around him calling for it he was resisting having these referenda for months even though there were people in his administration calling for it and there were people criticizing the way he was waging this war openly um hardliners that he was basically keeping in check so I think Americans have this view that there are moderates around him that could restrain him and there are but I think they're also people who are much crazier around him and they are I think much stronger than the moderates around him