READ: Transcript of CN Live! ‘A Bear Trap in Ukraine?’

Analysts Alexander Mercouris and Scott Ritter break down the drama between Russia, the United States, NATO and Ukraine in an extraordinary discussion on CN Live! Read the transcript.

Ukrainian government tank fire against Donbass. (Ukraine MOD)

CN Live! Aired Feb. 2

Joe Lauria

Welcome to CN Live! season four, episode one. Is there a bear trap in Ukraine? I’m Joe Lauria, the editor in chief of Consortium News. Tensions between the United States and Russia as as are as high as they have been in decades, perhaps since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The seeds of the current crisis go back to 1990, when former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised the last Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that in exchange for agreeing to the unification of Germany, NATO would not expand eastward.  

Baker’s president, George H.W. Bush, never accepted that promise, and it was reneged on by the Clinton administration. Today, there are 30 NATO members, including all three Baltic states bordering on Russia, as well as former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia.

Ukraine was publicly was promised membership in 2008. Just before this, NATO’s expansion began. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, wrote in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard that if Russia lost Ukraine, it would cease to be a European power.

Brzezinski argued for U.S. world primacy or domination, acquiring control of Eurasia. Brzezinski was an advisor to the Obama administration in 2014, when the U.S. backed a coup in Kiev that overthrew a democratically elected president, leading to the rebellion of two eastern Ukrainian provinces and Crimea voting to rejoin Russia amid unproven allegations that Russia had invaded Ukraine.

A 2015 accord that would have that would give the eastern provinces autonomy has never been implemented by Kiev under U.S. pressure. Joe Biden was the vice president at the time of the coup, and he was given a key role to ‘midwife’ the overthrow of the elected government and then he became Obama’s Ukraine viceroy.

Biden’s son suddenly wound up on the board of Burisma, the biggest gas company in Ukraine, after the chief prosecutor announced Burisma was being investigated. Biden demanded his firing and threatened to withhold an IMF loan if he wasn’t. He was fired that day.

Biden publicly bragged about it. Now Biden is president. Many U.S. progressives feared that the man who was the biggest cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be a hawk on Ukraine, too, amid fears of a Kiev offensive in the East.

Russia has deployed now 100,000 or so troops near, but not on the Russian- Ukrainian border. At the same time as Russia proposed draft agreements with the United States and NATO that would roll back deployments in the new NATO members near Russia and would prevent Ukraine from gaining membership.

Russia arranged diplomatic meetings last month with NATO and the U.S. to discuss its proposals. But those meetings have been portrayed by the U.S. and its media as efforts to stop an imminent Russian invasion, which Moscow has denied planning.

Even the Ukrainian president, other senior Ukrainian officials and Ukrainian intelligence have denied an invasion is imminent. But at the Security Council on Monday, Ukraine’s representative ignored his president and took the U.S. hard line against Russia following, it appears, the instructions of his foreign minister, who may be in a power struggle with the president.

And French President Emmanuel Macron has been speaking on the phone with Vladimir Putin and told the European Parliament last month that a new security architecture for Europe should include Russia. What Russia is demanding. But France’s representative at the U.N. totally ignored this as well and took a strict, hard line-NATO position.

Putin on Tuesday said the U.S. had ignored Russia’s proposals and that it was trying to draw Russia into a war in order to weaken it with further sanctions. It seems that Russia and the U.S. are dangerously inhabiting different worlds.

Do U.S. leaders understand at all what Russia is talking about and why it’s doing what it’s doing? Is the U.S. setting a trap for Russia? There is precedent. April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. had no position on inter-Arab disputes as Saddam was poised to invade Kuwait. The invasion went ahead and the U.S. took the opportunity to destroy the Iraqi military, which it had built up to fight Iran during the 1980-88 war.  Brzezinski armed jihadists to lure Russia into invading Afghanistan during the Carter administration, and it ultimately helped destroy the Soviet Union.

The way that the U.S., it seems now, would like to bring down Putin’s Russia. That intervention by the U.S. in Afghanistan also spawned al Qaeda. So if Kiev launches an offensive, how will Russia react? What are Russia’s options at this point?

What are NATO’s and the United States’s options and what independence from the U.S. does Ukraine have left? To answer these and other questions, we’re joined from upstate New York by Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marines counterintelligence officer and chief U.N. weapons inspector, and from London by Alexander Mercouris, a political analyst and editor in chief of The Duran.

Welcome to both of you. Alexander, let me start with you. I’d just like to know, broadly, if you think there’s something in the background that needs to be added and to tell us how we came to the situation we’re at now and where do we stand now?

Alexander Mercouris

Well, I think that your summary is actually pretty accurate and very comprehensive. What I would say is I think that there has been a lot more understanding in the west of what they’ve been doing towards Russia. 

So I think there’s been much more calculation about some of these American moves. It’s not just a case of two countries operating in different universes. I think that the decision to move NATO eastwards, which bear in mind was started in the 1990s at a time when the United States was also micromanaging or trying to micromanage Russian policies. Russian domestic policies was a very calculated move, maybe not at the very highest level, you know, the president.

But I certainly think that the United States knew perfectly well what it was doing.It was basically acting to knock out once and for all a former and potentially future international rival and competitor. So I think the United States has had a long standing policy of pushing back Russia, pushing it to the point of driving it out of Europe.

I think there’ve been other countries in Europe that have been quite keen on that policy also. I think what has now happened, however, and I think this is perhaps the other dimension and there’s now this astonishment and dismay that the Russians have said ‘enough.’

We are now drawing red lines. You can’t move beyond these red lines. We are in a position to respond. Our military has been rebuilt. Our political system has been rebuilt. Our economy is now much stronger than it was.

We’ve now got a network of international alliances or at least friendships or strategic partnerships, as they call it. We’ve got a friendship with China. It’s all back. We’re on good terms with India. So we are in a position now to do that, which we were not able to do before in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Which is to say you can go so far, but no further. You’ve now reached the stop and you have to accept this stop. And this huge anger that we are now seeing is the fact that people in the West, the Western powers find that very difficult to accept and come to terms with.

They’ve become accustomed to thinking that they can roll NATO eastwards. They can tear up treaties with the Russians, disregard Russian concerns. And as a result, there’s huge anger when they discovered that finally, at last the Russians are pushing back and are pushing back in ways which show that they can actually enforce their red lines.

Joe Lauria

Scott, would you like to add to this?

Scott Ritter
I mean, I’m in full agreement, you know this. What we’re seeing today is the byproduct of a concerted effort by the United States and NATO to contain and control Russia to ensure that Russia never again emerges as a Soviet-like adversary or counterpart. I know that when I was doing the Soviet thing back in the 1980s and early 1990s. You know, the United States didn’t get it perfect, but we had populated our, you know, diplomats in our military ranks with genuine experts on the Soviet Union, people who knew and understood the reality of the Soviet Union.

And as a result they could accurately, you know, discuss what was important to the Soviet Union, what the Soviet Union’s way of thinking was, et cetera, so that our policymakers could predict Soviet reactions and come up with a variety of options to resolve these, hopefully in a peaceful manner. But if not, you’ll be prepared with real options to confront, you know, any potential Soviet aggression. We took the Soviets seriously because they were a serious opponent, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the United States stopped taking Russia seriously.

This was instantaneous. I recall, when the C.I.A. tried to recruit me back in 1992 as an analyst. And when I went and interviewed with the head of it was no longer Soviet affairs. It was now OREO. The Office of Russian Eurasian Operations. So automatically we saw a demotion of Russia in the mindset. It’s now part of Eurasia. But I was told that my way of thinking — remember at this time I was what all the 32 years of all? — So my way of thinking was already outdated because I was painted by my experience in the Soviet Union that I had had. The fact that I viewed the Soviet Union or Russia with respect was not tolerated. They literally cleaned house, brought in a new school, a new wave of analysts.

And this was in the State Department as well. And these are people who were part of the exploitation of Russia, of the Yeltsin years where we were in there, buying elections. I remember we bought the 1996 election. There was just literally no doubt about that. This is about the the economic exploitation of the former Soviet Union, where we were trying to get our Western oil companies in it on terms that would be unacceptable to any other nation. But because Russia was a defeated nation, that’s how we viewed them.

We were pressuring Russia. And then when you know, Yeltsin’s health and corruption conspired to compel his removal from the scene and Vladimir Putin, the surprise pick, emerged. We were shocked when Putin said no more, Russia will no longer bow to the West. But we never took it seriously. We never took him seriously.

The Kremlin, Moscow. (Pavel Kazachkov/Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

And I can tell you why. One of the reasons why I know they didn’t take him seriously is for the last 20 years since Putin came to power all we’ve talked about is Vladimir Putin. We haven’t talked about Russia. The reality of Russia. The fact is, Putin is not a dictator. Dictators don’t win elections by 56 percent of the vote. Putin is a byproduct of Russian democracy, however flawed.

That may be true and he is also a prisoner to a Russian bureaucracy. Russia is a huge landmass. Very difficult to govern. It can only be governed by this gigantic civil service that transcends every aspect of Russian life. The civil service defines policy, defines the means of implementing policy, and brings policy decisions up to the executive who makes decisions. Nobody today in the United States is talking about this. All we talk about is Vladimir Putin, the impulsive leader, the gambler, the irresponsible leader who’s threatening the world with his actions. No. Putin’s Russia today knows what they’re doing.

They’ve taken a long look at this problem, and they recognize two things. One, NATO and the United States, because we haven’t taken Russians seriously, no longer have a range of viable options to confront Russia and two, Russia, because they have taken NATO and the United States seriously, has a plethora of options available to confront the United States.

Alexander Mercouris

Can I just make a few observations? Firstly, this idea of judging that without Ukraine, Russia is no longer a European power? Well, that theory has now been tested to destruction. And of course, Russia lost Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed. And surprise surprise, it is still a major problem. If you want to conceive of it as a problem in Europe, it is still proving impossible to construct a security architecture, a stable security architecture in Europe, without Russia.

Even without Ukraine, Russia remains the most powerful country, the biggest country in Europe. Some people in Europe like Emmanuel Macron, the French president, for example, understand that. But I think there are still many people in London, in Washington who don’t understand it and who still talk about Russia as this declining power, this waning power, this force that has lost somehow its energy, that can’t really push back. So that’s the first thing I wanted to say.

The second point and this is, I think, a point which I absolutely want to endorse what Scott said just now, which is this idea that all policy in Moscow is made by one person, that there’s only one  policy maker. I have been listening to people like Secretary Blinken saying this. This is completely wrong. Russian policymaking at the moment, in fact, through most of Russian history, but certainly now, is extremely structured. It goes through a very complex process.

There is a whole apparatus of policy making. And when Scott talked about this huge bureaucracy, this huge system of government that exists in Russia, it’s important to remember that Putin himself is a creation of it. He emerged from it. He’s not somebody who came from outside it. So Scott is absolutely right that this is a very structured, very calculated policymaking machine because it functions in a way that is very different from that of, say, the United States.

It has been making decisions over a fairly long term. We mustn’t fall into the trap of talking about the Russians, you know, who are these grand masters of all things of that kind, but they do have longer time horizons than Western policymakers tend to do, and they have incrementally built up their armed forces.

They reorganized their economy. They’ve done all kinds of things. They’ve sorted out their international systems in a way which I think Western powers don’t fully understand or have not fully understood. And I think what has been happening over the last few weeks is that as this crisis deepens, and it’s a little mysterious to me why we are even in a crisis, but maybe we’ll talk about that in more detail.

But as this crisis deepens, and as Western governments have been looking at their options, they don’t seem to recognize, to their own shock, the point that Scott is making that they are short of options, that the economic sanctions that they’re talking about are not going to be as devastating to Russia as they imagined. That if they try and make them more devastating, they could have very dangerous spillover effects for Western economies. But Russia is not isolated internationally in the way that they also imagined.

And here again, Scott is better discussing these things, that the Russians have a far bigger range of military options than the West could possibly imagine, and that the option for the west of taking on the Russians in Ukraine simply does not exist. It is not practical. So this has been a realization that has come as a shock, and again, it also explains, I think some of this extreme anger that we’re seeing at the moment because suddenly people are realizing, well, you know, we thought we had all these levers. We could pull all these levers, and had buttons we could press, and we’ve discovered that perhaps we can’t.

Scott Ritter

What I would also add to this is, you know, first of all, we’re supposed to be in opposition, I’m finding out that we actually agree on everything so far. So I’ll try and up and push the envelope here a little bit. But I again, I think what I’m about to say is, it’s fact based. Russia is the one who initiated the current crisis. I mean, we can go back and say, no, wait a minute goes back to NATO expansion, et cetera.

Yes, that’s all history. This crisis was defined in 2008, when NATO, at the Bucharest meeting, said, ‘We’re we’re considering letting Ukraine and Georgia join.’ William Burns, who at the time was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, wrote a cable that basically accurately defined the Russian position. And he was open about it. It was no to expansion. This is a red line. So in 2009, February 2009, when Burns wrote this cable, the United States knew that this was a red line that could, if we pushed it, lead to confrontation.

The Russians were very open about it back then. There is no secret, and the reason why I bring this up is if the Russians in 2009 were defining a potential crisis between the United States and NATO and Russia over Ukraine. That means that today, what we’re looking at isn’t a policy that’s been made up on a whim. What we’re looking at now are Russian actions that have, that are part of a very concerted effort to bring together a confluence of diplomatic, economic, military and policy options.

And when Russia decided to act again, the Russians tested the system in April of last year when they mobilized 100,000 troops and brought them into the western and southern military districts to see what NATO’s response would be.

And they saw what NATO’s response was, they listened to the rhetoric and then they demobilized. And then in November, they’re mobilized. This time they knew exactly what to do. There’s an American fighter pilot you might be familiar with John Boyd, the OODA Loop, Observe Orient Decide Act decision making cycle.

Russia initiated this crisis knowing that they were inside NATO and America’s decision-making cycle. Russia has predicted every outcome. They have a policy option for every outcome. They’ve defined this crisis, and I believe Russia has a clearly defined endgame that they’re going to achieve because NATO and the United States simply have nothing to put on the table but rhetoric. I mean, it was embarrassing what happened at the United Nations. All we have is this empty rhetoric. OK, you spoke loudly in New York. Now what are you going to do?Nothing. Russia has an entire menu of options to draw from.

Alexander Mercouris

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia at Security Council debate on Feb 1. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Yes, I agree about the U.N. session. I’m not quite so sure that the Russians did initiate this because certainly that was a major buildup of forces by the Russians in the spring. The complicated, the very strange facts about this latest development, this latest alleged build up that we’re hearing about is that, of course, all of the claims about it are coming exclusively from the western side.

The Russians say, ‘We’re not going to invade Ukraine. We have no plan to invade Ukraine.’ This is not what we are considering doing. We have our red lines. We will defend our red lines, but we’re not planning to invade Ukraine. We’re not even confirming that we actually have undertaken this huge build up. And I wonder whether the Russians actually have undertaken a build up in exactly the kind of way that Scott is saying. Because again, I stress this, I’m talking now as somebody who is not a military man. I understand that you don’t keep troops in the field, especially in winter, for long periods of time.

What I’m hearing, and you know, I’m not a military person, is that what has been happening is a steady incremental buildup of logistics, of barracks, of all sorts of things, which has been going on for some time, the tempo of which accelerated after the events of the spring. But this is a rather more steady cumulative build up, rather than this vast, you know, gathering of forces ready to pounce. In some ways, maybe if we’re talking about this as an incremental build up, you know, building up kind of thing.

Now, I can imagine, it is actually more intimidating, but that may suggest that the time frame for any Russian move, and we have to perhaps look at what would cause a Russian move, but the timeframe would be a lot longer than just, you know, an attack in February. At least that’s what I think. And if that is correct, then of course, the West, the United States and Britain, certainly hyping up the rhetoric around all of this and the kind of way that they may actually have played into Russian hands.

Because what we’re actually seeing and this is again goes a little bit to what Scott was saying about, you know, angry rhetoric at the United Nations, lack of options on the actual table. What we’re actually seeing is that in the negotiations, and Lavrov was actually quite interesting about this, he said, You know, the Americans are now starting to talk about things that they weren’t prepared to talk about before. It’s not enough for us now. It doesn’t address our core issues. But once upon a time, these were important issues for us.

So they’re starting to talk about intermediate nuclear force weapons. They scrap the IMF treaty, but now they’re talking about taking steps that might revive something very like it. We proposed to them some time ago steps, steps involving deconfliction and, you know, not holding exercises close to borders and keeping airplanes distant from each other.

They weren’t interested now before. Now, suddenly, this former proposal of ours has become a proposal of theirs. So, you know, you could sense that. The ground is gradually shifting, and I, by the way, do agree that there is an endgame here, but I wonder whether the time line is rather longer than Scott says, because if we’re talking about a kind of buildup of massive forces on the border, that suggests that there’s a definite plan for an invasion within the next few months, or there is an option for an invasion, and I’m not convinced that is the case.

Scott Ritter

I must have been misunderstood because under no circumstances is Russia going to invade Ukraine in the near term. There’s literally nothing for Russia to gain from this. Yes, I mean, it’s common knowledge in Russia that they can crush Ukraine like a bug any time they want to.

I mean, you know, people can say whatever they want about, about Ukraine, its military capabilities, they’re non-existent, nonexistent. In a modern, combined arms setting, Russian artillery will devastate Ukrainian command and control. All these javelin missiles that we’re sending to them and are operated by infantry in the open, who will die instantly and suddenly.

And then the Russians operate massed armored formations better than anybody. They will penetrate the Ukrainian defenses, destroy Ukrainian logistics, and any war with Ukraine will be about more about processing prisoners than about killing people. Because Ukrainians will surrender in mass. It is what you do when you have overwhelming force. It’s one thing to sit there and stare at the CNN TV camera. Talk about how bravely you’re going to fight the Russians. It’s another thing to be confronted by 170 Russian armored vehicles. You realize you’re going to die unless you put your hands in the air, which they’re all going to do.

But Russia doesn’t want that because, let’s say they’d defeat Ukraine. Then what? It’s a disaster for Russia. It’s a disaster for Ukraine. It’s a disaster for Europe. That’s not the endgame Russia wants. Russia wants Ukraine and NATO to say Ukraine will never be a part of NATO’s, and they have a plan for this.

And I believe they’ve executed part of this plan brilliantly. The first part of their plan was to present NATO and the United States with written treaties, finished draft treaties that specifically outlined the full extent of Russia’s position with no negotiating room. Now, if I were the United States and NATO, I would have rejected these out of hand and never responded to them in writing and told the Russians, If you want to play this game, we played that game. Here’s the table. We’re sitting at the table.

If you want to come and talk to us, we’ll talk to you. But I’m not going to play this game of you give us things and we respond in writing. But we didn’t. We responded in writing. Now the Russians have trapped the United States and NATO into a position that says there are no spheres of influence. This is very critical because it’s one thing for the United States to say it but we know America operates in a very hypocritical fashion.

Europe, on the other hand, does have a conscience, at least old Europe. I’m not going to talk about Poland and the Baltics. They don’t. But now when it comes to Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, even the United Kingdom understands that when you commit on a matter of principle that you have to adhere to that principle.

And so when they say there are no spheres of influence, that countries are sovereign and they have a right to pick and choose their alliances. That’s an absolute. And what’s Russia doing right now? Russia’s coming to America’s hemisphere, meeting with the Cubans, the Nicaraguans and the Venezuelans to discuss a military type arrangement that could result in a Russian naval squadron plying the seas in the Gulf of Mexico in the Caribbean. The United States has already said, you can’t do that because that’s our sphere of influence and we won’t allow it in a second. Russia catches America in this trap formally.

Yeah, it’s going to further divide NATO, and that’s another one of Russia’s goals. But Russia’s already achieved a massive goal. We have Hungary traveling to Moscow, monitoring a gas agreement and saying the sanctions stuff is nonsense. So already we see a split. 

Croatia says: not our troops. Bulgaria says, not our troops. Turkey has said you’re trying to provoke a war between us and Russia that will harm Turkey. We’re not on board. Germany has said if you abandon this, if you cut Russia from SWFIT, the Swiss system is going to collapse and we collapse with it. There is no NATO unity. Russia’s going to further divide NATO when they confront them with the hypocrisy of this stance that they had committed to in writing, which was a failure, I believe, on the part of [NATO Secretary-General] Jens Stoltenberg.

Alexander Mercouris

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, French President Emmanuel Macron at Elysee Palace for Normandy summit, Dec. 9, 2019. (President of Russia)

Yes. Well, I have to say I’m happy to have it. Stoltenberg, I find the most extraordinary man. But can I just say something about the Russians, which is, of course, the one thing that they are extremely skilled at is that, I mean, they’re not just this talk about Russians being chess players. I think this is a complete misunderstanding. What they do is that they approach international affairs very much as lawyers do. It is very, very much the approach of a lawyer. You set out a position which on the face of it is a reasonable one.

You invite negotiations. You then start using those negotiations to build up your own legal position and then gradually, incrementally, you improve your your position to the point where the other side is forced to concede. This is very much the sort of thing you do. You have to be very, very careful. By the way, I should say I’ve been in negotiations with Russian business people and legal people, and I’ve seen how they do this. And this is a classic example of what has happened.

So I don’t know why the United States took the surprising step of saying that they were going to discuss the security guarantees that the Russians were looking at. What we were asking for I completely agree that that was a mistake. I mean, I think that the United States should have said this is completely unacceptable. We’re not even prepared to discuss this kind of thing. Instead, we had the mood music coming out from Washington.

Yes, you know, we’re going to discuss this and we’re going to get into those kinds of discussions. But ultimately, you know, we’re going to stick to these points of principle about NATO’s open door policy. And that, of course, allowed the Russians to this bring up. Firstly, all those promises that were made in the early 1990s, not a step east and all of that, but also they’ve now homed in on all these other agreements, which they’re claiming also in effect, rule out eastward expansion.

The Astana Declaration, the Istanbul Declaration, the OSCE founding documents, things of this kind about the indivisibility of security in Europe. And remember, the OSCE is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — so it’s supposed to be it.

They have a good legal point to make. And the United States and NATO finding themselves faced with this kind of line of argument have no very coherent response to it. They’ve got no coherent response to it. And that has now put them in effect on a kind of defensive in diplomatic discussions. They’re not really wanting to address this issue because they don’t really want to. They can’t really find in a response to what is set out in these two declarations.

And of course, they send documents to the Russians, which basically ignore this topic and then exactly, as a very good legal firm does, the Russians have responded by sending to every member of the OSCE or the other member states that say, ‘Well, look, this is this is the issue of indivisible security. We haven’t been able to get light from the Americans about this.’ We haven’t been able to get light from NATO about this. What do you think? What is your opinion on this issue?

And of course, we see, as Scott says, countries like Bulgaria and Croatia, they’re becoming increasingly nervous and they’re all going to be hurriedly consulting with each other, trying to come up with a common position, and that’s going to create more divisions and more splits and more misunderstandings and more arguments.

Because to be very clear, the West is not united about this, because from a European point of view, from the point of view of Germany, France or Italy, the Central European states, old Europe, whether they have conscience or not, they have vital economic interests. They have vital security interests. As the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said, they need Russian gas. They have to have some kind of payment mechanism with the Russians to pay for that gas. As Macron has said, the Russians are part of Europe.

We have to create a security architecture with them, so we can’t afford to take this extremely hard line that some people in Washington and London may be talking about, because if we do, that is going to impinge directly on our fundamental economic and security interests. So here are the Russians. They’re coming up with all these demands. They’re asking us, they’re asking for direct explanations from us in relation to these legal points, which of course, they’re pretty strong on. They’ve clearly researched very carefully.

What do we do? What exactly do we do? And eventually, in any situation where you are in a legal argument and you know, I had experience of this when one side talks principle and the other side talks reality, it is the side that talks reality that always wins. I mean, that’s how it is. I could say for an absolute fact that, I’ve said it many times and people, people who come to these kind of disputes saying, you know, it’s the principle of the thing, it’s a point of principle.

Well, those sort of people always and invariably either back down or lose completely, especially in this case. And just before we went on this program, I read Article Ten of the Washington Treaty [founding of NATO in 1949]. It is illegal. This open door principle. It is a principle which doesn’t exist.  An Article Ten doesn’t say any country that applies for membership is entitled to it. It says that NATO is able to invite countries to join it if they enhance the security of the Euro Atlantic area.

So even on that point, they are on very shaky ground.

Scott Ritter

But again, 100 percent, I would add to this also that not only is Russia prepared for this extensively, from a diplomatic standpoint, you’re right. Look, I didn’t deal with them as businessmen. I dealt with them in an arms control environment. I will tell you that in every conflict we had with Russia based upon a treaty interpretation they were 100 times more prepared than we were. They had their act together. And frankly speaking, they prevailed because they were right on a matter of law.

And so you’re dealing with a treaty that is law. So I have the highest respect for the Russians, and I agree with you totally on their approach. But I also say this is Putin’s Russia. They understands what weakness is because they lived through Yeltsin’s Russia, and they will never again allow that to occur. The Russia of today isn’t just smarter than the West, because they are, they’re stronger than the West because they have made themselves stronger. So Russia had a wake up call in 2008 when they fought that short little war with Georgia.

I’ve spoken to Russian military commanders and I’ve listened to their interviews and at the tactical level, they were stunned at how good the Georgians were because I mean, I’m not bragging, but [U.S.] Marines had gone in and trained Georgian small units, and these guys were maneuvering effectively using effective cover techniques, using fire maneuver. Well, it’s a small unit level. What the Georgians didn’t have were tanks and aircraft and artillery, and the Russians were getting their butts kicked at the small unit level. But then they brought in the mass … and they just rolled over the Georgians.

But the Russians looked at that and said, ‘This is a defeat for us and we always call it a Russian victory. It’s an embarrassment. We performed poorly. We have to change the way we do business.’ From 2008 on, Russia has totally redone the way it operates to the detriment of NATO. You know, Russia had built up a military that was based on the armored brigade combat team level because Russia actually believed when the Soviet Union collapsed that they would never again be called upon to fight a large land war in Europe.

But because of NATO’s expansion, in 2016, Russia reactivated the combined arms army concept not just in terms of building an organization, but training an organization. Russia today can put three combined armies online and operate as a cohesive, singular entity. It operates as a single entity. NATO, you see Stoltenberg again bragging about these battle groups that they sent to the Baltics. These are reinforced battalion sized units. Fifteen hundred men from Germany put its battle group into Lithuania, I believe, is where it’s at. Germany had to cannibalize its entire armored force to get one battalion out of barracks in the field. Europe can’t have a military because to rebuild would require expenses that the European economies cannot bear.

So Russia knows that it has this advantage. But Russia isn’t bluffing. I will say this. I agree with you. I think Russia has a timeline that extends through the summer of diplomacy.  Time is Russia’s friend in the short term, enemy in the long term. The longer you give the United States and NATO to react to to Russia, to think about it, to consolidate positions, you come up with maybe an effective sanctioning plan, to come up with a military option, the weaker the Russian position becomes. Russia is not going to cede the advantage to NATO and the United States, and there will come a point that if Russia doesn’t get the result it wants through diplomacy. And I believe we actually had a Russian deputy foreign minister say this just the other day.

They will destroy Ukraine as a modern nation state. That’s Ukraine’s future. And Ukrainians need to know this. And I think that’s the point Russia’s making is, that Ukraine can sit there and play all the games they want. But at the end of the day, this is going to end badly for Ukraine. Ukraine will never be a NATO member, ever. Don’t even consider it now.

Ukraine can pretend to want to be a proxy of NATO’s, which will lead to its destruction. Or Ukraine can accept some sort of compromise outcome that respects its sovereignty, but doesn’t have it being part of a military alliance that is, as we now see configured to confront Russia. That’s the sole purpose of NATO’s today, to confront and contain Russia. It is not a defensive alliance. It’s very much an offensive, aggressive alliance. Maybe not to invade Russia, but containment is an offensive strategy.

Alexander Mercouris

St. Petersburg, 2015. (Joe Lauria)

Yeah. Can I just say one thing because I have been to Russia quite a lot, not very recently, because obviously of the pandemic issues. But I have been to Russia quite a lot, and my overwhelming impression going there is that, first of all, certainly on an issue like the current one, the current crisis that we’re in Russian society is pretty united. I think that this is something that people do need to understand the idea that there’s going to be some kind of uprising against the government that people are going to back down, that, you know, this is a misunderstanding completely.

But the longer term perspective, the thing that the Russians really want is time and space to sort out their very pressing internal problems. They are very, very conscious of the many problems that their economy, their society still has. It’s got major problems. And this is something that flows from the top all the way down. Now the problem that we have found ourselves in and the reason we are in this very difficult position with the Russians is that the Russians have come to believe and I think rightly believe that until they sort out their problems with the West, they can’t sort out those internal problems, too. In other words, that the two are now connected, so they have to sort out these issues with the West, the security architecture in Europe.

Primarily the relationship with the United States, in order to get back to that position where they can increase living standards, improve their education system, provide themselves with a health care system that is up to modern standards. Do those sort of things which Russian society wants and also, by the way, and this may surprise some people, political changes, which I think many Russians would also like to see. So this is something which I think Westerners don’t understand. This is not a country that is looking for war.

It is not looking for aggression in any way. It is wanting the time and space to sort out its problems. And it has come to believe that until it sorts its security issues with the Western powers out, that will not be possible. And one of the interesting things that is happening and this is, I think, something which Scott has direct experience of, is that a lot of Russians are now talking about the previous period of detente that existed in the 1970s, which is relatively brief.

But what the Russians remember is, that what brought that about, again arose. What the Russians believe brought that about was a steady increase, a major increase in military power in the fact that the Soviets were able to achieve nuclear parity with the United States, that they were able to build up their forces to the point where the United States was forced, the Western powers and the Russians, were forced to the table and came up with all that elaborate system of agreements that we remember from the Cold War.

And I think that if we understood this, if we understood that this is what the Russians want and we engaged them in a serious way, looking at their actual legitimate security concerns, every country has legitimate security concerns and come to that kind of framework, that conceptual framework about security in Europe, which would allow the Russians to focus on building up, sorting out their internal problems, well, what we would very quickly find is the tensions in Europe would decline and relations between the West and Russia would improve. It is not unreasonable what the Russians are asking for, and Scott talked about the destruction of Ukraine, which is a real possibility if there’s a major crisis.

It is not difficult to see how Ukraine could be destroyed. I mean, again, I have contacts there. It is a very fragile polity. Its military, I mean, again, I’m not a military person, but I’d be reading articles in the British newspapers, people going to the front lines. And the impression is of a military bogged down in trenches really not having any ability to engage in maneuver warfare, soldiers not coming across as particularly, as morale not being particularly high. So. Ukraine needs that space, that peace, as well, if it is to succeed as a country.

So let’s put aside these Brzezinski fantasies about dividing Russia from Ukraine, pushing them out of Europe. Let’s put all that aside. Let’s look at our joint interests and secure the peace in Europe. And at that point, relations between the United States and Russia would improve. And if there is real improvement in relations between the United States and Russia, some of the other problems that are building up in the international system, including problems of the Far East and elsewhere, would start to abate. It is a clear way forward. It’s obvious, actually, if you spend any time there, if you start talking with Russians and it’s a tragedy that there are still so many people in the West who can’t see it.

Scott Ritter

I had to jump in, but I got my dogs doing their thing right now. Well, when I would say to add to this discussion is the concept of Russia wanting and desirous of internal political reform is something that the United States ignores to its detriment. You know, we focus on, you know, a couple of years ago, Vladimir Putin orchestrated a change in the Constitution, the Russian constitution that gave him electoral viability into the next decade. This was not something that Vladimir Putin wanted.

And in fact, he wanted the exact opposite of this. If you listen, if you look at the internal Russian discussions that were taking place, Putin wanted his desires of genuine democratic reform inside Russia. We talked about the Russian bureaucracy and the Russian apparatus, the civil service there.

The Russians recognize that it’s inefficient, that Russia is a nation that spends a lot of resources because of systemic inefficiencies that could be improved and enhanced with genuine democratic reform. But genuine democratic reform means reform that comes from within Russia.

But what it doesn’t mean is reform that’s funded by the West. Russia learned in the 1990s never to trust Western sources of income when it comes to building democratic movements. And they learned in the 2000s that not only do you not trust them, but you have to view them as nefarious.

We now know that British MI6 and the C.I.A. are using various proxies and cutouts. We’re funding individuals like Navalny and other so-called democratic movements, not for the purpose of creating genuine democratic reform, but for creating disruptive political opposition that targeted Vladimir Putin. Putin knows that Russian democracy cannot withstand an unchecked challenge from the West. That is, if you open the doors and said, come on in fund whoever you want. I’m going to put all the ideas on the table.

Russian democracy is not resilient enough to withstand that and Putin’s Russia would cede control to the West. And you’d end up with a Yeltsin-like reality. So Russia right now has to buy, and I like the idea of time and space, time and space. Russia needs the security necessary to trust itself to evolve in a way that promotes genuine democratic reform. Putin is not a dictator by choice. There’s always not a dictator. He’s a long serving president with extremely powerful executive powers.

But he’s not a dictator. But he doesn’t govern today by choice, but rather necessity. I believe that if Putin thought for a second that he could genuinely trust Russian democratic institutions to put politically viable candidates on the ballot and have a free and fair election so that the people that emerged would serve Russia, Russian interests and not other interests. He would. He would back out today, but he’s not in it.

And therefore what this tells me also is that Putin’s goal and objectives between now and, let’s say, 2036 are to preserve the power of Putin, but rather to find a way that Putin can have a viable successor that promotes genuine democratic reforms as opposed to a continuing, failing model. I don’t even think Vladimir Putin himself would sit here today and say the model of governance that we have in Russia today is a superb model that deserves to be going on unchecked for decades.

Reform is recognized as being needed in Russia, but it has to be reform that’s divorced from the corruption of Western money because western money comes with so many strings attached that it would just destroy Russia if Russia ever allowed it to operate unchecked. This is why Russia’s passing law after law, after law that targets, you know, foreign agents, et cetera. It’s not just a matter of retaliation for what the United States is doing. It’s a genuine national security need.

Alexander Mercouris

Moscow River at night, 2015. (Joe Lauria)

See, what we do in the West is, we take on the Russians. Those things that they are extremely good at. Foreign policy, diplomacy, military affairs, even some areas of technology. And of course, that is the side of Russia, which is extremely strong.

But if you do spend time in Russia, as I have done, you do realize that there are lots of other things where the Russians are not as well organized. Far from being as well organized as they could or should be and as they aspire to be. And it’s important to say that this is a highly educated country. People are very well aware of those kind of problems and they talk about them with each other. But this is, I think, one of the fundamental differences, one of the great changes that has taken place over the last 30 years.

Whereas back in the early nineties, the consensus among Russian society was that the way to achieve these changes in Russia was through intense engagement with the West. In fact, even if you like joining with the West today, the sentiment in Russian society is very widespread, and I think people in the West are not aware of the extent to which it is widespread.

The sentiment in Russian society is that these changes can only happen once we have pushed the West away because the West, these attempts by the Western powers in the 1990s to micromanage Russian politics, to micromanage Russian economic policy, and these attempts also to promote, well, all kinds of political figures in Russia, some of whom, you know, might have interesting ideas.

But all this one has to say are not the kind of people that I think most Russians would want to see leading their country. I think this overt interference in Russian affairs has made Russians extremely skeptical, to put it mildly, of Western attitudes and Western intentions towards Russia. And of course, if we want to talk about political space promoting certain political figures in Russia in that kind of way that robs space that could have been filled by others who would have been more attuned to Russian realities.

So we have mismanaged our relations with Russia extremely badly. This is an opportunity. This crisis is an opportunity, maybe the last opportunity. To sort them out and to find a way forward. And if we do that, the benefits would be enormous.

We would have a genuine peace in Europe of a sort that we have not had since that crisis in July 1914, where if you lived through European history, you will know how tense the situation in Europe has always been. I think Americans, by the way, because they are not part of our continent, don’t understand that we’ve never found in Europe that sense of complete stability that in the United States, people take take for granted.

Joe Lauria

I wonder if I could jump in here and ask a couple of questions that arose during your discussion, although we talked about an end game of Russia, but I would like to flesh that out a little bit and how do we reach there. Will it require a red line from Europe in a sense with the U.S. Clearly, the Red Line for Russia began with Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech, and then we now see a very strong red line from Russia. Will France and Germany have to draw some kind of red line with the U.S. in order to reach the endgame that Russia wants? And I’d like you to explain what that endgame is.

Alexander Mercouris

Well, if I can just start with this, I think we are actually heading there because we see that alongside the negotiations that are taking place between the Americans and the Russians, there’s also a parallel series of negotiations which is now taking place between the Russians and the French.

And let’s be absolutely clear, the French are talking with the Russians, but it is inconceivable to me that they haven’t discussed this with the Germans and the Italians and others. And in fact, we’ve had two conversations between Macron and Putin on consecutive working days on Friday and Monday.

They’ve also had conversations on Tuesday between Putin and Merkel and Mario Draghi, who is the Italian prime minister, a close ally of Macron. And we’ve learned yesterday that Macron is now heading to Moscow, and he’s going to be negotiating directly with with Putin there. [Text of Putin-Macron midnight press conference after their summit.]

So he’s going to have a summit meeting at some point, probably in February after the Winter Olympics with Putin. So there is a negotiation of some kind happening along the European track, too. And the very fact that the Europeans are discussing these issues, these security issues with the Russians, if you read the readouts that the governments have been publishing, it’s quite clear that they’re talking about the overall security architecture in Europe. I mean, Macron, in his speech in Strasbourg a few weeks ago, actually actually said as much.

The very fact that the French are doing that and the Europeans are doing that shows that to some extent the Europeans are now imposing red lines. They’re saying, ‘Look, we can’t just press ahead with these sanctions that you’re talking about.’ The whole idea of disconnecting Russia from Swift is not on. We’re not prepared to send arms to Ukraine. None of the big European countries apart from Britain is sending arms to Ukraine. France and Germany isn’t. Italy isn’t. So, you know, none of those EU countries are doing that.

We want to instead engage with the Russians. We want to find a way forward. We are unhappy about this rhetoric that we see pouring out of Washington and London, and we don’t think it’s helpful. And by the way, on that topic, the Ukrainian president appears to think the same. And can I also say that one point where I didn’t fully agree with you, Joe, was in your characterization of what the French ambassador did in the U.N. Security Council. Because even though he repeated all the standard talking points of all the other Western ambassadors, the tone in which he did so was profoundly different.

He spoke in a far more measured and respectful way. I mean, contrast that with, say, the way the British were talking and the contrast is striking. So already in a way, in a sense, the Europeans are not perhaps imposing red lines, exactly. But they are saying to the Americans, ‘Look, we can’t just rush off into an out and out confrontation. We have to talk to the Russians. We have to talk about security matters. We have to look at the situation in Ukraine itself.

We are trying to restart these negotiations in Ukraine. We are looking for some kind of deconfliction on the ceasefire line. And ultimately, if we come back to what happened in the late sixties and early 1970s, which, as I said, has some parallels to what is happening today, it was to some extent the Europeans themselves who led that process. It was Willy Brandt who came along with Ostpolitik. It was de Gaulle who talked about a Europe, you know, from the Atlantic to the Urals. And the word detente, of course, of that period is a French word.

So it was the Europeans to some extent, their push that led to that relaxation of tensions, which took place in the late sixties and early 1970s. And I have to say, I think what is probably going to happen and maybe red lines is not exactly the right word, but I think what is going to happen is they’re going to say to the Americans, ‘Look, this can’t go on in the same way. We’ve now reached the point where we’re hitting the wall with the Russians.’ The Russians have all these options, these kind of options Scott was talking about. So let’s sit down, let’s talk with them, let’s see what we can agree. So obviously, Ukraine is not going to join NATO. Nobody believes it is. Let’s talk about starting to dismantle some of these, these [NATO] forces that we’ve sited in Europe and Eastern Europe.

And let’s start talking about giving the Russians something like the legally binding guarantees that the Russians are looking for. Maybe we can’t just say that countries must never join NATO, but maybe we can find ways of actually making NATO less important. And maybe we can also say that, you know, countries may join NATO, but Ukraine isn’t going to join NATO anytime soon. And the criteria for NATO membership are such that it really does have to enhance peace in Europe, which is, after all, what Article Ten says.

So I think that we will see the Europeans playing an ever more active role from this point on. I think where Macron has gone, others will follow. I think the Germans certainly will. There’s been some very interesting statements from Friedrich Metz, who is the new leader of the CDU and somebody in Merkel’s party and who will one day quite possibly become German chancellor. He now says that disconnection of Russia from SWIFT is a very bad idea. It’s a nonstarter.

But he’s also saying things like the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which is the starting point of the crisis in 2013, was a serious mistake. It failed to take into account Russia’s legitimate economic interests. I mean, Metz is saying that that kind of conversation is already taking place in Germany. So, you know, expect some kind of move by the Europeans eventually. To dial down the tension, to try to find a modus vivendi with the Russians, which perhaps and hopefully this time with the ideological issues of the Cold War behind us will actually lead to a true and secure peace.

Protesters clash with police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Protesters clash with police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Scott Ritter

Oh, I would add to that. You know, the Russians have an appreciation of history that their American counterparts seem to lack. You mentioned Joe, you mentioned at the beginning that, you know, we reached a crisis in relations that we haven’t seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The reason why I bring that up is in the United States. If you ask people about the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is a resounding victory for John F. Kennedy, we forced the Russians back, we forced the Russians to stand down. We forced them to take missiles out of Cuba. A lot of Americans don’t realize that what triggered the Cuban missile crisis was American missiles in Turkey and in Italy, the Jupiter missiles that Russia said is intolerable. We’re not going to do this operation. Operation Anadyr, which is the name of the Russian operation to send missiles to Cuba, was seen as a counter to that. The Cuban Missile Crisis was viewed by many in Russia as if not a victory, at least a positive outcome because they got the missiles out of Turkey and they got the Jupiter missiles out of Italy.

The other thing is, you know, Kennedy’s assassination sort of shut the door on his developing relationship with Khrushchev. Had Kennedy survived, we would have seen, I believe, a dramatic change in trajectory between American and Soviet relations that would have accelerated arms control that would have created a completely different security framework in Europe.

I mean, keep in mind that in 1961, you know, we weren’t talking about German unification, we were talking about a peace treaty. We were still only 16 years removed from the end of the second World War. You know, Berlin was an occupied city. East Germany was an occupied sector. Even though we, you know, the American forces in Germany were occupation forces. So Italy and Khrushchev, were developing a dialog that had it been given a chance to mature would have produced, I think, a dramatic outcome.

The reason why I bring this up is that the Russians don’t view the crisis like we have now as a new Cuban missile crisis. It was zero sum game. We got to kick their butts, force them to back down.

The Russians are saying we’re viewing this as a crisis designed to engender a positive outcome for everybody. The Russians don’t believe that they have to be the ones to win everything. They believe that there needs to be balance. And I think that the Russian approach to this is, you know, again, we talked about the Russians seeking to divide NATO and trying to divide NATO, trying to destroy it. That’s not a desirable outcome. They’re trying to create fractures in NATO.

They’re promoting the very discussions that Alexander was speaking of, too, to promote to empower Macron to intervene diplomatically and politically to give Germany the wherewithal to oppose unilateral American diktat. So this is the Russian approach, and this is the Russian game and so far a more mature and balanced end game.

Yes. And  the West thinks a confrontation has to be zero sum outcome that we have to prevail. All the Russians want is stability time and space.

Alexander Mercouris

Yes. Can I just add to that? And again, endorsing entirely what Scott says, but again, from my interactions with Russians at every level of Russian society, except the very elite level which I’ve never, never come across. But this is the most historically minded country, society that I have ever come across. I mean, even, you know, Russians that, you know, ordinary people that you meet have a knowledge of history and an understanding of history that you will not find matched in most Western countries. And this is, I think, very much a product of Russia’s historical experiences.

And one consequence of that is that the Russians have a very, very clear understanding of the limitations of their own power. They they have no intention of getting into a situation of trying to dominate the whole of Europe. I mean, even the exercise of dominating Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union was more than they were really able to afford to do. That is not part of their end game at all. As I said. They are very focused on their internal problems, which are very real.

They want time and space to sort them out. They do not want a situation of hegemony. I mean, they know perfectly well, that is beyond their strength. They want peace. And what they see is that the endless eastward expansion of NATO, the endless rhetoric that has been directed at them, the positioning of all these forces in Europe, the talk, the language … all that doesn’t promise peace. It promises threats and they have to counter that. So in that respect, their actions are responsive.

Putin and Lavrov. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

Joe Lauria

Alexander, any country that has faced two and fought down two major invasions of Napoleon and Hitler will have a sense of history. I think American leadership, diplomatic and political, if anything, their understanding of Russian history begins around 1991, maybe 1945. But the Russian identity, of course, so strongly wedded to, especially, of course, the Nazi invasion that they defeated.

I need the right of reply about what I said about France. I think you’re probably right. That wasn’t the venue for France to lay out their differences with the United States, but being a creature of U.N. headquarters myself, having covered it for 25 years and having been in background, off-the-record briefings with the French ambassador once, who was saying that NATO really has no reason to exist and they stir up these tensions, I almost fell off my chair that he was admitting this and then the next day he went into the Security Council and completely blasted Russia. So for me, it was another example of the game that’s played at the U.N.

Alexander Mercouris

So it’s not just the game that’s played at the U.N., it’s the game that’s played all the time. I mean, I’ve encountered this. I mean, you know, I maybe not the top of British circles, but I’ve met people in the British foreign policy bureaucracy and they will tell you in private things which are completely different to what they will say publicly. I mean, that’s in Britain. If you go, of course, to Germany or France, then the dissonance becomes much greater. What I think needs to happen now is that people need to put that dissonance away and start to talk about what they really think.

I think there’s a wide understanding in Europe in capitals like Paris and Berlin, by the way. In my opinion, there’s a wide understanding among many people in Poland as well that may come as a surprise to many people. But there is a wide understanding in Europe that this has gone too far. This adventure of pushing eastwards has gone as far as it can go. It is now becoming extremely dangerous. The moment has come to pull back and it’s better if you’re faced with a situation where you have to retreat, where you retreat in an orderly way by coming to an agreement. I think it was Bismarck who once said the secret of politics is a good treaty with Russia.

Joe Lauria
It seems to me this is a war that only the British and the Americans really want, at least the way they’re speaking. It’s an Anglo-Saxon break, which we saw with France over the submarines of Australia, for example, and you can go back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. You remember Rumsfeld’s rhetoric about old Europe and New Europe? And then what was that again? Britain and the United States, of course, in the lead. And then they had some Eastern European countries that went along with them in their coalition of the willing and of course, states in the Gulf.

Scott, is the end game to get these treaties agreed to by NATO and the United States to end NATO’s expansion. What is the end game as you think Russia is defining it now and how are they going to get it?  You said they will get it.

Scott Ritter

They’ll reach the endgame. It is to get a legally binding treaty agreement with the United States and NATO that provides Russia with security guarantees that are satisfactory to Russia. How will they get it? They’re working on it. In order to get this two things have to happen. One, the United States needs to be confronted with the reality of the ultimate failure of their position and the United States needs to be confronted with, for instance, the notion that to continue to push forward aggressively, especially not against Russia per se, but to compel Europe to come along will create more harm in Europe, Then possibly you could get the outcome.

And as soon as the eight states realizes that to continue to push forward aggressively will dismantle the very unity that they need to push forward aggressively, they’re going to have to reverse course in order to achieve that.

Russia needs to chip away at Europe, European unity, and they’re doing that right now very successfully. I mean, we’re looking at the dramatic collapse of NATO as we speak. There is no NATO unity. There is no NATO’s unity. I mean, I don’t know how many times I have to say it. Turkey is not on board. Bulgaria is not on board. Croatia is not on board. Hungary is not on board. France is not on board. Germany is not on board. Italy is not on board. I mean, there is no NATO unity now if Russia acts precipitously. Then, of course, you could engender NATO unity, which is why Russia will never act precipitously.

Russia is winning this game, but the beauty of Russia winning this game is that they’re not trying to run up a 45 to nothing score. What Russia wants at the end of the game is a 7-7 tie. That’s it. They just want a tie. They want everybody to take a step back and go, OK, we’re done with this nonsense. Let’s learn to live in peace and harmony with Russia.

NATO leaders watch a multimedia tower display visualizations of the military alliance’s adaptation through the NATO 2030 agenda, June 14, 2021. (NATO/Flickr)

And this is a big mistake that’s made in the United States. And I hope Europe is not falling for it, although I see in some of the media the concept that Vladimir Putin is seeking to reinvent the Soviet Union. The last thing Vladimir Putin or any Russian wants is to reinvent the Soviet Union. I think there’s unanimous agreement that the Soviet Union was a fundamentally flawed state and that one of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed was because of its inability to sustain itself from a logical perspective. The Russians know this.

They’re honest about what happened. You know, Putin’s concern isn’t so much the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the abandonment of Russian people in the former Soviet republics. You know, one of the things he said is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, you know, 80 million people … became homeless overnight, meaning all the Russians that lived in the former Soviet Union when those republics stopped being part of the Soviet Union, became homeless people and there were Russians without a home. And he felt that the Soviet Union abandoned them. This is why it’s one of the greatest tragedies in modern times.

But he doesn’t want to reconstitute the Soviet Union. What he wants is to have time and space. I love that. I’m stealing that. Thank you very much, but it’s just so correct. And. If we recognize that, then there’s no harm that can come from giving Russia time and space. I mean, only good things can come from it because imagine if you’re the Europeans, Macron sits there and says … the United States has been bullying Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We have imposed NATO’s expansion. And you brought up Joe, you brought up the Gulf War. One of the reasons why you know, Donald Rumsfeld talked about old Europe and we were seeking to expand NATO is that we recognize that our imperial ambitions in the Middle East ran counter to the principles of old Europe. But we could bribe New Europe and eastern republics with NATO membership and the magic gold coin of the realm if they supported us. This is why we saw Polish special forces joining in the invasion of Iraq.

This is why we saw Ukrainian troops occupying Iraq. It’s an embarrassment for both Poland and Ukraine that were involved in this, but they did so because they were being bullied by the United States into this. Afghanistan is another example of this. If people say, you know, NATO came to invoke Article Five to support United States … That is only to fly aircraft over American territory. That was NATO’s AWACS that came over [after 9/11], and there are some ships operating in the Mediterranean. Afghanistan was not an Article Five intervention.

It wasn’t coming to the defense of America. It was to support goals and objectives abroad. And NATO bought into what America was saying about nation building, about preserving democracy, about engendering stability, and they were abandoned by the United States.

It was a humiliation for NATO the way the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. So NATO’s Europe is sitting there. They don’t trust the United States anymore. They don’t trust the United States, but they have no other option. They bought into a model of behavior that requires a military component that no longer exists. And therefore, Europe is singularly in need of American military power, which no longer exists. So Macron has said it’s time for Europe to consider its own military institution. European can’t afford its own military institution if that institution is to be built to confront Russia.

So Europe knows that the best way forward is to take Russia out of the equation as an adversary of potential military conflict and the focus on building European security structures independent of NATO, therefore independent of American control, that focus on the things that are important to Europe, namely immigration.

That’s a very important thing. You know, in maybe dealing with some some minority issues that might spring up in the Balkans every now and then. But the bottom line is Europe doesn’t need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on military institutions that have only one viable utility, which is confronting Russia.

So I think right now we’re seeing the end of NATO. We’re watching NATO’s defeat. It doesn’t mean that NATO’s going to disappear overnight, but NATO has reached, you know, the battle of Gettysburg. This is Pickett’s Charge. This is the high water mark. They don’t get any further. They have lost. They have been slaughtered. Now we’re going to see a retrograde NATO. It took Grant many years to defeat Lee after Gettysburg. Yeah, but he was defeated.

NATO is defeated now. Now, Russia has the job, the difficult task of managing the defeat of NATO in a manner that promotes genuine Russian security and doesn’t happen with a zero sum outcome. It doesn’t happen with Russia dancing in the end zone and spiking the ball. It happens with Russia, working with France and Germany and other European nations, to manage the decline.

Alexander Mercouris

I agree with this completely, can I just say for me the whole point, the whole the whole point of when this whole adventure of putting NATO eastwards really ended, was when the Western powers, faced with the situation in Ukraine with this crisis, this autumn and winter said that they were not going to send troops to Ukraine. Now the moment they did that, it seems to me the moment they said in effect that they’re not going to fight for Ukraine, the whole idea of Ukrainian membership of NATO basically died.

It’s exactly what Scott said that was. Pickett’s Charge. If I’ve got that right in Gettysburg, it was the furthest point from this point onwards. The only way is to stop. Retreating now, you can either retreat in a disorderly way or you can withdraw in an orderly way with your dignity intact and your interests protected.

It will require wisdom in Moscow, obviously. I mean, this isn’t something we should take for granted. But you know, I think a balance, I agree with Scott, is there. As I said, the Russians have an understanding of the limits of their power, something which the Americans, by the way, never seem to. But anyway, the Russians certainly do have that. It will also require a lot of wisdom in Europe, and we see the glimmers of it starting to appear. We see people like Macron, give the man his due.

He’s taking quite a political risk with what he’s doing there. I would also add that the line he’s taking is placed very well in France and will certainly help him get reelected in April. So I think we see glimmers of that in France.

We see glimmers of that in Germany. We now have to consolidate that and move forward and secure that lasting peace in Europe, which is there, just over the horizon. What we need to do is we need to get past this particular crisis, acknowledge what has happened, except that there’s this foolish idea that you can drive Russia out of Europe. Break it up even. I mean, I saw some people talking that kind of way, you know, sever Ukraine from it. And in this way you secure forever some kind of Western hegemony. It will be, you know, the end of time, end of history type thing.

We need to put all of that away and put it in a drawer. It’s obviously failed, and make a real and lasting peace. The opportunity to do that is there. A crisis can be both an opportunity and a danger at the moment. We’re all very conscious of the danger, but the opportunity is also there if it is handled with skill and wisdom. And there are glimmers of that skill and wisdom there. Let’s see whether they can be built upon. I agree with Scott, by the way.

I think that I’m not quite sure how this is going to develop. I’m not sure what kind of game plan the Russians have, but I would have thought that over the course of this year, we’re going to see significant movement take place. We’re going to start seeing certainly the Europeans start moving more towards some kind of understanding with the Russians, and the Americans will probably follow because they won’t want to be left behind. That’s my own sense anyway.

Scott Ritter

I think the Russians do have a plan.

Alexander Mercouris

Oh, I’m. What it is?

Scott Ritter

They’ve given us some, some insight. First of all, one thing that we haven’t talked about too much today is the Ukraine’s domestic problems.

Alexander Mercouris


Scott Ritter

You know, the United States in Europe can sit there and talk about Ukraine joining NATO, et cetera. But Zelensky is on the cusp of political irrelevancy. He’s facing an economic crisis. He’s facing a political crisis. Indeed, some people believe that he started this, this Russian confrontation back in the spring to divert attention away from his own real domestic problems.

Now the reason why I bring this up is you notice that one thing Zelensky and every post-Yanukovych, Ukrainian leader has done is oppose the Minsk accord. One of the reasons why they opposed the Minsk accord is, if you reintegrate the Donbass into the political entity of Ukraine, you significantly weaken Ukrainian nationalism because now you have hundreds of thousands of pro-Russian voters and you have pro-Russian voters who will bring prosperity and peace with them. And I think this is Russia’s goal. Russia doesn’t want to create an independent Luhansk and going bust.

Russia wants that to be part of the territorial whole of Ukraine because it enhances Russia’s political control over Ukraine. Not that Russia wants to dominate, but it creates a Ukrainian state that isn’t inherently anti-Russian. So I think what we’re seeing is that while Russia is working with France and Germany, Russia is also working on [Minsk].

Ukrainian government tanks in eastern Ukraine, 2015. (OSCE)

It’s a failure of diplomacy on the part of the United States that opened the door for the Normandy format. You know, the one avenue of diplomacy that’s functioning today in a viable and productive manner is the Normandy format. And that could, if it reaches what’s supposed to be the conclusion of the Minsk Accord with Ukraine, which brings Donbass back in. And once that happens, I think that’s sort of a game changer. Internally, Zelensky will not survive. There will be a new Ukrainian leadership that will be far different in its approach towards Russian relations than Zelensky is now.

Georgia’s the other part of the equation that we are talking too much about. But, you know, Georgia is also part of the 2008 Bucharest summit, et cetera. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson of the Kremlin, had a very fascinating interaction with Fareed Zakaria a couple of weeks ago. And, you know, Peskov doesn’t speak words that haven’t been carefully vetted and thought out ahead of time.  He doesn’t go  on TV and just say whatever the hell is on his mind. I mean, this guy, when he speaks, he speaks with the force of Russia and Peskov in answering the question about Georgia — and I know Georgia. My wife is Georgian.  She’s from Abkhazia. She lost her home. This is a very personal issue for my family.

Peskov said, ‘When it comes to the issue of Russian peacekeepers withdrawing from Georgia …  there would have to be fundamental changes of reality on the ground that created a security environment conducive to the withdrawal.’ What he is saying is that Russia is open to the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Georgian sovereign control, if the conditions can be created that may protect Abkhazia and South Ossetia rights and security, which means Georgia would have to commit to not being a member of NATO. I think Russia is moving to take Ukraine and Georgia off the game board, so to speak, so that it’s no longer a case of

Georgia and Ukraine raising their hand, saying, ‘We want to be members.’ It’s Georgia and Ukraine saying we’re not even thinking about NATO membership anymore. Take it off the board. And in doing so, you resolve the need to compel NATO to have a say, you know, an embarrassing retreat from the open door policy because I do think there’s no nation that wants to be humiliated.

No nation, no organization wants to be seen as being defeated. If there is a way to retreat from this problem that recognizes the reality that Ukraine and Georgia will never be part of NATO without forcing NATO to lie prostate at the feet of Russia. I think that’s good, and I think that’s the direction that Russia wants to go, they don’t want, as I said before, to spike the football in the end zone. That’s not what they’re looking to do.

Alexander Mercouris

I agree. Just to add to that. I mean, again, I read all these articles that appear in the media in Britain and the United States about Ukraine, and plucky Ukraine, the way in which Ukrainians are going to fight and fight to the last man and all this.

I wish people didn’t write like this because firstly, it creates, it imposes on Ukraine something that Ukrainians themselves absolutely do not want. I mean, you know, we should be very, very careful about talking about another country or encouraging ideas about another country like that when that country could face, itself, all kinds of problems. But beyond that, it is a Ukraine that does not exist.

Anybody who is familiar with the situation in Ukraine now knows how tired and war weary the population of Ukraine has become. Now I’m not an international affairs academic, but I understand that there is a concept in international affairs studies, which is that you know, you have a situation in conflict where parties have become incredibly hard. Positions have hardened, people find it extremely difficult to withdraw, to retreat from those hard positions. And in the meantime, because they can’t retreat, the costs of not retreating mount, the problems eventually become unbearable, the costs become unbearable and suddenly they retreat from those hard line positions.

Kiev, 2015. (Bert Kaufmann, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

And a deal is finally done and the conflict is ended. I understand that there is a whole literature about this in conflict, in conflict relations and conflict-ending theory. Now, I think Ukraine is exactly in that kind of position at the moment. Ukrainians are still talking about, Oh, we can’t possibly sign up to the Minsk Accord. If we do, our country will disintegrate. We will never be able to accept that. And you know, we’re going to go on fighting to get Crimea back. We’re going to get the Donbass back. We’re going to do all of those things.

I think with every single passing day, we are in reality getting closer to that point when Ukrainian society and including, by the way, the Ukrainian elite as well, will say, Look, this isn’t working, we’re not going to join NATO, we’re not going to join the EU. We are seeing a situation where our country has become in per capita terms, the poorest in Europe. If there is a war, our wealth will, such as it is, will go. If we are oligarchs and there’s a war, we will lose our factories, we will lose all of those things.

So at that point, eventually, suddenly you will see a shift. It can’t be done by Zelensky, obviously. I mean, he’s overcommitted to one particular line. It can’t be done by Poroshenko, but I think we are very, very close to that position now. And I think that Ukrainians have felt that they’ve been pushed into a war or there’s all this talk about war that we’ve heard over the last few weeks. They know perfectly well that if there was a war with Russia, whatever the outcome of that, whatever the effect that would have on Russian-Western relations, it would be the end of Ukraine. And why would Ukrainians want that?

So I think that it’s good that Scott has brought up the issue of Ukraine again. But I think we are much closer to a settlement of that conflict now than we have ever been, despite the fact that people are still sticking to these very hard line positions because behind them, you can see the cracks are growing.

Joe Lauria

Do you think then, Alexander, that there’s little chance of an offensive by Kiev in the East? And if there were, how would Russia respond? I mean, Putin would get hell from the Duma if he didn’t help in some way? How would Russia respond if there were an offensive?  And how likely do you think there will be one?

Alexander Mercouris

If there is an offensive in eastern Ukraine, Russia would back the militia as it’s called in eastern Ukraine. And if there was a chance of a Ukrainian breakthrough, I think the Russians would respond and respond decisively.

I mean, I don’t think this is speculation. Actually, I think if you look at the comments and statements that Russian officials have made, including [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, including, to a great extent, Putin himself, I think this is absolutely clear. I think it’s one of the points where we can be absolutely clear about what the Russian response would be.

Now, if you’d asked me this question about Ukraine starting a new offensive in eastern Ukraine three, four, five months ago, I’d have said it’s a distinct possibility. What has rather changed my mind is some reporting that’s being done in the British media. We’ve had all kinds of British journalists, Luke Harding, for example, among others. But people are, you know, the Financial Times or whatever, they’ve been touring the front lines, and talking to Ukrainian officers and soldiers. And I have to say the overwhelming impression I’ve got, and I’m not a military man, but  my impression is that this is an army that’s going nowhere. It’s bogged down in trench warfare. It’s very demoralized. Its generals even said at one point, if there was a war with Russia, it would all be over in a few hours.

Even they gave themselves, it seems to me even less prospects than Scott is giving. And that’s what the generals say. What must the soldiers be thinking? And, you know, they must be hearing what the generals are saying about this. So I just can’t really imagine this army in the condition that it is in at the moment, even if you give them javelin missiles and all those other things, I cannot see it launching that kind of offensive. Now I may be completely wrong because I said, I’m not a military person, I’m not a military analyst. It may be that the Ukrainians have cards up their sleeves that I don’t know about, but I have to say I’m much less concerned about that possibility today than I was a few months ago.

Scott Ritter

So I’m in total agreement. I am concerned about, you know, first of all, when we speak of the Ukrainian military, we have to understand that it’s not a regular military. I mean, they have a regular military, but there’s many militia type units on the frontline. Some of the militias are legitimate local militias, village militias, city militias, regional militias. Some are nationalist militias coming out of western Ukraine, the Azov Brigade or Battalion and others who are, as we speak, launching mortars on a daily basis into into, you know, the Donbass.

So there is already military provocation going on, but Russia manages that by continuing to provide, you know, overt support to the pro-Russian forces. Russia has a very, very good intelligence service. There will be no Ukrainian surprise attack. And it’s just a nonstarter. I don’t think Russia would ever allow the attack to get off. I think Russia would send signals to the Ukrainian leadership, the generals who they are in contact with, as we speak, and say, stand down or you will all die. End of story. And the Ukrainians know this. So no, there won’t be. There will be a fence. I’ll bring up one other thing, too. You know, there’s talk about the Ukrainians wanting to close with and destroy the Russians, that they hate them so much, so viscerally.

You know, a lot of people missed the story about the Ukrainian soldiers that were in Afghanistan. There’s a bunch of them. About 2000 of them. They weren’t regular Ukrainian army. They were contract soldiers that the United States and NATO encouraged to take on contracts to provide security for certain aspects of the Afghan government functioning. They were abandoned by NATO and the United States. They were abandoned by NATO and the United States when the Afghan government collapsed. You know who went in and rescued them?

The Russian government, the Russian government, the Ukrainian government, went to Russia and said, Hey, we got some Slavic brothers in trouble here and the Russians went, We got you. We got you covered. The Russians knocked them out. That’s the reality. These people don’t hate each others. There’s political difficulties. There’s no doubt about that. There’s some resentment about Crimea, and there’s some resentment about Donbass.

But at the end of the day, if given, you know, push comes to shove, I believe that, you know, the Ukrainians and the Russians want nothing more than to live in peace. These are people that fought together against Nazi Germany, and they were part of the same Soviet Union. I mean, we didn’t get this extreme shift in Ukrainian nationalism until the very end of the Soviet Union’s period in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. Ukraine was a viable functioning member of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until the very end that you started to have these [extreme nationalists] in the Ukrainian government coming in.

But yeah, I just think that the West has created a straw man that doesn’t exist. I think that they’re sitting there talking about this, this independent Ukraine, first of all, and on this I might get some pushback. I don’t know Alexander, but I don’t view Ukraine as a functioning viable nation state to begin with fully. One third of it was artificially attached at the end of the second World War and populated by people whose identity is Polish, not Ukrainian, and are deeply resentful. The population does not sit there and say, We are, you know, we identify with Kiev. If given the choice to align with Warsaw tomorrow, and the people in the East will play with Moscow tomorrow and the people in the center just want peace. So I don’t see this concept of a united Ukrainian state, I think is an artificial construct.

And you know, that doesn’t mean that Russia wants to break it up. But I think it does mean that Russia understands the reality of Ukraine far better than we do. Absolutely. This artificial construct is Russia dealing with reality and the fact that the Russians went in and pulled out 2000 Ukrainian soldiers from Afghanistan when they were abandoned by NATO and the United States resonates among Ukrainians far more than we in the West understand.

Alexander Mercouris

Absolutely. I mean, the thing to understand about Ukrainians and Russians and this is at the official level and at every level is that they are in continuous communications with each other to a degree that is not, I think, understood.

So for example, against Scott’s point about, you know, a Ukrainian offensive, the Russians would certainly get wind of it. And there are lines of communication all the time between Russians, official Russians and official Ukrainians that may be completely informal, but they talk to each other. They meet in places, they meet in Switzerland, they meet in all kinds of places. This is not two separate worlds. It’s one world in which there has been a massive quarrel.

People misunderstand the dynamic of this now. Is Ukraine viable as a state? I think it would have been viable as a state. If it would be left alone, if it hadn’t been subjected to a tug of war, I think it could have been. I think it now clanks along reasonably well. It had many, many, many problems, partly because it is not a coherent entity. Governments have tended to be weak. That has allowed very powerful oligarchs and those kind of things to emerge.

It’s got those problems of political control, which strong governments and strong entities don’t have over mighty subjects as we talk them in Britain. But, you know, potentially it could have worked. It cannot work whilst it is subjected to the kind of stresses that it has been subjected to over the last 20 years. I mean, this attempt to sort of pull it away, yank it away from a Russia with which it is both geographically, extremely close, and culturally and economically, very tightly integrated.

It’s important to understand that Ukrainians and Russians hav e inter-married, lots of people in Russia have family in Ukraine, lots of people in Ukraine have family in Russia, people have moved backwards and forwards across the border continuously. Odessa, which is the one Ukrainian city I know reasonably well, feels itself to be profoundly Russian. So I mean, it’s a misunderstanding to think of these two as natural enemies. And it is come back to the point at which people have created a Ukraine, which you read about in The Washington Post or wherever, which to a great extent, doesn’t exist.

Joe Lauria

Does Ukraine have a national extremist problem? The Bandera worshipers clearly played a role in the coup. They’ve never had any kind of support electorally. But that’s going to be an issue that would have to be resolved, wouldn’t it?

Alexander Mercouris

It was absolutely does. And of course, they do exist. But of course, but always to remember that there is a very, very strong reaction against those kind of people in Ukraine itself. One of the reasons why, you know, there were the uprisings in, you know, eastern and southern Ukraine in 2014 in places like Odessa.

And of course, in Donbas was because people in that part of Ukraine were very, very alarmed at seeing these sorts of people, Right Sektor, Bandera types, all those sorts of people start to float to the surface in Kiev and play such an instrumental role in taking power in Ukraine at that time. So definitely there is a problem, that problem does exist. And part of the reason it is quite virulent, however, is because the people who who drive it, is in a way from their own weakness.

They know that. They’re not representative of larger Ukrainian society, and that their power at the moment is basically leveraged on a very artificial set of circumstances, which could change very radically if things were to sort themselves out. So coming back to the point that Scott was making about an assault battalion that might want to start a war. It’s not just because these people are fervently anti-Russian that they might want to start a war. It is because they know perfectly well that in a peaceful environment, their influence, their leverage over Ukrainian politics would disappear.

And the fact that they are actually quite a marginal force in any normally functioning Ukraine would come to the surface very quickly. There is, of course, also, and this has to be addressed, a fundamental sectional difference. Western Ukraine is profoundly different from eastern Ukraine. It’s very different from central Ukraine. Western Ukraine has a long history of deep resentment about the fact, the way the Soviets seized. The fact that it was taken over by Stalin, the way in which the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Unity Church, was persecuted by the Soviets.

So there are very strong real grievances there, which could be addressed and can be addressed. And if they are, I’m sure again that we will see some of these ultra radical people start to abuse it. Russians are very well aware of the problems of western Ukraine. I certainly do not think that they want to go there. So I mean, there are all these problems in Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean, as I said, this is the kind of country that people in the West are making out that it is.

Joe Lauria

As I hear silence from Scott, I think this might be a good opportunity to thank both of you for an extraordinary conversation. We’ve covered a lot of ground, maybe as much as we can in one day. So I thank Alexander in London and Scott in upstate New York for joining us on CN Live! We’ll be back to this subject, obviously, and maybe we’ll have both on again. So for CN Live!, this is your host signing out until next time. Goodbye.

2 comments for “READ: Transcript of CN Live! ‘A Bear Trap in Ukraine?’

  1. Ian Stevenson
    February 14, 2022 at 08:48

    An interesting discussion. I agree that there is a growing movement in Europe that we ( I live in the UK) should distance ourselves from the US. Their government is not really representative of their opinion. It is more liberal , for example most would like to see European style health service. There is a growing opinion that we should not be dragged into more American adventures. It might also be a growing opinion in the USA!
    For all its faults Europe is more of a model than the US. It has better systems of voting, better welfare (providing more free freedom ) and people are are more liberal /left in their politics, not putting community ahead of private profit. There are fairly large reactionary groups but in Western Europe, at least, are not yet in power. But equally, it is a challenge for the likes of Lukashenko. How similar Russian politics are, is difficult to assess given the conflicting messages.
    There is no real reason for conflict between Russia and western Europe.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    February 11, 2022 at 16:49

    As a rule I don’t suppose to hold a sitting president as the source of CIA policy. Early here the year 1990 is mentioned. Mr. CIA himself, G. H. W. Bush was president, with James Baker at Sec. Of State.

    What could go wrong?

    Thirty years ago when Russia collapsed the boys in D.C. seemed to be pretty full of themselves. A warded Ronnie Raygun the victory trophy implying Ron had defeated the Bear. The only thing I see he did was spend money and lots of it, while killing the labor movement in this country.

    Shrub comes along gets elected and out spends Ronnie and here we are.

    Those Bushes are something ain’t they!

    Thanks CN

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