This week on “Intelligence Matters,” Michael Morell speaks with former senior CIA officer and Moscow station chief Rolf Mowatt-Larssen about his strategic analysis of the Russia-Ukraine war. He maps out the Russian objectives in the war and the lack of clear Western goals as the war continues. Mowatt-Larssen predicts that Putin will launch an offensive in 2023 but not until he has mobilized a sufficient number of troops, something he failed to do in the past year. He also discusses Putin’s “scorched earth” approach and how it has led to the weaponization of energy.
- Putin offensive in 2023? “There are a number of indications that suggest he [Putin] still harbors a, if nothing else, ambition to mount some sort of offensive in 2023. But he can’t do it right now. He won’t be able to do it, in fact, until he’s accomplished a number of things that he hasn’t been able to accomplish in the first year of the war. Created a successful process of mobilizing sufficient troops. Training them well enough, equipping them well enough, having good enough leadership on the ground.”
- Western aims: “I think if I were to advise Western leaders in a way to shorten the war, frankly, or at least so that Vladimir Putin will understand our position more clearly. Western leaders, I believe, have to do a better job of explicitly stating what our war aims are and what they’re not in terms of what we’re willing to settle for in terms of welcoming this aggression.”
- Russia weaponizing energy “A major part of his policy is to target both Ukraine and Europe by weaponizing energy. And the way he’s doing it in Ukraine is to turn off the lights. And we all see it. We’re watching it every day. And again, it’s incredibly difficult for me, and I hope it is for anyone who’s following the war, the tragedy of the war on a daily basis. We’re almost becoming numb to it and this is an aspect of it, this scorched earth, that is particularly disturbing to watch, because we’re helpless to intervene and intercede.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It is good to have you with us again. And you always provide really interesting and important insights. So welcome back.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Thank you, Michael. It’s nice to be here. First part of the new year. Talk about this important subject.
MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely important. We’re just a few weeks away from the one year anniversary of the invasion. So I think this is a great time to take stock. I just want to start by noting that you’re sharing with us your personal views here. You’re not speaking on behalf of any organization. I know you’re associated with several, and just want to make that clear to my listeners. I know that’s important.
Rolf, I want to walk through a note that you sent me about a month ago on the importance of stepping back from the day to day developments on the battlefield. What’s going on even in Russia in terms of the war in Ukraine, and rather look at things from a strategic perspective. And I guess I should just tell everybody that you send me multiple notes a day on the war and what’s happening. And I read all of them. But this particular note really grabbed my attention because you’re stepping back to the strategic level. I’d really love to share some of those perspectives that you shared with me, with my audience. So in the note that you sent, you argued that Vladimir Putin has what you sense to be a five point strategy toward the war. And I want to ask you about each one of those five points and have you elaborate a little bit if that makes sense.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Sure, Michael. That would be great.
MICHAEL MORELL: So the first piece of the strategy that you said is Russia’s strategic defense. What does that mean and what does that entail?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: He has in the first year of the war started from a position where he was clearly mounting a war of aggression, he would call it a strategic offensive, to take over all of Ukraine. And what we saw in the first years, that wasn’t a realistic plan. He underestimated several things, miscalculated a number of things. He is now almost a year into the war in a position of being what I would call a strategic defense. And he’s comfortable with it to some extent. If you listen to his New Year’s address, he didn’t look comfortable at all. It’s probably the most uncomfortable I’ve seen Vladimir Putin talking about the war in 20 years he’s been in rule.
But he’s in a situation where he’s buying time by hunkering down in the four oblasts regions that he’s seized, trying to ensure, if nothing else, he holds them. Because if he can hold those four oblasts and at some point transition to some form of international acceptance with Ukrainian acquiescence to what he’s accomplished militarily, that would be enough of a win for him. So that’s what I mean by strategic defense.
At the same time, demonstrate to Ukraine that no matter how hard it fights and how much aid it gets from Western nations and the United States, it can’t go on this strategic offense to expel Russia from all the territories it’s taken in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. So that’s where he stands. There are a number of indications, even in the last months since I wrote you that note, that suggest he still harbors a, if nothing else, ambition to mount some sort of offensive in 2023. But he can’t do it right now. He won’t be able to do it, in fact, until he’s accomplished a number of things that he hasn’t been able to accomplish in the first year of the war. Created a successful process of mobilizing sufficient troops. Training them well enough, equipping them well enough, having good enough leadership on the ground.
One of the reasons why Vladimir Putin relies heavily on the military bloggers and his critics, his own critics, and is tolerant of all the criticism that’s been levied against the generals and the minister of defense and even himself in some cases, is because he needs their advice. So that’s what I mean by strategic defense. And it remains to be seen at some point when the winter clears and the ground again hardens or it transitions into spring and fall, whether the Russian army is capable of remounting some form of an offensive.
MICHAEL MORELL: So what was it about his New Year’s speech that made him seem so uncomfortable to you?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I think it’s reading body language. There’s nothing really objective in what I’ll offer in my reaction to it. He seemed, to me anyway, to lack his characteristic swagger. And he didn’t seem to express that confidence, the bitterness that he expressed towards the West, the United States in particular, seemed even more misplaced than it usually does. The blame he placed for the situation he created for his country and for Ukraine and the world. He went out of his way again to try to accept no part of the responsibility for really what’s been a disaster and is going to be a disaster I maintain, for Russia. And maybe there’s a growing sense he has of this, even if he is reluctant to acknowledge it, that the longer the war lasts, the worse the strategic price is that Russia will pay in the world.
He can only ally himself with China or Iran or other countries to some extent. Russia needs partners. They need banking partners. They need Western and global input to the country. He’s suffered a tremendous hemorrhaging of talent, of some of the best talent he’s got. The younger generation of talented IT workers and others that have left the country. So anyway, I think that the mood I felt was particularly glum and I honestly felt that he seemed a little deflated.
MICHAEL MORELL: Interesting. So the second piece of Putin strategy that you see, Rolf, is Moscow’s desire, and you use the word to attract, an unconditional ceasefire. And you emphasize that word attract as opposed to seek. So could you talk about that a little bit?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Up until, I actually believe it was over the holidays, Putin had never actually expressed an interest in cease fire and negotiations himself. Then he suddenly did. However, he would much prefer creating a condition on the ground where Ukraine is compelled essentially to supplicating itself, which is not going to happen. I will say on the side, based on what certainly I’ve learned about the Ukrainian will to fight and will to survive. But that’s what he’s counting on, that Ukraine will come to him asking for peace because they’re forced to. And that’s his preference. But it’s also important for him politically because it will immediately betray weakness if he expresses an interest in talks based on anything but Russia’s firm, what they’ve already expressed to be position that these four oblasts are now part of Russian territory themselves, that they have become part of Russia since they were, in his mind, legally annexed into the country.
So no negotiations can occur without the Ukrainians accepting those facts on the ground. And of course, Ukraine can’t do that. That is essentially an unconditional surrender on their part. If they accept the ceasefire negotiation on the basis of Putin’s having annexed these territories into Russia. So that’s why he’s, up to now, not been interested in discussing terms of peace. And again, I think it’s a little sign that he’s wobbling a bit to actually state that he himself is for some form of negotiation, even though he’s made it clear that would only start when Ukraine accepts the facts on the ground.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, the cease fire actually makes sense from a military perspective, from a Russian military structure, correct, in terms of giving him the breather he needs to kind of regroup and get ready to fight some more. Is that correct?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Of course. And if a cease fire is predicated on Ukrainian acceptance that Russia is holding the territory like it currently holds, then that’s a huge win for him. It basically starts the negotiation on the basis that Ukraine would have to accept a large loss in its territory as well as Russian responsibility for everything it’s done to this point. Now, of course, some people would argue that that could be revisited in the actual negotiation. But I guess the question for the people advocating talks, including some world leaders right now as we speak who are moving into this space and trying to create conditions where Zelenskyy and Putin can talk. I guess my question to those leaders will be how does Ukraine do that if Putin doesn’t move off his position that those territories belong to Russia?
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, the third piece of the strategy on your list is what you call a scorched earth policy. What do you mean by that? And what does that entail?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Yeah, Modern warfare. I started out of West Point, of course, as you know, Michael, and I never thought in the 21st century, and it’s not just happening, of course, in Ukraine that we’d see the kind of warfare we see where civilians are deliberately targets. It happened in the 20th century too, at a great scale in World War Two and whatnot. But in the 21st century, you’d hope we would have progressed further. And to see Russia now acknowledge something in the beginning of the war, even that Putin and his generals were trying to deny, which is that they were deliberately targeting Ukrainian infrastructure.
So a major part of his policy is to target both Ukraine and Europe by weaponizing energy. And the way he’s doing it in Ukraine is to turn off the lights. And we all see it. We’re watching it every day. And again, it’s incredibly difficult for me, and I hope it is for anyone who’s following the war, the tragedy of the war on a daily basis. We’re almost becoming numb to it and this is an aspect of it, this scorched earth, that is particularly disturbing to watch, because we’re helpless to intervene and intercede. That we can give the Ukrainians weapons and money to fight the Russians and expel them since they’re clearly the aggressor. But how do you stop the Russians from sending Iranian drones and destroying energy and infrastructure and keeping people in the middle of a bitter winter with no lights and no heat? It’s incredibly tragic and sad, but it’s a big part of the strategy, again, as I said earlier. His hope would be to force Ukraine to the table by doing these things, by destroying their will to fight. That’s the essence of what he’s trying to do.
And the second part of this, weaponization of energy is, of course, targeted at the Europeans, which seems to have even less effect. Of course, they’re not being targeted in the same direct, brutal ways that the Russians are attacking Ukraine. But he’s hoping that over a hard winter, if it turns out to be that in Europe, that the Ukrainians might second guess their decision not to turn to Russian energy sources. I don’t think that’s going to work in either case. In other words, the Ukrainians are going to make it through the winter, I believe, because they have such an incredible will to fight and they’re very courageous about it. And I think the Europeans have resolved, by and large, to rid themselves off the downsides of relying on Russian energy.
MICHAEL MORELL: We just talked a little bit about the almost daily attacks in Ukraine designed to turn off that heat that you talked about. Big part of that is the drones that Russia is getting from Iran. That’s a deepening relationship. It seems to be of growing importance to Moscow’s ability to keep up the barrage. One of the things I’m worried about, and just get your reaction to this, is the Iranians, as you know better than anybody, has an enormous arsenal of all sorts of missiles. And if the Iranians started sharing those with the Russians that would be a significant addition to what the Russians have to offer in terms of firepower. Let’s get your reaction to that.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: We have seen drones introduced in a way- I have a number of friends and contacts and people that are deeply, intimately involved in the drone business, if you will, both from the military and commercial sides. And I talk to them a lot. It’s just incredible how this technology has taken off and is being showcased. I hate to use that word in this war. And the Iranians are getting a lot of free advertisement for their drones, and it’s made a big difference. But as we’re seeing the situation develop- weapons in general, drones, missiles, HIMARS, anti-aircraft systems like the Gepard and Patriot missiles potentially going now to, I guess the U.S. has reached an agreement to send them to Ukraine. I don’t think any introduction of these weapons, including the possibility Iran might introduce ballistic missiles or their missiles to counter the fact the Russians are using theirs at a staggering rate. I don’t think that’s going to change the balance, Michael, because the essence of the war resolves down to which army can fight and hold territory on the ground and which army will prevail in terms of numbers and ability to fight on the ground.
Now, it’s not just to dismiss or just say those such conditions aren’t significant. We have seen, however, take the drone situation, slowly over weeks and particularly the first few days of this new year, Ukraine fight back much more effectively against them. Shoot a much larger percentage of them out of the sky. We’re going to continue to see Ukrainian air defenses strengthen. I think for people I’ve talked to- who are true military analysts, I’m not, I’m trying to look at more the strategic picture- continually tell me that we’re learning so many things about waging war, one of which is the importance of air defense in general. And the time favors Ukraine, I believe, in establishing a more effective air defense system over the country than it does the Russians introducing new and novel forms or numbers of weapons to attack Ukraine.
So we’re going to see that gradually reach an equilibrium and it’s going to again, boil down to who has the best army in a strategic sense. Now, I’ll mention one thing specifically on Iran. I haven’t followed it very closely, but I think for Iran itself, yes, there’s now a closer relationship between Iran and Russia. But from everything I’m hearing, Iran has limits, too, in how far it wants to go in enabling Russia and Ukraine, just like I believe the Chinese do as well, because there are definite downsides to going overboard in arming Russia against a war that I think frankly makes Iran. Of course, they’re split like every other country on people who are comfortable and not comfortable giving Russia these weapons. But in the aggregate, no country, China, Iran, others who may be assisting the Russians, I believe, want to go overboard to the point that it creates liabilities for them and what they’re trying to achieve in their national security policy. So I think there are limits. I’m not dismissing the possibility the Iranians might become more aggressive as the war rages on, but I think there are limits and the U.S. administration should use all the means at its disposal to try to encourage other countries to not send these weapon systems to Ukraine.
MICHAEL MORELL: The fourth part of Putin’s strategy from your perspective is maybe the one that’s the most chilling. It’s to exterminate Ukrainian culture and independence and in the context of this piece of the strategy. I’m hoping you can talk a bit about an issue that I don’t think has gotten enough mainstream attention, which is Russia’s kidnapping of Ukrainian children.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I think of all the atrocities and war crimes, even genocide, that we can’t forget are occurring every day in Ukraine. The most disturbing thing to me is that there hasn’t been the international outcry I would have expected against it. Now, I know there are some serious organizations conducting very diligent war crime investigations into rapes and murders and killing of civilians. Unfortunately, the world has experienced this tragedy so many times there’s an actual whole regime set up to investigate war crimes. And I know that work is being done. The abduction and transporting of Ukrainian children to Russia strikes me as particularly heinous and something that much more attention should be focused on.
I’ll go back to the beginning of the war when we were all weighing in our minds whether Putin would really do this, conduct this invasion a year ago. And one of the reasons I felt so terribly, darkly confident he would was because I know about his own personal feelings and many of his inner circles about Ukraine from the standpoint of wiping Ukraine off the map, which was actually an expressed ambition to wipe Ukrainian culture off the map. It’s not something that’s a quietly or secretly held view. It’s been explicitly stated. And so we see it in the war as far as bombing Ukrainian cultural landmarks, wiping out their history, their identity. So it’s broader than culture and independence. It is a disdain for the idea of Ukrainian independence because somehow Ukraine is Russia and Russia is Ukraine. That, of course, that idea that thought goes against everything in the modern world we created since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though somebody might be able to raise a Russian nationalist or writer or Putin himself, old history to support the premise that somehow they’re entitled to do what they’re doing in Ukraine because Ukraine isn’t independent and doesn’t have its own identity.
So that’s why I think it’s so important, because it resolves to another question, Michael, that we have to think a lot about- why are we fighting this war? Is this a war against a non-NATO member that we don’t stand to defend? Because Ukraine’s not part of NATO. They’re an independent country that we gave security guarantees to when they became independent, and yet they’re suffering this horrific tragedy when there are such strong limits in what the West is able to do to help them defend themselves. So I know I’ve gone on a bit here, but I think that’s probably the most important question you asked from my personal perspective.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then specifically, what happens to these children who are taken from Ukraine and sent back to Russia?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I frankly don’t know. There’s too little reporting, reliable reporting. I don’t want to quote sources. I don’t know what’s happening to them. I don’t know the purpose of all of this. I don’t know what the population consists of children that have been subjected to this. But it’s something that should be reported on more widely by the international press, so we will know more about it.
MICHAEL MORELL: The Institute for the Study of War has continued to focus on this, but it really hasn’t gotten out into the mainstream media. Which brings me back to something you said earlier, Rolf, which is we’re all getting numb to this. Which plays, I think, into Putin’s hands to the extent that we, that our media stops reporting on this, stops its focus on this, puts its focus elsewhere, that plays into Putin’s hands.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Yes. I mean, simply put, I agree with you. And I think the problem of not having as Putin has, if you will, an entire body of explanations to justify and explain his own actions and the reasoning behind it. We don’t counter that typically. Our president might get up or a world leader might get up and make statements about some support, will give Ukraine money or weapons, but not necessarily discuss, say openly that our objective is to ensure Ukraine maintains its territorial integrity and that Russia does not escape the responsibilities of having waged this war. I think if I were to advise Western leaders in a way to shorten the war, frankly, or at least so that Vladimir Putin will understand our position more clearly. Western leaders, I believe, have to do a better job of explicitly stating what our war aims are and what they’re not in terms of what we’re willing to settle for in terms of welcoming this aggression.
MICHAEL MORELL: You said something earlier which I think is really important. You talked about Putin explicitly saying what his goals were with regard to Ukraine. And I just wanted to make the point to our listeners that our adversaries often tell us exactly what they want and what they’re going to do. We both remember the interview that Osama bin Laden gave in early 1998 when he said he was going to wage war on the United States in an interview with ABC. Sometimes you just have to listen.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Yeah. And I think what’s uncomfortable, particularly if I were to use an American audience in trying to analyze when President Putin talks about his war against Western values, his war against his disdain for the U.S., what he calls hegemony in the world, he’s declaring the reasons this war has happened essentially. We just over the years haven’t been listening closely enough to what he’s saying. But he’s been saying it for years throughout. And there’s nothing surprising in many respects in what Putin has done and what he will do tomorrow, because he tells us in advance what he’s thinking and why he’s doing things.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then Rolf, we talked about this a little bit already, but the last of the five pieces on your list of what Putin’s trying to do is undermine NATO’s solidarity.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Right. If you’re looking at the NATO cohesion and state of the NATO alliance or even more broadly, the Western alliance with the European Union and others, it’s stronger than it was before the war by all accounts, whether it’s the expansion of Nordic countries into NATO perspectively, or the fact that the alliance has held in ways that certainly Vladimir Putin didn’t count on before the war. He was counting on being able to work weaknesses, softness within the alliance through people he’s known for years in various countries in Europe and the United States, and that didn’t happen. So I think one of the areas that he’s had to go back and regroup seriously is in calculating what support he can depend on and from whom. And part of the reason he pivoted, I think, so strongly to the Chinese and to some extent to India and certainly to Iran and even to some of the Arab states, is because he had no choices in countries in Europe that might have been previously more inclined to be soft on Russia’s activities in Ukraine. So that’s a big problem for him.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you see any softness in the EU at the moment?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Well, of course, as you know, everywhere there’s the diverse, there’s pluralistic views and there’s a well-established communities within Europe that the Russians know very well, particularly as they analyze the nationalist component. There are nationalists in Russia. There are nationalists in Ukraine. Those communities all know each other and they know each other in Europe as well. So I think the calculations that have been made based on the strength of that kind of support, a good example would be Italy. The government in Italy, having turned to the right, did not have the consequences that many observers might have thought in terms of being soft on the Italian position towards Ukraine. And soft on Putin- hasn’t happened. Sweden, same thing with the government there. So calculations based on having some friends in Europe that would have a stronger influence on European policies in Ukraine has not turned out to be a great benefit to Russia so far and probably will not in my view.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, in your note to me, you put an X factor, which was nuclear weapons. The temperature has gone down in terms of rhetoric. Where do you think we are today in terms of the risk of nuclear weapons use by the Russians?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: That’s, of course, an area of specialty. I think there are probably most of the things I’ve tried to cover today. There are a number of people whose views I would find more compelling than mine. But on nuclear, I try to stay up with the people who are out there because I think we’ve learned since the war began that we have to reassess everything we thought we knew about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear doctrine and certainly on deterrence. So the way it manifests itself now is we’re at a state, I think, where we went up and down. We’ve encountered the fear of the realization that this man, Vladimir Putin, may well use it if he feels he has to, to avoid being defeated in Ukraine. And I think we’re still there. I think there’s been some helpful statements from Putin and from others that have say if you will, turned the volume down on those kinds of threats.
But the risk is there in a way we didn’t imagine. We thought we all still subscribe to the mutual assured destruction I would call psychology certainly mentality where we knew we couldn’t fight a war where we used nuclear weapons because it might result in the destruction of the entire world. That idea, that ethic doesn’t exist. A shared common sense that we can’t do it. It ruled throughout the 20th century, and now we’re in a century where we can’t count on that shared sensibility that we can’t fight with nuclear weapons. And he shattered that, I believe, because it was clear, no matter how you describe the rhetoric and the threats by him and others in the government, that it was a possibility of some sort in their minds if things go bad.
So I think we’re in a state now, where we fortunately have not had to focus on much in the last few weeks, where I can contemplate how it can come back into the picture. In other words, the use of tactical nuclear weapons under two conditions in this war. The first is if the Ukrainian army were to emerge from the spring with similar ambitions to the Russian army to mount some sort of a strategic offensive and we’re able to actually do so. Now I think that’s a lower probability than 50/50 to be sure that they have the- we call the forces to do that. But it’s not out of the question. They’ll try, the Russians might try again at some point in 2023 when the weather gets better. Both sides’ ambitions are renewed in the spring air. And at that point, if the Russian army were somehow facing defeat on the battlefield, then I think nuclear weapons again, will be something we’re going to be talking about and Putin will be thinking about. So that’s my big fear.
And the second would be if the war were to reach a point where he is somehow facing strategic failure for other reasons on the war, whether it were problems from within Russia, which I still see no serious signs of dissent or moves against him that would result in his removal. But I think under those circumstances we might also see a desperate move because nuclear weapons, in the final analysis, what makes them even more tragic than they are just are in themselves is because the only way- they can’t accomplish anything militarily when you submit their use to a broader analysis, you can’t hold ground and take ground with nuclear weapons. You can blow holes in units. You can distract everything with a strategic pause, if you will, freezing the action. But the weapons themselves can’t win wars. You ultimately will lose if you resort to using nuclear weapons. That has to be the position of every country who possesses nuclear weapons, including Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: If those are Putin’s strategic pursuits, what he’s trying to do strategically, how would you sum up from a strategic perspective where we are in the war today?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I think Russia is losing. It’s in denial about this. Russia’s losing its ability to win the war on the ground militarily and won’t be able to recapture a significant strategic offensive. At the same time, it’s hard to see that the Ukrainians can reach the level of forces with support from the West and soldiers and weapons to be able to expel the Russians entirely out of Ukraine. So, meanwhile, the forces on both sides, meaning in Russia and Ukraine and for that matter, a lot of their support going both ways has solidified in a very right wing or one might say nationalist fashion. So those voices are louder. There’s less willingness to compromise, as there always is, and war and atrocity and loss of life. And there’s bitterness, obviously, and in ways you can’t possibly understand if you’re not in that war. And it’s really conspiring against any kind of a solution.
And at the same time, this doesn’t look like one of those wars that’s going to become a frozen conflict where we’re going for years on the ground towards an Afghanistan like humiliating defeat after ten years as they suffered or the Soviet Union suffered. I can’t see this. The tempo, the losses, the number of people that are dying going on for that long. You hear very little talk, for example, Michael, about insurgency and guerrilla operations, because this war is still being waged intensely on the ground with our tanks and artillery and now drones and weapons and increasingly lethal numbers of forces with Russia frantically trying to mobilize large numbers of men to join the front. Poorly equipped and badly trained. And Ukraine, you don’t hear much about it, but are certainly suffering also similar incredible losses. So at some point, it’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t happen again and unfortunately, that shocks us all. We’re in for some more surprises,Michael. I am sorry I can’t enumerate what they are. They wouldn’t be surprises. I don’t think this will grind to an inch by inch kind of 20th century guerrilla operation or World War one kind of thing. This is going to continue to be very intense and volatile with the possibility of introduction of new weapons and even new tactical nuclear weapons into the war.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where do you think Putin is politically at home at the moment?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I predicted when we went into the winter- the essence of what I would surmise and that’s all I’m doing. I don’t have any buddy reporting to me from the Kremlin, unfortunately. But I suspect he’s got full support. There’s not much of a choice beyond Putin. If there was anything, anyone to move against him. I’ve heard- I won’t even grace a lot of the names I hear in the media with being any serious rivals to Putin. The only people who can run Russia are people from the old KGB, FSB, military establishment. That’s it, period. They’re the only ones that anyone would turn to as as occurred in 1991, in 1993, as I said in a previous podcast. Those coup attempts were mounted by people from what the Russians call the special services and military forces. They’re the only people who anyone would rally behind if Putin were to become too much of a liability. I don’t see that happening. I see a lot more pain coming from the Russian side than anyone deciding to change leaders, which is why I don’t give much credibility to any reports I read, particularly on unsubstantiated reporting of any sort of movement against Putin in Moscow.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then last question, Rolf. The West has been slow. I think that’s fair. Slow to provide Ukraine with what it needs to be more effective at pushing Russia out. Slow to provide what President Zelinskyy has been asking for. What’s your sense of why? And I know I’m asking you to focus on a part of the world that you’re not used to focusing on, but what’s your sense of why and how do you think about what we should be doing?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: I have respect, certainly, for how the United States and the West have supported Ukraine to the extent it has from the very beginning and gotten a lot of the problems, the questions right. Answered the questions in the right way for President Biden and for other world leaders by having really good intelligence and anticipating the war’s developments I think in a very effective way up to now. So I’m not a critic of either the administration policies or the way the intelligence community is handled. As a matter of fact, I think they’re by and large good news stories. My singular point of- it’s not really a criticism as much as an observation- is that from the beginning, it’s not been clear to me that we know exactly what we’re trying to achieve. Are we seeking Putin’s defeat? Well, I hear conflicting ideas about that. Fears about what would happen if he were defeated, some of which you can imply from, are implicit from what we’ve discussed.
I also think that our war aims, even in a more tactical sense, have been tempered by a desire not to escalate. So there’s a reasonable idea that if you give weapons that escalate the conflict, it could spin out of control. Next thing you know, NATO’s in a war and the United States is in a war with U.S. troops on the ground. None of us want that. So the idea was to introduce weapons when we, I hate to use the phrase, felt comfortable that they wouldn’t do that. In retrospect, I think a lot of people might agree that we should have introduced things much faster to not prolong the conflict, but shorten the conflict, if you will.
And I think that might have been the effect of taking a more bold position earlier on it. It, of course, drives me crazy if our end goal is to help Ukraine win the war. And I know you and I have discussed this, Michael, ‘we’re introducing this now. Why didn’t we introduce HIMARS as a month earlier, or Patriots or whatever the weapon system is.
And so, yes, that’s frustrating. And I hope the administration constantly, and I have to believe they’re doing this, reviewing decision making from the standpoint of anticipating events and being as proactive and I would say aggressive as possible, because people are dying every day. And a lot of people are dying every day. So the shorter somehow that we can work together, the U.S. and its partners in the West and other countries, frankly, even those supporting Russia, to shorten the war and get Russia out of Ukraine, the better those two countries will be, including Russia, by the way, and the world. And I think that should be the overarching objective to everything that’s being done, is to try to shorten the war, get the two sides to agree on something where Russia can leave and this war is over. And I don’t think we do that by prolonging the arms deliveries and the support we give Ukraine. I think we need to very strongly commit to ending this as soon as possible.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, thank you very much for joining us. As always, very insightful. Thank you so much.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSESEN: Thank you, Michael.
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