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Transcript: World Stage: Ukraine with John Bolton, Former U.S. National Security Advisor

MR. DUFFY: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Michael Duffy, opinions editor at large here at The Post. Our guest this morning is John Bolton, an influential voice in American foreign policy for the last three decades, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a former national security advisor and a top official in both the Department of Justice and the Department of State. Welcome back to Washington Post Live, Ambassador Bolton.

MR. BOLTON: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

MR. DUFFY: Great to have you. And remember, we will always want to hear from you, our audience. You can share your thoughts and questions for guests on Washington Post Live by tweeting @PostLive.

Ambassador Bolton, it’s been just almost two weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. What so far has surprised you the most?

MR. BOLTON: Well, I think certainly we can all admire the heroism, the bravery of the Ukrainian defense forces. They’ve done a terrific job under enormous pressure. Second, it’s really remarkable some of the failures of Russian strategy. We can debate the reasons, but I think they went after too many targets. They didn’t concentrate their forces. I think that accounts for a good part of the gridlock we've seen. And their logistical support certainly has fallen well below the standards that we would have expected from them given all the efforts at modernization and improvement that Vladimir Putin had undertaken over the last 20 years or so.

I think there has been, on our side, some considerable demonstration of NATO strength. How resilient that will be what our real resolve is, remains to be seen. But fundamentally, the tragedy that we see unfolding now, eight or nine days into this war, stems from the failure of deterrence, stems from the failure of the U.S.-led effort to persuade Putin not to launch military action to begin with. And how it plays out, there's plenty to discuss there. But the main problem, the real issue I think that we need to understand and evaluate for the future is the breakdown of deterrence.

MR. DUFFY: What would a more strong or more robust deterrence have looked like in your view?

MR. BOLTON: Well, I think there were two problems to the deterrence that the Biden administration undertook, one that it lacked credibility, and second, it was insufficient. It lacked credibility in Putin's mind, I think, because he had seen the consequences when he invaded Georgia in 2008. Almost nothing happened. When he invaded Ukraine for the first time, annexed Crimea and inserted Russian forces into the Donbas, almost nothing happened. He saw the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was a catastrophic strategic mistake. And I think he judged that threats about future punishment, if Russia crossed the line again, we're not credible.

But maybe more important than the lack of credibility was that we can obviously see the threats were not sufficient, and it didn't change Putin's cost benefit analysis. I said at the time, others did as well, that you had to begin imposing costs on Putin before he went in. And here I would highlight a phrase that the administration was very proud of. They used it over and over again. They patted themselves on the back for it. They said, if there's a further invasion--note the word further invasion--then bad things will happen. That was the fundamental--it wasn't a linguistic problem. It was a fundamental conceptual flaw in the way they approached the crisis. It was the earlier invasion of Ukraine that needed to be rolled back as well as preventing another one. So, I would have imposed costs on Russia in real time until they withdrew from the Donbas, and frankly from Crimea. I would have cut Nord Stream off earlier. I would have begun the imposition of sanctions because of the threat that they were posing. People say, but that would just provoke him to invade. Well, guess what? He invaded? So it seems to me that by not being tough enough earlier, including as you--as you showed in that clip, I'd--I said before that I think some kind of American presence there was needed.

Now I understand how controversial that is. But let me say that obviously everybody understands the difference between the obligations of the NATO treaty, that an attack on one is an attack on all. Our relationship with Ukraine is not a treaty relationship. But the NATO treaty itself contemplates, as you might expect, that a threat to a non-NATO member can constitute a threat to NATO itself. That's what the Baltic republics have been saying when they've asked for consultations under Article 4. They, Poland, others in Eastern and Central Europe recognize that this tragedy unfolding in Ukraine is a threat to them, too.

MR. DUFFY: Do you think this all means Putin has time on his side now, or has his cost-benefit analysis, as you put it, changed since he went into Ukraine?

MR. BOLTON: I think he is probably surprised at some of the sanctions that have been put into place. Certainly, the German reversal on Nord Stream 2 I think he would have found surprising. But look, I've been one of--one of America's greatest proponents of economic sanctions. And we have imposed very stringent sanctions on Iran, on North Korea, on the Maduro regime in Venezuela, in many cases comparable to or greater than the sanctions on Russia, and those regimes are still rocking along. I don't think any of the sanctions that we've seen now are going to stop any significant military decisions that Putin might make. They may have longer-term effects. But that depends on the resolve of the West, which I think still remains to be tested. I think what we need to do is go further. I think you need to drive a stake through the heart of Russia's energy sector. I think that's what's going to get their attention. It's 30 percent of their GNP, 60 percent of their export earnings. And we've been reluctant to touch it. Well, you don't get this stuff for free.

MR. DUFFY: Do you think that's a step that the Biden administration and its allies will have to take soon, in a few weeks, months down the road? How far off is that decision about energy?

MR. BOLTON: I think the president--yeah, I think the president has shown some movement. Originally, he said it's--we're going to exclude it, then he said it was--it was on the table, I guess. But you know, I think America's experience with sanctions over many different scenarios shows that if they're going to succeed--and that's the question, if--the best way to do it is to impose them massively, all at once, with as little advance notice as possible. I think part of the reason the sanctions against Russia are not going to be effective is we've been telegraphing it for months now. And if Russian institutions, Russian oligarchs weren't smart enough to get their assets out of vulnerable countries beforehand, they certainly deserve to lose them. And I think the threats against the oil sector--the oil and gas sector are already pretty visible. So I'm not sure what waiting is going to do. I think the sooner we do it, the better. Every day that goes by is hell in Ukraine. And if we just sit and watch it happen, there's nobody to blame but ourselves at this point

MR. DUFFY: Is there other steps the U.S. and NATO can take at this point in your view that--to help the Ukrainians and the resistance there in particular?

MR. BOLTON: Well, I think certainly we can give them more weapons. President Zelensky is pleading for airplanes. I think if we gave them more drones, more capacity to go after things like that huge Russian convoy outside of Kiev, which is the very definition of a sitting duck, perhaps that would help.

Zelensky has also called for a no-fly zone. I mean, on this one, I take President Biden at his word. I don't think there's any chance of any use of American military force here. And I think this is a big mistake in many respects. You know, if Putin’s mere threat gets us to do something that he wants, he is getting it for free. It's a serious matter. It requires careful consideration. But there's it--but you're saying there's no difference between some use of force and all-out nuclear warfare is just wrong. One possible--

MR. DUFFY: I’m sorry, I was going to just--go ahead.

MR. BOLTON: One possible thing to do would be to--I’m sorry--one possible thing to do would be to have a no-fly zone simply over Western Ukraine. No Russian troops are present. We can draw a line in the sky and say we're here to help stabilize the Ukrainian population. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates this morning something like 1.3 million refugees already across Ukraine's borders, perhaps another million displaced persons inside Ukraine. This is a huge humanitarian tragedy unfolding right in front of us. If we could provide security in the West, that might help mitigate this human tragedy. Otherwise, we are going to be spectators. And I think we've all got to ask ourselves from a strategic point of view what the implications are not just in Moscow, but in Beijing and other adversary capitals as we watch Ukraine potentially being ground into the dust.

MR. DUFFY: This morning, NATO I guess decided, rejected a proposal to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine. And I'm taking, obviously, from what you're saying that you think that was a mistake.

MR. BOLTON: Yes, but I think this mistake goes back well before Russia crossing the border. I mean, your questions are perfectly fair. But there--many are in the nature of okay, 20 moves into this chess game what would you do now? And that's a question we all have to answer. And I'm simply trying to say, I think about the past 15 moves have been wrong. And I think a more solid posture of deterrence by NATO months ago, together with other more economic related sanctions could have had a big effect. And that's why for future purposes the failure of deterrence here is so important. We are not today in a position of equanimity, because, well, deterrence failed and Ukraine's being invaded, but we're certainly hitting the Russians with very tough sanctions and we're okay with that. We're not okay with that. The point was to stop the invasion before it happened, and we failed.

MR. DUFFY: In addition to instituting the no-fly zone over part of Ukraine, are there other steps you would take now to further deter the Russians?

MR. BOLTON: Well, as I say--

MR. DUFFY: You mentioned the no-fly zone and you mentioned the energy sanctions. I’m just wondering other steps.

MR. BOLTON: Yeah. I would have a complete visa ban. I would allow no Russians into the United States or Western Europe. I’d consider expelling the ones who are here back into Russia. People say but that causes pain to Russian citizens, and my response to that is, you bet. Let me just quote Woodrow Wilson, an eminent figure in the Democratic Party, really the father of American thinking about economic sanctions, who called sanctions a peaceful, silent, deadly remedy, and also said that sanctions were a hand upon the throat of the offending nation. Now is that too much to ask, that we put more and more pressure on?

And I think this is important as well. A lot of the efficacy of sanctions depends on the vigorous enforcement of those sanctions. It’s one thing to say we’re putting the sanctions in place. Sanctions’ targets don’t sit there and simply feel the effect. They are constantly trying to evade and mitigate the effect of the sanctions. This is not a one-time action when we impose sanctions. We’ve got to be going after everything we can constantly, and we’ve got to do everything we can to show continuing resolve. So for example, Germany has said you know that commitment we made in 2014 to spend 2 percent of our GDP on defense, this time we really mean it. Start spending the money. Start buying new tanks. Buy more American F-35s. All of these things have got to get beyond the level of rhetoric and get into concrete action sooner rather than later.

MR. DUFFY: You said a minute ago that you thought NATO had not yet been tested. What tests are you expecting first or next, or are you concerned about?

MR. BOLTON: Well, you know, we had said throughout NATO’s history correctly that no foreign military power has ever crossed the NATO border. But if Ukraine or some substantial part of Ukraine falls to Russia--and I really don’t think they want the whole thing, but leaving that aside--let’s also bear in mind that Belarus in the course of this crisis has drawn even closer to Russia and may now be enough in Putin’s grasp that they’re never going to get away. And this is what raises the alarm in Eastern and Central European NATO members: Will Putin go next?

But on that point that nobody’s ever crossed a NATO border, in the 2011-2012 period and thereafter, the Baltic republics were subject to cyberattacks by Russia, and in a sense that is--in hybrid warfare terms that is crossing a NATO border. They crossed our border too, by the way, in 2016 and later in attacking our elections and taking other offensive actions in cyberspace. So this challenge, the potential for this challenge is already out there. And I think we’re behind. It’s not a catastrophic failure at this point, but I think since NATO is not going to be involved in any military action with respect to Ukraine, I think people ought to be 24/7 on what our reaction is going to be if we see some kind of hybrid warfare in the aftermath of the resolution in Ukraine, whatever that turns out to be.

MR. DUFFY: Put yourself in Vladimir Putin’s shoes this morning, if you can. Tell me what you think he might be thinking and whether he thinks this is going well and he’ll just, you know, continue to make slow but steady progress, or is he having second thoughts in you--you know, as you guess.

MR. BOLTON: Yeah, well, I’ve encountered him many times over the years going back to October of 2001 when I was the State Department guy. I went along with Donald Rumsfeld to meet with him in the aftermath of 9/11. I think he’s a cold-blooded rational thinker. I reject these ideas that he's lost a screw and that things are going badly. And I note that an exile from Russia, Andrei Illarionov, who was a close advisor to Putin back in the early 2000s says he doesn’t think Putin is doing anything but his normal routine. I think Putin is obviously--he’s got to be disappointed in the performance of the Russian military, and I think what that means is they’re going to double down to recoup the prestige that they’ve lost due to the insufficiency of the attack so far.

I have believed for a long time--I might as well repeat it here; if I’m wrong, I can’t ignore it anyway--I don’t think his ultimate objective was the conquest of the entire country. I think if he--if he had an alternative plan, it was to go after the Eastern and Southern portions of Ukraine. If you look at maps of the distribution of predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainians, culturally affinitive Ukrainians, Eastern Orthodox faith, that’s largely in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, and I think he wants complete control over the north coast of the Black Sea. He’s getting very close to that already. He needs to capture Odessa, which may be next. And then he also links up with Moldova, and I think we may soon hear more about the Transnistria Republic, which is a breakaway part of Moldova where there are still Russian troops 30 years after the end of the Cold War--not many. But if Putin can connect from Ukraine up to Moldova, he can run up the southwestern border of Ukraine, getting behind a lot of Ukrainian forces, getting closer to Kiev from the south. So these are the things I think that at some point Putin may declare a victory and say I only wanted this part of Ukraine anyway, and now I’ve got it. He might like a puppet regime in the rest. He may not be able to get that.

But here’s where the test of NATO’s resolve will come in. If Putin stops short of taking the whole country, will our friends in Europe, and frankly will many Americans say is that all there is? Gee, that’s not as bad as it could be, and we snap back to business as usual. This is what I think we should fear, because it would teach Putin and Xi Jinping all the wrong lessons.

MR. DUFFY: All right. That would also be a test for NATO as well.

MR. BOLTON: Yes, it would. I mean, that would--would we then see the German government still spend at the level that they had committed to? Will we see the resolve we've seen from others? With the French presidential election over by then perhaps, would we see France back to trying to recreate a European Union defense force and undercut NATO? I mean, all these things I hope are not going to occur. But we do have a historical record here that we can at least ask about.

MR. DUFFY: So talk to us a little bit about what we're to make of these periodic mentions of diplomacy from Moscow. Are we--are they just ruses, opportunities to buy time? When do we start taking those seriously, or do we ever?

MR. BOLTON: Well, I would not take them seriously now. I think this is theater. I think this is Putin showing, look, I’m a reasonable person, I'm open to conversations. I would not be providing offramps at this point. I think Putin respects strength. We haven't demonstrated enough. I go back again to the central failure, the failure of deterrence. So, we've got to try and make up for that. And even when you get partial agreements, as the negotiators have apparently reached for allowing convoys of civilians out of contested areas, I think--I think that's great, obviously, from a humanitarian point of view--but it also gives the Russians more leeway in grinding those cities into the ground since there are fewer civilians that they can be accused of causing to be casualties.

MR. DUFFY: And talk to us a little bit also about what you think in Beijing they make of this and what lessons they're taking, both with respect to the robust nature of the--of the Western sanctions, but also with respect to their own plans or putative plans about Taiwan.

MR. BOLTON: Yeah, well, I think Russia and China have an entente going, to use that French diplomatic word. I don't think it's a full-scale alliance. But I think China's got Russia's back here and perhaps in terms of [unclear].

MR. DUFFY: Marriage of convenience, maybe.

MR. BOLTON: Well, yeah, or more. I mean, they would love to get oil and gas from Russia through a pipeline rather than shipping it out of the Persian Gulf and vulnerable--and sea lanes and the rest of it. But I think the Chinese are very carefully watching the Western reaction, and I think they're trying to put that into their computer as they analyze what they may want to do with Taiwan and the South China Sea along their long land border--Vietnam, India. There are a whole range of possibilities there. You know, and this is where this debate we're having over sanctions I think is especially interesting. The bulk of the Russian interaction with the West is oil and gas. There's other trade as well, of course, but that's the bulk of it. And we're seeing so far the West’s inability to take a really strong step against that sector and not taking particularly strong steps against other sectors. I mean, with the Europeans that kicked the number-two Russian bank out of the SWIFT system and the number-one and number-three Russian banks are still in there. How hard is it to figure out to get around the problem with bank number two?

And Russia's economy--and here's the main point for China--is really trivial compared to China's, and the economic interaction between the West and Russia doesn't compare to the level of interaction between the economies of the U.S. and Europe, the European Union, Great Britain, and Japan. So, I am very worried that this hesitancy to bear any pain in inflicting sanctions on Russia says to the Chinese that Western resolve is not going to be strong, not strong enough to really impose much economic pain on us, if it comes to it. That would be a very bad lesson for China to learn.

MR. DUFFY: When you were Donald Trump's national security advisor, his administration had its own stop and start, stop and go, certainly confused handling of its relationships with Ukraine. Looking back on it--

MR. BOLTON: You’re certainly being polite.

MR. DUFFY: Could you have done more to help the Ukrainians prepare for this moment, or are you satisfied with how that administration handled its Ukrainian portfolio?

MR. BOLTON: Well, I think it went very badly. It was hard to have discussions on geostrategic issues when the president's main interest was getting Donald--was getting Rudy Giuliani in to see Zelensky so they could go find Hillary Clinton's computer server. And I think that by interjecting Ukraine into the maelstrom of American presidential politics in 2019 and 2020 made it impossible for Zelensky to establish the kind of relationship that he needed with Ukraine's potentially most important supporter. And I don't think it was a dispositive factor in the circumstances we have now, but it was--it was certainly a net negative. And you know, this was a policy, Donald Trump cared one thing about Ukraine, which was how does it affect his political future. And I can say that every other senior national security advisor--Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper at Defense--all of us felt that we needed to bolster Ukraine’s security and were appalled at what Trump was doing. And finally, it got resolved in the near term on the security assistance, but the significant negative consequences for Ukraine I think were real.

MR. DUFFY: One last question. And in your memoir, you wrote that the president--President Trump wanted to leave NATO in 2018. How close did that come to reality? And we have just a minute left.

MR. BOLTON: Yeah, I had my heart in my throat at that NATO meeting. I didn't know what the president would do. He called me up to his seat seconds before he gave the speech. And I said, look, go right up to the line, but don't go over it. I sat back down. I had no idea what he’d do. I thought he’d put his foot over it, but at least he didn't withdraw then. In a second Trump term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO. And I think Putin was waiting for that.

MR. DUFFY: Ambassador Bolton, thank you for giving us so much time this morning. We're out of time. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you for coming to Washington Post Live and have a good day.

MR. BOLTON: Well, thanks for having me.

MR. DUFFY: I'm Michael Duffy.

[End recorded session]