Espreso. Global
Interview

Putin's goals in war change. Main goal is to survive physically and politically - Matthew Bryza

23 January, 2023 Monday
13:01

Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US National Security Council Matthew Bryza in an interview with Anton Borkovsky, Studio West program host on Espreso TV channel, about NATO's involvement in the war and Putin's red lines violation

The meeting in Davos was extremely important. Most likely, there has been a certain synchronization of geopolitical processes, which will coincide with the decisions in Ramstein, where the story will be finalized with the allocation of extremely important weapons to us. We heard something extraordinary: Henry Kissinger, a famous geopolitician who is 99 years old, changed his position. In particular, he explained that Ukraine could join NATO after the victory. How do you see the current situation after the Davos meeting and what public and non-public decisions could be made?

First of all, as the meeting in Ramstein is concerned I think what's going to happen is that Germany will be under enormous pressure to agree for Poland to be able to transfer the Leopard tanks it bought from Germany to Ukraine and to transfer some of Germany's own tanks to Ukraine. Everybody in Davos yesterday was talking about that the information is leaking out of Washington that there will be great pressure from Washington and we know that already the United Kingdom has taken away one of Chancellor Scholz's excuses for not allowing Leopard tanks to be transferred to Ukraine and that is that Germany didn't want to be the first one to pledge to do so. The United Kingdom has already pledged that it will send some of its Challenger tanks to Ukraine. I think the main outcome of the meeting in Ramstein is going to be Germany to give in to the pressure and agree for the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. And it's late but not too late thank God. Ukraine needs to be ready for either its own offensive which I hope will be soon or any Russian offensive that there have been rumors about coming in the springtime. 

When it comes to Henry Kissinger's statement, it's startling. When I first read it I thought it must be a mistake or maybe even someone was playing a trick because Kissinger has completely reversed himself. We all know what he said about Ukraine months ago, that Ukraine should accept the loss of Donbass and Crimea. That's his typical perspective. Yes he truly is a real politic person who believes in raw power, and I think he realized he miscalculated raw power to be on Russia's side instead it's on the side of Ukraine and it's friends and allies and future allies in NATO. I think he's completely right that if Ukraine had been given a NATO membership or even a membership action plan in April 2008 and had Georgia been given the membership action plan, there never would have been Russia invasions either of Georgia in 2008 or in Ukraine in 2014 or in Ukraine in 2022. 

One last point about Kissinger is I always worried he would never come around because here he's earned a fortune through his consulting company Kissinger and Associates in advising investors on Russian issues and in helping to bring big investments together that involve Russia. So maybe either as he reaches his Twilight years or mostly because of the amazing performance of Ukraine, of course it's military but overall it's society, the resolve you have shown and your success on the battlefield. I think he's realized raw power is with Ukraine now.

 We understand that diplomatic models will work after our victory. And here we are entering an extremely difficult situation, in particular, when it comes to supplying us with heavy armored vehicles. We have heard many different promises, and we have seen a very effective position of Poland, the United Kingdom and the US. The UK promises to provide us with Challenger 2, heavy tanks, though in a small number so far. The United States has agreed to supply us with Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Poland supplied us with what it could - with old Soviet equipment, Krab self-propelled artillery systems. Olaf Scholz keeps his finger on such an important case because the main European tank is the Leopard-2. What should we do with Germany's position? Will Germany block this decision to the end? What are the instruments of influence to get Germany to change its position?

I addressed that question in my initial remarks that there's enormous pressure on Scholz from the rest of NATO. That his defense minister is going to feel what he felt in Davos, that Germany will feel at Ramstein. And I think that it's going to suffice, it's going to be enough pressure and I believe Germany is going to agree to the transfer of the Leopard tanks and other weaponry to Ukraine. 

I was really struck yesterday when I was watching the news coverage of the World Economic Forum in Davos and I heard statements of enduring support for Ukraine from European leaders that I would not have expected would be in place at this point. The Belgian prime minister, for example, and even the Belgian news say we stand with Ukraine until the end. The Spanish prime minister two days ago was saying exactly the same thing. Back in Washington Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, had a meeting with President Biden a few days ago and also appeared at the Atlantic Council where I have been a

senior fellow in the past. And when he was pressured about don't you think there's a time when the West and Europe will not want to deliver the weapons to Ukraine and we'll get tired of Ukraine, he said no we have to continue, we will continue, because if we don't stop Putin now, then Putin will keep coming toward us as well. So I think Olaf Scholz understands that but he has a difficult political balance to maintain inside of German politics so he's been trying to find a way to move forward and is now reaching a point where he has to tell his Coalition Partners there's no way we can withstand the pressure anymore, we have to do the right thing. The green party and his foreign minister are already in favor of providing more weapons to Ukraine and I think there's been a big change in the mentality of Germany, whereas in the beginning of the war they said oh we feel guilty about the deaths we caused under the Nazis in Russia and to the Russians. Now I think the debate has shifted and Germans are realizing per capita the most suffering during World War II inflicted by the Nazis was on Ukrainians not on Russians. So I think enough pressure has been brought to bear on Scholz and we're going to see those Leopard tanks coming to Ukraine after the Ramstein meeting.

An extremely important meeting took place in Poland between the main leading generals - Commander Zaluzhnyi and Mark Milley, who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We know very little about the specifics of this meeting, but what could it mean?

 It's an amazing symbolic meeting if nothing else. If we think back to the beginning of Russia's invasion, you can remember how careful everybody was about signaling, wanting to make clear that Putin could not claim that NATO was somehow the adversary of Russia in this war. And the part of it was concerned that Putin might escalate the conflict and use nuclear weapons, and part of the concern was if it looked like NATO was indeed the adversary of Russia, then Putin would be stronger in making his arguments that he had no choice but to invade Ukraine, which is something I'm sure we're going to talk about in a moment. So back then at the beginning of the war this sort of a meeting between the military chiefs of the United States, Poland and Ukraine was really politically unthinkable. Now it's happening and it's showing that in particular the military leadership of these two big NATO countries and Ukraine are coordinating operationally and in terms of intelligence sharing, and now in terms of increasingly lethal weapons like the HIMARS the US provided, like the Patriot air defense system that's coming and hopefully like the Leopard tanks. So this is a very significant meeting and it sends a wide variety of political signals, the biggest one being that yes Putin you have decided to go to war with NATO, that's what you have done and that's what you have now. We at NATO are not going to declare war on you but we're going to make you suffer and ensure that your military does not prevail over Ukraine.

So, the US is no longer afraid of a so-called nuclear war. In any unclear situation, Putin, either personally or with the help of Medvedev, Patrushev, or some other representatives, began to voice scenarios of "nuclear armageddon," hinting that this could happen. So, something must have happened either in the minds of the United States or in Washington, D.C., to make them aware of extremely important points. There is a feeling that America is ready to cross Russian red lines. Because Russia has been crossing all the red lines set by the Geneva Conventions, by Christianity, and by common sense. The Western military is simply wondering how it was possible to do this to the civilian population. But what happened in Washington?

 Washington has repeatedly crossed many of Putin's announced red lines and I just mentioned a couple of them - the HIMARS, now the Patriot systems, there have been other anti-ship missiles provided by the United Kingdom, by Denmark; Turkey has provided lethal drones even though it has also held up the opportunity to be a mediator. Each of these was a red line that was crossed in the face of Putin's nuclear threats that if NATO got involved in these, the war would escalate to the nuclear level. That didn't happen and it's not going to happen because Putin I think received very clear messages from Xi Jinping, from Narendra Modi, from Washington and from the head of the CIA, Bill Burns, whom I worked for in the state department for years. Ambassador Burns, former ambassador to Moscow, from what I understand made very clear that if Putin escalated to the nuclear level even symbolically, even exploding one weapon for show on the battlefield, there would be an intense furious response from the United States that would annihilate the Russian military on the ground in Ukraine. And so I think that a response by Washington as well as by China and by India and all the NATO allies together made it clear to Putin there is no utility in actually escalating to the nuclear level. That in fact, doing so will just accelerate the complete defeat of Russia's military on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Now what will happen in the future? Who knows. I mean Putin likes to make it sound like if Russia's ship is sinking, and he may bring the whole world down with it but that is utterly irrational behavior and one thing President Putin is not - is irrational. He calculates all of his moves very carefully, he's trying to inflict more pain on Ukraine and Europe than Ukraine and Europe are willing to accept. But he'll never do that because Ukraine will never give up. And there'll never be a reason for him to use nuclear weapons because Russian territory will never be threatened.

 Ukraine has presented a peace formula on many global platforms, including the G7 summit. This is a completely logical and normal formula, which has probably been accepted by the entire Western civilization. But there is one important point: not only doesn't Russia recognize the peace formula, but it is not ready to negotiate at all, in particular, with regard to the withdrawal of its occupation forces. On the other hand, a few days ago, Russia's Ribbentrop, Mr. Lavrov, completely rejected the Ukrainian peace formula, saying that there was nothing to talk about. But it is clear that the situation in Russia itself is not good, it is trying to imitate readiness for an extremely long war, but the key issue is the question of resources. When will Russia be ready to move to real negotiations and what kind of defeat on the battlefield or something else should affect Russia?

As you and I have said many times, as well as some military strategists put it, war is the continuation of politics by other means. Wars end with a political outcome or they don't end, they keep going but military force is used to achieve political objectives. Until now Putin has not given a single inch in his rhetoric about what Russia's war demands are, and from the beginning they were unrealistic because he wanted to invade Ukraine. You remember that among the original demands was that NATO essentially rolled back the accession of the Eastern European members who joined NATO after the Cold War and withdrew its forces. Putin knew that NATO and the US would never accept that, so he was using a political position to justify his military moves that were then designed to achieve political goals which is the ending of Ukraine's sovereignty and independence. There were the negotiations mediated by Turkey coming up a year ago in March. There was a compromise on the table supported by Ukraine which was Russia withdraws its troops from the territories  invaded after February 24th; Ukraine decides to remain neutral and not join NATO and then they talk about the political status and legal status of Crimea and Donbas in the future. Putin rejected that formula because he wanted to use military force to make more gains on the battlefield to strengthen his political negotiating position and he lost thanks to Ukraine's amazing counter-offensive in Kharkiv and then in the South in Kherson in September. Now Ukraine is winning and it has clearly made it impossible for Russia to win on the battlefield. So now Ukraine's demands are more aggressive and all of Ukraine's demands make sense for Ukraine. For Putin they're still politically unacceptable though and if Ukraine's demands for the negotiations are accepted by Russia, he will have admitted Russia's complete loss of the war. So he's never going to do that until he's fully defeated on the battlefield. He is not ready for a real negotiation yet, because he still has hope that by throwing hundreds of thousands of more poor conscripts onto the battlefield after the next phase of mobilization and as Europe and the US get tired of supporting Ukraine, I think he hopes that then the Russian military will begin winning again and then we'll be able to negotiate its political goals from a position of strength. So only either of that happens God forbid which it won't or when it's clear to Putin he's lost militarily, will he negotiate seriously and I think that day is coming.

 In Davos, President Zelenskyy's wife, Olena Zelenska, delivered a message for Xi Jinping. In particular, it refers to the possible activation of the People's Republic of China in the future in peace talks, which, however, are not visible. What will Beijing's position be now? Now there is more and more information that Xi Jinping did not know that Russia was preparing a full-scale invasion, and if he did, he at least did not think that it would happen in such a macabre, barbaric, horrific way, and for so long, and that the whole world would be involved. So Beijing is not too eager to support Russia. But to what extent is it willing to limit diverse assistance? How does China want to play?

It's hard to say. From a brutal real politic perspective China is happy for the war to continue for a while. It is rhetorically supportive of Russia by blaming the United States for NATO enlargement as justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I think the Chinese leadership however doesn't like that at all that Ukraine is suffering so, it doesn't like that Russian troops are committing war crimes, and we know for sure its biggest worry is that Putin would indeed escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. That is unacceptable for Xi Jinping and for China.  But as long as Putin doesn't cross that threshold, I think Xi Jinping has calculated that the continuation of the war is to China's advantage because the United States and Europe are occupied creating difficulties for their economies potentially. But as we've seen with Zero Covid policy, Xi Jinping can turn around this policy 180 degrees when something dramatic happens like in the case of China the nationwide protests against him and against his Zero Covid policy. So the more Ukraine is succeeding on the battlefield and the stronger the unity remains of the transatlantic community and the community's allies in Australia and Japan, then it's more likely that China will begin to back away from its support of Russia and begin to decide it wants to be on the side of those who will win, because of the rearrangement of the geopolitical scheme of power, when Russia no longer can be considered a great power, and China will want them to take advantage of the new economic opportunities that come from that. So everything depends on Ukraine winning on the battlefield and that's the direction things are moving now.

But if we are talking about China, we cannot ignore another very important player, Turkey and its President Erdogan. Erdogan is trying to be constructive in his communication with the Kremlin. And he is almost the only one who succeeds. But it is clear that Erdogan is trying to prepare Turkey for new presidential elections, and he would not mind becoming president of Turkey once again. What will be Turkey's real, not declarative, policy towards the Russian-Ukrainian war now?

We throughout NATO would like to talk about Turkey as being a bridge between East and West and that's exactly what Turkey's approach to Russia and Ukraine has been. And it's that ability to bridge East and West that is one of the factors that makes Turkey so important geostrategically to the transatlantic community. Erdogan, his policy is much more transactional than collective in terms of security, his approach to NATO is - they support NATO and therefore, support NATO's friends, but get something for it in a transactional way, like Donald Trump conducted U.S. foreign policy. Although unlike Trump, I think Erdogan really does value NATO and appreciates its strategic importance to Turkey and values Turkey's strategic importance to NATO. But for those of us that were raised in the Cold War with NATO, our view has always been around the whole idea -  all for one and one for all, and that's we're a community of values, we are defending democratic and economic freedoms, and we need to be on the side of what's morally correct. From Turkey's perspective, and Erdogan says - we go along with that but our neighborhood is very difficult, look at our borders with Syria, with Iraq, with the South Caucasus and with Russia and Ukraine across the Black Sea. So our approach is different, we've fought

more wars as Turks against Russia than any other against any other country going back to the Ottoman days. We have so much economic interconnectivity and we want to be a valuable mediator, we don't like war. That's a position, that's a lot like German and as we talked about earlier in our discussion there's been a lot of pressure put on Germany to change course and to be fully supportive of Ukraine. In the case of Turkey, however, well we've heard president Zelenskyy himself welcome the mediation of President Erdogan and welcome his brokering of the grain agreement and we've heard Putin be grateful as well. There will come a moment I think, not yet, but at some point when Russia is finally willing to negotiate in reality that all of NATO will welcome Erdogan's ability or whatever Turkish leader is around by that point, their ability to mediate which means having an open line both to Ukraine and to Russia. And I think having a NATO member state play that role is quite good for the alliance as well. It shows to me how desperate Putin is. Yes Putin is trying to drive a wedge between Turkey and the rest of NATO and pull Turkey closer to Russia, but he's failed at that as Turkey has provided such critically important military assistance to Ukraine throughout the war in the forms of the Bayraktar drones but also Turkey's rhetorical support for Ukraine has been unwavering Erdogan has continuously and consistently condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and condemned the violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity. He's continuously condemned the occupation and annexation of Crimea and Erdogan has continuously called for Ukraine to become a NATO member state not to mention closing the Turkish straits to Russian military warships that are not based in the Black Sea. So my emotions say it sure would be better if Turkey under Erdogan were fully supportive of all the sanctions against Russia, but I have to say I appreciate the sheer utility of Turkey's sort of not middle of the road support. Turkey clearly is in Ukraine's camp, but I do see the value in maintaining a line of communication with Russia as painful as it is for me to admit that.

 Perhaps a naive question: what does Putin want? What does he really want? On the one hand, he issued an ultimatum to the West, but he attacked Ukraine with a full-scale invasion. On the one hand, he wants to solve the world's problems, but he is driving himself into a certain corridor. The system of rationality existing in the West does not work in terms of assessing what is going on in Putin's head. I am not a psychiatrist, I cannot diagnose his next steps, but we see that he is trying to stick to his old, perhaps even Stalinist, line. Although he says that he is at war with NATO and the United States, while bleeding Ukraine, including his own soldiers. But it is a question of how long and how far he will go in this direction and what additional options are available to get out or take Putin out of the war.

 I also am not a psychiatrist. I think his aims of this horrible invasion and war of aggression have changed. Now his main objective is probably to survive physically and politically and those are two sides of the same point. And that's because of the amazing courage and effectiveness of Ukraine's military and the national resolve of Ukraine's entire population. Putin was receiving terrible advice from his intelligence services early in the war, thought he could win a quick victory by capturing Kyiv and decapitating the government, and he failed utterly. And now he's stuck in a war of attrition that he cannot win, and if he can't win, he's finished. 

As a lot of analysts in Washington have begun to say and write about, they're looking at the likelihood that the whole Russian Federation will disintegrate. Who knows if that will happen, but the debates in Washington are much different. It used to be - wow are we going to provoke Putin to escalate this war to use nuclear weapons and then maybe move and attack NATO territory,  to one of is Russia going to collapse as a result of this failed war. So I think Putin's war aims are to survive, to do so he's hoping against hope that somehow if he throws enough Russian men into the battle and tens and hundreds of thousands die, that doesn't matter because eventually so many Ukrainians will be dead and the economy will suffer, and the civilian population will be in so much pain that Ukraine will quit. At that point Putin believes he'll find a way to be able to declare victory but that's not going to happen. It's by sheer force of Ukraine's military victory and the solidarity of its friends and allies we're going to see Putin have to adjust his goals, and I would guess he's eventually going to say okay, we actually won, we showed the West that we're not going to just stand there and let them steal Ukraine from us. We eliminated the quote Nazis whoever the heck Putin thought they were in Ukraine. We bloodied the nose if you will of the West and we hung on to some territory, whatever meager bit of Ukraine he may think they're still going to hang on to in his victory. And then he'll move on if he survives and think about how to come back to Ukraine some other way in the future, but he'll be unable to because Russia is going to be so incredibly weak at the end of its failure to win this war.

Do the United States, particularly NATO headquarters, understand what is really happening in Russia, particularly with regard to the formation of their military groups? Do they have accurate information on what is happening in the Kremlin? Or is everything based on the same assumptions as the Cold War "long telegram"? Does the United States have information about what is really happening in the Kremlin and in the Russian military?

I no longer have a security clearance and no longer have access to the information that I used to have, but judging from recordings of Russian soldiers on the battlefield when they call back to their families or speak to their colleagues on the battlefield, I believe that there is deep understanding in NATO headquarters and in Washington of the horrible state of the morale of the Russian military. And the fact that even the Wagner mercenaries are complaining that they're being used as cannon fodder and if they take one step back, they are shot in the back just like during the Stalin days. That's all known, we hear about it in the media all the time and based on my previous experience in the government, there's no doubt that the US and its NATO allies know much more about what's happening in the Russian military. What's happening inside the Kremlin is much more difficult to understand, as it's not easy to intercept those communications, it's not easy to penetrate into those inner circles at the highest levels of any government, much less the Russian ones meaning through espionage, through agents that might be giving information back out. But it's certainly just as human beings it is easy to understand how much pressure Putin must be under.  I hear myself through my own circles that now even at the ministerial level in Russia, not to mention oligarchs, there is deep anger against Putin because people are saying you ruined our lives, you destroyed our lives, we will never be able to to live the way we did before and you're destroying Russia's reputation. I hear those rumors all the time from incredible people, even heads of state in some cases. So I think there's deep awareness about how serious the trouble is that Putin has found himself. Which is why I've taken this very hard line in this interview, which is as I was saying in response to your last question, I think Putin's goals have changed. He now simply wants to survive. 

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