In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with former senior CIA operations officer and Moscow station chief Rolf Mowatt-Larssen about the likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine, including the possibility of a negotiated peace — or dangerous escalation. Mowatt-Larssen offers insights on Putin’s options, potential rifts among his intelligence agencies, and persistent rumors about the Russian leader’s health. Morell and Mowatt-Larssen also discuss Western involvement in the conflict and the lingering potential for the Kremlin to use weapons of mass destruction.
- Entering a “period of uncertainty”: “[W]e’re heading into a period of uncertainty, where both sides are going to try to find what’s eluded them so far. Ukrainians are going to try to find something that they can turn to the offensive. They’re tired of being on the defensive, of course. They want to take back territory. They’ve got nothing to negotiate in a settlement other than their territory, and they’re unwilling to give that up. For Putin on the other hand, he’s got to do something more than take some more land, which he did in 2014 in eastern Ukraine. He’s got to find a way, a military means, to achieve something he can call a victory.”
- Deterring a nuclear conflict: “I think you can make a strong case that use of nuclear missiles, weapons in Ukraine, is an existential threat to NATO. I think Putin has to believe that we might respond that way. I’m not saying we should. I’ll leave that to the brighter minds and people who have to work at right now from the president on down and our NATO allies, too. But they have to be willing to. And Putin needs to know that the U.S. and NATO is willing to get involved if Putin does certain things. So maybe that will be a form of deterrence that’s largely been lost since this war began. In other words, the idea that Putin must be deterred from thinking he can use nuclear weapons in order to have this great, say, escalatory effect he’s seeking and get away with it.”
- Potential long-term insurgency: “The standard is, can [Ukraine] make the insurgency so painful – which has happened to countries like ours in my lifetime a few times – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – where they don’t want to stay and they suffer another Afghanistan-style defeat. That’s possible – where they have to voluntarily leave. Unfortunately, that could take years. I don’t see any signs that Ukraine won’t fight those years to find that acceptable outcome for them. Whereas the Russians have nothing to fight for. The Russian kids, the Russian soldiers have nothing to fight for. “
Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. You now have the distinction of being the guest on the show who has been the quickest to do a repeat performance. And we really appreciate you taking the time again.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN Well, Michael, it’s an honor and I hope I don’t leave you or your guests disappointed. Thanks for having me back.
MICHAEL MORELL: Now, you, the first time around, were one of our most popular guests. So I think you really enlightened people to what was happening in Ukraine and I look forward to kind of an updated discussion today.
And I’d start by asking you to give us the arc of the story of the war in Ukraine to date. Bring us right from the invasion to where we are now and maybe end by telling us exactly where we are on the ground today.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN Well, I think we started with another strategic surprise for the entire world. Even though Putin’s build-up went for weeks to invade Ukraine, I think there was an underestimation of his intentions, his plans, and therefore a big miscalculation on everyone’s side exactly what would transpire once he finally crossed that border from Belarus and began to invade.
And so the false assumptions that we now know to be true – and I don’t think these will be disproven over time – is that that, first and foremost, that Ukraine’s will, their indomitable will, is is not going to be denied. And I think some people doubted that.
Second, I believe that we underestimated, as I said, you know, Putin’s – the scope of his intentions.
Third is a massive overestimation on the Russian military – both its will to fight and its ability to fight.
And finally, which has turned out to be an extremely important part of the story is NATO’s unity, which Putin severely underestimated.
So, basically, I think we’ve hit a stalemate, and that’s where we are now in the coming days. And we’re watching both sides jockeying to see who can break that stalemate.
And I’ll add one other element that may deeply affect the calculations as to how to break a stalemate and what both sides might try to do, and that’s the changing nature of war. Michael, I know you and I sat around at the 5:00 meetings after 9/11 watching the U.S. military and our intelligence people fight a new kind of war in Afghanistan. I think we’re finding 20 years later that we’re fighting a new kind of ‘we’ – meaning the world, but Ukraine, first and foremost, is fighting a new kind of war in on its territory, where technology has become an asymmetric means to defeat a much larger, well-armed military force.
As a tanker in Germany in the 1970s, believe me, I’m watching the tanks. I cringe every time I see the tank numbers getting hit with missiles and watch the drones take out tanks and artillery and kill Russian generals. And I say to myself, ‘With these kinds of asymmetric means at their disposal, it’s given Ukraine this tremendous, almost euphoric boost in morale.’
So we’re in a stalemate that favors Ukraine.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And we’re going to all have to adjust, right, to the new realities. Every army in the world is going to have to think about what this means for them.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Right. I think it would be a big mistake – as I did, I’ll just throw myself into this discussion – thinking that wars will be fought the way we fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and particularly in Europe.
We’re finding in a sophisticated environment like Europe – I’m not saying the Middle East is not sophisticated, but militarily it’s a much bigger challenge to fight there than it is to fight in the Middle East – and we’re seeing things come into play like sharing of intelligence, like the power of social media, of how people share information, how they’re using cell phones on the battlefield for all kinds of purposes. In Europe, it’s a much different proposition than anywhere else. And I think it favors the defender overall.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, this stalemate is taking place in eastern Ukraine. That’s where Putin has shifted his focus for the moment. Just a question for you: just because his tactical objectives have shifted to eastern Ukraine, you don’t believe his strategic objectives have changed, is that correct?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: No. He’s planned this his entire rule. That’s become very clear now. It’s been his intention from the very start to make a strategic move in Ukraine. After 20 years, he’s been practicing this in Chechnya, in the second Chechen war. In Syria. He was convinced his military would come in Ukraine and perform in that kind of manner as they did in those two fronts. And so he’s just now trying to reckon with the fact they’re incapable of doing that.
But his other objective, and I think this is often lost in commentary, it was never all about Ukraine and it wasn’t about Ukraine joining NATO.
This is Putin’s bid to challenge the West and NATO’s – what he considers to be their lock on global order. That’s why aligned himself with China, a similar autocracy in his eyes, so closely. And that’s what he’s trying to break. He’s trying to break what he considers to be the West and the Western liberal governance model’s grip on global order.
MICHAEL MORELL: And that objective remains solid for him. That’s what he’s still all about.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yes. And I would just say – we’re in commencement, going into invocations and commencements around the country – and the most, at least the, I call the craziest, in the sense of interesting, commencement I’ve ever read or heard of, was Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1978 at Harvard. I recommend to your listeners to go Google that and find that and read it. It’s kind of a tough read.
I feel sorry for the students who had to hear it, but it’s an incredibly intense description of kind of the Russian soul and how it’s longing in this world. And certainly I’m not comparing Putin to Solzhenitsyn by any stretch, but there is an element of Putin’s alienation from the West in Solzhenitsyn’s own alienation first from the Soviet Union and then from the West when he came to live in the United States.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Rolf, looking forward 4 to 6 months. What are the scenarios that you see? What are the scenarios that are the most likely going forward here?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, unfortunately, escalation and uncertainty. We’ve just heard the head of national intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director Bill Burns, among others, stress that we’re heading into a period of uncertainty, where both sides are going to try to find what’s eluded them so far.
Ukrainians are going to try to find something that they can turn to the offensive. They’re tired of being on the defensive, of course. They want to take back territory. They’ve got nothing to negotiate in a settlement other than their territory, and they’re unwilling to give that up.
For Putin on the other hand, he’s got to do something more than take some more land, which he did in 2014 in eastern Ukraine. He’s got to find a way, a military means, to achieve something he can call a victory. And everybody in the world probably right now who is following this at all, knows that Putin so far is being defeated on the battlefield. So he’s got to find a way to break that. So when both sides are looking for something dramatic, we’re likely to see that and probably be a bit unprepared for what’s going to happen in the next 4 to 6 months.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is time on anybody’s side here in particular?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yes, I do believe it is. I believe Putin believes it’s on his side. And the reason he thinks that way is because he’s always depended on a war of attrition, which is what we’re in now.
He did that in Syria, did it in Chechnya. And then, of course, that turns into the genocide and war crimes that we’re seeing now emerge, and we have seen almost from the beginning in Ukraine.
Whereas for the Ukrainians, they’re fighting for their existence and they’re now victims of genocide and war crimes. So I’d say it’s on their side. If you look at the history of invading armies since World War II, no one’s emerged victorious that’s invaded another country and stayed there. So I think Ukraine will win in the end.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, within this kind of near-term future, Rolf, that you outlined, how concerned are you about really two different types of escalation? One would be an expansion of the war from just Russia and Ukraine to NATO versus Russia. And the second would be Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction – in particular, Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Michael, this is my biggest concern. And I think they’re two integrated forms of escalation. One will probably cause the other.
Meaning – and I’ll put it in a movie scene, something we may have seen much more dramatically in John F Kennedy’s presidency with the Cuban missile crisis. I hope that President Biden, along with Austin, Burns, Blinken, other key advisors, have already sat around the Oval or the Sit Room and had a deep discussion of what they’re going to do if Russia does fire that tactical nuclear armed missile in Ukraine, on the Ukrainian army. Because we have to know the answer now.
They obviously shouldn’t be trying to figure that out in the aftermath of an attack. I think the key questions they have to ask themselves in that meeting – and also, as important, discuss with our NATO allies who have to be part of any decision for what would be a threshold, I wouldn’t use the word red lines, I think we’ve all learned that that’s probably unwise to set red lines – but what would be the threshold where NATO will at least have to consider joining the war formally.
I think you can make a strong case that use of nuclear missiles, weapons in Ukraine is an existential threat to NATO. I think Putin has to believe that we might respond that way. I’m not saying we should. I’ll leave that to the brighter minds and and people who have to work at right now from the president on down and our NATO allies, too.
But they have to be willing to. And Putin needs to know that the U.S. and NATO is willing to get involved if Putin does certain things. So maybe that will be a form of deterrence that’s largely been lost since this war began. In other words, the idea that Putin must be deterred from thinking he can use nuclear weapons in order to have this great, say, escalatory effect he’s seeking and get away with it.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is that a message that he needs to hear publicly or is that a message that can be sent privately? How do you think about that?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I don’t think it’s wise to send it publicly. I have to admit, I haven’t thought this fully through, so I don’t want your listeners to too deeply bank on what I’m saying. But I’m very confident saying that I hope that message is being sent clearly in high-level channels between the U.S. and Russia and with other NATO partners.
I would use potentially the Gerasimov-Milley channel, that’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course, General Milley and his counterpart Gerasimov in Russia, or potentially the Austin-Shoigu Channel. It’s very important those channels of communication remain open no matter how bad this war gets specifically for this question.
And I think Russia needs to understand – beyond Putin, the other key leaders in the intelligence services and the military need to understand – that if they use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, they are existentially threatening themselves. There’s no need to do it. But they threaten themselves if they use nuclear weapons because at that point, all restraint on NATO’s part has to be reassessed.
MICHAEL MORELL: So our good friend from the Belfer Center, Graham Allison, wrote a piece, I don’t know, a week or so ago, two weeks ago, where he outlined a scenario where Putin destroys one Ukrainian city with a nuclear weapon and then says to the Ukrainians, ‘Surrender or you pick your Nagasaki.’
And that’s not a scenario that I’ve heard other people talk about in terms of the use of nuclear weapons. You hear people talk about using it as a last resort when the Russian army is in dire straits. But this is a different kind of use of nuclear weapons here. How do you think about Graham’s scenario?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, as you know, Michael, I have the deepest respect for Graham. And I think it’s worth posing those kinds of questions to get everyone thinking of the kind of world we’re living in suddenly – that Russia has imposed on everybody, not just the Ukrainians, how we are all involved.
I hope it doesn’t come to that. And I don’t want to specifically address that except say, when I say Russia is existentially threatening itself, I don’t just mean militarily. If Russia escalates to using weapons that are banned and are all not just morally and ethically regarded as prohibitive, but by arms control agreements and by the norms of what all governments have accepted – autocracies and democracies alike – that you can’t win a nuclear war, then I don’t see how Russia returns to some sense of normalcy when this war ends, if they decide to use nuclear weapons in the course of the war.
And that’s another consideration Putin has to take under advisement. He can’t win if he uses these weapons and there’s no battlefield reversal he can change by using them.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, in terms of managing the risk of escalation, how do you think the Biden administration has done here? Do you think they’ve been too cautious? Do you think they’ve been just about right? How do you think about that? Has it evolved over time?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think it has. I’d like to see us try to do today what we’re considering doing tomorrow to help the Ukrainians, everything short of forcing NATO intervention or triggering some form of Russia attack on NATO. I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest.
So I think the Biden administration has done a very good job of balancing being very proactive with being careful. And I don’t think that’s a sin to be careful in a war like this, given the stakes we were just talking about.
And the other consideration, where he’s succeeded the most admirable in my mind, is in keeping NATO together -by constantly talking to our allies, constantly informing them of what we know in a very credible way, in other words, it’s credible if you give them information that turns out to be true. Otherwise, it’s not.
So the Biden administration has been pretty good at providing intelligence not just to the Ukrainians, but to our allies that’s kept them abreast of the situation and proven time and time again to be right. So they can’t afford to make a big misstep in those areas. It’s a very delicate balance of being very proactive, very supportive of the Ukrainians in every way possible, but without triggering NATO’s intervention.
I think that we can continue to walk that tightrope. And I would just say it’d be nice to stay on the side of being more proactive than cautious because, after all, the Ukrainians deserve our full support.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rolf, let’s switch gears here a little bit to a couple of questions about the home front in Russia.
First thing I want to ask you is, I know you’ve spent a lot of time with SVR officers and their predecessors in the KGB over the years. You know them as people as well as anyone else I know. And I just wonder, how do you think about how they’re thinking about what is happening? What do you think their mindset is, watching this?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: You know, that’s a question I like to think about in my spare time, because you’re right: I do know some and I can attach faces to this. And I’ll expand that to say also the Russian people, because for me, having lived for over four years of my life in the Soviet Union and in Russia, it’s real. They’re people. And I picture them and I picture the SVR officers I know -that’s the foreign intelligence officers, for your listeners who don’t know that there are three main services in Russia.
The foreign intelligence officers were part of the KGB that served in embassies around the world. They were the ones who recruited and handled spies like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. And I imagine many of them are horrified – quietly horrified. I don’t think any of them are probably talking about it unless they have very, very close friends and family they’re willing to share their views.
Others, of course, are probably supportive, as you’d expect. But I think there’s probably a significant strain of dissent and concern in that service in particular, because they are exposed. They understand the kind of absurd propaganda being spewed by the Kremlin. They know that the idea that this is some sort of military technical operation where we’re just talking about possible nuclear war is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe educated people would believe it.
And these people have served, for the most part, these officers have served in the West and know what’s being described doesn’t match reality. So for them, I think they have a particular problem buying into what Vladimir Putin is saying.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, there was a very interesting article a couple of weeks ago about growing tension between the Russian military and the FSB, which is the internal service, the old internal service part of the KGB. In fact, you sent me the article and I wondered if you could tell folks what the article said and what you think about it.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yes, of course, Michael, I find this particularly fascinating as a student. And, of course, having been involved so much of my career with all the Russian services. And it bears mentioning that all the services – not unlike other countries, including to some extent ours – are rivalrous.But the rivalry now between, as you describe, the FSB – that’s the part of the old KGB, used to be called the second chief directorate, they did counterintelligence – that’s the part Vladimir Putin was part of when he was a lieutenant colonel and then later the director of the FSB. And then there’s the GRU or the military services in the military.
They don’t tend to coordinate what they do very well, or try to, even. And right now they seem to be – I would describe it as what appears to be an all-time high in rivalry and even rifts developing, where Putin is showing, for example, some signs that he’s not trusting elements of the FSB.
Why? Because, first, they let him down by not knowing the real situation in Ukraine. It was their responsibility to know what was going on and have agents positioned all around the country who would tell him the real situation of Ukrainian support for a Russian invasion. And clearly they got that spectacularly wrong. That was an intelligence failure of epic proportions.
But then after the war began, it became clear to me – and this is an, I would say, a professional guess, instinct here – that there are elements that may support Ukraine in this, maybe Russians with Ukrainian backgrounds or at least there were leaks from sources inside the FSB, which there is much less likely to be in the military services.
So I think Putin is taking a big gamble in allowing, if it’s true, if these press reports are true, the military to exercise more authority, including over elements of the FSB, because his source of main support of power in Russia is the internal security service, the FSB, not the military service. So there’s a gamble in this, but he must be frustrated enough to take that chance.
MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things that struck me in the article was frustration in parts of the military, a belief that they were being held back from going all out in Ukraine. And it kind of struck me a little bit of, Vietnam-like, right, where people felt they were being held back from fully taking it to the enemy. That struck me.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yes. And I think there are many aspects of it. One of which is, I think the Russian high command has to be stunned and dismayed with its performance. And they’re trying to find alternative explanations, ‘Oh, they’re not letting us do what we need to do to win the war’ kind of thinking. I think we’ve seen that and – nothing to that extreme in our country, but any country that’s fighting a war when the army is is not succeeding, the fingerpointing starts.
I think another aspect of it, though, is there’s a fervor for taking back parts of the Soviet Union in the military that’s unmatched in the Russian establishment. And there are what we would call far=right, very strong, far-right element in the Russian military that almost reaches kind of a religious fervor and in fact, does have a religious kind of connotation to it, which you don’t see in most of the Russian establishment to the degree you do in the military.
And those elements must be agitating particularly strongly for, you know, doing what it takes no matter what it takes. And we’ve even seen some irresponsible members of the Russian Duma, the parliament and the media calling for, I’d say, crazy things like unleashing nuclear weapons on London and things like this in the same kind of, I call, desperate zealotry.
MICHAEL MORELL: And so Rolf, I’m going to talk a little bit about some polling. We’ve all seen the Russian government polling that shows Putin more popular than ever. But I saw a poll recently that was not a Russian government poll, and I know you’ve seen it as well.
And to be to be fair, it was taken not long after the initial invasion. So it’s a little dated now. But for our listeners, here’s what that poll said – and by the way, this was a nationally representative poll that was done by some academics.
And what the poll found is that a little over 50% of the folks polled said that they supported Putin’s special military operation. I guess that’s the way the question was phrased. But they did not hold that feeling particularly deeply, particularly strongly.
In contrast, there was about 20% of the folks who said that they opposed the war, and they did so with with deep feeling. They used words like ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘anger’ in explaining their feelings about what was happening.
And the rest of the folks, I guess, 30%, didn’t have strong opinions, but they nevertheless use words like ‘sadness’ to describe how they were thinking about that. And would just love to get your take on the polls we’ve seen from Russia and this one in particular.
Yeah. You mentioned that the poll was taken at the outset, and I’ll just have to interject here: this is my most idealistic side of having been in intelligence for some since 1983. Time favors truth. Right. And in the final analysis, time is against Putin here, too, because the more and more body bags come back, the more and more obvious it becomes from Internet, social media and other sources of information that it’s all lies, the more people will swing over.
So now the cynical side. When I lived in the Soviet Union, I became as cynical as any Russian. If a bunch of Russians got in a line to buy something, I got in the line just because there was a line, and it must mean there’s something good. And I would whisper all the way to the front, ‘Hey, what’s up there?’ So, you know, we adapt pretty quickly to situations and no Russian from the Soviet period to today – even accounting for the fact many Russians weren’t alive during the Soviet period – will survive long by saying to any pollster that they don’t support the war.
So I don’t really know how you can conduct a meaningful poll, whether it’s a Russian poll or outsider poll. No one’s going to tell you what they really believe. The 20% who did admit they feel strongly against it are courageous. They probably unburdened themselves by saying it, but the vast majority of people are just going to get in that line and watch, see how this goes. And part of that, that’s lost in these polls is also the realities of Russian demographics. There’s a massive difference of opinion, I’m sure, between the young and the old.
There’s another large difference of opinion between rural and urban. One of the things I didn’t realize – so I’ve been reading articles in recent weeks about the breakdown of the different units in Ukraine – is they’re disproportionately drawn from rural areas.
And the reason for that is because these young, lesser-educated, young sons of villages across Russia come from highly conservative families that don’t really have a voice. And as they spread those losses and graves around Russia, it’s less likely to draw a lot of attention and anti-war feelings than if the kids are from Moscow and St. Petersburg. So there’s the element of that divide.
And the one thing I can assure you is that Russians are very resourceful, like anybody around the world, in finding sources of real information and news – particularly younger people. And that’s where the hope goes as this drags on, is that the anti-war sentiments will continue to increase. And in significant areas.
I’m sure the educated elite, you would call it, also the oligarchs, people like that, are probably by and large very against the war. They just can’t say it or they’re going to lose their money or worse. Or, in the case of the think tanks and government advisors, a few intrepid ones have in fact spoken out against the war already. I kind of make a mental note of those brave people, because that’s how the world turns is, is finding more people are willing to speak out against falsehood and aggression.
MICHAEL MORELL: What’s your sense of how much accurate information about the war is getting into Russia?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I would tend to believe we’re underestimating it. You know, Putin and the Russian censors can’t cancel the Internet. And it’s not just about saying Facebook is not accessible anymore or some other decision that, or Twitter or something. There are ways to get the information out.
There are a lot of Russians that know a lot of people on the outside, a lot of Russians know a lot of Ukrainians. A lot of Ukrainians know a lot of Russians. So I believe the word is spreading. And again, over time, more and more, the truth gets out.
And people – it’s not a matter of being educated or not educated or in a city; I’m not trying to make those distinctions in the quality of thought. When people hear real information and they compare it to what they’re being told, over time, they can begin to discern which sounds more plausible. And I think we’re seeing that process in Russia now.
There are many – for example, I’m surprised myself with just how many different platforms there are for information to get into countries from the Internet these days and even different kinds of social media platforms that the authorities probably don’t even know exist.
MICHAEL MORELL: So two final questions about inside Russia, Rolf. The first is Putin’s health. Lots of discussion about this in the media. I was struck a few days ago when Bill Burns was giving a public speech and then took some questions.
He answered many of those questions very openly, but when somebody asked him about Putin’s health, he dodged it. And that made me wonder for the first time, really made me wonder for the first time, about Putin’s health. I’m just wondering what your thinking is about Putin’s health.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I’m glad he dodged the question, Michael. I would hope CIA knows something, right? I would – I mean, ideally, all that money that the American people are investing in intelligence, which would allow us to position sources close enough to maybe even grab his health file or parts of his actual file, and we would know part of the answer, if not the answer to the question.
But I don’t think under any circumstances, the director of Central Intelligence should just tell the American people that. And by extension, it would be, I think, a very big mistake if we begin to make decisions based on assumptions of what this possible disease or this condition might provoke in terms of his thinking.
It’s that whole, almost hysterical question of, ‘Is Putin insane? Is he out of his mind?’ I try to avoid all that. I do watch, I have to admit, I’m hooked on watching – I speak fluent enough Russian where I can watch every video, watch everything.
I don’t see anything that I would call persuasive, certainly not what some people describe as slurring or any of that. No. I listen to what he says. Most of his, when it comes out, for example, Easter and other occasions, and it seems to me speaking like he always has, very clearly, very plainly, very directly. So I think it’s a danger in over-speculating on the health thing. And to that extent the US government knows the answer, I respect the fact they’re keeping it to themselves.
MICHAEL MORELL: And your thoughts, Rolf, on any near-term to medium-term threat to Putin’s rule?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think we have to start with the assumption – again, I’m not privy to anything. And if I was aware of anything going on, whether inside Russia or that the U.S. was aware of, knowing that the U.S. is not going to adopt regime change as our policy, I can say categorically I think that is not going to happen. I’ve been asked that question by many people, and I don’t think it should, I don’t I think the Russian people –
MICHAEL MORELL: I agree with you.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: — And the Russian people need to make the decision as to who their leader is. It could potentially aggravate everything if the U.S. was involved in any way in trying to remove Putin from power.
That being said, I would be also very surprised if there’s not something going on under way, at least in terms of desire. And the problem with it is there is only three or four or five people who can make it happen. And you’d have to look back to the unsuccessful coup attempts in modern Russian history in 1991 and 1993, where hard liners tried to overthrow first, Gorbachev and second, Yeltsin in ’91 and ’93, and didn’t didn’t succeed, even though the hardliners had support in ’91. Anyway, the KGB chairman, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and the chairman of their Joint Chiefs of Staff, Akhromeyev, Marshal Akhromeyev, were involved directly in the coup and they still failed to overthrow Gorbachev.
So I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m not saying it’s not a possibility, but I don’t think we can hang our hats on that outcome. We just have to say the right things and do the right things that maybe people in Russia, in the final analysis, will decide to cut their losses and replace Putin with another leader. But that’s up for them to decide.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rolf, a couple of last questions here. And in our last few minutes – and this might be the toughest question of all – how do you think this thing ends?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: It is a tough question, Michael, and I probably – when we hopefully can look back on this in the not-so-distant future, we can see that I’m right – because I’m going to say I think Putin has started a war he cannot win. How long it takes is, in some sense, up to him because the Ukrainians should not be expected, and the West should not make any demands on Ukraine to settle, short of regaining its complete sovereignty.
And they should have their full sovereignty back, especially in light of the war crimes and Russian efforts that – even committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. And the West should not pressure Ukraine, as we kind of did, to accept the Minsk agreements, which in a way gave Russia a gateway to plan this invasion and take part of Ukrainian sovereignty away with the Minsk I and II accords.
I know that sounds harsh, but I think now that we’re here, we need to start assessing what we did and how it contributed to this war that Ukraine’s trying to fight.
The other part of it, though, is I think it’s already been a strategic defeat for Vladimir Putin. Why do I say that? First, because, can you imagine a scenario where he’s fighting a war in his own mind to regain influence back in Ukraine, fight the influence of NATO and the European Union, and Finland and Sweden want to join NATO? I didn’t imagine, I couldn’t imagine that.
I couldn’t imagine a scenario where several European countries, including Germany, which I think Russia was counting on to remain an energy partner no matter what, are looking long-term for independent energy sources other than relying on Russian oil and gas.
It’s been a disaster, will be an even bigger disaster over time for the Russian economy. The cost is probably incalculable. It’s hard to imagine, particularly if any of these escalatory scenarios we’ve talked about, Michael, happen- particularly something like nuclear or chemical weapons being used – that somehow Putin returns in favor in some sort as a normalized world leader. How is Russia represented after this war is over, unless Russia can find a way out of kind of reversing what’s happened up to this point?
So I think it is a strategic disaster for Russia in a way that it’s going to take Putin and the people who support him some time probably to recognize. And I’m just afraid before he recognizes it and takes steps to cut his losses, that he’s going to escalate to even higher – make it even more difficult to get out of this mess.
MICHAEL MORELL: In answering the first part of the question on how do you think this ends, are you saying that you believe that Ukraine can actually win militarily and drive the Russians out of Ukraine?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I’m not sure what winning militarily looks like, so I’m not sure that the Ukrainian army will reach a level of fighting ability to expel the Russians completely, militarily, from Ukraine. That doesn’t seem likely, particularly in eastern Ukraine and maybe even southern Ukraine.
But that’s not really the standard. The standard is, can they make the insurgency so painful – which has happened to countries like ours in my lifetime a few times – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – where they don’t want to stay and they suffer another Afghanistan-style defeat.
That’s possible – where they have to voluntarily leave. Unfortunately, that could take years.
I don’t see any signs that Ukraine won’t fight those years to find that acceptable outcome for them. Whereas the Russians have nothing to fight for. The Russian kids, the Russian soldiers have nothing to fight for.
They’re already struggling to replace hardware lost on the battlefield because of sanctions. And they can’t produce tanks and artillery pieces and and drones and things as fast as we’re supplying Ukraine.
So although the military balance of power is shifting in Ukraine’s favor, neither is it logical or does it look possible for Ukraine to actually militarily expel the Russian army from the country.
So I guess another hope for an ultimate outcome is to come to a negotiating table where there’s some sort of armistice or agreement that could be implemented in phases. And I don’t know what that looks like, frankly, Michael, but we’ve got to hope there can be some kind of a negotiation on the table that would be acceptable to Ukraine and Russia. I can’t see the outlines of that agreement right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, thanks so much for joining us. Again, this has been incredibly insightful.
And for our listeners, I just want to remind folks about two books that Rolf has published. The first is his memoir, ‘A State of Mind: Faith and the CIA,’ and the second is a satire about the spy games between CIA and the KGB called, ‘Vampires Rule!’
And Rolf, I’ll tell people that between the last time you were on Intelligence Matters and this taping that I’ve read ‘Vampires Rule!’ and it is it is so much fun. It really is.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Thank you.
MICHAEL MORELL: And people can get both of these books at Amazon. So, Rolf, thanks again for joining us. Really, really appreciate it.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Thank you, Michael. It’s been a pleasure.