This is a special edition of the Mo News newsletter, with the latest on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We also have an interview with the former acting CIA Director about what to expect next. The situation is developing quickly. Here's what we know as of 7amET:
Explosions took place in a number of Ukrainian cities overnight, including in the capital of Kyiv, as Russia launched strikes around 4am local time. Ukraine's foreign minister says Russia launched a "full scale invasion" from the south, west and north--including from neighboring Belarus. It is the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II. At least 40 Ukrainians have been killed so far and dozens more have been wounded, according to officials. While the initial Russian concern was about a breakaway region in eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin appeared to begin an invasion of the entire country. (AP)
Putin addressed his nation before dawn to announce that Russia was conducting a military operation, after spending the last two months saying he had no plans to invade and ridiculing anyone who said he would. He blamed NATO, called Ukraine's democratic government a "junta" and said he is hunting for Nazis. Putin also ominously warned that any country who tried to interfere with the Russian action would suffer “consequences they have never seen," a reminder of his nuclear arsenal. (AXIOS)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia is on a "path of evil," cut diplomatic ties with Moscow and declared martial law overnight. Major traffic jams were seen around the country as thousands of Ukrainians appeared to be evacuating Kyiv and other major cities to head west.
"As you attack, it will be our faces you see, not our backs,” Zelensky added, despite the fact that Russians have an overwhelming military advantage over Ukraine. The US and NATO have provided significant weapons and training to his forces through the years, but do not plan to send in troops to assist Zelensky.
President Joe Biden is meeting with members of the G7 countries this morning. [Note: It was the G8 until 2014, when Russia was booted for their last invasion of Ukraine.] Biden will address the nation at 12pmET. Last night he condemned Russia's attack, saying “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering."
Economic impact: Stock market futures took a plunge overnight and it looks to be a rough day on Wall Street and for global markets. The cost of oil broke above $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014. The impact on energy prices could be most significant. Russia produces 17% of the world's natural gas and 12% of its oil. (CNBC)
What's Next: The US and allies have already issued minor sanctions on Russia’s banks and oligarchs, but look for additional, much harsher economic penalties now that a full invasion has taken place. The only question is how far will the west go to cripple Putin's economy given that some sanctions will also have a domino effect on the West? (NY TIMES)
Earlier this week, we spoke to former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell to get a better sense of why Putin is doing this, how far he will go, how long Ukraine can hold on and the impact this will have on Americans.
In his more than three decades at the agency, Morell worked directly with several US presidents and managed the the CIA's relationship with world leaders. Notably, he was the only person who was with both President Bush on 9/11 and President Obama on May 1, 2011, when Bin Laden was brought to justice. He also spent a career deciphering Putin and the Kremlin. Morell now hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast taking listeners inside the spy world.
In a fascinating conversation, he breaks down Putin's philosophy & strategy, how a war will impact Americans here at home and how decisions are made inside the White House Situation Room.
**This content was part of our special Wednesday premium edition for paid subscribers, but we're making it available to everyone this morning given the developments. It really is helpful in understanding the situation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full conversation is available via the Youtube link below. We spoke with Morell on Monday evening just after Putin approved sending his troops inside Ukraine.**
Question: What do you make of Monday's developments, the rebel groups declaring independence asking for Russian military support and recognition?
Michael Morell: What happened...without a doubt, was designed to give him the pretense, right to invade Ukraine. So now he can, with some legitimacy, not much, but some legitimacy, move his forces into the two breakaway provinces and say, 'we've been invited in.' That will incur a Ukrainian response. Then war has begun...and then he can do a full invasion. My guess, Mosh, is that he will go all the way to Kyiv, with the goal of replacing the government in Kyiv with one that has Russian interests first and foremost in mind.
Take us inside Vladimir Putin’s mind from your experience, without sharing anything classified. What did you learn about him during your time at CIA and how does that inform what's happening now?
MM: [Former CIA Director] Bob Gates, I think, put it best. He said, “When you look in Putin's eyes, you see KGB, KGB, KGB.” Putin is a thug. He’s a bully. He only respects relative power. He doesn't believe in a win-win negotiation. Every businessman on the planet believes it's possible to sit down and have a negotiation and end up with a win-win. He doesn't believe that. He only believes in win-lose. Most human beings are risk averse, he's risk prone. He's a particularly dangerous risk taker in that when he takes a risk and succeeds...often willing to take even a bigger risk. So one of the concerns we should have here is that if he invades, and if he successfully changes the government in Ukraine to a government that ends democracy there and fully aligns itself with Russia going forward and quashes dissent in the streets of Kyiv. His personality is such that maybe he tries to take a bigger risk. Maybe he tries to do this with the Baltics [Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia].
Even though the Baltic countries are members of NATO military alliance?
MM: Because of this risk taking behavior, yes, that would be a huge mistake. We’re not willing to go to war over Ukraine, we've made that clear. But I'm pretty sure the French, the Brits and the Americans would be willing to go to war over the Baltics. There is a concern here that he sort of gets high on success and makes a mistake.
What does that mean for how the US manages this crisis? Can the US effectively sit on the sidelines and watch a full invasion of Ukraine take place?
MM: We've made it clear that we're not going to engage militarily. We are not going to help the Ukrainians fight the Russians here, besides the weapons that we've already provided... Our response will be very harsh sanctions. And they're going to hurt all of us. They're going to drive oil prices up, they're going to drive wheat prices up, they're going to drive the price of some pretty important minerals and materials that are sourced out of Russia. This is very different from putting harsh sanctions on North Korea or Iran, who are not connected to the world economy in the way that Russia is. But the only way we're going to deter Putin from doing this elsewhere, say the Baltics, is going to be to impose significant pain on him.
It sounds like Putin found a way, in his mind, to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Should other countries be worried that Putin learned a lesson here? What is Putin’s ultimate goal?
MM: I think it's really important to understand why he's doing this. It's part of the job of an intelligence officer to tell your leader how the other guy's thinking. First, the Russians have always wanted control over, or significant influence in, all of the countries that surround them. They see that as the way to defend Russia. It’s important to remember that Russia has probably been invaded more than any country in history. They were invaded by the Mongols, they were invaded by the Swedes, they were invaded by the Finns, the Poles, the French and by the Germans twice. They were invaded in 1918 by the UK and the United States who were trying to overthrow the Communist takeover. So they have that in their history... their genes. The way they've always thought about defending themselves is pushing out...creating space. That is why NATO on their borders is so alarming to them.
Second, Ukraine is special. Ukraine used to be part of Russia. The capital of the original Russian state included Ukraine, the capital of the original Russian state [from the years 882-1240] was Kyiv. Ukrainians are Slavs, Russians are Slavs, and to some extent they see each other as brothers. Putin often refers to Ukraine as 'not a country,' because it used to be part of Russia. That's what he is saying. And, and so Ukraine's special. All those countries matter, Ukraine matters more.
Putin has always feared that what happens in Ukraine can become a precedent for Russians. So the reason he reacted as strongly as he did in 2014, was he was afraid that what was happening in the streets of Kyiv, which is people rising up and saying, 'we want a different future, we want to look west for our future.' Putin didn't want that to become a precedent for his own people to come out into the streets and say the same thing.
[Background: Ukrainians demonstrated and ousted their pro-Russian leader in 2014, instead demanding a closer relationship with Europe. Putin subsequently annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine and supported insurgencies in the eastern region of the country]
As far as you're concerned, does this war stay confined within the borders of Ukraine?
MM: Yes, unless there's major mistakes made by either side.
Given the history, was this invasion of Ukraine inevitable?
MM: No, I think the West made two mistakes. The first was the expansion of NATO to Russia's borders. It was absolutely a mistake, given the Russian history and the way they think about their national security. We should have respected his need for space. The other mistake we made was in 2014...when [Putin] invaded Ukraine and grabbed Crimea– the first land grab in Europe since World War II– and we reacted with fairly minor sanctions. Putin saw that as a slap on the wrist. It really sent a message to him that he could grab territory and get away from it.
How’s the Biden Administration doing so far in managing this crisis? Over the last few weeks we’ve watched as they publicized what feels like every single intelligence detail we're getting--Russia is going to invade at this time, etcetera--did that poke the bear, so to speak?
MM: I think the Biden administration has handled this exceptionally well, after not handling Afghanistan well at all. The use of intelligence, which is really unprecedented, has kept Putin off balance. The US would really get hurt here under two different circumstances. One is, we’d lose significant credibility in the world if we walked away from Ukraine. If, for example, we said Ukraine is never welcome to join NATO.
And then the other way we would lose, Mosh, is if he invades and we don't follow through with these sanctions... another massive loss of credibility. So our job now is to impose the sanctions to make clear to other people in the world that you can't do this and get away with it without significant pain. I'm confident that the Biden administration will do that. And then their job is to get as many countries as possible to join us. And that becomes a diplomatic mission. And, you know, we'll see which countries are willing to do it and which countries, you know, kind of blink. I imagine there will be some countries in Europe, who will try to have it both ways, who will try to have enough sanctions to placate the United States, and not enough sanctions to actually put real pain on Putin so that he they don't anger him.
What kind of sanctions actually hurt Putin?
I think he cares about two types of sanctions. One is sanctions that hit his economy broadly. These authoritarian leaders, their biggest fear is their own people. Very interesting, right? One of his biggest fears is his own people coming out into the streets of Moscow, and saying, 'We don't like the direction our country is going, we want a greater say in how we're governed, and we want you to go away.' So sanctions that hit the Russian economy broadly. Many [Russians] will see this as his responsibility.
The others are sanctions that really bite the oligarchs who support him. Them not being able to get to London and Paris and the places they like to hang out, and then not being able to get to the money that they've stashed overseas. That kind of pain on them creates a vulnerability, because he relies on them for staying in power.
Why should the average American care about what is taking place between Russia and Ukraine?
MM: To the extent that countries can do this to their neighbors and get away with it, it creates a much more unstable world. We’re already kind of in that world. That's how [Putin] got away with invading Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. It's how Yemen can get away with sending missiles into Saudi Arabia, and now missiles and drones into the United Arab Emirates. It’s how Turkey can get away with invading Syria. The world's a more unstable place now, and that's not good for investment and economic growth.
I’ve received a lot of messages from regular Americans who are following this crisis and genuinely worried about what this means for us here in the United States, particularly with talk of nuclear weapons. What do we need to know?
The two biggest impacts on Americans are going to be the price of gasoline and probably a significant increase in Russian cyber attacks on Americans. I don't expect Russian government cyber attacks on our critical infrastructure, because they know that's a red line, that's mutually assured destruction.
One of the things I think the Biden administration needs to do... is really talk to the American public about, about why this is important. Why is it important to stand up to what Putin is doing with sanctions and why the sacrifices that they're going to make Americans are going to make in terms of paying more for gas, for example, is important.
So basically don't bring down our internet, don't bring down our power plants?
Because we can do the same thing to you. But I do expect a significant increase in ransomware attacks that don't target a specific sector, but just target whatever they can get inside of.
What about Ukrainians? How bad can this potential war get in terms of lives lost? Can Ukraine hold Kyiv?
MM: The Ukrainians have enough weapons to bloody the Russians. They have enough weapons to make this painful, but they don't have the capability of stopping it. I imagine that if Putin's goal is to conduct a pincer movement, essentially [surrounding] Kyiv with troops from the east, north and south...and Putin does have the troops he needs to do that, he'll be outside the gates of Kyiv in three, four or five days.
Any lessons the Chinese or other potential adversaries are taking away from this entire experience? Are there lessons the Chinese can apply to Taiwan, for instance, by what they're watching Putin do in Ukraine?
MM: Our adversaries are watching this. The neutral countries are watching this, and our allies are watching this. Everybody's watching this for what happens, and what the American response is. And people will either take away that America is going to stand up for what it says is important. Or America's not. And we either gain credibility by putting massive sanctions on Russia, or we blink a little bit. And to the extent we lose credibility, it encourages our adversaries. It forces our allies to have to hedge, forces our allies in Asia to have to hedge vis-a-vis China; forces our allies in Europe to have to hedge vis-a-vis Russia in terms of their foreign relations; and the same in the Middle East with regard to Iran. So the loss of credibility here has impacts across the board. And gaining credibility has just the opposite effect.
Can you take us inside what’s likely been happening in the White House Situation Room over the past few weeks? How are decisions being made inside the White House right now?
MM: I would imagine there are multiple, what are called, deputies meetings each day with the “number twos” in all the national security agencies. That's the group I was on when I was Deputy Director of the CIA. One key piece right now is diplomacy. What are the current diplomatic doors that are open? Are there other diplomatic doors we can open? What are all the possibilities here to defuse this and end it diplomatically without giving up Ukraine?
Another set of discussions is around exactly how we respond. What does our sanctions package look like? What happens to American firms? When we put massive sanctions on North Korea and Iran, there weren't a lot of American companies doing business in either of those places. There's hundreds, if not thousands, of American companies doing business in Russia. But what happens to those companies? The other part of the sanctions discussion is convincing other countries to join us.
I imagine there's also a whole set of discussions about how to avoid an escalation. How do we avoid war in Ukraine from spreading in that part of the world? Or how do we avoid what Putin threatened two months ago— putting Russian nuclear weapons in the Western Hemisphere, in response to US sanctions. How do we avoid escalation here between the United States and Russia, because that's in nobody's interest. So I imagine the deputies are talking about all of that.
And then there's maybe, once a day, once every other day, what's called a principals meeting, which are cabinet level officials from the national security agencies, meeting both alone and then with the President, to kind of look at the work being done at the deputies level. And, you know, make sure they're happy with it and make the decisions that have to be made.
A big thank you to Mike Morell for his time and insight. Again, for our full conversation, check out the video link above. And for more on this crisis and other complex global security events, check out Morell's Intelligence Matters podcast.
[Banner Photo Credit: Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]