It's now been more than two weeks since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Hundreds of people have been killed, including children. Cities have been destroyed. Millions of people are now refugees. And despite sanctions, ceasefire talks, and fierce resistance from the Ukrainians, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of backing down.
So how does this end? And what should the US be doing right now to stop the fighting? These are just some of the questions we asked retired three-star Army general H. R. McMaster this week. The former White House national security adviser is blunt. He says it's time for the White House to consider a no-fly zone and even US troops on the ground, and start communicating that to Putin ASAP. His main argument: "We've been captured a bit too much by the risk of action, and we have undervalued the risk of inaction and timidity."
[Here's a good explainer about what a no-fly zone actually is, and why the US has --so far-- rejected calls to implement one.]
McMaster tells me the US has portrayed weakness and almost "green lighted" the invasion through its early actions. He also discussed how Putin manipulated his former boss, President Trump, and other recent presidents. McMaster forecasts how far Putin might go, saying that he is essentially now telling several European countries: "who's your daddy?"
Before we get to the interview, here's a quick look at the latest developments on this 15th day of war...
Breaking News: U.S. Congressional leaders reached a deal early this morning to provide an additional $13.6 billion to help Ukraine and European allies.
Russian Oil Ban: President Biden announced a ban on Russian oil, natural gas and coal imports to the US, while acknowledging it could send gas prices even higher. Biden had been reluctant to ban Russian oil but has been under increasing pressure from Republicans, fellow Democrats and Ukraine's President. The U.S. imported about 672,000 barrels a day from Russia in 2021, accounting for roughly 8% of the total U.S. imports.
To make up for the Russian oil, the White House is looking to a few different nations that the US has had a challenging relationship of late. First: The U.S. hoped Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf rulers will up their production. No success so far. Second: Administration officials also traveled to Venezuela over the weekend for talks on potentially allowing that country to again sell its oil on the international market. The Venezuelans released a couple imprisoned Americans in what appears to be a goodwill gesture overnight. Third: The US is also negotiating a deal it hopes would prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons in exchange for dropping sanctions--including on the sale of their oil. But none of these moves come without risks and moral questions.
For now, the Europeans want no part of an energy ban. They receive around 40% of their gas via Russian pipelines.
In the Region: Vice President Kamala Harris is headed to Poland and Romania today to reassure allies in the region amid a dispute on how to send planes to Ukraine. That comes as NATO countries are playing a huge game of "not it" when it comes to flying fighter jets to Ukraine. The Soviet-era MiG fighter jets are currently in Poland. The Poles don't want to fly them over the border due to fears about Putin's reaction. On Tuesday they instead offered to fly them to Germany and have the Americans deliver them to Ukraine. But the US said they won't deliver them because they don't want to risk a Russian counter-attack. [Though, we should note the US and Europe are currently delivering other non-lethal aid to Ukraine.] Several Democrats and Republicans in Congress tweeted outrage at the line being drawn at planes.
Temporary Ceasefire: Russia announced a new ceasefire in certain Ukrainian cities on Wednesday in order to let civilians evacuate. Ukraine issued a brief response, saying in part, "It is difficult to trust the occupier." It comes after Russia has broken other "ceasefires" by shelling civilians trying to flee.
Zelensky as Churchill: The Ukrainian president issued an impassioned plea for help Tuesday in a remote address to the British parliament. "We will fight to the end," Zelensky said through an interpreter. "We will not give up and we will not lose. We will fight until the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost." His words echoed a speech U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered in June 1940, announcing his refusal to seek peace with Nazi Germany.
Putin Undeterred: In a Congressional hearing Tuesday, top US intelligence officials said despite military losses and sanctions, Putin could get even more reckless. "Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said. For his part, CIA Director Bill Burns added that Putin "has no sustainable political end game in the face of what's going to continue to be fierce resistance from the Ukrainians."
Refugees: Two million people (nearly 5% of the population) have fled Ukraine since the war began, the U.N.'s refugee agency said, as the exodus picks up pace.
Now to our conversation with retired Lt General H.R. McMaster. He served as national security adviser to President Trump from 2017-2018, where he had to manage the threat from Russia, among other global crises.
He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. McMaster spent 34 years as a commissioned officer in the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also holds a PhD in military history. You can follow him on Twitter at @LTGHRMcMaster.
**This edition and conversation would typically only be available to premium subscribers. However in light of the war in Ukraine, we're PAUSING our paywall and making our premium editions available for ALL subscribers. If you'd like to support our work, sign up for our premium content HERE.**
[We recorded this interview on Monday, March 7. The below conversation has been edited for time and clarity.]
Mosheh Oinounou: You spent time as National Security Adviser. If you're in the White House Situation Room right now, how are you advising the president to get this war to an end as quickly as possible?
H.R. McMaster: First of all, we have to make sure Russia fails in its effort to extinguish the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people, and to do so through just utter brutality. And the second really critical aspect...is to try to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. And of course, try to prevent escalation of the war to a broader war, and maybe even the prospect of nuclear war. So these objectives can be in tension with one another. But there's a lot that we can do if we focus on those objectives in particular. So I think, first of all, let's help the Ukrainians more. Let's do more to help them defend themselves, and in particular, to contest the air and the maritime domains. And this is what Russia is using, the control of those domains to bombard and commit mass murder against Ukrainian people. This is their playbook that they've exercised, whether it's Grozny in 1999, under Putin, or Aleppo, in Syria. And we can't allow them to bombard these cities and inflict these casualties.
So what can be done? More air defense capabilities. They're talking about MIG transfers, which is important. How about shorter ship missile capabilities? How about medium range air defense capabilities? How about demanding safe zones and humanitarian quarters? And so there's a lot more that can be done. I think we've been captured a bit too much by the risk of action. And we have undervalued the risk of inaction and timidity.
MO: You say we are captured by 'the risk of action', explain that.
HRM: Well, what does Putin do? I describe this in 'Battlegrounds'. This is his playbook. What he does is he pushes until he meets really strong, strong resistance. Well he's met strong resistance with the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the territorial forces and so forth. And now what he's doing is pushing in another direction, right? Committing mass murder in a deliberate way, by trying to rubble some of the greatest cities in Europe. What we have to do is...impose costs on him beyond those that he factored in at the outset of his of his decision making. When he's out of options, what Putin does is he threatens even more destructive action. So what does he have left? His army looks like a Potemkin army to me. They can't maneuver, they can't conduct close combat. So instead they're relying on just fires; artillery, rockets, bombs against civilians. And so what else does he threaten? He threatens cyber actions or nuclear war under this doctrine of 'escalate to de escalate' or escalation domination. Not that you want to take capricious actions that could lead to a broader and more destructive war, but hey, let's call him on it. And let's do everything we can right now.
MO: This is all short of putting US troops on the ground or implementing a no-fly zone. When do we consider those actions? Because it seems like Putin doesn't really care about the military aid and sanctions.
HRM: I think we have to consider it now, Mosh. It's not without risk. And I'm not saying that we have to do it immediately. But we have to consider it now. The estimates are that that Putin will murder one million people and create six million refugees. Are we just going to watch that and lament it, and send the Ukrainian people our deepest condolences? Now, I'm not suggesting that we're being inactive. We're doing as much as we can, I think now, to provide them with (not as much as we can, we're doing a lot, I should say, not enough) more defensive capabilities. Stinger missiles and anti-tank missiles and so forth.
MO: But you say we could be sending more of those?
HRM: We could be sending more of those, we could be sending additional weapons systems. So if we're going to backfill Polish MiGs for them to give the Ukrainians, why don't we backfill Polish T-72 tanks with Abrams tanks? The French and the Italians have a great medium range air defense system. Why don't we train Ukrainians on that and...give them to employ in western Ukraine for example? How about shore-to-ship missiles? Remember when the Iranians gave Hezbollah a shore-to-ship missile and they sunk an Israeli naval vessel? How come the Ukrainians don't have those capabilities? We have more sophisticated shore-to-ship missiles than the Iranians could get their hands on. So I mean, I think there's a lot more we could do to help the Ukrainian people protect themselves. And to prevent... the next episodes and mass murder that Putin is going to inflict on them.
MO: You're saying to consider a no-fly zone and US troops on the ground? When do those get triggered? When he actually enters Kyiv? And would we consider both troops on the ground and a no fly zone as far as you're concerned?
HRM: You have to weigh the costs and risks of all these actions. And so what this would entail is not a military action, a decision like this, in a vacuum. It would also include diplomatic measures. Giving Putin notice that this is what's going to happen. You're telling others who are aiding and abetting Russia, like the Chinese, that what Russia has done, is a lodestone around your neck and it's going to drag you down too, and here's what we're going to do next. And it's in your interest and in Russia's interest not to oppose it. And it being maybe a safe zone or safe quarters for refugees, again, to mitigate what is already a humanitarian catastrophe.
MO: Should the administration start to discuss or start threatening that they might do this within a matter of days? How urgent is the situation as far as you're concerned?
HRM: It's urgent now, right? There are over a million refugees already. And we've seen the harrowing scenes of Russia promising a ceasefire, and then attacking those who were fleeing besieged cities and murdering them. So I really think the time is now to have this conversation, to talk about the options, to make it clear to the Russians that this is maybe the next step. Now, we've done this before...What I can't understand is, why did we just run away? Why did we close our embassy? I know we would put some of our diplomats in a tough spot. Why did our advisors leave? Think about the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Tbilisi. We didn't withdraw our diplomats. We sent our Secretary of State to the capital city. And so I think that what we did early is portray weakness. We're responding, I think, much better now. We, being the United States and the free world, including Europe and UK and Japan and others, have really rallied in a way that I think has impressed the world and impressed Vladimir Putin as well. Putin expected division. What he got is unity. And so this is not all a bad picture, Mosh, but I'm saying, what we did in the beginning is we portrayed weakness in saying repeatedly, 'Here's what we're NOT going to do. And we're not going to do this. And we're not going to do that. And we're going to pull our forces out of the Black Sea.' It's almost like we green lighted the thing. So we're catching up from, I think, a portrayal of weakness and irresolution.
MO: Do you see Putin stopping short of a no-fly zone or short of NATO or US troops on the ground, given what you've witnessed for the first two weeks here?
HRM: No. I think that we are looking at a very high potential for a much broader war in Europe. So what's the best case for this right now that we can imagine? The withdrawal of all Russian troops, maybe to the portions of Donetsk... they occupied previously in Crimea. But you know, Russia would still have Ukraine under its thumb, right? Russia would not stop its aggression. Look what it's done across Europe. It's already occupied Belarus, essentially. It's weaponized migrants on the Polish border. It's encouraging Serbian separatism to rekindle the horrible ethnic violence in the Balkans. It's enabling the serial episodes of mass homicide, which is the Syrian civil war, right? I mean, the list goes on. And so Vladimir Putin, I think, has demonstrated his permanent kind of hostility to the west. And this is a man, people say, is irrational. He's obsessed with restoring Russia to national greatness. And that's in response to his really deep sense of honor lost associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union. And his number one priority is to reestablish Russian influence over the former territories of the Soviet Union. And he's acting on that, and I think he will act on that, until his demise. And hopefully it is a demise, brought about by the Russian people who have said, 'Hey, we can no longer afford this guy.' Russia's economy is destroyed. And Russia is now a pariah in the world. And how long does that go on?
MO: This scenario you lay out -- How do we prevent World War III? In a scenario where we have a no-fly zone we might have to shoot down a Russian jet, or vice versa. How does the world stop Russia without armageddon?
HRM: The key thing is, we're all riding right now on the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian people have inflicted tremendous losses on the Russians far beyond what they anticipated. All of Putin's assumptions were wrong. So now, I mean, confronting him with that reality. 'All of your assumptions were wrong, your assumptions about how easy would be for you to take over Ukraine, and your assumptions about the resolution and unity of the West, were wrong. Now, hey, you're living in a different world, Mr. Putin, and here's your only way out.' We need to give them a way out, but it's got to be a tough way out.
As a historian I hate to use facile analogies. But does this not look like 1939 to you? Doesn't our aiding and abetting Putin for so long, portraying weakness to him, look like 1938. And Neville Chamberlain coming back with 'peace in our time.' And look at all the false flag efforts and the the false pretense for the invasion of Ukraine. That looks like Poland 1939 to me... And so there's a risk of inaction too. And I think we have to be cognizant of that as well.
MO: In your book [Battlegrounds] you say Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump engaged in wishful thinking that they can make Putin nice. Are there lessons from the last 20 years that can be applied now? Obviously we're in a hot war situation now. But what are the lessons from the last three administrations?
HRM: Well, I think it revolves around the term I use in 'Battlegrounds' called "strategic narcissism." We tend to define the world only in its relation to us and assume that what we're going to do is decisive toward achieving a favorable outcome. So look at how the Biden administration dealt with this problem set to begin with. In August of last year, after our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan following a surrender to a terrorist organization, Putin concluded, 'You know what, America's weak, the West is weak, right?' And looks at what's happening internally to our country, the racial and political divisions, and our tendency towards self flagellation here in America.... and said, 'They're not going to do anything.' So it was in August that he published his 6000 word essay about Ukraine. That's when he decided to invade. What do we do after that? We didn't accelerate arms deliveries analogous to the 1973 airlift to Israel, when Israel was besieged by the Arab coalition. We withdrew our naval forces from the Black Sea. We thought, if we just show to Putin that we're not hostile, then he'll recognize that we could pose no threat to him, and therefore, he will not invade Ukraine. But we fundamentally misunderstood his motivation. And this is what I tried to describe the book where...he's a driven man. And he's determined to restore Russia to national greatness by dragging everybody else down. And this is what we're seeing him execute. So we have to shake the strategic narcissism, we have to view the world from Putin's perspective, and act accordingly.
MO: You were in the Trump White House. Are there things that the last White House did, and the former president did, that empowered Putin to be doing what he's doing today?
HRM: President Trump himself gave Putin space. Because he held out this prospect that Putin's just misunderstood: 'I can get a good deal with him. Wouldn't it be great if we have a great relationship?' And as I write about, this was not unique. It was the Obama administration that had the reset policy. It was George W. Bush who looked into his soul, right? And so Putin is a master at manipulation. And he manipulated Donald Trump, and he manipulated America, because the Democrats fell into this trap as well by claiming that Russia threw the election. Russia doesn't give a damn who wins our elections, as long as a large number of Americans doubt the legitimacy of the result. Because what they want to do is create a crisis of confidence, where we lose faith in who we are as a people.
That's why 80% of Russian bot and troll traffic is on issues of race, and a distant second is immigration. And distant third is gun control. Divide us on what we might be divided on already. And they want to reduce our confidence and our democratic principles, and institutions and processes. So, hey, one of the one of the ways to counter Putin's playbook is to stop being chumps; to stop compromising our principles to score partisan political points. And I think we need to demand that from all of our political leaders. So I'm not a partisan person, I want the Biden administration to win in this competition with Russia, we all should. We should all give them our support, and what whereas we can criticize and suggest from the outside, we have to recognize...we are on the right side of history in America. We ought to take pride in what we enjoy. Look at your colleagues in Russia now, what journalists have endured: murder, intimidation, imprisonment, right? Hey, we have freedom of speech. We have freedom of the press, we have due process of law. We have a say in how we're governed. We ought to take a minute in the midst of this crisis to celebrate that.
MO: If Putin isn't stopped in Ukraine, if Kyiv falls, if Zelensky falls, where does Putin look next?
HRM: He's already looking next. He's already occupied Belarus, he's already threatening Poland. He began his massive campaign of intimidation against the Baltic states in 2007 with massive cyber attacks, and he continues that with these big Zapad exercises on their flanks, but I think Putin has to fail in Ukraine, because this really is the frontier between democracy and authoritarianism.
MO: You feel he could be empowered to go after a NATO country?
HRM: Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. And I think that is a real risk. What is he doing now? He's trying to turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake. And what is his message right now to Romania and Bulgaria, right to, you know, to two NATO members. The message is, "Who's your daddy?... bandwagon with me or you're next on the chopping block." And, and this is another reason why he has to fail...primarily for the fate of the Ukrainian people. But also for the fate of the free world.
MO: So I'd like to end with hope here...
HRM: Hey, I mean, the hope is, Putin's failing. In fact, he's failed already. If his objective was to control all of Ukraine, he will never be able to accomplish that. And the sooner he comes to terms for that, the better it is for him, but especially the Ukrainian people. Of course, the sad part of this is who's bearing the brunt of this. It's the innocent Ukrainians. But Putin has already failed.
A big thank you to Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster for taking the time to talk with us. His book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, has new text from McMaster addressing the January 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. You can also follow him on Twitter at @LTGHRMcMaster. Also a special thanks to all of you who submitted your questions via email for our interview. I used several of them.
[Top Banner Photo Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]