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Thursday, May 23, 2024

“Willing to kill”: CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Putin, Trump and the threat of world war

Politics"Willing to kill": CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Putin, Trump and the threat of world war

CNN national security analyst Jim Sciutto showed up at Salon’s New York studio by himself, fresh off the train from Washington. He’s a genial, athletic fellow in a nicely tailored gray suit, virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of other powerful white men walking the streets of Manhattan on a given morning.

But Sciutto is in a class of his own as a well-connected reporter on foreign policy and military affairs, and his deliberately terrifying new book, “The Return of Great Powers: Russia, China and the Next World War,” contains a number of headline-worthy revelations, from former White House chief of staff John Kelly’s scathing comments about Donald Trump to a detailed discussion of the period in 2022 when it seemed distinctly possible — at least according to Sciutto’s sources — that Vladimir Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. 

This isn’t the time and place for a book review. Let’s acknowledge that Sciutto has “done the work,” as he puts it, with 20-odd years of reporting experience and deep connections with officials on both sides of the Atlantic. He was in Kyiv when Russian tanks rolled across the border two years ago, and he’s spent considerable time in Taiwan talking to those who face the possibility of Chinese invasion. Let’s also acknowledge that Sciutto’s views strike me as “hawkish,” in the sense that he believes future war between the U.S. and either Russia or China is somewhat more likely than not, and also that Sciutto appears to have no answer for the threat to the Biden administration’s vaunted “rules-based order” posed, on the one hand, by unflinching U.S. support for Israel and on the other by Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House. This transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your new book is called “The Return of Great Powers: Russia, China and the Next World War,” a title that may scare the crap out of people. The term “great powers is one that we associate not just with the last century, but the early part of that century, like World War I. You’re deliberately doing a callback here.

Because I believe that this relative period of peace that we’ve enjoyed, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, that 30-year period is over and we were back to open competition, and in some places conflict, with great power tactics. The gloves are off, and the signs of this have been there for some time. Putin already was slicing off pieces of European countries, in Georgia and Ukraine in 2014 and elsewhere. China was making a big land grab in the South China Sea. When I was in Ukraine in February 2022, as the tanks rolled across the border and the first cruise missiles started falling on Kyiv, it struck me that he had just started the biggest land war in Europe since World War II. All bets were off. That period is done. 

We are back to this period of bald-faced competition on multiple fronts, not just in terms of land grabs like Ukraine or the threat to Taiwan, but also open cyber-warfare, the weaponization of space, extrajudicial killings around the world. Again, things that seem from another time are now very present, with the ingredients of an open great-power conflict. We’re not there, and I spend a good deal of the book talking about ways to avoid getting there, but this is meant as a warning that we have the ingredients for that. We have to be aware of it, and we have to find ways to avoid the worst outcomes.

I think that people on all sides would probably agree that one of the ways to interpret what you just said is that the era of a unipolar world, where the United States was the dominant superpower, is over. We have to deal with that. So the big questions are, what changed that caused that era to end? And was that a good thing or a bad thing? 

“It’s a new Cold War, but a more dangerous one because you have more players and more adversaries.”

Well, one of the danger points is that it’s not just a bipolar world, with the U.S. and the old Soviet Union, it is now a tripolar world where you have the U.S., Russia and China, and then a whole host of middle powers that are playing the game in different ways. You see increasingly Iran and North Korea allied with Russia, supplying arms to them in Ukraine. You see Russia supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So you have those other layers, but big picture, there are three powers competing, with two of them, Russia and China, aligned in many ways, with this “no-limits partnership” that they’ve advertised. It’s a new Cold War, but a more dangerous one because you have more players and more adversaries. 

In addition to the loss of that brief period where the U.S. was the world’s lone superpower, there’s a longer period going back to the last Cold War where we became used to a rules-based international order. I know that becomes a wonky term that has taken on partisan overtones in this country. because it’s called globalist by people on the right. But the fact is it largely helped to keep the world from going to war, going back to World War II, with a general recognition of the sovereignty of nations, a general recognition of borders. You can’t just invade Poland and say, “What are you going to do about it?” That’s why I feel, and I felt this as I was sitting in Ukraine two years ago, that it really is a 1939 moment. It’s a big change. You have, in Putin and Xi Jinping, two leaders who want to change the status quo. They see the status quo is not in their interest, and it’s a test for us. How do we respond? Do we accommodate, do we appease? What are the dangers of appeasement?

Isn’t there a danger in citing a direct parallel with 1939? Because every situation is different. I’m not going to say anything in defense of Vladimir Putin bu,t I don’t see the evidence that he has Hitler-style ambitions to conquer the entirety of Europe. That’s not realistic, among other things.

So it’s interesting. I had a chat about this last night with a friend of mine, Ryan Lizza at Politico, because he was making the point that Hitler comparisons can become overdone. It’s not the first time folks have said, “Oh, this guy is like Hitler.” You go back to Saddam Hussein, Kuwait. 

Let me make the case. I’m not saying he’s equivalent. There has been no Holocaust, right? He has been guilty of enormous crimes against civilians. We’ve seen it in his own country and in Ukraine, but no, he’s not Hitler in that sense. But in terms of his territorial ambitions, there are parallels. No, he does not want to take over all of Europe, but he certainly wants to restore the old Mother Russia, and if not absolutely take the territory, at least reestablish his sphere of influence over the old Soviet states.

That clearly includes Ukraine because, as he says, “It’s not even a country. It’s part of Russia.” Ask the 40 million Ukrainians. They think differently, and have made repeated decisions in elections to show they think differently. But it’s not just them. The way he talks about the Baltic states is very similar, and that’s a big problem because they’re NATO allies. The way he now talks about Transnistria, this little sliver of Moldova that no one ever heard about, except that’s his next attempt to pull it back in. It doesn’t go all the way to Normandy, Hitler-style, but he’s willing to roll tanks across the border to redraw the borders of Europe, which does have parallels with Hitler, and he is willing to kill a lot of people to achieve those aims.

You have spent time in Estonia, which is one of the Baltic states you just mentioned. By your account, Estonian authorities appear convinced of the argument that you just laid out, that Putin has territorial ambitions that include their tiny country, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Not long ago.

But that opinion is not widely shared by NATO and the U.S.

Well, I would say not unanimously shared, but I wouldn’t say it’s a minority report. So what I noticed traveling Europe — I love the Estonians, and I think we should all have enormous respect for them. You have a difference in Europe between east and west, in that the eastern-facing allies are more nervous about Russian ambitions. Partly because they’re closer, partly because they believe they could be the next targets, and partly because they have extremely recent experience of living under Russia. Estonia got its independence in 1991. That’s like a minute ago, for you and me.

“You have in Putin and Xi two leaders who want to change the status quo. They see the status quo is not in their interest, and it’s a test for us. How do we respond?”

I spoke to the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas. She’s tough, she’s educated, she’s trying to find the way forward. She grew up under the Soviet Union. Her parents suffered under the Soviet Union. These are not distant memories. You don’t have to go back to your grandparents to have real experience. There is less alarm the further you move west, but that’s not entirely clear-cut because the Brits are very alarmed about where Russia’s going. That’s why they’ve been forward-leaning in terms of their weapons supplies to Ukraine. So yes, I would agree with you that there is some disagreement as to how far Russia will go. For instance, would they attack a NATO ally? Antony Blinken says, “I doubt it.” Kaja Kallas says, “Don’t doubt it.” The question is, what do you do to prevent that even being a possibility? Do you cede Ukraine or do you say, “We’re not going to let that stand?”

Well, let’s get to that. You provide one of the better histories of the Ukraine war that I’ve read in terms of the back-and-forth, from the Russian invasion to the big Ukrainian pushback to where we have arrived at this moment, two-plus years in, at an apparent stalemate. Let’s be fair: The Ukrainian counterattack of 2023 did not work. The two sides are stuck. Russia controls roughly 18% to 20% of what was formerly Ukrainian territory. Neither side can accomplish what they previously defined as victory, and I don’t think that’s even controversial. So what outcome can end this conflict, given that Putin’s not going to conquer Kyiv and the Ukrainians are not getting back 100% of the territory they’ve lost since 2014?

Probably not. That is something you won’t hear Zelenskyy say. It’s interesting, we talk about political pressure here, say, over the debate over Ukraine aid. “Will Trump send a bad tweet about me if I vote for Ukraine aid?” Whatever. Zelenskyy’s political pressure is tens of thousands of mothers who lost their sons and daughters fighting the Russian invasion. So if he’s going to cede territory, he’s got to go to them and explain why he’s giving it up after asking their children to die to defend their land. That’s an enormous amount of understandable political pressure on any deal. The other piece for the Ukrainians is that they don’t trust Putin. Who would, right? He’s made repeated agreements that he’s broken. So if you come to a deal and say, “OK, that 18%, we’re not going to get it back. Let’s draw a line of control, with security guarantees from Europe,” etc. Their view is, well, Putin takes two years and then he comes back again. Understandable.

So in that view, it’s like giving Hitler the Sudetenland.

Exactly. So that’s what stands against the simple solution: Just give him some land and everything will be fine. To your point, particularly with Crimea, which Russia views as a strategic interest to it because it’s their warm-water port on the Black Sea, the likelihood of them giving that up, either by agreement or through war, is low. So how do you square that circle? That’s the difficulty, right? But going into it, you have to understand Ukraine’s point of view, and that’s why security guarantees will be part of it. 

I talked to Gen. Mark Milley for this book. He says outright, and a lot of NATO leaders will not say this, that Ukraine is probably not going to be a NATO nation. There will be some security guarantee. People mention an Israel equivalent, a model where there’s a security guarantee, but not a mutual defense agreement. Milley asked: “Can NATO truly make a commitment to go to war with Russia if they violate any of these agreements?” So you begin to hear private discussion of what the outlines might be: Some land, a security guarantee just short of NATO, but a real one that counteracts Russia’s lack of sincerity or credibility on any deal. But we’re not there yet, from what I can tell. Certainly when I go to Ukraine, there’s very little appetite there for that kind of concession.

In attempting to understand Vladimir Putin’s point of view here, it always depends on which parts of history you think are most important. I don’t dispute your point that we’ve got a nation now which is called Ukraine and has clearly expressed the desire to be autonomous and independent. But Putin’s argument that, up to the time of Khrushchev, Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine was basically part of Russia and got folded into Ukraine under the Soviet Union, that’s true, right? I’m not saying that should determine what happens now, but from Putin’s point of view there are historical factors that he thinks trump the modern, liberal-democratic notion of what a nation is.

Listen, the trouble is, that’s true of every European nation as it’s drawn today. And if the way to solve that is to roll tanks across the border, we’ve got a problem. Just listen to the way Xi Jinping makes his argument for Taiwan or even for the South China Sea. These guys are always working with maps. There are always maps to justify their point of view. If they don’t get what they want, they roll tanks across the border. That solution can’t work because then you just set yourself up for the next land grab. Now in recent history, where you’ve settled disagreements over land, there’s always been some sort of compromise. 

“Everybody I talked to for this book in Europe, in Asia and on Capitol Hill believes that China is watching how the world deals with Ukraine, because that enters into their calculus as to how they deal with Taiwan.”

If you look at the Good Friday agreements, if you look at attempts to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict, there’s always land concessions at some point. The point is, can you get to one that disincentivizes the next land grab by force, or makes them think they can’t get away with it? To date, we haven’t figured that out. Putin’s calculation is, I can get away with it because I got away with it in Georgia. I got away with it in Ukraine in 2014, and I may just get away with it again this time. Everybody I talked to for this book in Europe, in Asia and on Capitol Hill believes that China is watching how the world deals with Ukraine, because that enters into their calculus as to how they deal with Taiwan.

Precedent matters, and not just because it’s right to stand up for sovereign nations or because the Ukrainian people have chosen this as their path, or because the Taiwanese people have chosen the status quo. It’s because we depend on and benefit from a world where that is not the way you play the game. That’s why we can travel and do business in Europe and in Asia and have all the goods that we buy travel through these shipping lanes and so on. It’s because that system has largely held, and this threatens that system.

OK, sure. But Ukraine’s not getting Crimea back, are they?

I’m not going to make that decision, but I hear you. Personally, I don’t see a world where Russia gives that up. From a military perspective, I don’t see — and I’ve been talking to military folks in the U.S. and Europe for some time — a credible military option for Ukraine to do that successfully. So that points in the direction of some sort of settlement.

I do want to talk about one of the biggest challenges to the “rules-based order,” which you obviously had to fold into this book at the last minute. Everything feels different in the aftermath of Oct. 7. First of all, we had, the atrocious Hamas attack in Israel. And then we have had the invasion of Gaza, with at least 30,000 dead, millions driven from their homes, the threat of mass starvation. That has outraged most of the world and turned world opinion sharply against Israel and against U.S. support of Israel. How much does that undermine American credibility and international standing?

It’s a big one. I found myself in northern Israel in October or November, thinking about this very question, big picture, but also how this competition fit into that conflict. It presented itself to me, as I mentioned earlier, because Russia immediately got in it. It was already involved up in Syria, but they look for opportunities to upset and destroy and cause havoc, and this is a perfect way to do it. The U.S. is on Israel’s side: Hey, let’s keep the pressure on them. How about we send a S-300 system to Hezbollah to increase the cost for Israel if it were to attack southern Lebanon? How do I make that war worse? This is Putin’s extremely cynical thinking.

Which does not require him to openly take the side of Hamas.

Not at all. Quietly, he sent it through the Wagner Group, a nice little cut out, get it there. “I can stoke the flames a little bit.” So it”s one more front of this great-power conflict. But in terms of U.S. exercise of power, yes, it’s a test. Remember, early on Biden’s plan was to go to Israel and to Amman [Jordan]. In the immediate aftermath he went to Israel, and then he was no longer welcome in Amman. That’s when there was the hospital attack, initially blamed on Israel, and from there it was all downhill because whatever push our closest Arab allies gave the Biden administration, and to what degree they pressured Israel to have more respect for civilian lives and humanitarian needs, it was not enough.

We’re seeing it play out. The death toll is just horrendous, and you’re air-dropping food now, just to feed children who are starving. So it is a blow, right? Because one, it’s not clear that Israel is winning that war, at least by its own definition of success, which was to eliminate Hamas. And two, the U.S. has alienated some of its closest allies in the region. And it’s not like Russia or China has done any better, right? They haven’t. But they love to sit back and watch when the U.S. stumbles.

Just to mention one of your competitors in the national security space, a few weeks ago Tom Friedman of the New York Times floated the idea of a “Biden doctrine,” a grand plan that was going to bring the Saudis and Israelis together and create the a framework for a Palestinian state. That’s out the window, as far as I can see, less than a month later. What off-ramp is there for anybody in this conflict?

Listen, I’ve been going there for 20 years, and it seems the outlines have been there for some time. You go back to some agreement where there are land concessions that give both sides the possibility of… And I know that in Israel, most people I speak with have lost faith in the possibility of a two-state solution.

Many Palestinians also.

One hundred percent, understandably. Some of them even calculate it might be better to be a voice inside one state. There are a whole host of calculations there. But the outlines have been there for years. It’s just that neither party has been willing to make those concessions, or they have leaders who calculate they can get everything. Or leaders, when you look at Hamas, who calculate that an endless state of war serves their interests. 

My personal theory of this is that if you look at — again, these are not equivalent conflicts, but they have some parallels — if you look at South Africa or Northern Ireland situation, it requires two peacemakers. It requires a revolutionary willing to put down their arms, and it requires a dominant power calculating that they can’t win by force of arms and therefore willing to make concessions. You plug in your variables there, de Klerk and Mandela, Britain and the IRA and Sinn Féin. We haven’t seen those outlines formed. Yitzhak Rabin might’ve been that guy, right? Yasser Arafat had a chance and turned it down, right? It’s not clear who has the leadership. God knows it won’t be Hamas because Hamas has no interest in that kind of deal, and it doesn’t seem like Netanyahu does either.

It’s irresistible to ask you about Donald Trump. Because you write about him a fair bit in this book, and in general you’re not a political commentator. You spoke to John Bolton and John Kelly, who both worked for Trump. You spoke to Mark Milley and Antony Blinken. You’ve got Republicans, Democrats, folks who are neither or in between. But you do express particular misgivings about the danger presented by Donald Trump’s potential second term.

Listen, this is based on his own former senior advisers. John Kelly was his chief of staff. John Bolton was his national security adviser. Matt Pottinger was his main China guy. They say in no uncertain terms that in a second Trump term, he would be likely to move the U.S. out of NATO, or at least neuter NATO, make it clear that Article 5, the NATO mutual-defense doctrine, is not something that he as commander in chief would feel compelled to observe.

“China and Russia do not have our best interests at heart. They want to bring down the US and they want to bring down the international system that we have profited from. So whatever [Trump] thinks of his diplomatic skills, that’s not what they’re interested in.”

He has a similar attitude toward other U.S. defense commitments. He was going to reduce U.S. troop deployments to Korea, “It’s too expensive for us, not really my problem. Do we really need to go to war to defend Japan?” On Taiwan, I tell a story in here that Bolton tells. Trump would sit in the Oval Office and would point to the tip of a Sharpie. He would say, “That’s Taiwan.” He would point to the Resolute Desk and say, “That’s China.” To make the point that Taiwan is so small and stands no chance against China, and therefore we have no business defending it. So it would be a retreat from U.S. alliances, and an accommodation with the Putins and the Xis of the world. Again, this is not my vague sense of this. His own advisers have said it, and he himself has said it. 

He admires the leadership of Putin and Xi.: “I can do deals with them,” which, by the way, I find not credible. It’s very clear that China and Russia do not have our best interests at heart. They want to bring down the U.S. and they want to bring down the international system that we have profited from. So whatever he thinks of his diplomatic skills, that’s not what they’re interested in. 

In November, there is a very clear choice on a lot of things — and folks may want to make this choice — but Biden and Trump have diametrically opposed ways of dealing with this. Biden offers a more traditional approach, what used to be the bipartisan approach: stand up for American allies, defense alliances, etc. Trump calculates that it’s in America’s interest to retreat from those commitments and just find a way to accommodate or appease.

It does strike me that Xi and Putin, in particular, think they’re smarter than Trump and can play him. Is that fair?

Yes. Listen, is it to Putin’s advantage to have Trump push House Republicans to block Ukraine aid? Absolutely. Trump seems to calculate that we don’t have any business there, but it’s certainly in Putin’s interest so he’s cheering things like that. And he’s also cheering the domestic division, right? To have an American leader who says that his country is being destroyed suits their interests.

Working at CNN, largely talking to people within “the establishment,” to use a bad word, I’m sure you encounter people all the time who accuse you of “corporate journalism,” of spreading lies and propaganda, and saying, “We don’t believe you anymore.” What is your response? How do you react to that loss of institutional trust?

As an American, it’s a shame, right? And, it’s across the board, loss of trust in institutions, from the media to government, to the Supreme Court to professional sports to the church. My answer is, listen, I’ve done the work. I’ve gone to these places. I’m not theorizing from my couch in Washington. I’ve gone to Ukraine, I’ve gone to Taiwan. I’ve met these people, this is what they’re saying. 

For instance, one response I’ll give when folks say, “Well, Putin may be right about Ukraine or about Estonia.” I say, “Well, ask the Estonians and the Ukrainians.” If you’re a freedom person, they’ve made their choice clear. They’re pretty darn close to it, and they’ve lived through it. So maybe they have something to say and some credibility about what it would look like for them. I try to do that. I do find that on these issues in general … I was going to say there is agreement, but there has been agreement across party lines.

Now, maybe not. Less so. I still think that’s a minority that is isolationist, America First, but it’s real. There’s no question. It’s not the first time we’ve had that in this country, as you know, even going back to 1939. What I worry is that the bubbles are so separate and increasingly impenetrable. I could do the work and talk to folks from both sides and both administrations and both parties and travel the world, but I’m doing that in this bubble, and the chances of hopping into the other bubble to make that case become fewer and fewer over time. That’s not just me. We all experience this on any issue, and that part is what worries me the most, that it’s hard to penetrate those separate bubbles. I will say, at the start of the Ukraine invasion, Republicans and Democrats, CNN watchers and non-CNN watchers, came up to me and said, “You guys are doing such great work there.” So there are times when it breaks through, but those times are becoming less common.

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