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Retired U.S. Army Col. Larry Wilkerson on Obama’s response, the Republican push for lethal arms, and NATO’s internal problems

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Exploring diplomatic options for the Ukraine conflict, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Washington late Sunday from meetings with President Obama and members of the Foreign Relations Committee. The meeting comes at a time when President Obama is considering the options of providing modern weapons to Ukraine. Ukraine has been losing territory in the country’s Eastern regions to pro-Russian separatists armed with the Russian weapons. Now joining us to analyze the situation is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. Thank you so much for joining us, Larry. COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me. PERIES: Larry, Chancellor Merkel arrived just after a security conference in Munich. And after she had met, along with President François Hollande of France, they met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. And she also met with the Ukrainian president prior to coming to Washington. So what message is she carrying? WILKERSON: I hope she carried the message generally that the only way the Ukraine situation is going to be resolved is politically, diplomatically, and second, that probably one of the fastest ways to deepen and widen it and make it a more profound crisis is for the United States to do what–and I can find no better word–warmongers like Senator John McCain and his cohorts want to do, which is to arm majorly the government in Kiev and its forces. PERIES: Larry, now, President Obama is considering providing weapons. I understand that also in the last budget that was recently approved, some $350 million allocated to Ukraine. What kind of options is President Obama considering? And how is this being received by the diplomatic community in Washington? WILKERSON: I think, from what I heard him say today and what I just read in transcript form with regard to Ukraine–and a lot of other things too, but with regard to Ukraine, he’s thinking seriously about and seemed to indicate he was leaning towards a affirmative answer in terms of arming the Ukrainian forces that are opposed to the separatist forces. As I said, I think that would be a really bad decision. I think it’s fair to say that most Europeans who really feel like Ukraine is a possible–even a very possibly catastrophic threat, both to them and to NATO and the alliance it represents, I think this is probably not the right decision to make. I think that’s the way they feel. I’m pretty certain that Angela Merkel feels that way. I’m not sure about Hollande, but I would guess that, too. I would guess it of all the major European powers. After all, they’re cheek-and-jowl with this beast. They’re right next door. And they’ve been through this before. We’re 6,000 miles–depending on what part of this you want to look at–we’re a long way away. Let me just add that that makes the problem, the military problem, significant. And I frankly cannot believe that former military people in some respects are talking about this in the way they are. Putin is operating on what we in the military call interior lines. We would be operating on the opposite of that. What that means, in very basic terms, is he’s got a few kilometers to go–difficult, to be sure–over land, and he can reinforce and he can put major force to bear. We have got how many miles? Two, three thousand miles of water to go over, and we’ve got lots of land to get through, too, once we come to a friendly port. This is not a thing we want to get involved with, because he owns all the escalatory chips. He owns the military situation. What we want is to devise a solution where he gets to keep at least what he’s already got, probably. And we let time and the vagaries of Moscow’s leadership work on that. Ultimately, it will work on it probably to the tune that Crimeans even finally vote to get out of Russia, because they really don’t begin to see what they want, which is prosperity, peace, stability, and so forth. So this is something that needs to be looked at in long-term, and it needs to be looked at from the perspective of it’s probably better to keep the hands that are messing in Ukraine right now off of it and let the Ukrainians work out their own problems. But the political solution you’re going to have to achieve to do that is going to look like Putin has gained something. It’s not going to be very sustainable and not going to be lasting, though. PERIES: Larry, now, NATO seems to be split when it comes to Ukraine, the North and South thinking differently. Tell us more about its position. WILKERSON: NATO’s got some problems right now, some very serious problems, in my view. The first and foremost of those is it’s probably an anachronism. It’s got 28 members. It’s very difficult with 28 members to make decisions. It’s got very little fighting power without the United States. And the United States has withdrawn a lot of that fighting power since the end of the Cold War. And it’s got a schism developing over where the real threat is. Those in the North, so-called, seem to think Ukraine’s the biggest threat. Those in the South think that’s a diversion from the real threat, which is Islamic migration in massive numbers from the Maghreb and other places in Africa and in the Middle East. So they’re not even looking at their threat consistently. This is not a recipe for a sustainable or productive alliance, though I must admit this has been the most successful political and military alliance, probably in human history. It is looking a lot like it is losing its reason for existence, or at least bifurcating that in a way that you’ve got to make it very difficult to maintain its integrity, and it doesn’t help if we’re in there making it even more difficult to do so. PERIES: Larry, Chancellor Merkel also met with Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine in Kiev. What came out of that decision? WILKERSON: I wish I could say I was optimistic about them. I’m not so optimistic, and it’s principally because of Washington and what I’m hearing from certain people and what I think I’m hearing from the president. What needs to happen was rather brilliantly outlined by a speaker you had not too long ago from Columbia University, Professor Tarik Amar. And here’s a man in a position to know, and he speaks almost all the languages of the region, including Russian, and has studied this problem for some time. The solution is as he described it. The solution is we get together and we talk and we agreed that we’re going to take our hands, military and otherwise, off Ukraine. We probably–we, the United States–probably make a very forceful announcement that we are not contemplating NATO membership for Ukraine. And we discussed where we’re going to draw the line as everybody goes back to square zero and quits shooting and killing each other. And that line is probably going to be someplace were Putin seems to have gained a bit. But as I said, that gain is not going to be sustainable over time, because you can no longer hold these people with military power alone. You’re going to have to give them economic prosperity. You’re going to have to give them stability. You’re going to have to give them some kind of prospects for the future. And right now, Ukraine financially and economically, is a basket case. The best way to do that, probably, is a substantial part of Ukraine working with the E.U.–not necessarily in it, but with it, and not so much with Russia, though I would say that direction can be accommodated, too. So this political solution is going to look a little bit like we lost and Putin won. I say, what the heck, if it prevents a war and works eventually to Ukraine’s benefit. PERIES: Right. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.