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Larry Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss the “tactical strength and strategic weakness” of Putin in Ukraine and whether the West is trying to turn Russia into another “Greece”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the real news network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Russia, interest rates have hit 17 percent as Putin and his government tried to defend of the ruble, which has been devaluated by about 45 percent over last year. Lower oil prices are killing the Russian economy.

Now joining us to talk about the significance of all of this and what we called in a previous interview economic warfare, Larry Wilkerson.

Thanks for joining us again, Larry.


JAY: So, previously we talked about how the Saudis and the Americans together are waging economic warfare, primarily for geopolitical interests. We talk about what it’s doing to Iran, what it’s doing to Venezuela. But the economy that’s really taking right now is the Russians.

And what is the objective here? Like, on the face of it, how does it help the American economy, even geopolitics, to so isolate the Russian administration, to cause such economic havoc? The Russian foreign minister actually said what they’re really trying is regime change. They want Putin to fall. What is the great objective achieved by that?

WILKERSON: I’m not so sure I don’t agree with the Russian foreign minister.

We have to do a little history here. George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state Jim Baker, in order to get Europe (people forget this; they were not too happy about German reunification, the French, British) and Russia to agree to the reunification of Germany and its inclusion still in NATO as a reunified country. In order to get them to agree to it, we promised Gorbachev that we would go not one inch, Jim Baker said, further east than NATO.

Well, then we marched all the way to Georgia. And Ukraine was included. And George W. Bush actually made a statement about Georgia, that it would soon be a member of NATO and so forth.

This reaction by Putin in Ukraine–first Crimea, now the Donbas and elsewhere–is perfectly understandable. John Mearsheimer wrote about this in Foreign Affairs. Perfectly understandable. This is the way great powers act when other great powers intercede the way we have, intervene the way we have. So that’s the first thing one has to understand.

Second, what we’re doing right now with sanctions and with, as you pointed out in your opening, these oil prices going down to places where people didn’t think they’d see again, is trying to punish Putin, trying to isolate him, trying to strike back at him in the way that we feel is most powerful with regard to his reaction in Ukraine and potential reaction elsewhere, particularly the Baltic states. This is asking for World War I, August 1914 type tick-tock marching into some kind of really big conflict that none of us want. It’s really very stupid.

JAY: Now, Henry Kissinger said in an interview in the last couple of days with Der Spiegle that he described Putin as has tactical strength but strategic weakness. And we can see the strategic weakness. He had the ability to annex Crimea, but he doesn’t have the ability to deal with the economic consequences of economic warfare. The Chinese have always been very smart.

WILKERSON: And we forced him into China’s arms, as it were.

JAY: I’m going to get there. I’m going to get there. But China’s–one of the pillars of their foreign policy is don’t directly confront the United States, unless it’s a direct violation of Chinese sovereignty, which they will be very tough on, as we’ve seen in some of these cases, like with the airplane became down. But generally speaking, the Chinese will not confront, rightly or wrongly; even on issues one would think they should take a more principled stand on, they don’t. But Putin has directly confronted the United States on Syria with Assad and not just Crimea.

WILKERSON: They actually helped us on Syria. They helped us. They essentially worked out the deal whereby we were destroying Syrian chemical weapons and the deal that, I think, along with American opposition, stopped us from using force against Assad.

JAY: Yeah, he’s certainly saved President Obama’s rear end, because he’s far over–.

WILKERSON: Yes. Obama should be thankful to him.

JAY: But he’s certainly not, or he’s not in control of all of this.

WILKERSON: Doesn’t seem to be.

JAY: So, I mean, is this primarily that you cannot directly confront us, we won’t allow a power on earth that will take us on?

WILKERSON: This is, I think, what is called in historical circles, when the study of empire is looked at, analyzed, an overbearing attempt to maintain the status quo, and in our case, with neoconservatives advising the foreign and security policy to even expand the status quo in terms of American influence.

So this is not something unusual for great powers, particularly great powers in decline, to be doing, to be making such irrational, seemingly irrational and, I think, at heart, irrational decisions on efforts to stop other people in the world from, as we see it, encroaching on our domain.

Now, in the case of Russia, the Swedes have just finished an extensive review of Russian exercises in 2012, military exercises in 2012, ’13, and ’14. Every single one of those exercises was oriented towards either defense, that is, defensive of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization that Russia has put together with Armenia, Belorussia, itself, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, or Tajikistan–used to be others in it, but it’s kind of fluid. But their focuses on defense. If they’re looking at any kind of offensive operation at all, what we would call offensive operation, it is in protecting their near-abroad, places like Ukraine or what have you. So this is not a country that’s looking to take on NATO in an attack, looking to increase its territory, looking to increase its imperial writ, if you will. This is a country that’s trying to protect itself and to protect what it is now after the collapse of the former empire the Soviet Union.

So it’s nonsense for us to be sticking our fingers in the eye of this bear, this bear of ten, 11 times zones from one end to the other. And the Chinese are, as I said before, taking the other end of it. I mean, they might as well own the far east of Russia–a very sparse population. But the population out there is more interested in the Chinese now, because for the Siberians the Chinese are bringing jobs, prosperity, food to eat, and so forth. The Chinese are going to own it. And Putin is contracting Russia out to the Chinese in terms of these deals, almost $1 trillion worth of deals.

JAY: Well, U.S. policy is giving them no choice.

WILKERSON: If I were looking at it as a military strategist, on first blush I would say, a-ha, neat–we’re taking on both of our enemies simultaneously and forcing them into each other’s arms when we know they’re going to fight eventually. But then I step back and look at it from my diplomat’s hat or my citizen’s and I say, why on earth would we want to be doing this sort of thing when what we really need to be doing is cooperating to handle a number of huge challenges we have in the world right now–economic, financial, and ultimately the challenge of climate change–and we’re trying to create more anarchy?

JAY: I mean, obviously, any solution in the Middle East, especially the IS situation and the Syria situation, would require some Russian-American cooperation.

WILKERSON: Absolutely. You are going to get no stability in Afghanistan, no stability in Syria, ultimately no stability in Iraq, and write that writ across the Maghreb and into the Middle East in general, Southwest Asia in general, you’re going to get no stability there, no development, no prosperity, no political solutions without Russia’s help. I’m sorry.

JAY: And we’ve talked about this before, but the extent which domestic politics drives very irrational foreign policy decisions, both in Russia and the United States, it’s become a pissing match.


JAY: I mean, Obama has to show that he’s tougher than Putin. They might as well go–they should actually go out and let them go fight it out somewhere.

WILKERSON: I’d love to see them ride out on their chargers and have their swords out.

JAY: Yeah, get the swords out, yeah, because while the American policy strategically has been this encirclement of Russia and the expansion of NATO, Putin didn’t have to act so quickly on Crimea. He could have done it in a way that it was a little more slowly. Clearly Crimea’s this unique situation that Crimea used to be part of Russia and they’re part of the Soviet Union and they–like, in this interview I mentioned with Kissinger, he was saying for the Americans too you could have just denounced it and not done anything and made some noise, essentially is what he’s saying, ’cause it such a unique situation. They seemed to be looking for ways to cross swords.

WILKERSON: There’s no question about it. And we have this group in this country now that is intent on regime change through covert operations that are quite different from the covert operations we’re familiar with in the Eisenhower and the Nixon and the Reagan and so forth administrations, where the CIA led the way and so forth. These covert operations now are led by the NDI, they’re led by the National Endowment for Democracy, they are led by the IRI, the International Republican Institute, they’re led by NGOs and pseudo-NGOs infiltrated by the CIA who are out there fomenting color revolutions. And I’m sorry, you do not foment a color revolution in Kiev or in Tblisi in the Soviet near-abroad or the Russian near-abroad and not expect some response.

So I have to think that if we’re doing this intentionally–and I’m convinced we are–that we really don’t know what the strategic ramifications of what we’re doing are. We’ve changed our mind. You heard it from some of the administration. When they talked about, for example–and the president even makes made some remarks to this effect. Putin and others like Putin don’t understand the world’s changed. They don’t understand that you don’t do these sort of things anymore, you don’t have great power interests, you don’t have a group of nations around you that you need to keep in place and so forth. What about the Monroe Doctrine? What about the Western Hemisphere in the United States? Well, only great powers like the United States can do that. Russia can’t do that. China can’t do that. Well, I’m sorry, that’s the way the world operates, and you need to be a little bit more astute in the way you deal with this.

JAY: And if you would think the strategic danger of Russia, if there was one, would be that if Russia heads towards a more fascistic, ultranationalist police state, well, if you tank their economy, what exactly do you think you’re going to get?

WILKERSON: You’ve got it. And we already see that happening in certain of the countries that came out of the communist yoke, if you will. We’re looking at right-wing governments either already having one power in some of them and looking like they’re going to win power in others of them. So, while what you just said might sound a little bit outlandish to some people, there is a very real chance for some sort of fascism or said that sort of government to return to Europe.

JAY: The only objective here that makes any sense to me, while I think it’s a destructive objective, there’s a logic to it. Putin had been calling on Russian oligarchs, bring your money back. He had been strengthening the public sector public ownership, the state private partnerships. And if you can destroy that, you open up a whole field for foreign takeover.

WILKERSON: You mean like Anatoly Chubais and Larry Summers did when they increased Harvard’s endowment to something like $20 billion almost overnight by ripping off and stealing from Russians?

JAY: Mm. Exactly. You start a whole ‘nother–you know, the scramble for Africa. Well, you can have a new scramble for Russian resources if you can destroy this whole stratum.

WILKERSON: Think about the people who would design something and try to execute something like that. If they’re Americans, I’d like to see them tried and put in jail.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us.

Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.