U.S. National Security as Seen by Three Former National Security Advisors
U.S. national security advisors from the last three administrations reflect on their experiences and assess some of the principal challenges facing the United States today.
BRENNAN: (Off mic)—to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “U.S. National Security as Seen by Three Former National Security Advisors.” And we are joined by Tom Donilon, national security advisor in the Obama administration; Robert O’Brien, who served in the Trump administration; and Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor in the Bush administration and, of course, later secretary of state. I’m Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation and chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News. I will be presiding over today’s discussion. Which is on the record, which journalist always love to hear.
I am so interested in this conversation today because of the moment that we are in, which really appears to be a precarious one for the United States and for the West. And so I want to start on Russia. Robert O’Brien, the Trump administration granted lethal aid to Ukraine in 2018, something the prior administration didn’t do. The administration argued that selling Javelin anti-missiles—anti-tank missiles to Ukraine would be a deterrent against Russian invasion. Why didn’t it succeed in deterring Vladimir Putin, who appears to be poised to invade right now?
O’BRIEN: Well, I think that’s incorrect Margaret. And it’s great to be back with you. I miss our Sunday rendezvous when I was in office. I came back to California, and everyone said: Margaret Brennan’s tough on you. And I said, nah, she’s terrific. And it’s good to be back again, and a great, tough question to start with.
But the Javelins really did deter the Russians. During the Trump administration there wasn’t this type of a buildup on the border. There weren’t the threats by Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. And we had a very stable policy with Russia. We took very tough action on them. We sanctioned Russia more than any prior administration in history. And that was the peace through strength posture that let the Russians know that we meant business, and this sort of activity was not welcome, and would have severe consequences.
So again, that change of lethal aid I think made a big difference. You’re seeing it with the Ukrainians now with their videos and—of their exercises, using the Javelins, letting the Russians know that if they come over they’re going to lose some of their new Armata tanks, and some of their older models because of those Javelins they got there. And frankly, I wish we could have gotten more lethal aid. And I think it’s—I applaud the current administration for sending additional supplies to Ukraine.
The great thing about the Ukrainians, they’re a tough people. They want to fight for themselves. They’re not asking for U.S. troops. They’re asking for us to be the arsenal of democracy, and to supply them with the equipment they need to protect themselves against their much bigger neighbor.
BRENNAN: But having that better-trained force, it’ll be costly to Russia, but it doesn’t seem to be persuasive to Vladimir Putin at this point, at least according to what we are hearing from the White House, which is saying again and again that the threat of military invasion is real. Why do you think we’re here?
O’BRIEN: No, I think that’s right. And I think what we need to do is take some steps right now that will discourage the Russians. The first thing is, the Russians watch what we do domestically. And unfortunately, whether it’s true or not—and I think for the most part the administration has gotten the—the current administration has got policy right—but there’s a perception of weakness. So Vladimir Putin perceives the United States to be weak right now. We went from having energy independence to being dependent on Russia and the Middle East for energy.
So there are steps that we could take domestically that would send a big message—reinvigorating our energy industry, reversing the decision on the keystone pipeline, building out the—building out the LNG export ability here in the U.S. to export our LNG, and then getting the French to approve the trans-Catalonian pipeline to get LNG from Portugal to Germany and places like that. Those are messages, just like the firing of the air traffic controllers under President Reagan sent a strong message to the Soviet Union, those are some of the messages that we could send. Modernizing our nuclear triad, which Russia and China have done in dramatic fashion. And yet, we’ve got left-wing Democrats writing the president asking him not to modernize our triad. Those are the sorts of actions that we could take that would send a strong message to Vladimir Putin, not just with respect to Ukraine but with respect to our other allies in Eastern Europe—Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary—that are on the frontlines.
BRENNAN: Tom Donilon, I’d like for you to respond to that and also the premise that, you know, Vladimir Putin’s list of demands that was sent to the United States put NATO at the heart of this. President Biden said last week Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon. I know we can’t really say it’s never going to happen. But isn’t that the reality, that member states will never vote in a member that faces such an active threat from Russia?
DONILON: Yeah, three things, Margaret. One is this is, is that the principles that are involved here are important, right, and Tony Blinken laid it on, I think, quite well in January 20th speech in Berlin, and the principles are in inviolate borders, and these are principles, by the way, which have been critical in Europe since World War II and since the end of the Cold War. Inviolate borders—not changing borders by force; no sphere of influence—that is, trying to determine the policies in—of other—of countries around you; and the right of association, to go wherever your sovereignty wants to take you in terms of your association in this world.
Those principles are really what’s at stake here. And I think in the reply that the United States sent back to Moscow in the last twenty-four hours or so, those were—those were uncompromised at this point.
Secondly, I wanted to just go to the question you asked—you asked Robert. I think that—and it’s good to be here with Robert and Condi, by the way, as well as you, Margaret. I think that this is a more complicated story than just the assistance to the Ukrainians in the form of Javelin—the Javelin missiles and other kinds of assistance. I think this has been building for a long time. Putin has, for a long time, said—as have others in the Russian hierarchy—said that Ukraine is not really a sovereign state, it is a vassal of the Russian Federation. It’s been a long-time position of Putin and others that they should be reintegrated back into Russia or at least within a Russian sphere of influence.
He saw—I think that’s point one. Point two is I think he saw Russia moving further to the West, and this, of course, is in large part due to his own policies and actions—2014 by the taking of Crimea and the invasion into Eastern Ukraine where, in fact, the Russian people—Ukraine—excuse me—the Ukrainian people are moving further to the West. You know, at the time of the 2014 events, polls showed that the people of Ukraine were 70 percent approving of association with or approve of Russia. That’s down to 25 percent with 60 percent of Ukraine right now indicating that they would like to join—they’d like to see their country join NATO. So you see this drift away from Russia to the West. You saw Zelensky leaning on Russian-associated oligarchs and others inside Ukraine. And so I think that Putin kind of sees this as kind of a last chance to try to stop this drift and to try, essentially, to kind of retread the post-Cold War security order in Europe.
And the last thing I’ll say is this: What has he produced? Because I disagree a little bit with the implication of the—of the question about his—he’s poised to invade. And he may be, and he may undertake a serious military action, but what he’s produced so far is a unified NATO, more support for Ukraine from both NATO and from the United States specifically, a Ukraine—or—(inaudible)—and, by the way, and more NATO presence in the frontline states which border Russia, which is exactly what he’s trying to avoid.
So I think it’s a little more complicated and I think that the—I think, essentially—the last thing I’ll say here is I think that the alliance in the West has kind of skillfully put this back in his court at this point. He has some tough decisions to make here.
BRENNAN: Well, to that point, I think, in terms of deterrence from taking action in Ukraine, that’s different than NATO’s intent, which is to, basically, contain spillover from a potential regional conflict, right. I mean, it’s—why does he think he can get away with this, and the criticism would be because he’s been allowed to to date, that the costs enacted and exacted haven’t been high enough to deter him from trying to do this in Ukraine right now.
DONILON: Right, and—
BRENNAN: He succeeded in annexing Crimea in 2014.
DONILON: Yeah. Yeah. Much different circumstance, I think, and I think that the steps that are being talked about now are way beyond the steps that were taken in response to Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine. And I think what you’ll see here—and I think you see a couple of principles in place here—is that the United States and the alliance have said there are going to be much higher costs to pay here. It’s going to be much more immediate and long lasting, and they’ve laid out, you know, a set of—which is why I disagree a little bit with the point made by the Ukrainian president today about not having it in public. I think it’s important to lay down the costs pretty directly here, and those costs are going to be economic. They’re going to be controls on export of technology to Russia. They’re going to be more support for the Ukrainians. There will be support for a Ukrainian insurgency if he should actually have to go in and try to occupy Ukraine. And there will be a much larger NATO presence on the frontline states in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Baltics.
I think we’ve laid out a really high price to be paid here, much different than 2008 or 2014. That’s for sure. And maybe that’s surprised Putin.
BRENNAN: You mentioned 2008. We have to get to Secretary Rice here, because you were there. (Laughs.) You were so key to the shaping of what—I mean, you were there with Vladimir Putin, who was part of these conversations back in 2008, who made clear to President Bush at the time that he viewed even the suggestion of bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO as a threat to him.
I want to ask you what your thought is about that now, in hindsight. Do you think that decision in Bucharest to offer Ukraine and Georgia an invitation to join NATO, did that lead us to where we are now? Is that the point you trace it all back to?
RICE: Well, of course, what we did in 2008 was to just affirm what has been NATO’s policy forever, which is that there’s an open door to democracies, to affirm the principle that Tom rightly referred to, which is actually a principle out of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, going all the way back to its predecessor, the CSCE, that nations have a right to choose their alliances, and then to say that the door was not closed.
Largely because of German objections, we did not offer Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and to Georgia in 2008. And we could debate whether or not we would be here had we done that, but we didn’t. And so the idea that we somehow crossed some line with the Russians, I think, is a figment of Vladimir Putin’s imagination, just like the idea that somehow Jim Baker, all the way back in 1990, said we would never move east. What we were talking about at the time was East Germany, not—nobody was even imagining Czechoslovakia or Poland or Hungary at that time.
And that underscores something that I want to bring up. Putin has constructed in his head, and in his heart perhaps, the idea that NATO is encircling him, that that has always been the intention. I think that one reason he’s disturbed right now is, as Tom and Robert have said, Ukraine is moving closer to the West, but it’s doing it because the Russians have been annexing Ukrainian territory and threatening the Ukrainians. They’re doing it because they tried to assassinate a Ukrainian president earlier in time. And so it’s been his own actions that have driven Ukraine that way.
And, oh, by the way, I think he is disturbed not just by Ukraine’s move west, but by the fact the Ukrainians are actually succeeding. They do have economic growth. It’s not very high, but economic growth under the circumstances in which he has tried to destabilize eastern Ukraine through hybrid warfare, through cyberattacks, through little green men, through a paid-for-in-Russia separatist insurgency. And so he’s created circumstances in which Ukraine has no place else to go. And I think he’s probably roiled by the fact that that policy has not worked and Ukraine is indeed moving further west. And maybe he believes this is his last chance to arrest that.
And now the question is, have we put enough deterrents in place—and here I agree again with—look, I like what the Trump administration did in providing lethal aid to the Ukrainians. I like what the Biden administration has done in continuing that aid and in reinforcing NATO’s flanks. And I like the discussion of potentially crippling economic sanctions.
But I wonder if Putin really believes the crippling economic sanctions, because in a circumstance where we would perhaps be talking about sectoral sanctions on energy, where we talk about possibly the Central Bank of Russia being sanctioned and not having dollar-denominated transactions for Russia, you know, Putin has got to look at the dependence of the Europeans, through their own policies, on Russian natural gas, particularly the Germans, and on energy, and look at our own, I think, mistake in pulling away from energy independence for the United States and the power of the North American energy platform in taking away the oil card from Vladimir Putin. I was secretary, Margaret, when oil was over $140 a barrel. Nothing works diplomacy like oil over $140 a barrel, because at that time it empowered Hugo Chavez to buy elections in Latin America. It empowered Putin to threaten the Ukrainians and the East Europeans.
I don’t know if he will invade. But I do think that our circumstances are not ideal from the point of view of deterring him perhaps from doing something less dramatic than an actual invasion, maybe even perhaps using the Georgia playbook, support separatist movements in the Donbas. I think he’ll look for a pretext. One of the problems with the Georgia circumstances is that, unfortunately, the Georgians fired on some Russian peacekeepers, and they were out to—off to the races. This is a time for extra care. But it’s a time to be absolutely clear to Vladimir Putin that changing the geographic circumstances, changing sovereignty in Ukraine is not acceptable to the Western alliance.
BRENNAN: Did I understand you correctly when you suggested, when you were talking about the Germans, that you regret that Ukraine and Georgia didn’t actually join NATO as full members back in 2008?
RICE: Well, they were never going to join—they were not going to join NATO at that point. Let me be very clear. We were offering something called—
RICE: Right, the membership action plan, which simply said we will help them get ready for that. We thought—
BRENNAN: But if they were, would we be in the situation we are in now, I guess is—
RICE: I don’t have a crystal ball, Margaret. But I think that every piece of distance between Ukraine and Russia and every piece of NATO support for Ukraine makes Vladimir Putin think twice. And I would have preferred to offer a Membership Action Plan at that time to Ukraine and Georgia. We didn’t do it. But I think we are where we are now. And again, I think the Biden administration is doing the right things to try to show to Vladimir Putin that there would be real cost from trying to change the status quo more than he has already changed it. And he’s already changed it a lot.
DONILON: Hey, Margaret, can I just add one thing to Condi’s points?
BRENNAN: Mmm hmm.
DONILON: On NATO expansion, you know, this is very much a—
BRENNAN: Which you worked on, mmm hmm.
DONILON: Yeah, very much so. Well, I worked on the Clinton administration and then Secretary Rice, obviously, in the Bush administration. It has proved to be a really essential policy initiative and set of circumstances for holding Europe together. You know, there aren’t—there are threats against Article 5 NATO countries that you see Russia undertaking right now. And I think in large part because of—because of NATO expansion, you have seen dramatic changes in the governance in these countries that it became part of NATO, given the incentives in terms of civilian control of the military, other—(audio break). I think it’s been a—it’s been a critical success.
On energy, I’ll say one thing. Now the United States is the number-one energy producer in the world right now, both—for fossil fuels in the world, and an essential part—I think Condi’s right—an essential part of the strategy here has to be to provide energy for Europe in the event that the Russians tried to reduce the supply rates, or cut off the supply, or indeed, if the physical supply is limited because of actions inside Ukraine in the midst of—in the midst of combat or a war. And I think we’re undertaking that. The administration has a program together to work with the rest of the world to provide natural gas supplies to Europe in the event of reductions from Russia, and including, by the way, exports from the United States to Russia. And I agree that the United States—the United States’ energy posture is an important part of its strategic advantage in the world.
RICE: Yeah. And if I could just underscore, I—Tom is absolutely right. We can do this now. The shadow of the future, though, if we continue to disinvest in our own energy platform will not look so great. And I worry that the Russians can read the shadow of the future in terms of our energy supply. I’m as much a supporter as anybody of trying to make a transition to a different energy future because of climate change, but I think to start to undermine our own strengths—and it also has one other effect. You know, there are a lot of other places that have a lot of natural gas—for instance, Mozambique. But they’re having trouble getting investment, because everybody’s trying to de-invest in in hydrocarbons. You don’t really want Russia and Iran to be—to hold these oil cards in the way that they have in the past. And so I think this is something we really need to rethink. We don’t need any more 1970s oil shocks.
BRENNAN: Robert O’Brien—
O’BRIEN: And I think, Margaret, let me just jump in—
BRENNAN: I want to—sorry, go ahead. Go ahead.
O’BRIEN: —on the energy issue, because I think it’s absolutely critical. Look, as the Biden administration talks about building back better, you know, our shipyards have deteriorated dramatically. We need to reinvest in our shipyards. We need to be able to build both military—naval ships here but also commercial vessels—Jones Act-compliant vessels, LNG ships. We need to rebuild the ports and build new LNG export terminals so that we can get these massive amounts of LNG, which is relatively clean, and goes, to Condi’s point, to transition energy to a new energy future, and I think Tom made the same point as well. We need to have the platforms to move the energy to Russia. That means rebuilding our shipbuilding capacity here and our export capacity at the ports. And so those are important infrastructure projects and I think would have bipartisan support, you know, across Congress and across the American electorate.
BRENNAN: I want to ask you about some of the work you were doing at the end of the Trump administration on arms control, because one of the things that is being floated as certainly not a negotiation right now but as an opportunity to Vladimir Putin is to talk about some kind of reciprocal measures on arms. You, at the end of the Trump administration, had been trying to reboot the New START agreement, which I believe Tom was—(laughs)—very much a part of. When you tried to reboot it you tried to get China included; that ultimately didn’t work out. What do you think was left unfinished on the table with Russia?
O’BRIEN: Well, look, we had come very close to getting an agreement that the Russians—to get an extension of New START. We did not want to give the Russians a clean extension of the New START—of the treaty because the Russians are building a lot of nuclear weapons that are non-New START-compliant, they call tactical nukes. I don’t think it makes a difference to a city that gets destroyed if they’re going to say, well, I’m glad we got wiped out by a tactical nuke instead of a strategic nuke. But the Russians are continuing to build tactical nukes. We are not. And so one of the things that we said is, if you want an extension on New START, if you want to avoid an arms race, which we’ll eventually win—they saw that in the Reagan administration they couldn’t beat us—you’ve got to at least stop adding to your arsenal, so for every new nuclear weapon you build—and they’ve got no intention of ending their nuclear production, their nuclear weapons production.
We basically have here in the U.S. the Chinese and Russians are racing ahead. We said, we’ll give you a one-year extension on New START but you’ve got to hold the line on your non-New START-compliant nuclear weapons. That was a very important—getting New START renewed and extended was very important to Vladimir Putin. The new administration came in and gave a clean New START extension of five years without any concessions from the Russians, and again—you know, I’m not—I don’t like criticizing Jake and Tony and Lloyd and the president because, you know, I don’t know if Condi and Tom feel the same way; I was a lot smarter, you know, on these issues before I was national security advisor and I’m much smarter after, but when you’re in the thick of it, you know, there are things that you know that folks on the outside like us don’t know. But, you know, we felt that it was very important to make sure that the Russians, that there were concessions from the Russians and real nuclear arms control and not just paper agreements, and I think that is an area that Putin’s concerned about and it might be a lever, you know, as we move forward with the relationship, but it’s got to be handled properly.
Right now Iran is spinning more centrifuges than the United States, so we’ve got to get—to be credible at the negotiating table we’ve got to get back in the game with modernizing our triad and increasing our ability to again produce nuclear weapons as necessary.
RICE: If I could just add one thing: One of the things that is purportedly, and we don’t have the full text, on the table from the United States to the Russians would be some, quote, “arms control measures” in Europe, and I actually think that would be very smart. Why not have deconfliction in and around the Black Sea? It makes sense. Why not have a more transparent ability to inspect missile sites that we have in Poland and Romania? I remember when Bob Gates, who was secretary of Defense at the time, and I were sent off to Moscow to talk to Putin about the fact that we were going to deploy missile defense technologies in former Warsaw Pact states, is the way that he put it, in places like Poland and Romania, possibly at the time the Czech Republic, and Bob Gates—Putin shoved at him something that showed the arcs of these missile defenses, looking as if they could intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Of course, complete fantasy that they could do such; they were aimed at the Iranians principally. And Bob Gates sort of pushed it back at Putin and said: You know, I don’t know who’s doing your intelligence work, but this isn’t what those missiles do.
So I think that if you wanted to offer packages like that to try to deescalate this. But the one thing that you really must be careful of is any implication that NATO is going to move back on these principles about the open door, about countries choosing their own alliances. And one more thing to be careful of. During the Georgia conflict, Sergey Lavrov actually told me: It will be between us, he said. Misha Saakashvili has to go. And I said to him, you know, the American secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister don’t have a secret discussion about overthrowing a Georgian president—a democratically-elected president.
He was very angry at me, but to the point of being public. We went to the U.N. We called everybody we could. And we said: That’s a Russian condition. Because we wanted everybody to know that what they were really trying to do was destabilize the Georgian government. And so watching for anything that suggests that an alternative to an all-out invasion is to try to get some kind of changeling inside of Ukraine I think is something I’m sure that Tony and Jake are on guard for. But Putin has a way of taking language and turning it to what he wanted to hear.
BRENNAN: You know, and NATO’s secretary general acknowledged that as well today, the chance of a coup. And we know the U.K. has warned of an inside threat. And it’s not just tanks rolling—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off.
DONILON: No, that’s fine. You know, on the point that Condi’s making here, obviously uncompromising on the principles here. These are the principles that have really kept the peace in Europe for well over a half-century now. Putin has to know at some level that the United States and the West are not going to compromise on these core issues that I mentioned earlier. But there are—there should be room, if no compromise there, and, by the way, if they’re reciprocal, and you get Putin to kind of obviously deescalate—not have a negotiation here at the point of a gun, there would be room, as Condi was saying—Secretary Rice was saying, classic security measures, right?
And you know, the Russians pulled out of the CFR, I think, Condi, in 2007, during the Bush administration. They violated the INF, which resulted in the United States moving out of the INF Treaty. And these were kind of—these were the kind of classic kinds of security measures in Europe that they have kind of undermined. And if you go back to the reciprocal understandings in that kind of context, I think is—you know, should be something that both sides would be—would be interested in.
BRENNAN: Do you think that Vladimir Putin would be acting the way he is now if he had faced stronger resistance in recent years? I’m thinking about the criticism of the lack of enforcement of the red line in Syria. I’m thinking, Tom Donilon, of comments I read that you had made that you thought President Obama should have taken stronger measures after Russian interference in the 2016 election. I’ve had diplomats point these things out. Do you see all these dots as connecting—like, is this a broader American credibility question?
DONILON: I think it’s—I think—I’m not so sure you can draw the lines there that easily. I think this really is—has been a focused goal of Vladimir Putin for a long time. And as I said earlier, never regarding Ukraine as a—as a fully sovereign nation. You know, in the paper that—the essay that he published over the summer, you know, saying Russia and Ukraine have always shared the same spiritual and historical space, and you can’t really imagine Ukraine existing as a sovereign nation without it being overseen by Russia.
I think it’s been a longstanding goal of his. And I do think, as we were saying earlier, I think he saw it drifting away, and saw an opportunity here. Now, he may have, you know, kind of, he’ll have his own complex reasons for moving at this time, but I think it’s—I don’t see the—I don’t see the direct dots here. I think this is a—this is a specific—this is kind of a specific long-time goal of Putin and Russia.
RICE: I do think it’s a specific long-term goal. I mean, he told us at the NATO council in 2008 that Ukraine was a made-up country. And I remember then listening to the interpretation thinking, did I just hear what he just said? (Laughs.) And he obviously believes that because, you know, from his point of view, this is a country that was really never independent for most of its life. It was really a part of Russia, et cetera.
But I do think that the question of whether American credibility has taken a hit, and there I would say Afghanistan is a problem. Because if you’re not going to stick by allies in a place that you initially entered because they attack—from that country came an attack that cost 3,000 lives. First attack on American territory since the War of 1812. And if you’re not going to stick with that, then it does call into question credibility. And here, I understand—you know, understand what the Trump administration was trying to do. I understand what the Biden administration was trying to do. I may not have agreed. In fact, I didn’t agree. Our longest war was actually not Afghanistan. Our longest war was Korea. We are still in an armistice in Korea.
But all of that is water under the bridge. But I do think credibility is not indivisible. And to the extent that people start to wonder, does the United States have staying power, I think the overarching sense of American credibility has taken a hit. I wouldn’t draw a straight line—as Tom was saying—I wouldn’t connect the dots, one by one, to we got to this place. But there is a kind of shadow there about American credibility at this point.
DONILON: Which means it’s a test right now that the United States—(audio break). I tell you, I do—I do think—Robert and Condi, I do think the administration has done quite a good job on the diplomatic side here. It’s been—you know, it’s been a multifaceted effort. I think would, certainly these are close associates and colleagues of mine for many years, but I think they’ve done a very good job on the diplomatic side in showing a unified front, and maybe surprising Putin in terms of the ferocity of the—
RICE: I actually—Tom, I actually agree with you. And I think that, you know, there’s a problem. I don’t know where the Germans really stand at this—
RICE: And that is relatively new. I think Angela Merkel was a pretty strong read. You have a different German government, with different sensibilities. I actually liked what the German foreign minister said. I hope it’s the case of the entire German government. So they have a difficult—our administration has a difficult diplomatic set of circumstances. But I do think they’ve been—and I’m glad to see the president move more toward, I’ll call it, military deterrence. That is, putting American forces on alert. Essentially saying, if you have any ideas about Article 5 countries, you’d have to kill an American. That’s an important statement to Putin. I think that is really important, because some of the threats of economic sanctions, while I have no problem with putting them forward, because of some of the complications of the energy markets that we were talking about, Putin may not fully respect those. So I’m glad that we have the military deterrence as well.
BRENNAN: I want to add—one second. I just—I promised the Council on Foreign Relations folks that I will get to questions from members. So I want to ask everyone to prepare those. And when you do that, I believe the operator’s going to remind you on how to join the question queue. So if we could do that now. And I have more questions for all three of you, but I don’t want to exclude our audience.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Bob Tuttle.
Q: Sorry. I’m here. Can you hear me?
BRENNAN: Go ahead. Yes, your mic is on.
Q: OK. I just—as a possible solution to the Ukrainian crisis, I know on principle we can’t give up on allowing some, certainly Ukraine, to join NATO. But is it possible we could, as a possible solution, delay their application for five or ten years? Would that be a possible solution we could come up to that would solve this crisis?
RICE: Maybe I can take that one. Hi, Bob. It’s good to hear from you. I think we have to be careful in giving on this principle at all. Because you would say five to ten years, and Putin might hear never, and more importantly the Ukrainians might hear never. And even though I think it’s very hard to imagine the circumstances today in which Ukraine might become a member of NATO, you have to keep that on the table. It’s a matter of principle. You can’t—ironically, you can’t afford now to appear to be giving in Putin’s demand that that be the case. And so I would—I would not go there.
I would take that off the table, and continue to look at other options, like different security arrangement and measures in Europe, which I think we have an interest in actually. I would like to have a conversation about Kaliningrad, for instance, and what the Russians are doing in Kaliningrad. If we could get inspections there in exchange for inspections in Poland and Romania, I’d take it in a minute. So there are a lot of reciprocal measures, but I think it would be a little bit dangerous to start trying to slice that story of where and when Ukraine might be a member of the alliance.
BRENNAN: OK. Thank you, Bob.
Before we move to the next question, I want to pick up on something that Secretary Rice said and give Robert O’Brien a chance to respond there; Afghanistan, the Trump administration negotiation with the Taliban. Do you regret any part of how that was negotiated and what you put on paper?
O’BRIEN: No. I think we were trying to end a war in Afghanistan that the American people no longer fully supported. But we wanted to do it in a way that did not impinge American credibility the way the withdrawal did under the Biden administration. So we were looking to have it—one of our conditions was no attacks on Americans. And there were attacks on Americans as soon as President Trump left office.
One of our conditions was a negotiation with the current—the then-current government of Ghani, President Ghani, to have some sort of transitional government.
And the other thing we did is, keep in mind, we negotiated for—we had 2,500 American troops that were in Afghanistan on January 20th. President Trump had made the decision to leave them there after a lot of back and forth. But what we also negotiated with NATO—and for the first time in history we had 5,000 NATO troops, along with our 2,500 troops, so we had a two-to-one burden sharing with our European allies and Turkey to have twice as many NATO troops in Afghanistan as we did.
So had we ended up going to a withdrawal situation that would have been a much different type of withdrawal. The president has spoken about that. I spoke about it at the time—
O’BRIEN: —probably on your show. And that is—
BRENNAN: To clarify, do you mean to suggest there would not have been a withdrawal?
O’BRIEN: Well, I—
BRENNAN: Do you mean to suggest you would have left a stabilizing force?
O’BRIEN: Well, I think the suggestion is I wouldn’t withdraw under the circumstances that we saw, you know, develop last year, which was extraordinarily unfortunate. And I’m sure even my good friends in the Biden administration are, you know, not happy about it. That would not have ever happened under a Trump administration.
And I think there was a situation—and this is something that came up in the negotiations—where, in a transitional government, there would have been an invitation for Americans and for Europeans to stay in Afghanistan.
So, look, the reality is that it’s a kind of—you know, it’s a hypothetical situation or a hypothetical question. But all I can say is on January 20th we had 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan. We had 5,000 NATO troops. And the country was stable. And that changed dramatically. And I think we did take a hit to U.S. credibility.
I think, in hindsight, the Biden folks would have done something completely different. You can’t say that when you’re in office, for political reasons, but I can’t imagine that anyone from the president down were happy with the way that it—no matter what Jen Psaki says at a press conference, I can’t imagine there’s anyone in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon that is proud of the way that happened. And we took a hit to our credibility, as Condi pointed out. And we’re going to have to recover from that hit by doing other things to show that America is going to stand by its allies.
BRENNAN: Do you regret not including the Afghan government in the direct talks with the Taliban?
BRENNNAN: I know you talk about in the future it could have happened, but in the—
O’BRIEN: There were always—there were always talks, and I’m not going to get into all the details of it, but there were always talks between the government and the Taliban. Some of those were side-by-side talks. Some of those were shuttle negotiations with Zal Khalilzad undertaking those. But the Afghan government was—I spoke with President Ghani on a regular basis, as did Secretary Pompeo. So the Afghan government was very involved.
And again, our hope was that we could negotiate, and we weren’t going to leave until we could negotiate a situation where the Taliban and the Afghan government came together and formed a transitional government that would have avoided some of the chaos that we saw last year. At least that was our plan. Of course, we weren’t around to execute it, so you don’t know how that would have worked out. But that’s what our hope was.
BRENNAN: Well, we could do an hour on this, but I know I want to get to another member who’s waiting in the queue with a question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jeh Johnson.
Q: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you can hear me.
BRENNAN: We can.
Q: Margaret, it’s nice to conduct an interview that lasts longer than seven-and-a-half minutes.
Q: A question for one or all three of you. In preparing for a possible invasion by Putin into Ukraine, if you were still national security advisor, would you give the president, as part of his response options, an option for an offensive cyber operation of some type in—against the Russian government by the Department of Defense?
BRENNAN: Who wants to take that? It’s a great question. I wish I’d thought of that.
O’BRIEN: Mr. Secretary, that’s a great question. Look, we’d have to see how things played out and what tools were available and, certainly, cyber is—an offensive cyberattack is a tool that the U.S. has and that the president always has available to him.
I think at this point what I’d be more interested in doing would be moving troops out of Germany, which hasn’t been necessarily helpful in this crisis, as Secretary Rice has pointed out, and moving a number of those troops forward into NATO countries—not into Ukraine but into Poland, specifically.
We have thirty thousand to fifty thousand garrison troops in Germany with their families there. I would move a good chunk of those troops, and we tried to do that during the Trump administration and were unable to get it done.
But I would move a number of those troops forward to protect the Article 5 NATO countries and send a strong message to, you know, President Putin in response to any land invasion of Ukraine. But, certainly, the cyber option would be something that would be on the table that you’d consider depending on what the Russians did and if the Russians made some sort of similar attack on a NATO ally or the United States homeland itself.
RICE: Well, I—
DONILON: Hey, it’s Tom. I’m sorry. Go ahead, Condi.
RICE: Oh, I was just going to say, of course, the president keeps all of his options on the table. I think the—and, Jeh, you will know this, having been at Homeland—I think one of the problems we have is that we don’t actually have the kind of highly articulated strategy for cyber, either defensive or offensive, for that matter, that we had in the nuclear age where we thought a lot about how to think about stability between nuclear forces. And I’m a little concerned that on the cyber side you could start to unleash unintentional demons, just given that this is such a new realm and such a new battlefield and we don’t really understand, I think, even what we consider to be an act of war if the Russians retaliated.
So it’s a tool that the president always has. I remember, again, in 2007 when the Russians shut down Estonia in a major cyberattack, a country that considered itself an e-country, and, frankly, we probably should have at that point become more seized with the idea of how we would think about a NATO strategy for either deterring or punishing cyberattacks but, in part, because the cyber world is not a government world. It’s a world that involves the private sector in major ways.
I hope we get to the point where we would understand what the use of that target or that weapon might mean. But I’m a little concerned that we’re kind of back at, if you will, Hiroshima and Nagasaki with cyber weapons, not in the pretty sophisticated way that we understood nuclear weapons and the potential impact.
DONILON: Yeah. Jeh, this is Tom. Just one—I think, one, we should fully expect that cyber would be part of any Russian military package if it did engage in military action against Ukraine. I think they’re already laying the groundwork for that, and we have a history in Ukraine of Russian action on the cyber frontage, as you know, Jeh.
Second, you know, is I think we should have our defenses way up and our antennae way up with respect to possible action by Russians or actors acting on behalf of Russia, which is the kind of hybrid activity that we’re all aware of.
Third, it would depend, you know, to some extent on what the Russians did. I mean, if you had an attack—a cyberattack—on a NATO ally or on us, we would keep all our options on the table, I think. And we have, you know—as you know, the United States has significant capability in this area.
One thing I wanted to mention on the Germans, who have come up a couple of times, Chancellor Scholz is coming to Washington February 7th. I, actually—in listening to our ministers talk this week, I’m actually more optimistic about Germany being in—kind of in close coordination and in sync with the United States than I was a couple of weeks ago.
RICE: I agree with that, Tom. I am more optimistic. I still do worry about the kind of underlying problem of German dependence on the Russians. And it’s part of the point that you made earlier about how important it is to really nail down alternatives for the Germans is really important, because they have a problem in terms of 40 percent dependence. They’ve got a problem.
O’BRIEN: And, Margaret, if I could just—
BRENNAN: Go ahead.
O’BRIEN: —one last—one last point on tech.
O’BRIEN: This is a bigger issue than just a cyberattack from Russia involving Ukraine. We need to make sure that we’re fully funding and that our corporations—our private corporations—that are doing the AI research, companies in Silicon Valley that are doing quantum research, are fully supported. We need to make sure that we’re moving forward on 5G and getting spectrum out to the American people. And what’s really critical—and we’ve started this; the CHIPS Act is out there—we need to make sure we bring our supply chain home from China but also from vulnerable Taiwan, and make sure that we can build ships. And I was heartened to see that Intel is building—announced a big plant in Ohio. I think Samsung has got a plant in Texas. TSMC is talking about a plant in Arizona. But especially for the American companies like Intel, we need to get those chipmakers home and our supply chain home here because this goes beyond just this current crisis; this is something we’ll be facing for the next ten or twenty, thirty, fifty, hundred years, and we need to make sure that our—that we maintain our lead in tech and don’t cede that to Beijing or Moscow or any other country.
BRENNAN: And that takes us to China, but just to button up on cyber: You know, one of the things when I ask questions about what happens if Russia carries out an attack like they did in 2017 that’s aimed at Ukraine but ends up impacting the rest of the world—what happens then? And Secretary Rice was just basically saying we don’t really have the architecture for that, not just domestically as the playbook, but what is the response? Where does that fall? NATO has said that would trigger—you know, an attack on a member state would trigger collective action, but it’s not that clear sometimes—right?—if there’s fallout globally. Do you have thoughts on how that should happen?
RICE: Well, of course, some ambiguity here is probably a good thing, right—(laughs)—because you would like your adversary to assume that you could use the whole range. Where I’m more concerned is whether within NATO we’ve really had the kind of dialogue that we need to—
RICE: —(note ?) what we mean by an attack on an Article 5-protected country would trigger an attack. And when I mention the nuclear age, it wasn’t as if—it wasn’t that we always said we will do this, but through exercises and simulations and discussions and people working together, we had come to some understanding of what NATO’s strategy was vis-a-vis nuclear weapons. I think we need that same kind of highly articulated strategy on cyber.
But let me just—again, the big problem with cyber is we’re not talking about just government resources here; we’re talking about a large portion of the private sector. And here in the Silicon Valley, one of the things that we’re trying to do at Hoover and in other places is to get more discussion between the private sector—that is, the people who are creating these technologies—and the government, because they don’t always speak the same language about a lot of these issues, and so I think we have some work to do internally on how we think about the architecture and the strategy about cyber, because it’s not just the government’s business. The private sector is heavily involved here. And by the way, the most vulnerable is actually, of course, the private sector, not the—
BRENNAN: Right. Right.
Operator, was there another question in the queue?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jane Harman.
Q: Thank you. It’s an excellent panel and I want to enthusiastically endorse everything everyone has said. (Laughs.) It’s really very thoughtful.
My question is about a tool that I don’t think we’re using adequately and that is our ability to communicate directly to the Russian people, not just government-to-government diplomacy. And I recognize that all of you are speaking from a security perspective, but it seems to me that the Russian people don’t understand—I’m talking about communicating real facts, not fake facts—don’t understand the implications of many of their troops coming back in body bags and they don’t understand the implications if Russia is denied access to global energy markets of their very fragile economy totally tanking. And if we could get that message out—it’s true that Putin is ruthless in jailing his enemies—think Navalny—but just watching the Kazakhstan experience leads me to believe that people will rise up anyway and that Putin’s grip on power could really be threatened and that this could be a deterrent that we’re not making full use of. I’m just curious what you think.
And Margaret, this is directed to you, too, since you’re in the news biz.
RICE: Well, let me start and then I—hello, Jane. Nice to hear from you. I think you’ve really struck something which is, people often ask me, you know, the disinformation and why don’t we do that better? Well, actually because we can’t because it will appear on Margaret’s show if we try something like that. What we’re best at doing is telling the truth. If you go back to Radio Free Europe, or Voice of America, which now people see with a great deal of nostalgia, it was because they told the truth to a population—to populations that were skeptical of the messages and news that they were getting from their government. And that’s why they were successful. We need more efforts to do that in places like Russia, because I think the level of skepticism in the Russian population about Vladimir Putin and his government is at a new high.
And it’s in part because of some of the work that Navalny has done. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the videos that they do that are in the kind of great Russian tradition, that goes all the way back to czarist times, of kind of making fun of their government through satire. And Putin hates it. He hates that these videos come out about his wealth, and his holdings. And so I think there is a lot there that could be done just to speak the truth. And the Russians haven’t been as effective as the Chinese at shutting down the internet. And so I think there are measures there. And I think if you could get a true read on the Russian people, there’s a lot of skepticism about—not about Crimea, where even my—many of my liberal Russian friends said: Crimea has always been Russian since Catherine the Great, et cetera, et cetera.
But on an invasion of Ukraine, where Russians, as you say, are coming back in body bags? I’m not sure that would be so popular. And they couldn’t even hide it, by the way, by ’87 in Afghanistan that Russians were coming back in body bags. They’d have a lot less capability of hiding that now because the internet does still function in Russia. So I think you’re onto something very important. Tell the truth and tell it to the Russian population. And that too may help to deter Vladimir Putin from some of the more extreme actions.
O’BRIEN: And Jane, I think you’ve really hit on something with political warfare, and getting our message out. We’ve really left our ability to get the truth out atrophy over the—under Republican and Democrat administrations. So when Secretary Rice talks about the good old says of Radio Free Europe and Radio Marti and the Voice of America, and even the BBC World Service. The Brits have done a little bit of a better job in keeping that avenue open than we have. But we need to be able to get that message out, not just to the Russians but also the Chinese people.
We ought to have stations that are broadcasting into Western China, into Xinjiang, letting folks know—and to Tibet—letting folks know that we understand that there are oppressed people around the world, and that there is a free world. That there is beacon of hope. There is one last best hope for mankind on Earth, as Ronald Reagan used to talk about the United States. And we need to be a beacon as something that can be at least heard by oppressed people around the world. And so we need to put more money into that area. It’s unfortunate, it’s a capability that the United States has that has atrophied. And it is something that should be rebuilt, in my view. So that’s a great question, Jane.
BRENNAN: And before I move to the next question, my only comment on that would be showing that our democracy actually can function would probably be the best fact to be able to broadcast anywhere in the world. And that’s some work to do at home. And I do believe that journalism has to be part of that process in bringing truth to power and being a pain the neck to all of you all the time, as we are as journalists. But fixing ourselves at home might be part of that solution. If I realm into opinion.
Back on what I’m supposed to be doing, which is asking questions. Mr. Donilon, on China, do you believe that Vladimir Putin is buddying up to Xi Jinping in a way that would make him think twice about taking action in the next few weeks during the Olympics?
DONILON: I don’t know about that. Let me quickly finish on your point you were making, Margaret, which is a really important point. You know, part of our efforts during the Cold War was to ensure that we addressed our domestic divisions and issues. And we did that, particularly in the area of civil rights during the 1950s and ’60s. And I do think, as the president has said, we are in a contest. We’re in a historic moment where essentially the capabilities and the ability to deliver for people is between autocratic systems and a democratic system, it’s on the table, right? And it’s at issue in the world. And so the kind of perfecting our union here, and addressing our issues here—including the health of our democracy—is absolutely essential in this much longer and bigger fight that we’re in, I think. So I think you hit on, Margaret, exactly on the right—on the right point.
You know, with respect to China and Russia, a couple points. One, there is no doubt that the strategic relationship between China and Russia has deepened. I think that Xi and Putin have met, like, three dozen times. There’s a—we saw, by the way, just recently, you know, a naval exercise in the Persian Gulf with Iran, China, and Russia. So there’s a deepened—there’s a deepened security and strategic relationship between the two.
With respect to, you know, Putin has committed to go to the opening, I guess, of the Olympics on February 4th in Beijing. I don’t—you know, it’s hard to make these kind of judgements as to what he might do, or what he might not do. I don’t know that he’d want to show up there and be running a war at the same time out of the country. So it may be a constraint, but we’ll have to—we’ll have to see. I mean, he launched the Crimea invasion just four days after the Sochi Olympics, I think.
RICE: Well, and he also—he also launched the Georgia invasion in the middle of the Beijing—the last Beijing Olympics. Which, by the way, didn’t go over so well with the Chinese, so it might be a bit of a constraint. Yeah.
DONILON: Right. Yeah. So I think it might be a constraint. I also don’t know, frankly—although they’re certainly—they have about 130,000 troops in various—coming in various directions to Ukraine. I don’t know if they’re exactly ready to launch kind of a major invasion in the next—in the next week or so. And also we have a diplomatic track that’s underway as well. It hasn’t been completely shut down. You know, the Russians have given kind of mixed responses in the public, at least, to the paper that the United States delivered through Ambassador Sullivan the other night. But they have said—I think, you know, Lavrov has said this, there are certain elements of this which could be—which could be the basis for a continued diplomatic conversation. So there’s a diplomatic effort underway. His planned trip to Beijing is on for the opening of the Olympics. May be a constraint. But it might also—it might also not be that relevant to the plan they had in place anyway.
RICE: Yeah. I would—I’d make really two quick points about that. The first is, if you are going to launch a big invasion, you’d better do it before spring. Because as Napoleon and Hitler learned, big moving vehicles in the mud is not really a lot of fun. And so—but I don’t think that’s his best option. I think his best option is something in the Donbas that supports the separatist movements there. As I said, a pretext where maybe Russians are being treated badly, or something like that.
Just on the China-Russia piece, I’m always a little bit more skeptical of this whole strategic relationship. I do know that there’s a lot going on, and they obviously have—obviously have a common interest in making life miserable for the United States and for the West. But in the final analysis, I don’t know that Putin wants to play second fiddle to Xi Jinping. Both of these men have enormous egos. Secondly, the whole Gazprom oil—natural gas deal has been a bit of a problem, because it turns out Gazprom thought that they were getting market prices, and the Chinese thought they were concessionary prices. And so the big deal that Putin and Xi announced has been slower to get into practice.
And then there may be new rivalry growing around Central Asia, where the Russians are reasserting themselves and where the Chinese have great interests. So I hope we don’t make the mistake that we made with the Sino-Soviet split. We were so certain that that was the tightest of alliances, when it turns out it was creaking from within. So, yes, they are doing more together. Yes, they are trying to forge new strategic alliances. But there are some constraints on it. And just, and finally, a strong democracy, absolutely we need to deal with our own concerns. But when I was traveling around the world I used to tell them that as somebody who grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, it wasn’t that I saw the United States with rose-colored glasses. But I did still see the United States as the best place in trying to deal with its divisions. And I’m not sure the rest of the world can say that.
DONILON: Essentially, Condi, on the China relationship, I think that’s—I think that’s a fair point. And it’s a point, by the way, the Putin’s going to have to face here. And I think he has a range of options he can undertake. And kind of a mass invasion of a country of forty-two million people might not be optimal for him at the end of—at the end of day, and under any circumstances. But he does have to face, if he does undertake an action that engenders the kinds of response that the West can muster here, and is mustering here, and he faces then a fundamental rupture with Europe and the West—economically, and politically, and in every other way—does he really want to be here and ultimately reliant on a partnership with the Chinese, as a junior partner? I think it’s a very fair point.
O’BRIEN: You know, following up on Tom and Condi’s point, remember Xi talks about the century of humiliation, you know, often, and restoring all Chinese territory that was taken by European powers. I think it was the 1865 Treaty of Peking in which China ceded massive amounts of, hundreds of acres, millions of acres of land to the Russians. And they’re now incorporated into the Russian Federation. And at some point, some nationalist in China is going to dust off that treaty and realize that Russia took advantage of the century of humiliation also, and that there’s a lot of, quote, “Chinese,” unquote, territory that needs to be handed back. And I’m not sure if Vladimir Putin’s in the business of ceding Russian sovereignty and ceding Russian territory to any country, including China, notwithstanding his chumminess with General Secretary Xi.
BRENNAN: All right. Well, there is a lot more to talk about with all of you, but I do have to wrap us up since we are at the 2:00 hour. And I just want to thank everyone for joining virtually. Thank you to all three of our panelists as well. I mean, this is an incredible booking to get to talk to all of you at this moment. I’d love to continue to pick your brains. And please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the Council of Foreign Relations website. So thanks to all of you members for listening in and for all of you watching at home.