Former top Pentagon official weighs in on Putin’s choices in Ukraine

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In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Mike Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a former Special Forces officer and CIA operations officer. Vickers and Morell discuss whether and how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have been a gross strategic miscalculation, how and when the West might have deterred his moves, and what future scenarios for the conflict exist. They discuss Putin’s options and decision-making and how his pariah status will affect developments domestically and globally.

Highlights

Russia’s military performance to date: “He’s really in a no-win situation. I mean, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Territorial Defense Forces are way overperforming and Russia’s forces are way underperforming. They haven’t been able to take any major cities. Its forces have been repelled and pushed back in several places. They haven’t even been able to achieve air superiority after four days of war. You know, in short, Ukrainian David is just kicking the crap out of the Russian Goliath.”

Has Putin changed? “He was always cold, calculating and ruthless. A KGB man through and through. And you know, a lot of these anti-West, anti-U.S. statements really started in 2007. Or even, some of them, like the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, I think dates back to 2005. But he’s now more emotional, more erratic, more rambling, I think more reckless, perhaps from increasing self-isolation and confidence in himself. He’s been ruling for 22 years and he’s really gone for broke here, as we’ve talked about earlier. This looks like a major strategic blunder that the potential losses way outweigh the gains. And so, I think in that sense, he really is a different man now, and therefore potentially more dangerous.”

Could Putin be toppled? “He’s really in a no-win position here in Ukraine. I just don’t see how he achieves his objectives. And so he’s got to find a way out. And you know, they’re clever about saying anything they want for justification. So maybe he’ll resort to that at this point.  I wouldn’t rule out that he could be toppled. I know it’s a long shot, but he really has put himself in a bind here. But you know, it could get ugly before it gets better. And I hope we have the stomach to see this through.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – MIKE VICKERS

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show again. For those who don’t remember Mike, he is a very special person, tons of experience in the intelligence community. Also tons of experience at the Department of Defense. Very close friend of mine. We closely together during both the Bush and Obama administrations. Mike, it’s great to have you back.

MIKE VICKERS: Thank you, Michael. It’s pleasure to be with you.

MICHAEL MORELL: I should also mention that we’re taping this on Monday, the 28th of February. It’s going to run on Tuesday, March 2nd as a podcast. I just want everybody to keep that in mind because what’s going on in Ukraine is a very fast-moving event. So please just remember that as you’re all listening.

I should also say that that this is not going to be sort of a standard Intelligence Matters interview where I’m asking questions and Mike is answering them. We’re going to actually try to turn this into a conversation, maybe the kind of conversation that we would have had in one of our offices when we were back in government, or the kind of conversation that we have today when we’re having breakfast together. So we’ll try to make this a conversation.

So. Mike, I’d love to start by talking a little bit about where we are and then we’ll go to how did we get here and where might we be going?

But I really want to start with with the situation that Vladimir Putin finds himself in right now. And the question on my mind is: did he miscalculate? Nothing seems to be going right for him. Not the fight in Ukraine – most people thought, sure, the Ukrainians would put up a struggle, but he would quickly get to the capital.

Nothing seems to be going right for him in terms of the international response. Most thought it would be more split, and it’s, as you know, significantly unified.

And certainly not the response that he hoped to get at home, right? We have people out in the streets protesting. So I’m just wondering how you think about that question of miscalculation. I’m beginning to think this might be one of the most significant miscalculations he’s made as president.

MIKE VICKERS: Not surprisingly, Michael, I agree with you. I think this is a major strategic blunder. And I think it stems from the fact that he’s overconfident, that he always wins his wars. Second Chechnya war, Russo-Georgia war in 2008, annexation of Crimea and the seizure of the Donbass in 2014, his intervention in U.S. presidential elections in 2016 and 2020. And now this.

But he really in a no-win situation. I mean, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Territorial Defense Forces are way overperforming and Russia’s forces are way underperforming. They haven’t been able to take any major cities. Its forces have been repelled and pushed back in several places. They haven’t even been able to achieve air superiority after four days of war. You know, in short, Ukrainian David is just kicking the crap out of the Russian Goliath.

Now it’s only four days in. The Ukrainian leadership and and people’s grit and societal mobilizations is inspiring the world. You know, as you noted, Europe, and more and more the world, is mobilized in opposing Russia. The turnabout in Germany is particularly striking, supplying stingers and other weapons. Several countries, including small ones on Ukraine and Russia’s borders, are providing weapons to the Ukrainian resistance.

And then you mentioned his position at home. You know, the Central Bank sanctions are already biting. The ruble fell 20 percent today. And so while he’s progressively turned Russia into a police state and killed or attempted to kill and jailed his opposition, he’s increasingly vulnerable at home.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, I think you’re right about history driving his calculation here and how easy he had things in other places militarily. But history may have been affecting how he was thinking about how the West would respond. Because before they didn’t respond as a group, the EU didn’t join sanctions in 2014. The US sanctions after Georgia, after the invasion in 2014 in Ukraine, after the 2016 election – they were essentially slaps on the wrist. So again, if history was guiding him, it’s not turned out the way that it had turned out before.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s right. That’s certainly what he expected. I don’t really see the theory of victory he had other than he thought he could really divide the West and conquer Ukraine easily. But you know, I would add, he doesn’t have enough force to achieve his objectives. If he keeps his forces in Ukraine, even if he were to nominally install a puppet government, Russia’s casualties will increasingly mount as long as the U.S. and the West support the resistance. And if he withdraws, that public regime would be in mortal danger from day one. So he’s in a real tough spot.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, you think he’s at risk militarily in Ukraine, that he could get bogged down, that he could fail to meet his objectives? Is that your sense? It’s certainly mine.

MIKE VICKERS: Yes. Now he does have escalation options and a lot depends on what the West continues to do.

MICHAEL MORELL: So how do we make it more likely that he fails militarily?

MIKE VICKERS: Well, I think it’s really important that he fail. Boris Johnson has said that, and I certainly agree with it.

If we don’t defeat him here, if he does prevail, he’s likely to go on. Ukraine isn’t his sole interest. He’s likely to go on and and do other things.

So the way we make it more likely is strong support of the resistance. Ukraine has a lot of things going for it that resistance movements would need: friendly border countries, 2,500 kilometers of border with NATO countries, external sponsor in the United States and others, favorable terrain, and most importantly, a society really mobilized for irregular warfare. So that’s one way.

And then really biting sanctions. We haven’t put sanctions on the energy sector yet. They’ve been exempt. We haven’t put full sanctions on SWIFT. They’ve been mostly symbolic. There’s ways to really hurt the Russian economy and to undermine Putin’s role at home through non-lethal covert measures. He’s done it to us. We should certainly return the favor.

My concern is if he escalates internally in Ukraine, if he levels cities like he did in Chechnya and Syria, indiscriminately kills civilians, employs chemical weapons, I hope we would get off our duffs and use air power to stop that carnage. You know, U.S. air power could certainly bring an end to this war much sooner than irregular warfare could, although irregular warfare will make its position increasingly untenable.

MICHAEL MORELL: I wonder, Mike, why he’s struggling so militarily, right? I mean, one is the will of the Ukrainians to fight, right, and will to fight is incredibly important – as we saw in Afghanistan, where there was not a will to fight. So there’s the will to fight of the Ukrainians, who are very effective at what they’re doing.

But I’m wondering to what extent the Russians made mistakes militarily, number one, and number two, I’m wondering to what extent his own troops, Putin’s own troops, don’t have a will to fight here against their Ukrainian brothers, particularly killing women and children.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, I think that last part is a big part of this. Russian troops seem to be surrendering even in fairly elite formations, 1st Tank Guards Army, for example, that’s led part of the assault on Kyiv has really struggled. Even their special forces don’t seem to be performing all that well.

So I think the Russian military here was really overestimated in its capabilities. Taking cities is hard, but they haven’t even done well on the outskirts.

MICHAEL MORELL: So back to the question of is he at risk politically at home. My view is that this may be the first time that he has done something that significantly risks undermining his strength and perhaps even risks him losing his job. The oligarchs are paying significant costs here. His whole society is paying a significant cost.

Women and children dying in Ukraine and being stuck in subways and struggling to get out of the country – that kind of thing doesn’t sell well in Russia. And I’m just wondering how you think about the vulnerability that he faces politically at home? Could we see an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule here if things continue to go badly for him?

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, I think it’s not out of the question. I mean, he has this tacit alliance with China, and China may prop him up in some ways, although there seems to be some wavering there.

But I think this is the most precarious position he’s been in in his 22 years of rule by far. He had a good economy the first eight years, after that interregnum with Medvedev, for four years when he was prime minister, then he came back and he’s been increasingly belligerent. It actually started in 2007 at a speech he gave in Munich that was vehemently anti-West.

But he’s had this string of victories. And they’ve built up reserves and he’s clamped down on the opposition. But this changes things very dramatically. The tenuous position that Russia is in now globally, and then the costs at home, including the psychological costs of this brutality.

MICHAEL MORELL: And back to something you said earlier. I’m wondering about the risk of escalation here. Will things not going right for him lead him to be more reckless? You talked about Chechnya-style activities in Ukraine. Any risk, Mike, that you think he might use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

MIKE VICKERS: It’s possible. I think he would flatten cities and then use chemical weapons and then potentially nuclear weapons. Then if he did use nuclear weapons, I think the first thing he’d do, likely, is a demonstration shot. Something we talked about a lot in the Cold War, to signal intent and try to get your opponent to back down, you know, fire off a weapon in some area without a population, over water or something to say, ‘Look, I’m serious.’ And so I think that would be their first move.

But you know, the Russians consider tactical nuclear weapons as just another weapon to employ under the right circumstances. And their fundamental doctrine is to escalate to de-escalate. And he’s got options; the internal ones I talked about in Ukraine. He could widen the war to a NATO frontline state, particularly the the Baltic countries.

We tend to think of sanctions as almost this free lunch, something you could do if you don’t want to use hard power and punish an adversary. It works against some adversaries, although it takes time. Putin’s not likely to take that lying down. You know, if you do enough real damage to his economy, something like defeating him in war conventionally or other means, he would lash out to try to stop that and cyber is his most likely weapon to do that against the West and the U.S.; particularly maybe in the energy sector, financial sector is a harder target.

But he also could cut transatlantic cables, and that would really have a bad effect on the global economy and do other things. So he seems desperate and he’s reckless and he doesn’t seem like the same guy he was five years ago. So there definitely is an escalation risk.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, you mentioned a few minutes ago that if he starts indiscriminate killing, the leveling of cities, use of chemical weapons, that the West should essentially join the fight from the air. I certainly see the logic in that. But I also see the risk for escalation of general war between Russia and NATO or Russia and the United States.

How do you think about that risk? How do you think he would respond to, you know, F-35s over Ukraine shooting down his aircraft, bombing his troops on the ground? How do you think he’d react to that?

MIKE VICKERS: Well, there certainly is a risk. But I think he’d also fear it in some way because we have superiority in those areas, and that would put him in an even bigger bind. Most of his available combat forces are tied up in Ukraine right now, and so he’s bitten off more than he can chew already. And so, you know, if he succeeds there, then he could do other things. He might lash out with a strike or two against NATO countries, but an all-out invasion – they’re invading Ukraine right now. So I think there’s a bit less risk of that.

I would add we had to deal with this problem in the Cold War. We were prepared to defend Europe against Soviet forces on the inner German border where there was the risk of escalation. If we’re going to defend South Korea against a North Korean attack, there’s a risk of escalation; North Korea has plenty of nuclear weapons. If we’re going to defend Taiwan, China has nuclear weapons – so this is not a problem you can wish away, I think. And so Ukraine has to be put in that larger strategic context.

You know, if we can win indirectly, that’s great. I think it was a real mistake to take at least the possibility that we would use U.S. air power and build up forces to match Putin’s buildup in Europe like we would have done in the Cold War before the conflict. I think we might have prevented this war had we done that. We and the Russians and the Brits are all signatories to a thing called the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, where Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances that its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected. And now it wasn’t a collective defense treaty, but it should have some force and we haven’t even mentioned it.

MICHAEL MORELL: And it was a promise. It was an absolute promise.

MIKE VICKERS: That was a promise. That’s right. From a U.S. administration and I think that might have deterred Putin. There are lots of things that could have deterred Putin, had we done things, if we could wind the clock back to 2008. But we can’t.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what about, Mike, what about the risk of other ways we get to escalation between Russia and the United States or Russia and NATO? You know, I’m thinking of the foreign arms that are flowing into Ukraine now and the Russians tangling up with that, or in the Black Sea, right?

I mean, there’s numerous countries’ ships in the Black Sea, the risk of an accident there. I guess that’s another way we could get the escalation between Russia and NATO and Russia and the United States.

MIKE VICKERS: Sure, absolutely. You know, when I was supporting the Afghan resistance in the 1980s, there was always concern that the Russians might – the Soviets might invade Pakistan. And so we supplied Pakistan with a lot of capabilities. They they did a number of cross-border raids and airstrikes and sabotage. They didn’t have the forces then just like today to invade. But, you know, the threat was there.

And as I said, this is war, whether we like it or not. If the sanctions really bite, he might escalate in response to that. We do irregular warfare, he might strike base areas, even if he doesn’t fully invade NATO countries. As you know from our prior experience, there is always the threat that the Iranians might try to close the Strait of Hormuz in any crisis, and it would take us a while to clear it. And so there are any number of ways this could escalate. That’s just part of great power war.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Mike, maybe we switch now a little bit to talk about. how did we get here? And I guess the first thing to talk about is what does Putin want? Why did he do this? How do you think about that?

MIKE VICKERS: So, this is not about Ukraine possibly becoming a member of NATO way down the road. It’s not about resolving the Donbass conflict, so-called Minsk-2 agreement or recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or, even more laughable, Ukraine posing a military or nuclear threat to Russia. The threat Ukraine posed to Russia is a democratic threat to Putin’s authoritarian rule.

And he’s been very clear about this. One of the things I’ve learned from you over the years is, when dictators say something, you ought to listen to them; it’s an important part of international relations. And he’s been saying since 2007 that Ukraine is not a real country, that it should be incorporated back into a Russian empire along with Belarus, and he’s become increasingly obsessed with denying the legitimacy of Ukrainian identity and sovereignty.

It’s almost a cult following they put in Putin’s speeches about Ukraine illegitimacy in Russian military education and send these these these things to all their soldiers. So that’s his main goal here, is to extinguish Ukrainian sovereignty.

His broader goals are to reverse NATO’s expansion, weaken and dissolve NATO and weaken the US. At a minimum he wants a sphere of influence over territory formerly controlled by the former Soviet Union. At a maximum, he wants to bring Europe more under Russian domination and reverse the U.S. victory in the Cold War and upend the world order. And the bottom line is if he wins in Ukraine, he is not going to stop there.

MICHAEL MORELL: I agree with all of that. I would just add that Ukraine, of all the nations that border Russia, Ukraine special for him, right? It’s not only all of the things you said, but it’s also to him a very significant political risk, at least the way he thinks about it.

If Ukraine is aligned with the West, if it’s a vibrant democracy, if it’s a vibrant economy, if it’s not aligned with him, then in his mind because of the closeness of the two nations, historically, culturally, etc., in his mind, that would be an existential risk to him because he would fear that his own people would look at Ukraine and say, ‘Hey, we want to be like them; we want to be a democracy, we want to be tied to the West and we want you to go away.’ That is a major concern here for him.

It’s what drove him, I think, more than anything else in 2014, because he was afraid what was happening in the streets of Kiev could happen in the streets of Moscow. So I agree with everything you said. I would just add that one piece.

MIKE VICKERS: Oh, I agree. And it’s personal in a bizarre way, and he’s very crude about it. I don’t know if you’ve heard this joke he made about, basically, “Remarry me, Ukraine, or I’ll kill you like we’ve killed you before.” You know, it has this line in Russian: “It’s your duty, my beauty,” which means, we’re going to abuse you and you do what I say. And it’s sick and Ukraine has a special place for him in lots of ways.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, what do you think, when he started this war, what was his preferred outcome? Was it to incorporate Ukraine back into Russia or was it simply to get rid of the Zelensky government to put his own Ukrainians in charge who would align themselves with Russia, who would destroy Ukrainian democracy, who would put down any protests in the streets? Which of those two things do you think it was?

MIKE VICKERS: I think it was really to incorporate Ukraine back into Russia.

MICHAEL MORELL: Really?

MIKE VICKERS: Yes, I think if he were able to install a puppet government, that puppet government would do just what those idiots in the Donbass did in these new Russian-recognized republics and ask, you know, for independence, but in this case, to be incorporated into Russia. And he’d reluctantly say, “OK.” And I think also he would see that as a way to further guarantee the security of Ukrainian territory, because then it would be Russian territory, and the risk to the West of trying to dislodge it would be higher in his mind.

MICHAEL MORELL: Either way, whether it was to install a puppet government and he needs to keep some force there to support that government, or he incorporates it and he keeps force there, he would be incredibly vulnerable to an insurgency. Just as the Ukrainians did after World War II, and they sent thousands of dead Red Army soldiers back to Russia.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, I agree completely.

MICHAEL MORELL: So that’s the specific goal, right, with regard to Ukraine. What’s the general – go through that again, just for people to understand that?

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah. So I think more broadly, as he said, it’s to really reverse NATO expansion, essentially to rewrite the history of the end of the Cold War, and then to weaken or dissolve NATO or to weaken U.S. ties with Europe, and then importantly, to weaken the U.S., which he sees as his main adversary. I think he wants the whole kit and caboodle.

It’s not like NATO is going to expel 13 countries or whatever it is from NATO that have joined since 1997. But that’s his goal.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Mike, here’s an important question, I think. Is Putin in any way a different person than he was five years ago or 10 years ago? Are we dealing with the same guy or has he fundamentally changed?

I mean, some people have talked about the isolation he’s been in in the last two years because of COVID. I don’t know about that. But are we dealing with the same guy or not?

MIKE VICKERS: I think yes and no. He was always cold, calculating and ruthless. You know, a KGB man through and through. And you know, a lot of these anti-West, anti-U.S. statements really started in 2007. Or even, some of them, like ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,’ I think dates back to 2005.

But he’s now more emotional, more erratic, more rambling, I think more reckless, perhaps from increasing self-isolation and confidence in himself. He’s been ruling for 22 years and he’s really gone for broke here, you know, as we’ve talked about earlier. This looks like a major strategic blunder that the potential losses way outweigh the gains. And so I think in that sense, he really he really is a different man now, and therefore potentially more dangerous.

MICHAEL MORELL: I wonder, you know, the isolation with only a small group of advisers for a very long time, they’ve all become Yes Men. That probably plays a role here. His age probably plays a role in terms of him worrying about whether he can get to his ultimate goal in time, right?

MIKE VICKERS: Right.

MICHAEL MORELL: Must play a role here, too. But I agree. I mean, he is being reckless. And that does make him more dangerous. But we can’t – this is just really important – we can’t let that stop us from taking the steps we need to step to keep pressure on him.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the so-called ‘Madman Theory’ of international relations. Sometimes it’s faked. Sometimes it’s unfortunately real, but you’re absolutely right in that.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, do you think we could have deterred him from this invasion? Was there any way? Is there anything we could have done? You mentioned this briefly earlier. Is there anything we could have done to deter him?

In my mind, there’s kind of two buckets here. One is a longer term, 20 year kind of bucket and then the other is maybe more of a short-term. Maybe I’ll take the longer term and say, if we had responded anywhere near as tough and as unified as we’re responding today back to what he did against Georgia in 2008 or against Ukraine in 2014 or against the United States political system in 2016, I believe that would have been enough to deter him from thinking that he could get away with this. So A- your thoughts on that and B- your thoughts on could we have done something in the immediate months before the invasion that could have deterred him?

MIKE VICKERS: So I agree fully with that, and I think you’re right to look at this in the long term and in the short term, you know, the immediate crisis.

I strongly agree that had we responded more forcefully to his early adventures, it would have deterred him, and we didn’t – he won all those. And that’s why he thinks he can’t lose.

I would add a couple of others. One, Ukraine applied and Georgia applied for NATO membership in 2008, and it’s been progressively stalled by NATO members. You have to have unanimity among 30 countries – particularly Germany and France. If they had agreed to that, particularly after 2014, I think that would have done it, you know, that he was actually taking on NATO. Alternatively, if we recognized that NATO membership was unavailable, but we created a sub-alliance of frontline states – you know, the Poles have been asking for more guarantees, the Baltic states, etc. So if we had them and Romania and Slovakia and the US and UK, you know, just like we created this new Australia, UK, US alliance in East Asia, I think that would have deterred him. Had the Europeans not made themselves so totally dependent on Russian energy, going back years, where he thought he had a stranglehold on them, that might have helped deter him as well. But moving to the near term, I think the biggest thing we could have done was if we had not taken U.S. military intervention – particularly air power intervention, not ground forces, and had matched Putin’s build-up with one of our own, and had we made it clear that we intended to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which Russia signed and we signed, I don’t think he would have started this war. We did none of that. We just watched for months hoping that sanctions would deter him, and they didn’t.

MICHAEL MORELL: This is a great place to transition to how well the Biden administration has handled this. How do you think about that?

MIKE VICKERS: I think reasonably well. I think looking at our government as a whole, the performance of the IC has really been outstanding. I think the administration’s rallying of allies in support of Ukraine has been very good. I think military support to Ukraine could have been better. It was very poor during the early years – that’s another thing we could have done, potentially, to deter this, was to make Ukraine a much harder target than it is. But that’s been pretty good. And the sanctions on the Central Bank have hurt them. I’m reluctant to criticize the administration, so I offer these thoughts solely in the spirit of wanting to see more effective U.S. policy, but, I think we misread Putin for most of the Biden administration’s first year in office.

MICHAEL MORELL: What do you mean by that?

MIKE VICKERS: I think we thought we could just park the Russia problem and deal with China. And the Biden administration said they wanted a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. Well, they sure as heck didn’t get that.

I think our withdrawal from Afghanistan and then these repeated statements very early on that we would not use direct military force to contest a Russian invasion convinced Putin that we were weak and he could take Ukraine unopposed.

And as I said, I think we put too much faith in the deterrent power of sanctions. After the invasion, our response has been better, but it’s still been characterized a bit by incrementalism. So overall, I give them reasonable marks

MICHAEL MORELL: And no doubt in your mind that we should sanction the energy sector? It’s 60 percent of his exports and 30 percent of his economy. And with energy prices skyrocketing, he actually benefits to that to the extent that he can continue to export energy. So I think it’s your view – I don’t want to put words in your mouth here, but I thought you said it earlier – it’s certainly my view that that’s the next step here.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah. So there’s obvious reasons why we’re not doing that. European dependence on Russian oil and gas and not wanting to have the U.S. population pay more at the pump than they already are.

But we’re working at cross-purposes. It’s the same thing with these symbolic sanctions on SWIFT. Either do it or don’t do it, you know? And as you said, even if they can’t convert their oil gain dollars into rubles, they’re still getting richer. They can live to fight another day with when this conflict is over. So I think we’re kind of in the half-measures place on sanctions at this point.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, if we think about the scenarios for how this ends, what do you think?

MIKE VICKERS: That’s really tough to say. I mean, they’ve got these talks going on at the Belarus border today. We don’t know the outcome; most are pessimistic about it.

He’s really in a no-win position here in Ukraine. I just don’t see how he achieves his objectives. And so he’s got to find a way out. And you know, they’re clever about saying anything they want for justification. So maybe he’ll resort to that at this point.

I wouldn’t rule out that he could be toppled. I know it’s a long shot, but he really has put himself in a bind here. But you know, it could get ugly before it gets better. And I hope we have the stomach to to see this through.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, the irony for him is, the more reckless he is in Ukraine or even elsewhere, with, say, cyberattacks against the West, the more reckless he is, the greater chance that he gets toppled.

MIKE VICKERS: That’s right.

MICHAEL MORELL: And that’s why he’s stuck, it seems to me.

MIKE VICKERS: Exactly.

MICHAEL MORELL: He’s in a horrible position.

MIKE VICKERS: Yeah, exactly. And that depends, obviously, on our response. But I think that’s exactly right. We have lots of ways to hurt him that we haven’t done yet. And we could certainly do that.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do you – I don’t – but I’m wondering if you see any way that he comes out of this with a win from his perspective, or is it right now just minimizing the damage?

MIKE VICKERS: I think it’s more minimizing the damage unless we were to suddenly capitulate and the Ukrainians were suddenly to capitulate, which certainly doesn’t seem likely. So I think it really is damage limitation. I just don’t know that they know how to do that.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. If you think about him being toppled, there’s really only three possibilities, right? One is somebody walks in and arrests him; the other is somebody shoots him; and the other is he shoots himself.

He’s not going to be able to go anywhere in the world. Nobody’s going to accept him. So, you know, being toppled is not pretty from his perspective, which loops back to being as reckless as he thinks he needs to be in order to try to stay in power.

MIKE VICKERS: Right. Although, if he’s concerned about being toppled and some of the advisers speak up and he doesn’t kill them, he might decide that it’s better to forestall that and find a way out of this crisis.

MICHAEL MORELL: Just one more question. We’re kind of running out of time here a little bit. But one more question, Mike: if this ends badly for him and he limps his way out of Ukraine, he’s undercut significantly at home in terms of his politics, maybe he’s even toppled – does this end up being a revitalization of the global order? Is this a shot in the arm to the global order that’s been eroding the last decade and a half?

MIKE VICKERS: So I think it’s definitely that, but it depends on what the outcome really is with Russia. If he’s toppled, there’s still China to deal with. And at least Europe, the European West, may revert back to, you know, the good days of the 1990s again, slowly, over time, because China’s too distant and they have multiple interests there.

If he manages to survive, if he cuts his losses and then rebuilds, you still have this tacit China-Russia alliance that has a very different vision of the global order. That makes it a bigger challenge for us than any time since the end of the Cold War. So I think that that’s still uncertain.

You know, on the other hand, if he does survive, I think he’s really lost the West and Europe at this point.

MICHAEL MORELL: He’s a pariah forever,

MIKE VICKERS: He’s a pariah forever. So there’s a number of ways this could go. But this has changed the world. There’s no question of that.

MICHAEL MORELL: Also, if you’re China and you see the world’s response to his invasion of Ukraine, it’s got to make you think twice about invading Taiwan.

MIKE VICKERS: Well, I think both both are true. If this had gone easy for him, they might have taken advantage of that and now it ought to make you think twice.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, yeah. Mike, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been great to have you.

MIKE VICKERS; My pleasure, as always.

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