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John McLaughlin on Russia's world-changing war - "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin about the global implications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine — including within Russia itself, across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. McLaughlin offers analysis on Russian president Vladimir Putin's personal position, the nature of a potential Ukrainian insurgency, and the rebuilding that will have to follow the end of the war. Morell and McLaughlin also discuss the future of Western alliances, how China deals with the world, and how the world may now seek to deal with China.  
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MICHAEL MORELL: John, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It's great to have you on the show again.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks, Michael. Great to be with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, you wrote what I thought was a fascinating piece a few days ago. The title was, "Tectonic Shifts: How Putin's War Will Change the World." It was published in a new online publication called Grid. Our listeners can find your piece by searching "John McLaughlin" and "Grid" and it pops right up. I strongly suggest that they go read it.
I thought it was very insightful and what I really want to do today is kind of walk through that with you because I think some of the points you make are incredibly important. But I wanted to start, John, with the conversation, the way you started your piece with the conversation that you had with military historian Tom Ricks in the mountains of Sicily a few years ago. Can you tell us about that conversation and then how that relates to what's happening in Ukraine today?
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Sure, Michael. This was a trip that we use to take students to areas of conflict and then study them. So we were in Sicily looking at the allied operation there in 1943, in which allied forces jump from North Africa to Sicily on their way to the Italian campaign.
And Rick and I were standing in the mountains in Sicily and at the scene of a great battle between the Germans and the Americans. And he said to me, 'Do you think we'll ever see anything like this again?' And what he meant was, you know, big battles between major countries over large swaths of territory, essentially was saying something like World War II.
And as I recall, we both thought for a minute and said, 'You're probably not. We're probably past that.' Well, that's what got me thinking about this, because when you see what's happening in Ukraine, the imagery is all World War II. It's all what we have seen in all of the newsreels of soldiers standing around freezing, getting ready to go to battle, rubble, people picking their way through their belongings. Refugees fleeing civilian apartments and installations collapsed.
And it just got me thinking: this is not something that anyone expected to see in Europe again. And the fact that it's happening there, I think, has led a lot of people to say, "This is going to change the world." And so that's why I wrote this piece.
I got to thinking about, 'What? Is that true? Is it really going to change the world?' And I just sort of set a year as a, 'What will it look like a year from now?' - was my task in this piece. And as you know better than anyone, when you're speculating about the future, you're on, you know, dangerous ground, thin ice. But I thought, with everyone saying that, why not test the proposition? So that's what I was trying to do here.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, when I've talked to people about this, one of the first things I say is that, you know, geopolitics, geostrategic matters, are kind of like plate tectonics. They move very slowly. But every once in a while, there is an earthquake. And this is an earthquake. This is going to have long-term consequences.
And I think when you get to the end of your piece, when you get to the end of this thought exercise that you've done here, I think you really make a strong case that the world is going to be a fundamentally different place a year from now than it is today. And maybe the place to start is exactly where you do with Russia and where Russia's likely to be a year from now.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I believe the most profound and certain changes will be with Russia. No one can disagree with that, but I think that's where they will be.
And if you think about it, before this war, Putin had a record of - let's say, a mixed record, but one in terms of the world looking at Russia was - had some positive elements. He had taken Russia from an unstable, unpredictable, volatile place in 1999 when he came to power and given it prominence on the world stage with things like his intervention in Syria and really a diplomacy that was pretty impressive in places as far from Russia as the Middle East, Africa, Latin America.
And while we objected to a lot of the things he had done, taking over Crimea and so forth, the world still looked at Russia as as a major power. And he was a participant in all major international gatherings. Well. I don't see how Russia emerges from this as anything other than an international pariah. And so he's sort of forfeited, by virtue of what everyone is, now, I think, commonly agreeing, even if it cannot be legally dealt with yet, but people are commonly agreeing that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine. He's forfeited Russia's place at the world table. I can't imagine that he will be admitted to the G-20 or G7, that he will be greeted in major capitals with the possible exception of Beijing and maybe Delhi in the future.
And people who were working with him, who had moved about on the world stage with some respect and access as foreign minister, prime minister, other major figures, are now seen as complicit in something that nearly the whole globe condemns. So what does this all add up to at the end of a year, a year from now? I think Russia carries very little weight in the world. Which didn't have to be the case, even with all of the things he had done previously - the incursions in Iraq, in Ukraine, the takeover of Crimea, the poisonings. Nonetheless, people didn't look the other way, but they kind of accepted that as a, 'This is it, this is the way Russia is, but we'll deal with it.'
So I think from now on, I don't think people are going to want to deal with him on the same basis. And that means if you're in Russia now, and you're in the military or what we call the power ministries, the intelligence services, you must be asking yourself, 'Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this what we want Russia to be in the world?' And that could reverberate on Putin's personal position at some point.
I say in this piece - without making a firm prediction - I just say that in the years that I've watched him - I've watched him at least 22 years now - it's the first time I can imagine that he might lose power at some point, through some process in Russia that we can't quite envision at this point.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, John, it's deeply ironic, right, that Putin wanted to go down in history as the leader who made Russia great again. You know, as one of the great czars. And here, you're describing a situation that's just the opposite - as the leader that significantly weakened Russia. It's just deeply ironic.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: There's so many ironies here. It is deeply ironic. I read the other day - I take it as fact - that in one Russian school, students were turning in a teacher for speaking a line that defied or was at odds with Russian policy. That's exactly what happened in Nazi Germany.
In other words, there's plenty of evidence and examples of in Nazi Germany, Hitler Youth being so imbued with the doctrine that was being put out in Nazi propaganda that if teachers misspoke in some way, they would lose their jobs, be turned in.
So the irony here is he said that he's attacking Ukraine; this was his initial justification for the purpose of 'de-Nazifying' it, when in some respects he may be Nazifying his own country. It strikes me as the ultimate irony here.
MICHAEL MORELL: Which is one of the reasons why so many young, educated Russians have left the country and may never return.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN. That's something I've thought about a lot. I've dealt with a lot of Russian, mostly former officials or academics or institute members and so forth. And while I've disagreed with them on policies and even on Crimea, I could understand the case they would make - but I can't believe that they would be endorsing what he's doing now.
And I suspect a number of them may have left. Or if they haven't left, they are probably mortified by what they're saying.
But I could be wrong. I mean, maybe there is more support for this in Russia than I can imagine. As I point out in the piece, reliable surveys show that 51% of the Russian population still admires Stalin. So it may be that this is a universe of opinion that we don't fully understand.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, in a in an email that you shared with me and a couple other former senior agency officials, you talked about how average Russians might be looking at the killing of women and children in Ukraine. And I thought you told a fascinating story about drinking toasts with Russians. Can you can you share that? Because I thought it was really powerful.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it's a very personal thing and very anecdotal, I guess, but -when I would be in Russia either as an official for conversations with Russian officials or Russian intelligence services, and as you know, we always tried to maintain at least formal contacts with them.
Or, when I've been there since as a university person, and you're sitting around and drinking toasts with Russians as the night wears on and as the toasts increase in number and everyone, particularly on the Russian side, grows very sentimental, and as you're toasting everyone from your presidents to your friends and your teachers, at the end of the night, you're always toasting your mothers, wives and children.
And that's the moment of, I think, greatest warmth and sentimentality in these exchanges. And so, what we're seeing, visibly, of mothers and children suffering and leaving their families and getting on trains again - mothers and children getting on trains imagery right from World War II. Fathers being left behind or in some cases, disappearing. All of that runs counter to what I think is in the hearts of most Russians at a very base level.
MICHAEL MORELL: I think so, too. Yeah.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: You probably have had that experience.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: There's something fundamentally wrong here, that is, between the imagery and the news and - I know Putin has a very strong propaganda apparatus now and not much needs to be said about it. Everyone, I think, understands that.
But it's hard for me to believe that across 11 time zones in a country like that, the truth of all of this is going to get through at some point. And I just don't know how that's going to hit people. It may be something that - well, we'll wait and see.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, in that section of your piece where you talk about Russia, you also talk about Ukraine a little bit in two different perspectives. One is a possible Ukrainian insurgency against Russia and Russian forces that remain in the country. And then the second is the rebuilding of Ukraine. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you and I both spent enough time at CIA to see a lot of insurgencies and also to see a period in the 1980s when the CIA sponsored or supported insurgency against the Russians in Afghanistan. And so this is something that the U.S. government, broadly speaking, but particularly the intelligence services, are very experienced at doing that.
when I looked at this, this is one reason why I think Russia ultimately cannot win this. We're talking now about a new offensive they're going to carry out, presumably in the east that everyone predicts will be World War II, like in the sense that it could turn into tank battles on flat agricultural land.
And let's just make the assumption for a moment here: that even though I think the Ukrainians will have the upper hand in terms of will and morale, that it's conceivable that Russian firepower could could overwhelm them at that point.
But even if Putin is able somehow to dominate the country in a military, conventional sense, I'm convinced there will be, because of what he's done, a robust Ukrainian insurgency that will bleed the Russian occupiers for years. And the conditions are set for that, for an insurgency to be acceptable or to be, I'm sorry to say, to be successful; you need three things.
It needs to be somehow aligned with an overall policy - not the thing that is the solution, but something that adds to the overall policy a country is following. Check that one off, because it's clear that the United States favors an independent Ukraine.
Second, there needs to be a safe haven of some sort. And that exists in the sense that you've got four NATO countries on the border of Ukraine that can be the safe haven within which an insurgency can be resupplied and trained and so forth.
And third, you need a willing populace. And of course, you have that in Ukraine in an entire country. So, I think the stage is set for an insurgency here almost no matter what, unless the Ukrainians, we can hope, somehow prevail in a conventional fight, and it never comes to that.
But as we see all of this destruction in Ukraine - the broken buildings, the rubble, the transportation arteries that are destroyed - it must be rebuilt. And I can't think of a better way to build it, to rebuild it, than to somehow take all of these reserves that we have sequestered from the Russians, that are currently blocked, they're frozen in different parts of the world, put them in some sort of an escrow and make them pay for the rebuilding of Ukraine with this pretty large trove of hard currency reserves that they've tucked away.
Which is now, of course, causing them a problem, because when they try to finance their war, countries from whom they wish to buy supplies would like to be paid in hard currency. And they have very little hard currency now, much less hard currency than they had before. So, that's another irony in all of this. If the world can organize itself to do this, it should be Russian money that rebuilds, Russian hard currency that rebuilds Ukraine.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, your next section in your piece is about the U.S. and Europe and where they might be a year from now. Maybe start with the U.S. and then go to Europe.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well after the withdrawal from Afghanistan - I understand the president's decision, but I think we can all say that it wasn't carried out in the best way, for whatever reason. Not casting any blame here, but it didn't look good and it wasn't carried out well. 
So the world looked at that and wondered about the competence of the U.S. and the leadership capability of the U.S.. But one of the things that comes out of this confrontation with Russia over Ukraine is, I think, that the U.S. has demonstrated that it can lead, that it can marshal a coalition, that it can fortify its alliances, that people are looking for U.S. leadership. And so the U.S. comes out of this, I think, having eased a lot of those doubts - perhaps not totally, but eased a lot of them. And also demonstrated that among the various forces competing for influence on the global order - let's say China, Russia, the United States - the United States is really the only one able to marshal this kind of coalition.
So the U.S. comes out of this, I think, with some of those doubts eased and with opportunities in the future to lead, to exert influence, and to, most importantly, fortify alliances, which in these - whatever competition we have with China, will be our force multiplier. So there's that.
For Europe, I think just this week we start to see something coming true that I anticipate in the piece, which is that neutrals like Finland and Sweden are thinking about, and I think leaning now toward, NATO membership. Well, it's obvious why they might be thinking that way. Up to this point, of course, a country like Finland - you'll recall, of course, through the whole Cold War period, 'Finlandization' was a noun that described a neutrality that was, on the one hand, not favorable to the Soviet Union, but certainly sought not to offend it. And Finland walked that line very successfully.
Well, for years it's been coordinating its policy with NATO. And so on one level, you could say, do they really need membership? Because after all, they have some of the benefits of membership now. But I think what's happened here in Ukraine is that Putin has redefined the idea of threat. So if you're in Finland now, the idea of just coordinating with NATO doesn't seem enough. You want that Article Five, that capacity to mobilize all of these allies with you should your territory be pierced by the Russians - which, once again, if you went back five years, I think most people would have not found it plausible that would happen.
But in a way, what Putin has done here as crystallized the idea of threat in the way that 9/11 crystallized the threat from counterterrorism - which you remember, of course, vividly.
So for Europe, it means now a new sense of real threat which successive presidents tried to convey with all of those pleadings to increase defense spending over many years and many administrations. Well, Putin's done the work for us.
So we even see, of course, Germany abandoning decades of hesitation on participation in military matters generally. And countries now thinking about joining NATO who would have not considered that just a few years ago. So, in a way, Putin has gotten exactly the opposite of what he aspired to achieve.
Here he's going to have, at the end of the day, very probably more countries hugging his border with NATO membership than before this. So what a gigantic miscalculation. It's very hard, looking back historically, to see a calculation as wrongheaded as this. You'd have to go back to Hitler having the foolishness to invade Russia in World War II to find something that was as boneheaded a calculation as what he's done in Ukraine.
The other part of it is -it's hard for me to understand why he and those with him didn't understand what they were going to encounter in Ukraine. Maybe it was bad intelligence. Maybe people were afraid to tell them. Maybe they just didn't know. But anyone who's been to Ukraine in recent years knows that it's not the same country that it was when the Soviet Union broke up. It's a new generation there. They are aspiring to be a prosperous, pluralistic, Western country. They have a real democracy.
He has fortified, by this, their sense of nationhood. Why he ever could have imagined that they would be welcomed at all as invaders is beyond me. But once again, there may be something about the Russian thinking that we just don't understand.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, it occurred to me while you were talking about Putin ending up with the exact opposite of what he sought in Europe is another one of the deep ironies that are at play here.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, absolutely.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, another section of your piece that really caught my attention was the one on nuclear issues. I think that's really important. Can you share those ideas with us?
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I feel strongly about that one. And it's one that I think doesn't resonate as clearly with a lot of people, I suspect.
My interest in that was stimulated some years ago. We all, of course, you and I, both were involved in nuclear arms control and such things while at the CIA. But in my private life, since leaving the agency, I spent a good deal of time in conferences out at Stanford some years ago - last decade - that were convened by George Shultz and former Defense Secretary Perry on the issue of nuclear matters.
And their effort, I think often misunderstood, was to drive the world toward more restrictive policies on nuclear weapons. And in fact, they aspired to get the world to zero nuclear weapons, knowing that that was not something you could do in the near term.
And President Obama at the beginning of his administration embraced this idea. In 2009, he gave this speech in Prague that was quite affirmative on that whole idea - that we were going to work very hard to reduce nuclear weapons.
But in fact, though, not a lot happened after that. He did get the New START agreement in 2011. And that's good. But for the most part, we have, in recent years, I think, tended to take nuclear weapons kind of for granted - in the sense that everyone has, I think, generally accepted: they're not really for war fighting. They are for deterrence. And what Putin has done here, he's kind of broken the taboo. The taboo being we don't talk about using nuclear weapons. It just starts a conversation in a bad place. So by suggesting that he might at some point go to a nuclear weapon - I'm assuming he means tactical nuclear weapons because that is at least formally in Russian doctrine, that they can use them if they are conventionally overwhelmed or about to be overwhelmed.
They have this strange phrase - "escalate to deescalate," - which I guess means use a nuclear weapon so that everyone understands this is serious and we have to negotiate or we have to stop fighting. Well, of course, that's a crazy policy because no one knows what happens when you use a nuclear weapon. What is the escalation cycle? And we've stayed away from all of that. And the way that we have generally kept this all under control is through arms control negotiations, largely with Russia, where, over the years, we would sit down around a table and we would discuss all of this and we would be very transparent with each other, as you know, U.S. government people, including intelligence people, would be on inspection teams and so forth inspecting Russia's destruction of its weapons and they would be on teams inspecting ours and so forth.
Well, all of that sort of receded into the background. What Putin has done is bring it forward and remind us that, yes, these weapons are there. And, yes, someone could actually think about using them, for God's sake. And I think that has to renew, not just interest, but renew vigorous interest in nonproliferation and arms control generally.
There is a there is a need now to modernize the arms control agreements we have, because even the latest, the New START agreement, which they've now renewed as a stopgap for five years, even that one does not take account of new technologies like hypersonic weapons.
It, of course, does not include the Chinese who have now laid down a whole new field of missile silos, apparently intended for nuclear weapons. They don't want to talk about it. The Chinese have no particular interest in getting into negotiations. But I think there's probably a way to draw them into that because they do have an interest in the nonproliferation regime.
And there is a nonproliferation - an NPT nonproliferation - treaty review conference coming up in August. The Chinese will certainly be there. I don't know where the Russians will be at that point, but there is an opportunity coming up in just a few months to focus the world's attention on nuclear weapons again.
Which we have to, at the end of the day, we have to realize those things are the things that can destroy humanity. We're doing a lot of other things to put the planet at risk, of course, including climate. But, those are things that - and there are so much nuclear explosive material in the world that is not under globally approved security standards. So that's my basic point, is Putin has focused us again on nuclear stuff and and we need to heed that and act on it.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, your last section is about a very important topic. It's about China and the lasting effects that Russia's invasion of Ukraine might have on China.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I think what Putin has done in Ukraine will have a lasting effect on China and on how China deals with the world - and ultimately how the world deals with China.
As you know, as your listeners, I'm sure do know, the Chinese and Russians now have a partnership which, in their last meeting, was labeled as having 'no limits,' unquote. This was before the invasion of Ukraine, and it involves exchange of information on military matters and exchange of scientific and technical matters relating to defense, joint maneuvers and all of that.
And so this is something that everyone, I think, in the United States has looked on with some concern, obviously. But Putin has put Xi in a difficult spot here on a couple of levels. So far, the Chinese have walked a fine line -which has tipped, of course, more toward Russia than toward anyone else, in the sense that they are still replaying Russian propaganda about things we know not to be true -the U.S. financing bio weapons labs in Ukraine, claims like that. Claims that somehow NATO was genuinely threatening Ukraine. So they are blaming this publicly and that propaganda on NATO and on the United States. And they know that's not true. So they're rebroadcasting his propaganda.
On the other hand. They also say through their ambassadors and through U.N. representatives and so forth, that they deplore the violence. They are prepared to help with humanitarian issues in Ukraine. They respect Ukraine as a country. And in fact, they have a rather deep economic relationship with Ukraine. And so they're trying to find some middle ground here where they can have it both ways. And so far, they've managed to do that.
But if this continues, if you project everything forward and you make certain assumptions, that is that the sanctions stay on and increase, that they continue to wring vitality out of the Russian economy, that the world continues to treat Putin as a pariah, that most of the world condemns what he's doing, the Chinese may find themselves as just about their only champion for something that most of the world has condemned. And is that where they want to be when they are basically presenting themselves as an alternative example of what world order could be? I don't think so.
But I can see this ending in one of two ways for the Chinese. That's the first way. And maybe the more likely way is they never break with Russia. But Russia comes out of this so weakened that Xi basically is able to exploit the Russian relationship in any way he wishes because the Russian partner will be weakened and have very little influence in their relationship and yet can still bring something to it that you can benefit from in a narrow sense. Or - this is hard to imagine, but if you play it all forward, we could reach a point in a year or so where the Chinese look at this and say, you know, weighing the costs versus the benefits, it's costing us more than it's benefiting us to stay close to this guy who now carries very little weight in the world. Except for the irritation factor with the U.S., it doesn't really bring us a lot.
So in that scenario, perhaps the less likely, you could see the Chinese kind of walking away from it, or at least taking the relationship down to a very formal base level.
But the other, larger dimension of this for the Chinese is they both, in slightly different ways, represent an alternative model to the global order that the United States has authored and represented and defended for, you know, 80 years. They project an alternative model. What Putin is doing there is not a very good advertisement for the model. And on that level, too, this could turn out to be more of a cost than a benefit for China.
But in a way, China is the biggest puzzle in all of this. It's the biggest puzzle in all of this. And in a way, they could perhaps have the greatest influence here. They could either broker - they could find a way to broker some sort of peace or they could move away from Putin, basically pull the last prop out from under him. So what they do really is going to matter here, both for them and for the rest of the world.
MICHAEL MORELL: It actually could be - if they thought about this right - playing the role of broker would be a step into global leadership for them. It's just so countercultural from a Chinese role in the world perspective. But it would be the smart move on their part.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: It would really be a smart move. It would. It would. And even to help Putin find an exit ramp out of this.
Somehow the exit ramps are shrinking. I think we used to think there were exit ramps here, but about the only one I can see now for him is to get some small concession from the Ukrainians. And I think that trade space is shrinking daily.
And then to portray that in his media, which he controls, as, you know, mission accomplished and march and have a parade.
Many Russians might buy that, but I don't think the rest of the world would. But that is still a kind of exit ramp that is open to him - with a lot of inventiveness to get there, I guess.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been a fascinating conversation and I'll again encourage our listeners to go to and you can read John's piece. But John, thank you so much for spending time with us.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Michael. Always great to talk to you.
MICHAEL MORELL: Great to talk to you, too.