“President Biden has made it clear that the defeat of Russia in Ukraine is a top priority, and he is trying very hard not to allow Russia to drive a wedge between Washington and key European capitals, especially London, Berlin, France, Paris and Warsaw,” NYT Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker tells the Radio Free Europe Georgian Service. Just two months ago, he wrote that long term US support to Ukraine isn’t guaranteed. If it’s not, what does it hedge on? We ask him for his take.
“It’s a real question in Washington right now,” he tells us. “For the most part, there’s a bipartisan consensus that the United States will stick with Ukraine for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t signs of concern for Ukraine supporters. Obviously, the new Republican majority in the House has said that it will apply a more skeptical eye to future Ukraine aid. Kevin McCarthy, who may or may not become the speaker, depending if he gets the votes, has said “no blank check going forward.” But there’s still a broad bipartisan consensus that Ukraine is important for the US; that we’re there for the long term. It may not be at the same levels as it has been through 2022; there may be more of a fight about it going forward. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has been very staunch in support of Ukraine, in support of the war against the Russian invaders. And there’s a Putin caucus within the Republican Party right now, where it’s oddly more pro-Russian than pro-Ukraine, which is surprising. But it’s relatively small as yet. If former President Trump were to regain the White House, that’s a whole different kettle of fish, because his friendship or affinity for Putin is so unusual and unexplained, that we don’t know where it would take us. But for the moment anyway, I would say the next two years, you can imagine that the US is going to stick pretty closely with Ukraine.
You being a chief White House correspondent, I’d like to ask you about President Biden’s handling of the war.
I think there’s plenty to criticize, but so far, he has been pretty strong in his support for Ukraine. He’s kept the international alliance largely on the same page; he’s kept domestic consensus here in the United States largely on the same page – he doesn’t do everything Ukraine wants him to do, he has drawn lines, he is trying to find a balance as he sees it, between being robust in support of Ukraine and helping Ukraine expel invaders, without allowing the war to expand or escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders horizontally, or into weapons of mass destruction vertically, into some sort of a nuclear exchange. It’s a delicate balance he’s trying to find there. So it is frustrating at times for Ukrainians because they would like to have some weapons that he has refused to give them. They would like the pace of weapons at times to be a little bit more expeditious. But, broadly speaking, I think President Biden has made it clear that defeat for Russia in Ukraine is a top priority, and he is trying very hard not to allow Russia to drive a wedge between Washington and key European capitals, especially London, Berlin, France, Paris and Warsaw, and so forth.
If I were to ask you for one thing that Biden deserves praise for most, and one thing one you would criticize him for most, what would those be?
It’s less about what I think but what people who are experts think, and a lot of people who are smart about this would say that the revealing of intelligence in advance of the war in advance of the invasion was an unusual and effective strategy that we hadn’t seen before. To call Putin out on what he was trying to do before he did it, it allowed everybody to understand what was about to happen. And secondly, it prevented Putin from creating a predicate for this war that would be plausible. Revealing the intelligence surprised the Russians and kept them from creating this false narrative that they were the aggrieved party in some way. But there are also very many people outside of Russia who believe that they are the aggrieved party. And I think that’s partly because the Americans called them on it in advance of the invasion.
As to whathe would get the most criticism for here in Washington, it is not being as assertive as he could be in providing weaponry, both in terms of the scope, scale and pace of it. There are a lot of people in Washington like me who support what he’s doing, but wish he would do more. The most salient criticism of Biden’s handling of Ukraine at home would be that he could have done more, faster, better.
I’d like to ask you about the recent swap deal – Griner for Bout. How is exchanging a woman’s basketball star for a “merchant of death” a fair deal?
it’s clearly a lopsided exchange. A basketball player who at best had a minor drug offense, versus, you know, the most notorious arms dealer of our generation, are not equivalent. They are not even close. Russians have for years made him a martyr of Western American imperialism and overreach, and so he’s been a symbol for them for a long time. I think the calculation on the part of the administration was that “this is a lopsided deal. We’re not very happy with it, but he has served his sentence and in a few years he will be released anyway, he’s older, he’s less connected, he’s not likely to become the threat he was back in his youth. And therefore, it’s probably a relatively manageable cost.” That’s their calculation. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying that’s what they were telling themselves, and that there was a value to getting Brittany Griner back because she was a hostage and being used by Putin for an illegitimate purpose. It’s that we’re supposed to bring Americans home. A lot of people think that it was an unwise swap, that one for the other was not equivalent, and that it will only encourage bad actors around the world to seize Americans in order to achieve the goals they want to achieve.
What does America win out of this?
Well, I think, the win for President Biden is that he got Grinner home, She’s very famous here, though not in the political sense that Victor Bout is famous there. And there was a lot of attention paid to it, a lot of pressure on him to get her out. So, rightly or wrongly, she has a higher profile than other Americans who are being held overseas, including Paul Whelan. And that brings higher visibility to her case and higher pressure on a president to deliver.
You’ve covered five presidents as a chief white house correspondent for the NYT. Whose Russia policy was most sound?
We’ve been thinking about that a lot. My wife and I, both correspondents in Moscow, have spent our careers in Washington. I think each of the presidents in some way or another has miscalculated when it came to Putin; misunderstood him; tried, understandably, to find common ground with him, only to discover each time that it’s not possible; that he’s not going to be the partner they would like him to be.
President Clinton had a better relationship with Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. There are people who will argue that the 90s NATO expansion and the Balkans war against Slobodan Milosevic pushed Russia away. I think that’s less the case than the failure of the democratic economic reforms of the 90s. That was the bigger factor in pushing Russia away from the United States and emboldening Putin to come along and declare his desire to be the world power that Russia once was, and not to be necessarily a partner of the United States.
Bush, of course, wanted to make Putin a partner; saw his soul, came to regret it. By the time he left office, Bush was very clear-eyed about who Putin was. In one of my books, we have some private conversations he had with other foreign leaders, where he expresses his great frustration with Putin and how he was a “czar,” as he put it.
Obama came in right after the Georgia war, and rather than taking action or continuing action to respond to that, he wanted to have a reset. It’s understandable, of course. Every president wants to have a better relationship with Russia, and for a while it actually did produce some decent results for Obama, but, of course, inevitably Putin was alienated all over again with the Libya war. Obama’s thought, is to work with Medvedev as a way of working around Putin. You know, it may have been reasonable at the time, but it was ultimately a failed effort.
Trump, of course, is the outlier in the sense that he openly embraced Putin; he openly said Putin was to be admired. In fact, we have in our latest book the scene after the Helsinki Summit, when Trump takes Putin’s side over the American intelligence agencies. Back here in Washington, Dan Coates, who is the Director of National Intelligence, a Trump appointee, a former Republican senator, told people “Gosh, that means maybe, in fact, the Russians really do have compromising material on Trump.” How else can you explain Trump’s affinity and affection for Putin? Because, otherwise, it seems so imponderable.
And then Biden comes in. And I think a lot of people think he did some of the same things, again, in meeting with Putin in Geneva, thinking he could keep Russia in a box if in a foreign policy way,. If he had simply paid a little bit of attention while focusing his energy on China. Putin was obviously not going to go along with that. And so we end up where we are.
Putin has been in power for 20 years now. What is the biggest strategic error the US has made during this time with Putin, and with Russia in general?
I think broadly, it was hoping that Putin was really going to be a friend; that he was going to be a Westernizer in a real way; that he really wanted to be part of the community of nations. And yeah, there’s an argument to be made that maybe he really did for a little bit at the very beginning. I’m dubious about that. I think he showed his colors from the very start with his consolidation of power at home, with his aggressiveness toward Georgia and Ukraine, even in the early years.
I think each American president in his own way over the last 22 years hoped that they could manage Putin, but they can’t, because they haven’t been strong enough or tough enough or persuasive enough or clever enough.
Why was it something they had to measure up to?
I always say, first of all, none of them was a Russia person; none of them spent any time in Russia or on understanding Russia. Most of them were domestic-oriented presidents who didn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience.
Biden is really the only one who has had any foreign policy experience of any sort. And so I think that they just believed that Putin was like a Republican or a Democrat; that they could simply find a way to sit down with him and cut a deal, that they could work together on some level. And they failed to understand that he was not that kind of person; they failed to understand his background and the KGB, his grievances over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his paranoia over the CIA and the belief that the Western Allies were out to get him. And I think that each one of them came in thinking” I can deal with him. We’ll just sit down, we’ll be reasonable.” And that’s just not going to work with Putin.
Let’s talk about the latest speeches. He made one with a champagne flute in hand, looking progressively tipsy. And he spoke about things like preemptive strikes and such. How does that change the equation when it comes to the strategic thinking of the US?
The concern here is mainly nuclear. The conventional Russian military has been shown to be kind of a paper tiger, and it doesn’t mean they can’t do great damage. Obviously, they’re doing enormous damage, there’s enormous devastation in Ukraine, but they are obviously not as effective as the Americans believed them to be prior to February 24. But nuclear is a whole different issue. We have kept that genie in the bottle. Since 1945, since the two bombs dropped on Japan, no nuclear weapons have been used in anger. And the idea that he might open that box and use a nuclear device is the consuming worry in Washington now, because once you do that, you have no idea where it ends. And it’s the danger of spiral that gets out of control that most worries people in the White House that I talked to, the nuclear thing is what keeps them up at night, because the question is, then what do you do? And I think their answer at the moment, the American answer is not to respond with nuclear, because we don’t want to get into that escalatory cycle where suddenly you’re heading toward a Cuban Missile Crisis, a world war three scenario.
But would there be a conventional response to a nuclear attack, even within Ukraine, that would be decisive enough to stop it from happening again? That’s quite a prevalent question. And that’s the kind of awful calculations that have to be made at this point, because you don’t know for sure what Putin will do. And because when he says things like that, you can dismiss it as just saber rattling, but you shouldn’t assume, because if you assume then you can be caught off guard.
Every time I go see a top administration official, I ask on a scale of one to 10 “What is your worry about a nuclear event at this point?” And I’ve gotten answers anywhere from four to six. And they thought that’s a good number. They think four – Well, that’s not too bad. I think four is horrible. Four is chance of four in 10, there could be a nuclear event. It is mind blowing, and way too large, obviously way too dangerous, if that’s where they think things really are. And you know, so far, knock on wood. It hasn’t happened, but we can’t guarantee it won’t happen in the future.
He also very proudly tried to sell the annexed territories in Ukraine as a justification for this war. This is a good thing, but, no matter how the war ends, even with some sort of Ukrainian victory, if Putin manages to keep hold of some of these annexed lands, can he really be considered a loser?
Any territory that Russia ultimately keeps that was Ukrainian prior to 2014, is in some way a win for Russia, because they’ve managed to redraw the map. If they keep Crimea, if they keep Donbas, then they have succeeded, at least in part, in carving up another country’s territory. Now that may not be the win they hoped for, and Europeans and Ukrainians would certainly look at getting back to February 24 lines as a remarkable victory for Ukraine against an overwhelming foe, and certainly, at this point of this year, Vladimir Putin would have expected to be in Kyiv, with a friendly government there, sipping tea with Yanukovich.
The level of military defeat for Russia here is beyond of what anybody would have imagined. Everybody miscalculated and overestimated their capacity – the American military thought they would be in Kyiv in 10 days and the whole country in a few weeks. They thought Russians would be doing a whole lot better. And there were doubts about the counter-offensive in the US. Some said, “We don’t think its really a good idea, we don’t think they can accomplish it.” But they did. The Ukrainian military did a remarkable job in disproving anybody’s expectations. But even if a lot of people in the West think that returning to the February 24 lines is a pretty remarkable victory, and it is, letting Russia keep the territory that they gained via use of force, illegitimately, it still means they came out of this with something that shouldn’t be acceptable in this day and age. This is the first time since World War 2 we’ve redrawn the map of Europe.
Shouldn’t this also put to bed the “security guarantees for Russia” option that French President Macron is championing for?
This is a perennial point of tension between the US and the European capitals – let’s give Putin something that he wants, some sort of an off-ramp, or a security guarantee. After 10 years of miscalculating Putin, the security guarantees aren’t going to do anything for him. His security guarantee is “I am in charge of Kyiv, I am in control.” He’s not gonna believe any piece of paper. There is no way to satisfy Putin. And it also makes it looks like, when you try to give him security guarantees, that he had a legitimate reason to do what he has done, that his actions in Ukraine were somehow borne out of a legitimate concern over Russian security, which is of course nonsense.