Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has a Signal for President Putin

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — “Even if the war stops, when you look at the number of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers and others who have died; and when you look at the destruction of Ukraine, Russia cannot get back into the family of nations as long as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is there, and as long as Russians have the same kind of approach to the West that they have demonstrated through their attacks on our politics and on Ukraine…They have to be treated as a pariah nation as long as Putin is there.”

That former-Secretary of Defense and former-CIA Director Robert Gates, speaking during an OSS Society-sponsored conversation last Wednesday with Michael Vickers, himself a former Pentagon official and long-time CIA officer.

In a more discreet way, Gates was saying what President Biden ad-libbed three days later, at the end of his speech in Poland when he said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

During last Wednesday’s conversation, Gates covered a wide-ranging number of issues — psychoanalyzing Putin, measuring China and Russia’s armies, discussing the potential impact of Russia using a chemical or tactical nuclear weapon, Biden’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine – along with, as above, what to do about Putin in a post-Ukraine war era. For the latter, Gates said if Putin attends October’s G20 meeting in Indonesia, “the U.S. and its allies ought not to go.”

I don’t agree with all Gates said but given his background and experience, I do think he should  be heard, although he has not always been right. For example, although Gates made his name at CIA initially as an analyst on the Soviet Union, his views in 1987, about Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform plans, turned out to be wrong. In a memo at that time, Gates wrote, “A major purpose of [Gorbachev’s] economic modernization – as in Russia in the days of Peter the Great – remains the further increase in Soviet military power and political influence.”

Gates, however, has always been tough on Putin.

Asked initially last Wednesday about Putin, Gates recalled, “I came back from my first meeting with Putin and told then-President [George H.W.] Bush, I had looked into Putin’s eyes, and I’d seen a stone-cold killer.”

He also said Putin has, “always been [a] cold, calculating risk-taker, but a measured risk-taker.” Recalling 2008, Gates said, “In Georgia, he took a bite, but he stopped; in Crimea [2014], he took a bite, a big bite, and then he stopped.”

As with others, Gates believes Putin has changed in recent years.

“Those of us that have met with him, worked with him, think that the two-years in isolation because of Covid has had an impact on him. Almost everyone who has dealt with him has commented on it. [French] President Macron…others have described him as erratic.”

Gates said, “I think to understand Putin, you have to understand he is not trying to rebuild the Soviet Union; he’s trying to re-establish the Russian Empire, and particularly the Slavic core of the Russian Empire – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

Gates said he was “stunned” by a recent speech in which Putin “basically trashed Lenin, for essentially writing a constitution in which the USSR gave the [Soviet} Republics the right to secede. And then he goes after Stalin for trying to fix the problem but being unsuccessful. So, here I am Vladimir Putin, I’ve got to fix what Lenin broke and Stalin couldn’t fix.”

Gates said he has read that Putin has, “gotten into orthodox mysticism; that he spends time every day with an orthodox priest that’s kind of into this mysticism, so I don’t know how much all that has impacted his approach to all of this.”

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Other factors, Gates noted, were that “both [Chinese President] Xi and Putin share a narrative that the West is in decline, the West is politically paralyzed, the [NATO and European Union] countries are divided internally and deeply. The Americans are withdrawing from the rest of the world. They are not going to want to be a player. They are not going to be willing to take any risks. Watching what happened in Afghanistan, the [Biden] administration is weak and not going to be able to respond. And if so, it’s going to be a wrist slap and so on.”

Gates called that “a total under-estimation and misunderstanding of democracy and I think that both Xi and Putin have to have been quite surprised by the speed by which the West came together, but not just the West – Japan, Australia, South Korea and others.”

But it was Biden and his team that did it by rallying allies to step up financial aid, provide defensive weapons to Ukraine, and establish tough sanctions against Russia.

In discussing the war, Gates talked about the modernization of both Russian and Chinese militaries in the last 20 years. They both previously had depended on huge land armies, he said, but more recently reduced sizes of their ground forces and invested heavily in air forces, navies, and in new weapons based on new technology.

Yet in Ukraine, Gates said, we are seeing Russian, “conscripts not knowing why they are there, not being very well trained, and huge problems with command and control and incredibly lousy tactics…Whether a lot of money spent on the ground forces went into corrupt hands or was misspent or whatever,” Gates said, “Putin has got to be stunningly disappointed in the performance of his military.”

After a month of warfare, Gates said if Putin’s army is going to sustain this campaign, “they need to be reset. They need new units. They need new troops. They need more equipment, replacement equipment. They need better logistics, more things to support a ground campaign.”

Something to recognize, Gates said, is that, “The Russian army is basically designed to fight on Russian soil, ironically because…it is the most railroad-based army in the world. And they have fewer trucks per unit the U.S. Army by a long shot…So their logistics when they get beyond 50, 60 or 70 miles, they begin to run into real problems because they don’t have enough trucks to make up for the fact that they are farther and farther away from their railroad supply depots.”

Having traveled in Russia, I can tell you Russian supply trains cannot travel on Ukraine train tracks because their train wheels are set for wider gauge tracks.

Gates pointed out that he believes the impressive performance by the Ukrainians is related to their army’s eight years of fighting against separatists and Russian-supported fighters in the Dombas area in eastern Ukraine.

It’s got to be noted, although Gates did not mention it, that Ukraine, over five years, supplied 5,000 troops to the U.S.-led effort known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. In fact, from 2003 to 2005, the Ukrainians were the third-largest contributor to the coalition, with about 1,700 soldiers.

Ukraine was also a participant in the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and deployed small numbers of troops and medical teams as part of NATO’s ISAF mission in that country.

In addition, since 2004, there has been a Ukraine Joint Working Group (JWG) within the NATO – Ukraine Commission which is responsible for identifying and coordinating the implementation of the practical measures of cooperation in the field of armaments. Among the JWG cooperative activities have been command and control and “Smart Defense” projects.

 “You could see in Putin’s eyes,” Gates said, “Ukraine was becoming at least a de facto member of NATO if not de jure.”

As a result, Gates said, Putin “was determined to pull Ukraine back into the Russian orbit, back into the Slavic core and I don’t think there was anything we could have done that would have stopped him from taking drastic measures.”

Gates also dealt with Putin’s repeated threats to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons by saying, “You have to take that seriously as a possibility and that would be a serious escalation.”

He then offered a view that I know from experience, represents the thinking of many retired and active senior civilian and military officials who have been, or are now, involved with dealing with the prospect of tactical nuclear weapon use.

“I don’t think either of those [chemical or tactical nuclear weapons] has much military value,” Gates said. “They both would be terror weapons in an effort to break the will of the Ukrainian people. My guess is it would have the opposite effect. But you have to take that [prospect of use] seriously if only because the Russians are talking about it.”

Gates also said that the Biden administration had done “the right thing” after Putin’s so-called alerting of his nuclear forces, “by not raising our nuclear alert level.” He also called postponing a U.S. ICBM test at the time, “the right move.”

Gates added, “Basically you don’t allow yourself to be deterred by this [Putin] brandishing of this sword. But you let the other side know that…if you use a nuclear weapon, you have to know the consequences. You’re not going to get away with that and we will respond appropriately.”

When it came to information warfare with Russia, Gates said, “I think we ought to be bolder to break the Russian [Internet] firewalls. We ought to be able to do more in terms of getting the truth to the Russian people.”

He recalled during the Cold War, that the CIA was able to covertly distribute millions of books, magazines, documents, audio cassettes and video tapes in the Soviet Union.

Gates then described a CIA covert action when Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, and the Soviet and Polish Communist government officials kept secret his motorcade route in order to limit the crowd size. In response, Gates said with a CIA-developed capability, the Agency “took control of the Polish State television network for about ten minutes and broadcast his itinerary and the time and everything and millions of people turned out.”

“If we can do that kind of stuff 40 years ago,” Gates said, “we ought to be able to do more in getting the truth to the Russian people about what’s going on in Ukraine, their Slavic brothers.”

Looking to the future, Gates said, “The United States, because we put this whole coalition together in the first place…we need to devise a very robust humanitarian rescue program and make it public.”

He described it as “a plan for the restoration of Ukraine, rebuilding of its cities and so on, significant resources…dealing with this humanitarian crisis that is going on during this war and will follow this war. I think it would boost the morale of the Ukrainians, particularly those men who are in the country fighting, but whose wives and families have left the country. I think it would be a big morale boost for them to know not only that their families are being well cared for, but that the world is going to come in behind and help rebuild Ukraine when this is all over.”

He added, “It would also not be a bad signal to send to Vladimir Putin.”

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