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OPINION

“Putin rattling the nuclear saber is pure bluff, which we're allowing to succeed,” says John Bolton, former U.S. national security advisor

In an exclusive interview for The Insider, Konstantin Eggert spoke to John Bolton, former U.S. national security advisor to President Donald Trump. He gave his thoughts on NATO being divided over the ceasefire in Ukraine, whether the Kremlin could have known about Hamas' impending attack on Israel, and how Russia is becoming China's satellite state.

— To what extent has the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's response affected global politics, particularly the situation around Putin's aggression against Ukraine?

We don't have much visibility about what some of the key players are actually doing. I think you have to conceptualize this war the right way to understand it. My view is that this is not an attack by Hamas on Israel. This is an attack by Iran on Israel using its surrogate terrorist group, Hamas, and having in reserve Hezbollah, the government of Syria, and then the larger “ring of fire” that [the head of the Quds Force — The Insider] Qassem Soleimani envisioned when he was still with us to encircle Israel. And so you've also got the Shia militia of Iraq. You've got the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only actor really heavily involved at the moment is Hamas.

I think the next step will depend on what Israel does. And it may be that that what they have planned is that Israel gets heavily committed in Gaza, and then Hezbollah really opens up in the north. There were reports of Syrian forces moving toward the Golan Heights last week. But it could be that Iran, concerned about the drift of events, is trying to disrupt the growing closeness of Israel with the Gulf Arabs, and other Arab states.

— Does the Kremlin benefit from what's happening?

— This ties in perfectly with Russia's desire to reduce attention from Ukraine, which it certainly has done here. We know the growing closeness between Iran and Russia, Iran's supplying drones, probably the same kinds of drones they supplied to Hamas. We've heard almost nothing from Putin about Hamas's attack. We've heard instead criticism of Israel for recent attacks on the Damascus and Aleppo airports, with Russia saying that violates Syria's sovereignty.

The only sovereignty that exists in Syria is where Russia and Iran are supporting the Syrian government. And Russia's position for ten years or more has been quietly, so long as Israel [avoided getting into conflicts] with Russian air and ground forces, you can do what you want. So Israel has conducted countless raids over the past ten years against Iranian or other elements convoying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon or to the Syrian government and the Russians have stood back. So to suddenly get worried about Syrian sovereignty says to me that there's a change in Moscow's attitude that we haven't seen publicly.

— Do you think Putin knew about the attacks on October 7? Bearing in mind Moscow's close connections to both Hamas and the Iranians?

— I think it's entirely possible, if there’s a grander strategy at work here by Iran looking at a confrontation with Israel directly, I think at some point they would have told the Kremlin. I don't think there's any getting around the question of how advanced the planning is, how much they've shared. I don't know. I mean, it is a phenomenon that both Israeli and American intelligence completely missed this. I mean, that must have taken incredible work by everybody concerned to keep it concealed. And it's a huge intelligence failure that at some point in the future we're going to have to do a forensic analysis of — where we went wrong.

But my point is, the more people you tell about something, the greater the odds it's going to get out. It didn't leak. If they had told the Russians, could they have guaranteed secrecy? You know, maybe they could. Suddenly having a second significant conflict cloud Washington's attention as we go into an election year, the House of Representatives in disarray, are all to Russia's advantage from Putin's perspective.

— Is the Biden administration capable of handling two conflicts simultaneously: Ukraine and the Middle East?

— The first question is what the capability of the president is. In any administration, the president's time is the most important asset you have. And if he's not available, for whatever reason — 24/7, ideally — you've got a problem.

The team [Biden] has with him is one that's been part of his staff, or Hillary's staff, or Obama's staff, for 25 years. They're not people really with independent careers, by and large. They've not been in crisis situations. They've typically been in academia or legislative kinds of positions where you get to comment on what's happening in a decision-making context, but you're not actually required to make decisions.

I think they’re inhibited by a misimpression of Iran in particular, the idea that you can negotiate with the ayatollahs, and everything will work out. That’s the view they had when Russia went into Ukraine, that we could have negotiated.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

The current administration thinks that you can negotiate with the ayatollahs. That’s the view they had when Russia went into Ukraine, that we could have negotiated

Will they be prepared for the kind of conflict that may eventuate and the potential American role? I don't know. The rhetoric is very good at this point. Sending two carrier battle groups is a significant step. All that should be a contribution to the deterrence. That part I don't criticize. What I worry about is what happens if deterrence fails. And frankly, deterrence has failed already. If I'm right, this is an Iranian war. It's failed because Hamas has attacked, and now they want to see what Israel does and ultimately what the U.S. does.

— You mentioned Biden’s limited capacity, in your view, to deal with things. To what extent do you think he's generally involved in foreign policy decision making? To what extent is it his policy?

— I think it is by implication, because, I mean, take Blinken as an example. I first met him 25 years ago when he was a Biden Senate staffer, and he's been with Biden or very close to Biden ever since. If he doesn't know Biden's thinking by this point, nobody does. [National Security Adviser Jake] Sullivan has not had that length of experience. But he knows Biden well from working with Hillary and others in the Obama administration. Many of the other people, even though they're not in national security as such, but they've been around Biden. So by absorption, you know, they're trying to do what they think he would want them to do.

— After the July NATO summit in Vilnius, there have been regular reports that Biden will soon “lean” heavily on Zelensky to push him to negotiate some kind of “truce” with Putin. Do you think that's a possibility?

— I do. In part because one of the things that's inhibited Biden from really backing Ukraine effectively is the fear of Russian escalation. You hear it over and over again. As if the invasion itself wasn't escalation. As if self-defense has to be conducted with one hand tied behind your back, because it may get worse. As if, and this is the biggest problem, is if there's some Russian force hidden somewhere that we don't know about that's now available to attack somebody else.

I mean, where is this hidden Putin army? And if in fact, he has hidden conventional forces, why doesn't he send him to Ukraine and try and make up for the performance of the ones who are already there? And on the nuclear side, he's rattled the nuclear saber. But our intelligence people have said uniformly they've never seen any sign of any change in deployment of the nuclear forces. So it's pure bluff. And yet we are allowing the bluff to succeed.

And that's why I think at some point, I could see, going into an American election year, Biden and his advisers saying: “Look, we gave the Ukrainians everything they asked for, we let them do the counter-offensive. We didn't second guess them. We kept supplying them. They gained a few square miles. And now, look, we've done everything we could for two years. We need a diplomatic push.” I think it's possible. I think it's a question when the Germans and the French turn to that as well. I think Eastern and Central European NATO members are not going to buy that. But I think the split inside the alliance is what Putin is playing for. He knows he's not going to get what he wants on the battlefield, but maybe he can get it at the negotiating table.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

The split inside NATO is what Putin is playing for

— No one will recognize Russia’s land grabs…

Whatever the ceasefire line is, that's the new Russian-Ukrainian border, effectively, because the negotiations will drag on. Nobody will give up anything, but Russia will be in control of the territory. That's what I think Putin thinks.

— Is there a chance for Ukraine to get some kind of fast track to NATO and real security guarantees?

— I think they would get substantial security guarantees. But there's a theological thing here for NATO that has never admitted a new member that has foreign troops on its soil, unwanted foreign troops, because you could say that member is in a state of war with whatever country has foreign troops on its soil, and you don't want to start a war when you admit a new member. I think maybe not consciously at the beginning, but if you look at the so-called “frozen conflicts” around the former Soviet Union, from troops in Moldova to the Central Asian republics. How can you ever bring even Moldova in as a NATO member as long as Transnistria still claims to be independent, it's got Russian forces there. Putin thinks — and I think he's right — that you stop NATO membership by holding Ukrainian territory.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

Putin thinks — and I think he's right — that you stop Ukraine’s NATO membership by holding its territory

As I’ve said, you could give security guarantees, and I think they would be pretty intense. But we've given security guarantees to Finland and Sweden. And they looked at what happened in Ukraine and said, the only security is to be behind the NATO border, and abandoned 75 or 80 years of neutrality to get that assurance.

— You once took part in negotiations with Putin. In your opinion, what are Putin and his regime’s weaknesses today?

— They're evading the sanctions quite successfully. We [the West] just don't collectively enforce them very effectively. That's the short answer. I also don't think he has significant internal challenges. I think the most important thing for Russia going forward, which should be on Putin's mind, but should be on the minds of all other Russians, too, is having them come to the realization of how close they are now to being a Chinese satellite state.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

The most important thing for Russia going forward is how close it is to becoming a Chinese satellite state

I went to Moscow about half a dozen times when I was in the White House, and on several of those visits I asked NGOs who came to the embassy. Jon Huntsman would bring people in for lunch or a breakfast or something like that. I talked to [former Interior Minister] Igor Ivanov, you know, in his, quote unquote, private citizen capacity. And I said to lots of people — you’ve got to watch out getting too close to China. And I got back a party line, which is: we feel comfortable with this, we think this is in Russia's interest. I mean, I just threw up my hands. I think now it's even more obvious. You know, maybe that's a way to pressure Putin himself. But it should also be for any Russian that still has any kind of desire to look west. This is it. You know, at some point you flip a switch and you can't go back.

From a U.S. point of view we have to confront the possibility that a successor government to Putin would be very weak, which would allow China incalculable latitude in the Asian [part of] Russia. Splitting it into warlord type states. Direct Chinese annexation. That's not in America's interest. Just as we had the breakup of the Soviet Union, it’s conceivable. I'm not saying likely, but I could conceive of the same thing happening with Russia. And we're not ready for that. But I bet the Chinese are.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

After Putin, China will have incalculable latitude in the Asian part of Russia, and that’s not in the interests of the U.S.

— To what extent is foreign policy part of the agenda today? Is foreign policy a big part of these elections?

— More than it has been in recent elections. The threat of China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what's happening right now in the Middle East, people are going to be talking about it. The isolationist virus is loose in the Republican Party. You can see that in the votes on Ukraine. It's loose in the Democratic Party, too. The progressive wing of the House Democrats sent out a letter in last September, inadvertently less than two months before the election, saying we'll support the president's request for aid to Ukraine if it's conditioned on Ukraine’s having to negotiate with Russia. Which is, of course, what Putin wanted to hear at that point.

Trump does not have a philosophy. He doesn't do policy on conventional terms. It's all idiosyncratic decisions based on what benefits him. I think he's likely to try and withdraw from NATO.

— But Congress won't let him, as the North Atlantic Treaty was ratified by Congress.

— The president can withdraw unilaterally.

I've done it myself with the president. The ABM Treaty of 1972, the INF Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty. It's never been adjudicated by the Supreme Court. So there's some element of doubt. I think Trump will try to withdraw from NATO. He may or may not succeed.

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

Trump will try to withdraw from NATO. He may or may not succeed

— When Trump was elected, everyone expected total horror. In the end, it was the Trump administration that started supplying Ukraine with weapons. It wasn't particularly good to Putin. You were part of it for some time. Is there a chance that it may be like that the second time around?

— We did impose some pretty significant sanctions [on Russia], but they came only after extended sessions with Trump to convince him that he basically had to do it. So a lot depends on who’s around him in a second term. He ran through so many people in the first term. So many people said that they weren’t going to go in, even before the first term. They’ll never go back for another term. So I think you're going to have people who are much more inclined just to say, “yes, sir” when he says he wants to do something. That’s why I think people need to take the withdrawal from NATO very seriously.

— Do we know any potential candidates for his foreign and security policy positions?

— Well, there are people around him who were in his first term: Rick Grenell, Robert O'Brien, John Ratcliffe, a number of people in lower-ranking jobs. There’s another question, for if there's a Trump presidency, even if Republicans control the Senate, is how many people he could get confirmed and who would want to go through that process anyway? And if the Democrats control the Senate, I'm not sure you'd get very many people at all. Although right now it looks pretty good. The Republicans should get control of the Senate.

Do you think Republicans will be able to maintain unity and an active foreign policy stance despite the growing influence of isolationists in their ranks?

In the Senate, the number of Republican isolationists is pretty small compared to the House Republican Caucus. The Republican control of the Senate would be against a lot of the isolationist impulses that Trump has. But the Senate's role is important and limited, and with [the Democrats’ potential] control of the House, they wouldn't do anything to help Trump out.

Interview by Konstantin Eggert for The Insider

INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation). U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in Washington D.C. on 8 December 1987.

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