In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with former senior CIA operations officer and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center Rolf Mowatt-Larssen about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the prospect of Russia using weapons of mass destruction, and the likelihood of a near-term political solution to the crisis. Mowatt-Larssen, who spent a significant part of his career in Moscow and dealt with WMD terror threats after 9/11, outlines some of Putin’s most significant miscalculations, his efforts to control domestic narratives within Russia, and the internal fissures that the Ukraine conflict has laid bare. Mowatt-Larssen also offers insights into how the war – and potential political solutions – may proceed from here.
- Putin’s miscalculations: “Putin clearly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and their will to resist Russia in a way, and the army and the capabilities of the Ukrainian military, armed effectively by the West. As a result of that, we’re dealing with a situation where he no doubt has to consider revising his military objectives…He totally underestimated Ukrainians and overestimated his whole army. That, by the way, is an intelligence failure for Russian intelligence of epic proportions. And we’ve seen indications in Moscow that he’s punishing or trying to hold people accountable for that.”
- Risk of nuclear conflict: “I think we have to say, without trying to scare anybody right now, but just to be prepared: that the threat of nuclear, tactical nuclear or even greater in some form of escalation of this conflict, is not zero, as we at all hoped and assumed over the decades. That’s going to be with us when this is over and it’s something that’s going to change the way we have to think about our national security and how we achieve and work our alliances around the world to prevent the possibility of nuclear catastrophe.”
- Controlling domestic narratives: “[I]n the cities, particularly the young generation, I don’t think they’re fooled at all. I think when young people look at Russian propaganda, it doesn’t sell today any more than it sold in the Soviet days, which by that I mean even when I lived in Moscow and in the late eighties and early nineties, people did not believe government propaganda. They were too sophisticated. And the world has only advanced since then. It’s been 30 years ago and today’s information technology, the ways and forms it comes into the country, the way people can find alternative news sources, particularly if they want to know the truth. And I believe young people in general want to know the truth. They question the lies. They can see pretty clearly the whole world is not jumping on Russia because they’re conducting a military technical operation. It’s ludicrous on the face of it.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – Rolf Mowatt-Larssen
PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, welcome to Intelligence Matters.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Thank you, Michael. Pleasure to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: So we’re continuing our ongoing discussion about Ukraine this week. And Rolf, it’s great to have you. A career CIA officer who spent much of his time at the agency focused on the Soviet Union in Russia. Very lucky to have you with us to do that. So thank you.
But before we get to Ukraine, I want to ask you two non-Ukraine related questions. And the first is that you published a memoir just about two years ago now titled, A State of Mind: Faith and the CIA. People should read it. But it is a bit different kind of memoir from what people are used to seeing. And I wanted to ask you why that’s the case and what makes it different.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Michael, as a career agency guy yourself, I think you’d appreciate that I had conflicted feelings about writing a memoir. I didn’t really want to do a, ‘My Life as a Spy: What I did.’ as much is try to convey who I am and leave that as my legacy, particularly in the context of my belief in God and how important faith was not just in that world, but as a CIA officer.
And the thing I wanted to convey through the inner integration of faith and my career in the agency is the question about, how do you do the right thing? As you know, in our best moments, we tried to do the right thing and succeeded, and in our worst moments, we didn’t. So I wanted to to cover some of that dynamic. And that’s why I wrote the memoir.
MICHAEL MORELL: So people should definitely read it. I think it’s a terrific read, and I think it gives folks a picture of the CIA that they might not get anywhere else. So, thank you for writing it.
The second thing I wanted to ask you is, like many of your colleagues, Rolf, your career post-9-11 was consumed by counterterrorism and consumed is probably not even a strong enough word.
Your focus was on al-Qaeda’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. And what I want to ask you about that period was how worried were you, the person in charge of collecting intelligence on this important issue? How worried were you about al-Qaeda’s use of those kind of weapons in general and here in the homeland in particular?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: When Director George Tenet at the time pulled me out of Chinese language training – I was supposed to go to Beijing and continue my geopolitical career – I would call it, I didn’t expect to be put on terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction because, like most of us, I didn’t really think that was a threat.
In fact, George Tenet at the time said to me, ‘If we can prove this isn’t a problem or risk we’re going to confront now, with all the uncertainties after 9/11, then we’ll be happy to send you back into language training and go on with your career.’
My great fear was when I learned that terrorists had been – bin Laden, in particular, Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda, and many of his senior leadership in al-Qaeda – wanted weapons of mass destruction and had been looking for them since before we were looking for them. So we were playing catch-up.
So I guess my first fear was the fact that it wasn’t a hypothetical or a theoretical threat. And over the next several years we found real, real threats, people trying to do it. Fortunately, I think we nipped it in the bud.
But the other thing about that period, which I think most Americans still don’t realize – you certainly do and everyone in the agency at the time did – is we understood that our own agency, the FBI, Homeland Security, which didn’t exist in the as the entity was now, wasn’t prepared for what we learned on 9/11, was that terrorists could, in fact, change the world; was something of that impact, that strategic consequence.
And for all we knew, particularly in the weeks and months after 9/11, we were expecting more of that kind of attack. And I would say that a lot of people I don’t want to pat us on the back. There were a lot of sad aspects of that, of course. But the one thing I can say to the American people is – and I know you said it in your own memoir – is that we stood up, we met the challenge, and we did a lot of things that prevented more attacks on America in the weeks and months to follow.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, Rolf, Ukraine. I have lots of questions. I want to start with Putin, the man. Who are we dealing with here? What kind of person is he? What kind of person are we dealing with?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Michael, I think there if you understand the four characteristics of Putin’s decision making, you can understand why he’s in Ukraine doing the things he’s doing right now, why he started this seemingly insane war.
The first aspect of his decision-making, which I think is the most important, is he believes he and Russia are victims of history. He said to the Duma in 2005 that, ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.’ That’s a very startling statement, considering the fact that by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, every country in it wanted to leave the Soviet Union and become independent. But Putin still believes in his heart that that was a catastrophe.
The second aspect of his decision making is he identifies himself with the future of his country. Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia. This almost megalomania, this uncompromising sense that his own destiny is tied to the future of his country is another reason why he’s doing what he’s doing now. And with seemingly no apology and seemingly no apology for what he’s wrought, the violence and destruction he’s wrought.
The third aspect is that he is prone, as many Russians were, to be that isolated in his establishment, the people in the intelligence services and the military to truly believe that they are victims of conspiracies by the West. And all the things he says, he claims, the United States is doing – almost all of which are not true to bring Russia down – are, in fact, things he believes.
And the final one, which is the most complicated and I’ll just have to leave it there for people to look into on their own, is he does not share our value system. And specifically the idea that liberal progressive democracy is exalting for people and self-determination is something every country should strive for. He believes in the opposite. He believes that control, that these progressive values, we would call it, of people living the kind of lives that they want to live is decadent.
So it’s a very different version of aspiration for his own country in the world that he has, as compared to the Western governance model.
MICHAEL MORELL: I’ve heard you say, Rolf, that he does not have a moral compass.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: You know, Michael, it’s a harsh accusation. And the reason I say it is because, when one considers the possibility of how much violence he would bring down, I never thought it would come to this. I never thought I would see someone who would order his military into a neighboring country that threatened Russia, his country, in no way, that did nothing to deserve what’s happening to him. And for him, then just to go about and try to basically take them off the map of the earth as he’s doing in Ukraine, as we watch this horrible tragedy happening, I say that shows a man with no moral compass.
As he treats political dissidents and opponents in his own country. Because he’s not content to just silence his critics. He goes out and he kills them. He kills them with nerve agent, Novichok. He kills them with polonium. He takes a person who survived an attack – talking about Navalny, his political opponent. What he did was simply start a political party that opposed what Putin was doing and he tried to kill them. And when that failed, he sent him to the gulag for probably his entire life. So I’d say that’s a man with no moral compass.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Rolf, what is your understanding of where we are at the moment on the battlefield and why we are there?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think we’re all surprised by two things. And if you accept that Putin’s as surprised as we are, it may explain where we are and where we’re headed.
The first is I, like so many people, expected the Russian military to roll into the major cities in Ukraine and take them. Not because I doubted Ukrainian desire to resist the Russians, but I had a greater respect than I perhaps should have that the Russian military couldn’t be stopped.
So the first shock is that the Ukrainians have stood up and stopped the Russians in most parts of the country the way they have.
The second real surprise is that Putin clearly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and their will to resist Russia in a way, and the army and the capabilities of the Ukrainian military, armed effectively by the West. As a result of that, we’re dealing with a situation where he no doubt has to consider revising his military objectives.
He hasn’t rolled in with a blitzkrieg style, with a Victory Day parade, with a lot of support from Ukraine, because he totally underestimated Ukraine. He totally underestimated Ukrainians and overestimated his whole army. That, by the way, is an intelligence failure for Russian intelligence of epic proportions. And we’ve seen indications in Moscow that he’s punishing or trying to hold people accountable for that.
I don’t believe personally that that’s as much because he failed to provide them with the correct assessment of the situation. He probably didn’t want to hear that assessment. I think is because they failed to implement his strategy for a very quick war, a very quick war in Ukraine.
So consequently, we’re probably in, unfortunately, for a long, horrific, grinding war that could last months or even years. Putin has made references in the last several months to the example of a war in Europe called Yugoslavia, which, as we all know, was horrible and resulted in genocide and war crimes. Some indications we’re already beginning to see of how bad things have been and could get further in Ukraine.
So I would expect now the Russians to regroup, to continue to grind on and to concentrate their efforts to maximize their negotiating position, because eventually, whether it takes months or years, this war has to go to the negotiating table where the Russians have everything to demand and nothing to give up to the Ukrainians. And Putin knows that.
MICHAEL MORELL: The Russian military on Friday made a statement that indicated that Russian objectives were not the entirety of the country, they were the Donbas region. Do you believe that? Do you believe that Putin has changed his objectives, or do you think he’s still focused on his original goals of of taking over the entire country, at least putting in a puppet government in charge and making it a vassal state, at minimum.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: One thing that’s happened to the Russians – which happens to our children, if they decide to lie to us continually – you can’t believe anything they say anymore. So I actually don’t believe anything the Russian military or Putin himself says. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they won’t say anything they need to say in a deceptive — there’s a deception aspect to what they try to achieve in information space. And unfortunately, you can’t take them at their word, either, about anything.
So with that in mind, I think what we’re seeing right now is the Russian military trying to to devise a strategy where they can make more advances, take as much of the country in whatever parts of the country they can, maybe put the Ukrainians a bit on the get a bit complacent so they can surprise them in some ways, which they haven’t been able to do right now. So, no, I don’t take anything the Russians are saying at face value. And I think we’re going to continue to see more surprises in terms of the level of aggressiveness and destruction that they’re willing to cause because Putin has to win and he’ll double down to do whatever it takes to win. He cannot afford to pull out his military without achieving his objectives.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rolf, a lot of discussion about the possible use of chemical weapons, biological weapons or even a tactical nuclear weapon on the part of the Russians in Ukraine. I think for many Americans, it’s just hard to contemplate that, right, because these weapons are so horrific. How do you think about the possible use by the Russians of those weapons in Ukraine?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Michael, I’m worried that for the first time in decades, even with the threat we saw of terrorists trying to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ultimately failing for the most part, aside from that type of threat, we’re seeing a state -presumably a rational state that we’ve always thought would only have these weapons as it did for its deterrence quality – would actually use them if Vladimir Putin decides it’s in his interest to do so.
That’s a very scary thing because I think we have to say, without trying to scare anybody right now, but just to be prepared: that the threat of nuclear, tactical nuclear or even greater in some form of escalation of this conflict, is not zero, as we at all hoped and assumed over the decades. That’s going to be with us when this is over and it’s something that’s going to change the way we have to think about our national security and how we achieve and work our alliances around the world to prevent the possibility of nuclear catastrophe.
I think the chemical and biological logical weapons – we know that, of course, Putin used them, chemical weapons, in Syria. I think biological weapons, or at least I hope it’s kind of a head fake where Putin thinks that by citing a Western threat, which is complete hokum – there’s no truth whatsoever to the Ukrainians having any chemical or biological weapons -the idea there, though, is to, again, create some form of justification for this incredible violence he’s perpetrated on the Ukrainians by saying things, making these unproven allegations.
Which, by the way, one decision the Biden administration made early in the war, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is to give the Ukrainians as much intelligence as fast as they can on virtually everything, to give them that kind of an asymmetric intelligence advantage on the battlefield, but also to prepare them for these possibilities and to tell the world that if these things happen, they’re of Putin’s making, not because of the underlying lies that he’s trying to sell to justify using them himself.
Now, when you get to nuclear – this gets back into Putin’s moral calculus. I personally do not believe, given the things he’s said since this war began, but even before, in the last several years, which were concerning, about his willingness to use nuclear weapons, I do not believe he has a moral objection to using them. I think it purely boils down to whether he believes they’re efficacious and he can get away with it.
So on that level, I think it’s very important that we get the world community united, including the Chinese, if it’s possible, to set a standard that the use of any form of WMD in this war is simply not acceptable, and that in the event that Vladimir Putin escalates to use WMD, he would lose all support in the world, even from the very few countries today, such as China and India to some extent, that are supporting him.
MICHAEL MORELL: What would be the military purpose of using chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons? What does he gain from that militarily?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: It’s hard for me – and I’m striving to do this – to come up with the basis in logic and reason or military strategy that would either justify the use of WMD or that they would be effective in achieving any military goals. So the only scenarios I can come up with that would result in their use in some way that Putin would find advantageous would be scenarios that are intended to escalate beyond Ukraine, this war.
The idea, for example, he might use a tactical nuclear weapon to provoke NATO into a response. Again, it seems completely illogical to bring NATO into a war that he already is not winning against a single country, Ukraine, with Western help. But if he feels backed into a corner sufficiently where his thought process is, ‘the only way out of it is to escalate,’ that’s the kind of scenario that I get worried about escalating to the use of these weapons.
And that’s the scenario the world has to be prepared for in having signaled him in advance. That this doesn’t just result in a few more sanctions of some form or another, which are already very biting, but it would result in something that Putin would find unacceptable. So again, I hate to speculate beyond that, but I think the U.S. administration in particular talking to NATO allies has to do what I’m trying, frankly, struggling a bit to do right now, which is to come up with the scenarios and the best basis for ensuring that we are completely prepared for that possibility. So if and when it arrives at some juncture in this war, we’re not trying to make decisions without having thought it through thoroughly in advance.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, to switch gears here a little bit to something that you sent me the other day, it was an article about the opening of a second front in the war. This one, a battle against traitors inside Russia. What are the articles saying and what was your take on it?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, one of the I’ll say earliest unexpected developments in this war has been the degree to which it’s revealed some splits within the Russian establishment itself. Putin has inherited his position as president through a succession of strongmen who are former heads of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, in Russia, including his immediate successors, Nikolai Patrushev and Alexander Bortnikov.
And between those three men, they held power in Russia or have held power in Russia for almost 25 years. And it reveals both the way that power is limited in Russia – as I like to say, the oligarchs have no real political power in Russia. There are no political figures in, say, the civilian side of things. Even figures such as Dmitri Medvedev, the former briefly president, really has no political power.
So what we’re seeing in these early weeks of the war is some problems in the either discipline or in the handling of the war, in the part of the Russian establishment that Putin had secured the hardest, which is the FSB and the military.
For example, he put under house arrest two very senior officers in the FSB, the domestic intelligence service, because they apparently were unsuccessfully carrying out their responsibilities. And which is no surprise, because as things go bad in a war like this, people have to be held accountable. It’s a little surprising it’s happening this early. And we’re seeing this visibly in a in a position to report on it.
But what it reveals are some doubts of whether there are leaks and people within the services that may be even aiding the Ukrainians. That’s the real problem that – Putin is referring to it is as traitors, and he had that famous comment about, ‘It’s like a fly that flies in your mouth.’ So it creates a very visceral reaction on his part that there are these people that he can’t trust.
Now, remember, per my opening comments, he’s somewhat paranoid anyway and believes in conspiracy theories. That’s a consequence of having over 20 years of rule where no one questions anything you’re doing or saying. And there is no succession plan, by the way, in Russia, if he were to leave tomorrow.
So he’s obviously trying to ensure that he plugs any leaks, that he holds people accountable he doesn’t trust. But I think his standard is becoming more unreasonable over time as to what he considers to be unpatriotic. And even people are leaving the country because they’re calling a war, a war are considered unpatriotic. So this is a sign of a person in distress. It’s a sign of a person who, in a sense, is more desperate to ensure that everyone around him remains loyal to him personally.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, just a little background here. The FSB is the internal intelligence service. But they are responsible for Ukraine, correct?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: The FSB is the internal intelligence service. There are three main intelligence services in Russia: the external intelligence service, which is the form of those spies in the United States and other foreign countries.
The military intelligence called the GRU, and the FSB, which dwarfs those other organizations, both in size and responsibility, have responsibility for two main things in Russia. They have responsibility to maintain internal security, and they have counterintelligence responsibility in Russia.
And in the near-abroad, which is the Russian term for all the countries that are that are for formerly part of the Soviet Union, they have a huge active role in establishing agent networks and conducting what, in the West, we call active measures, which are operations to influence events on the ground. So the FSB had decades to establish itself in Ukraine that run all the way back to when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. And that’s the part of this war so far that clearly has not gone the way that Vladimir Putin expected.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, any sense for the economic situation in Russia? Give us a sense of what the sanctions are doing or have done so far.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I only have what I think we can all find anecdotally, peppered in with a few things I can get from people who have been there and just left, or reports of the situation. And when I see – which frankly, the amount, the number and the force of the sanctions, frankly, surprise me.
And the other surprise, in addition to the Russian military not being as powerful as we all thought and the Ukrainian resistance being on a far greater level than than any of us had hoped and expected, the other surprise to me is the unity of the West and particularly all the European countries in applying these sanctions to the Russians that are extremely biting.
When I see articles or news reporting about bare shelves in Russia, it brings me back to my time in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I frankly knew the Soviet Union was unsustainable, the path they were on in the 1980s, simply by going out and going shopping because there were no, you couldn’t buy anything. I mean, literally, the only thing you could rely on getting in the late eighties, even, was bread and vodka. And if you needed anything else, you imported it from Finland or other places. Certainly fresh food.
Now, to go back to that is a tragedy for the Russian people. And I frankly have to wonder whether they’re going to be willing to tolerate it.
I’ll mention one other thing anecdotally, because I think it’s such a reflection of the historical aspect of what we’re witnessing: in the eighties, I was in Moscow when McDonald’s came to town, so to speak. And I think at the time it was the largest McDonald’s in the world, which is kind of classically Russian, right.
And of course, recently, all those companies pretty much have left. McDonald’s was one of the first companies, I think, to leave Russia. Putin’s reaction to that was to say, ‘Oh, this will be good. We can now put up Russian fast food stores and places and it’ll encourage the entrepreneurship of Russians.’
Well, they tried that in the eighties, and there were no fast food places. So my point is that the answer to your problems that you perceive with the West is not to close your doors and put up an iron wall. It’s to do what they started to do in the eighties and then, of course, accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is bring in competition into your economy. And now that’s now all reversing. And again, I think the real wildcard here is how long will the Russian people put up with it?
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have a sense of of of how much outside information is getting to average Russians? To what extent is Putin dominating the narrative at home? To what extent is his firewall holding? Do you have a sense of that at all?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think I do. I talked to a lot of people who have a better sense than I. So I’m going to pick a few things I’ve heard and string them together into a thought.
The first observation I would have is that this is generational in Russia like it is in any country. You could look at our politics and our political support, the United States, and you can characterize it by generations and urban-rural.
Well, the same dynamic is in Russia. The people in the villages all across Russia are fairly inert politically. They’re going to, by and large, support Putin. And when they hear things like ‘de-Nazification’ and ‘bioweapons in Ukraine,’ they’re going to, by and large, not question it, but they also don’t have a real political impact. For the most part, in their villages, that’s not where opposition is going to rise up.
The second aspect of it is that in the cities, particularly the young generation, I don’t think they’re fooled at all. I think when young people look at Russian propaganda, it doesn’t sell today any more than it sold in the Soviet days, which by that I mean even when I lived in Moscow and in the late eighties and early nineties, people did not believe government propaganda. They were too sophisticated. And the world has only advanced since then. It’s been 30 years ago and today’s information technology, the ways and forms it comes into the country, the way people can find alternative news sources, particularly if they want to know the truth.
And I believe young people in general want to know the truth. They question the lies. They can see pretty clearly the whole world is not jumping on Russia because they’re conducting a military technical operation. It’s ludicrous on the face of it.
So given a choice between believing that the Russian people, as a people, will continue to buy the propaganda line, the information operations the government’s putting out for long, I think, would be to discredit the Russian people. I think they’re much smarter than that and I think that’s going to be something Putin ultimately won’t be able to manage, the longer this war continues.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rolf, if we put all of that together, right, everything that’s happening internally, how much danger do you think Putin is in, politically?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN I think if you assign a probability to it – we talked earlier about nuclear being not zero, but hopefully low, but we have to manage it from that basis. I think Putin’s looking at his survivorship as not no longer being zero-threat. There have to be people in positions who are wondering whether he has launched a catastrophe for Russia that’s going to threaten the future of Russia.
And while I would not agree that it was a wise thing for President Biden to have said a couple of days ago, that Putin can’t remain the leader of Russia because the U.S. doesn’t have a policy to remove him from leadership – that’s not our goal or our objective in any tangible way – it’s up to the Russian people. And I think that the Russian people have to make that decision as to whether he should continue to govern this country because he is taking them into a secure future.
Because the fact remains that it will be very difficult for Russia – setting aside Putin for a minute – for Russia to return to a state of a normal interrelationship with the world after this. And all the enablers in Moscow were doing and saying what Putin wants them to do and say are also sharing responsibility in this disastrous war. And the more people who die, the more war crimes that are committed, the more refugees who have to leave the country, the harder it will be for Russia’s future itself and for Russia to have a secure future.
Not because anyone is threatening Russia or the existence of Russia. I’m not saying that. But because they had decided that the global system – that’s what Putin essentially decided when he invaded Ukraine. Is that the global geopolitical system that has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union was intolerable and that he was going to try to bring it back to what it was.
So this complete pollyannish, really ill-fated, because it can’t possibly succeed, war he launched: the Russians have to ask themselves, ‘Is there a time we have to cut our losses?’ The Russians have to ask themselves that. No one else can make that determination except for the other people who feel that they’re part of governing Russia’s future, which in the case right now in Moscow, boils down to a very few people in the military and intelligence establishment.
MICHAEL MORELL: What would a scenario look like where he departs? I know that’s a hard question, but you know this place pretty well. What might it look like?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yeah, it is a hard question and I hope listeners don’t take any scenario I offer as being something I’ve thought through in any great detail, and I don’t want to use it as sort of a way to hype the expectations here or any other way.
But I would refer listeners to go back, and even Google, read real briefly on the previous two coups that have occurred in in Moscow in modern history, of 1991 and 1993. In both cases, there were people within the, we call them the Special Services. That’s the word they use for themselves and the military and intelligence establishment.
In 1991, it was the KGB head, Kryuchkov, with the chief of staff of the Russian Military, Akhromeyev, Marshal Akhromeyev, who mounted a coup against Gorbachev in 1991. And it failed. And after it failed, it resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disbandment of the KGB, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin to power as President.
A lot of people have forgotten that two years later, there was another coup in the fall of 1993. During that coup, parts of the military, combined with some hard liners in the Russian parliament led by Rutshoi and Khabulatov, two members of the Russian Duma – hardliners, as I said, who were determined to get rid of Yeltsin. I was in Moscow at the time, in the CIA station, and we worked with Russian intelligence, in a great irony of history, to prevent that coup from succeeding. We worked with the Yeltsin government. We work with our limited liaison partners, we would call them, in the FSB, the domestic service, in order to ensure that the coup was put down.
Russian military actually came against the coup-plotters in Moscow. I’ll never forget it: Watching tanks firing rounds into the Russian White House, which is their capital building. But it happened and it deeply traumatized Russians. Traumatized them because they haven’t had those kinds of violence in the streets of Moscow in their long history since World War II. And here we had it, and it was in the latter part of the 20th century.
So unfortunately, that kind of a situation could arise if there’s not a sort of bloodless coup where a group of people, a small group of people, would put their heads together and simply say, ‘For the good of the country, you’re going to have to step down.’ That would obviously be everyone’s preferred outcome if there were some move.
Now, I want to hasten to say at the end of all this, that this is something, as an American, I’m very uncomfortable talking about, whether it’s CIA or the American government, we do not believe – this gets back to doing the right thing, I say, and the moral and ethical quality of what intelligence all about – that it should be American policy to remove leaders of countries. And I’m not saying in any way that the United States should be involved in removing Vladimir Putin from power in Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: Well, this has been a fantastic discussion. And I just want to ask you one last question. Ten years from now, how do you think we’ll look back on this, ten years from now? How different will the world be because of what Putin has done here, do you think? I know, another tough question.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, this is – of the phenomenal questions you asked, Michael, this to me is the most, maybe, important – because we can already see we’re not living in the world we thought we lived in. I didn’t think this was possible. Even in the weeks running up, when I was convinced, I was increasingly convinced that this was going to be a much larger war than the previous Russian invasion in 2014 into Ukraine. I didn’t expect it to take this form with these issues we’ve been talking about being on the table, such as WMD and use of nuclear weapons and a widening of the war to NATO.
And all the things that have happened, including here also a tragedy for Russia – it’s a greater tragedy for Ukraine. They’re the victims here. And it’s a tragedy for the world because we’re going to wake up realizing that we have to forge a completely new understanding of what security in the world means. Now that this has happened, we’re not going to return to the place we were before Putin invaded Ukraine.
And so that should make us think a lot about war, conflict, alliances, democracy, how we can coexist with countries that have completely different value systems than we do. Rather than bring it to conflict, for example, we shouldn’t have to insist that countries adopt our value system in order to coexist with them. That’s just not going to be possible in the 21st century, and we’re going to have to solve big problems we face in spite of all this, such as climate change.
And my the one I’ll leave you with, though – because it’s the one that’s most on my mind – is we are seeing the beginning of what I would call a rise in the potential for nuclear proliferation in the 21st century from other countries who are watching this very carefully. An escalation in the temptation to use nuclear weapons to solve problems. And therefore, a rising probability that at some point we’re going to experience a nuclear catastrophe in this century.
Again, I don’t want to end on a scary note, but I think we all have to think very long and hard about how we tamp down these threats and the kinds of things we may have to do to revise how we do everything, how our defense doctrine is established, how our intelligence services are situated, what kinds of priorities we have for national security, and how we do our basic core missions in the national security arena.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. It’s been terrific. And I want to say this: it was one of the honors of my career to work with you, particularly after 9/11. The work you did actually saved American lives. And people need to know that.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, Michael, it’s a real pleasure to appear on your show. I like to say to young people who go into intelligence that I was in it for the people. It was a great mission. It was an honor to serve the country. But people like you who I worked side by side with, that’s what made it for me the most memorable aspect of my career. So thank you, too.[00:41:07]