Lex Fridman Podcast - #335 - Fiona Hill: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump

The following is a conversation with Fiona Hill, a presidential advisor and

foreign policy expert specializing in Russia.

She has served the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, including being

a top advisor on Russia to Donald Trump.

She has made it to the white house from humble beginnings in the north of

England, a story she tells in her book, there’s nothing for you here.

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And now, dear friends, here’s Fiona Hill.

You came from humble beginning in a coal mining town in northeast England.

So what were some formative moments in your young life that made you the woman

you are today?

I was born in 1965, and it was the period where the whole coal sector in Britain

was in decline already.

And, you know, basically my father, by the time I came along, had lost his job

multiple times.

Every coal mine he worked in was closing down.

He was looking constantly for other work and he had no qualifications because at

age 14, he’d gone down the mines.

His father had gone down the mines at 13.

His great-grandfather, you know, around the same kind of age.

I mean, you had a lot of people, you know, at different points going down coal mines

at 12, 13, you know, 14.

They didn’t get educated beyond that period because the expectation was, hey,

you’re going to go down the mine like everybody else in your family.

And then he didn’t really have any other qualifications to, you know, basically

find another job beyond something in manual labor.

So he worked in a steelworks that didn’t work out, a brickworks that closed down.

And then he went to work in the local hospital, part of the National Health

Service in the United Kingdom as a porter, an orderly.

So basically somebody’s just pushing people around.

There was no opportunity to retrain.

So the big issue in my family was education.

You’ve got to have one.

You know, you’ve got to have some qualifications.

The world is changing.

It’s changing really quickly.

And for you to kind of keep up with it, you’re going to have to get educated and

find a way out of this.

And very early on, my father had basically said to me, there’s nothing for you here.

You’re going to have to, if you want to get ahead.

And he didn’t have any kind of idea that as a girl I wouldn’t.

I mean, actually, in many respects, I think I benefited from being a girl rather

than a boy.

There was no expectation that I would go into industry.

There was, you know, some kind of idea that maybe I, you know, if I got

qualifications, I could be a nurse.

My mother was a midwife.

And so she’d at age 16 left school and gone to train as a nurse and then as a


I had other relatives who’d gone to teach, you know, in local schools.

And so there was an idea that, you know, women could get educated and there was a

kind of a range of things that you could do.

But the expectation then was go out there, do something with your life, but also a

sense that you’d probably have to leave.

So all of that was circling around me, particularly in my teenage years, as I

was trying to find my way through life and looking forward.

First of all, what does that even look like, getting educated, given the context

of that place?

You don’t know.

There’s a whole world of mystery out there.

So how do you figure out what to actually do out there?

But was there moments, formative moments, either challenging or just inspiring,

where you wondered about what you want to be, where you want to go?

Yeah, there were, I mean, there were a number of things.

I mean, I think like a lot of kids, you know, you talk to people and particularly

from blue-collar backgrounds, you say, what did you want to do?

Boys might say, I wanted to be a fireman, you know, or you got, you know, kind of,

at one point as a little girl, I wanted to be a nurse.

I had a little nurse’s uniform like my mother.

I didn’t really know what that meant, but, you know, I used to go around

pretending to be a nurse.

I even had a little magazine called Nurse Nancy, and I used to read this.

And, you know, kind of that was one of the formative ideas.

We also, it was a rural area, semi-rural area, and, you know, I’d be out in the

fields all the time and I’d watch farmers, you know, with their animals and I’d see

vets coming along and, you know, watching people deal with the livestock.

And there was a kind of a famous story at the time about a vet called James

Herriot, it became here in the United States as well and was a sort of a TV


He’d written a book and he was the vet for my, one of my great aunt’s dogs and

people were always talking about him.

And I thought, oh, I could be a vet.

And then one day I saw one of the local vets with his hand up the backside of a

cow in a field and he’d got his hand stuck and the cow was kicking him.

And I thought, yeah, maybe, maybe not actually.

No, I don’t think I want to be a vet.

So I cycled through all of these things about, okay, I could get an education, but

the whole sense was you had to apply your education.

It wasn’t an education for education’s sake.

It was an education to do something.

And when I was about 14 or 15, my local member of parliament came to the school

and it was one of these, you know, pep talks for kids in these, you know,

deprived areas.

He had been quite prominent in local education and now he was a member of


He himself had come from a really hard scrabble background and had risen up

through education.

He’d even gone to Oxford and done philosophy, politics and economics.

And he basically told my class, even though it was highly unlikely any of us

were really going to get ahead and go to elite institutions, look, you can get an


You don’t have to be held back by your circumstances.

But if you do get an education, it’s a privilege and you need to do something

with it.

So then I’m thinking, well, what could I do?


An education is a qualification.

It’s to do something.

Most people around me I didn’t, I knew didn’t have careers.

I mean, my dad didn’t really have a career.

He had jobs.

My mom, you know, thought of her nursing as a career though, and it genuinely was.

And she was out there trying to help women survive childbirth.

My mother had these horrific stories, you know, basically over the dining room

table that I wish she’d stop.

She’d leave out her nursing books.

And I tell you, if everyone had had my mom as a, as a mother, there’d be no,

there’d be no reproduction on the planet.

It was just these grim, horrific stories of breached births and fistulas and

all kinds of horrors that my sister and I would just go, Oh my God, you know,

what, please stop.

So I thought, well, you know, I don’t necessarily want to go in that, in that

direction, but it was the timing that really cinched things for me.

I was very lucky that the region that I grew up, County Durham, despite the

massive decline, de-industrialization and the complete collapse of the local

government system around me, still maintained money for education.

And they also paid for exchanges and we had exchange programs with cities in

Germany and France, also in Russia and Kostroma near Yaroslavl, for example,

an old textile town, similar, you know, down in its kind of region, but quite

historic in the Russian context.

In fact, the original birthplace of the Romanov dynasty in Kostroma, just as

County Durham, you know, was quite a distinguished historic area in the

British context.

And so it was an idea that I could go on exchanges.

I could learn languages.

I studied German, I studied French.

And then in 1983, there was the war scare, basically provoked by the Euro

missile crisis.

So the stationing of new categories of strategic nuclear weapons and

intermediate nuclear weapons in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe during the

height of the Cold War.

And this Euro missile crisis over SS-20 and Pershing missiles went on from

1977, so when I was about 11 or 12, you know, all the way through into the

later part of the 1980s.

And in 1983, we came extraordinarily close to a nuclear conflict.

It was very much another rerun of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

So 20 years on, same kind of thing.

The Soviets misread, although I didn’t know this at the time, I know a lot of

this, you know, after the fact, but the tension was palpable.

But what happened was the Soviets misread the intentions of a series of

exercises, Operation Able Archer, that the United States was conducting and

actually thought that the United States might be preparing for a first nuclear

strike. And that then set off a whole set of literal chain reactions in the Soviet

Union. Eventually, it was recognized that, you know, all of this was really based on


And of course, you know, that later led to negotiations between Gorbachev and

Reagan for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces, the INF Treaty.

But in 1983, that tension was just acute.

And for as a teenager, we were basically being prepped the whole time for the

inevitability of nuclear Armageddon.

There were TV series, films in the United States and the UK, threads the day after.

We had all these public service announcements telling us to seek sanctuary or

cover in the inevitability of a nuclear blast.

And, you know, my house was so small, they said, look for a room without a

window. There were no rooms without windows.

My dad put on these really thick curtains over the window, you know, and said if

there was a nuclear flash, you know, we’d have to, you know, get down on the floor,

not look up, but the curtains would help.

And we were like, this is ridiculous, Dad.

And we would all try to see if we could squeeze in the space under the stairs, a

cupboard under the stairs like Harry Potter.

I mean, it’s all just, you know, totally nuts.

Or you had to throw yourself in a ditch if you were outside.

And I thought, well, this isn’t going to work.

And one of my great uncles who had fought in World War II said, well, look, you’re

good at languages, Fiona.

Why don’t you go and study Russian, try to figure it out, figure out why the

Russians are trying to blow us up?

Because, you know, during the…

Go talk to them.

Exactly. During World War II, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet

Union had all been wartime allies.

And my uncle Charlie thought, well, there’s something gone wrong here.

Maybe you can figure it out.

And as you said, go talk to them.

So I thought, OK, I’ll study Russian.

So that’s really how this came about.

I thought, well, it’s applying education.

I’ll just do my very best to understand everything I possibly can about the

Russian language and the Soviet Union, and I’ll see what I can do.

And I thought, well, maybe I could become a translator.

So I had visions of myself sitting around, you know, listening to things in a big

headset and, you know, basically translating, perhaps at some, you know,

future arms control summits.

So how did the journey continue with learning Russian?

I mean, this early dream of being a translator and thinking, how can I

actually help understand or maybe help even deeper away with this conflict that

threatens the existence of the human species?

How did it actually continue?

Well, I mean, I read everything I actually possibly could about, you know,

nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

And, you know, I started to try to teach myself, you know, Russian a little bit.

So it was always in context of nuclear war?

It was very much in the context of nuclear war at this particular point, but

also in historical context, because I knew that the United States and the United

Kingdom and the Soviet Union had been wartime allies in World War II, so I

tried to understand all of that.

And also, you know, I, like many other people, I’d read, you know, Russian

literature in translation.

I’d read War and Peace and, you know, I’d love the book, actually.

I mean, particularly the, you know, the story parts of it.

I wasn’t one really at that time when I was a teenager.

I thought Tolstoy went on a bit, you know, in terms of his series of the

Great Man and of history and, you know, kind of social change, although now I

appreciate it more.

But when I was about 14, I was like, this man needed an editor.

You know, could he have just gone on with the story?

What an amazing story, what an incredible, you know, kind of book this is.

I still think he needs an editor, but.

Well, I think his wife tried, didn’t she?

But he got quite upset with her.

And then I kind of thought to myself, well, how do I, how do I study Russian?

Because there were very few schools in my region, you know, given the

impoverishment of the region where you could study Russian.

So I would have to take Russian from scratch.

And this is where things get really quite interesting.

Because there were opportunities to study Russian at universities, but I would need

to have, first of all, an intensive Russian language course in the summer.

And I didn’t have the money for that.

And the period is around the miners’ strike in the United Kingdom in 1984.

Now, the miners of County Durham had very interestingly had exchanges and ties with

the miners of Donbass, going back to the 1920s.

And as I studied Russian history, I discovered there was lots of contacts

between, you know, Bolshevik, Soviet Union, the early period after the Russian

revolution, but even before that, during the imperial period in Russia, between

the Northern England and the Russian empire and the old industrial areas.

Basically big industrial areas like the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union, the

industrial areas like the northeast of England and places like Donbass were built

up at the same time, often by the same sets of industrialists.

And Donetsk in the Donbass region used to be called Husevka because it was

established by a Welsh industrialist who brought in miners from Wales to help, you

know, kind of develop the coal mines there and also the steelworks and others that,

you know, we’re hearing about all the time.

So I got very fascinated in all these linkages and, you know, famous writers from

parts of the Soviet Union, like Yevgeny Zamyatin, worked in the shipyards in

Newcastle, Pontine.

And there was just this whole set of connections.

And in 1984, when the miners strike took place, the miners of Donbass, along with

other miners from famous coal regions like the Ruhr Valley, for example, in

Germany or miners in Poland, sent money in solidarity to the miners of County Durham.

And there’d been these exchanges, as I said, going back and forth since the 1920s,

formal exchanges between miners, you know, the region, the miners’ unions.

And I heard, again from the same great uncle who told me to study Russian, that

there were actually scholarships for the children of miners, and it could be

former miners as well, for their education.

And I should go along to the miners’ hall, a place called Red Hills, where the

miners of County Durham had actually pooled all of their resources and built up

their own parliament and their own, you know, kind of place that they could talk

among themselves to figure out how to enhance the welfare and wellbeing of their

communities. And they’d put money aside for education for miners.

There was all kinds of lecture series from the miners and all kinds of other

activities supporting soccer teams and artistic circles and writing circles, for

example. People like George Orwell, you know, were involved in some of these

writer’s circles in other parts of Britain in mining communities, for example.

And so they told me I could, you know, go along and basically apply for a grant to

go to study Russian. So I show up and it was the easiest, you know, application

I’ve ever come across. They just asked me to, my dad came along with me.

They asked me to verify, you know, that my dad had been a miner and they looked up

his employment record on little cards, you know, kind of a little, a little tray

somewhere. And then they asked me how much I needed, you know, to basically pay

for the travel and some of the basic expenses for the study.

And they wrote me a cheque. And so thanks to the miners of Donbass and this money

that was deposited with the miners of County Durham at the Durham Miners

Association, I got the money to study Russian for the first time before I embarked

on my studies at university.

As you’re speaking now, it’s reminding me that there’s a different way to look both

at history and at geography and at different places is, you know, this is an

industrial region.

That’s right.

And it echoes in the experience of living there is more captured not by Moscow or

Kiev, but by, at least historically, but by just being a mining town and industrial town.

That’s right. In the place itself.

Yeah. Yeah.

I mean, there are places in the United States and Appalachia and West Virginia and in

Pennsylvania, like the Lehigh Valley, that have the same sense of place.

And the northeast of England was the cradle of the industrial revolution.

It was the industrial version of Silicon Valley, which has its own, I would say,

contours and frames.

And when you come to those industrial areas, your previous identities get submerged in

that larger framework.

I’ve always looked at the world through that lens of being, you know, someone from the

working class, the blue collar communities from a very specific place with lots of

historical and economic connotations.

And it’s also a melting pot, which is the problems that the Donbass has experienced

over, you know, the last 30 years that people came from all over the place to work

there. Of course, it was a population that one might say is indigenous, you know, might

have gone back centuries there, but they would have been, you know, in the smaller

rural farming communities, just like it was the same in the northeast of England.

And people in the case of the northeast of England came from Wales, they came from

further in the south of England, the Midlands, they came from Scotland, they came

from Ireland. I have all of that heritage in my own personal background.

And you’ve got a different identity.

And it’s when somebody else tries to impose an identity on you from the outside that

things go awry. And I think that that’s kind of what we’ve really seen in the case of

Donbass. It’s a place that’s a part in many respects, historically, and in terms of its

evolution and development over time.

And, you know, particularly in the case of Russia, the Russians have tried to say, well,

look, you know, because most people speak Russian, there is the lingua franca.

I mean, in the northeast of England, of course, everyone spoke English, but lots of

people were Irish speakers, you know, Gaelic-Irish speakers or, you know, some of them

might have certainly been Welsh speakers.

There was lots of Welsh miners who spoke Welsh as their first language who came there,

you know, but they created an identity.

It’s the same in Belfast, in Ulster, you know, the northern province of the whole of

the Irish island, you know, the part of Ireland that is still part of the United

Kingdom. That was also a heavily industrialized area, high manufacturing, mass

manufacturing, shipbuilding, for example.

People came from all over there, too, which is why when Ireland got its independence in

the United Kingdom, Ulster, Belfast and that whole region, you know, kind of clung on

because it was, again, that melting pot.

It was kind of intertwined with the larger industrial economy and had a very different

identity. And so that, you know, for me growing up in such a specific place with such a

special, in many respects, heritage gave me a different perspective on things.

When I first went to the Soviet Union in 1987 to study there, I actually went to a

translator’s institute, what was then called the Maurice Therese, which is now the

Institute of Foreign Languages.

I was immediately struck by how similar everything was to the north of England because

it was just like one big working class culture that sort of broken out onto the national

stage. Everything in northern England was nationalized.

We had British steel, British coal, British rail, British shipbuilding, because after

World War Two, the private sector had been devastated and the state had to step in.

And of course, the Soviet Union is one big, giant, nationalized economy when I get there.

And it’s just the people’s attitudes and outlooks are the same.

People didn’t work for themselves.

They always worked for somebody else.

And it had quite a distortion on the way that people looked at the world.

Do you still speak Russian?

I do. Yeah.

You speak Russian?

Yeah, of course.

If you want to.

Well, yes, then I need to say something and everyone will think about what we’re talking about.

Yeah, it would be a big mystery for everybody.

And you have an advantage on me because it’s your native language as well.

For people wondering, the English speakers in the audience, you’re really missing a lot

from the few sentences we said there.

Yeah, it’s a fascinating language that stretches actually geographically across a very large

part of this world. So there you are in 1987, an exchange student in the Soviet Union.

What was that world like?

Well, that was absolutely fascinating in that period because it’s the period that’s just

around the time of the peak of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev’s role as president.

Well, it wasn’t quite president at that point.

It’s Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union trying to transform the

whole place. So I arrived there in September of 1987, just as Gorbachev and Reagan sign

the INF Treaty.

It was just within, you know, kind of weeks of them about to sign that, which really ends

that whole period that had shaped my entire teenage years of the end of the Euromissile

crisis by finally having an agreement on, you know, basically the reduction and

constraints on intermediate nuclear forces.

And also at this point, Gorbachev is opening the Soviet Union up.

So we got all kinds of opportunities to travel in ways that we wouldn’t have done before,

not just, you know, in Moscow, which is where I was studying at the translation institute,

went to the Caucasus, to Central Asia, went all the way to Khabarovsk in the Russian

Far East, all the way around, you know, kind of Moscow.

And there was at this point, it was also the Kresenye Rus’, which has become very

important now. This is the anniversary, the thousandth anniversary of the Christianization

of Russia, which, of course, has become a massive obsession of Vladimir Putin’s.

But, you know, 988, because I was there 87 to 88.

And at this point, the Russian Orthodox Church is undergoing a revival from being

repressed during the Soviet period.

You certainly have the church stepping out as a non-governmental organization and

engaging in discussions with people about the future of religion.

So that was something that I wasn’t expecting to witness.

Also, I mean, being in Moscow, this is the cultural capital of a vast empire at this

point. I’d never lived in a major city before.

It’s the first big city I lived in.

I’d never been to the opera.

You know, the first time I got an opera, it’s at the Bolshoi.

And I’d never seen a ballet.

I mean, I was not exactly steeped in high classical culture.

When you’re kind of growing up in a mining region, you know, there’s very limited

opportunities for this kind of thing.

I’d been in a youth orchestra and a youth choir.

My parents signed me up for absolutely everything, you know, they possibly could

education-wise, but it wasn’t exactly any exposure to this.

So, you know, I was kind of astounded by the sort of wealth of the cultural experience

that one could have in Moscow.

But the main thing was I was really struck by how the Soviet Union was on its last

legs. Because this was Moscow, you know, I got this image about what it would look

like. I was quite, to be honest, terrified at first about what I would see there, you

know, the big nuclear superpower.

And since I got there, it was just this like as if a huge weight that I’d been

carrying around for years in my teenage years just disappeared because it’s just

ordinary people in an ordinary place, not doing great.

This is the period of, you know, what they call deficitnei vremya, you know, the

period of deficits. But there was no food in the shops.

There was, you know, very little in terms of commodities because the supply and

demand parts of the economic equation were out of whack because it was total central

planning. You know, you’d go into, you know, a shop that was supposed to sell boots

and there’d be just one pair of boots all in the same size and the same color.

I actually lucked out because once I was in this Hungarian boot shop that was right

next to where my hall of residence was and I was looking for a new pair of boots and

every single pair of boots in the shop were my size and they were all women’s boots

and not men’s boots at all, you know, because there was been an oversupply of boots

and that size production.

But you could really kind of see here that there was something wrong.

And, you know, in the north of England, everything was closed down.

The shops were shuttered because there was no demand because everybody lost their

jobs. It was massive employment.

And when I went off to university in 1984, 90 percent youth unemployment in the UK,

meaning that when kids left school, they didn’t have something else to go on to

unless they got to university or vocational training or an apprenticeship.

And most people were still looking, you know, kind of months out of leaving school.

And so shops were closing because people didn’t have any money.

You know, I had 50 percent male unemployment in some of the towns as the steel works

closed down and the wagon works, the railways, for example, in my area.

But in Moscow, people in theory did have money, but there was just there was nothing

to buy. Also, the place was falling apart.

Literally, I saw massive sinkholes open up in the street, balconies fall off

buildings, you know, one accident after another.

And then there was, you know, this real kind of sense, even though the vibrancy and

excitement and hope of the Gorbachev period, a real sense of the Soviet Union has

lost its way. And of course, it was only a year or so after I left from that exchange

program and I’d already started with my degree program in Soviet studies at Harvard

that the Soviet Union basically unraveled.

And it really did unravel.

It wasn’t like it collapsed.

It was basically that there was so many debates that Gorbachev had sparked off about

how to reform the country, how to put it on a different path that, you know, no one was

in agreement. And it was basically all these fights and debates and disputes among the

elites at the center, as well as, you know, basically a loss of faith in the system, in

the periphery and among the general population that in fact pulled it apart.

And of course, in 1991, you get Boris Yeltsin as the head of the Russian Federation, then

a constituent part of the Soviet Union, together with the presidents of Ukraine and

Belarus, all of these being individual parts of the Soviet Union getting together and

agreeing and essentially ending it.

And Gorbachev, you know, so basically I’m there at the peak of this whole kind of

period of experimentation and thinking about the future.

And within a couple of years, it’s all kind of gone and it’s on a different track


Well, I wonder if we reran the 20th century a thousand times, if how many times the

Soviet Union would collapse.

Yeah, I wonder about that, too.

And I also wonder about what would have happened if it didn’t collapse and Gorbachev

had found a different direction.

I mean, you know, we see a very divisive time now in American history.

The United States of America has very different cultures, very different beliefs,

ideologies within those states.

But that’s kind of the strength of America, there’s these little laboratories of


Until, though, that they don’t keep together.

I mean, I’ve had colleagues who have described what’s happening in the West right

now as a kind of soft secession, with states, you know, going off in their own


In which states?

Well, these kinds of conceptions that we have now are divisions between red and blue

states because of the fracturing of our politics.

And I’d always thought that that wouldn’t be possible in somewhere like the United

States or many other countries as well, because there wasn’t that ethnic dimension.

But in fact, many of the way that people talk about politics has given it that kind of

appearance in many respects.

Because, look, I mean, we know from the Soviet Union and the Soviet period and from

where you’re from, you know, originally in Ukraine, that language is not the main

signifier of identity and that identity can take all kinds of other forms.

That’s really interesting.

I mean, but there has to be a deep grievance of some kind.

If you took a poll in any of the states in the United States, I think a very small

minority of people would want to actually secede.

Even in Texas, where I spend a lot of my time.

I just I think that there is a common kind of pride of nation.

You know, there’s a lot of people complain about government and about how the

country is going, the way people complain about the weather when it’s raining.

They say, oh, this stupid weather, it’s raining again.

But really what they mean is we’re in the smock together.

There’s a together there.

I also feel that when I go around, I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time since I wrote my

book in last October and this last year going around, I find the same feeling.

But, you know, when I traveled around the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s, I

didn’t get any kind of sense that people wanted to see the end of the Soviet Union

either. It was an elite project.

There’s a really good book called Collapse by Vladislav Zubik, who is a professor at

London School of Economics at LSE.

And Zubik is pretty much my age and he’s from the former Soviet Union, he’s Russian.

And I mean, he describes it very quite aptly about how it was kind of the elites, you

know, that basically decided to pull the Soviet Union apart.

And there is a risk of that here as well when you get partisan politics and people

forgetting, you know, they’re Americans and they are all in this together like a lot

of the population thing.

But they think that their own, you know, narrow partisan or ideological precepts, you

know, account for more.

And in the Soviet case, of course, it was also a power play, you know, in a way that

actually can’t quite play out in the United States because it was the equivalent of

governors in many respects who got together, three of them, you know, in the case of

the heads of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who then, you know, got rid of, you know,

basically the central figure of Mikhail Gorbachev.

It would be a little difficult to do that.

The dynamic is not the same.

But it does worry me of having seen all of that close up in the late 1980s and the

early 90s. I spent a lot of time in Russia as well as in Ukraine and Caucasus, Central

Asia and other places after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But you kind of see the same elite divisions here in the United States pulling in, you

know, in different directions and straining, you know, the overall body politic and the

way that national politics gets imposed on local politics in ways that it certainly

wasn’t when I first came to the U.S.

in 1989. I didn’t honestly, in 1989, when I first came here, I didn’t know anybody’s

political affiliation.

I mean, I really knew their religious affiliation.

And, you know, obviously race was a was a major phenomenon here that was a shock to

me when I when I first came.

But many of the kind of the class, regional, geographic, you know, kind of political

dimensions that I’ve seen in other places, I didn’t see them at play in the same way

then as I do now.

And you take a lot of pride to this day of being nonpartisan.

That said, so you served for the George W.

Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations, always specializing in

Eurasia and Russia.

You were the top presidential advisor to President, former President Donald Trump on

Russia and Europe, and famously testified in his first impeachment trial in 2019

saying, I take great pride in the fact that I’m nonpartisan foreign policy expert.

So given that context, what does nonpartisan mean to you?

Well, it means being very careful about not putting any kind of ideological lens on

anything that I’m analyzing or looking at or saying about foreign policy, for one

thing, but also not taking, you know, kind of one stance of one party over another

either. To be honest, I’ve always found American politics somewhat confounding.

Because both the Democratic and the Republican Party are pretty big tents.

I mean, they’re coalitions.

You know, in Europe, it’s actually kind of, in some respects, easier to navigate the

parameters of political parties because, you know, you have quite clear platforms.

You know, there’s also a longer history in many respects, obviously.

I mean, there’s a long history here in the United States of the development of the

parties, you know, going back to the late 18th century.

But in the United Kingdom, you know, for example, in the 20th century, the

development of the mass parties, you know, was quite easy to get a handle on.

You know, at one point in the UK, for example, the parties were real genuine mass

parties with people who were properly members and took part in regular meetings

and paid dues.

And, you know, it was easy to kind of see what they stood for.

And the same in Europe, you know, when you look at France and Germany and Western

Germany, of course, Italy and elsewhere.

Here in the United States, it’s kind of pretty amorphous.

You know, the fact that you could kind of register, you know, randomly, it seems to

be a Democrat or Republican, like Trump did.

At one point he’s a Democrat, next thing he’s a Republican.

And then you kind of usurp a party apparatus.

But you don’t have to be, you’re not vetted in any way.

You’re not kind of, you know, they don’t check you out to see if you have

ideological coherence.

You know, you could have someone like Bernie Sanders on the other side, on the

left, you know, basically calling himself a socialist and running for the

Democratic presidential nomination.

So, you know, kind of in many respects, parties in the United States are much more

loose movements.

And I think you can, you know, it’s almost like a kind of an a la carte menu of

different things and that people can pick apart, pick out.

And it’s more over time, as I’ve noticed, become more like a kind of an

affiliation even with the sporting team.

I mean, I get very shocked by the way that people say, well, I couldn’t do this

because, you know, that’s my side and I couldn’t do anything and I couldn’t

support someone for the other side.

I mean, I have a relative in my extended family here who is a, you know, died in

the war Republican and on, you know, family holiday, there was a book on their

table, said a hundred reasons for voting for a Democrat.

And I said, hey, are you thinking of shifting party affiliation?

Then I opened the book and it’s blank.

It was pretty funny.

I’d laugh.

I thought, well, there you go.

Then, you know, there’s just, there’s no way that, you know, people can pull

themselves out of these frames.

So for me, it’s very important to have that independence of thought.

I think you can be politically engaged on the issues, but, you know, basically

without taking a stance that’s defined by some ideology or some sense of

kind of partisan affiliation.

I think I tweeted about this, maybe not eloquently in the statement, if I

remember correctly, was something like, if you honestly can’t find a good thing

that Donald Trump did, or a good thing that Joe Biden did, you’re not, you’re

not thinking about ideas.

You just pick the tribe.

I mean, it was more eloquent than that, but it was, it was, it’s basically, this

is a really good test to see, are you actually thinking about like how to solve

problems versus like your red team or blue team, like a sporting team?

Can you find a good idea of Donald Trump’s that you like, if you’re somebody

who is against Donald Trump and like acknowledge it to yourself privately?

Oh, that’s a good idea.

I’m glad he said that.

Or he’s even asking the right kinds of questions, which he often did actually.

I mean, obviously he put them in a way that most of us wouldn’t have done, but

there was often kind of questions about why is this happening?

Why are we doing this?

And, you know, we have to challenge ourselves all the time.

So yeah, actually, why are we doing that?

And then you have to really inspect it and say whether it’s actually worth

continuing that way, or they should be doing something differently.

Now he had a more kind of destructive quality to those kinds of questions, you

know, maybe it’s the real estate developer in him that was, you know,

taking a big wrecking ball to all of these kinds of, you know, sacred

edifices and things like that.

But often, if you really paid attention, he was asking a valid set of questions

about why do we continue to do things like this?

Now, we didn’t often have answers about what he was going to do in response, but

those questions still had to be asked and we shouldn’t be just rejecting them, you

know, out of turn.

And, you know, another strength, the thing that people often that criticize Donald

Trump will say is a weakness, is his lack of civility can be a strength, because I

feel like sometimes bureaucracy functions on excessive civility.

Like, actually, I’ve seen this, it’s not just, it’s bureaucracy in all forms.

Like in tech companies, as they grow, everybody kind of, you know, you’re

getting a pretty good salary, everyone’s, everyone’s comfortable, and there’s a

meeting and you discuss how to move stuff forward.

And like, you don’t want to be the asshole in the room that says, why, this

is, why are we doing this, this way?

This is, this could be unethical.

This is hurting the world.

This is totally a dumb idea.

Like, I mean, I could give specific examples that I have on my mind

currently that are technical, but the point is oftentimes the person that’s

needed in that room is an asshole.

That’s why Steve Jobs worked.

So Elon Musk works, you have to roll in.

That’s what first principles thinking looks like.

The one bit when it doesn’t work is when they start name calling, you know, kind

of inciting violence against, you know, the people that they disagree with.

So that was kind of your problem, because I mean, often when, you know, when I was

in the administration, I had all of Europe in my portfolio as well as Russia.

And there were many times when, you know, we were dealing with our European

colleagues where he was asking some pretty valid questions about, well, why

should we do this if you’re doing that?

You know, for example, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the United States has been

opposed to Europe’s reliance on gas and oil exports from Russia, you know, the

Soviet Union since the 70s and 80s.

And Trump kept pushing this idea about, so why are we spending so much money on

NATO and NATO defense?

And we’re all talking about this.

If you’re then, you know, basically paying billions, you know, to Russia for

gas, isn’t this, you know, contradictory?

And of course it was, but it was the way that he did it.

And I actually, you know, one instance had a discussion with a European defense

minister who basically said to me, look, he’s saying exactly the same things as

people said before him, including, you know, former Defense Secretary Gates.

It’s just the way he says it, you know, so they took offense.

And then as a result of that, they wouldn’t take action because they

took offense at what he said.

So it was a kind of then a way of, could you find some other means of, you know,

massaging this communication to kind of make it effective, which we would always

try to focus on because it’s a kind of, it was the delivery, but the actual

message was often spot on in those kinds of issues.

I mean, he was actually highlighting, you know, these ridiculous discrepancies

between what people said and what they actually did.

And it’s the delivery, the charisma in the room too.

I’m also understanding the power of that, of a leader.

It’s not just about what you do at a podium, but in a room with advisors, how

you talk about stuff, how you convince other leaders.


You don’t do it through gratuitous insults and incitement to violence.

That’s one of the things you just, you don’t get anywhere on that front.

Well, I mean, it’s possible.

Tough measures and maximum pressure often does work because there were, you know,

oftentimes where, you know, that kind of relentless, you know, nagging about

something or constantly raising it actually did have results where it

hadn’t previously, so there’s, you know, the maximum pressure, if it, you know,

kind of kept on it in the right way.

And, you know, often when we were coming in behind on pushing on issues, you

know, related to NATO or, you know, other things in this same sphere, it

would actually have an effect.

It just doesn’t get talked about because it gets overshadowed by, you know, all

of the other kind of stuff around this.

And the way that, you know, he interacted with people and treated people.

What was the heart, the key insights to your testimony in that impeachment?

Look, I think there is a straight line between that whole series of episodes

and the current war in Ukraine, because Vladimir Putin and the people around

him in the Kremlin concluded that the U.S.

did not care one little bit about Ukraine.

And it was just a game.

For Trump, it was personal game.

He was basically trying to get Volodymyr Zelensky to do him a personal favor

related to his desire to stay on in power in the 2020 election.

And generally, they just thought that we were using Ukraine as some kind of

proxy or some kind of instrument within our own domestic politics,

because that’s what it looked like.

And I think that, you know, as a result of that, Putin, you know, took the

idea away that he could do whatever he wanted.

We were constantly being asked, even prior to this, by people around

Putin, like Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the National Security Council

equivalent in Russia, who we met with frequently, what’s Ukraine to you?

We don’t get it.

You know, why do you even care?

So they thought that we weren’t serious, that we weren’t serious about

Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its independence, or it is a national

security player.

And Putin also thought that he could just manipulate the political space in

the United States.

Actually, he could, because what he was doing was seeding all this dissent

and fueling, you know, already in a debate inside of US politics, the kinds

of things that we see just kind of coming out now.

This kind of idea that Ukraine was a burden, that Ukraine was basically just

trying to extract things from the United States, that Ukraine had somehow

played inside of US politics.

Trump was convinced that the Ukrainians had done something against him, that

they had intervened in the elections.

And that was kind of, you know, a combination of people around him trying

to find excuses to, you know, kind of what had happened in the election to

kind of divert attention away from Russia’s interference in 2016, and the

Russians themselves poisoning the well against Ukraine.

So you had a kind of a confluence of circumstances there.

And what I was trying to get across in that testimony was the national

security imperative of basically getting our act together here and

separating out what was going on in our domestic politics from what was

happening in our national security and foreign policy.

I mean, I think we contributed in that whole mess around the impeachment, but

there’s the whole parallel policies around Ukraine to the war that we now

have that we’re confronting.

Yes, signaling the value we place in peace and stability in that part of the

world, or the reverse by saying we don’t care.

Yeah, we seem to not care.

It was just a game.

But I mean, the US role in that war is a very complicated one.

That’s one of the variables.

Just on that testimony, did it in part break your heart that you had to

testify essentially against the president of the United States?

Or is that not how you saw it?

I don’t think I would describe it in that way.

I think what I was was deeply disappointed by what I saw happening in

the American political space.

I didn’t expect it.

Look, I was a starry-eyed immigrant.

I came to the United States with all of these expectations of what the place

would be.

I’d already been disabused of some of the, let’s just say, rosy perspectives

that I held in the United States.

I’d been shocked by the depths of racial problems.

It doesn’t even sum up the problems we have in the United States.

I mean, I couldn’t get my head around it when I first came.

I mean, I’d read about slavery in American history, but I hadn’t fully

fathomed really the kind of the way that it was ripping apart the United States.

I mean, I’d read Alexis de Tocqueville, and he’d commented on this, and it

obviously hadn’t kind of changed to the way that one would have expected all

this time from the 18th century onwards.

So that was kind of one thing that I realized the civil rights movement and

all of these acts of expansion of suffrage and everything else were imperfect at


And I was born in 65, the same time as the Civil Rights Act, and there’s a heck

of a long way still to go.

So I wasn’t, let’s just say, as starry-eyed about everything as I’d been


But I really saw an incredible competence and professionalism in the U.S.

government, in the election system and the integrity of it.

And I mean, I really saw that.

I saw that the United States was the gold standard for some of its institutions.

And I worked in the National Intelligence Council, and I’d seen the way that the

United States had tried to address the problems that it had faced in this whole

botched analysis of Iraq and this terrible strategic blunder of, honestly,

a crime in my view of invading Iraq.

But the way that people were trying to deal with that in the aftermath.

I mean, I went into the National Intelligence Council and the DNI, the

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, when they were coming to

terms with what had gone wrong in the whole analysis about Iraq in 2003, you

know, in the whole wake of people trying to pull together after 9-11 and to learn

all of the lessons from all of this.

And I saw, you know, just really genuine striving and deliberation about what had

gone wrong, what lessons could we learn from this?

And then suddenly, I found myself in this, I couldn’t really describe it in any

words, just totally crazy looking glass, thinking of, you know, Alice in

Wonderland, Alice through the Looking Glass version of American politics.

I mean, I’d seen everything starting to unravel over a kind of a period of time

before I’d been asked to be in the administration, but I did not expect it

to be that bad, I honestly didn’t.

I mean, I’d been warned, you know, by people that this was, you know, kind of

really a very serious turn that the United States had taken.

But I really thought that national security would still be uppermost in

people’s minds. And it was, I mean, a lot of the people that I work with.

But what I found, you know, if you want to use that, you know, term of

heartbreaking, was the way in which all of these principles that I had really

bought into and tried to uphold in the United States government and in the

things that we were trying to do with me and my colleagues was just being thrown

out the window. And, you know, I would have to step up in defence of them and

in defence of my colleagues who were being lambasted and, you know, criticised

and given death threats for actually standing up and doing their own jobs.

In particular on the topic of Ukraine?

Not just on Ukraine, but on national security overall.

So, I mean, I’d gone through this whole period even before we got to that point

and seeing non-partisan government officials being attacked from all sides,

left and right, but especially the right, and being basically accused of being

partisan hacks, you know, deep state coup plotters, you know, you name it.

There, patriotism being questioned as well.

And a lot of people I work with in government, like myself, naturalised

Americans, a lot of them were immigrants, many were refugees and many people had

fought in wars on behalf of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, being

blown up. And, you know, they put their lives on the line.

They put their family lives on the line, you know, because they believed in

America. And they were just, they were reflections of Americans from all kinds

of walks of life. It’s what really made, you know, that cliché of America great.

It wasn’t, you know, whatever it was that was being bandied around in these crude,

crass political terms.

It was just the strength of an incredible set of people who’ve come together from

all kinds of places and decided that they’re going to make a go of it and that

they’re going to, you know, try to work towards the whole idea of the preamble of

the Constitution towards a more perfect union.

And I, you know, I saw people doing that every single day, despite all of the

things that they could criticise about the United States, still believing in what

they were doing and believing in the promise of the country, which is what I

felt like. And then here we were, people were just treating it like a game and

they were treating people like dirt and they were just playing games with people’s

lives. I mean, we all had death threats, you know, people’s, you know, whole

careers, which were not just careers for their own self-aggrandisement, but

careers of public service, trying to give something back, were being shattered.

And I found, you know, I just thought to myself, I’m not going to let that happen

because, you know, I’ve come from a, well, are they going to send me back to

Bishop Auckland in County Durham?

Fine. I’m totally fine to go back, you know, because I could do something back

there. But I’m not going to let this happen.

I’ve made this choice to come to America.

I’m all in. And these guys are just behaving like a bunch of idiots and they’re

ruining it, you know, they’re ruining it for everybody.

So the personal attacks on incompetent, hardworking, passionate people who have

love for what they do in their heart, similar stuff I’ve seen for virologists

and biologists, so colleagues, basically scientists in the time of COVID when

there’s a bunch of cynicism and there was just personal attacks, including death

threats on people that, you know, work on viruses, work on vaccines.

Yeah, and they’re going around in, you know, basically with protective gear on

in case somebody shoots them in the street.

That’s just absurd.

But let me zoom out from the individual people and actually look at the

situations that we saw in the George W.

Bush, Obama and Donald Trump presidencies.

And I’d like to sort of criticise each by not the treatment of individual people,

but by the results.

Right. Yeah, I think that’s fair.

So if we look at George W.

Bush, and maybe you can give me insights, this is what’s fascinating to me.

When you have extremely competent, smart, hardworking, well-intentioned people, how

do we, as a system, make mistakes in foreign policy?

So the big mistake you can characterise in different ways, but in George W.

Bush is invading Iraq, or maybe how it was invaded, or maybe how the decision

process was made to invade it.

Again, Afghanistan, maybe not the invasion, but details around like having a plan

about, you know, how to withdraw, all that kind of stuff.

Barack Obama, to me, similarly, is a man who came to fame early on for being

somebody who was against, a rare voice against the invasion of Iraq, which was

actually a brave thing to do at that time.

And nevertheless, he, I mean, I don’t know the numbers, but I think he was the

president for years over increased drone attacks, like everything from a foreign

policy perspective, the military-industrial complex, that machine grew in power under

him, not shrunk, and did not withdraw from Afghanistan.

And then with Donald Trump, the criticisms that you’re presenting, sort of the

personal attacks, the chaos, the partisanship of people that are supposed to be

non-partisan. So that, you know, if you sort of the steel man, the chaos, to make

the case for chaos, maybe we need to shake up the machine, throw a wrench into the

engine, into the gears.

And then every individual gear is going to be very upset with that because it’s the

wrench. It’s not, it’s an inefficient process, but maybe it leads for government.

It forces the system as a whole, not the individuals, but the system to reconsider how

things are done. So obviously all of those things, the actual results are not that


You could have done that on the latter, you know, shaking things up, because I’m all one

for questioning and trying to shake things up as well and do things differently.

But, you know, the question is, if you bring the whole system down with nothing, ideas of

putting it to place. Look, I mean, like many people, I’ve studied the Bolshevik

Revolution and, you know, many others as well.

And, you know, kind of what’s, you know, what’s the pattern here, you know, that

actually fits into what you’re talking about here is a kind of rigidity of thought on the

part of revolutionaries in many cases as well.

And also narcissism.

In fact, I think it takes a pretty strong sense of yourself, you know, kind of an own

yourself to want to be president of the United States, for example.

We see that in, you know, many of our presidents have been narcissists to different, you

know, kind of degrees.

You think about Lenin, you know, for example, and people can go back and read about

Lenin. He formed his views when he was about 18 and he never shook them off.

He never evolved.

He didn’t have any kind of diversity of thought.

And when systems go awry, it’s when they don’t bring in different perspectives.

And so, you know, Trump, if he brought in different perspectives and actually listened

to them and not just, you know, believed that he himself knew better than anyone else and

then tried to divide everybody against each other, it would have been a different

matter. It’s a tragedy of a completely and utterly lost set of opportunities because of

the flaws in his own nature.

Because, I mean, again, there was all kinds of things that he could have done to shake

things up. And so many people around him remained completely disappointed.

And of course, he divided and pitted people against each other, you know, creating so

much factionalism in American politics that, you know, people have forgotten they’re

Americans. They think that they’re red or blue, you know, parts of teams.

And, you know, if you go back over history, that’s kind of a recipe for the war and, you

know, internal conflict. You go back to, you know, the Byzantine Empire, for example,

there’s the famous episode of the Nike riots in Constantinople where the whole city gets

trashed because the greens, the reds, the blues and these various sporting teams in the

Hippodrome get whipped up by political forces and they pull the place apart.

And that’s, you know, kind of where we’ve been heading on some of these trajectories.

But the other point is when you look back, you know, Bush and Obama as well, there’s a

very narrow circle of decision making.

You know, in Bush period, it’s the focus on the executive branch with Dick Cheney as the

vice president being very fixated on it.

And Obama, it’s, you know, he and, you know, kind of the bright young things around him,

you know, from he himself is, you know, kind of intellectually, you know, one might say

arrogant in many respects.

You know, he was a very smart guy and, you know, he’s convinced that he has and he

ruminates over a lot of things.

But he’s the person who makes, you know, a lot of decisions.

And basically, George W.

Bush used to call himself the decider as well, right?

I mean, they’re all the people who make the decisions.

It’s not always as consultative as you might think it is.

And for Trump, it’s like I’m not listening to anybody at all.

You know, it’s just me and whatever it is that I’ve woken up today and I’ve decided to

do. So I think, you know, the problem with all of our systems, why we don’t get results

because we don’t draw upon, you know, the diversity of opinion and all the ideas of

people out there. You do that in science.

I mean, when I mean, all of my friends and relatives are in science, they’ve got these

incredible collaborations with people, you know, across the world.

I mean, how did we get to these vaccines for the COVID virus?

Because of this incredible years of collaboration and of, you know, sharing results

and sharing ideas. And our whole system has become ossified.

You know, we think about the congressional system, for example, as well.

And there’s, you know, this kind of rapid turnover that you have in Congress every two

years. You know, there’s no incentive for people, you know, basically to work with others.

They’re constantly campaigning.

They’re constantly trying to appeal to whatever their base is.

And they don’t really care about, you know, some do, you know, of their constituents.

But a lot of people don’t. And the Senate, it’s all kind of focused on the game of

legislation for so many people as well.

Not focusing again on that kind of sense about what are we doing like scientists to kind

of work together, you know, for the good of the country to push things along.

And also our government also is siloed.

There’s not a lot of mechanisms for bringing people together.

There ought to be. And things like the National Security Council, the National Intelligence

Council actually did that quite successfully at times for analysis that I saw.

But we don’t have, you know, we have it within the National Institutes of Health.

But we saw the CDC break down on this, you know, kind of front.

We don’t have sufficient of those institutions that bring people together from all kinds

of different backgrounds.

You know, one of the other problems that we have with government, with the federal

government over, you know, state and local government, is actually quite small.

People think that the federal government’s huge because we have postal service and the

military that are part of it.

But your actual federal government employees is a very small number.

And, you know, the senior executive service part of that is the older white guys, you

know, who kind of come up all the way over the last several decades.

We have a really hard time bringing in younger people into that kind of government

service, unless they’re political hacks, you know, and they want to, you know, kind of

or they’re kind of looking for power and, you know, sort of influence.

We have a hard time getting people like yourself and other, you know, younger people

kind of coming in to make a career out of public service and also retaining them.

Because, you know, people with incredible skills often get poached away into the

private sector. And, you know, a lot of the people that I work with on the national

security side are now at all kinds of, you know, high end political consultancies or

they’ve gone to Silicon Valley and they’ve gone to this place and that place.

Because after a time as a younger person, they’re not rising up particularly quickly

because there’s a pretty rigid way of looking at the hierarchies and the promotion

schemes. And they’re also getting lambasted by everybody.

People like, you know, public servants, they’re not really public servants.

There’s this whole lack and loss of a kind of a faith in public service.

And, you know, the last few years have really done a lot of damage.

We need to revitalise our government system to get better results.

We need to bring more people in, even if it’s, you know, for a period of time, not just

through expensive contracts for, you know, the big consulting companies and, you know,

other entities that do government work out there, but getting people in for a period of

time, expanding some of these management fellowships and the White House

fellows and, you know, bringing in, you know, scientists, you know, from the outside,

giving, you know, that kind of opportunity for collaboration that we see in other spheres.

I think that’s actually one of the biggest roles for a president that for some reason

during the election that’s never talked about is how good are you at hiring and creating

a culture of, like, attracting the right, I mean, basically chief hire.

When you think of a CEO, like the great CEOs are, I mean, maybe people don’t talk

about it that often, but they do more often for CEOs than they do for presidents, is

like, how good are you at building a team?

Well, we make it really difficult because of the political process.

I mean, and also because we have so many political appointments, we ought to have

less, to be honest.

I mean, if you look at other governments around the world, you know, that are

smaller, it’s much easier for them to hire people in.

You know, some of the most successful governments are much smaller.

And it’s not that I say that, you know, the government is necessarily too big, but

it’s just thinking about each unit in a different way.

We shouldn’t be having so many political appointments.

We should kind of find more professional appointments, more non-partisan

appointments, because, you know, every single administration that we’ve had over

the last, let’s see, span of presidencies, they have jobs that are unfulfilled.

Because they can’t get their candidates through Congress and the Senate because

of all the kind of political games that are being played.

I know loads of people have just been held up because it’s just on the whim of, you

know, some member of Congress, even though that the actual position that they want

is really technical and doesn’t really care about what, you know, what political

preference they particularly have.

So I think we have to try to look at the whole system of governments in the way

that we would over, you know, other professional sectors.

And to try to think about this as, just as you said there, that this is a government

that’s actually running our country.

This is an operating system and you wouldn’t operate it like that if you were, you

know, looking at it in any kind of rational way.

It shouldn’t be so ideologically or partisan tainted.

At every level anyway.

So I would actually just make a bid for a more non-partisan approach to a lot of the

parts of government.

You can still kind of bring in, you know, the political and premature, but also you

have to explain to people writ large in America as well, that this is your

government and that actually you could also be part of this.

You know, things like the Small Business Administration, the US Department of

Agriculture, you know, all these kinds of things that actually people interact with,

but they don’t even know it.

The Postal Service, you know, all of these things.

I mean, people actually, when you ask them about different functions of government,

they have a lot of support for it.

The National Park Service, you know, for example, it’s just when you talk about

government in an abstract way, like, oh, too much bloated, you know, not efficient

and effective.

But if you kind of bring it down more to the kind of local and federal levels, that’s

kind of, you know, when people really see it, if people could see kind of themselves

reflected, and many of the people have gone into public service, I think that they

would have a lot more support for it.

More like superstars, like individuals that are like big on social media, big in the

public eye and having fun with it and showing cool stuff that it’s not.

Because right now, a lot of people see government as basically partisan warfare.

And then it just, it makes it unpleasant to do the job.

It makes it uninspiring for people looking in from outside about what’s going on inside

government, all of it, the whole thing.

But you are, you know, just with all due respect, you’re a pretty rare individual in

terms of non-partisanship.

Actually, your whole life story, the humbling aspect of your upbringing and everything

like that. Do you think it’s possible to have a lot of non-partisan experts in

government? Like, can you be a top presidential advisor on Russia for 10 years, for

15 years, and remain non-partisan?

I think you can.

I don’t think that’s advisable, though, by the way, because I mean, I don’t think

anybody should be there, you know, for the foreseeable future.

So your first advice is to fire yourself after 10 years?

Well, you should definitely have term limits, just like you should in everything,

right? I mean, it’s just like tenure in university.

Well, we all have term limits.

Yeah, you kind of, you know, we do, we have natural term limits.

But, you know, you’re kind of, you know, basically bottling it up for other people.

I mean, you know, what I’m trying to do now, I’m 57 now, and I always try to work

with, you know, people from different generations to me, just like, you know, I’ve

really benefited from these, you know, kind of mentorships of people older, you can,

you know, mentor up and well and mentor down.

I mean, I would, you know, try to get people from different backgrounds and different

generations to work together in teams.

Honestly, I’d like to more team networked kind of approach to things, the kind of

things that you get again in science, right?

I mean, all these ideas are going to come from all kinds of different perspectives.

Age and experience does count for something, but, you know, fresh ideas and coming in

and looking at a problem from a different perspective and seeing something that

somebody else hasn’t seen before.

I mean, I just, you know, kind of love working in an environment with all kinds of

different people and people who don’t agree with you.

You need people to take you on and say, absolutely, that’s crap.

You know, kind of, where did you come up with that from?

And you go, hang on.

Well, explain to me why you think so.

And then, you know, you have this kind of iterative process back and forth.

I mean, I would always encourage my colleagues to tell me when they thought it

was wrong.

I mean, sometimes I didn’t agree because I didn’t see the, you know, the reasoning.

But other times I’d be like, they’re right.

You know, that was a complete mistake.

I need to admit that.

And, you know, kind of, we need to figure out a different way of doing things.

But the one point I do want to get across is there were a lot of people who were

nonpartisan that I worked with.

I mean, honestly, in most of the jobs that I had up until more recently, I had no idea

about people’s political affiliation.

It’s just when you get into this kind of highly charged partisan environment, they

kind of force people, you know, to make decisions.

And when you have, you know, one political party or political faction that’s trying to

usurp power, it does make it quite difficult.

I mean, that’s the situation that we’re in right now.

And, you know, we’re seeing some of the things happening in the United States I’ve

seen and studied in other settings or seen for myself happening.

You know, when you have a president who wants to cling on to power, you know, you’ve

got to call that out.

You know, is that a partisan act or is that a kind of, you know, defense of that larger

political system that you’re part of?

You know, so I think we’ve got to recognize that even if you’re not partisan, you can be

politically engaged.

And, you know, sometimes you just have to stand up there and speak out, which is, you

know, what I did and what others did as well.

None of those people who spoke out, you know, can initially saw that as a partisan act,

even if some of them since then have decided to make political choices they hadn’t made

before, because, you know, the situation actually forced people into, you know, taking

sides. It’s very hard to still stay above the fray when you’ve got, you know, someone

who’s trying to perpetrate a coup.

Yeah, just to linger on that, I think it’s hard and it’s the courageous thing to do to

criticize a president and not fall into partisanship after.

Because the whole world will assume if you criticize Donald Trump, that you’re clearly a

Democrat. And so they will just, everybody will criticize you for being a Democrat.

And then so you’re now stuck in that.

So you’re going to just embrace that role.

But to still walk the nonpartisan route after the criticism, that’s the hard road.

So not let the criticisms break you into, you know, into a certain kind of ideological

set of positions.

I mean, our political system needs revitalization.

We need to be taking a long, hard look at ourselves here.

And I think what people are calling out for, look, there’s a vast swath of the population,

like me, who are unaffiliated.

You know, maybe some lean in one direction over another.

And unaffiliated doesn’t mean you don’t have views about things and political opinions.

And, you know, you may sound quite extreme on some of those, you know, either from a

left or right perspective.

What people are looking for is a kind of an articulation of things in a kind of a clear

way that they can get a handle on.

And they’re also looking for a representation.

Somebody is going to be there, you know, for you, you know, not part of a kind of a rigid

team that you’re excluded from.

You’re the ins and the outs.

But what people are looking at now, they’re looking at that in the workplace because

they’re not finding that in politics.

You’re actually getting workers, you know, pushing the people talk about the rise of

the workers, people just saying, hang on a sec, you know, the most important space that

I’m in right now is my workplace because that’s where my benefits are from.

They’re not coming from the state.

I mean, that’s a peculiarity of the United States system.

You know, in Britain, you’ve got the National Health Service and you’ve got all the kind

of national wide benefits.

You know, you’re not tethered to your employer like you are in the United States.

But here now we’re asking people, you know, people are pushing for more representation.

They’re asking to be represented within their workplace.

Be it Starbucks, where baristas, you know, and other Starbucks employees are trying to


We have unions among our research assistants, the Brookings Institution where I am, you

know, kind of teaching assistants and big universities doing the same kind of thing

as well, because they want to have their voice heard.

They want to kind of play a larger role and they want to have change.

And they’re often pushing their companies or the institutions they work for to make

that change because they don’t see it happening in the political sphere.

So it’s not just enough to go out there and protest in the street.

But if you want something to happen, that’s why you’re seeing big corporations playing

a bigger role as well.

Yeah, and of course, there’s, you know, there’s a longer discussion.

There’s also criticisms of the mechanisms of unions to achieve the giving of a voice

to people.

This goes back to my own experience growing up in northern England.

The Durham miners that I was part of for generations, you know, first person in my

family, not in the mines, on my dad’s side, they created their own association.

It wasn’t a union per se at the very beginning.

Later, they became part of the National Miners Union.

They lost their autonomy and independence as a result of that.

But what they did was they pooled their resources.

They set up their own parliament so they could all get together.

Literally, they built a parliament and it opened in the same time as World War One and

where they all got together because they didn’t have the vote.

They didn’t have suffrage at the time because they didn’t have any money, you know, so

they couldn’t pay the tax and they couldn’t run for parliament.

And this is, you know, the kind of the origins of the organised labour parties later.

But they create this association so they could talk about how they could deal with things

of their own communities and have a voice in the things that mattered.

You know, education, you know, improving their work conditions.

It wasn’t like what you think about some kind of like big political trade union with,

you know, left wing, you know, kind of ideas.

In fact, they actually tried to root out later after the Bolshevik revolution in the

Soviet Union, even when they were still having ties with places like the mines of Don

Bass in the 1920s, Trotskyites and, you know, kind of Leninists and, you know, communists.

They were more focused on how to improve their own well-being, you know, what they

called the welfare. They had some welfare societies where they were kind of trying to

think. And that’s kind of what baristas in Starbucks want, or workers in Amazon.

They’re looking about their own well-being.

It’s not just about pay and work conditions.

It’s about what it means to be part of this larger entity, because you’re not feeling

that same kind of connection to politics, you know, at the moment, because, you know,

you’re being told by a representative, sorry, I don’t represent you because you didn’t

vote for me. You know, if you’re not a Democrat, you’re not a Republican, you’re not

red, you know, you’re not blue, you’re not mine.

And so people are saying, well, I’m in this workplace, this is kind of my collective.

You know, this is, this is, you know, therefore, this is what I’m going to have to try

to push to make change. So I mean, this is kind of happening here.

And we have to, you know, realize that, you know, we’ve kind of gone in a way full

circle back to that, you know, kind of period of the early emergence of sort of mass

labor. And, you know, that’s where the political parties that we know today and, you

know, the kind of early unions came out of as well.

The sort of feeling of a mass society, but where people weren’t really able to

get together and implement or push for change.

You know, with unions at a small scale and a local scale, it’s like every good idea

on a small scale can become a bad idea on a large scale.

So like marriage is a beautiful thing, but at a large scale, it becomes the marriage

industrial complex that tries to make money off of it.

Combined with the lawyers that try to make money off the divorce, it just becomes a

caricature of a thing or like Christmas and the holidays.

It’s like I don’t disagree.

But what I’m saying is this people are basically looking for something here.

And, you know, kind of this is why, I mean, I myself am starting to think about much

more local, you know, kind of solutions for a lot of these, you know, kind of

problems. It’s again, the teamed, networked approach.

On the impeachment, looking back, because you’re part of it, you get to experience

it. Do you think they strengthened or weakened this nation?

I think it weakened in many respects, just the way that it was conducted.

I mean, there’s a new book coming out by a couple of journalists in the Washington

Post. I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I really did, you know, kind of worry

that myself, that it became a spectacle.

And although it actually, I think, in many respects was important in terms of an

exercise of civic responsibility and, you know, gave people a big, massive lesson in

civics, everyone’s kind of running out and looking up the whole process of impeachment

and what that meant and kind of like congressional prerogatives.

I was as well. I was, you know, running off myself and, you know, trying to learn an

enormous amount about it because I was in the middle of all of this.

That it didn’t ultimately show responsibility and accountability.

And that in itself was weakened because on both sides, there was a lot of partisan

politics. I mean, I think that there was a dereliction of duty in many respects.

I mean, especially, I have to say, on the part of Republican members of Congress who

were, you know, kind of they should have been embracing Congress’s prerogatives.

You could have, you know, kind of basically done this in something of a different way.

But the whole thing is because it was this larger atmosphere of polarised, not even

polarised, but fractured, fractured politics.

And I was deeply disappointed, I have to say, in many of the members of Congress on the

Republican side. I mean, there’s a lot of grandstanding that I really didn’t like a bit

on the Democratic side either.

And not admitting to mistakes and, you know, not kind of addressing head on, you know,

the fact that they’d, you know, kind of been pushing for Trump to be impeached and, you

know, talking about being an illegitimate president, you know, kind of right from the

very beginning. And, you know, as a result, a lot of people just saw this as kind of a

continuation of, you know, political games, you know, coming out of the 2016 election.

But on the Republican side, it was just a game.

There was people I knew who were, you know, basically, you know, at one point one of them

winked at me. You know, in the middle of this, you know, kind of impeachment, it’s just

like, don’t take this personally.

You know, this is a game and I just thought, this isn’t a game.

And that’s why I think that it, you know, kind of weakened because, I mean, again, on the

outside, it weakened us, the whole process weakened us in the eyes of the world, because

again, the United States was the gold standard.

And I do think, I mean, again, in the terms of the larger population, although a lot of

people did actually see the system, you know, standing up, trying to do something to hold

people account. But there still was that element of circus and a big political game and

people being careless with the country.

But I do think that the Democrats were the instigators of the circus.

So as it’s perhaps subtle, but there’s a there’s a different way you talk about.

Issues or concerns about accountability when you care about your country, when you love

your country, when you love the ideals and when you versus when you just want to win.

And stick it to the other side.

No, I agree.

I mean, there were people who I actually thought managed that, that made it about the

country rather than about themselves.

But I guess there’s no incentive to do that.

Yeah, there were others who did a lot of grandstanding.

Yeah. And that’s another problem of our political incentive structures, that the kind

of sense of accountability and responsibility tends to be personal.

You know, people, whether people decide to do it or not, it’s not institutional, if that

makes sense. We’ve had a kind of a breakdown of that kind of that sense.

Now, I took an oath of office and I’m assuming that most of them did, too.

You know, I had to be sworn in, you know, when I took those positions.

I took that seriously, but I already took an oath of citizenship.

There’s, you know, presumably you did, too.

You know, you kind of started to become an American citizen.

It’s not something you take on lightly.

And, you know, that’s why I felt this deep sense of responsibility all the time, which

is why I went into the administration in the first place.

I mean, I got a lot of flack for it because, you know, I thought, well, look, I’ve been

asked and there’s a real issue here after the Russian interference and, you know, the

whole influence operation in the 2016 elections.

And I knew what was going on and I should do something.

You know, if not me, then, you know, OK, someone else will go and do it.

But can I live with myself just sitting on the sidelines and criticizing what people

are doing, you know, and kind of worrying about this, or am I actually going to muck

in there and, you know, just go and do something?

It’s like seeing your house on fire and you see that, you know, OK, this is pretty

awful and dangerous, but I could go in there and and do something.

To clarify, the house on fire, meaning the cyber war that’s going on or cyber attacks,

the cyber security.

Well, in the 2016, you know, when the Russians had interfered in the election, you

know, I mean, basically this was a huge national security crisis and our politics.

We’d gone mad as a result of it.

And we in fact, we were making the situation worse.

And I felt that I could, you know, kind of at the time, maybe I could do something, I

could try to clarify, I could, you know, work with others who I knew in the government

from previous stints in the government to push back against this and try to make sure

it didn’t happen again.

And look, and I also didn’t have this, you know, mad, you know, kind of crazy

ideological view of Russia either.

I mean, I knew the place, I knew the people had been sitting a long time and quite calm

about it. I don’t take it personally.

It’s not kind of an extension of self.

It’s, you know, something I’ve spent a long time trying to understand for myself, going

back to that very beginning of why were the Russians trying to blow us up?

There must be an explanation.

There was. It was a very complicated and complex explanation.

It wasn’t as simple as how it sounded.

And also there’s a long tail to 2016, you know, Putin’s perceptions, the kind of things

that he thought were going on, you know, the whole way that what they did was actually

fairly straightforward.

They’d done this before in the Soviet period, during the Cold War, classic influence

operation. It just had gone beyond the bounds of anything they could have anticipated

because of social media and just a confluence of circumstances in the United States as

well. We were very fragile and vulnerable.

And I remember at one point having a discussion with the Russian ambassador where, you

know, we were complaining about the Russian intervention.

He said, are you telling me that the United States is a banana republic, that it’s so

vulnerable to these kinds of efforts?

He actually looked genuinely mystified, although, you know, obviously it was probably, you

know, part of a kind of political shtick there.

But he had a point.

The United States had never been that vulnerable as it suddenly was in 2016.

And in the time that I was in government and going back to what you asked about the whole

impeachment and the whole exercise in Congress, that vulnerability was as stark as it,

you know, ever could be.

Our domestic politics were as much a part of the problem as anything else.

They were the kindling to all of the fires.

Putin didn’t start any of this, the kind of problems, domestically, he just took advantage

of them and, you know, basically added a bit of an accelerant here and there.

Yeah, the interference, I mean, that’s a much longer discussion because it’s also for me

technically fascinating.

I’ve been playing with the idea of just launching like a million bots, but they’re doing

just positive stuff and just being kind.

Yeah, I always kind of wonder if is it possible to do something on this scale that’s

positive? Because, you know, a lot of people seem to be able to use all of this for pretty

negative effect. You’ve got to kind of hope that you could do this, use the same networks

for positive effect.

I think that’s actually where a lot of the war, I think from the original hackers to

today, what gives people like me and I think a lot of people that in the hacking

community pleasure is to do something difficult, break through the systems and do the

ethical thing, right?

So do the because if there’s something broken about the system, you want to break

through all the rules and do something that you know in your heart is the right thing to

do. I mean, that’s what Aaron Schwartz did with releasing journals and publications that

were behind paywalls to the public and got arrested for it and then committed.

But to me, it’s fascinating because maybe you can actually educate me, but I felt that

the Russian interference in terms of social engineering, in terms of bots, all that kind

of stuff, I feel like that was more used for political bickering than to actually

understand the national security problem, because I would like to know the actual

numbers involved in the influence.

I would like to, I mean, obviously, hopefully people now understand that better than are

trying to defend the national security of this country.

But it’s just it felt like like, for example, if I launch one bot and then and then just

contact somebody at The New York Times saying I launched this one bot, they’ll just say

MIT scientist hacks, you know, and then that will spread.

But that’s exactly what happened.

It was, you know, kind of I think that, you know, Putin and some of the people around

him understood because, again, propaganda state, they spend an awful lot of time thinking

about how you basically put out your own content and how you get maximum effect through

performance. Putin himself is a political performance artist.

I mean, Trump understood exactly the same thing.

They were actually operating in parallel, not in collusion, but in parallel.

You know, basically, Trump understood how to get lots of free air time, you know, how to

get himself at the center of attention.

Putin did that through a kind of, I think, a less organic kind of way.

You know, a lot of people working around him.

I mean, that’s the old Bolshevik agitprop and, you know, kind of then the whole Soviet

propaganda machine. And, you know, Putin kind of growing up in that kind of environment

and having, you know, the kind of the Kremlin press office and all the kind of people

around him kind of a massive machine knew how that worked.

I mean, they haven’t done what the Chinese did in Russia, like blocking everything and

having a big firewall. It was kind of putting out lots of content, getting into the, you

know, the sort of center of attention.

Trump’s doing the same kind of thing.

And the Russians understood that, you know, if you put a bit of things out there and then

you call up the New York Times and people are going to run with it.

And what they wanted was the perception that they had actually sweared the election.

They loved it. This was the huge mistake of the Democrats and everything.

I mean, I kept trying to push against this.

No, they did not elect Donald Trump.

Americans elected Donald Trump.

And, you know, the Electoral College was a key part.

Vladimir Putin didn’t make that up, you know.

And basically, I also remember, you know, at one point the Russian ambassador, you know,

talking to me about when we were doing the standard, you know, here we are.

We’re lodging our complaint about the interference.

You know, he didn’t. He basically said, well, we didn’t, you know, kind of invent Comey.

And, you know, basically the, you know, the decision to reopen, you know, Hillary

Clinton’s emails or, you know, kind of Anthony Weiner and, you know, kind of his emails

on his computer.

And I was like, yeah, he’s right.

I mean, you know, there were plenty of things in our own system that created chaos and

tipped the election. Not, you know, kind of what the Russians did.

But, you know, it’s obviously easier to blame the Russians and blame yourself when, you

know, things are kind of… or those random forces and those random factors.

Because people couldn’t understand what had happened in 2016.

There was no hanging chads like 2000, where there was, you know, kind of a technical

problem that actually, you know, ended up with the intervention of the Supreme Court.

There was, you know, pure and simple, the Electoral College at work and a candidate

that nobody had expected, including the Republicans in the primaries, you know, to end

up getting kind of elected or put forward in a different 2016, suddenly becoming the

president. And they needed a meta explanation.

It was much better to say Vladimir Putin had done it.

And Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin guys were like, oh, my God, yeah, fantastic.

Champagne, pop cocks popping.

This is great. Our chaos agent.

They knew they hadn’t done it, but they’d love to take credit for it.

And so, you know, the very fact that other people couldn’t explain these complex

dynamics to themselves, basically dovetails beautifully with Vladimir Putin’s

attempts to be the kind of the Kremlin gremlin in the system.

And he’s, you know, basically was taking advantage of that forever more.

And I wanted, you know, to basically try to work with us to cut through that.

And the thing is, then, you know, people lost faith in the integrity of the election

system because people were out there, you know, suggesting that the Russians had

actually distorted the elections. People had written books about that.

They said, you know, that they hacked the system when, you know, they were trying to

hack our minds. But again, we were the fertile soil for this.

I mean, we know this from Russian history, the role of the Bolsheviks, you know, the

whole 1920s and 1930s with Stalin, the fellow travelers and the, you know, socialist,

you know, international. I mean, the Russians and the Soviets have been at this for

years about kind of pulling, you know, kind of people along and into kind of a broader

frame. But it didn’t mean that they were influencing, you know, directly the politics

of of countries, you know, writ large, that there are plenty of interventions.

It’s just that we were somehow it was a confluence of events, a perfect storm.

We were somehow exquisitely vulnerable because of things that we had done to

ourselves. It was what Americans were doing to themselves that was the issue.

You think that’s the bigger threat than large scale bot armies?

Those can be a threat. Obviously, they do have an impact, but it’s it’s how people

process information. It’s kind of like the lack of critical thinking.

I’m just not on the Internet to that extent.

I go looking for information.

I’m not on social media.

I’m in social media, but not by myself.

You know, I don’t put myself out there.

I’m not I haven’t got a Twitter feed.

You don’t have a Twitter one.

Yeah, but there is a fan club.

I have all kinds of strange things.

It’s Fiona Hill’s cat, which I kind of like, you know, occasionally people send

things. You have so many fans.

It’s hilarious. But what I what I what I try to do is just be really critical.

I mean, my you know, my mom sends me stuff.

What is this?

It’s just, you know, your own mother can be as much of an agent of misinformation

as, you know, kind of Vladimir Putin.

I mean, we’re all you know, kind of we all have to really think about what it is

we’re reading. There’s one thing from my childhood that was really important.

I mean, I always think every kid in school should have this.

My next door neighbor, who was

he was actually very active in the in the Labour Party.

And he was, you know, kind of really interested in the way that opinion,

you know, shape people’s political views.

And he was Welsh. He was a native Welsh speaker.

So, you know, he was always trying to explore English and how, you know,

there was kind of the reach of, you know, the English culture and, you know,

kind of how it’s kind of shaping the way that people thought.

And he used to read every single newspaper,

you know, from all the different spectrums, which was quite easy to do,

you know, back in the 70s and 80s, because there weren’t that many in the UK context.

And every Sunday, he would get all the different Sunday papers

from all the different kind of ideological vantage points.

And then when I got to be a teenager, he’d invite me to look at them with him

because he was my godfather.

And he was just an incredible guy.

And he was just super interesting and, you know, kind of culturally,

you know, an outsider, always kind of looking in.

And he basically ran through, you know, what the Guardian looked at,

the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Sun, you know, kind of all of these,

you know, the Telegraph, all of these newspapers and how you could tell,

you know, their different vantage points.

And of course, it’s complicated to do that now.

I mean, in this, you know, incredibly extensive media space,

I look at what it is that they’re saying.

And then I try to, you know, read around it and then, you know,

look at what other people are saying and why they’re saying it.

And who are they? What’s their context?

And that was kind of basically what I was taught to look at.

And I think everybody should have that.

And certainly that’s something that people in politics

that are in charge of directing policy should be doing.

They should be.

Not getting lost in

in the sort of the hysteria that can be created.

Like, it does seem that the American system somehow,

not the political system, just humans, love drama.

We’re very good.

Like the Hunter Biden laptop story.

There’s always like one, two, three stories somehow

that we just pick, that we’re just going to this is the stuff

we’re going to fight about for this election.

And everyone’s got an opinion on it.

Yeah, everybody. Yeah, yeah.

And it’s the most like Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Russians hacked the election.

Yeah, we had John Podesta’s pasta recipes for a while,

you know, that we were kind of all obsessing over.

I don’t know, people running out and trying them out, you know, something like that.

And there’s fun.

I mean, there’s all the best conspiracy theories about Giuliani.

I just love it.

We just pick a random story.

Sometimes it’s ridiculous.

And it detracts from what the larger question should be,

which is about the family members of, you know, senior officials

and whether they should be anywhere near any of the issues that they’re,

you know, there’s ethics, there’s government ethics and things that,

you know, kind of across the board.

But there’s a bigger story in there.

But that becomes a distraction.

It’s a look over there.

You know, the oldest trick in the book, you know, kind of idea.


And politicians are really good at that because it detracts from the larger question

because every single member of Congress and, you know, government official,

their family should be nowhere near anything they’re doing.

Well, that I could push back and disagree on.

I mean, well, it depends on what they do, if they’re making money out of it,

you know, and kind of basically being in business is what I mean.

You know, kind of this is a this is an issue.

So it’s not, you know, Hunter Biden on his own.

It’s, you know, kind of basically the kids of, you know, the Trump family.

You name it.

Yeah. In general like that.

I just think it’s funny.

Like there’s a lot of families that,

you know, they work very closely together, do business together.

It’s very successful.

I get very weird about that.

It it just feels like you’re not.

In fact, I don’t even like hiring or working with friends.

Initially, you make friends with the people you work with.

That’s right. No, I have the I have the same worries as well,

because it kind of clouds, you know, I would encourage,

you know, my daughter to do something completely different.

Right. Not going to the same field.

Now, look, it’s different if you’re, you know, in science or,

you know, mathematics or something like this.

And, you know, maybe, you know, kind of you’ve got a family,

maybe you’re kind of building on some of their theories and ideas.

You know, if Albert Einstein had a, you know, kind of an offspring,

it was mathematics and took, you know, father’s thinking further.

That would be very different.

But if it’s, you know, kind of you’re in business and other things

and it’s just, you know, it’s the nepotism problem.

You know, one has that.

Well, science says that, too, in the space of ideas.

Well, they do.

If they’re not, people aren’t coming in and building on the ideas

in a constructive way.

Right. But even for son, daughter of Einstein,

you want to think outside the box of the previous.

Yeah, well, that’s what I’m meaning.

But I mean, it’s just but they shouldn’t be sort of told, no, sorry,

you can’t go and study math because, you know, whatever physics,

you know, because of.

But a lot of that, you can’t actually make it into law.

Well, you could, I suppose.

But honestly, if you do that kind of thing, you should be transparent.

There should be just an honesty about it.

It gets back to what I was talking about before.

We need diversity of views and diversity of thinking.

And you can’t have other things.

It’s like being partisan or, you know,

rooting just for a team.

You know, if something is going to cloud your judgment

or constrain the way you think about things and become,

you know, kind of a barrier to moving on out.

And look, that’s what we see in the system around Putin.

It’s kind of kleptocratic and it’s, you know, it’s filled with nepotism.

All of the kind of like the people who you kind of see out there

in prominent positions are the sons or daughters of,

including Putin himself.

I mean, that’s when a system has degenerated.

And that’s, you know, kind of, and I suppose in a way

this is a symbol of the degeneration of the system.

But again, it’s just a diversion from, you know,

kind of the bigger issues and bigger implications of things that we’re discussing.

So critics on the left often use the straw man of TDS,

Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Why does Donald Trump arouse so much emotion in people?

It’s just the nature of the person.

I mean, I don’t feel particularly emotional about him.

I mean, he’s kind of a.

He’s a very flawed guy, to be honest.

And this may seem bizarre.

I felt sorry for him because this guy is so vulnerable,

so wrapped up in himself.

But I mean, he’s just exquisitely

open to manipulation.

And I saw people taking advantage of him all the time.

He has zero self-awareness.

I mean, I kept thinking to myself, my God,

if this guy didn’t have this entourage around him, how would he function?

I mean, I felt sorry for us as well.

I mean, that he ended up being our president,

because that should not have happened.

I mean, in terms of character and in terms of fit for the job.

Although I saw this, you know, kind of over a period of time,

but I didn’t feel, you know, kind of.

Any sense of derangement, you know, kind of around him.

He didn’t drive me nuts in that way.

I just became I was just very worried about, you know,

the kind of the impact that he was having on many particular issues.

Here’s the important thing.

So what I noticed with people that criticize Donald Trump.

Is they get caught up in the momentum of it

and they’re unable to see

First of all, let’s start with some ground truth, which is

approximately half the country voted for the guy.


Yeah. And more voted in 2020 than voted in 2016 for him.


And I just I just feel like people don’t load that in when they’re honestly.

A lot of those people didn’t vote for him and his personality

enough in the past.

People didn’t vote for him and his personality and often could,

because I know a lot of people who voted for him

first time and second time, and they could disassociate.

You know, kind of the all of the kind of features of Donald Trump

that drives other people nuts from, you know, what they thought that an actual fact

he could achieve in terms of it wasn’t just this kind of sense about,

well, I couldn’t possibly vote for Democrats.

Sometimes it’s just like, well, look, he shakes things up

and we need things to shake to be shaken up.

And some people might have voted for him for personality.

This is what some of them, some of them did as well.

But I’m just saying that not all of them did either.

Well, we don’t know that data.

That’s the thing.

But yeah, I can’t say how much I’m just saying anecdotally.

I know people have voted for him because he’s him from the charisma.

And I know that he voted because he’s shaking things up

and, you know, he’s keeping people on their toes and,

you know, kind of we need that, you know, idea.

But the way to avoid Trump derangement syndrome to me,

me as a doctor, I’m sort of prescribing to the patients on this syndrome,

this issue is I feel like you have to empathize with the people.

You have to imagine in your mind all the different, like,

strengths that the people who have voted for Donald Trump see

and really understand it, really feel it, like walk around with it.

And then criticize.

Like, I just feel like people get lost in this bubble of criticism in their own head.

I forget, like, the tribe you’re in or whatever.

In their own head, they’re not able to see, like,

half this country that we’re a part of voted for the person.

Same with Biden.

Half the country voted for the guy.

The people that are criticizing Biden and they’re doing this.

The way Biden is currently criticized is not based on policy.

It’s based on personal stuff, similar like to Trump.

Yeah, no, it is.

I mean, that’s what people don’t look.

I think part of that is, I mean, look, first of all,

I want to say I completely agree with you about understanding

where people are coming from.

And I think it’s very important for people to listen to other people and their views.

I try to do that all the time.

Try to learn from that.

You know, I mean, everybody’s got a perspective and a context.

We all live in a certain context.

We’re all living in history.

Our own personal histories matter a lot.

And also the larger context and environment in which we’re living in.

And where we live and who we live with.

And, you know, the kinds of lives that we lead as well.

Those are all extraordinarily important.

I mean, I know that from myself.

Everything that I’ve done in my life has been shaped by where I came from,

who I was, my family and the way that we looked at things.

You can’t take yourself out of that.

I mean, you can do it in some, you know, like a science or something else.

But, you know, it’s still your own views.

And maybe some of the ideas that you have in pursuing an experiment

might have been shaped by your larger context,

you know, depending on what it is that you work on.

But the other thing is the nature of the political system.

The presidential election is like a personality contest, a beauty contest.

It’s like a kind of a referendum on, you know, one person or another.

It’s kind of like what we see in Russia, honestly, with, you know,

Putin or not Putin, or Putin and Putin before.

You know, it’s all about Putin.

And, you know, what do you think about Putin?

It’s all about what a president should be doing.

And, you know, kind of what their policies are.

That’s kind of the bizarreness of the US political system.

Look, we’ve just seen this happening in the United Kingdom.

You’ve got this core of a couple of thousand,

a couple of hundred thousand, rather, people in the Conservative Party

have just voted for, you know, three leaders in a row.

The rest of the country isn’t.

And they’re just looking at, you know, whether they like that personality

and, you know, what they say to them

rather than what they’re necessarily going to do for the country.

I mean, which is, you know, kind of pretty absurd.

I mean, again, the presidency is a weird hybrid in the United States.

You know, we were talking before about,

the person who should be running the country

is the chief executive or the prime minister in another setting.

But we don’t think of it like that.

You know, we often think about whether we like the guy or not.

Or, you know, we’d like to hang out with him.

Or, you know, one of my younger relatives,

and I said, so why did you vote for Trump?

He said, well, he was great.

It’s funny.

I went to his rallies.

I got, you know, all kind of charged up.

And I said, could you see yourself voting for Biden?

No, he’s too old.

And I said, well, you know, he’s only just a little bit,

you know, kind of older than Trump.

Or he’s, you know, the same age as your grandma.

Do you think your grandma’s old?

Oh, no, not at all.

But it’s just this kind of perception.

He’s boring.

You know, so there’s, people are actually sometimes,

you know, basically being, you know,

kind of motivated by just a feeling,

you know, kind of that kind of sense.

Because that’s the sort of nature of the,

you know, the presidency.

It’s this kind of how you feel about yourself as an American,

or how you feel about the country writ large,

the kind of the symbol of the state.

Look at, you know, in Britain,

you had, you know, Queen Elizabeth II.

And everybody, you know, seemed to,

for the most part, not everyone, I guess,

but most people respected her as a person,

as a personality, as a kind of symbol of the state.

Even if they actually didn’t really like

the institution of the monarchy.

There was something, you know,

kind of about that particular personality

that you were able to, you know,

kind of relate to in that context.

But in the United States,

we’ve got all of that rolled into one.

The head of state, the symbol of the state,

the kind of queen, the king, the kind of idea.

The chief executive, the kind of prime ministerial role.

And then the commander-in-chief of the military.

It’s all things, you know, kind of at once.

But ultimately, for a lot of people,

it’s just how we feel about that person.

Oh, I couldn’t go vote for them because of this,

or I couldn’t vote for them because of that.

And in 2016, you know,

Hillary Clinton actually did win the election

in terms of the popular vote.

So it wasn’t that, you know,

kind of people wouldn’t vote for a woman.

I mean, more people voted for her on the popular level,

not obviously, you know, through the electoral college

in the electoral college vote.

So it wasn’t just, you know, gender or something like that,

but it was an awful lot of things

for people who found Trump attractive.

Because he was sticking up the big middle finger

to the establishment.

He’s an anti-establishment change character.

There was a lot of people voted for Barack Obama

for the same reason and voted for Trump.

We know that phenomenon.

What was it, 11, you know, 12% of people, you know,

so they could vote for some completely,

totally different, radically different people

because of that sort of sense of change and charisma.

I mean, I had people who I knew voted for Trump,

but would have voted for Obama again if he’d run again.

Because they just liked the way that he spoke.

They liked the way that, you know,

because they said, I mean,

this is all my own anecdotal things,

but one of my relatives said,

I could listen to Obama all day, every day.

I just love the way he sounded.

I love the way he looked, you know,

I love just like the whole thing about him.

And then to say about Trump, well, he was exciting.

It was interesting, you know,

he was kind of like, you know, whipping it up there.

You know, so there’s this, just this kind of feeling,

you know, we always say about, you know,

could you have a beer with this person?

And people decide they couldn’t have one

with Hillary Clinton.

And, you know, maybe they could go off

and have one with Barack Obama and with Donald Trump.

They didn’t want to have one with Joe Biden,

you know, for example.

And remember, George W. Bush didn’t drink,

so he wouldn’t have had a beer with him.

He’d have gone out and got a soda or something with him.

But, you know, there’s this,

there’s that kind of element

of just that sort of personal connection

in the way that the whole presidential election is set up.

It’s less about the parties,

it’s less about the platforms,

and it’s more about the person.

Yeah, and picking one side

and like sticking with your person,

really like a support team.

Yeah, it is.


What do you think about Vladimir Putin,

the man and the leader?

Let’s actually look at the full,

you’ve written a lot about him,

the recent Vladimir Putin

and the full context of his life.

Let’s zoom out

and look at the last 20 plus years of his rule.

In what ways has he been good for Russia?

In what ways bad?

Well, if you look to the first couple of terms

of his presidency,

I think, you know, on the overall ledger,

he would have actually said that he’d

made a lot of achievements from Russia.

Now, there was, of course,

the pretty black period of the war,

black period of the war in Chechnya.

But, you know, he didn’t start that.

That was Boris Yeltsin.

That was obviously a pretty catastrophic event.

But if you look at then other parts of the ledger

of what Putin was doing,

you know, from the 2000s, you know, onwards,

he stabilised the Russian economy,

brought back, you know, kind of confidence

in the Russian economy and financial system.

He built up a pretty impressive team of technocrats.

The central bank and the economics and,

you know, finance ministries,

who, you know, really got the country back

into shape again and solvent,

paid off all of the debts

and, you know, really started to

build the country back up again domestically.

And, you know, the first couple of terms,

again, putting Chechnya, you know, to one side,

which is a little hard because, I mean,

there was a lot of atrocities.

And I have to say that, you know,

he was pretty involved in all of that

because the FSB, which he’d headed previously,

was in charge of wrapping up Chechnya.

And it created, you know,

kind of a very strange sort of system of fealty,

almost a feudal system in the kind of relationship

between Putin at the top and Kadyrov in Chechnya.

And there was quite a lot of distortions,

you know, kind of as a result of that

in the way that the Russian Federation was run,

you know, a lot more of an emphasis

on the security services, for example.

But there was a lot of pragmatism,

you know, opening up the country for business,

you know, basically extending relationships.

I would say that, you know,

by the end of those first couple of terms of Putin,

Russians were living their best lives.

You know, there was a lot of opportunity for people.

People’s labor, you know, was being paid for.

They weren’t being taxed.

The taxes were coming out of the extractive industries.

There was, you know, kind of, I guess,

a sense of much more political pluralism.

It wasn’t the kind of the chaos of the Eltsin period.

And then you see a shift.

And it’s pretty much when he comes back into power again

in 2011, 2012.

And that’s when we see kind of a different phase emerging.

And, you know, part of it

is the larger international environment

where Putin himself has become kind of convinced

that the United States is out to get him.

And part of it goes back to the decision

on the part of the United States

to invade Iraq in 2003.

There’s also, you know, the recognition of Kosovo in 2008

and, you know, the whole kind of machinations

around all kinds of, you know,

other issues of NATO expansion and elsewhere.

But Iraq in 2003,

and this kind of whole idea after that

that the United States is in the business of regime change.

And perhaps, you know, has him in his crosshairs as well.

But there’s also then kind of, I think,

a sense of building crisis

after the financial crisis and the Great Recession,

2008, 2009.

Because I think Putin, up until then,

believed in, you know,

the whole idea of the global financial system

and that Russia was prospering

and that Russia, you know, part of the G8

and actually could be genuinely one of the, you know,

the major economic and financial powers.

And then suddenly he realizes

that the West is incompetent.

That, you know, we totally mismanaged the economy of our own,

the financial crash in the United States,

the kind of blowing up of the housing bubble

and that we were feckless

and that that had global reverberations.

And he’s prime minister, of course, you know,

in this kind of period.

But then, you know, and I think that that kind of compels him

to kind of come back into the presidency

and try to kind of take things under control again

in 2011, 2012.

And after that, he goes into kind of

a much more sort of focused role

where he sees the United States as a bigger problem.

And he also, you know, starts to, you know,

kind of focus on also the domestic environment

because his return to the presidency is met by protests.

And he genuinely seems to believe,

because again, this is very similar to belief here

in the United States that Donald Trump

couldn’t possibly be elected by Americans.

There somehow was some kind of external interference

because the Russians interfered and had an impact.

Putin himself thinks at that time,

it’s one of the reasons why he interferes

in our elections later,

that the United States and others had interfered

because he knew that people weren’t that thrilled

about him coming back.

They kind of liked the Medvedev period

and the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg

and other major cities,

he starts to believe are instigated by the West,

by the outside because of, you know,

funding for transparency in elections

and, you know, all of the NGOs and others,

you know, they’re operating,

state department, embassy funding,

you know, and, you know,

the whole attitudes of God is back,

you know, kind of thing.

And so after that, we see Putin going

on a very different footing.

It’s also somewhere in that period,

2011, 2012,

we start to kind of obsess about Ukraine.

And he’s always, you know,

I think being kind of steeped

in that whole view of Russian history.

I mean, I heard at that time,

I was in, I’ve written about this

and many of the things that, you know,

I’ve written about Putin,

but in that same timeframe,

I’m going to all these conferences in Russia

where Putin is and Peskov,

his press secretary,

and they talk about him reading Russian history.

And I think it’s this and this kind of period

that he formulates this idea

of the necessity

of reconstituting the Russian world,

the Russian empire.

He’s obviously been very interested in this.

He’s always said, of course,

that the collapse of the Soviet Union

was the great catastrophe of the 20th century,

but also the collapse

of the Russian empire before it.

And he starts to be critical

about Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

And he starts to do all this talking

about Ukraine

as the same country,

Ukrainians and Russians being one and the same.

And this is where the ledger flips

because, I mean, the initial question you asked me

is about has Putin been good for Russia or not?

And this is where we get into the focal point

or the point where he’s not focusing

on the prosperity and stability

and future of Russia,

but he starts to obsess about the past

and start to take things

in a very different direction.

He starts to clamp down at home

because of the rise of opposition

and the fact that he knows

that his brand is not the same

as it was before

and his popularity is not the same

as it was before

because he’s already gone over

that period in anybody’s professional

and political life

that if you stay around long enough,

people get a bit sick of you.

We talked about that before.

Should you stay in any job

for a long period of time,

you need refreshing.

And Putin is starting to look like

he’s going to be there forever

and people are not happy about that

and would like the chance as well

to move on and move up

and with him still in place,

that’s not going to be particularly possible.

And that’s around the time

when he starts to make the decision

of annexing Crimea.

And that’s when the whole thing flips,

in my view.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014

is the beginning of the end

of Vladimir Putin

being a positive force within Russia.

Because if you pay very close attention

to his speech on the annexation

of Crimea in March of 2014,

you see all of the foreshadowing

of where we are now.

It’s already of his view

of his obsessions,

his historical obsessions.

His view of himself

has been fused with the state,

a modern czar

and his idea that the West is out to get him.

And it becomes after that,

almost a messianic mission

to turn things in a different direction.

And who are the key people

to you in this evolution

of the human being,

of the leader?

Is it Petrushev?

Is it Shoigu, the Minister of Defense?

Is it, like you mentioned,

Peskov, the press secretary?

What role do some of the others

like Lavrov play?

I think it’s more rooted

in the larger context.

I mean, individuals matter

in that context,

but it’s kind of like

this shared worldview.

And if you go back to the early 1990s,

immediately after the dissolution

of the Soviet Union,

when Yeltsin, you know,

and his counterparts in Ukraine,

Belarus, pull it apart,

there was an awful lot of people

who wanted to maintain the Soviet Union,

not just Putin.

I mean, you remember

after Gorbachev tried to have

the new union treaty in 1991,

and there was the emergency committee

set up the coup against Gorbachev.

It was because they were worrying

he was going too far

and unravelling the union then as well.

They were opposed to his reforms.

There’s always been a kind of

a very strong nationalist contingent

that become Russian nationalists over time,

rather than Soviet hardliners

who basically want to maintain

the empire, the union in some form.

And in the very early part of the 1990s,

there was a lot of pressure put on Ukraine

and all the other former Soviet republics,

now independent states,

by people around, you know,

Mayor Lushkov, for example, in Moscow,

by other forces in the Russian Duma,

not just Vladimir Zhirinovsky and others,

but really serious, you know,

kind of what we would call here

like right-wing nationalist forces.

But it’s pervasive in the system,

and it’s especially pervasive in the KGB

and in the security sector.

And that’s where Putin comes out of.

Remember, Putin also was of the opinion

that one of the biggest mistakes

the Bolsheviks made was

getting rid of the Orthodox Church

as an instrument of the state.

And so there’s this kind of

restorationist wing

within the security services

and the state apparatus

that want to kind of bring back

Russian Orthodoxy as a state instrument,

an instrument of state power.

And they were kind of, you know,

looking all the time about

strengthening the state,

the executive, the presidency.

And so it’s everybody who takes part in that.

And it’s also others who want power, honestly,

and they see Putin as their vehicle for power.

I think people like Sergei Kiryenko,

I knew Kiryenko back in the 90s.

I mean, my God, that guy’s all in.

Or like Dmitry Medvedev,

you know, who was, you know,

a warmer, fuzzier version of Putin,

certainly had a totally different perspective,

wasn’t in the KGB.

Did you say warmer, fuzzier version?

A warmer, fuzzier version, yeah.

I mean, he’s kind of like,

he was literally a warm personality.

I don’t know if you watched him

during the September 30th annexation,

the guy had all kinds of facial twitches

and looked so rigid and stiff

that he looks like he might implode.

I mean, that wasn’t, you know,

how he was, you know, earlier in his career.

And he, you know,

had a different view of perestroika.

We always have to remember

that Putin was not in Russia during perestroika,

he was in Dresden,

watching the East German state fall apart.

And, you know, dealing with the Stasi

and in a kind of place where

you weren’t getting a lot of information

about what was happening in West Germany,

or even what was happening back home in perestroika.

And he has that kind of group of people around him,

the Patrushevs and Botnikovs and others,

and Sergei Ivanov and others, you know,

from, you know,

the different configurations of his administration,

who have come out of that same kind of mindset

and are kind of, you know,

wanting to put everything back together again.

So there’s a lot of enablers,

there’s a lot of, you know, power seekers,

and there are a lot of people who,

you know, think the same as him as well.

He is a man of his times,

a man of his context.

You, as a top advisor yourself

and a scholar of Putin,

do you think actually now in his inner circle,

are there people he trusts?

There are people he trusts for some things,

but I don’t think there’s people he trusts for everything.

I don’t think he’s the kind of person

who tells anyone everything at all.

I don’t think he’s got somebody he deeply confides in.

No, I think he compartmentalizes things.

He’s often said that the only person he trusts is himself,

and I think that’s probably true.

He’s the kind of person who keeps his own counsel.

I mean, people talk about Kovalchuk, for example,

or, you know, kind of some of the other people

who are, you know, friends with him

that are going to go back to his time in St. Petersburg.

You know, at various points,

he seemed to, you know, spend a lot of time,

you know, way back when talking to people who were,

you know, people think of kind of more moderating forces

like Alexei Kudrin,

but, you know, doesn’t seem to be interacting,

you know, with them.

You know, there are obviously aspects of his personal life.

You know, does he speak to his daughters?

Does he, you know, speak to, you know,

kind of lovers, you know,

kind of in a way people speculate about,

you know, kind of who might he confide in?

But I would greatly doubt

that he would have deep political discussions with them.

He’s a very guarded, very careful person.

What about sources of information then?

So trust a deep understanding about military strategies

for certain conflicts,

like the war in Ukraine,

or even special subsets of the war in Ukraine,

or any kind of military operations,

getting clear information.

I think he’s deeply suspicious,

you know, of people and of information.

And I think, you know, part of the problems

that, you know, we see with Putin now,

I mean, I’ve come from isolation during COVID.

I mean, I’m really convinced that,

you know, like many of us,

you know, a lot of Putin’s views have hardened.

And the way that he looks at the world

have been shadowed in very dark ways

by the experience of this pandemic.

You know, obviously he was in a bubble,

different kind of bubble from most of us.

I mean, most of us are not in bubbles

with multiple, you know, kind of palaces

and, you know, kind of the Kremlin.

But, you know, we’ve seen, you know, so much,

obviously a lot of this is staged, that isolation,

you know, the kind of making it very clear

that he’s the czar,

the guy who is in charge,

making all the decisions, you know,

at one end of the table

and everybody else is at the other end.

But, you know, it’s very difficult then

to bring, you know, information to him in that way.

He used to have a lot of information bundled for him

in the old days by the presidential administration.

I mean, I know that

because it was a lot more open in the past.

And I have a lot of meetings with people

in the presidential administration

who brought outside, you know,

it’s their all source information,

you know, for him and, you know,

kind of funneled in information

from different think tanks

and, you know, different viewpoints

and maybe a kind of more eclectic,

diversified set of information.

He would meet with people, you know,

you’ve heard all the stories

about where he had once called up Masha Gessen,

you know, and had her, you know, come in,

you know, obviously, you know,

a very different character

as a journalist and a critic.

You know, we’ve heard about Venediktov

from Ekho Moskvy, the, you know,

the radio program, the editor,

who Putin would, you know,

talk to and consult with.

He’d reach out people

like Lyudmila Alexeeva, for example,

the head of Memorial.

He had some respect for her

and would, you know,

sometimes just, you know, talk to her,

you know, for example.

All of that seems to have come to a halt.

And I think a lot of us worry,

I mean, us who, you know, watch Putin

about what kind of information is he getting?

You know, is it just information

that he’s seeking and gathering himself

that fits into his worldview and his framework?

We’re all guilty of that,

of looking for things.

It gets to our social media preferences.

Are people just bringing to him

things that they think he wants to hear?

Like the algorithm, you know,

kind of like the Kremlin working in that regard,

or is he himself, you know,

tapping into sources of information

that he absolutely wants?

And remember, he is not a military guy.

He’s an operative,

and he was sort of trained in operations

and, you know, contingency planning.

Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister,

as a civil engineer,

was the former minister of emergencies.

He wasn’t a military planner.

You know, somebody like Gerasimov,

the head of the chiefs of staff,

maybe a military guy, you know,

in this, you know, case from the army,

but he’s also somebody

who’s in a different part of the chain of command.

He’s not somebody who would spontaneously

start, you know, telling Putin things.

And Putin, you know, comes out of the FSB,

out of the KGB of the Soviet era,

and he knows the way that, you know,

intelligence gets filtered and works.

He’s probably somebody

who wants to consume raw intelligence.

He doesn’t probably want to

hear anybody else’s analysis.

And he’s thrived in the past

of, you know, picking things up from people.

You know, I’ve taken part

in all of these meetings with him,

gone for hours,

because he’s just collecting.

He’s collecting information.

He’s sussing people out.

He wants to know the questions they ask.

He learns something

about the questions that people ask,

the way that they ask them.

You know, so he’s kind of

soliciting information himself.

And if he’s cut off from that information,

you know, because of circumstances,

then, you know, how is he

formulating things in his head?

And again, getting into,

you can’t get into his head,

but you can understand the context

in which he’s operating.

And that’s where you worry,

because he clearly made this decision

to invade Ukraine

behind the back of most

of his security establishment.

You think so?

Oh, I think it’s pretty apparent.

What, what would the security establishment,

what would be the…

Well, that would be the larger,

you know, thinking of the funneling

in information from the

presidential administration,

from the National Security Council.

It looks like, you know,

he made that decision

with a handful of people.

And then, you know, having worked

in these kinds of environments,

and it’s not that dissimilar,

you filter information up.

So think about, you know,

you and I are talking for hours here.

If, if you’re in a situation

if you were my, you know,

basically, you know,

senior official and I’m your briefer,

I might only get 20 minutes with you.

And you might be just like, you know,

looking at your watch the whole time

and thinking, hang on a second,

I’ve got to go and I’ve got this meeting

and I’ve got that meeting.

And yeah, your point,

you’re not going to wait there.

So I give this long explanation.

I’ve got to get to the point.

And then I’ve got to then

choose for myself,

what’s the information

I’m going to impart to you?

Now to the 20 things

that I think are important,

you know, OK, I’ve got 20 minutes.

Maybe I only get two minutes.

Maybe, you know, you get called out

and somebody, you know,

kind of interrupts, something happens.

I’m going to get one minute, two minutes.

Yeah. I mean, I want to remember

I had to give a presentation

when I was in government,

to Henry Kissinger,

you know, for that defense policy board.

And we planned bloody weeks on this thing.

You know, PowerPoints were created,

teams of people were brought together

and, you know, people were practicing this.

We had all these, you know,

different people there.

And I said, look,

Henry Kissinger is an academic

and a former professor.

And, you know, I happened to,

you know, I’ve got to watch him in action.

He’s going to like,

you know, five seconds in,

if we’re lucky we get that far,

ask us a question

and just throw off our entire presentation.

What is it that we want to convey?

And that’s exactly what happened.

And then, you know,

people aren’t really prepared

what they wanted to convey.

And they, you know, they prepared a,

you know, a nice sort of fulsome,

you know, PowerPoint like approach.

We never even got there.

And so God knows what, you know,

he took away from it at the end of it.

And that’s, you know, think about Putin.

He’s going to be kind of impatient.

He’s, you know, we see the televised things

where he, you know, kind of sits at a table

a bit like, you know,

people won’t necessarily see us here.

And he puts his hands on the table

and he looks across at the person

and he says, so tell me,

you know, what’s the main things I need to know?

And of course the person’s mind

probably goes blank,

you know, with the kind of the thought of like,

oh God, what’s the main thing?

And they go and they start,

well, Vladimir Vladimirovich.

And, you know, they start the kind of,

you know, they’re revving up,

you know, to get to the point

and then he cuts them off.

So you think about that

and then you think about,

well, what information has he got?

And then how does he process it?

And is he suspicious of it?

Does he not believe it?

And what inside of his own history then,

you know, leads him to make

one judgment over another.

He clearly thought the Ukrainians

would fall apart in five seconds.

We don’t know if he clearly thought that,

but that there was a high probability, maybe.

I mean, you can guess.

Oh, I think he pretty much thought it

because I think he thought that,

you know, kind of,

Zelensky wasn’t very popular.

There was an awful lot of,

you know, pro-Russian sentiment

in whatever way he thinks that is

because people are Russian speakers

and that, you know, they’re kind of,

you know, in polling that,

you know, they expressed affinity with Russia.

I mean, certainly in Crimea

that worked out

because a majority of the population had,

you know, higher sentiments

or feelings of affinity with Russia.

And, you know, obviously,

you know, that kind of,

they got traction there.

But it’s more complicated.

We talked about Donbass before,

about being a kind of melting pot

when, you know, they tried the same thing in Donbass.

Donetsk and Luhansk,

as they tried in Crimea in 2014,

didn’t kind of pan out.

In fact, you know, a whole wall broke out.

They tried, you know, to kind of in,

you know, many of the major cities

that are now under attack,

including Odessa,

to kind of foment,

you know, pro-Russian movements.

And they completely and utterly fell apart.

So Putin was thinking,

you know, I’m pretty sure based on polling

and the FSB having infiltrated,

you know, an awful lot of the Ukrainian hierarchies

we’re now seeing is quite apparent

with some of the dismissals in Ukraine.

He was pretty sure that,

you know, kind of he would get traction

and that it would be like 1956 in Hungary

or 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

Remember, he comes out of the Andropov levy,

as it’s called,

the kind of cohort of people

who come into the KGB under Yuri Andropov.

And Yuri Andropov has presided

over a lot of these anti-dissident,

you know, kind of movements

inside of Russia itself

and how you suppress opposition,

but also over, you know,

how you deal with, you know,

kind of the uprisings in,

you know, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

And there’s all these lessons from this

that, you know,

you can put everything back in the box.

And yeah, there might be a bit of violence

and a bit of fighting,

but ultimately you think

you’ve got the political figures

and you decapitate the opposition.

So they thought Zelensky would run away.

Yadokovich ran away,

but, you know, that was kind of a bit,

you know, sort of a different

set of circumstances.

And they thought that

all of the local governments

would, you know, kind of capitulate

because they had enough Russians

and inverted commas in there.

Again, mistaking language

and, you know, kind of positive affinity

towards Russia for identity

or how people would react in the time

and not understanding people’s,

you know, linkages and, you know,

kind of importance of place,

the way that people feel about

who they are in a certain

sort of circumstance in a place.

But the invasion of Ukraine in 2022

is unlike anything

that he was ever involved with.

I don’t think he thought it would be,

you know, because it’s this kind of,

if he looks back into the past,

you’re right though,

he wasn’t involved in 68 or 56

or what happened in the 1980s in Poland.

But there’s a very wide front

and it’s the capital and,

I mean, this isn’t going for…

This isn’t Chechnya,

or this isn’t, you know,

kind of Syria or for example.

This is a major nation.


Like a large, it’s large, the size.

It was more like Afghanistan,

but they didn’t realize that

because again, Ukrainians are us.

There’s this kind of inability

to think that people

might think differently

and might want something different.

And that 30 years of independence,

actually has an impact on people

and their psyches.

And if I look back to the 1990s,

I mean, I remember being in seminars

and at Harvard at the time,

and we were doing a lot of research on,

you know, what was happening

in the former Soviet Union at the time,

because the early 1990s,

just after the whole place fell apart.

And there was already under Yeltsin,

this kind of idea of Russians abroad,

Russians in the near abroad,

Russian speakers,

and the need to bring them back in.

And I remember, you know,

we had seminars at the time

where we talked about at some point,

there’d be some people in Russia

that would actually believe that

those Russian speakers

needed to be brought back into Russia,

but that the people who spoke Russian

might have moved on

because they suddenly had other opportunities

and other windows on the world.

I mean, look what’s happened in Scotland.

You know, for example,

most people in Scotland speak English.

The Scottish language is not

the standard bearer of Scottish identity.

There’s just, it’s almost a civic identity,

a different identity

than not just national identity,

just like you see in Ukraine.

And there’s lots of English people

that moved to Scotland

and now think of themselves as Scottish,

or Brazilians, or Italians,

and, you know, all kinds of people

who’ve moved in there.

I mean, it’s a smaller population,

obviously, and it’s not the scale of Ukraine,

but, you know, people feel differently.

And there’s been a devolution of power.

And when Brexit happened,

you know, Scotland didn’t want

to go along with that at all.

And they wanted to kind of still be,

you know, having a window on Europe.

And that’s kind of historic.

And lots of people in Ukraine

have looked west, not east.

You know, it depends on where you are,

not just in Lviv, you know,

or somewhere like that,

but also in Kyiv.

And Kharkiv, you know,

was kind of predominantly

a Russian-speaking city.

But Kharkiv was also the centre

of Ukrainian culture

and Ukrainian literature,

you know, at different points.

People have different views.

I grew up in the north of England.

We don’t feel like the south of England.

There’s been a massive divide

between north and south in England

for millennia, not just centuries.

So, you know, people feel differently

depending on where they live

and, you know, kind of where they grew up.

And Putin just didn’t see that.

He didn’t see that.

Well, hold on a second.

Let me sort of push back

at the fact that I don’t think

any of this is obvious.

So first of all, Zelensky

before the war was unpopular.

Oh, he was, wasn’t he?

38%, something like that,

but best in the popularity.


Let me sort of make the case

that the calculation here

is very difficult.

If you were to poll

every citizen of Ukraine

and ask them,

what do you think happens

if Russia invades?

Just like actually each,

put each individual Ukrainian

in a one-on-one meeting with Putin

and say, what do you think happens?

I honestly think most of them will say

they will agree with the prediction

that the government would flee,

it would collapse.

And the country won’t unite

around the cause

because of the factions,

because of all the different parties involved,

because of the unpopularity.

You might have said the same thing

about the Soviet Union

when Hitler invaded in 1941.

You see, the problem is Putin

always reads history

from one perspective over another.

I think most countries

basically rise to their own defense.

So this is actually one of the first times

that Russia has been on the offensive

rather than on the defensive.

So there’s kind of a bit of a flip there.

I mean, obviously Afghanistan,

but that was more complicated

because it was also supposed

to be an intervention, right?

I mean, it wasn’t supposed to be

to annex Afghanistan.

It was to try to prop up

or reinstall a leader there.

Syria, you were in there

to help your guy, Bashar al-Assad,

turn away the opposition.

Chechnya was a debacle.

The Chechens fought back big time.

And it was only by dint of

horrible, violent persistence

and ruthlessness and nasty, dirty tricks

that Putin prevailed there.

But then you wonder, did he prevail?

Because what happened?

Chechnya sometimes describes

the most independent part

of the Russian Federation.

And Ramzan Kadyrov plays power games in Moscow.

His predecessors, even his father

and others wouldn’t have done that.

Ahmed Kadyrov, and before that,

Dudayev and Maskhadov,

I mean, they were willing

to make a compromise,

but they wouldn’t have had

the same position that Kadyrov has had.

So I think that, again,

it’s your perspective

and where you stand

and which bit of history you start to read.

And that’s why I said that,

I think Putin, it’s again,

it’s the information,

the way that he processes it.

I think most Russians also can’t believe

that they’ve done something wrong in Ukraine.

I mean, maybe at this point,

things are changing a bit,

but that’s why there was

so much kind of support for this,

in a right way.

I mean, I have Russian friends,

again, to say, but look what

was happening in Donetsk.

Look what the Ukrainians

were doing to our guys.

You know, look what was happening

to Russian speakers.

You know, we were defenders.

We were not, you know,

we’re not invaders.

I think, again,

the special military operation idea.

Now, I think it’s flipping, obviously,

in the way that,

with the war going on there.

But Putin wasn’t, you know,

kind of looking at what would happen.

I mean, most of the kind of glory parts

of Russian history,

when you kind of go in,

you know, you chase Napoleon back to Paris,

or you chase the Germans back to Berlin,

you put the flag above the Reichstag.

That’s a very different set of affairs.

When you’ve been fighting a defensive one,

you’ve been invaded from a war

where you invade someone else.

And even the most fractured populations,

like you had in the Soviet Union,

the rally round and, you know,

World War I, that fell apart.

I mean, the Tsar didn’t manage

to rally everybody around.

I mean, the whole thing fell apart.

And World War II,

Stalin had to, you know,

revive nationalism,

including in the republics,

in Central Asia and elsewhere,

to revive nationalism.

And Ukraine suddenly found nationalism,

you know, in a kind of sense.

That’s really interesting,

because it’s not obvious,

especially what Ukrainians

went through in the 1930s.

It’s not obvious that that…

I mean, my grandfather was Ukrainian

and he was proud to fight a Ukrainian Jew.

He was proud to fight

and willing to die for his country.

It wasn’t like…

His country then was the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union, right.

Sorry, to clarify.

But he might fight now

for his country, Ukraine.


But I’m just, like,

lingering on the point you made.

It was not obvious

that that united feeling would be there.

No, and again,

it wouldn’t have been obvious

with the Soviet Union.

That’s what I’m saying.

Sorry, I was referring to my grandfather

with the Soviet Union.

We’re both saying the exact same thing.

Yeah, we know.

Yeah, we are.

You’re saying it’s a really powerful thing,

because I take it,

because you take history as it happened,

you don’t realize

it could have happened differently.

It’s kind of, it’s fascinating.

It’s that whole counterfactual, right?



Because, I mean, if you’ve kind of,

that’s why we all need in the United States

to really examine our own history.

Because, you know,

there’s a lot of lessons from that.

That, you know, we should treat very cautiously.

It doesn’t mean that, you know,

history repeats or even rhymes,

you know, it’s the old axiom all the time.

But there are a lot of things

that you can take away differently

from putting a different perspective

in a different slant

on the same set of events.

I mean, I always used to wonder, like,

how many books can be written

on the French Revolution,

or even on the Russian Revolution?

You know, I studied with Richard Pipes.

I remember he was really offended

after he’d written his great

Microcerpus on the Russian Revolution,

two volumes that other people would,

you know, kind of write about

the Russian Revolution.

He said, I’ve written it all.

And I thought, well, actually,

maybe you haven’t.

It’s like, there might be

some completely different angle there

that you haven’t really thought of.

And that’s Putin.

You know, I remember Peskov saying,

Putin reads history all the time,

Russian history.

And I thought, well,

maybe you should read some world history.

You know, maybe he should,

you know, kind of read

some European authors

on Russian history,

not just, you know, reading Lamanossa

for, you know, Russian historians

on Russian history.

Because you might see something

from a very different perspective.

Look, and the United States

made a massive mistake in Vietnam, right?

I mean, they saw Vietnam

as kind of weak,

manipulated by, you know,

kind of external forces,

China, Soviet Union.

But the Vietnamese fought

for their own country.

They suddenly became Vietnamese.

And Ho Chi Minh became,

you know, kind of basically

a kind of a wartime fighter and leader,

you know, in a way that, you know,

perhaps people wouldn’t have

understood either.

You said the United States

made a massive mistake in Vietnam.

And that, for some reason,

sprung a thought in my head.

Has the United States,

since World War II,

had anything that’s not a mistake

in terms of military operations abroad?

I suppose all the ones

that are successes,

we don’t even know about, probably.

So it’s like very fast

military operations.

I mean, Korea’s divided.

I mean, I don’t know what’s successful,

but, you know, kind of,

I mean, there was a solution found

that, you know, some people

are promoting, you know,

in this case as well,

of a sort of division and a,

you know, the DMZ and,

you know, one side over the other

and, you know, kind of perpetuating

a division, which I think

is particularly successful.

But if you think about World War I

and World War II,

the United States came in,

you know, under some very specific

sets of circumstances.

In World War I,

they did kind of come in to help,

you know, kind of liberate,

you know, parts of Europe, France,

and, you know, kind of the UK

and, you know, everything else,

Great Britain and the war

towards the end of it.

World War II, you know,

there was that whole debate

about whether the United States

should even be part of the war.

I mean, we know it wasn’t thought to,

you know, overturn the Holocaust

and all of the kind of things

you’d kind of wish

it would been fought for,

but it was because of Pearl Harbor

and, you know, the Japanese pulling in.

But, you know, ultimately,

it was easy to explain

why you were there,

you know, particularly after Pearl Harbor

and what had happened.

It was harder to explain Vietnam

and Korea and, you know,

many of the other wars.

And that’s kind of going to be

a problem for Putin.

That’s why there is a problem for Putin.

All of his explanations

have been questioned,

you know, sort of off on NATO

or this or that or the other.

And, you know, kind of liberating,

you know, Ukraine from Nazis

or, you know, kind of basically

stopping the persecution

of Russian speakers.

And all of this has now got lost

in just this horrific destruction.

And that’s what happened

in Vietnam as well.

It became, you know,

a great degradation

of the Russian military

with atrocities

and people wondering

why on earth the United States

was in Vietnam.

I mean, even that kind of happened

in Britain in the colonial,

you know, kind of period as well.

Why was the United Kingdom

doing, you know, committing atrocities

and, you know, kind of basically

fighting these colonial wars?

Northern Ireland.

Why was the United Kingdom still,

you know, kind of militarily

occupying Ireland?


There’s all kinds of, you know,

instances where we look at this thing.

So what Russia is doing now,

Putin is trying to occupy

another country,

irrespective of, you know,

kind of the historical linkages

and, you know, the kind of

the larger metanarratives

that he’s trying to put forward there.

What role did the United States play

in the lead up

and the actual invasion

of Ukraine by Russia?

A lot of people say that,

I mean, obviously,

Vladimir Putin says

that part of the reason

the invasion had to happen

is because of security concerns

over the expansion of NATO.

And there is a lot of people

that say that this was provoked by NATO.

Do you think there’s some legitimacy

to that case?

Look, I think the whole situation

here is very complicated

and you have to take a much longer view

than, you know, what happened in,

you know, 2008 with the open door

for Ukraine and Georgia,

which actually, by the way,

I thought was a strategic blunder,

just to be very clear,

because it wasn’t any kind of

thinking through about

what the implications of that would be

and, you know, what it actually would mean

for Ukraine’s security.

And also bearing in mind

what Putin had already said

about NATO expansion,

they came on the wake

of the recognition by the United States

pretty unilaterally of Kosovo.

And it also comes in the wake

of what I mentioned before,

the invasion of Iraq,

which really is very

important for understanding Putin’s psyche.

So I think, you know,

we have to go back,

you know, much further

than it’s not just talking about

kind of NATO and what that means.

NATO is part of the whole

package of Ukraine

going in a different direction from Russia,

just as so is the European Union.

Remember, the annexation of Crimea

comes after Ukraine has sought

an association agreement

with the European Union,

not with NATO at that particular point,

even though, you know,

the EU on the security,

common security and defence policy

basically has all kinds of connections

with NATO, you know,

various different levels

in the European security front.

It was all about Europe

and going on a different economic

and political and ultimately legal path.

Because if you have

an association agreement,

eventually you get into the Akiko Militaire

and it just transforms the country completely

and Ukraine is no longer

the Ukraine of the Soviet period

or the Russian Empire period.

It becomes, you know,

on a different trajectory,

like Czech Republic,

Slovakia, Poland,

another country.

It becomes a different place.

It moves into a different space

and that’s part of it.

But if you go back again

to the period at the very beginning

of the 1990s,

after the dissolution

of the Soviet Union,

when there’s no discussion

about NATO at that point

and NATO enlargement,

there was a lot of pressure again,

as I’ve said before,

by nationalist elements on Ukraine

trying to bring it back in the fold

and wanting to make what was then,

you know, this mechanism for divorce

more of a mechanism for re-managed

Commonwealth of Independent States.

And in the early 1990s,

when Ukraine became an independent state,

it inherited that nuclear arsenal.

From the Soviet Union,

basically whatever was stationed

or positioned in Ukrainian territory

at the time became Ukraine’s.

Strategic and, you know,

kind of basically intermediate

and tactical nuclear weapons.

And, you know, in the United States

at the time,

we had all this panic about

what was going to happen

with all of that.

I mean, I think, you know,

it was a scientist

and kind of technically

it would have been difficult

for Ukraine to actually use this.

I mean, the targeting was,

you know, done centrally.

They were actually stationed there.

But nonetheless,

Ukraine, like Belarus and Kazakhstan,

suddenly became nuclear powers.

And, you know, Ash Carter,

the former U.S. defense secretary

who just died tragically

in what Dave was talking about,

you know, talking together today

was part of a whole team of Americans

and others who, you know,

tried to work with Ukraine,

Belarus and Kazakhstan

to get them to give up

the nuclear weapons.

And back in the early period of that,

93, 94, you go back.

And I mean, I was writing

about this at the time.

I wrote a report called

Back in the USSR,

which is, you know,

kind of on the website

of the Kennedy School

with some other colleagues.

And we were monitoring

how there was all these accusations

coming out of Moscow,

the defense ministry

and the Duma, the parliament

and others that Ukraine

was trying to find a way

of making a dirty bomb,

using its nuclear weapons,

you know, becoming a menace

and, you know, kind of Ukraine

might have to be brought to order.

So a lot of the dynamics

we’re seeing now

were happening then,

irrespective of NATO.

Basically, the problem

was always Ukraine getting away.

Yeltsin himself,

when he unraveled the Soviet Union,

didn’t really want it to unravel,

but he didn’t have the wherewithal

to bring, you know,

the countries back again.

Russia was weak

after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Its economy imploded.

It had to give sovereignty

to all of these constituent parts

of the Russian Federation

in terms of a sort of

devolution of authority.

It had the war in Chechnya,

which Yeltsin stupidly

sparked off in 1994.

You had Tatarstan,

one of the regions,

the all-rich regions,

you know, basically

resting out a kind of

a bilateral treaty with Moscow.

The whole place was kind of

seemed like it was falling apart

so that, you know,

you couldn’t do anything on Ukraine

because you didn’t have

the wherewithal to do it.

And then when, you know,

kind of basically Russia

starts to get its act

back together again,

all of these security

nationalist types

who had never wanted Ukraine

or Belarus or Moldova

or anywhere else

to kind of move away,

they didn’t worry that much

about Central Asia, to be frank.

But, you know, they did want,

you know, the core states

in their view to come back.

And Moldova was part of that,

even though it’s not Slavic.

But, you know, they wanted Belarus

and northern Kazakhstan

and probably Kazakhstan as well,

which wasn’t really thought about

being part of Central Asia,

back in the fold as close as possible.

So anything that gave

those countries an alternative

was seen as negative.

And it, you know,

could have been an association

with China, you know,

of them joining,

you know, kind of an association

with Latin America or Africa

or something else like that.

But, of course, NATO

has all of those larger connotations

of it being, you know,

the Cold War opposing entity.

And Putin has always seen NATO

as being the direct correlation

of the Warsaw Pact,

which is, in other words,

just something dominated

completely by the United States.

Now, that, of course,

is why getting back to Trump again,

Trump was always going,

you know, to the Europeans,

if this is really supposed

to be collective security

in a mutual defence pact,

why are you guys not paying?

You know, why does the United States

pay for everything?

But, you know, NATO was actually

conceived as collective defence,

you know, mutual security.

And it was set up by,

you know, the United States,

along with the UK and France

and, you know, Germany and Turkey

and, you know, other countries.

And we see that now

with the entry of Finland and Sweden.

They didn’t have to join NATO.

They didn’t want to join NATO

for a long time.

They wanted to partner with it,

just like Israel

and the other countries

partner with NATO.

But once they thought

that their security

was really at risk,

they wanted to be part of it.

And so, you know,

kind of you’re now really seeing,

you know, that NATO

is something other than just being,

you know, a creature

or an instrument

of the United States.

But that’s how Putin always saw it.

So, you know, what this debate

about NATO is all about,

or Russia being provoked,

is wanting to kind of return

to an old superpower,

bipolar relationship

where everything is negotiated

with the United States.

It’s to try to deny

that Ukraine or Belarus,

well, Belarus has kind of been

absorbed by this point,

you know, by Russia or Moldova

or Kazakhstan

or any of the other countries

have any kind of agency.

Not even Poland or Hungary

or, you know, kind of France and Britain.

For years and years and years,

senior people like Putin

and people around the Kremlin

have demanded a return

to the kind of what they call

the old concert of Europe

or the concert of Vienna,

where the big guys,

which now means the United States,

and Russia just sit down

and thrash everything out.

And so, I mean,

Putin by saying,

look, it was provoked,

it’s the United States,

it’s NATO,

it’s a proxy war

or it’s this or it’s that

or this is going to be

a nuclear confrontation.

It’s like the Cuban Missile Crisis

or it’s the Euro Missile Crisis.

It’s basically just saying,

you know, I want to go back

to when the Soviet Union,

the United States worked things out.

I want to go back to the whole,

you know, period of the 1980s

when Gorbachev and Reagan

just kind of got together

and figured things out.

Or, even better,

back to Yalta, Potsdam and Tehran

and the big, you know, meetings

at the end of World War II

where we resolved

the whole future security.

We’ve had a war,

we’ve had the Cold War,

now we’ve got another war.

We’ve got a real war, a hot war.

We’ve got a war in Ukraine.

It should be the United States

and Russia that sort this out.

So this is where we see

the United States waffling about as well,

trying to kind of like figure out

how to handle this,

because it has to be handled

in a way that Ukraine has agency.

Because if Ukraine doesn’t have agency,

nobody else has agency either.

Nobody else has any kind of

decision-making power.

And, you know, we have an environment

in which Putin thinks

that there’s only really three players.

There’s the United States

and Russia and China.

And maybe occasionally it might be India

and perhaps Brazil

or some other South Africa

or some other country,

like maybe the BRICS at some point.

But, you know, ultimately

it’s like the old days.

Big powers resolve everything.

And so this war is also about

Russia’s right, Putin’s right,

you know, to determine things

you know, strong man to strong man,

big country to big country,

and, you know, determine,

you know, where things happen next.

That’s why he’s talking about

things being provoked

and it’s being the United States’ fault.

But aren’t there parts

of the United States

establishment that likes that kind of

three-party view of the world?

Oh, there’s always going to be people

who like that part, that approach.

Of course there is.

But then they don’t necessarily dominate.

That’s the kind of thing

that people kind of think about.

Putin can, you know, read,

you know, all the various articles

and hear the kind of pronouncements of people.

But, you know, this gets back to,

you know, the way that

the United States operates.

You know, Putin saw that, you know,

Trump wanted to have a, you know,

top-down, you know, vertical of power.

And other presidents have wanted to have that.

But the United States

is a pretty messy place.

And we have all kinds

of different viewpoints.

Now, of course, we know that in Russia,

everything, even criticism of the Kremlin

is usually fairly orchestrated,

usually to kind of flush out,

you know, what people think about things.

When we had these hardliners saying,

you know, we needed more destruction

of Ukraine, not less.

And that, you know,

the army wasn’t doing enough.

It was in many respects, you know,

kind of encouraged by the Kremlin

to see how people would react to that,

you know, to kind of actually create

a constituency for, you know,

being more ruthless than you had before,

because, you know,

they wanted to clamp down.

In the United States,

I mean, I can say whatever I want.

It doesn’t mean that I’m speaking

on behalf of the White House.

And, you know, even if I have been

an advisor to this president,

that president and the other,

it doesn’t mean I’m, you know,

basically speaking on behalf

of the U.S. government.

But there’s kind of always

an assumption from the Russians

that, you know, when people,

you know, say this and people

do advocate one thing over another,

that they’re, you know,

it’s operating.

There’s a lot of mirror imaging,

thinking that, you know,

we’re operating in the same kind of way.

So, yes, there are, of course,

constituencies who think like that

and would love it.

And it’s back to that.

And there are many people out there

with their own peace plans.

All kinds of people, you know,

out there trying to push this.

Yeah, but there does seem to be,

the engine of the military-industrial complex

seems to give some fuel to the hawks.

And they seem to create momentum

in government.

Yeah, but other people do, too.

I mean, there’s always, you know,

kind of a check something again.

You believe in the tension of ideas.

I think there is a lot of tension.

I mean, I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen it inside of the government now,

you know, and people can push back.

And that’s why I speak out.

And I try to lay it out

so that everybody can, you know,

kind of figure it out for themselves.

I said the same to you as I say to everybody.

This is how I see the situation.

And, you know, this is, you know,

how we can analyze it here.

Now, look, do I think that we’ve handled,

you know, the whole Russia account,

you know, for years?

Well, no, we haven’t.

I mean, we’ve taken our eyes off the ball many times.

We’ve failed to understand the way

that people like Putin think.

You know, you talked earlier about,

you know, we need to have empathy for,

you know, all the people who like Trump

or like Biden and understand how they think.

We’ve got to have strategic empathy

about Putin as well.

We’ve got to understand how the guy thinks

and why he thinks like he does.

You know, he has got his own context

and his own frame and his own rationale.

And he is rational.

He is a rational actor in his own context.

We’ve got to understand that.

We’ve got to understand that he would take offense

at something and he would take action over something.

It doesn’t mean to say that,

you know, we are necessary to blame by taking actions,

but we are to blame when we don’t understand

the consequences of things that we do

and act accordingly or, you know,

take preventative action or recognize

that something might happen as a result of something.

So you’ve been in the room with Putin.

Let me ask you for some advice.

And it’s also just a good philosophical question

for you or for me.

If I have a conversation with Vladimir Putin right now,

can you advise on what questions, topics,

ideas to talk through to him as a leader,

to him as a human?

What would you like to understand about his mind,

about his thinking?

Yeah, remember what I said before

that Putin always tries to, you know, reverse things.

He wants to hear the questions that people have.

Because remember, he himself at different points

has been a recruiter, which is, you know,

the way that you’re operating now as well, right?

You’re asking an awful lot of questions.

Your questions also betray, you know,

often the times where you’re thinking about things,

you know, the kind of context, you know,

kind of any kind of dialogue like this

reveals a lot about the, you know, the other person.

And I’ve actually often, you know,

noticed in these settings that Putin

likes to have a lot of give and take.

So I think he would actually enjoy

having a conversation, you know, with you.

But again, he would always be trying to influence you.

Inform and influence.

That’s kind of, you know, part of the way

that he always operates.

So what you would have to, you know,

be trying to think about,

so what is it you would want to elicit information from him?

You’re trying to understand the guy’s worldview.

And what we’re trying to also understand

is if there’s any room there

where he might compromise on something.

You know, so if your goal was to go in there,

you know, to talk about Ukraine at this particular moment,

I mean, one of the problems that I’ve often seen

in the sort of the meetings we’ve had with Putin,

it just ends up in sort of mutual recriminations.

You know, kind of, no, well, what about what you’ve done?

Or no, you’ve done that about, you know,

and there’s always this whataboutism.

I mean, it often say, well,

you’re saying that I’ve done this, but you’ve done that.

The United States invaded Iraq.

What’s the difference between, you know,

what I’m doing and all of the things

that you’ve been doing here?

I mean, what you would have to try to do

is kind of elicit information about why,

or what he is thinking about this particular moment

in time and why he thinks it.

Yeah, the whataboutism is a failure case.

I think that shows,

from all the interviews I’ve seen with him,

that just shows that he doesn’t trust

the person on the other side.

No, he doesn’t.

Right, but I’m not cynical like people.

They seem to think he’s some kind of KGB agent

that doesn’t trust anybody.

I disagree.

I think everybody’s human.

And from my perspective,

I’m worried about what I’ve seen,

is I think whether it’s COVID,

whether it’s other aspects that I’m not aware of

leading up to the invasion,

he seems to be less willing to have

charismatic back and forth dialogue.

Yeah, an open discussion.

You know, actually, I mean, I said,

you asked me before about, you know,

that issue of trust,

and he often says he only trusts himself.

And I said, you know,

he’s often distrustful of people,

but he does trust some people for certain things

where he knows it’s within their competence.

So he has people he trusts to do things

because he knows they’ll do them,

and he knows that they’ll do them well,

which is why he has his old buddies

from St. Petersburg,

because he’s known them for a very long time,

and he knows that they won’t try to

pull a fast one over him,

but he also knows their strengths and their weaknesses

and what they can be trusted to do.

I mean, he’s learning that, you know,

some of the people in the military

that he thought were competent,

or people on other things are not, right?

And he tends to actually have a lot of loyalty

to people as well,

or he also kind of thinks it’s best

to keep them inside the tent than outside,

and he moves them around.

You know, he kind of, okay, you know,

he gives them multiple chances

to redeem themselves if they don’t.

It’s not like he has them done in.

I mean, yeah, there is a lot of that in the system,

but the people that he’s worked with for a long time,

you know, he moves them around to something else,

perhaps where they can do less harm.

Although, you know, we often see that

he has quite a small cadre of people

that he’s reliant on,

and often, you know, they’re not up to the task,

which is kind of what’s happening here.

But he also, in the past,

has been more straightforward,

just like you were saying here,

more pragmatic.

And I think, you know,

if you were engaged with him in Russian,

where you’re actually literally speaking the same language,

because there’s so much lost in translation.

I used to jump outside of my skin

listening to some of the phone calls,

because, you know, the way that they kind of relate,

you know, with an interpreter.

Oh, because you’re listening to the translation?

No, because I know I’m listening to the Russian

and the translation,

which is happening, you know, in real time.

And having been at a translators’ institute,

it’s really difficult.

Look, an interpreter’s a trend in the moment

to do something, you know,

the synchrony privo,

the synchronized or the real-time translation.

So translation is an art as well as a skill.

If you’re doing simultaneous translation,

that’s the word in English,

you know, synchrony privo in Russian,

you’re kind of focused in the moment

on the fragments of the discussion,

trying to render it as accurately as you possibly can.

And when you come out of that,

you can’t relay the entire conversation.

And often, you know, what translators do is they,

you know, they take this little short note

like journalists do.

And afterwards, you know,

they’ve just been caught up in the moment

and they haven’t got the big picture.

Consecutive translation is different.

You know, kind of you’re trying to convey

the whole mood of like big chunks of dialogue

that have already been there.

But, you know, sometimes you might not get that right either.

And it breaks up the flow of the discussion.

That’s terrible.

And often it’s, you know,

the kind of the person who translates, it’s different.

You know, some of our best translators are women.

But, you know, hearing a woman’s voice,

you know, translating a guy

who has a particular guy’s way of speaking

and a macho way of speaking

and a crude way of speaking,

you know, be that Putin,

or I’ve seen that happen with Erdogan,

the president of Turkey,

you know, and it gets translated

by a much more refined, you know, female speaker.

You’ve just lost the whole thing.

And, you know, many of the translators

on the Russian side are not competent in English

in the way that you would hope they are.

They’re not, it’s not just that they’re not native speakers.

They’re just not trained to the same high standards

they used to be in the past.


And you just get, you lose the nuance,

you lose the feel.

You know, you almost need, you know,

kind of the interpretive actor,

you know, doing, you know,

the kind of the interpretation.

You need to match it as much as you can

in the way that you, you know, do voiceovers in film.

The best way to talk to Putin

is one-on-one in his own language.

I mean, I have a really great friend here

who is one of the best interpreters.

Putin is often asked by the, you know,

the media to interpret for him.

He just, he was at the institute that I was,

I mean, I know him from that kind of period.

And he is just excellent.

Just like Pavel Polashenko was absolutely phenomenal

at interpreting Gorbachev.

Now he didn’t always interpret him accurately

because Gorbachev made lots of grammatical gaffes

and sometimes was, you know,

Gorbachev himself would joke that Polashenko,

you know, spoke better for Gorbachev

than Gorbachev could himself.

But Putin is actually quite precise

and careful in the way that he speaks

because there’s a lot of menace sometimes

to things deliberately.

Other times there’s lots of humor

and he’s telling a joke for a particular reason.

And all of it is, I mean,

he actually uses the richness of the Russian language

and the crudity of language

that can’t be conveyed in English.

But also facial expressions.

Yeah, facial expressions, body language,

the way that he sits back in the chair and slouches,

the kind of the way that he makes fun of people

and he, you know, kind of uses irony.

Just some of it is just lost

and it needs to be conveyed.

The depth of humor and wit,

I’ve met quite a few like political leaders like that

and they speak only Russian.

When I was traveling in Ukraine,

I don’t know how you translate that.

I think it’s almost,

the other person that reminds me like that a little bit

is Obama.

Obama had a wit and an intelligence,

but like he would smile as he said something

that add a lot to it.

Like that he’s trolling you

or he’s being sarcastic

or like me converting into words.

It’s obvious that all English speakers,

if they listen to Obama,

but if you had to translate to a different language,

I think you’re going to lose a lot of it.

Yeah, I mean, when I watched the,

I mean, I watched many of Putin’s speeches,

you know, kind of just in Russian,

not looking at any of the, you know,

the subtitles or anything.

And it’s just watching the way that his body language is

at the time when he’s saying things,

the way that you smirk, he’ll sneer,

he’ll laugh, he’ll ad-lib,

you know, kind of from something that obviously kind of,

you know, wasn’t there on the prepared speech.

And it’s really critical.

And, you know, kind of a lot,

some people speak, you know, like Trump,

it’s just, it’s kind of just words.

Putin, the words are very important.

Trump, it’s the atmosphere.

It’s the kind of the way you feel about things.

It’s the buzz you get, you know, it’s revving people up.

It’s the kind of slogans and Putin, it’s, you know,

he’s conveying a lot in what he’s saying there.

But I think, I mean, of course I don’t know much

because I only speak Russian and English,

but I have in English or Russian

have not met almost anyone ever

as interesting in conversation as Putin.

I think he shines not in speeches,

but in interactions with others.

Yeah, when you watch those interviews and things with him,

and I’ve, you know, been at many of these sessions,

it’s been hours of him parrying questions.

And it’s like watching a boxer sparring,

you know, in a kind of training bout.

Yeah, come on, give me another one.

You know, and it’s kind of like,

and he prides himself and he’s made mistakes often,

but the breadth of, you know, the issues

that he’s often covered has been fascinating.

And I used to just take, you know,

kind of really detailed notes about this

because you learn a ton.

But it’s also about his worldview again.

I mean, he does live in a certain box, like we all do.

And, you know, again, his world experience

is not as extensive as, you know,

you would hope it would be.

But that’s why you have to really pay attention.

That’s where we’ve messed up.

That’s where we haven’t really paid a lot of attention

to what he’s been saying.

He’s been telegraphing this grievance,

this dissatisfaction, this,

I’m going to do something for years.

And the thing is during war time,

the combined with propaganda

and the narratives of resentment and grievance,

you dig in on those.

Like maybe you start out not believing it,

but you’re sure it’s all going to believe it eventually.

Well, you convince yourself over time.


Look, the longer you’re in a position like Putin,

22 years now, coming from 23 years,

could be out there for 36 years.

You become more and more rigid.

I mean, this is, again, you know,

something that you see in history.

You know, you look at, you know,

people through history have moved

from kind of being kind of left wing

in their perspectives to hard right.

They kind of have a,

but kind of a sort of an ossification

or a rigidity emerges in their views.

I mean, again, I used to have these arguments

with Professor Pius about Lenin

because he would talk about Lenin.

I said, but he didn’t change his mind from being 18.

Have you not thought about that?

I mean, it’s like, we’re not formed,

fully formed individuals at 18.

You know, we don’t know anything.

We know something, but not everything.

I mean, and obviously the younger context,

you know, the kind of the way that you kind of grow up,

the place you grew up,

the things that happened to you,

the traumas you have.

I mean, all of these have an impact,

but then if you don’t grow beyond all of that,

and Putin’s been stuck in place since 2000

when he became president.

He’s not out and about, you know,

kind of being a man of the people.

You know, he’s not doing

the kind of things that he used to do.

Yeah, he gets out there and he goes to Kazakhstan

and, you know, Tajikistan,

and he goes to China and he does this and that.

And then to COVID, he didn’t go anywhere.

I mean, very few places.

And so he’s got stuck.

And that worries me a lot,

because you could see before that he,

you know, had a bit more of flexibility of thought.

And that’s why nobody should be in place forever.

You should always kind of like get out there

and go out there and learn a new skill.

You know, kind of.

He needs some, he needs to sort of,

you know, he needs to get out more

and do something different.

You had an interesting point you’ve made

that both Vladimir Zelensky and Putin

are thinking about they’re just politicians.

They’re thinking about the 2024 election,

which is coming up for both of them.

Yeah, I’ve said that in some of the other interviews.

Yeah, that’s true.

That’s so interesting.

I mean, I know.

Because their election is going to be

pretty much at the same time.

As the U.S. election also.

Oh, that’ll be before.

I mean, because it’s sometime in that,

you know, early part of the year

for the presidential election.

Yeah. And also, I don’t know if you know

about U.S. elections,

but they actually last way longer than a year.

We’re in it now, aren’t we?

You know, already.

We’re already starting.

So there’s going to be a significant overlap.

Do you think that actually comes into play

in their calculus?

I think it was one of the reasons

why Putin invaded in February of 2022,

because it was going to be two years.

I mean, he thought it’d be over by March of 2022.

And he got two years to prepare for,

you know, the election.

And he got a big boost, you know,

not only he got a boost from Crimea.

I mean, I didn’t mention that before.

I mean, one of the reasons for invading Crimea

and annexing or invading Ukraine

the first time and annexing Crimea

was look what happened to his ratings.

They went from kind of declining.

And it was still pretty good,

you know, by anybody’s standards

to just rocketing off into the stratosphere.

I mean, I didn’t really meet anybody in Russia

who thought that annexing Crimea

was, you know, kind of a bad thing.

I mean, even, you know, kind of people

who were opposed Putin on so many other things.

Crimea was, you know,

Krimnash, they kept saying, you know,

this is kind of, you know, we got it back.

You know, it should never have gone away.

It was ours, you know.

But, you know, this is more complex.

And he wasn’t, I don’t think at the time,

planning on annexing all of Ukraine

when he went in this special military operation.

He was going to try to turn it

into what Belarus has become, you know,

part of a, you know,

bring back the Commonwealth of Independent States

or the union, then a new union

with Belarus and Ukraine and Russia over time.

But certainly, you know,

remove Ukraine as a major factor,

independent factor on the world stage

and, you know, consolidate Crimea

and maybe, you know,

kind of incorporate Donetsk and Luhansk,

you know, kind of that was also a possibility.

But it wasn’t in his intention,

in any case, to have something

on this kind of scale.

He wanted to get on with then

preparing for what was going to be,

he would think, the cakewalk,

the shoe-in of the next presidential election.

I mean, last time around,

he had to invent a bit of competition

with this person who’s reputed to be his goddaughter,

Ksenia Sobchak, you know,

for a bit of, you know,

kind of entertainment for people.

This next time around, you know,

maybe he wasn’t really planning on running,

you know, against any other,

you know, serious opposition.

He was just going to have the acclaim of,

you know, the kind of the great leader,

like President Xi in China.

You know, Putin, you know, was basically,

I think, you know, he also hoped

that he would be able to devolve some authority away,

you know, kind of, so he’s more like the,

you know, the supreme leader kind of figure,

the czar-like figure, the monarch.

And then, you know, other people get on

with the chief executive,

prime ministerial run of the country.

And he could kind of, like,

step back and just enjoy this.

You know, maybe there was going to be, again,

a new union of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine

in some, you know, fashion,

and he could preside over that.

So speaking of opposition,

you’ve criticized the famed Putin critic,

Alexei Navalny.

What’s the nature of your criticism?

Well, it hasn’t really been a kind of a criticism

in the way that, you know, people have implied,

but more just reminding people

that Navalny isn’t some stooge of the West,

as other people have, you know,

kind of depicted him in the Russian film,

but, you know, saying that this is kind of,

you know, he’s pro-Western.

He’s a Russian nationalist

and a Russian patriot.

You know, in the past, he’s articulated,

you know, things are not so dissimilar

from some of the people around Putin.

And it’s more just reminding people that,

you know, just because you kind of see somebody,

you know, as a kind of an opposition figure

or somebody who might be more palatable from,

you know, your perspective looking from the West,

they’re not always going to be,

you know, what you think they are.

Alexei Navalny is a Russian.

And, you know, in a particular Russian context,

he’s different from Putin,

but he wouldn’t necessarily, you know,

kind of run, you know, the Russian system

in ways that we will like.

So that’s kind of, it’s not a kind of a criticism.

It’s more of a critique of the way that we look at things.

You know, I think it’s a mistake to always,

you know, say, well, this is pro-Western

or this is a, you know, liberal.

I mean, what the heck does that mean, pro-Western?

I mean, he’s a Russian.

He’s a Russian nationalist and a Russian patriot.

And he’s often, you know, been, you know,

quite critical about immigration.

He’s had some negative views about,

you know, from one part of the moment

he said, don’t feed the Caucasus,

you know, kind of played upon some of the,

you know, the racial and ethnic tensions

inside of, you know, Russia itself as well.

Now he is a pluralist, you know, and he’s kind of,

and he wants to have, you know,

a different set of political actors there.

But he also isn’t promoting revolution.

He’s not Lenin.

He’s not wanting to bring down the state.

He wants to kind of, you know,

change the people who are in charge.

That’s what he’s being basically focused on.

And, you know, he might have,

and have things and do things that,

you know, we elsewhere might not like.

And I guess the bigger picture there is,

it’s not trivial to know that if you place

another human in power to replace

the current human in power,

that things are going to be better.

They could be a lot worse

because there’s a momentum to a system.

A system is bigger than just this leader,

even when that leader has a huge amount of power.

That’s absolutely right.

And, you know, he grew up in that,

you know, same system.

Now he’s younger than Putin,

so he’s got a different generational perspective.

And he’s not wedded to the Soviet Union

or, you know, kind of some concept of the Russian empire.

He doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time.

I don’t know what he’s doing, you know, in jail,

but he’s probably not sitting around,

you know, reading Lomonosov

and, you know, the kind of,

the great kind of tracts of Russian history.

Could be, actually.

But, I mean, I think, you know,

Navalny has a different worldview

and a different perspective,

just like Medvedev was different,

you know, in his time and presidency

and made some, you know,

changes and some innovations there.

But don’t think that they’re going to be radically different.

Because, look, Gorbachev,

I mean, he was so different

from Andropov and Chinenko and others as a person,

but he was also constrained by the system.

And he wanted to have change,

but he wanted evolutionary change.

He didn’t know how to do it,

but he didn’t want to bring the whole system down.

Look at Khrushchev.

When he came in, you know,

after that whole period of,

you know, everybody trying to figure out

what to do after Stalin had died

and there was all this kind of back and forth,

and eventually Khrushchev emerges.

And, you know, he tries to make changes to the system,

but he’s also a creature of a very specific context.

He’s grown up in the same system.

And he, you know, kind of brings

all kinds of elements of chaos there,

you know, to the whole thing.

And, you know, gets into a standoff with the United States

that we know is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And eventually, you know, gets removed.

You know, we’re looking at what’s happening

in the United Kingdom right now.

They’ve just churned through three prime ministers,

and actually five prime ministers in, you know,

kind of as many years.

But all of those prime ministers have come out

of the context of the Conservative Party.

They’re all, you know, kind of just shades of,

you know, the same thing.

They’ve all come out of the same academic

and, you know, kind of privileged backgrounds.

Even Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister,

who’s the first, you know, Indian or Anglo-Indian

prime minister in British history.

It was a kind of phenomenal, you know,

kind of as a child of Indian immigrants,

but also a person of great privilege

from the same academic and party background as the others.

You know, so there are always differences

with those human beings, but those contexts matter a lot.

What is the probability that Russia attacks Ukraine

with a tactical nuclear weapon?

Well, Putin’s definitely been thinking about it, right?

I mean, he is the kind of person,

if he’s got an instrument,

he wants to figure out how to use it.

You know, we look at polonium.

We look at Novichok.

You know, we look at all kinds of things,

you know, that he’s also presided over in Syria.

He has, you know, put in charge of the war in Ukraine now.

General Savrykin is known as General Armageddon.

You know, the kind of person who, you know,

pretty much facilitated the use of chemical weapons

in Syria, you know, for example.

So, you know, don’t think that Putin,

you know, hasn’t thought about

how ruthless he can possibly be.

The question is really the calculation.

It’s his estimation of the probability

that it will get the desired effect.

We keep talking about this idea of escalate to deescalate.

That’s not what the Russians, you know, how they call it.

But it’s the whole idea that you do something

really outrageous to get everybody else to back off.

Now, when you talked about the precedent

that the United States set of detonating the nuclear weapons

in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

what, you know, he obviously meant the precedent

of using nuclear weapons, of course,

which, of course, we would then say,

well, we showed then how the impermissibility

of ever doing that again.

But what he’s talking about is the precedent

of escalating to such an extent that you stop the war,

because he reads that saying,

well, you know, the U.S. dropped the bombs

on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The war was brought to a quick conclusion.

And of course, there’s a huge debate in America

about whether it was necessary to do that,

whether the war was ending anyway.

Did that really, you know, kind of change the minds

of the Japanese high command?

I mean, there’s all kind of books

and being written about that.

And of course, you know, the revulsion that people felt

in the wake of that was just, you know,

just the shock of what actually happened.

And we’ve spent, you know, 70 years, you know,

basically coming to terms with the fact

that we did something like that.

You know, the firebombing, you know,

we’ve also looked at all the bombing, you know,

in Vietnam and everywhere.

And, you know, all these massive bombing campaigns

and realizing they actually often had the opposite effect.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have contributed

and there’s a lot of, you know,

scholarship suggesting it did to the end of the war.

But all of the big bombing campaigns

and the destruction actually prolonged wars

because they made people fight back,

as we’re kind of seeing in the case of Ukraine.

So Putin has to calculate the probability

that if he uses some tactical nuclear weapon,

that it will get the desired effect,

which is get us to capitulate and Ukraine to capitulate.

Us to capitulate, meaning the United States

and the Europeans not supporting Ukraine anymore,

pushing towards a negotiating table

and negotiating Ukraine away.

And Ukraine saying, okay, we give up,

like happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or in Japan.

So it’s his calculation, you know,

as much as anything else, which is really important.

He said, we have to show him

that he won’t get that out of it.

It’s kind of less our probability

and, you know, kind of the odds of it.

It’s just how he calculates that probability

of getting what he wants.

I mean, I guess that’s how the game of poker works.

It’s your probability

and your estimate of their probability

and your estimate of their estimate of your probability

and so on and so forth.

Yeah, so it goes on, yeah, exactly.

I think he has two tools, right?

So one is actually the actual use of nuclear weapons

and then the threat of the-

Oh, the threat is very effective.

And the more real you make the threat-

That’s right.

So it’s like the more you approach the actual use,

like get very close to using it.

He’s already using Chernobyl, Zaporizhia

and then using Ukraine’s, the other nuclear reactors.

So he’s using civilian nuclear reactors as a dirty bomb.

So, you know, it’s ironic that he has Sergei Shoigu,

his defense minister, calling people up

and saying the Ukrainians are going to use a dirty bomb.

They’re already doing it.

I mean, what is, you know, kind of more destructive

than stirring up all the radioactive dust

in Chernobyl as you send your troops through,

you know, for example,

or shelling, you know, the Chernobyl plant

and the sarcophagus and putting it at risk.

And Zaporizhia, you’ve got the

International Atomic Energy Agency

running out there in utter panic

and, you know, kind of also trying to

intervene in the conflict.

So you’re putting, you know,

civilian nuclear reactors at risk.

I mean, that also has the great added effect

of cutting off Ukraine’s power supply

because Zaporizhia in particular was,

what was it, a third of Ukraine’s power generation

or some, you know, really high percentage.

I’ll have to go back and, you know, take a look at that.

But that’s a twofer.

You know, it’s a kind of a double effect

of undermining power generation,

also frightening Germans and others

who’ve already been very worried about nuclear power

and, you know, increasing your leverage

on the energy front,

but also scaring people

from the perspective of the use of nuclear weapon.

Those reactors also become

a nuclear weapon tactically deployed.

And as you said,

the discussion of using a nuclear weapon

and engendering all those fears,

and he’s already got an effect.

Everyone’s running around talking about

the Cuban Missile Crisis and secret diplomacy,

and how we negotiate away Ukraine

in return for Putin not blowing up a nuclear weapon.

So he’s got a lot of people already talking about that.

So, sorry for the difficult and dark question.

It could be for you directly,

or more like,

do you think we have a plan for this?

What happens if he does drop a nuclear weapon?

Do you have a sense that the United States

has a good plan?

I know we’re talking about it.

I think we probably have several plans

because it depends on what, where, when, how.

But don’t, and also don’t these things

happen very quickly?

Well, there’s also signaling

and signs of movement there.

I mean, I want to be very, you know,

kind of careful about this.

But then the thing is,

it’s also very important

that we do this with other nuclear powers.

So the other thing that’s different

from how it might’ve been in the past,

and particularly different

from the Cuban Missile Crisis

and the Iran Missile Crisis,

we’re not the only nuclear players.

China has a major nuclear arsenal now,

less on the strategic side,

but building it up,

but very much on the intermediate range and tactical.

Kim Jong-un is firing off weapons

left, right, and center at the moment in North Korea.

We’ve got other rogue states.

Putin’s behaving like a rogue state,

just to be very clear here.

And this is what we’ve got with Kim Jong-un in North Korea.

We’ve also got India and Pakistan,

and we’ve got other states

we’re not supposed to talk about

that we know have nuclear capacities,

and others that would like to have nuclear capacity.

And the whole question here

is about also proliferation.

Getting back to that time

when Ukraine had nuclear weapons,

at least there on its territory

instead of Belarus and Kazakhstan,

you’ve got to wonder,

was it wise for them to give it up?

We were worried about, you know,

kind of loose nukes,

nuclear weapons, you know,

kind of getting out of hand.

Proliferation at the time,

we wanted fewer nuclear powers.

Russia wanted that too.

Now we’re going to have more.

We’ve got more.

And what Putin is saying is,

well, that was stupid of Ukraine

to give up the nuclear weapons.

In fact, my colleagues and I,

back in our report and back in the USSR,

kind of suggest they shouldn’t give them up.

And that’s why we had the Budapest memorandum.

That’s why the United States,

the United Kingdom in particular,

have, you know,

basically some responsibility and obligation

going back to 1994,

when they promised Ukraine

that gave up the nuclear weapons,

their territorial integrity and sovereignty

would remain intact.

Some obligation to actually do something,

to step up.

If we step back from that,

this is the thing that people

are not talking about.

You know, what about nuclear proliferation?

If you’re South Korea, Japan,

you know, you’re any other country

that’s kind of worrying about your neighbours.

And, you know, what might happen to you?

Just like India and Pakistan are both like,

well, you know,

we’ve got to kind of keep our

strategic nuclear violence here.

Everything is up for question.

Saudis will want a nuclear weapon.

The Turks already want one.

They’ve talked about one for years.

You know, why should the Iranians

be the only one with an Islamic

nuclear weapon?

You know, and if we know that,

you know, Iran has

breakout capacity now,

the Saudis and all the other,

you know, states that

are in opposition to Iran

will also want to have

some nuclear capacity.

And the United States before

wanted to maintain everything

under the nuclear umbrella.

You know, one of the reasons

why Sweden and Finland

are joining NATO

is because of suddenly

all of these nuclear threats.

Sweden was actually the last country

on the planet

to want to have nuclear weapons.

They were actually pushing for a ban

on nuclear weapons in the United Nations.

Now that Putin’s doing

the nuclear saber rattling,

you know, they’re talking about joining

and are on the verge of joining

a nuclear alliance.

You know, see what’s happening here.

So we have to make it

more and more difficult for Putin

to even contemplate that.

That’s why people are saying

this is reckless,

this is irresponsible.

Putin is actually making the world

less safe for himself

down the line either.

But he’s thinking short term here.

He’s thinking, what can I do?

What do I actually have?

You can also destroy

lots of infrastructure,

as he’s doing.

You can use subversion.

You know, we’re worried about

all of the undersea cables,

all these weird things happening,

you know, off Orkney

or in the Mediterranean

or, you know,

all these other things

that are happening,

Nord Stream 2, pipelines,

other infrastructure.

There’s all kinds of other things

that he can do as well here.

It’s not just, you know,

again, this is a civilian nuclear threat

of blowing up, you know,

one of the reactors.

Now, he’s got to be sure about

where the wind turns

and the wind blows.

And there’s all kinds of things

to, you know, factor in here.

But Putin is definitely

sitting around

calculating with other people,

what can I do to turn this around?

I mean, he still thinks

that he can win this.

Or, in other words,

he can end it on his terms.

Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk,

Kherson, Zaporizhia.

And, you know, capitulation

or recognized as being part of Russia.

Or he can freeze it

and then, you know,

kind of figure out

where it goes from there.

What other pressure he can put on.

I mean, I’m sure he’s confident

he can get rid of Zelensky.

And he can prevail over us.

I mean, look, I mean,

the UK is going through

prime ministers, you know,

faster than I’m changing my socks,

you know, so it’s like,

you know, he can, you know,

prevail on the, you know,

basically he can have an impact

on the political scene

in Europe and elsewhere.

I mean, again, everyone’s talking

about winter coming.

And Putin’s thinking, yeah, great.

I’ve, you know, destroyed

the infrastructure of Ukraine.

Are you worried about the winter?

Well, yeah, but I mean, look,

the other thing is that

we have to start preparing.

I mean, we have to start

thinking about this.

We’ve got a wartime economy situation.

That’s where we are.

We’ve got the home front

to think about as well.

Putin has declared war on us.

He did that on September 30th.

And he’s done it

at other points as well.

We’ve just not paid attention.

But he was pretty explicit

on September 30th.

I mean, go back and watch that speech.

And, you know, he is gambling

that, you know, people will go back,

you know, to basically

taking Russian gas and oil.

But it’s not going to be

that simple as well.

And do people,

and then, you know,

the question has to be,

do we really kind of think

he’s going to play fair after that

when he’s kind of also

shown that he can leverage that?

It’s such a complicated world.

It is complicated.

It’s very complicated.

And it’s never, I mean,

it feels like things are heating up.

Like, and China

is very quiet right now.

Because they’re watching what happens.

I mean, for President Xi,

you know, he’s trying to consolidate

his power even further

after the party Congress.

But he doesn’t want to look like

he made a mistake by backing Putin.

I mean, he thought Putin

was also going to be, you know,

Ukraine would probably be open

for massive Chinese investment.

China was the largest investor

in Ukraine.

Before the war.

Largest single investor.

I mean, the EU was bigger, of course.

How do you hope the war ends in Ukraine?

Well, I mean, I do hope it ends,

you know, with a ceasefire

and a negotiated solution.

But it has to be with Russia

compromising on something.

And that’s not where we are right now.

Do you think both sides

might be willing to compromise?

Most wars always end in that way.

I mean, nobody’s ever happy.

But they don’t seem to,

either side legitimately

doesn’t want to compromise right now.

Yeah, because I mean, look,

the thing is that for Ukraine right now,

anything is a compromise

at its expense, right?

Vast devastation,

unbelievable casualty rates,

biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Russia’s just said,

sorry, this is our territory.

It’s not just Crimea.

I think there could have been

a negotiation over that.

But, you know, Donetsk and Luhansk.

I mean, we’ve got all kinds of formulas

all the way through history

of, you know, putting things

under a kind of guardianship,

receivership of territory,

the United Nations,

all kinds of different ways

of formulating that.

We could have easily been creative.

But Russia’s basically saying,

nope, sorry, we’ve taken this.

And any other negotiations,

just you recognizing this

for us not doing more destruction.

I mean, that is not the basis

for a negotiation.

And, you know, having, you know,

kind of people come

and just sort of laying those terms down

is not a starting position.

I think Russia

is also, you know,

in a dilemma of its own making now

because Putin has made it very difficult,

you know, to compromise

just by everything that he said.

Now, for Ukraine,

they’ve already won

a great moral, political,

and military victory.

It’s just hard to see it, right,

at the particular moment.

They’ve done what the Finns did

in the Winter War,

which the Finns were devastated

by the Winter War as well,

but they pushed them back.

Now, the Finns lost a lot of territory.

They lost Karelia

and, you know, huge swathes of territory,

but they got to be Finland.

And now they’re, you know,

joining NATO,

but they’ve been part of the EU.

The question is how to,

you know, get Ukraine to be

Ukraine in a success.

But, you know, is,

and that’s the challenge.

Now, again, they’ve already won

psychologically, politically, militarily

because Putin hasn’t succeeded

in what he wanted to do,

but he has succeeded

in completely and utterly devastating them.

And this is the kind of the old Muscovite,

the old Russian imperial,

old Soviet mentality,

you know, going all the way back

to when the Muscovites

were the bag men for the,

you know, the horde for the Mongols.

It was destruction.

You know, you don’t play with us,

we’ll destroy you.

You know, people talk about it as mafia,

but it’s older, you know.

All you have to go down

is to go and see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyov.

I mean, I remember, you know,

seeing that film when I was first

as a student in Moscow

and just being,

whoa, this is so brutal.

I mean, this is just unremittingly brutal

because the whole point is

that you show people who’s the boss.

The destruction is the point of things as well

because, you know,

you are emphasizing your domination.

And that’s what Putin is doing right now,

is saying,

OK, you want to go

in a different direction, so be it,

but I’m going to make you suffer.

Remember when Khodorkovsky

got out of the penal colony

when Putin let him out eventually?

He said he suffered enough.

But he suffered for 10, 11 years.

I don’t think Putin feels that Ukraine

has suffered enough at this point,

or we have suffered enough.

So there’s a part of this invasion

that’s punishment for something.

Yeah, it’s medieval.

I mean, look, we’re all capable

of the same things, right?

There was all that destruction

and that’s what Assad was like

in Syria, like his father.

You destroy because you teach him a lesson.

And look, Britain did that

in the colonial era.

I mean, all the history

of British colonialism

is exactly the same.

I mean, all the Mao Mao,

you know, and Kenya,

you know, up until recent times,

brutality, teaching people,

you know, teaching them a lesson.

You have to suffer.

The US did it.

I mean, we did it with the Native Americans.

You know, we did it all over the place,

you know, as well.

This is kind of what big,

you know, states do

at different points in history.

It’s just that, you know,

Russia has not moved on from that.

I mean, we’ve learned some lessons later.

I hope, you know,

we’ve fully internalized them

of, you know, things that we’ve done,

you know, kind of the past

of the United States.

Ideally, you’re trying to do better

and most of Europe’s

trying to do better as well.

Think about France and Algeria.

You know, again, you know,

we can see this

in many different settings.

But I think, you know,

for Putin right now,

he hasn’t taught all of us

sufficient a lesson.

I just, I talked to hundreds

of people in Ukraine

and the tough thing,

the inspiring thing

is that there’s a unity.

The tough thing is

a lot of them speak intensely of hate

towards not just Russia,

but Russians.


That’s how Europeans felt

about Germany and Germans

at the end of World War II.

And generational hate.

Like, I don’t think that hate

is gonna pass.

Well, it might.

It might well take a generation.

I mean, when I was a kid in the 70s,

I went on exchanges to Germany.

And that was like, you know, 30 years,

more than 30 years

after the end of the war.

My grandfather,

who’d fought in World War I,

wouldn’t speak to my parents

when they sent me on a…

I mean, he hadn’t fought in World War II,

he fought in World War I.

He hated the Germans.

And he did not want me going,

you know, to Germany as an exchange student.

He refused to meet,

you know, kind of the German kid

who, you know,

came to stay at my house.

You know, for example.

I mean, it takes a long time to,

you know, it takes a long time

to get over that.

But you do.

I mean, and we have.

We have in Europe.

And that was the whole point

of, you know, all of that

kind of exercise of European unity

after World War II.

Now, the big challenge is,

what do we do with Russia?

Because a lot of people are talking

that we can’t have European security

without Russia.

Other people are saying

we can’t have a Europe,

you know, kind of with Russia.

You know, so how do we deal with this?

We’ve got to basically kind of,

it’s going to be like Japan

and Germany after World War II,

after this.

Just the level of the atrocities

that have been carried out,

as you said, the level of hatred.

But we found a way of doing it.

Now, a lot of it will require

change on the part of Russia as well

and Russians

and really thinking about this.

I mean, Gorbachev before tried to do

in the late 1980s

with the black spots in,

with glasnost,

with openness

and talking about Russian history,

just kind of never

sort of withered on the vine

as time went on.

What gives you hope about the future?

Well, my hope comes into the fact

that we’ve done things before,

that we’ve got ourselves out of tough times

and we’ve overcome stuff

and in people,

because I meet amazing people.

You just talked about hundreds of people

that you’ve met within Ukraine

and, you know,

people all think differently.

Contexts and circumstances change

and people can evolve.

Some people get stuck.

Putin’s got stuck,

but people can evolve.

And, you know, I do think that

if we all pull together

and we’ve seen this in so many contexts,

we can find solutions to things,

just like we get back again

to our discussion about scientists

and just the kind of amazing breakthroughs of,

you know, what we did on COVID

or done on, you know,

kind of other diseases and things.

And look, there is some similarities.

There’s a pathology around war and conflict.

Years ago in the 1990s,

I worked on, you know,

a lot of projects

that were funded by the Carnegie Corporation

of the United States

under the then presidency of David Hamburg,

who was a scientist.

And I actually did see a lot of parallels

between the sort of like the pathology of disease

and, you know,

kind of the pestilence,

you know, of conflict kind of idea.

And of course, these, you know, parallels

have to be very careful

because, you know, they’re not neat.

But there was kind of like an idea in there.

And how do you sort of treat this?

How do you deal with this?

And we did come up with all kinds of ideas

and, you know, things that are still out there.

We’ve created institutions

that have helped to keep the peace.

We just have neglected them,

allowed them to degrade,

just like the United Nations.

And, you know, we’ve created problems inside them,

like the veto power of the permanent powers

on the UN Security Council.

But we can change that.

You just got to have a will.

And I do think out there,

there are sufficient people with a will.

And we’ve just got to get people mobilized.

I mean, I’m always amazed

by how people can mobilize themselves around a crisis.

Remember Winston Churchill,

I don’t quote all the time

because I can never remember half his quotes.

But I do remember the one about

never let a good crisis go to waste.

And I always think that, you know,

yeah, we shouldn’t let this crisis go to waste.

And something else can come out of this,

just like in Ukraine.

We worried before about corruption in Ukraine,

the influence of the oligarchs.

We’ve got our own oligarchs here in the US

we need to, you know, deal with as well.

But this is a chance to do it differently.

Yeah, it really is a chance to do things differently.

And a part of that is young people.

I have to ask you-

And it’s young people.

I mean, I’m feeling a bit on the older side now,

but I still feel I’ve got, you know,

a bit of, you know, kind of youth within me yet.

They’re 57.

I’m not that old, but I’m not that young.

But we have to work together

with younger and older people.

You’ve got to work together in coalitions of,

you know, across generations.

You remind me of kids

who just graduated college and say,

and I feel old.

It’s like, yeah, no.

I don’t actually feel old,

but it is a number, age.

And, you know, when, you know,

you kind of think about when I was-

I thought you don’t like math.

Yeah, yeah, I know,

it’s like things like that.

Yeah, but I find it interesting.

But, you know, when I was,

I remember when I was a little kid,

I kept thinking about the year 2000.

And I thought, oh my God, I’ll be dead.

I’ll be 35.

That’s 22 years ago.

You’ve overcome a lot of struggle in your life

based on different reasons,

as you write about class being one of them,

your funny sounding accent being another,

or just representation of class.

But in general, through all of that,

to be at the White House,

to be one of the most powerful voices in the world,

what advice would you give

from grounded in your life story

to somebody who’s young,

somebody who’s in high school and college,

thinking of how they can have

a big positive impact on the world?

Look, we all have a voice, right?

We all have agency.

We all actually have the ability to do something.

And you can, you know,

start small in your local community,

or, you know, even in your own classroom,

just helping, you know, somebody else out

or speaking up and advocating on behalf of things.

You know, when I was about 11 years old,

I got involved with other kids on Save the Whales.

You know, we had all this, you know,

we were hardly Greta Thunberg,

but we, you know, we kind of got together

in a kind of network writing to people

and, you know, trying to raise money

to, you know, help save the whales.

Now, actually the whales of the world

are doing somewhat better.

I can’t say that that was because of me and my network,

but, you know, it was kind of a way of organizing

and, you know, kind of joining in a larger movement.

Everybody can be part of something bigger.

The thing is, it’s all about working together with others

and giving other people a chance as well.

I think, you know, one thing is that our voices

have more impact when they’re amplified.

They don’t have to be the voices of discord

or the voices of hate.

You know, you’ve been, you know,

trying to do this with your podcast,

you know, kind of give people a voice,

give them a kind of platform

and, you know, get them to join in with other people.

And, you know, one of the things

that I’ve been trying to do is, you know,

kind of go and talk to just as many people

as I possibly can and say,

look, you know, we can all do something here.

We can all, you know,

lend our voices to a cause that we care deeply about.

We can be kind to each other.

We can give other people a chance.

We can kind of speak out

when we see that, you know, something is wrong.

And we can try to, you know, explain things to people.

And what I’m trying to do at the moment

is just sort of explain, you know,

what I’ve learned about things

and, you know, hope that that helps people

make informed judgments of their own

and that, you know, kind of maybe take things further

and learn something more.

It’s like kind of building up on, you know,

the knowledge, you know, that I have, you know,

to try to impart to others.

And everybody can do that different ways.

You can kind of reach back.

Yeah, if you’re 14, help somebody who’s seven.

If you’re 21, help somebody who’s 14.

You know, kind of if, you know, the kind of my age now,

I’m always trying to, you know, reach back

and, you know, work with younger people,

listen to younger people,

help them out, make connections for them,

listen to what they have to say about something,

try to incorporate that in, you know,

things that I’m saying as well.

The main point is that we’ve all got a voice.

We’ve all got agency.

And it always works better

when we work together with other people.

But sometimes it can feel pretty hopeless.

It can feel, I mean, there’s low points.

You seem to have a kind of restless energy,

a drive to you where there are low points

in the beginning when,

in your early days,

when you’re trying to get the education,

where it may have not been clear to you

that you could be at all successful.

MS. BEHRENS Yeah, there always were.

I mean, there were lots of points

where I was just despondent.

But then, you know, I’d meet somebody

who would just suddenly turn things around.

Now, was this luck or was I out there looking for it?

You know, sometimes, you know, you just,

if you’re open and receptive to, you know,

kind of hearing something from someone else.

I mean, I, you know, there were often times

where I felt so despondent, you know,

in such a black mood,

I didn’t think I’d be able to go on.

And then I’d have a chance conversation with somebody.

I mean, I once remember, you know,

I was sitting on a bench.

I was probably 11 or 12,

just crying my eyes out, just really upset.

And an old lady just came and sat next to me,

put her arm around me, said,

oh, it’s all right, pet.

What’s the matter?

You know, it can’t be that bad, can it?

And it was just this human embrace.

It’s like somebody, you know,

just basically reaching out to me

that snapped me out of it.

And I thought, you know, here’s somebody just,

you know, she didn’t know who I was.

She just felt really bad that I was,

you know, sitting, you know, crying.

And I mean, I can’t even remember

what it was about anymore.

You know, now it just seems inconsequential.

At the time, I probably thought

my life was at an end.

Just, you know, sometimes people

making eye contact with you in the street

and saying something to you

can kind of pull you out of something.

And, you know, it’s kind of a,

I think you would just have to

open yourself up to the prospect

that not everyone’s bad,

just like you were saying before,

that there’s, you know, good in everybody.

Even during, you know,

that really difficult period of impeachment,

you know, I was trying to listen

very carefully to people.

And I thought, look, we always,

we still have something in common here.

We need to remember that.

You know, kind of when people

are kind of forgetting who they are,

or, you know, the context in their operating,

there’s always something that can,

you know, can pull you back again.

There’s always that kind of thread.

So I’m sure you were probably attacked

by a lot of people,

and you were still able to keep that optimism?

Well, I kept it into kind of perspective.

Like when I was a kid, I mean,

things I mentioned before,

I got bullied, you know, kind of.

Again, and I tried to understand

why they’re doing this.

One of the most amazing things

that happened, you know, early on

was my dad was a pretty incredible person,

and he would always open my eyes to something.

I was getting bullied really nastily

by a girl at school.

And my dad started asking me questions about her.

And one day my dad said

we were going to go for a walk.

And my town’s very small.

Remember, it’s very depressed,

really, you know, deprived area.

And we go to this housing estate,

public housing place

that’s not too far away from where I live.

And it’s really, you know,

kind of one of the most run-down places,

an already run-down place.

My dad, like, knocks on the door,

and I said, what are we doing, Dad?

And he says, well, we’re going off to,

you know, we’re going to visit somebody,

an old family friend.

I think they were even, you know,

a distant relative.

We’re knocking on the door,

and this old man answers the door,

and he’s, oh, Alfie.

My dad’s name was Alf, Alfie.

You know, kind of, oh, fancy seeing you here.

I haven’t seen you.

Come on in, have a cup of tea.

What are you doing?

He said, oh, I’m just walking past with my daughter.

We’re going for a trip.

Yeah, we’re going for a walk.

And then suddenly I see that girl,

and she’s in the kitchen,

and I’m thinking, oh, my God,

bloody hell, you know, British expression.

What’s this?

And it turns out that Dad had figured out

who she was,

and he knew her grandfather,

and she was living with her grandfather,

and she’d been abandoned by her parents,

and she was living in, you know,

pretty dire circumstances,

and she’d been getting raised by her grandfather,

and she was just miserable.

And the reason she was bullying me

was to make herself feel better.


And after that, she never bullied me again.

I mean, we didn’t even talk.

Because there was a connection made,

and suddenly she realized

that her grandfather,

who was the only person she had,

knew my dad,

and they were friends,

or they were even family.

Some, you know, kind of relationship there.

I mean, I was raised half north of England.

I had no idea how we were related.

You know, everybody was some relative.

Because people have lived there for generations

to get in this very small area,

and that turned things around.

So just remember, you might have,

and that’s kind of suddenly taught to me,

there’s always a reason

why somebody’s doing something.

A lot of the times,

they’re really unhappy with themselves.

Sometimes there’s something else

going on in their lives.

Sometimes they just don’t know any better.

And I shouldn’t take it personally,

because I don’t have a personal connection

with half these people who are out there

saying that they want this and that to happen to me.

Well, thank you for the kindness and empathy

you still carry in your heart.

I can see it through all that you must have gone through

in the recent couple of years.

It’s really inspiring to see that.

And thank you for everything you’ve done,

for the work you’ve written,

and for the work you continue to write and to do.

This seems like a really, really difficult time

for human civilization

on a topic that you’re a world expert in.

So don’t mess it up.

No, I know, but that’s what I said to everybody out there.

Let’s just keep it together, right?

Yeah, exactly.

Let’s just keep it together.

Your words have a lot of power right now.

So it’s a really, really tricky time.

So thank you so much,

given how valuable your time is

to sit down with me today.

It was an honor.

No, thanks, thanks.

No, it’s a privilege and a pleasure

to talk to you as well.

No, thank you.

Thanks for listening to this conversation with Fiona Hill.

To support this podcast,

please check out our sponsors in the description.

And now let me leave you with some words

from John Steinbeck.

Power does not corrupt, fear corrupts.

Perhaps the fear of the loss of power.

Thank you for listening.

I hope to see you next time.

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