Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled “National Security Decision Making.”
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
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Discussions to suspend Russia from the G8 summit are taking place as Obama arrived from the Netherlands for a nuclear summit. The U.S. and the European Union have already placed numerous sanctions on Russia. And now Russia has also barred 13 Canadian officials from entering the country, in response to Western sanctions. That all comes on the heels of Ukrainian troops withdrawing from Crimea after Russians took over the remaining military bases in the region.
Now joining us to discuss this back-and-forth is our guest, Larry Wilkerson. He was the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. And, of course, he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.
Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, we’ve seen this back-and-forth between Russia and the U.S. over sanctions and visas, but I want to get your take on what’s really driving this conflict. How much of this is the idea that both Obama and Putin have to look tough in front of their respective citizens?
WILKERSON: A lot of it, of course. Putin may be a virtual dictator, but he still has a citizenry to answer to, and that’s increasingly important for him. In fact, a lot of the reason he’s done this, I think, is to salvage a domestic audience that was slowly but surely turning sour on him. So this way he fixates their minds on an issue that’s very important to at least two-thirds, probably, of Russians.
This is great-power rivalry harkening back to the old days, if you will, even prior to the Cold War, when that rivalry was exacerbated by ideology—communism, capitalism, and so forth. It’s understandable in that respect, but it’s also understandable in the respect that this kind of thing can get out of hand and cause a real shooting war. So it needs to be handled by cool heads.
And right now what we’re seeing is anything but cool heads on Washington’s part or on Moscow’s part.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. And President Obama’s side, how much of this is just, you know, him trying to look tough?
WILKERSON: That’s part of it. It has to be, given the opposition that he has in my party, some of the Luddites, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others, who’re calling for—almost look like they’re calling for military action and for further expansion of NATO and so forth, which is pure nonsense. It’s what got us in trouble in the first place. These are the people who are behind some of the things that in Georgia have gotten the Russians antsy, anxious, and now acting on that anxiety.
So we are as much to blame for what’s happened in Ukraine—and before that in Georgia—as anybody else. And it’s really sort of ridiculous for us to sit and pontificate as if we weren’t. This action was anticipated by anyone who knew anything about Russia and about their sphere of influence, their “near abroad,” as they call it. So the fact that we, quote, missed it, unquote, is rather preposterous.
DESVARIEUX: Larry, you have a background in diplomacy. So if you were advising Secretary of State Kerry, would you advise him to actually just quietly de facto accept and recognize Crimea as being a part of Russia?
WILKERSON: I think what we have to do here is much of what Putin did with regard to Kosovo, and that is we have to seek a solution that’s best for all parties involved. And that solution, as much as we might not like it—I say some of us might not like it—and it ultimately would be best for Ukraine too, I think, is that we allow things to settle down a little bit, we stop this rhetoric, hurling stones at one another, and as much as we can we tamp down on our domestic audiences and we look at a future where Ukraine is a buffer state between Russia, which increasingly hates NATO, and NATO, which perhaps of late is fearful of Russia or resurgent Russia or a resurgent Russia. So we need some buffer here. And Ukraine is a buffer. And that also works out best for Ukraine, because then you don’t have Moscow messing with Kiev and you don’t have Washington and Berlin and others messing with Kiev.
What they should be doing is not fomenting coup and revolution and bringing freedom and democracy to the world. What they should be doing is trying to figure out a way to make Ukraine stable, and eventually well-governed and prosperous. And that’s done not by people fomenting coups in capital cities. It’s done by the best good offices of the European Union, the best good offices of Moscow, and ultimately the United States working with Ukraine in a neutral way to bring about a stable and prosperous economy and political structure. That’s what needs to be done. And let’s forget about this business of starting a war and putting divisions on borders and flying airplanes and all the other things that look a lot like Sarajevo, 1914.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to get your take on the U.S.’s role in the way the crisis in Kiev has thus far resulted in this unconstitutional transitional government. What do you think their role has been?
WILKERSON: The United States’s role has been the same in Kiev, I think, that it is in Caracas and that it was before in Damascus, and that is essentially fomenting regime change, whether you’re doing it through the National Endowment for Democracy, its counterparts the IRI and the NDI, or with the CIA, who are all in tandem, which is what I think we’re doing. We have no one to blame but ourselves for what results when a great power sitting on the border of the country we’re trying to change the regime in suddenly objects. I mean, this is Hungary in 1956, when we egged, by propaganda and CIA covert actions, the Hungarians to rise up. And they rose up, and the Soviet tanks rolled in. Or it’s Prague in 1968. We’ve been through this before. It’s just Russia now and not the U.S.S.R., but some things simply don’t change. Great power and the influences and moves and the procedures that they go through in exercising that power simply don’t change over time. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s Putin or Catherine the Great or some future leader of Russia, or whether it’s Obama or Mitt Romney. Their hands should be tied in terms of taking this further and risking a really serious war.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, Larry Wilkerson. We always appreciate having you on.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.