Gates: "I Had Looked Into Putin's Eyes And I Saw A Stone Cold Killer"


HUGH HEWITT, HOST: Let me switch, then, to the other great geopolitical actor. There’s quite a lot about President Putin in Duty, very amusing, very revealing, and I loved your comment, I’ve got to find my notes here, where you were at his dacha and you turned, I think, to Secretary of State Rice and said I don’t have the patience for diplomacy. I’d forgotten how much I really don’t like these guys.


HH: How, tell the audience what your assessment of Putin is. Mitt Romney tried to make him an issue in the 2012 campaign, and Americans kind of sloughed it off, and people kind of laughed about it. But here it is basically, you know, fiddling the tune in Syria.

RG: Well, I think that I made the comment that I had looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw a stone cold killer. And he and I had a number of very direct conversations, and at one point, I kind of poked at him a little bit, saying just a couple of old spies going at each other. But I think that the truth is, that I think Putin is bad for Russia. And I think right now, it’s the Russians that are paying the greatest cost for him being in power, and he potentially could be president of Russia until 2024. And his refusal to open the country up politically, his refusal to encourage, and provide predictability for foreign investment, his regard of all the natural resources as a kind of a natural patrimony, so not any encouraging foreign investment there, and frankly, stealing from Western companies by expropriating what they’ve invested. Russia just has a number of problems. I think that former President Medvedev, who is now again the prime minister, had a pretty good idea what was wrong with Russia and what needed to be done to fix it. But Putin pushed him out of the way. And my own view is, as I say in the book, is Putin’s a man of the past. He’s all about lost glory, lost empire, lost power. And he’s, while he will cooperate with us in certain areas, and one example is he did let the sanctions on Iran go through the U.N. He did agree not to provide the S-300, very advanced air defense system, to the Iranians. And he did let our military equipment go across the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Afghanistan. Even with all that, he’s not going to miss an opportunity to embarrass us or create problems for us. And I think that what I referred to in one interview as kind of the judo that he did on us in Syria with respect to the chemical weapons is a good example. I mean, here we went one day from threatening to bomb these guys, and that Assad had to go, and a few days later, basically, we were in a position where he had to stay in power in order to deliver on the agreement we signed up to, to get rid of the chemical weapons. So Putin’s going to look for opportunities like that. And we just need to be a little cleverer.

HH: There’s a bit of optimism built in your response there, Secretary Gates, when you said that he could be president through 2024.

RG: Well, that’s not optimism.

HH: I know, but that assumes he’ll go in 2024. Do you think he’ll ever leave absolute power that he’s now assembled?

RG: Well, it was interesting. When his term came up, it was the end of his second term, he did agree to step down from the presidency and switch roles with Medvedev. I suppose he could do that again with somebody other, someone else he could manipulate. But everything that I read suggests that the Russians themselves are beginning to get kind of tired of Putin.

HH: Oh, interesting. Now on page 156, you write about the Munich Conference. And there’s an interesting line in there. “I could see Yushchenko, who at the time was the president of Ukraine, glaring at Putin with undisguised hatred. I’m confident the sentiment was reciprocated.” Now did you or any, either President Bush or President Obama, do you actually hate anybody in the way that Yushchenko and Putin hate each other?

RG: No, I don’t think so.

HH: Does that put the United States at a disadvantage in the great game of nations that we don’t do that?

RG: No, I think that getting emotional over things, and giving in to hatred, frankly, inhibits your ability to be cleverer and to do smart things. I think you just, I think you need to be very cold-eyed about these things and be tough in your actions. But if you let yourself get caught up in emotion, you may make decisions that aren’t the best for the country. I think you can be cold-eyes and tough with these guys without getting emotional about it.

HH: One of the things you wrote is that during the 1990s, we did not take Russian interests seriously. We did a poor job of seeing the world from their point of view, and managing the relationship for the long term, and that the fascinating conversation I had on the 90s. But from that perspective, trying to see Russia from their point of view, do you think President Putin views President Obama as he did President Bush? Or do you think he, I don’t want to use the word respect, but perhaps was more fearful of President Bush than he is of President Obama?

RG: You know, all I can say is that Putin once told me that he thought he could do business with Obama, and that their relationship was okay. He, I think that my sense was that Putin was perhaps more apprehensive about Bush, but I think he felt he had to keep his personal relationship with him on a different plane. And here’s something I felt strongly about for a long time, and frankly, it’s an area where I’ve disagreed with some of our presidents in the past, and that is I think these personal relationships frankly don’t matter very much. In most areas of the world, and in our own internal politics, personal relationships matter for a lot. But I think when you’re dealing with the Russians, particularly, or the Soviets before them, I think sometimes some of our leaders were fooled into thinking that because they had a good personal relationship with the leader of the Soviet Union or Russia, that that would lead the Russians to behave in a different and better way. That was never in my impression.

HH: When you say that President Putin was less apprehensive, or more apprehensive of President Bush than he was of President Obama, why would that have been, again, putting yourself in the Russian president’s position?

RG: Well, I think in no small part because of the strong way in which President Bush responded to 9/11, his willingness to undertake military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether they felt like ultimately those things sapped our strength, I just don’t know. But I think his willingness to initiate military operations certainly made them, I think, a little more careful. (Hugh Hewitt Show, January 23, 2014)

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