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The New York Times’ Peter Baker on Obama and Putin

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Peter Baker, The New York Times correspondent and author of the best-selling Days of Fire on the Bush years was my guest today.  The audio and transcript of the interview is below.  Takeaway: “I don’t think [Putin] has a lot of respect for President Obama.”




HH: One of the most extraordinary days in the time I’ve been in broadcast, actually, maybe going back to 1978 when I went to work for former President Nixon in San Clemente when he was writing The Real War. The Russian Federation fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile as a test, they said, today, one that the White House says they were not surprised by. To check out that development and many others, I’m joined by Peter Baker of the New York Times. He’s the author of the bestselling Days Of Fire: A Deep Look Inside The Bush/Cheney White House. Peter, welcome back, it’s great to speak with you.

PB: Hey, how are you?

HH: Well, I’m stunned. What do you make of today?

PB: Well, it’s another, you know, eventful day in the region, no question about it. You had President Putin go on for some length of his justification for why he’s done what he’s done. You had Secretary Kerry show up in Kiev to express solidarity and offer a billion dollars in loan guarantees to the new pro-Russian government. And you had, as you mentioned, the missile test, although I don’t, I think that’s something that rattles nerves more than it is genuinely meaningful. Still, the timing of it comes right in the middle of a lot of tension. So it’s an interesting day.

HH: Yeah, it’s not the sort of thing you do even if it’s previously scheduled in the middle of an international crisis, is it?

PB: Well, you know, at the very least, one part of the bureaucracy didn’t talk to the other part of the bureaucracy and recognize that this would set people on edge, or maybe they did decide that was okay. Clearly, President Putin was feeling his oats today. He was provocative and challenging, as he often is, blaming the West for what’s happened in Ukraine, seeing that as an anti-Russian move. And perhaps he didn’t mind that some nerves would be rattled.

HH: Now Peter Baker, when you were on and we were talking about Days Of Fire, I don’t recall that we spent much time on the last crisis of the Bush administration, the Georgian crisis, because of course, the financial crisis consumed all in the immediate aftermath. But a lot of people are trying to draw parallels. What is the basic short story of the Georgian intervention and the American response at that time in 2008?

PB: Yeah now they’re not the same, obviously, but there are some parallels, Georgia being another former Soviet republic that has bristled at too much pressure from Moscow. In that case, I think the Georgians were more provocative than, say, the Ukrainians were in rattling the bear, if you will, and they found themselves at war with a much bigger power. George Bush was in Beijing at the time as president for the summer Olympics, ironically, just right next to Vladimir Putin. So he had a confrontation with him there in the Olympics, and he did respond by airlifting Georgian troops home from Iraq and sending humanitarian supplies to Georgia in a military plane, and sending USS McFaul closer to the region. And he pulled the nuclear cooperation agreement. But in the end, I think that what he found, and what President Obama is finding, to some extent, is that President Putin has already sort of calculated that into his equation. He knows what the West is going to do, and he’s decided it’s a price he’s willing to pay. And the question is can they make the price something higher?

HH: To your knowledge, Peter Baker, at the time of the Georgian intervention, did the United States disintermediate any Russian money? That’s a term that former President Bush used to use in reference to Iranian assets, ill-gotten assets that were parked overseas by mullahs who always had an eye on the back door. Did we do anything like that in 2008?

PB: There wasn’t a big push on the economic front, no. I think they could have, perhaps, but as you point out, I mean, this literally happened weeks before Lehman Brothers and so on, so I think that Treasury had its hands full at that point, and there wasn’t a move to choke off some of the Russian economic ties with the outside world. You’re seeing more of that this time. That’s the weapon of choice that this administration has used, as you mentioned, with Iran and others, and they are promising that they are going to issue some sanctions within a few days. We’ll see what kind of sanctions they are, but it’s supposed to be targeting top Russian officials that have been involved in all this.

HH: Now I began the show today with Congressman Mike Pompeo, one of the few members of the Congress who’s also a military veteran, West Point graduate. Tom Cotton penned a piece today with Marco Rubio. Within the Republican Party, there are a number of people demanding that the President act tougher. Do you think Putin, are there indications, not do you think, but are there indications that Putin views Obama as significantly softer than Bush?

PB: I don’t think he has a lot of respect for President Obama. I think that’s fair. And I do think that he has tested, in his mind, President Obama on a number of occasions and did not come away feeling intimidated. Having said that, I think even if we assume for the sake of argument that President Bush was seen as tougher, it didn’t stop President Putin from doing what he did. I think President Putin makes his calculations based on his interests and Russia’s interests as he sees them. And Ukraine is huge, huge to Moscow. It’s important for us to remember they used to be part of their empire, part of the Soviet Union. And the idea that a pro-Western government would be brought to power through street protests, in their view illegitimately, felt to him as a huge challenge that he couldn’t overlook.

HH: What do our European allies, especially those closest to the Soviet Union in this regard, particularly Poland and Romania, who are members of NATO, what do they want us to do?

PB: Well, one, it’s a bit of a divide in Europe over this, a little along Don Rumsfeld’s old, you know, new Europe-old Europe construct. The ones who are in Eastern Europe who have been part of the Soviet sphere in the old days, the Baltic states, Poland in particular, very worried about this. They are the ones who have called for a NATO meeting under Article IV. That’s the one that says if you feel your territorial integrity is threatened, you can call a meeting. That’s kind of a big deal. And they want there to be tough action taken against Russia. On the other hand, you have England, Germany and France, which are also outraged, I think, by what’s going on and have issued tough language. But they’re a little more cautious and less interested in sanctions that might in their view go too far. They think that they can try to work a little more diplomatically before resorting to tougher measures, and of course, one of the reasons why is they have a much larger trade with Russia than we do in the United States. They stand to lsoe more.

HH: Is there any conversation about the actual expulsion of Russia from the G-8 happening, because it seems that if you at least have that conversation, it might deter him in the eastern part of Ukraine.

PB: Well, all the other members of the G-8, the G-7, have agreed to suspend preparations from the Sochi Summit. That’s this year’s summit, ironically to be hosted by Russia in Sochi, the scene of the Olympics. All seven other countries said wait a second, we’re going to suspend preparations for now. Nobody has said outright that they’re not going to Sochi. Nobody has said outright that they are for sure going to kick them out. And there’s a bit of a disagreement about that idea. You know, Secretary Kerry said that openly this is a possibility that we kick them out of the G-8, whereas the Germans have said openly we’re not so keen on that. We think this is an opportunity to actually talk to Russia. And by kicking them out of an organization where we talk, we’re only making things worse. So there’s a bit of a disagreement about that at this point. I think it’ll depend on what happens in the coming weeks.

HH: In this respect, though, Peter Baker, doesn’t the United States call this tune? If we say they’re out, the G-8 doesn’t really exist without us, does it?

PB: Yeah, I think we obviously hold the trump card when it comes to that. If we don’t go, if we don’t participate, there’s not much to the G-8 but a debating society. So I do think that if we decided to push that issue at some point, it’s hard to imagine that not going the American way. On the other hand, I think that what they’re trying to do right now is hold it out as a leverage to try to keep Russia from going further. As you mentioned, it’s not just Crimea. The worry is that they would go into Eastern Ukraine and literally break the country in half. Eastern Ukraine is more pro-Russian, they speak Russian, they’re culturally connected to Moscow. And so rather than pull every tool out of the toolkit on day one, they’re trying to say these are the things that could and would happen if he keeps on going.

HH: Now at the same time that this is happening, the India Express today has a piece that begins military clashes between China and Japan cannot be ruled out, and the Peoples Liberation Army will fight back if provoked, a top Chinese official said on Monday. “At present, we cannot completely rule out the possibility of clashes in East Asia, but that is not decided by China,” said Qian Lihua, a member of China’s top political advisory body. I mean, the world isn’t stopping for this. How much are the other bad guys emboldened by the fact that we are almost paralyzed by Putin?

PB: Well, and I think the precedent is important here, too, right? You know, the issues of territorial integrity, the issues of territorial claims is at the heart of the Chinese-Japanese showdown, in effect, in the East China Sea. If Russia ends this crisis having still control over the Crimea, there are people who worry that would in fact send a message to China that they can do things they might otherwise might not have tried. And you know, the question for us is how important is that to us? How important is Crimea to us if in fact many people in Crimea might want to be affiliated with Russia anyway. They tend to be Russian speakers there. Not a majority, I don’t think, favors annexation, at least according to a poll I saw a few months back, but it’s not the same thing as going into Western Ukraine, which is very European-oriented. So how much is the United States willing to put on the line for that? It’s an interesting question.

HH: Let me switch, then, to the idea of when you covered Bush-Cheney for Days Of Fire, there were always fairly well-defined groups of hawks and not-hawks. I won’t call anyone in the Bush administration a dove, but are there any hawks in the Obama administration?

PB: Well, probably, yeah, to some extent. I think in the early days, you had Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton, who were the more hawkish members of that national security team in the context of the Obama spectrum. Now they’re both gone, of course, but you saw Ambassador Samantha Power yesterday at the U.N. give a very tough pushback against the Russian ambassador, mocking them for pretending, in her view, to go into Crimea to protect human rights. I think she’s on the more hawkish side when it comes to issues like that. I think Secretary Kerry has been pretty outspoken, certainly his language has been harsher than the President’s has been in talking about this. It’s not his part of the world. He’s not a big European specialist or anything, but he’s, I think, been pretty outspoken in the last few days on this.

HH: Is that it? Just John Kerry?

PB: Well, you know, I don’t actually know where Chuck Hagel stands, or some of these other folks stand. They haven’t really kind of, it hasn’t been very transparent to me, so I don’t really know how strongly they feel about that. That’s a good question.

HH: Well, isn’t that unusual in itself, Peter Baker? You’ve been doing this a long time. When Peter Baker of the New York Times says I’m not really sure where Hagel is on this, he’s the secretary of Defense.

PB: Yeah, yeah, I’d like to know more. I’m doing my best to report it out. I’ll let you know when I discover more, but it’s a good question.

HH: Let me go back to something I raised yesterday with Joy Reid of MSNBC. We are at the fifth anniversary this week of the reset button.

PB: Yeah.

HH: …which appears to have been an open sesame button to the Crimea. Does Secretary Clinton have a downside attached to this crisis?

PB: Well, possibly. I could see that becoming an issue in 2016 depending on how things play out. She was, of course, the one who actually gave the symbolic button in that very memorable moment, because they used the wrong Russian word. The truth is she wasn’t really the main architect of it. I think that was actually more Obama himself. I think that was something he saw as a priority, and she wasn’t one of the main negotiators, for instance, of the new START treaty and so on and so forth. I think President Obama thought he had a relationship that made sense with Dmitry Medvedev. He was of course Putin’s ally who was installed in the presidency while Putin shifted for one terms into the prime ministership. Putin came back, Medvedev’s sidelined, and suddenly the relationship that Obama thought he had with the Russian leader didn’t really mean very much. Here was this other guy he didn’t have a good relationship with.

HH: Are we closing in on that Jimmy Carter moment where he talked about his inordinate fear of communism and his recognition that maybe that was well-justified?

PB: That’s interesting. It’s a good question. I think that everybody in this White House right now feels differently about Russia today than they did two, three, four years ago, and that certainly, they have experienced quite a lot of Putin’s actions before this that led them to realize that this is not going to be, the reset is over, it’s not going to last his presidency. They’re not going to be able to do business with Russia on some things. But I think there had been a hope even prior to Ukraine that there were at least some areas where they might do business with Russia, where they still let us have all of our military flights over Russian airspace to Afghanistan. They do cooperate to some extent on the war on terror. But this has, I think, called all of that stuff into question at this point. What is left for us in cooperation with Syria, Iran, all of these other issues that we want cooperation from Russia on if we can’t trust them to figure out this situation?

HH: Has anyone said to you it also calls into question the Hagel Defense budget, which was so devastating to the Army and baselined us back to a pre-World World II number?

PB: I think the timing actually, you know, certainly, is going to make that point, yeah. I mean, I haven’t, not too many people are saying that, yet, but I think you’ll see that come up when the issue hits the hearings and so forth. I think that you could hear people say out loud why should we be cutting back when we see what a dangerous world it still is out there, including a very old seeming danger that we remember from forty years of the Cold War? So that will no doubt be part of the argument, part of the case. And the timing, I think, for Hagel probably didn’t work out very well.

HH: All right, last question, obviously in 1962, Kennedy went to Vienna. Khrushchev too his measure and we had a crisis the following year. The Syrian crisis is only six months ago. How much of that, Peter Baker, is on the minds, do you think, of everyone involved in this, both on the Russian side and the American side that we demonstrated abject weakness, and this is the result?

PB: Well, that’s definitely the argument for Republicans, and you even hear it from some Democrats, too, that the handling of Syria probably sent a message that wasn’t useful for the President, that sent a message that he couldn’t, that he wasn’t as strong in some instances as he should have been. I think even some people who work for the administration feel that didn’t work out very well. And did that encourage Putin? Certainly, he looks for signs, and I think that that’s certainly something people are going to examine. Having said that again, I think Putin again did do Georgia under George Bush when George Bush was president, and I think that Ukraine is so central to his way of thinking that even a tougher handling of Syria might not have changed his actions. But it certainly plays into, I think, the current conversation about how United States asserts power in the world.

HH: Days of Fire author Peter Baker, well, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to ask one more question. It’s Michael Shear’s beat, not yours.

PB: Yeah.

HH: But this has got to hurt the President’s public opinion numbers in these Senate races, don’t you think?

PB: Well, you know, that’s a good question. You’re right. That’s more Michael Shear’s area than mine, but I think it’ll depend on how long it lasts and where it goes. We’re still many months away from the elections and whether this will be the A or B dominant issue that time is really an open question. So much has to happen between now and then. But you know, there’s, how that plays into the election context, I’m not really sure.

HH: Peter Baker of the New York Times, thanks for spending valuable time with us. We’re reading everything you write about this, and please keep doing so.

PB: Thanks.

HH: I appreciate you taking the time.

PB: Hey, it’s good talking to you as always.

End of interview.


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