John Bolton on Russia's War in Ukraine | Emma Barnett Meets
So who's my guest this week? It is the former National Security Advisor to President Trump and the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Reagan, the two Bush's, then Donald Trump, fewer people have had a better seat to the changing face of the Republican party. Since the 80s, Bolton has been a hawkish influence in the party's foreign policy circles. Over time, he has gone from background bureaucrat to a more visible presence, loyally serving former President George W. Bush and later joining the Trump administration. He made some very big mistakes when he talked about the Libyan model for Kim Jong-un, that was not a good statement to make, but he's somebody that I actually had a very good relationship with, but he wasn't getting along with people in the administration that I consider very important.
Bolton's tell-all memoir released in 2020, showed disdain for his colleagues in the administration, but his failure to testify before the House Committee during Trump's impeachment has led to criticism that he was silent when it mattered most. He tells me why he thinks President Biden has failed the Ukrainian people. He recalls a meeting he had with Putin and why he has zero regrets about not testifying against his former boss, President Trump. If your previous boss, President Trump, was in charge at the moment, where do you think we would be right now? I think the Russian forces would be in Kyiv by now, but saying Trump is deficient is an easy thing to do. I do it quite frequently.
The real problem is you've only got one President at a time and we are in a situation now where we have the perception in Europe, and in much of Congress, that the leadership is weak, that it's being dragged along as events unfold, rather than really trying to shape the overall environment. Thank you very much for joining me today. It's very good to talk to you. I wanted to begin by talking about foreign policy, America's foreign policy, because President Biden talked about being back on the international diplomatic stage after the Trump years. It's safe to say you're no fan of President Trump. Is the foreign policy now better than what America had directly before? Well, it's like being asked to judge a harmonica concert, really.
I mean the Biden approach is very different than Trump's, Biden has thought about foreign policy extensively over a long career, but in many respects, his conclusions are wrong. So it's the difference between somebody pursuing a generally incorrect line in foreign policy compared to another President who had no line at all. In the sense though, of where we are specifically with Ukraine, do you feel he's getting that right? Not well enough. And as the saying goes, close is only good in horseshoes.
I don't think that the NATO Alliance is as united as he says it is. I don't think the response is effective and the greatest tragedy of all, the biggest failure, a failure we live through every day is the failure to deter the Russian invasion to begin with. So when you look at it from that perspective, there's a lot of rhetoric that makes people feel warm and fuzzy, but it didn't translate into an effective policy. And it's still not translating into an effective policy.
Well, forgive me though, but there's a lot of money that's being spent... Well, wait a minute, forgive me. People say, well, we've committed X billion dollars, or we're pledged to give this weapon system.
This is government talk. This is the talk of inputs. The question, particularly in a war, is outputs. And we can certainly say that the Ukrainian army has fought bravely and quite well. But the issue now is whether all of the rhetoric, all of the commitments that different NATO members have made are actually translated into reality.
And that remains to be seen. But in terms of the money that has been spent at the time we're talking, it's 3.65 billion for weapon transfers and sales to Ukraine. If I may finish. It's another 3 billion... It's announced.
You don't think that's actually happened? Do you believe that $3.6 billion of weapons have crossed the Ukrainian frontier and are now in Ukraine? I have no answer to that or no expertise. But that's the point, isn't it? We're in a race for time. Russia's military performance has been appalling. And the point that we're at now is whether we get weapons and munitions to the Ukrainian army before Putin and the Russians can regroup and achieve their objectives and that remains to be seen. But on what basis do you not believe that that sort of support has actually got there? That's what I'm trying to understand.
Well, among other reasons, because that's what the Ukrainians say. And because that's the way government works, it's very easy for political leaders to make commitments. It's quite another thing to deliver them to the troops in the front lines. When somebody says we've delivered $3.2 billion, you yourself confess, you don't know where the resources that were to be purchased with that money, where they are.
Are they in Poland or are they in Ukraine? I suppose what I wanted to understand is, do you think at the moment that if that hasn't got there, if all that money and all that weaponry hasn't got there, what else do you think America should be doing? Well, I think the question of giving resources to Ukraine has to depend fundamentally on what the strategic objective is. And I don't think after having failed tragically, catastrophically, failed to deter the Russian invasion, it has not been at all clear what the American or NATO strategic objective is. I think it should have been for Ukraine to win the war. I think it was a mistake to believe, clearly, we made intelligence mistakes just as the Russians did about what the outcome and the opening weeks of the war would be.
But there has been really no replacement for a strategic objective we should be working toward. And I think without that, whatever the level of effort, it's not likely to be sufficient to achieve an outcome that will deter the Russians in the future and deter others because China in particular is watching what's happening in Ukraine very carefully and adjusting their policies along their periphery in the Indo-Pacific accordingly. So lack of strategic focus, lack of delivery on rhetoric, on the weapons front, and lack of delivery on the sanctions front too. Do you want boots on the ground? Do you want American boots in that? I think we've passed the point where that's possible.
So the question is, for example, when will Germany, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, cease their reliance on Russian oil and gas? Right now, people estimate the cost of the war to Russia is being exceeded by the cost of European payments to Russia in hard currency for the continued delivery of energy supplies. So that on net, Putin is still making a profit off this war. I don't consider that to be an example of allied unity. It's gone past the point of a military intervention, as you see it? Given that Joe Biden is President. I think this has been a failure of American leadership in many respects. What we've seen is a continual modification of the American position getting stronger and stronger.
Would you have supported boots on the ground at the beginning? I would've long before this, supported putting more Americans and NATO forces on the ground to train and assist Ukrainian forces so that Russian generals looking through their field glasses across the border would've seen a lot of American flags and wondered what it meant. Instead in early December, Biden, without anything in exchange from the Russians on his own, ruled out the use of American troops. He didn't have to do that. That was an unforced error. That allowed Putin to check that off his list. What Biden could have done instead, could have done two things.
One, he just could have remained silent, or he could have said that all options were on the table. And in both of these other options, it would've put the burden of ambiguity on Putin, left him something to worry about, added to the potential deterrence, but instead by taking it off the table, Biden took it out of the deterrence calculus. Even if you accept some of those missteps, regardless of where you are on the political divide, there are many who feel uncomfortable about boots on the ground because of the escalation that they fear with Russia. If your previous boss, President Trump, for whom you were National Security Advisor, of course, was in charge at the moment, where do you think we would be right now? I think the Russian forces would be in Kyiv by now, but saying Trump is deficient is an easy thing to do. I do it quite frequently.
The real problem is you've only got one President at a time. And we are in a situation now where we have the perception in Europe and in much of Congress that the leadership is weak, that it's being dragged along as events unfold rather than really trying to shape the overall environment. Had there been a more effective effort before those comments of Biden's in December, we might have been able to deter the invasion to begin with, that was the objective. And that failure is something we see now every day, but ironically, whereas NATO and the US failed to deter Putin, we're now being deterred by Putin.
And I think that, as you said, the fear of escalation works to Putin's advantage. And what that means in practice is that Ukraine is being ground into the dust. Can I just ask about something that's been said by a former National Security Council Official, Alexander Vindman. He said that the January 6th attack on the Capitol was a signal to Putin to start preparing to invade Ukraine. Do you buy that link? No, I don't because I don't think in Trump's mind, it was anything more complicated than trying to prevent the counting of the electoral college vote. And Trump was on his way out of office.
He went out of office, he was replaced by another President. Putin had met Biden before, he met him again in Europe last summer for three and a half hours, he took Biden's measure and then he prepared steps to go to war. So I think it was a calculation in Putin's mind, based on the President sitting in front of him. It's only because there is that concern about that potential link, so it's interesting to hear your take on it with regards to- Let me be clear, let me be clear. Trump's not smart enough to make that calculus. No, no, no, Putin is looking at it.
It's about Putin's perception, not what Trump did. Yeah but that's fine. But Putin was at that point, looking at a President with 14 days left in office. Do you think Ukraine will be victorious? Well, I hope so because I think peace and security in Europe, which should be of highest concern to Europeans in the first instance, will be badly damaged if Russia has military success here, I think that's still very much to be decided. I think their performance to date has been incredibly ineffective, but if at some point Putin with a straight face can declare a military victory, I think the architecture of Europe is now in question for a long time to come. And I think Putin made it very clear in 2005, what he wanted to do when he said the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
So I think what it says is to all the former constituent parts of the Soviet Union that you could be next. You actually met Putin, I understand. And I wonder how would you describe him? There are many words being used at the moment. Well, I think he's very coldblooded. I think he's calculating.
I think he knows what Russia's interests are and I think he's prepared to do almost anything. I don't buy the argument that Putin's got a screw loose. That's convenient, but we shouldn't personalize this war. It's not Putin's war alone, large numbers of Russians, not simply because of propaganda, but because of history, think of Ukraine and Belarus while we're on the subject, is part of the Rodinia, part of Mother Russia, and they want it back. It's not about, if I may, it's not about personalizing, it's about justice as well and who will be held to account and how this could play out or how people want it to play out. I mean, he's now been described as a war criminal by Joe Biden, of course, and others, there are now leaders calling for him to be in the Hague.
You were instrumental in the US's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. What is your response to that? That he should be in the Hague? Well, I don't think anybody should be in the Hague because I think the ICC is a fundamentally lawless and illegitimate institution. I think the remedy here is what Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators have already started to do, to prepare the basis for crimes committed against the Ukrainians over the course of this war.
I think that's the way to do it, but I think it's important for you to understand and others who think like you do, that these threats of war crimes prosecutions do not deter Putin in the slightest and you can talk about them. I'm sure it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. If possible. Could you stop personalizing this to me You have no idea what I think, it's not relevant, I'm quoting leaders. You're making a big mistake in your understanding of who the adversary is.
Please don't make a mistake of my personal views. I'm quoting world leaders. And when you say you need to understand because you think like you do, you have no idea how I think, 'cause it's not relevant to the interview.
What's relevant is... I think I get a pretty good sense of it, honestly. Well I like facts. So do I.
With your credibility as an advisor, former National Security Advisor, you've held many roles. You've also, of course, been an ambassador to the United Nations. How much has your credibility been hit by your decision to put your concerns about President Trump in a book rather than testify before Congress during his impeachment? Well, I decided that the appropriate thing to do when confronted with the impeachment investigation, which I thought was doomed to failure, was to make myself available on the same basis as every other witness who testified, pursuant to a subpoena. My deputy was subpoenaed. He tried to get an answer in litigation when he got an order from President Trump not to testify and the House of Representatives backed away.
I was never subpoenaed. I offered to testify to the Senate. They decided they didn't want evidence. I did the best I could under the circumstances. And I think the effort to produce the book to give the full story of what happened is the best thing to have done. And I did it based on my view of what the right approach was and answer to my own conscience.
Do you regret it? No, it was a difficult decision. It was a hard situation, but I thought about it as carefully as I could. I tried to do what I thought was right.
And I feel comfortable with the decision. It's just because you have alienated some in your own party, many in your own party, of course the other side were never probably the biggest fans, it's safe to say, party politics being what it is. And some on your own side, in the Republican side, that led to you being called the thing that I'm sure you would resist very hard, which is unpatriotic. Look, you can only say to thine own self be true. I did the best I could. So your version is you weren't asked, you weren't subpoenaed to testify and then you weren't asked, so you didn't testify so instead, you put it in a book.
Well, it's much more complicated. So if you want the full story, as I said, at the beginning, I saw this impeachment effort as basically doomed to failure and it did fail. Trump was acquitted. So my concern was that in the way the advocates of impeachment were proceeding, they were dooming themselves to an outcome where Trump would be acquitted. And so completely the opposite of their objective to punish Trump in the best outcome or at least to constrain and deter him, they achieved exactly the opposite. They emboldened him, they enabled him.
They allowed him to say, I got away with it once, maybe I can get away with it again. I thought the entire effort was doomed to failure. And I thought the best thing I could do in those circumstances when they were guilty of impeachment malpractice, as we can see in retrospect, to tell the story in its fullest detail. You could have done both.
And get it out there and allow people to read it. They can read the book and they can make up their own mind. Couldn't you have done both? I've been involved in American politics for a long time. In the entire history of the United States, there's only been one successful impeachment and it wasn't even through impeachment, but through the resignation of Richard Nixon. And the way that occurred was the growing feeling on a bipartisan basis, that Nixon had to go. The advocates of impeachment against Trump rejected the possibility of getting Republican sympathy.
They got a very limited number of votes, no possible way that they would get to two thirds of the votes in the Senate, the way they conducted the affair. And I do think that was entirely predictable, right from the get go. I think it's just people are very uncomfortable with the idea of somebody profiting from that sort of description as well. Well, look, there's a long history of American officials writing their memoirs. And many people have written their memoirs of the Trump administration, both those for Trump and those against Trump.
And that's a very, very common practice. It is, but there is a particular context which we've explored at length. Do you have guilt, having been President Trump's National Security Advisor? No, I don't have a sense of guilt.
I took the job with an effort to enhance American national security. I felt having heard everything there was to hear about Trump before I took the job, that nonetheless, like every other American President, that the gravity of the responsibility, the weight of the decisions he would have to make would discipline him, at least in the national security field. And it turned out I was wrong in that assessment, but the effort that I spent over 17 months, like many others in their own different positions, but those efforts were devoted to enhancing American national security as I saw it.
And I don't regret it for a minute. And yet all you have written about him, all you have said about him, even what you've said in this interview about where the Ukrainian war would be now with the Russians in Kiev, if he was in charge, you were part of that. You were aiding and abetting that administration that you so loathe. Was that your opinion by the way, or were you just reflecting other opinions when you said I was aiding and abetting Trump, just out of curiosity? Listen, let me explain.
Well, by dint of working for him. Yeah, that's right. You aid and abet your boss, don't you? The conclusion of your argument is that nobody with any responsibility should have worked for Trump. And I reject that. I think I'm not speaking for myself alone because there were hundreds of people who joined the Trump administration to do the right thing for the country. And I think many of them were cruelly disappointed at the behavior of the President, but that should not sully the efforts that all of those people made on behalf of public service for the United States.
And for the party, the Republican party, I presume from your perspective, you care deeply about that. Yes, that's part of politics, you're right. That's part of politics, isn't it? Is there any country in the world, any democratic society in the world that you're aware of that doesn't have party politics? I'd like to hear it if that's your view. That wasn't an attack, it was a statement, that is part of it.
You do it because you also love your political party. It's a statement. For philosophy, that's correct. That's exactly right. And what I was gonna come onto with that is, are you now politically homeless? No, I don't think I'm homeless at all.
I have a PAC, a Super PAC, a foundation, I'm actively involved in trying to help candidates get elected who believe in a strong US foreign policy. I think the influence of Trump within the party is declining significantly. I expect it to continue to decline and I expect by a return, certainly in the national security field, to a Reaganite foreign policy will be a great success philosophically and for the country. Do you think though, he will run again, of course, 70 million plus votes, huge donations, some have a very opposite view of you, of his influence? Well, a lot of people have a lot of views.
I personally don't think Trump will run. I think he knows that he lost in 2020. He won't say it publicly, but I think he knows that he lost.
And I think he fears losing in 2024. And one of the worst things in Trump's view is to be called a loser. So I think he will talk incessantly about running up until the last minute and then he will announce he's not.
And he'll try and be a king maker in the Republican party nomination fight for 2024. And from your perspective, who is the bright star in the Republican party? Who should that go to? Well, I don't have a preferred candidate yet. I think there's gonna be a very large number of people contesting for the nomination and I'll watch it as it unfolds. Okay, I didn't know if you had any early people you'd spotted that you wanted to flag at this point, because I suppose from what you are saying is you see Trump as an anomaly within the Republican party, it can recover and go forward in a way that you feel you can support it.
Of course, Trump is an aberration, to use a Star Wars metaphor, he's a disturbance in the force. This is not anything like a permanent change. Well, finally, would you still get into politics if you had your time again? A lot of people look at it today and they're not always sure it's the best career. They're not always sure it's the best move for them. And certainly because of social media, a lot of things have got a lot more toxic, I'm sure you've noticed.
No, I would still do the same thing. I think the most important thing that any American can do really is continue to protect the security of the country, which remains in my view, the last best hope of mankind. John Bolton, thank you very much for talking to me.
It was a pleasure. And thank you so much for being with us. Until we meet again, take care and goodbye.