Herbert Raymond McMaster, 59, enjoyed a long career in the United States military. At the time the Iron Curtain fell in Europe, McMaster was stationed in Bavaria. He served in the second Gulf War and in Afghanistan and Iraq. In February 2017, Donald Trump appointed the three-star general as his national security adviser. Once in the White House, McMaster quickly came into conflict with the president. When McMaster declared it was "undeniable" that the Kremlin had interfered with the 2016 presidential election, it didn’t take long before he was out of a job. Today, McMaster is a researcher at Stanford University. In his book "Battlegrounds," he describes the United States’ decline as a leading power.
DER SPIEGEL: General McMaster, the war in Ukraine has already claimed thousands of lives, and there is still no end in sight. Do you see a danger of the conflict escalating beyond Ukraine’s borders?
McMaster: It has already escalated beyond the borders, obviously, in connection with the refugee crisis in Western Europe. There are chances it could escalate. You see that Russia is already treating the Black Sea like a Russian lake. That’s a dangerous situation. The question is: To what degree is NATO, the European Union and the rest of the world willing to just watch the slaughter of the Ukrainians? The estimates are that if Russia continues this indiscriminate bombardment of cities, there could be a million Ukrainian deaths and 10 million refugees.
DER SPIEGEL: What could the West do beyond what it is already doing?
McMaster: We should do more to support he Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves with a range of capabilities that extend beyond those we have provided so far. If you look at the two key battlefields now of Kyiv and Odessa, we should obviously be providing any means we can to prevent the Russians from occupying these position areas, as they’re called, for artillery and rockets and then using these areas to bombard cities. That could be armed unmanned aerial systems, medium-range air defense systems designed not only to intercept Russian aircraft, but also missiles. The French/Italian Aster 30 SAMP/T model would be well suited for this purpose. In the case of Odessa, shore-to-ship missile defenses.
DER SPIEGEL: Was it a mistake for the U.S. government to block the delivery of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine?
McMaster: Why don’t we just stop talking about what we’re not going to do and just try to create more dilemmas and difficulties for Putin? When we provide these capabilities to Ukraine, they need to be in a framework that everybody understands. I see four. Objective one is to ensure that Putin fails in Ukraine. The second is to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that is ongoing and expanding in Ukraine. The third objective is to prevent the escalation of the war. The fourth is to shift the balance of the world away from the two revisionist dictatorships on the Eurasian landmass, China and Russia, back toward the free world. Of course, these objectives will often be in tension with one another.
DER SPIEGEL: Many say that further military involvement by the West could contribute to the Ukraine conflict turning into World War III.
McMaster: The Third World War language is not helpful. It reinforces Putin’s effort to intimidate and to be able to escalate the war on his own with no consequences. We have to let Putin know that his rattling of his nuclear saber is not going to intimidate NATO and the West.
DER SPIEGEL: The assumption in the West has always been that Putin is a nefarious but rational actor. Is that true?
McMaster: Putin is rational, but he is also obsessed. He’s obsessed with restoring Russia to national greatness. And his pattern of behavior has been pretty consistent. Even before he took power in 2000, he presided over the reduction of Grozny to rubble and the deaths of 80,000 civilians in the Chechen war. He helped Syrian leader Bashar Assad commit serial episodes of mass homicide. What he is doing to Kharkiv and Mariupol is Aleppo-izing them. It is very important to recognize that Putin carried out cyberattacks and had journalists and opposition members murdered because he thought he could get away with it. If you look at the sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, you have say: They were anemic.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for the future?
McMaster: Putin has felt up to this point that the consequences would be relatively easy to bear. I think that has turned out not to be the case. This time, there has been a very strong and unified voice. I think we are on a course to reestablish deterrence. When I look at Putin and his best friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, I think that we could be on the cusp, if we remain resolute, to win Cold War 2. I think that Putin is in a very weak and perilous position. And I think we need to hang the lodestone of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine around Xi Jinping’s neck.
DER SPIEGEL: What are Putin’s goals in Ukraine? Does he want to overthrow the government in Kyiv or just seize parts of the country?
McMaster: It’s pretty clear from the intelligence that has been released that Putin thought he could take over all of Ukraine. But I think all the assumptions on which he has based this operation have proven to be false. I think he believed his own propaganda. He underestimated not only the will of the Ukrainian people, but also the leadership in Ukraine. He looked at Volodymyr Zelenskyy and he saw an actor, a comedian, a ballroom dancer, who would be no match for the bare-chested man on horseback. His other assumption was that he would get disunity in Ukraine among Russian speakers and disunity because he could call this the "de-Nazification" of Ukraine. But maybe he should have paid attention to the fact that the president of Ukraine was a Russian speaker. Putin has always been described as the best chess player, but Putin has proven to be strategically incompetent.
Russian President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a video meeting: "It’s quite clear that China was completely aware of what Russia’s designs were."Foto: Mikhail Metzel / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO
DER SPIEGEL: Have you been surprised by the weakness the Russian military has shown?
McMaster: I was not surprised. The reason is that you have had a corrupt regime in Russia since 2000. To think that wouldn’t affect the military is illogical. There is a lack of professional leadership and a strong chain of command where leaders eagerly seek responsibility and are trusted with relative autonomy to make decisions in combat. What we are seeing is a force that is not trained to deal with difficult situations. If the reports are accurate, it seems as if many Russian soldiers don’t believe in the mission. And they don’t believe in the government that sent them there to fight and to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice for a mission that they don’t believe in. There’s an old saying that soldiers don’t fight because of what’s in front of them, they fight because what is behind them. And that is coming true now. But that doesn’t mean that the Russians can’t inflict a great deal of damage on Ukraine. It is to be feared that they will compensate for their ineptitude with indiscriminate firepower directed against civilian populations.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Putin has no choice but to further escalate the war?
McMaster: He does have the option to withdraw. But of course he’s unlikely to do that, because I’m sure he equates failure in Ukraine with the end of his 20-year rule in Russia. And there’s more than that. Putin has looted the state. He’s rumored to be the richest man in the world. But he can only access that wealth if he’s in power. I think it is unlikely he will do that, but he may be forced to do it. War is fundamentally a question of wills. I think the Ukrainians, over time, at continued high cost to them, sadly, will be able to convince the Russians that they cannot accomplish their objective of bringing Ukraine permanently under their control.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it possible to negotiate peace with Putin?
McMaster: It depends on how much pain Russia is feeling. We need to convince Russia that it cannot accomplish its objectives through coercion or the use of force. That why it is so important to provide Ukraine with the capabilities essential for them to defend Kyiv and Odessa.
DER SPIEGEL: Does that also mean establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine?
McMaster: There are a number of ways to prevent Russian forces from bombing population centers with impunity. A no-fly zone is a way that should not be taken off the table.
DER SPIEGEL: Is there a way back to the international community for Putin?
McMaster: I think it is very hard to imagine after what Vladimir Putin has done, for him to appear in Brussels or Washington as the leader of Russia. What is appropriate at this stage is to take all the further action that is available to us, despite the negative consequences for the EU, the UK, the United States and the free world, to weaken the Putin regime. That means, for example, going without Russian gas. We should also designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, because terrorism is defined as the use of violence against civilians or innocents for political purposes. This is exactly what he’s doing. Russia should also be completely excluded from the international banking system. We also need to make China understand that they will incur secondary sanctions every time they aid and abet Russia financially.
DER SPIEGEL: Is China on Putin’s side?
McMaster: Absolutely, yes. There’s no doubt about it. Just look at the joint statement issued just before the Olympics. You don’t even have to read between the lines when they say their partnership will know no limits. It’s quite clear that China was completely aware of what Russia’s designs were. They probably bought Putin’s prediction that this would all go very quickly and that it was meant to usher in the new era of autocracy. Of course, I think quite the opposite is happening. The task now is to learn the lessons from the crisis. For the EU states and the U.S., this means they must not become as dependent on Chinese supply chains, such as batteries, as they are on Russian hydrocarbons.
DER SPIEGEL: During his presidency, Donald Trump seriously toyed with the idea of withdrawing from NATO. Should the Europeans use the Ukraine war as an opportunity to forge their own defense alliance?
McMaster: No. The U.S. has demonstrated in recent weeks that it is firmly committed to NATO. Ultimately, Trump was primarily concerned with better burden sharing – by having countries like Germany also spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, for example. And that is exactly what is happening now. That will also make the West’s deterrence against Putin more credible.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump has called Putin a "genius." Is it a positive flip side of this war that some Republicans are breaking away from Trump?
McMaster: This means that more and more American people are understanding that our security is inextricably connected to the security of our partners across the free world, particularly in NATO and, of course, Ukraine. We have lived through a series of traumas since 2000 – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The resilience of democracies, unlike autocracies, is that they have the ability to self-correct.