Leon Panetta Interview 'You Have To Deal with Russians from Strength'

In a SPIEGEL interview, former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls for more decisive action against Moscow, including weapons deliveries to Kiev, to show Russia it will have a "higher price to pay" for its actions in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her meeting with US President Barack Obama on Feb. 9: "Merkel has provided strong leadership in Europe."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her meeting with US President Barack Obama on Feb. 9: "Merkel has provided strong leadership in Europe."

Foto: DPA/ Bundesregierung

SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary, how close are we to a real war in the middle of Europe?

Panetta: It really depends on whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to recognize the dangers that he has embarked upon with the aggression in Ukraine and whether or not he's willing to accept some kind of bona fide cease-fire. It really rests in his hands as to whether or not we will have peace or war.

SPIEGEL: How reliable is the cease-fire agreement that was reached on Thursday? Will it stop Putin?

Panetta: I am glad that it appears the parties have arrived at another cease-fire agreement. But my fear is that, like the last one, it will only be temporary unless the West is willing to enforce it with both economic and military support to the Ukranians.

SPIEGEL: Many people have tried to decipher Putin's mindset. You dealt with Russia while you were at the CIA. How does he tick? What's driving him?

Panetta: It's pretty obvious that his intent is to try to spread Russian influence, particularly over the former Soviet Union. He is clearly trying to prevent the countries of the former Soviet Union from joining NATO and working with the European Union. There was a time when it was possible to negotiate with him and to try to resolve some of the important issues that we were dealing with. We actually were working with Russia on some important international conflicts and crises. But he has now turned more aggressive, and that's very dangerous because what he's doing is clearly planting the seeds of a new Cold War. Therefore, it's incumbent on the United States and the West to understand what his intentions are and to do everything possible to try to make clear to him that he is not going to get a blank check in terms of what he decides to do. The one thing that I remember from all of my intelligence briefings and my dealings with the Russians is that when you deal with the Russians, you have to deal with them from strength, not from weakness. They understand strength, and if they feel that their opponents are weak, they will take advantage of it.

SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that Putin is currently playing around with the West?

Panetta: That's my impression. My impression is that he feels that he can basically manipulate the West to do what he ultimately wants to achieve, and that he feels he's gotten away with it so far, and that all he has to do is basically play the same game. It's a cat and mouse game of sorts. Clearly, Russia has lied to the world about what's going on in Ukraine. They have clearly violated the cease-fire agreements that have been made and so the real issue is going to be whether or not he will really agree to an enforceable cease-fire or whether he will play the same game again.

SPIEGEL: Should arms be delivered to Ukraine?

Panetta: I would have recommended from the very beginning that we should have taken several steps to try to make clear to Putin how serious we considered their aggression in Ukraine, clearly beginning with sanctions, but I would have taken several other steps as well. It's also very important to make clear that NATO will be fully supported with military aid, whatever support they need, and that they should have a presence in those countries neighboring Russia to make very clear that NATO will draw up a line together on any further aggression. That needs to continue to be made clear. I would continue to have exercises, both with US forces as well as NATO forces, to make that clear. Thirdly, I would probably put missile defense back on the table. They don't like missile defense. Also, I would have provided arms to Ukraine early on because I think they need to have the military aid necessary to send Russia a message. I know everybody says, "Even military aid is not going to defeat the Russians." But it's clear that military aid will make clear to them that they will have a higher price to pay. The last thing I think I would do is to have the United States provide energy to the countries surrounding Russia and subsidize it. We are now a country that is producing a great deal of energy.

SPIEGEL: To countries like Germany?

Panetta: Like Germany. Like Germany, like Poland, like Hungary, like all of the countries that depend on Russian fuel, so that they have other alternatives. It would make very clear to the Russians that they are not going to be able to use that as blackmail against other countries in the future. So those are a series of steps that I think should have frankly been taken in order to send a very clear signal to Putin that there is a big price to be paid for further aggression.

SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a majority of the people in Germany are strongly against delivering arms to Ukraine. Are the Germans too naïve in their dealings with Putin?

Panetta: I wouldn't say that about Chancellor Merkel because I think she's provided strong leadership in Europe. I appreciate the diplomatic steps she is taking. But I also think it's important for her to recognize that if she gets nowhere with her diplomatic efforts then there really is no other alternative but to take stronger steps.

SPIEGEL: Soft power is not going to work?

Panetta: Soft power hasn't worked so far, and I think when you are dealing with somebody like Putin, the only thing he understands is hard power.

SPIEGEL: If you look at this period of time after the end of the Cold War, are there any mistakes that the West has to blame itself for in dealing with Russia, in dealing with Putin?

Panetta: Where we missed the opportunity was to continue to have an ongoing dialogue with them on a number of diplomatic and military issues. Our greatest faults are that we respond to crisis as opposed to taking steps to ultimately avoid crisis. So when crisis happens, that's usually the moment we turn to the Russians, to try to deal with the crisis, rather than kind of having an ongoing dialogue on the real issues that we have to deal with and be concerned about. We are responding to the Islamic State (IS) now. We are responding to other crises. It is really important to try to maintain that kind of continuing communication on issues. What happened in the Russian situation is that we were maintaining a dialogue with Medvedev. We made some progress with him, but when Putin came back in, it's almost as if a curtain of ice came down, and suddenly, we didn't have the kind of communication that we had in the past. And now we're paying a price for that.

SPIEGEL: Part of the current conflict goes back to NATO's eastern expansion. Putin always made clear that he felt threatened by that. Do you understand his perspective?

Panetta: Yes I do. I understood their concerns, and we should have kind of leaned more towards bringing them into the family of nations as opposed to keeping them isolated and feeling like we were ganging up on them because that's the Russian mentality, that everybody is ganging up on them.

SPIEGEL: Whose fault was it that Russian concerns obviously hadn't been taken seriously enough?

Panetta: There are a lot of dangerous threats in the world we're dealing with today. It's not just terrorism. It is North Korea. It's how do we confront Iran. It's how do we deal with the issues of China, how do we deal with the concerns raised by Russia, how do we deal with a Middle East that is collapsing in terms of virtually failed states, no matter where you look. Those are all what I would call "flash points." A hundred years ago, there were a lot of flash points in the world, and the world thought it could take care of these problems. But those flash points ultimately led to World War I. Today, we are trying kind of piecemeal to deal with each of these issues, and we are not standing back and looking at the bigger picture of what can happen here. This is a troubled world. And the United States has to be a leader in the world, because the problem is: If we are not leading, nobody else will.

SPIEGEL: In your book, you criticized Barack Obama by saying: "Too often, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." Is that what you are referring to when talking about leadership?

Panetta: Obama really does recognize the threats that are out there; I think he understands the world. He understands the role of America in that troubled world. His hope was that, ultimately, as we would be able to back out of the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, we could begin to refocus our concerns on the problems in this country; unfortunately, the world didn't give him that opportunity. Today, he knows that he has to confront the threats that are there, and he's learned how important it is to make sure that the United States provides that leadership.

SPIEGEL: But do you believe that a person like Vladimir Putin is impressed by the logic of a law professor?

Panetta: Putin senses that, because of the problems in Europe, because of the problems in the United States, the inability of the president and the Congress to resolve the issues that are confronting this country, that this is a moment in time when other countries are too concerned about things in their backyard to be worried about what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

SPIEGEL: Maybe it's time to acknowledge that the US can't solve the problem in Ukraine with an adversary like Russia. Maybe this crisis shows America's limitations.

Panetta: Excuse me, but we can't live on the basis of that kind of fiction because the reality is that if we stand back and simply allow Russia to do what it's going to do in Ukraine, that will send a clear message to Putin that Ukraine is just the first step. At some point, we are going to have to draw a line. Based on all kinds of historical lessons, it's better to draw that line earlier rather than later.

SPIEGEL: Has President Obama been too idealistic in his approach in dealing with threats like IS or Putin?

Panetta: No. He has taken strong action against IS and al-Qaida. I think that he's cautious, and I understand that. Caution is an important quality in a leader, but it has to be caution followed by decision. Caution followed by ambivalence can be a weakness. What I am hoping is that, ultimately, the caution that's being shown here will be followed by a strong decision to do what's right.

SPIEGEL: There was a similar situation in August 2013 with regards to Syria and chemical weapons. Obama made a lonely decision against air strikes. Did this decision damage America's credibility?

Panetta: I believe it was a mistake, but presidents learn from those mistakes and I think this president has. Today, the president is arming the rebels in Syria. We have conducted over 5,000 air strikes, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we also have a military presence in Iraq to help train the Iraqis.

SPIEGEL: Looking back at the Syria decision, why were you and the others who tried to convince him unable to do so?

Panetta: His main concern was whether or not the weapons that we would provide the opposition might wind up in the wrong hands. To be frank, it was very difficult to provide assurances that that might not happen, although I think it was a risk worth taking.

SPIEGEL: What needs to be done now to defeat Islamic State?

Panetta: The terrorism from 9/11 has metastasized. It's metastasized in Iraq and Syria, in Nigeria, in Somalia, in Yemen and in other places in North Africa. We need a very comprehensive strategy to deal with that threat. Number one, we need to improve our intelligence. Number two, we need to conduct strong counterterrorism operations to go after them. The combination of special forces and intelligence is a very effective weapon to use against terrorism.

SPIEGEL: You are speaking about killing suspects.

Panetta: Yes, we're targeting their leaders and making sure that we continue to decimate their ability to command and control. Thirdly, I think we have to build up the capabilities of the other countries involved like Iraq. We need to back up Jordan as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. We need to have other countries in Europe participate in this effort. What happened in Paris and in Belgium makes very clear that this is not just a threat against the United States. It's a threat against the West. Lastly, in the long run, we need to deal with the causes of what produces this kind of extremism. Frankly, the United States doesn't have a lot of credibility in terms of telling people in the Muslim world what the Koran is really about. We've got to urge people in the Middle East, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and elsewhere.

SPIEGEL: Excuse us, but gathering more intelligence and conducting more counterterrorism strikes has already been going on for the last 10 years.

Panetta: This is a multi-front war. You can't ignore the threat that's there and we can't just sit back and cross our fingers. We have to protect ourselves. Other countries have to protect themselves from that kind of threat. Clearly, there is a military element to this in terms of confronting terrorism, but at the same time, we can't do it alone. We've got to make sure other countries are part of that effort. And then, lastly, we also have to deal with the chaos. In many ways, the Arab Spring has blown apart in terms of what's happening in the Middle East now. Look at Libya. Look at Tunisia. Look at what's happening in Egypt, which has struggled to come back. Look at what is happening in Yemen. You have this series of failed states there. Part of the strategy has to involve an element that says what steps we need to take to try to promote stability in those countries so that people feel that their lives can be worthwhile.

SPIEGEL: Would you agree that Guantanamo and the drone attacks have helped recruit a new generation of militant Islamists?

Panetta: No. I understand that Guantanamo, the so-called "enhanced torture techniques" or enhanced interrogation techniques ...

SPIEGEL: ... feel free to call it "enhanced torture".

Panetta: That would be, perhaps, a better word. Obviously, some of the strikes that we've had to conduct and going to war in Iraq and in Afghanistan clearly provided some inspiration to them to continue their recruiting, I understand that. But what's the bottom line here? Our first responsibility is to keep this country safe and that means that we have to do whatever is necessary to try to make sure that we protect our country. God forbid, if there were another 9/11 or if there were another terrorist attack, the first question that would be asked is, "Why didn't you take steps to prevent that from happening?" At the same time, I recognize that in dealing with the threats that are out there, it isn't enough just to try to do this with bombs and weapons.

SPIEGEL: But wouldn't it be consistent then to invade Syria with American boots on the ground to defeat IS?

Panetta: We know pretty much what we have to do in Iraq to deal with IS, and that is to try to develop the Iraqi forces to have the capability to push IS. Together with the Kurds, we can get that done. Syria is a bigger question mark. It's much more difficult. One of the recommendations that I don't think we've explored enough is how can we develop a better bond with Turkey in the effort to go after IS. What Turkey is after is our commitment to bring down Assad, and we ought to be able to negotiate with the Turks. If we can get Turkey to play a larger role, that could be very helpful.

SPIEGEL: Bringing Assad down is clearly not in the focus of the American strategy right now.

Panetta: Yeah, but this is not going to work until, ultimately, Assad comes down as well. We may be focused on IS right now, but there's no question in my mind that if we're ever going to get a peaceful solution in Syria, Assad has to come down as well.

SPIEGEL: Through American hands?

Panetta: Through the hands of all of those who are involved in dealing with Syria, which means other countries as well.

SPIEGEL: We need to ask you something as the former head of the CIA. Was it really necessary for the CIA to acquire a mole  within the Bundesnachrichtendiesnt (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency?

Panetta: I don't know any of the history and I certainly wasn't aware of that as director of the CIA, but my relationship with German intelligence was very good in the sense that we worked very closely together. What needs to be done is to make sure that both countries are working much, much more closely together to develop the parameters of this relationship, to make sure that neither is engaged in the kind of activities that would embarrass one country or the other. When it comes to our friends, we ought to be working together, not against each other.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand the harsh German reaction?

Panetta: Sure. If we found a German spy in the CIA, we would have the same reaction.

SPIEGEL: Secretary Panetta, we thank you for this interview.

About Leon Panetta
Foto: Winni Wintermeyer / DER SPIEGEL

Leon Panetta, 76, served under former US President Bill Clinton as White House chief of staff. He later served as defense secretary and the head of the CIA under President Barack Obama. He retired during the spring of 2013 and Penguin Press published his memoir, "Worthy Fights," in October 2014.

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