The man in Blinken's ear: State's Derek Chollet on Ukraine



Today, Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza sits down with Chollet, who’s currently the Counselor of the Department of State, to dig into Foggy Bottom’s approach to helping Ukraine and handling Putin.

Transcribed excerpts from that conversation are below, edited for length and readability.

Ryan Lizza: There’s a famous memo that Mondale wrote about the vice presidency. I know Biden and Ron Klain, who’s a student of the vice presidency, often talk about this. Anyone who’s going to be vice president references back to the Mondale memo. Because Mondale’s advice for any incoming vice president was, “You don’t want to run anything. You just want to be an adviser to the president.” You want to be the last person in the room. You don’t want to be bogged down with bureaucratic bullshit of running White House you know… That’s what’s unique about your position.

As we get into the weeds on the Ukraine crisis, I wonder if one way to help us understand the perspective of you and Blinken is to take us through some of the major decisions that this administration has had to make since the start of the crisis. Maybe just start with saying what is the start of the crisis from your perspective. Is it when the first troops started going toward that border? Don’t take us back 100 years.

Counselor Derek Chollet: I vividly recall having a conversation with a colleague in October of last year that this could be a presidency-defining moment.

Lizza: October of 2021?

Chollet: October of 2021. That’s when we first started seeing indications of what the Russians were up to. And early on, none of this was public obviously and it wasn’t yet getting picked up by commercial imagery to see Russian troop deployments. We were picking up through intelligence —

Lizza: You guys weren’t talking about it at all?

Chollet: We weren’t talking about that yet at all. We started to talk about it in the end of October. In fact, it was at the G-20 Summit in Italy where Biden did a short meeting with the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of the U.K., the President of France, and it might have been the Italian Prime Minister. They talked about a variety of things but of them was these indications that we were starting to see.

So we were watching it then. Of course, there were all kinds of warning signs. Nothing was foreordained. So this got our attention and we started to watch it build. Starting at the end of October, we started to talk to allies and partners about what we were seeing and progressively share more and more information. It was then in mid-November. I remember this because I was in Brussels in mid-November after meetings in Bosnia and coincidentally that day, Avril Haines was briefing the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, on the intelligence. This is a long way of saying we understood early on that if what we were seeing turned out to be true, this would be a game changer.

Of course, we also understood that we needed to do everything we could to prevent that from happening. Part of the diplomatic effort and the time we were given by having this early heads-up, and as we watched the evidence continue to build of what Russia was doing, we used that time to try to find a diplomatic off ramp.

Blinken worked tirelessly with allies to try to engage the Russians in some meaningful way and really make it clear that we were trying our best to find some diplomatic way out and test whether the Russians were actually interested in any diplomacy. It turns out they weren’t. We had low expectations, whether they were, but we felt like we needed to get caught trying. Then in parallel, to make clear, that the consequences would be swift and severe if Russia were to act, and so to use that time to build up the coalition to impose sanctions if Russia were to act, to further their isolation. All of the things you’ve seen play out over the past several weeks were things that were put into train from November, December, January.

Lizza: When did you decide to go very public with the intelligence? A lot of the story of this conflict from the American side is very quick declassification of very sensitive stuff. Putting it out in the public domain. Can you take us through that process a little bit or the sort of strategic thinking behind it?

Chollet: There were a couple of purposes for it. First, all credit really needs to go to Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, Bill Burns, the Director of CIA, who really pushed their buildings to do things that are uncomfortable for them. It’s no secret, no pun intended, why intelligence agencies aren’t necessarily enthusiasts of making this public in this way. You have to be very careful about even what you do make public.

Lizza: Because any time you’re disclosing intelligence…

Chollet: There’s always a risk that you’re disclosing how that intelligence is gathered, right? I think there were a couple goals here. One was to clearly try to prepare the American people, our allies, the world for what was happening and to explain what we were seeing happening. Because the other interesting piece of this is some of this was in plain sight. I mean, you had commercial satellites releasing images of Russian troop deployments around Ukraine or inside Belarus. So to explain what we were seeing because of course the Russians were out there saying, “Well, this is all just an exercise and we have no intention of doing anything. This is all just made up.” I mean, really up until the day they invaded, they were saying that our claims were bogus, which obviously events have proven them to be very true. The other piece of it was to try to slow them down, to buy time, to get in their head a little bit.

Lizza: How so?

Chollet: Well, to the extent that when you can expose some of their playbook, it makes it harder for them to execute their playbook. And also it conditions everyone to understand what’s happening given that we know Russia’s playbook — it’s a well-established playbook and it goes back to Soviet times — is to create false flags, to create pretext that then they use as a justification for their actions.

Blinken gave a speech to the U.N. Security Council in February prior to the Russian invasion. It was something that we had decided to do, he had decided to do, the evening before, to deliver a speech in which he laid out in great detail the scenario in which we would expect to see Russia create a pretext for a possible invasion. If you go back and look at that speech and read it today, you see that it played out almost to the syllable in terms of what Russia did. Everything from a claim of some event inside Ukraine to a staged security council meeting of the Russian senior — we saw that play out on TV. So that was an attempt both to show them we were onto them but it was a way to try to condition everyone to what was coming. Now, the venue for that speech was not lost on us.

Lizza: For his speech.

Chollet: For Blinken’s speech. The historic horseshoe of the U.N. Security Council where we’re talking about sensitive intelligence about a possible military conflict. The venue was not lost on us, given another Secretary of State who had spoken there in 2003 in a very different context.

Lizza: You’re talking about…

Chollet: Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N.

Lizza: …speech before the war.

Chollet: Before the war in Iraq.

Lizza: Where he held up the vial.

Chollet: The famous speech. Blinken referenced that speech bleakly. He said…

Lizza: That wasn’t Powell’s greatest moment.

Chollet: He didn’t say that. I think objectively that’s probably true. But what he said is, “I know you, the world, have heard from other Secretaries of State in this historic room talking about intelligence.” He said some version of, “I want to be wrong.” This is something where the consequences would be so profound, we would be happy to be wrong.

I remember talking to a colleague from Europe in the lead up to the invasion and this person had texted me to say they were worried of the consequences to American credibility and leadership if we were wrong about all of this. Again, remember, even up until the bombs started dropping, people were thinking, “This can’t be true. Putin’s not going to do this.” And believe me, sometimes I was looking at the intelligence and thinking to myself, “This can’t be true. This seems so…crazy.” But nevertheless, we were reading what we were reading here. But this person said, “I would be really worried about the blow to U.S. credibility if you’re wrong.” And I said, “Look”—

Lizza: If he what? If he doesn’t go in?

Chollet: If he doesn’t go in, or if he goes in and it’s sort of a really small effort or something like that. I responded to this person saying, “You know, I would accept that cost, that our credibility would take a hit if we turn out to be wrong. I don’t think we’re wrong. I’m 99 percent sure we’re right.”

But then when the invasion unfortunately happened the way we were thinking it would, I thought the reverse of that, which is, given all the United States has been through over last the several decades, unfortunately these terrible events have enhanced our leadership position because there’s a lot of partners around the world who said, “Hey, we were listening to everything you said. We took you on your word this was happening but we still didn’t really believe it. Now it’s not only happened but it’s happened exactly the way you said.” And it’s a huge intelligence triumph. I can’t think of a parallel in American history where the intelligence community got it so right.

Lizza: I was going to ask you about that. There was a sort of “boy who cried wolf” quality to the way not the rest of the world, but that some parts of the world were viewing this. I remember watching this as an outsider wondering “Was this a strategic thing? They surely believe what the satellite imagery shows.” But why was there so much skepticism and surprise, even in Ukraine?

Some of the reports from southern and eastern Ukraine are of — and I don’t know if it’s just because they’re watching more Russian media — people who really didn’t know that this was coming. You see some of the reports from the cities, people fleeing. I’ve heard some people say, “Well, for all the praise that Zelenskyy gets, [there’s] some criticism that he should have prepared Ukrainians more for this.” But it wasn’t just Ukraine. Germany seemed skeptical. Can you talk a little bit about that skepticism and what explains it?

Chollet: I think there’s several explanations for it. Obviously, not everyone had the full benefit of the information we had. We were sharing a lot, perhaps more than ever before, but we weren’t sharing everything. And even for those of us who were able to see everything in terms of our intelligence, there was still something unbelievable about all this. Because the thought, you know, why would a country launch an unproved premeditated attack in this way that is going to have clear massive consequences, not just for Ukraine but for Russia and destabilize the world.

I get it. I get why people had a hard time sort of seeing. I mean, I think there were a lot of Russians who were really surprised by this, including Russian government officials who didn’t think that this was going to unfold the way it did. I think part of it is not having the benefit of full information. Part of it is just the difficulty to imagine something like this happening. I mean, the fact that we are now living through what is the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Second World War, the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. There’s a lot of us who don’t have that direct memory. Even if you think back to what we’ve lived through just in the last few years in terms of a one-in-a-century pandemic, an attack on the Capitol unlike any we’d seen since 1812. These things can happen. Now a war in Europe, that we haven’t seen the likes of which since the Second World War.

Lizza: Yeah. Every crazy thing has happened in the world so there’s no reason to think that — you know, we’re not immune to history.

Chollet: Right.

Lizza: We were talking about our kids before. I was having this conversation with my kids who are 15 and 13 and really trying to explain what’s going on. And the 13-year-old said something like, “Well, Dad, how come I never experience this kind of thing here? How come this doesn’t affect me?” He was really having trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that far away, bad things happen. But his life — comfortable D.C. existence, absent his drum teacher who stormed the Capitol — [this] doesn’t affect him.

Chollet: Yeah. But I think what’s interesting about this—

Lizza: You probably have this conversation with your kids, too.

Chollet: Sure, yeah.

Lizza: Because you’re in the business of trying to make bad situations better.

Chollet: Yeah. Look, I think one of the things that shocked the world is, this was not in my view an accurate perception, but there was a perception that Europe was kind of fixed. Europe had had a terrible history in the 19th and 20th century, tremendous blood shed, but it was more or less at peace. Okay, yes, you had the Balkans. Yes, you certainly had Russia’s incursion, initial invasion in Ukraine eight years ago. There were pockets of instability, but in general Europe was fixed and the challenges were elsewhere. Post 9/11, it was the Middle East, it was Afghanistan. Certainly in the last several years, it’s been a lot of focus on Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific, which I think is correct strategically. But the sense that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen in Europe anymore. So I think that’s part of what’s shaken everyone.

Also, it’s a reminder of how interconnected we are because there’s not a corner of the world that is not affected by this, whether it’s measured by energy prices or a food security crisis that is likely coming because of the number of countries around the world from Europe to Africa to Latin America who rely a great deal on exports from Russia or Ukraine in terms of wheat and grain.

Lizza: Help us think through what the most difficult decisions the administration has faced so far on this. What’s been the hardest call you think the president’s had to make with the help of folks like you and the Secretary?

Chollet: It’s sort of where to start when you think about hard calls. But I think the toughest line to navigate here, the president’s been very clear that the U.S. is not going to be militarily involved in Ukraine — directly. The escalation threat and danger is real. At the same time, we want to do everything we can to support Ukraine, in terms of humanitarian assistance, economic assistance, political support, as well as military support. The United States and our partners are providing a tremendous amount of military support to the Ukrainians.

Again, trying to think of historical parallels, I cannot think of a parallel where we have provided so much assistance in such a short period of time in a conflict in which we are not a combatant. Last week alone, the president allocated a billion dollars — just in one week — for security assistance. And that’s on top of a billion dollars in the previous year. So a couple billion dollars of security assistance and that’s anti-armor, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, ammunition. Again, that’s not just the United States. It’s us with other partners adding into what we’re providing.

Lizza: So that balance drives every decision basically? How do you help the Ukrainians without starting a war with Russia?

Chollet: Maintaining the escalation dynamic, right. You don’t want to widen the war. That’s a fundamental kind of balance point that we’re all trying to navigate.

Lizza: One thing we were talking about before we came over here as a discussion point is, watching from the outside, the drama that played out with the MiGs and that whole strange process versus what’s been announced more recently with the S-300s that Slovakia is going to be back-filled. Now Slovakia is going to send these anti-aircraft weapons.

Chollet: Which are Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons, which the Ukrainians can operate.

Lizza: And we’re okay with that. In a balance, the escalatory…what was the phrase you used?

Chollet: Escalatory ladder.

Lizza: Right. We are okay with that and these are systems that can take out Russian planes at high altitudes or force them to fly lower so that they can take them out with the shoulder-mounted rockets.

We’re okay with that. But the MiG deal, for whatever reason, we were not okay with, but which would have accomplished the same thing: a plane taking out a Russian plane. I guess what I’m trying to get at is, none of these are clear-cut easy cases for you guys, but can you tell us a little bit about the distinction between those two cases?

Chollet: So, first, to be clear, the United States does not have an inventory of Russian-made MiGs, the airplanes. So these are other countries who…

Lizza: Well, we get a say in some of these discussions.

Chollet: Well, not necessarily. I mean, it’s sovereign decisions whether these countries want to provide this capability, as is the case with some of the countries providing the anti-aircraft capability. They’re saying, “These are protecting us,” meaning if I’m country X and I’ve got a Soviet-made anti-aircraft capability that I’m going to give up —

Lizza: They’re not just in a warehouse — they’re being used!

Chollet: Yeah. It’s actually being used. It’s like protecting my country so I want to make sure I’ve got something to backfill that because I’m going to give this up for Ukraine. So there’s nothing preventing any country from providing that capability. That’s thing one. Thing two is the judgment of our intelligence community and of our military was that that would be escalatory.

Lizza: The MiGs would be escalatory?

Chollet: And I think in part because of the power projection. It’s the defense-offense difference in weaponry.

Lizza: Got it. I see.

Chollet: So defensive systems versus systems that could be offensive. What’s interesting too is what you’re seeing on a lot of the Russian air attacks, and the Pentagon’s briefed a lot of this, is that a lot of the Russian air attacks is what’s in the lingo called “standoff.” So they’re actually taking place not because they’re flying over Ukraine. The actual Russian air is still over Russian territory firing into Ukraine. And a lot of the air attacks we’ve seen, most of them are through missiles. These are things that MiGs or a no-fly zone actually wouldn’t do much to prevent.

Lizza: Right. Like that attack in western Ukraine was from…

Chollet: Was fired from an aircraft over Russian territory that lobbed into Ukraine.

Lizza: So MiGs wouldn’t have done anything.

Chollet: So the way I kind of think about it — I used to work at the Pentagon. In the Pentagon, you think of requirements. What are the requirements you’re trying to meet? So yes, there is a threat from the air into Ukraine. Where is that threat coming from? What can we do to mitigate against that threat? The judgment right now — and let’s be clear, this is a dynamic conflict and war will take twists and turns that I can’t predict yet. But right now, the principal threat from the air could be met by these anti-aircraft systems, either the ones that we are providing or the ones that our partners can provide, some of these Russian-made systems.



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