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Panetta: Russia-Ukraine crisis is “one of the most dangerous moments of the 21st century”

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The Panetta Institute for Public Policy
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Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is the chair of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Russia has signaled a new opportunity for diplomacy in Eastern Europe as the region continues to brace for possible war.  Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says one misstep could set it off. 

KAZU’s Suzanne Saunders met with Panetta at the Panetta Institute on California State University Monterey Bay’s campus. He said the crisis in Eastern Europe has global impact and is ultimately a battle between democracies and autocracies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sec. Leon Panetta (LP):  I think this is probably one of the most dangerous moments that we've seen in this part of the 21st century. We are in a time when autocrats are threatening democracy. Obviously you can see it with Russia. To have somebody who's threatening to invade a sovereign country, something that hasn't happened since World War II — it’s almost incredible.

Suzanne Saunders (SS): What do you think Putin’s motive is?

LP: When I was CIA director, I was provided a lot of intelligence on Putin. He’s an autocrat and a former KGB agent. He thinks like somebody who was in intelligence. He’s trying to figure out how he can maneuver in a way that will get him something. 

Ukraine is a democracy and a sovereign country. And yet Putin's view is they have no business deciding what's in their own security and that they're really a part of Russia. And I think it's a wake-up call for everybody to understand that how he thinks is not in the 21st century.

SS:  Ultimately, do you think Putin is determined to take Ukraine back?

LP: What Putin’s about is not only undermining the United States, not only undermining NATO, but also restoring the former Soviet Union. He is constantly trying to outmaneuver others and take advantage of their weaknesses.

And he's been doing that for the last 10 years by his going into Georgia, the Crimea, Syria and Libya and then his cyber attacks on the United States during our election cycles. He did all of that without having to pay a price. In this instance , I think he thought that if he threatened an invasion and built up a military force there that the United States and NATO would blink. And they didn't.

SS: And we hear he’s amassed a force of 100,000 or 130,000 troops around Ukraine's borders?

LP: You're right, it's 130,000-plus. They're doing maneuvers, and adding all of the support systems for a full-scale invasion. And when you do that, the danger of a miscalculation or a misstep that suddenly plunges us into a war in Ukraine is very real. We don't know what Putin has decided. He probably hasn't made a decision. But what Russia’s doing today is causing almost the opposite of what Putin wanted. He is in fact making NATO and the United States stronger.

SS:  What do you think the odds are that Putin will cross the line, cross the border? 

LP: I think the odds are increasing against what I would call a full-scale invasion. Putin knows that this is not a Ukraine that’s simply going to stand back. He’ll pay a heavy price in terms of the lives of Russian soldiers if he invades. That's the importance of deterrence. He’s been meeting with (world) leaders. He's going to try to see who can give him the best deal. 

SS:  And if diplomacy doesn’t work?  

LP: I just think the price they would pay for that would be horrendous. I think there's probably a greater likelihood for something like smaller incursions from Belarus and other areas. And they might very well use cyber to try to undermine the Ukrainian government.

SS: When you ran the Pentagon, you warned that the U.S. could face a "cyber Pearl Harbor." That was in 2012, after cyber attacks on the world’s biggest oil company.   Aren't we in a more dangerous position today than ever? 

LP: When I'm asked about what keeps me awake at night as a former secretary of defense and former CIA director, there are a lot of flashpoints in the world right now. But I think the real battlefield of the present and the future is cyber. Cyber can literally paralyze another country.

When I gave that speech, I was thinking about Aramco oil because Iran used a sophisticated virus that literally destroyed 30,000 computers. If you take that same kind of virus and deploy it against our electric grid system, against our financial system, our government systems, our chemical, water and transportation systems, you could paralyze the United States.

And I worry that we still take cyber for granted.  

SS: Don’t the Russians use cyber against us all the time?

Cyber has become a real weapon in the 21st century. It’s not just Russia. China is using it. North Korea and Iran are using it. The United States is using it. Right now, the Russians continue to attack our businesses, asking for ransom. These ransomware attacks come every 12 to13 seconds.

I think one of the things we could be doing today is using cyber to send a message to Russia that their command and control is going to get screwed up by cyber, their communications are going to get screwed up. And we can undermine their whole oil distribution system by using cyber. We can do that. That is the future.

SS: Would you advise the Biden administration, if you haven't already, some of the things you're talking about? 

LP: Oh, yeah. I've talked with their national security individuals and I've made very clear that the United States is going to have to do a lot more to be prepared for that future.

SS: Putin has said it’s western powers that are threatening Russia. With NATO having expanded to include 30 countries, isn’t it understandable he feels provoked?

LP: Putin obviously is concerned about the security of Russia. I understand that. I think that the U.S. and NATO understand that. That's why there are some areas that we could negotiate. We could negotiate on the location of missile systems to determine where those missiles are to be placed, who is to inspect them, and ensure that they will not be used in an offensive way either against Russia or against Europe and the United States.

Arms control also represents an area where we could improve the security of not just Russia, but of the United States and NATO as well. So I think there are areas that Russia could negotiate that Putin could say is a win.

SS:  Seeing China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin together at the opening of the Olympics, is there a change in the world order happening?

LP: I think this could very well be a pivotal point in terms of how the world views this contest between democracy and autocracy. You see it with NATO standing up against Putin invading Ukraine. And then to have (China’s President) XI saying China is going to become the predominant power while treating human rights the way he does, and threatening Hong Kong and Taiwan.

And very frankly, I listen to what former President Trump is saying and what he's doing in basically ignoring the Constitution, ignoring the rule of law, declaring that somehow the vice president of the United States could determine who wins an election in this country … to have him saying things virtually the same as what Putin is saying tells us we have a lot to worry about in terms of the survival of our democracies.

SS:  Thanks for taking your valuable time with us to understand this important moment.  

LP: It is a challenging time. But, I guess having been in politics, you never lose your optimism that ultimately the right kind of leadership will prevail.

Monterey native Leon Panetta served as secretary of defense and as CIA director during the first Obama administration (2009-2013). Secretary Panetta chairs the non-partisan Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which focuses on the future of our democracy.