By Işıkgün Akfırat and Latif Bolat
Matthew Crosston, the Inaugural Director of the National Security and Military Studies Institute at Austin Peay State University from the USA, provided an exclusive interview to United World International about the Russian military operation in Ukraine.
Crosston teaches at Fort Campbell, one of the most important installations of the US Army where the famous 5th Special Operations Division and the 101st Airborne Division are located. He is an expert on the field of national security and intelligence. Having started his academic activities with studies on Russia, Crosston says that there is a serious weakness among Western intellectuals concerning understanding Russia. Crosston says that the USA and NATO consciously have chosen to enter into conflict with Russia, evaluating this approach as a grave mistake.
‘The West seeks revenge from Putin’
Two months have passed since the beginning of the operation. What is your take from period?
We saw what America has done in these two months and continues to do: the country has been feeding just countless numbers of deadly weapon systems into Ukraine and we have on the ground some military advisers, helping to train the Ukrainian forces with those systems. So they’ve actually been incredibly efficient and deadly with them. They enacted some heavy tolls in Russian army.
Suddenly the US saw this as a unique opportunity. People outside the US perhaps wouldn’t be aware of this. For the last 20 years, there’s been this growing perception in the US that Putin somehow is always smarter than us. He outstrategies, outwits us. He always ends up with the upper hand whatever the case may be. If you look at Estonia, Abkhazia, Georgia, Crimea, Syria, the 2016 presidential elections in the US, too numerous to name European parliamentary elections over the 20 years. The American popular perception is that Putin is always going to have hand all of these things and he somehow come on top even if it’s not a full-fledged Russian victory.
Here we are with Ukraine 2.0. The second iteration of the Ukrainian conflict with Russia. It hasn’t gone exactly the way Putin had envisioned it in his mind, as being welcomed as the great liberator. I think in the US we would never admit this publicly. I think the US perception is: “At last! This is our opportunity. We can get revenge for all these times he embarrassed us, outplayed us and made us look the lesser. So let’s dump as many weapons as we can. Let’s help the Ukrainians and fight him off as much as we can.”
‘Very dangerous game with Russia’
I’ve mentioned that in many different circles in Washington. This is a very dangerous game we are playing. In a sense, we are sort of at the moment in the US walking this extremely thin razor wire like a tight rope in the circus. This level of embarrassment is alright. Right there on the other side of that tight rope is that embarrassment had gone too far. And it might cause Putin to react in a way we don’t anticipate anymore. That is a dangerous game we have to be extremely careful with. As long as we are studying the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, we are still incredibly poor in understanding the mind and psyche of the Russian military. I’ve always told people in the Washington D.C. that one thing for sure unique about Russians is that it’s very easy for them to go from over-confident to self-destructive.
To us, there is a stage in the middle. We call desperation. That’s where we want our adversaries. The US always has a strategy, talks about getting the adversary into a position of desperation. Because we believe desperation makes you appliable, amenable to negotiation.
For the most part I think that can be very true. This is dangerous with Russia because they have a long, well documented military diplomatic history showing going from over-confident, skipping right pass desperation, and going to self-destructive where everybody loses. And that’s the strategy. We have to be extremely careful about this desire and get along even with Putin for these last 20 years. And not push him into the position where he would burn the whole thing to the ground.
As you mentioned, NATO poured many heavy weapons into Ukraine. 400 or so NATO officers are trapped into Mariupol steel factory. Russia told them to come off but since 50 of them were important French officers, Macron did not let them go, negotiate and surrender, since he was afraid of elections. What do you think about these reports?
I thank the Almighty power for the countries like Turkey actually able to report things like this to be honest. This information is not to be reported in that way in the US. What we get on this exact same example that you just brought up is that Russians have cornered 400 in the building and won’t let them leave and threatening to level the building to the ground and just send a message.
It’s a completely different perspective. The Western narrative of Ukraine is that Putin is a modern day reincarnation of Hitler. We must push this imagery and nothing should be brought forward to counteract that imagery. I get it. When there is military escalation with two sides accusing each other, there is always that tendency to get very reckless. People who are trying to carve out a middle or more neutral path, they don’t get as much face to speak, as much attention to be heard, that’s always a dangerous thing and definitely taking place in the United States today in terms of this conflict.
What I find fascinating is there is a bigger example: You have Kiev proper, right, the center of Kiev, the shining golden capital of Ukraine now. It’s basically untouched. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. When the special military operation began, Mariupol was barely discussed. We talked about Kiev, we talked about Donbass. No one knew a city called Mariupol in the West for sure, I defy anyone to challenge me on this. Yet Mariupol somehow has become the major center of this conflict. Mariupol basically, with relatively little loss of life, has been razed to the ground, almost doesn’t exist anymore de facto.
The Russians “have clearly and strategically chosen not to do the worst thing”
Are you trying to tell me: In Kiev, this Russian army was entirely incompetent, because Kiev still stands and is barely damaged. Yes, we have damage outside of Kiev on the northern suburbs. But Kiev itself is proper. But Mariupol, only 800 kilometers away, is razed to the ground now in front of the superpower army that is Russia. In one place, we have an army completely incompetent, 800 kilometers away the army is a superhero. It’s the same army operating in the same space! Yet no one in America discusses this. No one tries to examine how this apparent contradiction takes place. The reason is that Russians have certain opportunities, and they clearly strategically have chosen not to do the worst thing. They have chosen not to enact the greatest devastation in the greatest loss of life. But that fights the narrative that Putin is Hitler. So we don’t talk about it, get it publicized or discussed in American circles.
I’m looking it from intelligence and national security perspective. The goal is meant to end this conflict. The easiest way to end this conflict is to latch on to these small positive details and enhance them. At the moment in the West, we are covering up those small positive details. We are not letting them to see the light of day amongst regular people. That hurts the conflict and makes it continue.
“I know for fact that the people in the Kremlin shake their heads and ask ‘What are we going to do with these Americans?’”
I know for fact the people in Kremlin who sit there and shake their head like “What are we going to do with these Americans? We gave them an opportunity to establish something more positive and they are actually making it worse for their own side. What are we supposed to do? Yes, we began this special military operation. But we had our own security interests you have always ignored.”
The issue with NATO in Ukraine: There is a whole host of subtleties and nuances of this dilemma that we don’t discuss in the West, America. We just dismiss that Russia worries about NATO being at its doorstep. That’s just bogus, that’s more propaganda. “No one has to worry about, NATO is friendly, lovely.” I’m not going to look at what Russia’s concerns may be. That was the root cause of all this from the very beginning.
“Extremely believable” that the US forced Zelensky to give up on agreed points with Russia
Russia has many times accused Kiev of changing side. They came to an agreement in Istanbul and even talked about a draft text. But after the Ukrainian delegation returned to Kiev, it said demands were unacceptable. Do you think the US forced the Zelensky government to give up on the agreed-upon points?
It seems extremely believable to me. The need by the West finally to teach Putin a lesson can sometimes operate against the competing desire to end this conflict. To me, Russia has always been extremely open and very upfront about what its priorities are. “We don’t want any kind of illusion or surprise about what matters to us, so let us tell you.”
Then the Americans or NATO will have sometimes that tendency to walk away from that and say “Yes, we need to go and think about what did Putin ‘really’ mean? What was he ‘really’ trying to say?” Putin walks away and he is like “What am I going to do with these Americans? I just told them directly what it means, what matters. Then they walk away to reinterpret what I said. There is no secret agenda behind of what I said. You must never make Ukraine part of NATO. I’m not going to budge on that.”
We walk away saying “How can we make Ukraine part of NATO and it’ll still not bother Putin?” Putin’s like “I just told you it’s always going to bother me. We are not going to let that happen.” “What do you really mean?” “That’s what I mean!” We find this fighting going on back and forth and it’s very frustrating for those of us who legitimately see both sides and try to see both perspectives and try to figure out how do we bridge that gap, the gap between the West and the Russian Federation.
With the Ukraine conflict a “deep philosophical debate” between Russia and America about how the international system should be governed
There is a deep philosophical debate inside this conflict between Russia and America. This is about how the international system is actually governed, what it is actually based on. Don’t tell me what you think the principles are meant to be right. Sort of a normative discussion of international law, transnational organizations. International global human rights that are inimicable to all. That’s wonderful, but the Russians have always been very adamant about “we’re not America, we’re not going to watch what you say we’re going to watch what you do when your interests are under a perceived threat and whatever your behavior is under those conditions”, that’s going to be our model.
Right, and that bugs the Americans because the Americans are always like “No. You must only listen to what we say. You must listen to our principles that we profess on the microphones on the stages around the world. Do not look at what we do.” That can’t be a model for you, and the Russians have always been very open and public about saying “We’ve spent eight years since Crimea. We’ve spent eight years telling you to stop flirting these two sides with each other, the NATO and Ukraine, right? We’re not trying to say we want to occupy Ukraine. We’re not trying to say we want to make Ukraine cease to exist. We’re simply saying Ukraine should be neutral, and in our definition of that term, neutral means there they have freedom. Meaning Ukraine has the freedom to get the best deal it can from all people from NATO, from Western Europe, from America, from China, from Russia, from Turkey. It should do the best it can for itself with everyone.”
But that’s not what’s happened during the last eight years to the Russians. What’s happened in the last eight years to the Russians is that basically NATO in the United States have flirted with Ukraine in a way to say, “Look, we’re only going to allow you to flirt with us if you completely isolate Russia out and make Russia basically a non player in stuff that deals with Ukraine.” And Russia has always been very upfront, adamant that’s not acceptable. And then we just didn’t listen to them.
About that deceitful approach. The NATO was not supposed to expand. The Warsaw Pact gave up, so NATO, as they already existed, became very strong. But they sort of deceived, deceived in the same way too. And then in 10 years or 15 years, 13 more NATO members came into picture. On top of that, this Ukraine came onto the agenda. So there’s some kind of double talk and deceitfulness things like that in the picture, too. What do you think?
I think it’s absolutely right, and I think there’s even more to it than that, because if anything, there’s actually a confirmation of how important, because the West has sort of stood on the principle that, well, Ukraine is simply an independent nation. And therefore it has the right to do as it pleases. And just like any other Eastern European or central European country does.
So NATO has been involved with all these other central European and Eastern European nations over the last 30 years. So it just now is Ukraine’s turn and will let Ukraine decide what it wants. We won’t influence it. That’s not true, the reality is that when you see how Russia has reacted. That in and of itself identifies the fact that Russia considers Ukraine as different from all the others.
NATO showed “deceitful behavior” when expanding East
It’s Poland, last time I checked, Poland is right next to Russia too. And Poland went into NATO. And Russia didn’t invade Poland. Russia didn’t try to say ‘No’ under no certain terms. Will we allow Poland to be part of NATO? So there was a little bit of insincerity on the part of the West that they shouldn’t have taken. The sincerity of Russia’s declared protest with more seriousness, right? Because just the simple fact that you’ve expanded East when you said you weren’t going to. That’s bad enough. That’s it. That is the deceitful behavior.
Ukraine “is not just another country” for Russia
But when the when the other side that was the former enemy says, yes, Okay. We’re not going to fight those individual battles, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland. But don’t you dare set foot in Ukraine. You don’t understand Ukraine’s not just another country. We should have taken that seriously. Now you can sit there and tell me well, every state has a right, but that’s not how Russia sees that international system as we remember. The international system to Russia is actually based on the disbalance of power, not the balance of power. It accepts that some countries like Turkey like itself like America, like China, are more powerful and therefore more relevant on the global stage and smaller countries, while this may be bitter or uncomfortable to speak of ‘smaller countries’, they simply don’t have the same effect or the same influence to do as they please like other powerful countries can.
And they think the United States acts in that way. But America doesn’t simply talk in that way, and that’s why it bases it on that. And I’ve just if I can quickly add letter to your question cause I think it’s really important.
I’ve written for a long time on this and there was a great giant missed opportunity that became the most fundamental, profound mistake of NATO back in the 90s when the Cold War ended. And I’ve always said it was like it’s sort of they should have followed the example of the World Bank after World War Two. But they didn’t and that was its great fundamental mistake because it for people in America they don’t know this history, to be honest with you, but the World Bank was created to rebuild Europe after all the destruction of World War Two. And basically over the course of 10 years from 1945 to 1955, it did so. It basically rebuilt Europe, and in 1955, Europe was more or less rebuilt and was ready to go function again and moved forward and the World Bank, after 10 years of doing this, looked around and said “Ohh. Wait a minute. What? Do we have any reason to even exist now? We don’t want to disintegrate, we like existing. We like being important so we need to change our mission”.
We need to change our mission, but we have to learn a lesson here. We have to learn a lesson from World War Two. We made a mistake because our original mission was to rebuild Europe after the destruction of World War Two. Well, that’s a finite goal and you can measure when that’s achieved. So let’s do a new mission and we’ll call it. What should we call? We’ll call it. We’ll call it ‘development’.
The World Bank’s new Mission Post 1955 was ‘we will develop’: Countries, well, there’s always going to be a country that needs development, so we now have an eternal mission, which means we have an eternal organization and no one can find fault with us. So, ‘yay’ for everybody.
NATO should have followed World Bank example and changed mission after the Cold War
We all think that NATO had that same opportunity. I’ve always felt and this has been my big criticism of it. Is it 1991 Christmas Day in America that the dissolution of the Soviet Union you won NATO? Congratulations, you won the Cold War. Awesome, now what are you going to do? Right, what? What is your reason for being?
NATO “simply scratched out Soviet Union and wrote Russian Federation”
And they could have taken that opportunity and thought, well, here’s a real chance to like in the World Bank example, I’ve always said, why didn’t you just make your mission? We are going to be peace promotion because there’s always a place to promote peace. But it’s amorphous and it’s non specific and it’s infinite. So you could keep going, but instead would it NATO? Do NATO simply said I know what we do? Let’s take all of our documents wherever it says Soviet or Soviet Union scratch that out. And write Russian or Russian Federation we’re good. We’re good, and that’s always been Russia’s problem.
That’s always been Russia’s problem: after your reason for existing ended in 1991, you simply just scratched out some words and put in the new words and kept going in the exact same way. And so now we’re the great enemy and you won’t seek a new opportunity for new ideas and new thinking. You won’t attempt to create a new a new dialogue. And so the dialogue has been extremely tired and extremely rigid. For 30 years.