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Why Isn't the U.S. Doing More to Protect Ukraine; How Will Ukraine Invasion Impact Biden's Presidency; Could Cyberattacks Draw U.S. Into Ukraine War; What Is Vladimir Putin's State of Mind. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired February 26, 2022 - 09:00   ET



MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: A Spartacus moment. I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia.

Americans first heard of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after the infamous July 25th, 2019 telephone call that led to former President Donald Trump's first impeachment. Zelensky had just been elected Ukrainian president in a landslide election. He was eager to receive the 400 million of U.S. security aid that had been earmarked by Congress for his nation to fend off a Russian threat and to obtain a commitment to meet the American president so as to project unity and strength toward his Russian aggressors. But after Trump injected a request that Zelensky first investigate the Bidens, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who was listening to the call as part of his National Security Council duties, reported what he heard, and the rest is history.

Well, for the last three days, we have seen why Zelensky was so eager for U.S. assistance. Now the former actor and comedian has been transformed from an American political footnote to the new face of freedom and defiance. Trump is gone from office. But the question of whether the U.S. is giving Zelensky all he needs lingers on President Joe Biden's watch.

It's fair to say the U.S. and NATO acquiesced to Russia's invasion. On December 8th of last year, after meeting with Putin, Biden told reporters that sending troops to Ukraine to deter Russia was not on the table. And on February 10th of this year when asked by NBC's Lester Holt, what scenario could prompt him to send troops to rescue Americans fleeing the country, Biden replie, "There's not. That's a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another."

As for NATO on January 20th, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC, "We have no plans to deploy NATO combat troops to Ukraine. We are focusing on providing support."

And then, just a few days later on February 4th, the NATO deputy secretary-general told a French outlet that NATO, quote, "will not get involved militarily in Ukraine -- we support Ukraine in many other ways, individual allies support Ukraine."

So Putin knew that the only thing standing between Russia and Kyiv was the overmatched Ukrainian army. No wonder that Friday, President Zelensky lamented, "we are defending our country alone. Just like yesterday, the most powerful country in the world looked on from a distance."

And just this morning, he said this, the destruction by missiles and artillery of residential buildings is the ultimate argument for the world to be by our side in stopping the occupiers' invasion. He also appealed to volunteers from abroad. Quote, "all the friends who want to join us, please come. We will give you weapons."

The Ukrainians are certainly doing what they can do. Nothing better sums up their resilience than when 13 border guards on Ukraine's Snake Island refused to surrender to Russian invaders. The final words, hey, Russian warship, go "f" yourself, just before all 13 then died in a bombardment defines the conflict to date.

President Zelensky has announced that they will posthumously be awarded the nation's title of hero of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it's hard to believe the Ukrainian resistance can hold on for much longer. Nor that this will end well in the long run for Russia. Ukrainians are fighting for love of country. Russians are fighting out of a fear of a dictator. And there are signs of that support buckling.

On Tuesday, Putin needed to give his own spy chief a public dressing- down at a security council meeting after recognizing the independence of two separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine, his subterfuge for the war. Russian cultural leaders including musicians, TV stars and comedians have been voicing resistance on social media.

Thursday night, something once unfathomable, a thousand people, gathered in the center of Moscow chanting no to war as passing cars honked horns. And there were similar gatherings in other Russian cities including St. Petersburg, despite a warning from Russian authorities that they would face jail time.

On Friday, the daughter of Putin's own Kremlin spokesperson posted an antiwar slogan on social media. Yelizaveta Peskova is 24 and posted no to war on her Instagram account.

Zelensky for his part is courageous and a bit fatalistic.


He has thus far rebuffed U.S. offers to evacuate Kyiv to avoid being captured or killed. On Friday, he said, "According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2."

Later, on Friday, for the first time, NATO activated its response force as a defensive measure. That doesn't mean that the U.S. or NATO forces will enter Ukraine, because Ukraine is not a NATO member. But it's a sign of increased nervousness on the part of neighboring NATO members. But it's probably not enough.

The only way to thwart Russian aggression probably is by offensive action by the U.S. and NATO. But 20 years post-9/11, Americans are fatigued by war in distant lands. There's nothing funny about the situation. But it's a former comedian to whom we can all look for inspiration.

I want to know what you think. This hour, go to my website at and answer this week's survey question. Should NATO go to war for Ukraine?

Joining me now to discuss is retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director for European Affairs on the National Security Council. He's also author of the bestselling memoir "Here, Right Matters." And he recently wrote this piece for "The Atlantic," "America Could Have Done So Much More to Protect Ukraine."

Colonel Vindman, thank you for being here. What could we have done and what should we be doing now?

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN (RET.), FORMER EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Sure. The biggest to rest to the Biden are team's policy is 20 years of ineffective Russia policy. So that just -- very bounded what they were thinking about doing. With regards to the diplomatic announcement that you've pointed out back in December, no boots on the ground, that did not need to happen. But it was a fear of somehow this spiraling to bilateral confrontation that drove President Biden to say that.

Instead, we could have maintained the strategic ambiguity policy that we continue to maintain with regards to Taiwan. That U.S. action may be on the table and that the Russians need a program and calculated, that could have been a huge deterrent. It kind of gave a blinking yellow light. But again, it's not just Joe Biden's fault. It's bigger than that.

What we could have done is we provisioned Ukrainians with even more lethal aid. They're sorely lacking in air defense capabilities. They're sorely lacking in their ability to threaten those ships off the coast of Odesa, the largest port city in Ukraine, with coastal defense systems like harpoons. That we were just too narrow in our thinking about the consequences and the fact that we seem to recognize that something like this might come but we were fatalistic and defeatist about providing Ukraine.

Now Ukraine is leading the world. They're leading the world in pushing back against authoritarianism. President Zelensky is deeply inspiring. He's a world leader now. He's leading the charge of - sorry, democracy against authoritarianism. And we need to provision him.

There are still things we can do. It's amazing what's unfolding on the battlefield. The Ukrainian armed forces have basically stopped Russian forces in most of the country in their tracks. The biggest gains are in the south. That's also a huge distance between there and Kyiv. But with additional armor, with additional air defense capabilities, they could start to equalize a little bit.

They're not going to be sufficient against Russia, just highflyers, those aircraft that are flying way above these MANPADS, these stingers. But it's going to be something. And we should think about more capable systems. There are more capable systems like THAAD, that we could quickly kind of show them how to press the right buttons, push them across for the Ukrainians to defend themselves. Those are high altitude systems.

And really in this -- at this critical moment, they should be getting unmanned aerial vehicles. They've already demonstrated proficiency in using aerial -- unmanned aerial vehicles with strike ability. Push them across to Ukraine. Let them start to hit targets. Probably not the targets that like are right in their faces but the deep targets to support them. Those cruise missile and ballistic missile platforms that are firing from across the border, start to take some of those out and degrade Russia's ability to really, to conduct its operations.

And then you go after logistics. Logistics is going to be central. Right now, the bulk of the casualties that Russians have received are in front line units, that's shocking. Those are the units that should be achieving penetration. Instead, they've moved too fast. They've outrun their logistics tail, the - it's three times the size behind those offensive units. Those are going to be vulnerable. The Ukrainians could start targeting those and completely freeze the Russian armed forces.

SMERCONISH: Colonel --

VINDMAN: Still - still -

SMERCONISH: Colonel --

VINDMAN: -- a hard slog, but frankly - sorry, I just want to say, still a hard slog but there's a glimmer of light here. We need to continue to nurture that.

SMERCONISH: I share your assessment of the inspiration that I feel from Zelensky. It puts, I think, in a totally different light, maybe not for you, but for me as an outsider, that telephone call.


I went back and I re-read the transcript and I read your assessment of it from your memoir. This guy was coming to us hat in hand. He wanted the $400 million released. He wanted the grin and grip. He wanted the photo op. He wanted to project unity and strength at the side of the United States to prevent exactly what's unfolding. Give me your final thought on that.

VINDMAN: That's exactly right. And we lost a major opportunity to harden Ukraine in the intervening years. After that moment, we basically put the relationship with Ukraine on pause. Certainly, for the rest of the Trump administration. But even to the Biden administration. And we lost an opportunity to harden Ukraine, to make it less formidable for Putin to even conduct this offensive operation if that was overridable.

Last thing I want to mention is pressure. Huge building pressure on Russia. The Turks have ceased permitting Russian warships to transit the straits - the Dardanelles Straits into and out of the Black Sea. That has never happened before. That is going to be critical with protests, with SWIFT sanctions because of the pressure that the Ukrainians are applying, diplomatic engagement to get countries to buy into that. We're seeing a coalescence of effort. We just need the U.S. to come in with a land-based program to give the Ukrainians -


VINDMAN: -- what they need to do this out.

SMERCONISH: Final question - final question. Long ball question. Do you see the signs that I referenced of buckling support, support that heretofore, maybe for Putin maybe it didn't really exist, but people would have been silent? But now there's this increasing comfort level of people speaking out? What's the long-term prospect relative to Ukraine? But you've got to do it in 30 seconds.

VINDMAN: Sure. This is - this is the biggest fear of the Russians. It's not the external threats. It's the palace coups, it's the internal discontent. This is not something the Russians accounted on. This may be the undoing of Vladimir Putin and his regime. And it's no longer a far-fetched notion.

SMERCONISH: Thank you so much, Colonel. I appreciate your insight. You're uniquely qualified to be here today and I appreciate it.

What are your thoughts? Tweet me @smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. I'll read some responses throughout the course of the program.

Catherine, what do we have from the world of Twitter?

After his perfect call with Zelensky, who the world now realizes is a hero and his attempt to dismantle NATO, who cares? He wanted to throw Ukraine to the wolves. Now the wolves are there. We know where Trump stands. Doesn't matter what he says.

Well, Blessyourheart, it matters in so far as relative to 2024. You've got to say as of today, he's the leading candidate. Look, I'm not raising it to get into a let's blame Trump or let's blame Biden. There's plenty of blame to go around. But my God, reread that transcript. It's embarrassing as an American now to appreciate who this guy Zelensky is.

And since you've raised Trump, I'm going to say one other thing about it. Tonight, at CPAC, will he condemn the Russian invasion? That's my question. Not - not enough to say would it have happened on my watch. Will he condemn it? That's what I'll be listening for. And relative to Biden, as Colonel Vindman just said, never out loud should have said we're not going to commit troops, and neither should NATO. All that did was green light for Putin, what he wanted to do. They're not going to get in my way, I can march all the way to Kyiv.

Make sure you go into my website this hour at and answering this week's survey question. Should NATO go to war for Ukraine? I cannot wait to see how the CNN audience votes on that.

Up ahead. In addition to the military war, Ukraine has been cyberattacked which could easily spread here or to Europe. And cyberattacks, NATO recently reaffirmed, can be viewed the same as armed attacks.

Since NATO nations are pledged to defend each other, could this force the U.S. to get more involved. I will ask America's fires cyber security czar Richard Clarke.

Plus, President Biden has been struggling in the polls. Given the situation in Ukraine, will Americans rally around the flag? What does history teach us about presidents involved in foreign conflict?



SMERCONISH: Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine necessarily bad political news for President Biden? Or might it be an opportunity for the American people to unite and rally around a common enemy, Russia? Just before Russia attacked Ukraine, President Biden warned America.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Defending freedom will have cost for us as well. And here at home.


SMERCONISH: Indeed, the escalating Russian conflict and sanctions have destabilized the stock market and raised already soaring gas prices, not welcome news for Americans who are experiencing the highest inflation in 40 years. Worried about difficult to solve domestic issues like crime and immigration. And with our messy pullout from Afghanistan, a not very distant memory.

At a new Marist poll on President Biden's first year in office just found that 56 percent of Americans called it a failure. Just 39 percent said it was a success.

Sometimes, presidents get a boost upping our military presence overseas. Bill Clinton defused his impeachment with the 1999 NATO bombing that ended the conflict in Kosovo. George W. Bush gained in the polls after sending troops to Iraq in the wake of 9/11. But I can cut both ways. Other presidents were undone by far in conflict. Carter's defeat in 1980 during the Iran hostage crisis. LBJ's decision not to run for re-election because of his role in continuing the Vietnam war.

What impact might Ukraine have on Biden's presidency?

Joining me now is Douglas Kriner, a politics professor Cornell University. He's written about the impact of battlefield casualties on the ballot box.

Professor, thanks for being here. We live in such a polarized era. Do we still rally around the flag?


The short answer is, yes, we do but it's a contingent one. And one of the most important things that sort of affects whether or not we rally is how other political leads respond. So when political leads rally, when Democrats and Republicans come together and back the course that's chosen by the administration, as they did after 9/11, one of the examples you gave. Then we see popular rallies as well. But especially when the opposition starts to sit on the sidelines and snipe, and when there might be fragmentation within the president's own party, then the rally really fails to materialize, and you can see political detriment from overseas policies.


SMERCONISH: I fully recognize we're not directly in this. We may never be directly in this. So with that caveat, when you look at modern history, is there anything analogous. I mean, it seems to me the data cuts both ways. I think of Bush 41, Papa Bush who was my boss because I served in that administration. Sky high in the polls after the first Gulf War but it didn't help him against Bill Clinton.

KRINER: Yes. Those boosts can be transient, right? And I think it gets to the question of how salient foreign policy is really going to be in any given election cycle. So even in a presidential election cycle, George H.W. Bush, as you mentioned, the most popular president in the history of the Gallup poll in 1991 and then he loses re-election in 1992.

Americans' priorities have changed. The salient of the Gulf War, it might as well have been 10 years ago. So what about midterm elections? Is foreign policy ever powerful in these situations? It can be. Some of our research we looked at the 2006 midterms. We looked at places in the parts of the country that have suffered particularly high casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we showed that a whole bunch of things those parts of the country turned against Republicans at the time more so than other parts of the country.

So you can get this sort of political retribution when American soldiers are committed to a fight that's turning out to be more costly than expected. What should we expect in this particular case, as you said, we're not engaged? But I think we're going to be judging the president based on the severity of the response and whether or not he's threaded that difficult political needle.

SMERCONISH: The research that you did with a colleague, in other words, we don't share equally the military burden in this country. Some communities participating far more than others. And you saw, what, a relationship between casualties on the battlefield and a result at the ballot box in those communities most affected?

KRINER: Yes. Absolutely. So if you're from a part of a country that had a lot of your sons, relatives, friends, neighbors, children, fighting and dying in the war, you tended to vote more against the war in 2006 and more against Republicans who were most affiliated with the Iraq war and punish them for the policies. It doesn't mean that those communities were rabidly anti-war. Just that Republican fortunes flagged more on those parts of the country, than in others controlling for all other sort of factors.

The flip side of this is that in 2016, we saw then-candidate Trump reap significant electoral gains, precisely on those same - in those same communities. So his America First rhetoric, he's calling the Iraq war a total disaster, calling Bush a terrible president, this really resonated with voters there. Despite political prognosticators at that time, who thought that this might well be his death knell.

SMERCONISH: Professor Kriner, fascinating analysis. Thank you so much for your time.

KRINER: Thanks so much for having me, Michael.

SMERCONISH: More social media reaction from Twitter, I think. What do we have, Catherine?

Considering this is another Biden failure do not see how this helps his presidency. Our energy independence kept Putin in check and Biden destroyed that. Also as expected his response is slow and weak.

So I'm going to respond to you. I'm not - I'm not buying into or accepting that you can just lay this off on - on Joe Biden. I think that Colonel Vindman had a pretty good assessment and much more informed than mine. There's a lot of blame to go around here for the reasons that I've stated.

But what most frustrates me is that it used to be - and again, we're not directly in this vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine. But I think, obviously, our sentiments are on the side of Ukraine, right? I hope. But will it provide a rally around the flag moment, what most frustrates me is that in this era of polarization, you know, where in the end, the division that we had in this country stopped at the water's edge. That no longer seems to be the case.

I mean, you know, turn on cable television pundits, and you can see some who are outright rooting for Vladimir Putin in this conflict. So that's really my area of interest. I'd like to think that there are still some things that unite us, and one is a common enemy and the common enemy in this case is clearly Putin and Russia.

I want to remind you. Go to my website at this hour. Answer this question. Should NATO go to war for Ukraine?

Still to come. Article 5 of NATO's treaty holds that if one of the 30 member nations is attacked, the others will help defend it. That can also pertain to cyberwarfare. So what if the Ukraine ground conflict remains contained but cyberattacks spread to NATO nations. Is America obligated to respond? Richard Clarke is the authority. And he is here.

Plus, has Putin lost it? When France's president met with Vladimir Putin, Kremlin COVID protocols forced them to sit several yards apart. While it may look amusing, there's a deeper story, and it could be read as something troubling about the Russian leader's isolation and state of mind. I'll explain.


SMERCONISH: Russia's invasion of Ukraine isn't just a physical war with troops on the ground and conventional weaponry. It also includes the virtual battlefield of coordinated cyberattacks which could quickly spread and become a problem for the rest of the world, including the United States. It's not just theoretical.


On Friday, a Russian ransomware gang issued a statement threatening to hack the critical infrastructure of any nation or organization retaliating against Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine. NATO's announcement last year that it could consider cyberattacks equal to armed attacks means member countries could find themselves drawn into the conflict. Ukraine is not a member of NATO though it has long hoped to join the alliance. Still, what if a NATO country is a victim of cyberattack by Russia?

A key tenet of the NATO's 1949 founding treaty is Article 5 of the principle of collective defense. That's among its member countries now include 30 nations and Article 5 reads as follows, "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that if such an armed attack occurs each of them will assist the party or parties so attacked."

In reality Article 5 has invoked only once, 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks. At last June's NATO Summit in Brussels a joint statement asserted the following, "We reaffirm that a decision as to when a cyberattack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis. Allies recognize that the impact of significant malicious cumulative cyber activities might, in certain circumstances, be considered as amounting to an armed attack."

A few days later President Biden met with Putin in Geneva and afterwards he said this --


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Another area we spent a great deal of time on was cyber and cyber security. I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack -- period -- by cyber or any other means. I gave them a list, if I'm not mistaken -- I don't have it in front of me -- 16 specific entities, 16 defined as critical infrastructure under U.S. policy, from the energy sector to our water systems.


SMERCONISH: So if Putin responds to new sanctions by ordering direct cyberattacks to destabilize the infrastructure of the U.S. and its NATO allies are we obligated to go to war cyber or otherwise? Joining me now is Richard Clarke who served three U.S. presidents on the National Security Council. He was America's first counterterrorism czar, and he was also special assistant to the president for cyberspace under George W. Bush. Most recently he's the co-author of the book, "The Fifth Domain: Defending Our Country, Our Companies, and Ourselves in the Age of Cyber Threats." Mr. Clarke, thanks for coming back. What worries you most?

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT/FORMER NATIONAL COORDINATOR FOR SECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE PROTECTION: Michael, the Russians have said that if we do sanctions against them, they will retaliate for our retaliation. The two ways they have of doing that, number one, cyber war against us. And number two, disinformation war, whipping up their dupes to stage violent protests in the United States for masks and vaccines and other excuses. They can attack us in the United States using cyber tools. They already have in the past.

That list of 16 areas that Biden gave them is their target list. You remember when Russians allegedly, not the government, Russians shut down the Colonial Gas Pipeline, just a few months ago that's just a foretaste of what could happen.

SMERCONISH: Would it, should it, trigger Article 5?

CLARKE: Well, NATO has said as recently as this week, the head of NATO, Mr. Stoltenberg, has said that it would. That an attack on one using cyber war techniques would be an attack on all.

The United States has said, we will consider a cyberattack based on the magnitude of its effects. And we will not necessarily respond to a cyberattack with a cyberattack. Our policy, our declared policy is, if it's a big enough attack on us and it hurts us, we will use the conventional weapons response.

So, we could very easily find ourselves in a shooting war with Russia if they try devastating -- it would have to be devastating cyberattacks like turning out the power grid. And that's something that I think they might be able to do.

SMERCONISH: Does it matter whether the target is public or private? What if it's private industry, as compared to, say, the public power grid?

CLARKE: I don't think it makes any difference. If they take down the financial sector, if they do a denial-of-service attack on the American banks the way the Iranians did many years ago, if they attack important things like the Amazon Cloud or the Google Cloud or the Microsoft Cloud -- no one knows, by the way, what the effect of that will be.


The government doesn't even have a list of what is in each of those clouds. But I can tell you if those clouds go down, the United States stops working, our economy stops working, the phones stop working, we will find ourselves pretty soon in the dark ages if the internet goes down.

SMERCONISH: So I know that such as Richard Clarke's level of concern about this subject that you have turned to writing fiction just so as to spark people's imagination and get them more concerned about this issue. The question for you is, how prepared are we?

CLARKE: No nation is well prepared on the defense, Michael. The thing about cyber war I've been trying to tell people for the last 10 years is that there is something called offense preference. The offense is much easier than the defense. The defense is almost impossible against a very sophisticated enemy like the United States or like Russia.

SMERCONISH: Take my final 30 seconds and tell me if you share my concern. I didn't like it when President Biden said there are 16 areas because he seemed to green light everything that wasn't on that list. What was your reaction?

CLARKE: Well, if you look at the 16 areas that's pretty much the entire economy. It's the 16 areas of the economy and critical infrastructure.

I think the key for us right now is for American companies to go shields up. The American companies and corporations throughout the United States and state and local governments to start asking, what more can I do to protect my networks? And if I lose the networks do I have a plan to get back up, to have some resilience, to have some interim capability? Everybody should be doing that right now, everybody.

SMERCONISH: Richard Clarke, thank you so much. You're uniquely qualified to address this. And I really appreciate your time.

CLARKE: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, is Putin's invasion of Ukraine the act of a rational person? One French official described the Russian president's speech defending his actions as -- quote -- "rigid and paranoid." A look inside Putin's mind with an expert who studied him is next.

And please make sure you're answering this week's survey question. I cannot wait to see how this goes. Go to right now and vote. Should NATO go to war for Ukraine?



SMERCONISH: Russian President Vladimir Putin's rash invasion of Ukraine has caused many to wonder, "What's going on with Putin?" Meaning, "What might this attack suggest about his state of mind?"

As David Von Drehle put it in "The Washington Post" this week, "Is Vladimir Putin a great and daring leader or is he out of control? Recent images from Moscow are anything but reassuring. Putin looks -- how do we put this nicely? Completely bonkers. He appears to have reached the phase in a tyrant's career when human contact becomes terrifying."

He's referring to the fact that Putin has been seen meeting with his staff and with French President Emmanuel Macron seated at the far end of this cartoonishly large table. The given reason for the bizarre seating arrangement, the Kremlin's strict health protocol.

As "The Wall Street Journal" reporter, "Mr. Macron was told that if he wanted to shake Mr. Putin's hand or sit next to him, he needed to arrive nearly seven hours before the meeting. He would be required to take a PCR test, administered by a Russian doctor and without the French president's doctor being present."

Macron declined, deciding it wasn't worth all that just to get a photo op of a handshake. But "The Journal" also quoted sources saying the French leader had noticed a change in Putin's demeanor over the course of their phone conversations during the pandemic. Quote -- "He tended to talk in circles, rewriting history," a close aide to Mr. Macron had said.

And when they met in person one French official said, "Macron found that Putin was more rigid, more isolated, and had basically gone into a sort of ideological and security-minded drift."

Here's what former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told CNN's John Berman on "NEW DAY" Friday as he took to the street with a rifle to defend Kyiv.


PETRO POROSHENKO, FORMER PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE: We shall deal with Putin like the man of the lost reason. And he is just -- he is just simply mad. He is just simply crazy. He is just simply evil to come here to kill Ukrainians.


SMERCONISH: Joining me now to discuss is Andrea Kendall-Taylor, former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council. She's currently senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Andrea, you've watched him for a long, long time. Do you notice changes?

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER FOR RUSSIA AND EURASIA: Yes, I think we do notice changes and there certainly has been a lot of speculation about his health and especially the state of his mental health. It's hard to know from a distance exactly what's going on, but there are a few things we do know.

As you talked about in your segment, Putin has been extremely isolated recently and that's been really amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. The other thing that we know is it doesn't appear that there's really anyone in his inner circle and in work who can constrain him. We saw him dress down all of his national security advisors in a very public theatrical performance. And, you know, that's -- that's a dangerous thing. There is really a large body of political science literature that talks about these highly personalist authoritarian regimes and they tend to produce the most belligerent foreign policies.


They're the most likely to initiate wars. And they are the most paranoid as you were talking about in their segments. So I think we are really in a -- in a really risky place with President Putin.

SMERCONISH: Do the oligarchs have his ear? Is there anyone that we know to whom he turns for counsel?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: It seems increasingly less so. You know, again, as I was mentioning with that National Security Council meeting those people around Putin were fearful. And so it seems to me at this point that there really is no one who can constrain him. There's no one really who could even present to him information that would contradict his world view.

We also saw him bring together the economic elite in an effort to try to reassure them. But it really wasn't so much I think reassurance. But the way I saw it was that he was reminding the members of his elite that their fates are directly tethered to President Putin, such that they dare not move against him.

So, I think he's really trying to take steps to inoculate himself from elite defection. Because I -- you know, it could be that he senses that this war is not going to be popular with his elite. And it certainly doesn't look to be popular with the Russian domestic population.

SMERCONISH: I know you're not going to give me anything classified nor would I ask for it but from your days at CIA I want to ask a generic question, how well do you think we know his profile?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: You know, there are analysts who had followed him for their entire career, people who monitor his every move. I think that folks in the intelligence community have very good insight into his thinking, into his world view. But it's also important to underscore that that has evolved.

You know, he isn't a static human. We've seen his views on Ukraine evolve over time. He didn't always view Ukraine this way. But I think as you mentioned, this isolation -- he's been doing bizarre archival research and going down some deep dark holes of history. And so, you know, he is a moving target, but folks are clearly watching him very closely.

SMERCONISH: Yes. I mean, to the uninitiated and uninformed, that would be me, he's like Captain Queeg and keeping track of the strawberries. I mean, that's how he looks, and it makes it damn near impossible to deal with someone who is presumably irrational. Final thought is yours. KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yes. I mean, I think the thing that we have to underscore though is also when you're that paranoid and when you're that isolated, that's when leaders make mistakes. Personalist leaders that I referred to are the most prone to making mistakes because they surround themselves with psycho fans and yes men. And I think that's what we're seeing here.

It's playing out on the battlefield. I think he has underestimated how the Ukrainians would fight back. And I think he could be miscalculating domestically such that this could really trigger backlash that could cause him a lot of problems domestically.

SMERCONISH: Yes. I talked about that at the outset of the program. Well, that was excellent. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

From the world of social media, Catherine, what do we have? Twitter, I think.

No. He's a psychopath acting like a thug and the international community is leaving him because he has access to nukes. Only someone in his own entourage can stop him.

Rita, the issue here is -- and, you know, Andrea has the educated and informed opinion. I'll just put it in language that I can understand. The emperor has no clothes. Nobody is telling him so.

I mean, the dressing down that he gave to his spy chief on a hot mic. You know, hot mic actually implies that we weren't supposed to hear it. No, Putin wanted us to hear it. He wanted the whole world to hear it.

I thought that was a very telling moment and he just you look like someone -- you read the "Wall Street Journal" reportage on what went on, you know, the back story of the meeting with Macron. You're going to tell a visiting president, get her seven hours in advance, leave your own doctor out of the room and trust ours if you want to have the photo op. That is someone who's irrational.

Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. Have you voted on this week's survey question? Go do it right now at Should NATO go to war for Ukraine? Back in a moment.



SMERCONISH: This will be interesting. Let's see how you responded to this week's survey question at Should NATO go to war for Ukraine?

Hit me with it. Wow. I must say -- holy smokes! Hey, Catherine, is that the most voting we have ever had? That is the most voting, right? I mean, 36,000 people and that only started when I hit -- now it's 38,000. So I'm shocked by the number of votes. I'm also shocked by -- that a CNN audience is that decided, more than three quarters, 77 percent. If I had shown you my prediction, it was nowhere near that. That's really interesting. I wonder -- I wonder if they're watching at the White House.

Here's some of the other social media reaction that came in during the course of the program.

I cannot believe people want NATO to go to war with Russia. Do they understand the consequences? Do they understand that means America will be back at war too? This survey is crazy.

David, I think there's been a change in sentiment in the last three days of people looking at these poor Ukrainians and saying, "My God, what are we doing to help them?"


And the sentiment you should glean from that thoroughly unscientific number is that the consensus is, not enough. Here's another social media reaction.

American press is partially responsible for lower poll numbers. Thank God Biden is president and not the previous madman who was normalized by you and others. And I mostly like you, Michael. But seriously. Stop.

I don't think you can lay off on the media the president's poor poll numbers right now. I mean, are you blaming the media for inflation? Are you blaming the media for porous borders in Mexico? Are you blaming the media for Afghanistan, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

It is what it is. I just hope that he's successful. And I hope that the situation in Ukraine ends with Ukraine still in control.

All right. Keep voting at See you next week.