Richard Grenell: How American Weakness Emboldened Putin to Invade Ukraine | CPAC 2022
“This is a disaster … We didn’t have to have this situation unfold,” says former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.
At the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, we sit down with Richard Grenell, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, to discuss how the Russian invasion could have been prevented, Germany’s refusal to take a hard line on Russia, and how U.S. policies have fueled a Russia-China alliance.
Jan Jekielek: Rick Grenell, great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Richard Grenell: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Rick, of course, you were the US ambassador to Germany. Germany is playing this pretty significant role. We keep hearing about what’s happening vis-a-vis Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, first of all, just tell me in general, how do you see this overall situation, then let’s go into how Europe is dealing with it?
Mr. Grenell: I’ve moved into the pissed-off phase, to be honest, because we’re called upon now to talk about, “Oh, what would you do next?” First of all, I think if I were in charge and I could decide what’s next, I would kick Joe Biden out of the White House because this is a disaster that the choices that we have left are terrible and really terrible choices, and it’s a decision between the two.
We shouldn’t be in this position. We shouldn’t be in the position of being asked, “So what are you now going to do now that the Russians have invaded Ukraine?” If you would’ve told me a year ago, “The Russians were going to invade Ukraine,” I would’ve said, “There’s no possible way. What are you talking about?” This is a disaster of epic proportion. So I would like to dial it back and look at the history here, and let’s just be factual.
Putin took Georgia, invaded, and that was under George W. Bush. Then we had Crimea taken under Barack Obama. Then for four years, nothing happened. Now what we see is a total invasion of Ukraine all the way into the capital of Kyiv. I don’t understand why anyone can say anything other than the creation of weakness, probably because of Afghanistan, which everybody saw it was an epic moment for the US—a failure.
That message to Putin, “Now might be a really good time to make a move on Joe Biden.” Chancellor Merkel was gone in Germany, got a new government in Germany. And I’m really annoyed that we’re sitting here and our friends in Ukraine are having to face another night of Russian bombing. This is unacceptable.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re saying, basically, it didn’t have to be this way because that’s actually some of the messaging I’m hearing is like, “There was no way to forestall this.”
Mr. Grenell: Did not have to be like this. This is a terrible situation that has unfolded because Joe Biden is so weak, and has messaged multiple times that he would make decisions and not think about the consequences. Let me give you an example. The Biden administration took the Houthis off the terrorist watch list. What did we see just a short time later? The Houthis started sending missiles attacking the UAE. I don’t even have words for that.
This is a failure of epic proportion. We didn’t have to have this situation unfold. The Biden administration took sanctions off the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is the most influential project that the Russians have. The Trump administration had it sanctioned. It is not up and running.
You don’t have to say we’re taking the sanctions away and we’re giving a pipeline to the Europeans just because Chancellor Merkel wanted it. Look, at the end of the day, Joe Biden maximizes consensus with the Europeans. What he wants is to be applauded by the Europeans.
This is not an America-first policy; this is a consensus-with-the-Europeans’ policy. And what we’ve seen is when you say that you have to have consensus in unity with the Europeans, the Germans get to stand up and say, “We’re not really for SWIFT banking sanctions.” US policy is being vetoed by the Germans because they just don’t want something.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I’m going to quickly recap. So the Nord Stream 2, of course, is this pipeline that’s delivering natural gas in massive quantity from Russia to Germany, bypassing these other states and so forth. Just briefly explain the strategic significance of this and the lifting of the sanctions for the benefit of our audience.
Mr. Grenell: Well, first of all, Germany is dependent upon energy from abroad because they’ve cut nuclear energy. After the Fukushima disaster, what they really decided to do was to, Chancellor Merkel wanted to outsmart the Green Party, which was calling for better energy policy; cleaner energy policy renewables.
And because the Greens were rising and she wanted to stay in power, she made a drastic move to cut nuclear energy. Well then the same thing happened with the Greens continuing to rise on her heels and she made a terrible decision to say, “We’re going to get rid of coal by 2030 in Germany.”
So they put themselves in a box. And by the way, I think it’s really important to remember that the American policy on Nord Stream 1 is “Yes. Russian energy, Russian gas, can be a part of a broad, diversified energy sources.” So US policy is not against Nord Stream 1. But Nord Stream 2, we felt went too far. It allowed the Germans and the Europeans to put themselves in a position where Russia could leverage energy against it.
Now we already know that the Russians do this. They turn energy off and on whenever they want to create leverage. So the largest economy in Europe, the Germans, should not be in a position of being able to be leveraged by the Russians. And they currently are with this Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Mr. Jekielek: Now in your role as with the hat or the past hat of being the ambassador to Germany, the largest economy in Europe, how important is Germany’s position to what everybody else ends up doing over there?
Mr. Grenell: Look, I think Americans make a mistake by pretending that Berlin and Paris are only Europe and they speak for Europe. While they’re important players within the EU, they’re not the only ones. We should be able to talk to all the members of the EU, and get a more broad and constructive agreement.
But Americans, especially Joe Biden for 40 years, are trapped into this idea that “Hey, let’s just get sign-off from Berlin and Paris, and call it the EU.” We have a lot of partners. The Americans have a lot of partners in Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and we should be able to talk to them and hear from them before we just acquiesce to the Germans and the French.
Mr. Jekielek: The Germans say, “We’re not cutting off the SWIFT,” right? Which is probably one of the most powerful financial tools for sanctions. Well, maybe just briefly explain the implications of that here.
Mr. Grenell: Look, again, this consensus idea that Joe Biden cares about when the Germans say, “We’re not signing off on SWIFT, we don’t do SWIFT sanctions,” and therefore the Germans just vetoed our US policy. Certainly, the Germans and others didn’t want us to deny Iran SWIFT sanction access. They wanted a normalized relationship with Iran. The Trump administration said, “No, it’s not in our policy; it’s not in our interest to have this policy.”
So we made the decision to cut Iran off from SWIFT banking sanctions and it worked. The Germans didn’t like it, and they tried to go around it. As a matter of fact, there were EU policies constantly to try to go around it. They failed to go around it, they couldn’t do it. They talked a big game about finding different ways to do it, special purpose vehicles and things, but it never happened.
I think America has to be able to make decisions for our threats, and respond to the threats that we think are priorities, and not let the Europeans. I’ll finish this part by saying, when I was in Germany, I heard from a lot of people that they didn’t feel like Iran was a threat to them like Americans feel threatened by Iran.
When you dig with them, they would say, “Well look, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, they’re not going to use it against Frankfurt, Munich or Berlin.” They believe that. They believe that Iran is going to go after the United States and Israel. They don’t share the same threat assessment that we do, and that’s a problem.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, they don’t think that might impact them a little bit or something, right?
Mr. Grenell: It’s not a priority.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk about China a little bit. So at the Olympics, right at the top of the Olympics, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, signing this 5,000-page agreement; something clearly in the works for a while. What are the implications of that with respect to what’s happening now in Ukraine?
Mr. Grenell: Look, I think that the Biden team is so weak that they are allowing Russia and China to work together. They’re not natural allies; they’re not two countries that have the same goals or think strategically in the same way. They certainly don’t have the same styles.
So we should be able to have, as a US policy, a way to make sure that Russia and China are not ganging up on the West. The West is not doing well. I believe the Germans have left the Western Alliance. They are absolutely for the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, but they don’t want the Trans-Atlantic Alliance to be Western-facing. They want to be everybody’s friend; they want to have a foreign policy like Switzerland.
As long as they can sell cars in Beijing and Tehran and Moscow, they’re going to say, “Let’s be friends with everybody.” It’s why they don’t want crippling sanctions. It’s why they’re telling Estonia, “Don’t arm Ukraine.” It’s a real problem, and I think that we need to call it out that the Germans have left the Western Alliance.
When it comes to Russia and China, there’s got to be a way that we use the Western Alliance to remind both sides that they’re not natural partners and that we can create some tensions there, by emphasizing what we know to be a different set of goals.
Mr. Jekielek: But any thoughts on how that might work?
Mr. Grenell: Well, I spent eight years at the UN and I think that we did a pretty good job of making sure that Russia and China didn’t come together to beat upon us all the time. Again, they’re not natural allies. There are ways that we can emphasize that we can work with one or the other.
I mean, certainly, when it comes to China, we know that India is a competitor. And the more we can make clear that we want a better relationship with India, which I think Donald Trump did brilliantly with Modi, that is going to help. That’s going to be able to help make sure that Beijing doesn’t get their way. I think we have a problem in America because the Chinese have been able to infiltrate Hollywood, academia, business, and our politicians.
As Acting Director of National Intelligence, I had to make sure that we gave defensive briefings to American politicians at the local level, the state level, and the federal level, because they stumbled into a relationship with a Chinese government official or somebody who worked for the Chinese Intelligence Agency, and they didn’t know it.
Mr. Jekielek: Some people are suggesting that China may take advantage of this. I guess the focus of the West is on Ukraine right now. Obviously, there’s this massive focus to potentially make a move on Taiwan, or others are saying it’s a longer game. They really just want to see what happens and how much damage they might suffer if they were to do that. What are your thoughts?
Mr. Grenell: Well, I try not to be in the business of predicting the future. I try to remember that I’m a diplomat and I want to solve problems peacefully. I don’t want to get to the point where the State Department is shoved aside, and the Defense Department has to come in. So I think the diplomats should be talking about these issues. I think that we need to have better diplomats at the State Department in the political appointed positions to be thinking about these issues. These are serious issues.
Right now, because of Joe Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan pullout, there are a lot of countries that are beginning to look at us and say we’re weak. You add UAE issue of the Houthis attacking. That’s another big message for the Middle East. Of course, everyone’s talking about the Taiwan-China issue, but I think these are solved diplomatically.
We need to have diplomats who are unapologetic about America being for America. The America First strategy, I think, is good for the world, and we should articulate that. Why is America First good for the world?
Because when America concentrates on democracy, human rights, the rule of law, we certainly benefit, but the world does too when there are rules. I think we need to start making better decisions about what we do with our foreign policy and the implications for that.
I’ll give you the example of the World Trade Organization. Twenty-plus years ago, we thought if we let China into the World Trade Organization, that they would continue going down this road of reform. They would continue towards human rights, the rule of law. The idea was engagement, and I’m actually for engagement. But I’m also for trying to find a way to benchmark and measure whether engagement worked.
I think by any measure, the Chinese have gotten worse since they’ve been in the World Trade Organization. Human rights have gotten worse in China. The rule of law is worse. So I’m somebody who wants to do engagement, but also wants to say our engagement didn’t work, and so we should try a different strategy.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. I just gave a speech today which included the decoupling of trade from human rights in 1994, by Clinton tearing up this executive order he had that held those together. So there wasn’t this assessment that you’re kind of describing. How important is such an assessment, like the recoupling of human rights and trade, for example. Would that be part of a proper policy?
Mr. Grenell: Look, I think that we’re complicated people, we’re very diverse people, and that you can’t decouple anything, right? Everything is related and it all goes into the criteria to form a policy. I wouldn’t decouple anything.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, recouple in this case.
Mr. Grenell: Right, but I think President Trump didn’t have to worry about coupling, decoupling, or recoupling.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Mr. Grenell: I think he looked at the policy and just said, “Look, there’s a whole bunch of factors here and let’s use all those factors.”
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of diplomacy, I don’t know if this is accurate, but it’s been reported that the Biden administration was attempting to influence the Chinese Communist Party to intervene on Russia. They were showing them intelligence that it really does look like Russia is going to be coming; going to be invading or something like this, and these things fell flat. This is the reporting at least. I don’t know if it’s accurate.
Mr. Grenell: Well, I just gave a speech on the failed diplomacy of all aspects of the Biden Administration. I think that we’ve put forward really weak diplomats who haven’t been able to make the case. It doesn’t surprise me that we’re failing all over.
The political appointees at the State Department; there’s no other way to say it, but they’re inept. And we’ve known this. I mean, you’ve got Wendy Sherman and Anthony Lincoln; they’ve failed so many times—North Korea, Iran—and we keep sending the same people in. It’s a real tragedy.
Mr. Jekielek: I know you didn’t want to talk about this. You wanted to look back, but here we are. We are in this situation now, right? We are where we are. Kyiv, by all accounts, as we’re recording today, has been invaded by Russian soldiers. The Russian messaging is, “Ukrainian military, give up your arms. Don’t put your people in danger anymore.” What should America be doing now?
Mr. Grenell: I mean, again, you’re asking me to give you an assessment of terrible and really terrible choices. We wouldn’t be in this situation if Donald Trump were President. If we had a president who really thought about what was happening. There are implications for your decisions. When you drop sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, don’t be surprised that you’re empowering the Russians.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you feel China has fueled this conflict in any way? How is that handled?
Mr. Grenell: Look, as Acting Director of National Intelligence, it’s going to be impossible for the rest of my life to not ever think that the Chinese are trying to influence everything. They are very savvy. And I’ve been saying constantly, “Russia is a problem. China’s a crisis.”
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Rick Grenell, it’s such a pleasure to have you on again.
Mr. Grenell: Thanks for having me.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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