The following is the transcript of an interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that aired on "Face the Nation" on May 21, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It's good to be back here with you.
FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: Thank you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, President Biden is with the leaders of some of the largest democratic economies in the world, the G7 in Asia. But as the New York Times put it right now, the major potential threat to global economic stability is the United States. How damaging do you think this domestic dysfunction is with the debt ceiling- ceiling standoff?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think it's a real problem. It- it feeds the narrative from China in particular, that our system doesn't work, that it's broken, it's paralyzed, it can't get things done, that- that their model is more stable, and- and actually more effective than ours. So- so, sort of having these episodes of great crisis, and then some solution at the last second, really feeds the notion that- that the U.S. political system isn't working at all.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it is working?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Not very well. You know, I mean, the truth is, in the last year or so some fairly, fairly major legislation got past some of it with bipartisan support. And so, there, there is the possibility of some things being done. But on something like the debt ceiling, and, and so on, the inability to get some of these big things done, I think is a real problem.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think the biggest threat to United States is right now?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think it is the polarization in the country. And- and, you know, we've always had polarization in America. The, if you go back to the Jefferson, Adams presidential race in 1800, the things that were said in that election would fit right into a current political environment. But what's been different, more recently, is not just a measure of paralysis, as indicated by the debt ceiling, but a level of meanness and a lack of civility among our politicians, or the- the sense that somebody who disagrees with you is not just somebody you disagree with, but is an enemy, is a bad person. This lack of civility is- is, I think, something new and- and really is pretty pervasive in the Congress. And it sets a pretty bad example for the rest of the country.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, I think a lot of people listening would agree with you on that, but the solution doesn't seem clear. How do you change that?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I think it starts with- with leaders, and- and you don't have to demonize people to disagree with them. You can say, you know, my opponent has a different point of view. I totally disagree. I think that that would be a terrible mistake, but I also believe that he or she also is trying to do what he thinks, he or she thinks what is best for America. It's pretty simple actually. It's just- it's just treating each other with more civility and- and the- and the reality that as Americans, we're all in this together. And it doesn't matter whether you're from a red state or a blue state. Whatever happens to the country happens to everybody.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Agreed. You recently wrote a letter along with other former defense secretaries to Senate leaders criticizing Tommy Tuberville, the Republican senator, for placing a hold on senior military promotions until the Pentagon reverses its policy in regard to covering expenses for service members who travel to have abortions. What do you think the impact is of that hold?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think there are several impacts. One is that there's criticism in some circles that the military is becoming politicized. Doing this further politicizes the military. It makes the military a pawn in what is otherwise civilian political debates. And- and so that's one consequence. The other consequence is the one pointed out by Secretary Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and others, and that is the impact on the chain of command, on- on having an orderly process of succession and command positions that really matter.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It's like 200 positions?
FORMER SEC. GATES: It was 200. It will be 650 by the end of the year, but it's- it's significant command positions, you're going to have a significant turnover in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All those positions are being held up. If there- this is a civilian political debate, and it ought to be settled in the political arena, not by holding hostage career military officers.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The senator argues it's a matter of principle, that abortion shouldn't be in any way federally subsidized.
FORMER SEC. GATES: That's a- that's a fair point for him to make, but it ought to be resolved in the political process, in the Congress, and- and not in the Pentagon.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, we'll watch how that gets resolved. But to your point about broader military readiness and the environment we're in, you know, President Biden's decision to go to Asia was partly also to show some muscle-flexing to China. And he cut short that trip because of what's happening here at home. Do you see that failure to follow through as having a broader impact?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Clearly, it's had a negative impact, and Papua New Guinea, which he was supposed to visit, be the first president to visit one of the Pacific islands like that. He was supposed to visit Australia, and the Australian press is really critical of not being able to have the visit. So, this domestic crisis, frankly, I think he's- he's right to understand that he needs to be in Washington to get this crisis resolved. But it is an example of where this debt crisis has foreign policy and national security implications.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We're now over two years into the Biden administration, and no cabinet member has traveled to China to date. There are some signs that there may be a bit of a thaw coming here. But the two presidents need to talk. What has to happen before they can get on the phone to each other?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I was encouraged by the- the day-long talks that the National Security Adviser had with his Chinese counterpart a week or so ago in Vienna. Our ambassador, Nick Burns, is now being allowed to see some more senior officials than he's been able to see in the past. But this- this lack of communication is a real problem. You know, even in the worst days of the Cold War, we had the hotline with the- with the Soviets, and then even in the 90s with the Russians, we had agreements on how to deal with incidents, like incidents at sea, and how to make sure they didn't escalate and get out of control. We don't have any of those kinds of communications with the Chinese today. So my highest priority, frankly, would be direct communications linked between our commanders in Hawaii and the Chinese commanders in eastern China. So given all of the military activities in the South China Sea, in the- in the Taiwan Strait. But it's also important for the leaders to talk and to begin to figure out– You know, we are going to be in this contest for a long time and let's just face that reality. And how do we keep it from becoming a military confrontation? How do we limit this to an economic, political, technological contest and avoid a catastrophic conflict between these two countries?
MARGARET BRENNAN: You say limited to economic and technological competition? I mean, that- that seems pretty head on right now. Recently, Beijing reportedly appointed their state security czar to start cracking down on U.S. firms that do business in China. It's getting- it's getting tough on that front.
FORMER SEC. GATES: It is tough. And, and what Xi Jinping made very clear at the party congress a few months ago was that security was going to trump the economy–
– in China.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Isn't that incredible?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, for him, it's all about the power, maintaining and sustaining the power of the Communist Party of China. And that's his highest priority, and he is willing to sacrifice economic growth for that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And that has so many implications.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Absolutely.
MARGARET BRENNAN: If he's willing to put the economy second to state security. I mean, that doesn't necessarily seem the most rational choice for the betterment of the people that–
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I don't think the betterment of the people has ever been the highest priority of the Chinese Communist Party. But the policies that they followed, until Xi Jinping came along, actually did improve the quality of life –
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
FORMER SEC. GATES: of the Chinese people. They brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but basically, he is saying now, the security is more important. And obviously, he- he wants and will, and will do what he can to get economic growth, because that's really the sole source of legitimacy for the party among the people today. But- but on the margins, and maybe even on core issues, they're willing to sacrifice economic growth for control.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And we see now the Commerce Secretary from the U.S. is expected to meet with her Chinese counterpart in Washington, not on Chinese soil, but here. There's the start of some kind of potential opening. But you also have the Biden administration saying they're going to put that national security lens on Chinese investment in the United States, and start tightening that. What do you think of what the administration has done to date? And how dangerous is it to start putting limits on U.S. investment in China?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Sure. Well, first of all, I think that, you know, the political rhetoric is one thing, the economic reality is another. And the trade between the United States and China last year was the biggest in history, ever, despite what the politicians say. So the notion of completely decoupling these two economies, or China from the rest of the global economy, is completely unrealistic. So, I actually think the administration's adoption, the European phrase, of de-risking the economic relationship makes a lot of sense. And what- and what national security adviser Jake Sullivan talks about, is very high fences around a very small yard. So you identify- and this is basically the approach we took with the Soviet Union, ultimately. You identify those technologies that could significantly advance their national security strength, and their military power, and you are very tough on investment on- from them, or our investment going there, or on exports, and of those kinds of technologies to China, you're very tough on those. But then you have these concentric circles, where you have recognized that there's an economic relationship that actually makes sense and benefits both countries. So, I think the approach of- of, and I use this phrase back in the Cold War, was high fences around small yards, and I think that's the right approach. Also, frankly, from the standpoint, speaking to an old intelligence guy, that's- data enables you actually to monitor more carefully, what's actually going and what- and- and to make sure that you can enforce the rules that you're putting in place. If you have 2000 items, 2000 kinds of technology on- on the list, that's impossible to monitor on a global basis. But if it's- if it's a significantly smaller number, but very important technologies, then you're in a much better position to actually enforce the restrictions that you want.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On the more sort of conventional clash, the one you say we need to avoid, a military one, President Biden told "60 Minutes" that he would send U.S. troops to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression. For years, the policy has been arming the Taiwanese to defend themselves. Is that too outdated of a policy? Does it need to be more muscular, like Biden articulated?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, what's interesting to me is, I think the President has now made that quote unquote, slip, four times. And each time the White House spokesman and- and staff have walked that back, that our policy of strategic ambiguity hasn't changed. I think that the most important thing is less what you call our strategy, than what we do. And the important thing is to strengthen our military presence in the region, so that it sends a signal to the Chinese that no matter what the circumstances, any effort to try and take Taiwan by force would- would result in defeat, a significant defeat, for China. So building up Taiwan's strength, military strength, building up our own deterrent capability out there, is important. I think- I think, strategic ambiguity if you will, preserves a greater freedom of action for the United States. Do we really want to commit in advance that we will go to war with China? What if- what if the Taiwanese down the road were to declare independence unilaterally? That's- that's opposed to our policy, we're against that, we've been against that ever since the normalization of relations. We've been telling Taiwan, don't do anything that would imply you're moving in the direction of independence. So, I don't see a reason to- to tie our hands if you will, but it has to be against the backdrop of a significant increase in our military power out there, as a deterrent to China.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Japan's Foreign Minister, excuse me, Japan's Prime Minister said, Ukraine today, maybe East Asia tomorrow. It seems to be there's this increased reference to Taiwan or some kind of military expansion by China as- as looming, as almost inevitable. Do you see the potential for a head to head clash here? Or are we thinking of it in- incorrectly?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, there's always that potential. I mean, the Chinese have- have been building ships like crazy. They now have more ships in the Pacific than we do, and- and they're still building. They are building naval bases in places like Djibouti and looking for them in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and Cambodia and elsewhere. So they are looking to increase the ability of their blue water navy to operate on a global basis. There are even reports that they're looking for a facility on the west coast of Africa. So the Chinese military buildup is a very real thing, and their investment is- is a- is a very significant one, and it began well before Xi Jinping. So I think we have to take it very seriously. And I think- I think the disparity in the size of our navies, even though our ships may be bigger and better technologically, at a certain point, the numbers really matter.
MARGARET BRENNAN: At a time we're talking about cutting spending, potentially, what you're talking about is a huge investment in the defense space.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, don't get me started on Congress and the budget. I mean, the fact is, right now the Pentagon is operating under a continuing resolution. They have had continuing resolutions, like, 15, out of the last 16 years, the Congress failing to have an appropriated budget for the Defense Department at the beginning of the fiscal year. We're halfway through the fiscal year, more than halfway through the fiscal year now. What that means is, they can't start anything new, they can't significantly increase the size of programs or buys. And so at a- at a time, when so many in Congress are talking about the importance of- of- of our military strength, and they're- and they're talking about buying more and adding more to the budget, they have put impediments in place that make it almost impossible for us to do that in any sensible way. They- they have all of these rules, and all these things that they talk about with acquisition reform, and procurement reform and so on. But when you have a continuing resolution, what's the point of any reform? So unless they can get the budget fixed so that the money that they appropriate actually can be spent, our ability to compete with China's really- is really hampered.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, part of that's being negotiated now, alongside the debt ceiling, the budget, we'll see where it ends up.
FORMER SEC. GATES: We'll see.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You famously said that Joe Biden was wrong in foreign policy for 40 years, and I know you get asked about this all the time. But at this point in his presidency, how do you assess his performance?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, on the thing that's most important right now, which is Ukraine, I think that the way that administration used intelligence to alert the Europeans and others to what the Russians were about to do was very important. And I think the way that- that the administration was able to assemble the alliance, bring the alliance together in support of Ukraine, has been very impressive. My problem is that- that they have been, I think, slow in approving the various kinds of weapons systems going to the Ukrainians. And- and- and so you know, there's a debate for a long time: do we send tanks? Well, finally, we sent tanks. Do we send things like the HIMARS and other kinds of capabilities? And we finally did it, but only after months and months of indecision. They've been worrying--
MARGARET BRENNAN: And now it's F-16s.
FORMER SEC. GATES: They've been worrying about, talking about F-16s for many, many months, and now we hear well, we're going to go ahead and allow the training on the F-16s. Well, that's a decision that could have been made six months ago. Truth is, if they had begun training pilots on F-16s six months ago, then those pilots would be able to get into those airplanes this spring. So it's the delays in the decision making process and in getting the- and finally approving the weapons for- for Ukraine. I understand the need to avoid a direct confrontation with the Russians, but we've- I think we learned pretty early on that as long as we weren't providing things that could attack Russia proper, that Putin was not going to retaliate.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, there was just this report, the Ukrainians, and then U.S. officials confirmed that it was a U.S. Patriot missile system that shot down some Russian jets over Russian airspace. That's significant.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Yes. But you know, if they launch it from Russian airspace, then they have to be prepared to have the remains fall on Russian- on the Russian territory.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But things like that start to raise questions about, you know, the weaponry being provided, and escalation, you don't see that as--
FORMER SEC. GATES: I'm- I'm--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Crossing a line?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Given the nature of the weapons that have been provided, and I think you can have agreements with the Ukrainians about the kinds of things you're going to attack. For example, the British are now providing some longer range missiles and they're- they're saying to the Ukrainians, yeah, if you want to use these on any target in your territory, which includes Crimea, go ahead. But they're not saying, go ahead and use these to attack targets deep inside Russia.
MARGARET BRENNAN: A year ago when we spoke, you told me the one glimmer of hope you saw was that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin had united Democrats and Republicans in Washington. There was strong consensus. Do you actually think that's holding?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I do. I think that, in fact, there's kind of a competition on the Hill to see who can be tougher on China. And- and it makes a more nuanced policy by the administration more difficult, because anything that the administration does to try and put a floor on this relationship gets criticized on the Hill as conceding something to the Chinese. But I think by and large, that there is very broad bipartisan support for what the U.S. is doing for Ukrainians, and I think it's also in terms of China.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yet, there are some loud voices raising concerns about U.S. military readiness in terms of drawing down, in particular, U.S. stockpiles to quickly provide arms to Ukraine, or to Taiwan. And the connection to this concept that- that weakens the United States. Donald Trump said last week, we're giving away so much equipment, we don't have ammunition for ourselves right now, we're giving away too much. Is that legitimate?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well I think you have to look at the kinds of things that we're providing and in- in many respects, the kinds of equipment we're giving Ukrainians for this ground war against Russia, are not necessarily the kinds of weapons we would rely on, if we ended up in a confrontation, for example, with China. I think there also is a realization that we have let our production capabilities wither since the end of the Cold War. And finally, people are getting behind the notion we're gonna have to make some long term investments there. I also think that the military, and one of the reasons for the hesitancy, probably, in terms of some of these weapons systems, is that the military is watching very carefully to make sure we don't draw down our stockpiles and some of these weapons too far. And I think they're monitoring that on a very- very closely.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So somewhat of a legitimate concern, but more nuanced, you would say, than just ammunition.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Yes.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But there is arguments, there are arguments being made by Republican senators, I think of Josh Hawley, for example, who said it- it's hard for the U.S. essentially, I'm paraphrasing, but to do two things at once. That by staying focused on Ukraine, that in some way it's a benefit to Xi Jinping's ambitions elsewhere on the planet, that if you look one place, you can't be as robust in the other. Do you think that question of being overstretched is worth a conversation?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I don't think that's the case.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because the last few administrations brought that up in reference to Afghanistan.
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think- I think that we're- we're not overstretched. We're- first of all, it's equipment we're providing to Ukrainians, not troops. So that there is no drawdown of American forces, as there was in Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically large numbers of American troops on the ground. Second, I think it's really important to understand that a weakening- I think getting this right is important, weakening what we're doing in Ukraine actually creates greater danger for Taiwan. If the Chinese believe we can out- be outlasted, if the Chinese believe that we can- that we can be forced out of Ukraine by our domestic divisions, and stop helping Ukraine, I don't understand how anybody thinks that strengthens our position vis-a-vis China when it comes to Taiwan. The reality is, and most- a lot of the critics of- of our support for Ukraine make the point all separately, that the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan had a huge impact on Russia and China and everybody else. Well, if that's the case, then what is the impact of pulling back in Ukraine, where the stakes are even larger than they were in- in Afghanistan? So I think showing strength and resistance to the Russians in Ukraine actually strengthens our position in terms of support for Taiwan, and in deterring China.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I think there is an interesting conversation, though, about America's role in the world. And we're seeing some of the Republican candidates in particular, take some pretty different positions on this. You had Governor DeSantis say Ukraine was a territorial dispute, not necessarily core to U.S. interests at all. Donald Trump won't say he wants Ukraine to win, or call Vladimir Putin a warlord or a war criminal. And those two men are the front-runners. And then over on the other part of the Republican ticket, you have a Mike Pence, you have a Nikki Haley, who talk about this fight in Europe, and winning it as necessary to deterring Xi Jinping in Asia. Do you think where a candidate stands on this issue of Russia and Ukraine really should matter to people at home? Like, what does it say about the candidates?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I think it should matter, I think it's very important where a- where a candidate stands on issues related to core national security interests. And–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because you believe Ukraine is core to U.S. national security interests?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Absolutely. Because if- we have these NATO obligations. If- if Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine, there's no doubt in my mind, that Moldova is next, that Belarus will be incorporated into the original Russian Empire, which is what Putin's trying to recreate. And it creates great danger to the Baltic states and to Poland, where we have treaty alliances, that would require American forces to confront the Russians, so I think- I think this is important. And there are differences of view. And frankly, there are some differences of view on these issues in the Democratic Party as well. But I think- I think what that puts a premium on, is- is the leaders, from the president to the congressional leaders, for explaining why what we're doing is in America's interest.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Why this is important. And I think this is a continuing need for education and explanation to the- to the American people, of why are we doing this? Why is this really matter? And I think, frankly, that neither party has done a very- that leaders in neither party have done a very good job of- of explaining that, and- and particularly the focus on our interests.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. And- and I take your point on both parties, there's often this- it's either existential or it's at the cost of something domestic, right? That somehow arming Ukraine takes away from the potential to invest at home. That argument is made in both parties. When you look at someone like Ron DeSantis, he has said, you know, that the U.S., when he talked about the Bush administration, had a messianic impulse, talking about promoting democracy around the world. They didn't have a clear-eyed view of American interests. Narrowing the definition of American interests seems to be kind of at the core of this debate within Republican circles right now. Some would call it Jacksonian worldview. Just what do we get?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Sure. I think- I think my own view is that- that we, in some cases, were too ambitious in our aspirations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was clearly important that we take out the Taliban after 9/11. I've- I've written, I think we should have in 2002, basically, pulled back in Afghanistan. So I think- I think that the- the- the challenge is that in trying to make these countries better, we got involved in nation building that was beyond the time limits that an administration was going to have and beyond the resources that America should actually invest in, trying to make those things happen. So I think- I think I come back to what's a- what's a realist view of our- of our actual national interest. And that's where we ought to place our bets. Because that's also, I think, where you can rally significant support on the part of the American people.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On the issue of Ukraine, the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, testified that the U.S. assessment is that Vladimir Putin is, quote, very unlikely, to use a tactical nuclear weapon. But the bravado continues. Do you still have concern that this could escalate? Or are we entering this sort of slow, grinding, war of attrition?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the chances of Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon are not zero, but they're very, very low. First of all, there's no military value in it. The way the wars- the way the troops are dispersed and so on, a tactical nuclear weapon has only a very limited and localized impact. But the opprobrium that would fall on the Soviet- on Russia, for using a tactical nuclear weapon. Countries like India, and others that have kind of been on the fence would get off that fence immediately. And- and the potential for NATO's retaliation, NATO wouldn't retaliate with a tactical nuclear weapon. But it would engage Russia much more directly I think, if there were the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. He also has his partner without limits, Xi Jinping, twice, publicly telling him not to use tactical nuclear weapons. So there's just- there's no- there's no money in it for Putin. And I think his ability to escalate is- is pretty limited. I mean, the- the Russians have pretty much thrown what they got into this fight in Ukraine now, maybe they could undertake some kind of sabotage or other kinds of actions in Western Europe and so on, I suppose those- those are options, but they all have similar risks for Russia. So I think that the risk of- of- of a significant escalation on the part of the Russians is pretty limited at this point.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But not necessarily at a point where we're tipping towards negotiation.
FORMER SEC. GATES: No, and I think- I think, first of all, the- the- a negotiation will depend on the situation on the ground. And- and it remains to be seen what this Ukrainian counter offensive, when it will start and what it will accomplish. I personally think that negotiations are pretty far in the future, I think this fight will continue, and particularly where I mean, either way, if the counter offensive is really successful, or if it's not, the fighting will continue, until one side or the other is exhausted. And- and- and Putin's bet is that he can outlast the Ukrainians, outlast the Europeans, and outlast us. And Xi Jinping is watching this very carefully. So this is another reason I think, for us to stay the course, and supporting- and supporting Ukrainians. At some point, there may be a- a willingness to, in effect, freeze the conflict, and have some sort of- I think- I think the idea of a peace treaty or of a permanent solution, if you will, is very unlikely. What you might have is a situation where the Ukrainians have recaptured much of their territory, although not all, and- and the Russians are willing to settle for holding on to some piece of eastern Ukraine and- and things stop, and then you probably have a situation that looks a lot like what we saw between 2014 and 2022, between the invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, and the all out invasion. And under those circumstances, that's the point at which I think NATO and Western countries led by the United States have to decide what kind of long term security assurances are we prepared to give to Ukraine to make sure that Putin or his successor doesn't start up the war again, that the cost would be so high that they wouldn't start the war again.
MARGARET BRENNAN : What should cross that line in terms of unacceptable Chinese support for Russia's war?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Oh, I think- I think any provision of actual weaponry-
MARGARET BRENNAN: Ammunition.
FORMER SEC. GATES: --to- to Russia would be a problem. Whether it's ammunition or missiles, you know- you know, anything along those lines. We know that they're providing dual use things for Russia, they're doing- they're providing them a lot of semiconductors, they're providing them with drones and- and things like that. And- but the Chinese are- have been very careful so far about what they've provided to the Russians so that they don't end up crossing our- our line on sanctions and getting the secondary sanctions imposed on- on China--
MARGARET BRENNAN: But they're financially benefiting from this war.
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think that it- I think there are both upsides and downsides for China in this, you know, you got the impression of this great alliance, their partnership without limits and so on, in terms of opposing democracies, and especially the United States, but- but I think Putin has gotten himself into trouble. And the truth is, Russia is going to end up much weaker when this war stops than it was before it started. So- so Xi's partner has been significantly weakened by this war. And that's got to worry him as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you make of this feuding that appears to be happening among Russian fighters, you had that video released by the- by Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group, Wagner group, really criticizing the defense minister of Russia, saying he's not giving me the ammunition, and he's lying about the war. What's happening here?
FORMER SEC. GATES: My view is, this is all taking place, with Putin's approval.
MARGARET BRENNAN: A theater?
FORMER SEC. GATES: This is- this is Putin, dividing and conquering. Putin, given how badly the war has gone, has to worry, at some point, that his military decides he's a problem. By giving Prigozhin power and strengthening Prigozhin and letting him criticize the Ministry of Defense, Putin keeps them divided. If the two came together and decided Putin was a problem, then Putin would have a really big problem. So, my view is that- that Putin is sort of orchestrating this to a degree in the sense- or at least letting it go forward, because it serves his interest in keeping these two powerful forces at each other's throats, rather than potentially beginning to collude against him.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because it's about his survival.
FORMER SEC. GATES: It's all about his survival.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I was looking at an interview you gave to "Face The Nation" back in 2014, to my colleague at the time, and it was after Vladimir Putin had initially invaded that eastern portion of Ukraine, and you were talking about, well, the U.S. doesn't really have a lot of leverage to stop Russia. You said, "as far as I'm concerned, that's a done deal. Nothing we can do to change that situation." I heard a few echoes of that in what you were talking about with how this war ends. Is your assessment that Crimea will have to stay with Russia, that the Donbas, or large parts of it, will have to stay with Russia? Is that what you're saying?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think in the- in- in for the foreseeable future, that Crimea will be a heck of a reach for the Ukrainians. I- I don't think- I think that's going to be very, very difficult for them. The Russians are deeply entrenched there. They've spent the last- the whole winter preparing for a counteroffensive in that area. And- and they are- they have to hold on to Crimea, if for no other reason, their huge naval base, that's their only major naval base in the Black Sea. But down the road, I can see an agreement in which, first of all, that- where the first stage is, even if there's a cease-fire, where the Ukrainians never concede, and the West never acknowledges Russian sovereignty over Crimea. I can- and that's a situation similar to when Stalin seized the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We never recognized that those countries were part of the Soviet Union–
MARGARET BRENNAN: But they had effective control.
FORMER SEC. GATES: For 50 years.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
FORMER SEC. GATES: So my- what I'm saying is, I think you could have a situation where we never recognize that, and at some point down the road with a different kind of Russian government, you could have a negotiation fostered by the West, in which, for some price, the Russians agree to vacate parts of Crimea, or you know, they're going to keep that naval base regardless. But I think you could have a negotiation years from now, after a cease-fire, where Ukraine could get back those parts of Ukraine that Russia has occupied, but I think that's in the- in the pretty distant future.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Distant future. Not in Vladimir Putin's lifetime?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Probably not.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Not in the next decade potentially. I want to ask you a little bit about something you said last year, when I was asking you about the state of the country. You said it would concern you if President Trump ran for office again. He is currently the front-runner for the Republican nomination. What's your level of concern now?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I'm concerned because, among other things, because- he has- he has been very clear that he wants to dramatically change, if not dismantle, some major institutions in the American government. And, you know, my attitude for a long time has been, many of the institutions in our government need dramatic reform. But those institutions are critical to the preservation of our democracy, preservation of our economic well-being, and, frankly, our freedom. And so, the- my view is the- the platform should be these institutions need real reform, and some ideas on how do you reform them? How do you make them more responsive? How do you make sure that there aren't people doing wrong things?
MARGARET BRENNAN: In other words, don't defund the FBI, are you saying?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I think defunding the FBI would be a crazy idea.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. But you're talking with a degree of nuance and understanding of intricacies of government that's just not where the rhetoric is.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Oh, totally not.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So is your concern limited to that? I mean, it's- it's truly- you believe that the institutions of our democracy are at risk if Donald Trump gets reelected to the presidency?
FORMER SEC. GATES: I'm just reading what he says. I think that that's a- that's a very real risk. And that's just based on, again, what he says.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. But he may be the nominee for the party.
FORMER SEC. GATES: That's true.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What does this next two year period look like for us?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, the interesting thing to me is- is the polls that suggest that significant majorities of the American people across the board would rather have two very different candidates for president than the choice they're likely to be given. And- and the question is, you know, it is a long time between now and November of 2024 so who knows what will happen, but it- I think a lot of people are discomfited by that possible choice.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, President Biden is 81 and Donald Trump is 76. Do you think that their age is an impediment? Or do you think that there's risk in crowding out, for example, the next generation?
FORMER SEC. GATES: So- so when- when I did this interview with you all in 2016, in May of 2016, I said then that I thought the two candidates were too old. And I said, you know, I'm basically Biden's age. And I said, you know, and this was five years ago, I said, my fastball isn't what it was. My energy level isn't what it was. I still think I'm pretty with it. But- but yeah, I mean, here is this incredibly vibrant, young country, the United States of America. And- and these are the candidates that we're going to get. And I think young people in particular look at that and say, whoa, those people don't really represent what I- what I believe or the kind of modern approach to governance that- that I think we ought to have. I think it- I think it discourages a lot of people.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Discourages people from- from showing up to vote? Discourages people from entering government?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well potentially- well, the voting has actually not been bad in the last few elections, but I think it discourages them about the prospects for getting at some of the problems that we talked about earlier, about how do you get past this paralysis? How do you get past this lack of civility? Maybe you need a new generation of people who have a different approach to dealing with others.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there any glimmer of hope there that you see on the horizon or new talent?
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well, I think- I think there- there is actually, I think there are several caucuses in the House in particular, that- that are looking for ways to have more pragmatic problem solving in Congress, to have more bipartisanship. There's- there's one caucus that's comprised almost entirely of former military people who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the For Country Caucus, that's now got two dozen members, that basically, to- to get the support, they have to agree to a number of steps in terms of cooperating on a bipartisan basis, and about half of them are Democrats and half are Republicans. And you've got several other caucuses along those lines. So yeah, those give me- those give me hope, and- and- and I think- but I think- I think it's got to start- we can't start solving some of these big problems until we have some restoration of civility and where people actually respect each other.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, thank you for the civil conversation today, Mr. Secretary.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Thank you. Always my pleasure. Thank you.
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