On this episode of High Noon, Claudia Rosett joins Inez Stepman to give her perspective on the ongoing war in Ukraine from her 37 years of experience reporting in uprisings and war zones all over the world. A former Moscow bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Rosett discusses how America and the West’s weakness has led us to this point, what can or should be done about the devastation in Ukraine now, and whether or not America is still the land of freedom as juxtaposed to authoritarian systems around the world.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.


Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. This week, I’m really honored to welcome IWF’s own Claudia Rosett to High Noon. Claudia’s our foreign policy fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. She’s also an award-winning journalist, and she has 37 years of experience reporting overseas, including very relevantly, for the discussion we’re about to have, in the former Soviet Union. She was a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal. She served on their editorial board as well, and she was their bureau chief, which we’ll talk about, in Moscow during the immediate post-Soviet period. She’s had many other posts and many other awards over the years, including, for example, an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence for her on-the-ground coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising.

But I wanted to especially highlight her experience in the former USSR because, today, we’re going to continue the discussion from last week’s podcast with Boris Ryvkin, about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now that we’ve discussed some of the longer history with Boris, and how Russians and Ukrainians see the landscape of that war and how they see, let’s say, the history of the last, not only just 30 years, but let’s say 300 years or longer, I wanted to ask Claudia how we here, in the United States and our allies in Europe, fit into this conflict, on the other side of the world, or what our interests might be and what we need to understand. So welcome, Claudia, to High Noon. It’s great to have you.

Claudia Rosett:

Thank you, Inez, I’m honored to be here with you.

Inez Stepman:

So first off, what’s your sense of the situation on the ground right now? So we’re speaking in the afternoon of Tuesday, the 8th, this will be released tomorrow, Wednesday. But right now, we’re looking at the aftermath of these apparently-failed talks between Zelenskyy and the Russian government, we’re looking at the Ruble bouncing around and collapse in free fall, right? We’re looking at the economic impact of Western sanctions in Russia on the Russian economy. I mean, where does the situation stand right now, and what might we see…. I’m not going to ask you to predict where this war is going because I think that’s impossible, but what should we be looking for in the next week or two, or the next month, as indications of where this might go?

Claudia Rosett:

Thanks, Inez. Well, the situation is desperate. The Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. Russia’s, Putin’s forces, are demolishing great swathes of their country. They’re shelling refugees or people who are simply trying to get out of areas that are under attack. This is actually standard Russian war practice. That’s how they do it. We’ve seen it in Chechnya. This is how the Russian armed forces fight. And in the bigger scene, why does this matter to us? It’s not really very far away. I mean, we talk about an interconnected world. You can get in your phone and FaceTime somebody in Siberia, or you could until Putin began putting on constraints I now worry about. But this is fundamentally the showdown of our age. This is tyranny versus freedom. This is Russia saying, Putin saying he thinks he has a claim to the ancient lands of what he regards as the sort of mystical mother Russia empire, and he’s going to take it.

We have seen this coming for years and years. In fact, way back in 1994, when I was working in Moscow, I went down to Crimea, which was then part of Ukraine, which is part of Ukraine officially but it’s now in Russia’s possession, and you could see this war coming then. It just took a while. I came back to Moscow and wrote, saying, “This is the fuse. This is where the spark will be for the next big war in Europe.” And this is real war. This isn’t a local skirmish. What’s going on is massive. And we’re hearing a lot about Putin’s logistical setbacks, and there’s no question that the Ukrainians are putting up a much fiercer resistance than many expected, that Russians are running into problems ranging from mud to poorly maintained equipment. At the same time, the country of Ukraine is just being ravaged right now.

I mean, if this were going on in your town, tanks rolling in, shells blowing up the houses, people fleeing for their lives with nothing but a bag, that’s very disruptive. And one of the things that’s been very hard to watch with this, so we could debate the intricacies of strategy and so on, is there is the great mighty United States, all our incredible power and we are the world’s leading military, still. We are a superpower, sitting there with our NATO allies, some better than others, but the Poles are good on this, watching effectively from behind the NATO defensive line, sending over weapons and equipment and advice. But basically, the thing I read recently was Ukraine in the Colosseum; we say we’re standing with Ukraine. Under President Biden, the U.S. administration has ended up more in the spectator seats at the Colosseum, and Ukraine is out there doing single combat. And I think someday historians will look back at this and say, “Why did they all sit there and watch?”

Inez Stepman:

So there’s a lot to get into there, but before we get fully into, for example, what it means to have a very sort of Cold War framing in 2022, about freedom and tyranny, when so many Americans, frankly including myself, are convinced that tyranny is coming for us here at home and what that means. But before we get to some of those questions, you were in Moscow reporting on, essentially, what eventually became Putin’s government and Putin’s regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So you were there, I believe from 1992 or 3, through 1996 or something?

Claudia Rosett:

‘93 to ’96. I had been working for seven years out of Hong Kong, covering Asia for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which I thought was just the best job in the world. It was fascinating. You [unknown word rummed] all over Asia. There was all this development going on. They had had this wave of democratic revolutions there. In the Philippines, when they threw out Marcos, although that went pretty wrong. In Taiwan, where they lifted martial law and it’s now a vibrant democracy. In South Korea, where they’re about to have a presidential election. By the time this airs, they may have had it. But basically, all this was going on and then it got to China, Tiananmen, and they shot down those demonstrators. Burma also tried an uprising, didn’t succeed. But I went from that to Russia. It was interesting: China at the time, nobody wanted to talk to you after Tiananmen, they were terrified.

In Russia, everybody wanted to talk. The Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and nothing worked. I mean, really down to the level of the doorknob at the entry of the building where the Wall Street Journal had an office, I went there to work for their news bureau and ended up as their bureau chief in Moscow. But the doorknob broke. You can’t get into a door if the knob won’t engage. Things like that, screaming up to the Yemeni attaché in the floor above, “Can you please come down and open the door?” The electricity didn’t work, nothing worked. Everybody was improvising. The complaints of businessmen in those days, all these businessmen were flooding in to see what could they do in Russia was, in China, if you bribe somebody, you knew who to bribe, you got somewhere. In Russia, you didn’t know who to bribe, and if you did, you didn’t even know if they’d be alive a week later, they were killing each other. It was, in a sense, the world’s biggest piñata grab was going on. And one of the things that’s important to understand about Russia is why was the Soviet Union able to last for so long, as this tremendous destructive force, spreading around the world an ideology that beggared people and oppressed them brutally? One of the big reasons was Russia is just a treasure house of resources. We’re hearing about all the oil and gas right now. This is a vast country. The fable of spanning 11 time zones. It really does, from the borders of Eastern Europe to the Pacific. And there are all these resources in there. And the Soviet Union could waste them with great profligacy and still carry on. All that oil that they’re now selling in world markets, or trying to at the moment, that was available. It was badly pumped. It was miserably inefficient, but they had huge resources. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a great scramble because people knew that whoever got hold of those resources was going to be very wealthy. That was the beginning of the rise of the Russian oligarchy, and it had its roots in what they call the Red Directors. A lot of the Soviet Party bosses who ran sectors or huge industries, factories, ended up in the privatization that took place, back in charge, or their proteges. Or people got it and you ended up with this oligarchy, and everybody was trying to figure out the rules.

It was a really violent, rough place. It was very, very interesting, but… Inez, I’ll tell you an anecdote — and I don’t want to give a monologue here, so jump in anywhere — there was an evening in the fall of 1993, when I was sitting in the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau, and the power went out, and I had just gotten a tip that one of the reform figures, Yegor Gaidar of the day, was about to return after being out of the cabinet, he was about to come back in. Okay?

I needed to chase this down. Everybody else was away from the bureau that evening. It was my problem. So I’m trying to get the story verified, and it was the evening from hell. It was freezing. It gets cold in Russia, early in the fall. The electricity was out, the phones weren’t working, and everything was just wrong. I finally managed to cobble together workarounds and I got the story done, and the power came back on. And I phoned a political scientist in the United States, the late Douglass North, who won a Nobel prize for his work on the interactions between institutions and economies, how these things develop. And I asked him, “How long is it going to take before Russia gets this sorted out, before they’re a functioning democratic polity?” Because everybody was saying, “Well, this could take two years, five years, God knows, 10 years.”

Douglass North said something very wise. He said, “This will take at least two generations, if they get there. You don’t just have to install the framework of democratic institutions. You have to create a society where it’s really understood how they work. That’s generations. And that’s the real timeframe here.” That’s where they were actually heading and then, as the ’90s wound on, they ended up with Vladimir Putin, replacing Boris Yeltsin on the auspicious date of New Year’s Eve, 1999. The beginning of the new millennium. And that is where we get to Russia really beginning what is now its rise as a ruinous force for tyranny in today’s world.

Inez Stepman:

Sorry for people who were watching on YouTube, I had to try to…. I’m recording from the Heritage Foundation. There was somebody holding conversation right outside, so I was trying not to interrupt Claudia’s story. But, yeah, I think one of the things that is hard for a lot of people in America to understand, and it’s the underlying logic behind some of these sanctions, right? Why do the Russian people, and I’ve always been a believer that actually they do, they do largely support Putin. There’s people who are in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, the liberal elites of that, relatively speaking, of that society, they haven’t supported Putin for a long time, but he has a base of support.

Claudia Rosett:

Yes, he has. Yeah.

Inez Stepman:

And I think one of the things that’s difficult for Americans to understand is why would Russians want this kind of system? And I think the answer lies largely in what you just said: it’s been bad, but the transition out of communism did not function in Russia in the same way that it did for some of the Warsaw Pact countries. And in response to what you said about generations, in part that’s because Russia had communism since 1917, and it was a internal revolution that brought communism to Russia. Whereas, for example, in Poland, where my family’s from, it was imposed on Poland by the Warsaw Pact, by being, essentially, an orbit state of the Soviet Union.

And I think that’s actually something that the right and the left here, for different reasons, don’t really understand. There’s been kind of a divergence in fate with that, what you just described in Russia, the post-USSR period, on the one hand and, let’s say, like Poland and the Baltic states that did join NATO, on the other hand. Which is not to say that, for example, Polish democracy is perfect or they don’t have institutional problems, or they don’t have corruption, but fundamentally, that border between Poland and Ukraine represents not only a fourfold increase in per capita GDP, but represents wildly different paths from coming out of that Soviet period.

And I think this is something that, for example, I think the left underestimates why Putin might be a better alternative or might seem like a better alternative to many Russians, than the free-for-all you just described, where nobody knows the rules and it’s kind of the law of the gun. And at least under Putin, the oligarchy has some rules and is a little more predictable for people. But on the flip side, I feel like now some on the new right in America, don’t understand that if you’re Ukrainian and you’re looking across the border at some of these Baltic states or Poland, and you’re saying, “Wow, one, they’re way richer than we are. Two, they have way more functioning liberal democracies than we do.”

And I think there’s an enormous pressure and it really is, even though I don’t think I would now frame it as tyranny versus freedom, there is a real conflict of systems here, like a conflict of civilizations, on the border sits Ukraine. On that border, not only that national border, but that border between systems of what has happened within the Warsaw Pact countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, essentially it has stayed in the Russian orbit and within the orbit of the Russian system, a Russian influence system, and people are fed up with that when they look across the border in Poland or in the Baltic states, and they see a very different system, and now there’s no Berlin Wall, right?

Claudia Rosett:

Well, I’m going to, as they say in Washington, respectfully disagree on tyranny versus freedom, but that’s where the IWF lets us disagree in this debate. Because I do see it that way, and I think there are shades within. What you’re saying about Poland is quite right. It’s not the world’s paragon of democracy, but it is a basically-free society and there’s all the difference in that. And one of the things that applies is, when the Soviet Union collapsed, when the Eastern satellite, the Warsaw Pact countries, broke free at 1989, as they began to bust loose, there were people in those countries in Warsaw Pact, in Eastern Europe, with living memory of a different system. They knew how it functioned. They understood what the relationships were under a different kind of rule. In the Soviet Union, there was really nobody like that.

They had lived under it for so many generations. It was 74 years from the Bolshevik revolution until the Soviet collapse. And it was a different prospect to try to reform. The Wall Street Journal editorial page years ago compared it to, institutionally to, a dead lake. And Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, famous for an essay on dictatorships and double standards, made an essential point that there are various kinds of dictatorships and, well, none of them is attractive. The thing about communist systems and organization, Leninist party organizations, and we see this in China today, is they have a hold on power that is very, very hard to get rid of. I mean, your average more run-of-the-mill dictator can be overthrown and you can put something else in. Communism is very hard to get rid of.

It’s the reason it’s carried on. It’s not collective economic communism in China, but it is a Leninist party, and they have a profound grip. And Vladimir Putin, who was born under Stalin in what was then Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, his early career was as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB. So he was just steeped in the methods they used to control people. In fact, when you look at him today, what is it that a foreign intelligence officer and the KGB specializes in? It is sussing out the weak points of people and manipulating them, figuring out how can you use carrot and blackmail to target, and list, recruit, blackmail, strongarm, use them? And that’s effectively what he’s doing to the West right now, with this war in Ukraine.

And the thing with Ukraine is, yes, they have terrible problems with corruption, they had emerged from a Soviet Union that inflicted on them everything from Stalin’s famine to the RBMK reactor that was Chernobyl, to the decapitation of any leadership that stood up in Ukraine, by the Soviet Communist Party. They cut down anyone like Zelenskyy today. If he had emerged in Soviet times, would’ve died in the Gulag or been assassinated in some horrible way. He wouldn’t have been there to become president. Ukraine had a chance to breathe, and they looked west, and they didn’t want what remained in the Soviet Union. In Russia, we don’t really know. There are two things at work. One is, there are a lot of people in Russia who resented the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. They had been the other superpower confronting the U.S. and they were an oppressive, destructive, ruinous superpower, but they were important. And suddenly, there was Russia with women, old women, lined up on the street trying to sell, and this is a genuine scene out of the time, a bar of soap, so they could go and buy dinner.

And a lot of people there, on the older side, remembered Soviet days with a certain nostalgia. Where I once asked one of the young reformers, “Why are they missing the days when they had to line up for toilet paper?” And he said, “You don’t understand. They’re missing the days when they were young enough to have teeth. It was their youth.” I mean, we all look back in some haze, but it was terrible. And if you read Solzhenitsyn, if you look at what they actually did to anyone who disagree, which is now it’s coming back, it’s not Soviet collectivism, it’s economically much more efficient.

Putin has tapped into the natural resources, makes a lot of money out of oil and gas, but they just passed a law in Russia where there’s now a 15-year prison sentence for anyone who puts out what the government decides is disinformation about the war in Ukraine. Foreign correspondents are running for the border to get out, and in Russia, people are terrified to speak up. So it’s very hard to do something inside Russia. There are people who like the relative order, but I would be careful of assuming that if they had any other alternative presented, that they wouldn’t jump for it at this point, but it’s very dangerous to do that.

Inez Stepman:

I just think we can’t know. For all the reasons you just said, it’s very, very difficult to estimate what Putin’s actual support is in Russia. But I think the reason that I disagree with your framing of freedom versus tyranny, is actually kind of the opposite from what you just said. I don’t disagree that, in any way, that this system, both the Soviet Union and what came after it in Russia, is a form of tyranny. I guess I’m less sure about the freedom side of it, that this conflict that does seem very much like launching us back into the Cold War frame, or even, I would say, into a 20th century generally frame, where we have a larger country swallowing its neighbor through direct invasion.

This doesn’t feel like the 21st century or the last, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, even the conflicts that the U.S. has been involved with have been very, very different in nature versus insurgents. For example, we have gone to war to try to install democracy as an alternative, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those obviously shook our confidence deeply in what we are and are not able to do around the world. So I guess the part of it that I’m skeptical, and maybe this really goes to the heart of it…. I think a lot of Americans now are not certain that our system brings freedom. And they’re definitely not certain that we should be a muscular presence in the world anymore.

They’re exhausted by what I think are primarily mistakes and failures on the part of the foreign policy elite in this country since we won the Cold War. And that doesn’t mean that they’re isolationist, I don’t think the polls actually show that Americans are isolationist, but I do think that they have, rightly, a skeptical attitude when they are presented with some situation. When they hear things, for example, about the tyranny that does very much exist in Putin’s Russia, even what you just said, they think, “Okay, yeah, we are not yet going to the Gulag,” but there are punishments here for putting “disinformation,” right?

You get taken off of social media platforms. What’s happening now to people is way beyond Twitter, right? You’re losing your access to your bank account. Suddenly, you can’t use private transit like Uber and Lyft. And so that’s, I think, the part of the framing that I disagree with. I wish this conflict was happening in an America of the 1980s, because I think we’ve changed so much since the 1980s, and we are not able to articulate or defend what you’re calling freedom, which I think is the real description of the American system, which I think is the best in the world. But I think that’s where some of that skepticism is coming from, because we don’t feel like it’s the best system in the world. In fact, none of our institutions think that we have the best system in the world. It’s like a very different posture to fight a Cold War from.

Claudia Rosett:

Well, the news is, if America’s not going to stand up for what we call freedom, and yes, we can tease it out to where, “What does it mean?” But we all know it when we see it, I think. If America’s not going to stand up for that, there is no cavalry to come over the hill. We are the cavalry, we’re it. And we’ve been the bulwark since the end of World War II. And yes, in Europe, but President Biden’s effective failure to deter Russia apparently had quite an effect on the German chancellor. Well, Olaf Scholz suddenly turned around and said, “Oh, maybe we better actually defend ourselves,” after producing a lifestyle for generations in Germany, that was very big on comfortable living in welfare and very short on actual defense spending. So in Europe, it’s just something —

Inez Stepman:

That 2% target from the Trump administration seems pretty reasonable now, huh?

Claudia Rosett:

Yeah. And the fact is, this is the way the world is. It would be wonderful if we fully had our act together. Right now, America is rather a mess. And all the things you’re describing are true. At the same time, you and I have the freedom right now. We might be canceled. I don’t know. They might knock us off this platform, but you and I have the freedom to sit here and say what we think, and that matters. We’re probably not going to have a knock on the door at three in the morning, and somebody’s going to take us away in a black car, and we won’t be seen again. That’s Russia. That is a real difference. It’s the difference we’re seeing in Hong Kong right now, where we saw, two and a half years ago, one of the most articulate rousing defenses of freedom I’ve heard in this millennium.

I was wishing, when that was going on in Hong Kong, that America was as clear about why freedom matters, as I was hearing from 18-year-old kids in the streets of Hong Kong. China moved in, basically shut the place off. It is a cloistered prison at this stage, where they have a law that makes it criminal to say anything you think that might offend the Chinese Communist Party, and we couldn’t have this conversation safely. You would be at risk of ending up in prison. And that’s a real difference. And I think the thing is, what is the… Who said it, “America always does the right thing after it’s exhausted every other alternative?” Well, folks, we’re getting there. And the answer is, it looks pretty hopeless in America right now. We have the whole woke culture, which is… it’s juvenile, frankly. It’s harmful in adult ways, but these are adolescent preoccupations.

The world is bigger and rougher than that, that’s what we’re seeing in Ukraine. And the sense I’ve had for quite some time, as this whole woke, green thing has rolled on, is we’re all busy with our domestic fights. It’s like we’re all arguing over who gets the cake, and meantime, there are real monsters outside. I mean, they’re not imaginary. What we’re seeing Putin doing to Ukraine right now is real. When a rocket lands in your house, it’s real. When an army comes in, no matter how unfair it is, it’s real, and whatever one’s internal dilemmas over how to self-identify, there’s a moment where when somebody points a gun at your head, it crystallizes how you behave, and we’re heading for that. In a sense, that’s where a lot of things were in America as World War II broke out.

Remember, that started in Poland two years before America finally entered the war after Pearl Harbor. We sat and we provided, at least to Britain, Britain has been the best backer of the Ukrainians to date. They’ve sent them the most help. They’ve done useful things, and I think part of that is that the British know, and some of them remember, what it was like to be a lone country fighting this huge power. That’s where they were as World War II began, until we finally came into the war and Winston Churchill said, “Hallelujah, now I can go finally sleep.” But the fact is, America has been a dreadful mess for a while now. Well, maybe we need to pull up our socks because Americans, when they get done being ridiculous on various fronts, there’s a fundamental American character that I don’t think is gone, and it’s going to be needed because there really is a showdown. Behind Russia is a much bigger, more threatening power, and that’s China, and they make no secret of it.

The same way Putin said he wanted Ukraine years ago, and yes, he does. That’s what he’s doing. China wants to dominate the world. That sounds like something out of a bad movie, but that’s actually what the dictator of China wants. And if you watch what he’s really doing, that’s where he’s going. And when he and Vladimir Putin announced this “no limits partnership” at the beginning of the Olympics in February, of course, it’s not no-limits. Of course there are limits. They aren’t idiots, but that was for our benefit. But it’s a very worrying thing. You were talking earlier about an axis. There’s sort of a conglomerate of evil here, and I think if you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, evil is a good word. One of the voices I miss right now in all this is one of the leading voices for freedom out of Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, who was publishing a very popular newspaper, pro-democracy, full of interesting news. He’s been in prison for more than a year. We’re not hearing from him because China put him in prison. That’s what we need to step up to in America, Inez.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I certainly agree that the world isn’t going to wait for us to have our domestic fight, as existential as that domestic fight may be. I’m thinking now of a parallel, actually, of Russia withdrawing from World War I, when it has its own internal revolution. I don’t think we’ve gotten that bad yet, but I definitely don’t think the monsters outside the door are going to wait, or that they aren’t monsters; I was just maybe trying to explain why I think a lot of people now on the right, and I’ve been very disappointed to see this, frankly, there’s so many people who believe that because our own regime is ideologically corrupt in the ways that it is, that alternatives to that regime must in some way, have some kind of valid point.

And I think that’s a childish response to the internal problems that the United States faces. But I did want to ask you about this axis that’s developing, right? And one thing is for sure, we wouldn’t see the offices of corporate America — right now, I live in New York, and I was just walking around the other day, and every corporate building in New York is lit up in yellow and blue for Ukraine. One thing is absolutely for certain: that won’t be happening if the Chinese Communist Party decides it wants to take Taiwan, because our own corporations are so more heavily dependent. In some ways, Russia is the easier case, because even though we are economically linked with Russia, we’re far, far more economically linked with China. What is this axis that’s developing between Russia and China? I know that you have a piece out talking about how Iran figures into this. I mean, how is this essentially anti-American order, developing in the world?

Claudia Rosett:

We’re not stopping it, is the answer. I mean, it was going to come along anyway. The thing is, human condition. You don’t just get rid of bad things and then they stay gone. We’re complicated creatures, we’re angels and animals at the same time. And yes, it was likely to come back. There was the victory in the Cold War and, very soon after that, we went on to Srebrenica, the first devastation of Grozny, and then finally September 11th, but what’s happening right now is, America really is still a superpower. And in the ’90s, you saw all these people deploring and go, “Oh, that’s not good. America has too much power.” I was kind of okay with that, Inez. If somebody’s got to have power, you can go and endlessly say, “Well, America’s not perfect.”

Well, no, it’s not, but it’s a lot better than most of the places as I’ve seen. And as time went on, as we began the war on terror, what to do about the attack on New York and Washington? And other bad actors began looking, finding opportunities, and you began to see this rise. Putin takes power as the new millennium begins. In China, they had a plan for a long time. It’s known as hide-and-bide: hide your light and bide your time. Well, they’re emerging from that under Xi Jinping, who became the head of the Communist Party there in 2012, and very bad things are following on that. And what keeps happening, and I’m very worried right now, that President Biden is presenting to the world, is we keep backing away. That might sound strange, since right now, you know we’re banning Russian oil and sending weapons, sending javelins to Ukraine.

We didn’t actually stop this. President Biden invited it. He came in, he choked off U.S. energy, killed the Keystone pipeline. Doesn’t want drilling on federal lands. It’s all very virtue signaling. Then the debacle in Afghanistan. Then as Putin began this visible, huge buildup along the edge of Ukraine’s borders, we went into this frenzy of diplomacy, which didn’t stop anything. And while that was going on, we resumed these Iran nuclear talks. Okay, the Iran nuclear talks were the passion of President Obama. He was going to get a deal to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and they negotiated for more than a year. And they came up with a deal with the permanent five of the security council, America, Britain, France, China, Russia, plus Germany, with the European Union presiding at the talks. They all negotiated with Iran a deal that didn’t actually stop Iran getting the bomb.

It was full of these sunset clauses that just expire. It allowed them to continue with missile development to deliver the bomb. It has all these things that basically — the then-prime minister of Israel was quite right, Netanyahu — paved the way to the bomb. They proclaimed this and never admitted it to the Senate as a treaty, which the U.S.s Constitution requires for treaties. Instead, President Obama rushed it to the United Nations Security Council, which approved it. Nobody ever signed it. The UN just adopted it. That became the deal. President Trump was right to withdraw the U.S. in 2018. It wasn’t going to stop anything. President Biden now wants us back in. And timelines are always interesting in these things. You want to get a little more insight, do some overlapping timelines, who’s doing what?

Inez Stepman:

Nah, no, it doesn’t matter what order events happen or the facts on the ground. We like free-flowing, sweeping pronouncements about a green future. That’s really what we like here in the United States, but keep going.

Claudia Rosett:

Yes. Well, but those of us who are still interested in what actually happened, and I know you’re one of them, is as we were starting this frantic diplomacy to say to Russia, “Oh, please don’t,” which included such strategically idiotic moves as President Biden — I’m sorry, idiotic is the appropriate word here — as President Biden saying, “We will not send troops to fight Russians in Ukraine. We will not fight Russians.” Well, why tell the Russians that? Let them at least imagine that we still might, that’s better. That’s a bit of a deterrent. Instead, it was, “We won’t fight Russians. We won’t send anything. We’ll watch.” Well, of course, Putin went in. While that was going on, the U.S. was resuming these nuclear talks, trying to get back into the deal that President Trump pulled us out of, and it ended up, they’re so eager to get into this deal, in part because while they’re busy banning Russian oil, they’re hoping to get Iranian oil, Venezuelan oil.

Every tyrant on the planet is now…. The U.S. is willing to petition. “Could we please have your oil?” And they’re in cahoots with Russia. That is that axis. But we went in and basically gave Russia the job of choreographing the talks, and part of it was, I think — I’m attributing a motive here, so this is a guess — it was an attempt to appease Russia, to say, “Here, we’ll defer to you at the Iran talks. You defer to us and don’t go into Ukraine.” Well, Putin’s no fool. He saw that we weren’t standing up to him in any of this and he went ahead on both fronts. At the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, in this beautiful place called the Palais Coburg — it’s lovely, go see at some time when they’re not having wars in Europe — the Iranians refused to talk to the Americans.

What America should have done at that point: refuse to talk directly. That’s where Americans should have gotten up and left, “Fine. You don’t want to talk to us. We’re going home.” But Biden was so desperate for that deal that America instead began talking to the Iranians through intermediaries. Guess which country has been the prime intermediary, Inez? Russia. It’s Russia’s lead negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, has been busy and then Russia began dictating its own terms. What does it want, after President Biden put sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine war? We now have the Russians demanding that any deal allow them to trade freely with Iran. That led me thinking, “Oh, wow. If they agree to that, that gives us Iran as the Russian dirty money access point to the world,” which is already in operation to some extent, but it’s just dizzying how bad that is.

And yet our diplomats have continued saying, “Well, we’re willing to talk. We’re close to a deal. We might clench this.” This is disastrous, and it gives Russia leverage where we are less likely to really stand up to Putin over Ukraine. And how do you police the world? I mean, what is it that works? That’s a really big job. And if you try and do it in every instance, watch every person, you have this ultimate totalitarian, dysfunctional utopia out of science fiction, right? No, you police it at the margin. You do it like Wyatt Earp in Dodge, okay? That old story out of the American West. The sheriff comes in, and how does he clean up the town? He picks out the really bad guys and there’s a shootout at the OK Corral. And when that’s done, everybody says, “I don’t want to be at his bad side.”

Well, that’s where we need to go and we’re not going. And the logic is very troubling here. We keep hearing from the Biden administration that Russia is a nuclear power. So they are terrified of upsetting Putin because it might start World War III. Yeah, I don’t want World War III either. I don’t think anybody here does. But if you say that once a country is a nuclear-armed power, America will not engage in a conventional war against it. We won’t fight back. We won’t defend Ukraine. We don’t want to be seen directly supplying airplanes to help them defend their cities. What if you said, you’ve basically told the mafia boss that you’ll back down. I mean, if China tries to take Taiwan, China is a nuclear-armed power. Do we then say, “Oh, we don’t want to start World War III, so we will not go to the defense of Taiwan,” which is a really important democracy in the Far East.

That’s the example of what China could be. That’s where things need to go. To have that destroyed would be terrible symbolically, as far as influence in the world, and then just strategically for its position in the Pacific and the island chains there, that China wants to get passed. So guess what? Someday, the way that the imperial Japan, fascist Japan in 1941, showed up on a clear blue Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor, one day we wake up, the Pacific…. We’re a Pacific country, and China’s ambitions don’t stop with Taiwan, the way Putin’s ambitions don’t stop with Ukraine. So these are the huge stakes. And somewhere in there, I’m waiting for President Biden to clarify, if we back down in front of any nuclear-armed power, which means there’s tremendous incentive for everybody to get nuclear weapons, I think, what do we do to actually defend ourselves and our allies? Would he really fight for every square inch of NATO as he says? I hope so, but I’m worried.

Inez Stepman:

I think there’s so much to say about the wrong moves that have been made, both with regard to China and with Russia. And in this immediate conflict, obviously the biggest club that Putin has against Europe is the fact that they’re relying on him for gas now, when they could have been relying on us. And that’s not just our domestic decision, not to drill and not to produce as much energy as America is actually capable of doing, it’s also decisions made in Germany, right? Decisions made by our European so-called allies, which is why, despite everybody being very upset about the fact that Trump was saying what every American president has always thought but didn’t stay out loud, they have put themselves in the position of being very weak allies because of their reliance on gas from Russia. But I mean, that’s kind of how the world sits now. So let’s say Claudia becomes Secretary of State —

Claudia Rosett:

What they [Crosstalk 00:44:20].

Inez Stepman:

No, but what can be done now? Because it feels like very obvious to look back and say, “Okay, here’s a number of huge strategic blunders that both the United States and our Western allies in Europe have made over the past decades.” But okay, the situation now is that Russia is in Ukraine, we are sending them material and we’re sending them money. We are not, necessarily…. I think our position is still very open that we are not going to be starting a shooting war directly with Russia. What are the things that we actually can do? Are these sanctions a good idea? Do we need broader sanctions? Are they likely to have the kind of effect that we want? What are our chess moves? If we actually had a chess player in the White House, this is always the metaphor everyone uses, right? But if we actually had somebody worthy of the game, what would we do?

Claudia Rosett:

Okay, I’m going to say it, then come back to it. The number one thing we can do, that really would benefit us — it doesn’t cost us, it would be a brilliant move, it would be just the right thing — is open up U.S. energy. President Biden needs to reverse the killing of the Keystone pipeline. He needs to let people drill on federal lands. We produce it more cleanly than anyone on the planet. People need energy. We don’t have alternative technologies right now, that will power things on the scale that we actually want and need. He should open that up. And not only would that be useful economically, for security, and would help with the prices of the gas pump, it would heat your home in the winter. It would also, I believe, send a really important signal to Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China, that America is starting to recover from its insane adolescent swoon over endless virtueing, signaling things that don’t really connect with the real world.

It would say, “Hey, we actually connected with reality again. The giant is beginning to wake up.” Because that’s what needs to happen. Sanctions, I mean, fine, good, let’s do it. Why not? But actually, it’s very dangerous. The thing’s dangerous with sanctions, I think, is when we then rely on them, when we think this will do the job. The thing about sanctions, Inez, is they’re kind of cheap for people in government to put on. They rely on the private sector, watching what’s going on and forcing them, banks, catching things, and so on. And so you see this tremendous congressional majorities in favor of them and it sounds like something’s really getting done: “Oh, put sanctions on.” Well, the U.S. sanctions list of designated entities reached the point some years ago, where it was so big that you couldn’t download the PDF in one go on your computer.

And there’s a point of diminishing returns in almost everything, and with sanctions, they tend to erode. People talk about them as if they’re a brick wall, “Well, put up sanctions. That’ll stop them.” It’s more like a sieve, and it’s actually, it’s more like a dynamic process. You put something in place. They will look for a way around it. You have a cousin, who has a relative, who has a front company, who has a bank, and the U.S. Treasury goes chasing around after those things. But it’s a lot easier to set up the fronts than it is to go through all the legal hurdles and so on, to take them down. And I don’t think there’s a record of sanctions winning a war. Now, would they degrade Putin to the point where he might lose power? There’s initial shock with sanctions when people weren’t sure they were going to come in, and Russia had a long time to prepare. I think Putin expected a lot of this.

But you get an initial hit, but then they start to find ways around. And that’s what we’ve seen over and over. That’s what’s happened with Iran and the sanctions over the years. We stop enforcing them. They’re still there. It sounds good. But if you actually look at what’s going on, I mean, with the Iran sanctions, as our diplomats became really eager for a deal in 2015, as those rounds of talks reached the climax, there were Iranian tankers, sanctioned ships, sailing through Suez, which is a very controlled waterway. You need a lot of paperwork to sail through Suez. Trust me. Sailing through Suez, which treasury was listing as ships of no known flag. In other words, “We don’t know what country they’re flagged to. We don’t know what country they’re doing this for.” It was dead obvious when you looked that they were Iranian ships, but nobody wanted to see it because they were homing in on an Iran deal in Vienna, like they are now.

And that’s the problem with sanctions. Like the ban on Russian oil, okay, it’s a world market. In oil, Russia turns around and sells more to China. China buys less from some entity that isn’t sanctioned, we buy oil from them. That’s the way that tends to start out. It takes a while, so I’m not opposed to them, but I would give a very strong warning that when we start relying on them as our main weapon, which is what we’ve done for some time now, that’s really dangerous. They will not protect us the way we hope. So back to what’s the best single thing we could do? Free up the U.S. energy industry, for God’s sake. I mean, they’re worried about the climate in a hundred years? First of all, I do question the idea that we can calibrate that to within 0.5 degrees centigrade at a century distance, by doing the things they recommend with light bulbs and cars, but it’s not going to be a terribly wonderful world if you have darkness prevail.

And as these surviving cockroaches run around in the green planet, whatever temperature it is, human beings are living under the kind of rule that Putin is imposing on Russia. I call them techno tyrannies. That’s one part of the description, that Xi Jinping is imposing on China. And, you know, Inez — and I’d be interested to hear your take on this — I’ve seen people in a lot of places want a lot of things, and yes, you find people who say, “Well, at least thank God Putin brought order in Russia,” or, “At least Xi Jinping brought growth in China.” Although what I would say there is, yeah, you can actually have growth and freedom. They can come together. You don’t need to repress people. In fact, they go better together. But one thing I’ve seen everywhere, is people have a certain affection for the truth.

When they get done with all the hysteria, and denials, and everything else, whenever people rise up and say, “We want to rule ourselves,” the thing that you’ll hear them asking for, is the truth. Tell the truth. Part of what President Zelenskyy has been saying from Ukraine, “Look at what they’re really doing. Don’t believe the propaganda.” And people have a sense of justice. They know when something wrong is being done to them; they can’t always do anything about it, but it’s pretty keen. And I think there’s a tremendous human desire for truth and justice. It sounds like a Superman ad, but it’s true.

And I’m not saying that will necessarily prevail, if that arc of history that President Obama liked to talk about, it bends in all sorts of directions, and some have been devastating to the best of mankind. But I do think that, if that’s what we steer by, in a very messy world, that takes us in a direction that, for the previous lifetime, for more than 70 years, delivered relative peace, a lot of freedom, a lot of the wonderful things that we all enjoy today. It’s not impossible to continue in that way, but it takes tremendous thought and planning and strategy and, in the end, courage, and if you’ve ever seen the movie High Noon, it takes a Gary Cooper to step up and face down the bad guys, instead of run away.

Inez Stepman:

Well, that’s why this podcast is called High Noon, among other reasons. I wanted to wrap up by asking you to just follow up a little bit on one of the things you just said. This is the first kinetic war, that has this fully social media kind of aspect. I should correct myself. There have been military engagements. There have been wars in a much more limited way, but this is sort of the old-style school of war, 20th-century invasion combined with, you called it techno tyrannies. We have this experience; this is essentially the fog of war and war propaganda, which has always been a part of every war to some extent, but now it’s being fought on the internet and on social media.

What is your perception — because you’ve covered so many different parts of the world, you’ve covered a lot of these small liberal uprisings — what is your perception of both the upsides and downsides of, essentially, where the rubber-meets-reality or the rubber-meets-the-road in reality, in a digital world? Because it seems to me it can be used on both sides. Obviously, Ukraine is very effectively using social media to push out… They want us to feel sympathy and they should, right? This is very understandable to me. I really don’t understand why people are like, “Oh, Ukraine also has propaganda.” Of course, they do.

Claudia Rosett:

Of course, they do.

Inez Stepman:

They want to survive. They want their country to survive, and the best thing for them would be for Western powers to get into this war. But on the one hand, it’s being used by a lot of these movements that you’ve covered. And on the other hand, you have these techno tyrannies. China is a much more effective tyranny because it has so cleverly used social media, technology, social credit scores, all of those things, to control the population in a way that wasn’t possible in 1980. So how do you think that whole digital landscape has changed both life in some of these tyrannical societies and how we should engage with a very “old school” war, like what’s happening in Ukraine?

Claudia Rosett:

It’s dangerous stuff that’s going on with technology. When this first really appeared, we all thought back in 1990 — yes, I’m 4,000 years old — that the fax machine was a great liberating influence. And in some ways, it was; you could suddenly communicate with people. And one of the things that dictatorships do is they isolate people and shut them up. You get an effective uprising against tyranny when people start talking to each other and can carry on long enough to form a critical mass.

We’ve now seen the downside of that, which is the bad guys can do it too. And I don’t know really, which…. There’s a lot in there that can be very effective in bad ways. I do think that we’re still learning to live with this technology and, as far as actual advice, how this plays out around the world on a global level, I don’t know. I’m very apprehensive about it because it can spread crazy bad things with not a lot of checks. However, people do learn, and at some level, it’s not that different from rabid village gossip. The rumor spreads, everybody repeats it. Everybody decides to pillory X, Y, Z, so whatever the target is, and then that moves on.

The piece of advice I would give, as we use this marvelous digital technology to speak together today, is periodically put down your phone, back away from your computer, think through what you’ve seen, and listen to your own common sense. That’s what we have to try and make sense of it. Does it make sense? And for instance, I’m sure President Zelenskyy has been doing things that are psychological warfare. He needs to look — and I think he is — but he needs to play up as much as he possibly can. That here is he, this valiant leader who will not abandon in his country. That’s vital to morale in Ukraine right now, I think. I’m sure the Russians are trying to find him and either kill him, or take him off, and try to parade him and humiliate, something horrible.

But in the end, there are all sorts of things that seem like wild, crazy technology that will change the universe when they come in, and they do change a lot of things, and people figure out how to live with them and adapt. I think what we call social media, I hate that phrase, it’s an empty phrase in itself, but I think that’s something where it’s relatively new. It’s of the past generation and we’ve gone crazy over it. It’s the way everybody was on Facebook 10 years ago. Everything. Put everything on Facebook. Most of the people I know have now taken everything they can off Facebook. They’ve learned. So we shall see what we learn, Inez.

Inez Stepman:

I think that’s as good a note as any to wrap up on, and I think it’s a good note, both for our interests abroad, as well as at home. So the adaptability of human beings is quite elastic, but we’ll see. I don’t think any of us can really tell how we’ll adapt. Did you have a comment? And you look like you have a final comment here.

Claudia Rosett:

Yeah. One last thing. And that is it’s also human that we know incredible courage when we see it. And I think one of the reasons we’re all watching Ukraine right now is we’re watching people who really understand what they’re fighting for. And what I hope is that, as Americans watch this — you were talking earlier about our culture — I hope it really starts to wake something that, I think, is intrinsic to the American character, which does go deep. And that is we respect people who take a stand for something that really matters and then fight for it. And the Ukrainians right now are showing the way. I really hope we take that lesson.

Inez Stepman:

Absolutely agree. I think the West, more broadly, needs to take a lesson from Ukraine on that score and have a little more uncritical faith in our own system and our own people, even as they are imperfect.

Claudia Rosett:


Inez Stepman:

Thank you so much, Claudia Rosett, for coming on High Noon today, and thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.