The following is a transcript of an interview with retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser in the Trump White House and a CBS News contributor, that aired on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The Trump administration national security adviser in 2017, retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who joins us. H.R., thank you for updating us on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine with the Russian invasion. I want to get your reaction to what Defense Secretary Austin called a significant development on the battlefield in the past 48 hours. What do you see happening, and what do you forecast is Vladimir Putin’s next move?
LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER: Hey, good morning, Margaret. It’s great to be with you. Well, this is a tremendous victory for- for the Ukrainians. And it’s a victory that I think that they could turn into a cascading series of defeats of Russian forces. This is the- the encirclement of Lyman and the- and the Russian forces pulling back, but also, in the last two days, the Ukrainians also simultaneously defeated a Russian- a Russian counterattack and also made progress further in the south near the strategically important city of Kherson. And I think, Margaret, what we might be at here is really at the precipice of- of really the collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine, a moral collapse. And- and I think they must really be at a breaking point. If you look at just the numbers of casualties, the vast area that they’re trying to defend, and now, of course, Russia is trying to mobilize conscripts and send them to- to the front untrained. And I think it’s very important to- to also understand that these forces that are in full retreat now out of Lyman were really the first round of mobilization. Remember when Putin was trying to recruit more and more people with paying about three-times the- the average wages to get so-called volunteers to go forward. Those forces were hastily trained, thrown into that front, and these are the forces that are collapsing just right right now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, and as that happens on the battlefield, rhetorically you hear President Putin raise the volume, again dangling that nuclear threat on Friday, and there was another Russian leader who talked about using low yield nuclear weapons. It’s not clear what NATO or the U.S. response would be if Russia used a nuclear tactical weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine. What do you think it should be?
LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER: Well, I think the message to him is if you use a nuclear weapon, it’s a suicide weapon. And- and the response from NATO and the United States doesn’t have to be nuclear. First of all, I would say, Margaret, he’s under extreme pressure. I mean, you- you have the failures on the battlefield, which we talked about, but also the mobilization is failing. I mean, what he’s done is he’s mobilized almost 300,000 people to leave the country. These are- these are men who were fleeing to neighboring countries to- to escape this- this conscription. And you have the Russian people now saying, okay, I thought this was a special military operation that Putin said, hey just leave this to me, don’t worry about it. Now, he’s going to them to bail him out with this- with this mobilization, and what you’re seeing among the hypernationalist group of- of bloggers and- and- and even on state media, is a blaming of the military. And what the military is going back to Putin is saying, hey, it’s not our fault. We just need more troops. So, it’s this cycle that he’s responding to with the only quiver he has left, which is to, you know, to- to- to threaten the use of a nuclear weapon. But, I’ll tell you, Margaret, I don’t think a nuclear weapon is usable there, you know. So, I think that we ought to take it seriously. We have to, but we ought to not allow this to cow us in terms of the support for the Ukrainians.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. Well, the other weapon he has is energy, of course, and tracking this potential sabotage on the gas pipeline. I want to also ask you about- when you were in office back in 2017, which is the first time that the US gave off- offensive weapons to Ukraine, I remember when you were put in that position of having to explain a conversation then-President Trump had with Russian officials in the Oval Office, where he mentioned classified information. And you- you called it wholly appropriate at the time. Given what’s going on now with this investigation into the classified material at Mar-a-Lago, were you ever uncomfortable with the former president’s handling of classified information?
LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER: Well, Margaret, remember, I left in February, March of 2018. But while I was there, I did not see any problems in handling of- of classified information. And, and what you’re talking about really is a session in which the President did not disclose classified information, but somebody leaked it. And then it was published in the newspaper. So the classified information- I think it’s important is to go back to that period, and that provision of javelins of the defensive capabilities to the Ukrainians was really important and, and the argument I made to President Trump at the time, was, hey, these people who are telling you that it’s provocative to provide Ukraine with defensive capabilities, actually, what provokes Putin is weakness. And he was persuaded by that argument. And I think that argument is still relevant today. I mean, as Putin is encountering these difficulties, I think it’s now time to remove some of the restrictions that we put on ourselves in terms of the support to give the Ukrainians and I’m talking about really long range surveillance capabilities, tied to long range precision strike. And, that’s really what they need, I think to maintain the momentum militarily at this stage.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I have a follow up question on that, but just a button up the question I asked you, that was a no, you were never uncomfortable with the hand handling of classified information?
LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER: No, you know what Margaret, there were systems in place. I don’t know what happened to those systems. But- but- but I was never uncomfortable with it while I was there. But you know, that was a long time ago now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. I know when you’re in office, you never like answering counterfactuals. But you’re not in office, so was Vladimir Putin so committed to this invasion that he would have gone through with it no matter what?
LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER: I don’t think so. Think about all the support that we’ve given now to the Ukrainians. What if we had done that a few years ago? I think Putin may have come to the conclusion. Well, Ukraine cannot be- cannot be subsumed at an acceptable cost. And of course, he was wrong in all the assumptions that led to the invasion. And he’s been proven wrong by courageous Ukrainians who are defending their sovereignty. But I think deterrence by denial for us was a failure. I mean, in many of the actions that we took, in the months before- before the invasion, almost I think inadvertently green lighted it, you know, pulling our forces out of the Black Sea, listing all the things we weren’t going to do. And I think the administration has recovered from that very well. But- but I think now’s the time, Margaret, to lift restrictions on the support that we’re given Ukrainians so they can finish this fight on their terms.
MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, H.R. McMaster, thank you very much for your insight today. We’ll be back in a moment.
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