As you see the horrors of Ukraine, what comes next? What do you think actually addresses this in a way that Putin looks at or the people around Putin look at and they say, well, this needs to stop?
The effects our sanctions are having are already extremely severe on the Russian economy. I mean, we’ve seen, for example, the sanctions we put on the central bank have prevented the spending of foreign reserve currency. That is extremely difficult. The everyday life in Russia has completely changed back to more what it was like during the Soviet era. People are no longer able to use Apple Pay or the credit cards that they were using. Western companies like McDonald’s are no longer there. So we have seen a dramatic impact of the sanctions, much more dramatic than Putin was expecting.
And I think one of the issues here, and why I talk about the age of complacency, is we didn’t respond strongly enough to what happened in Crimea and the Donbas, and he got a message that we weren’t serious when we said there would be severe sanctions. But there is still more we can do.
The fundamental driver of the Russian economy is oil and gas, and the absolute key has to be reducing dependency on oil and gas. And I recognize many European countries are very dependent. Some have as much as 80, 90, 100 percent dependence on Russia. We have to help them get off that dependence. We have to find alternatives. In the longer term, that’s about nuclear and renewables. In the short term, it’s about finding alternative sources.
Of course, the US can be helpful with respect to LNG, the industry that I started my career in. The Japanese have also offered to send cargoes. We need to do more with the Middle East. But we need to act more now because the sooner we get more sanctions on, the tougher it’s going to get for Putin, [and] the harder it is for him to fund his war machine. And the sanctions, together with supplying lethal aid to Ukraine, are absolutely key to enabling us to ensure that Putin loses in Ukraine.
And you’ve asked me how quickly. Well, the G7’s already working together on a package of new sanctions. We’re working closely with all of our allies. As I’ve said, we need to encourage not just us to go deeper, but we need to encourage broader adoption of those sanctions. There [are] 141 countries that voted against Russia at the UN. We’re encouraging all of those to adopt similar sanctions.
And it is remarkable, the notion of the G7 sanctioning and freezing the central bank assets of a G20 country. It’s unheard of. Is the logic that Putin himself says, this is unbearable, I’ll back off? Where do you think he goes? Is the logic that it’s his own internal circle says, this is enough, we’ve lost our yachts, we’re losing our chance to go to Western schools? How does that work? Or is it an uprising in Russia? What is the endgame for the sanctions? What do you think Putin’s endgame is? And how do they coincide?
Well, the primary objective of the sanctions is to debilitate the Russian economy to stop the funding of the weaponry that is being used to destroy Ukraine. That is the fundamental objective. That’s why financial services are so important. That’s why oil and gas [are] so important.
And we’re also sending a message to Russia itself and the Russian people. We know that Putin has control of the state media. We know that other sources of information are being cut off. Of course, the UK has set up a new information unit. We’re working with allies to communicate [with] the Russian people. But nevertheless, it’s hard to get messages through. However, people can see what’s happening when they have to queue at the bank or they can’t get onto the Moscow metro because they can’t use their payment mechanism. So it’s also a way of communicating with the broader population exactly what is happening.
So I think those factors are both extremely important. But it is the ability to degrade the Russian economy that is crucial to the sanctions.
How important is it right now, as we see more atrocities coming out of Ukraine, to take further military action or military support… on behalf of allies, on behalf of the UK, on behalf of the US? And what specifically ought that be?
Well, we need to do as much as possible as early as possible to help Ukraine in its self-defense. The UK has been supplying anti-tank weapons for some time. We’re now supplying anti-aircraft weapons. We think that’s the most effective way of dealing with the Russian aerial threat.
We are helping Ukraine on the basis of their right to self-defense under the UN Charter, and within that framework, we need to do as much as we can as early as we can. The UK has hosted a donor conference with twenty-five other countries. We are helping logistics of getting that equipment into Ukraine.
But that is absolutely crucial. Alongside the economic sanctions, that’s the other main way we have of influencing this conflict and seeking to end this conflict as early as possible.
I am very fearful that we are looking at a very long-term conflict. But what we are seeing—and I think this has exceeded expectations, particularly of Putin—is we’re seeing very, very strong Ukrainian resistance. We’re seeing incredible bravery from President Zelenskyy and right the way through Ukrainian society, and we are seeing them resist the Russian invasion.
We need to do all we can to help that. In any crisis, countries always wish they’d done more earlier. That’s always the lesson of crises and the lesson of the build-up over the last twenty years.
And Putin made it very clear what his intentions were at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 but not enough attention was paid at that time. We were too complacent. We absolutely can’t be complacent now, and as the United Kingdom, we are doing all we can. We encourage all of our allies to do all they can.
You know, some countries have different equipment, can operate in a different way. Some countries are more dependent on Russian oil and gas than everybody, but it is a collective effort. I think we have shown huge unity across the G7 and beyond, and we need to continue to do that.
And during your address, you made clear that the sanctions weren’t yet sufficient and more needed to be done. Do you feel the same way on the military side?
Well, we are stepping up our efforts, and yes, more needs to be done. There is continual demand and, of course, those weapons are being used. So we continue to supply more and the Ukrainians continue to need more.
Russian information operations—this is an area where your country has been a leader—they’ve been constant and they’ve included—and as you said, we haven’t responded early enough—efforts to undermine elections, deny the assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal on British soil, [and] so much else. Now Russia has used this tactic to falsely justify the invasion of Ukraine. This time, we got ahead of a lot of the information. We’ve done a lot better. What is the challenge now? Having been such a leader globally on countering Russian disinformation, how does it change now that we’re involved in a hot war?
There was a lot of effort to preempt the Russian invasion and to call out the playbook in advance of the invasion. We released intelligence showing that there was an intention to create a puppet regime in Kyiv. We’ve released information about Russian cyberattacks.
We’ve used intelligence to expose what Putin was planning, the fact that he is planning a false flag operation to try and justify the invasion, and I think that exposing [Putin’s] plans and his techniques have helped us convince countries that Putin has been lying. I mean, right until the invasion, he and his colleagues were making public statements saying they had no intention to invade Ukraine.
There are still public statements coming from Russia that they are not fighting a war, and this just beggars belief. I haven’t spoken to a single counterpart who, in all conscience, can say the Russians are telling the truth.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss speaks with the Atlantic Council at the 2022 Christopher J. Makins Lecture on March 10, 2022. Photo via Elman Studio.
And one thing, I think, that happened at the end of the Cold War, the UK, certainly, disbanded its information unit. We assumed that it was over, that we were moving into a new era of peace and prosperity. Those information units were not disbanded in Moscow, and I think for a number of years we were outpaced in disinformation.
We’ve now created a new information unit across our government. We are working to communicate in various ways with the Russian population and with the wider world. And we’re working with our allies across the G7 to do that. And I think that’s incredibly important because, as well as being a traditional battle, if you like, on the battlefield, this is also about information and perception. And we are being proactive.
And you’ve asked about the next phase, what we’re doing now. Well, we’re calling out, you know, these false claims about humanitarian corridors that only lead to Russia, or that have mines along the route and aren’t genuine humanitarian corridors. We’re calling out their action of bombing the maternity hospital. We’re calling out what the Putin regime is doing and how they’re using a similar playbook to the playbook they used in Syria. So we are constantly working with our allies to be absolutely clear about what the truth is. And, you know, I pay tribute to the brave journalists in Ukraine who are helping us expose the absolutely appalling actions of the Russian government.
And you spoke to the ICC. Would you go so far as to say there are war crimes?…
Well, we are very clear that there is strong evidence that we are seeing war crimes taking place. And we need to take that evidence and recall that evidence. We’re working with our allies to do that. Thirty-eight countries referred the case to the ICC. We are working to collate the evidence on the ground of what is happening, to make sure that Putin and his associates are held to account for these appalling actions.
You called out China. Watching China right now, the 5,300-word statement on the eve of the Olympics between Putin and Xi said it was a relationship without limits. Obviously, President Xi must be looking at that differently, but on the other hand, what signs do you see? You said China should do more. What specifically would you call upon China to do? And so far, as you’re watching China, do you see them moving off of their support for Russia in any important manner?
Well, it was significant that China didn’t vote with Russia at the UN Security Council. And judging from the statement we saw prior to the Olympic Games, I would question whether the whole truth was told to China about what was planned. And as opposed to Russia, who have said that Ukraine doesn’t exist, China has confirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty. And what we are saying to China is, as a country [that claims] that they believe in Ukraine’s sovereignty, they need to stand with the international community in opposition to what Russia is doing. I mean, I talked in my speech about the company that Russia is in, including North Korea and Syria. Does China want to be in that company?
And are you seeing evidence that China is helping to support Russia counteract sanctions, for example? And what message would you have for China on that? Because that could be a crucial part of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Well, my message to China is they should not be aiding and abetting this appalling invasion of a sovereign nation. Do they want the international reputation for doing that?
Putin has spoken. He’s done some nuclear saber-rattling. He’s talked about chemical weapons. He’s talked about how sanctions are an act of war. Are you concerned? Do you think there’s bluff to this? Are you concerned that he might broaden beyond the borders of Ukraine, not kinetically, but with cyberattacks, with other sorts of attacks? And how prepared should we be for that potential?
What is absolutely clear is that Putin’s invasion is not going according to plan. He thought it would be much more straightforward, he didn’t think the Ukrainians would mount the defense of their nation that they had. And as a result of his plan not working, he is resorting to rhetoric, to escalatory measures, [and] to, I fear, using more and more barbaric techniques, and we will call him out for that. But we must be absolutely resolute in not taking our foot off the pedal at this stage but, instead, remaining strong, because as I said in my speech, that is what he understands. We must be stronger. We’ve been strong in our sanctions, but we must be stronger, and we must be strong in supplying Ukraine with the weapons they need to defend their country.
And nuclear threat—you take seriously, don’t take seriously?
Well, as I’ve said, he is using this rhetoric as a distraction from the fact that his invasion is not going according to plan and he has tried to move us off the focus on the appalling invasion that he’s undertaken. I don’t think we should debate on his terms.
You talked about this as a paradigm shift. We, the Atlantic Council, have used the language of inflection point, paradigm shift, [or] historic moment, perhaps as important as the end of World War I, World War II. That then calls upon us to not just look at Ukraine as Ukraine but something—and because you’re talking about the end of complacency, it also suggests we’ve been complacent. What do we need to do beyond this, as NATO; as the UK, EU, US; [and] as global allies? Do you have any specific ideas—that we’re going to be working on this in the weeks and months ahead, because as terrible as this crisis is, it’s not the end of what we’re facing—and that’s what you so powerfully underscored in your speech. Do you have some ideas of how we should use this moment to build on this message of [a] paradigm shift to use it as a paradigm shift for how we also cooperate with each other, work with each other?
Well, I completely agree and we need to rethink some of our assumptions about the way we’ve been operating because I talked about defense spending, I talked about deterrence, I talked about the global security architecture [and] about arms control; these are all key areas [in which] we need to be thinking about what we do differently. And then the other area I’d point out is economic dependence. You know, we’ve been through an era of globalization [in which] we treated all the counterparties we’re dealing with as equal, but it’s very different being part of a trade relationship or an investment relationship with a like-minded ally that believes in sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom, and democracy from being dependent on an authoritarian regime. So I think in terms of our economic relationships, we need to be much clearer about the values the countries we’re dealing with have, and that era of values-free trade, of underspending on defense I think [is] very, very clearly over and we are in a new era. If you look at what Germany has done in completely rethinking its energy policy, its security policy within the space of about a week… That is the rethinking we all need to be doing now.
And is this also a petri dish for the new UK-EU relationship? How have you been navigating this situation at this time with sanctions playing such a crucial role?
We’re working very closely with our EU allies, with our NATO allies, and also, more broadly, with countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others. And this is really about a network, a coalition of countries that believe in territorial integrity and sovereignty, and in playing by the rules. I think that’s fundamentally important as well. And last week I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council with [US] Secretary of State Antony Blinken; with Mélanie Joly, the foreign minister of Canada; and we are all working extremely closely together because this has been a huge shock for Europe. We face a threat. We never thought we would see this type of war taking place in a European country. We thought those days were over, that we moved on, and I’m afraid we haven’t moved on. And this doesn’t just apply to the politicians in the country; this is what our public feel like, too. We feel a different level of concern about security than anything we’ve felt like for the past—well, for my lifetime.