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9 March 2022updated 10 Mar 2022 1:06pm

Former Russian foreign minister: “It is mind-boggling what Putin is doing in Ukraine”

Andrei Kozyrev explains Vladimir Putin’s cruel rationality and the calculus of the war in Ukraine.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – Andrei Kozyrev does not think the Russian president Vladimir Putin is irrational.

“[He is] not reasonable,” the former Russian foreign minister was quick to clarify. “It is mind-boggling for me, too, what he’s doing in Ukraine, his reference to nuclear war. It’s outlandish.

“It does not mean it’s irrational.”

This distinction – between immoral and out of his mind – is important, Kozyrev insisted. Irrational people “take the knife and try to kill people”. A rational person, on the other hand: “he brandishes the knife, he tries to scare people with the knife, and attacks only if those people are fearful and unable to stand for themselves, and they are disarmed.”

We were not actually speaking about knife fighting, though Kozyrev did return to the theme later on. (He and Putin, he told me, are of the same generation, though Putin grew up in what was then known as Leningrad and is now St Petersburg, whereas Kozyrev grew up in Moscow.) And in a street fight back then, “the rule of the game, the rule of the fight, was: you strike first and as strong as you can.”

The world’s response to Russia – to Putin – has been “too little, too late”. The past two weeks have shown a “much better” response. But he knows there are still some who want to take an incremental approach. You put on sanctions, you see how Russia responds, you increase or decrease accordingly.

“I think it’s a very thoughtful approach, but not to Russians,” he said. “The logic of incremental punishment – it’s probably good for other places, but wrong for Putin’s background.”

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Koyzrev was foreign minister from 1990 to 1996, mostly under Putin’s predecessor as president, Boris Yeltsin, when it seemed to some as though Russia might become a fully-fledged democracy, and to others that it would be swallowed by crime and chaos. He put forth to me a similar argument as to why Nato should enact a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The objection to a no-fly zone is that Nato would have to shoot down Russian planes, becoming a party to the conflict and potentially triggering nuclear war. I myself have made this argument.

Kozyrev wasn’t buying it. He believes that if Moscow sees that the West is hesitant to use all the tools at its disposal, then it will go further. “That means that there are no borders,” he said. “They could next jump on, say, the Baltic states, and, again, count on experience that the West could act, but will not, because [Russia] will threaten nuclear weapons. And that means, without ever resorting to nuclear weapons, they’re winning the wars with nuclear weapons.”

If the United States and its partners are worried about playing by the book, well, Kozyrev would have them look at Article 51 of the charter of the United Nations, which states, “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” In Kozyrev’s reading, this is a strong enough basis in law to allow military action on Ukraine’s behalf.

Some of us – again, including myself – do not think it is worth finding out whether Russia is serious about using nuclear weapons in the event of a Nato no-fly zone. But Kozyrev is sure that Putin and company will not. “They will not resort to nuclear weapons unless they think they can get away with everything,” he insisted.

If Russia does manage to conquer Ukraine, he does not believe it will stop there. Besting Ukraine is a military operation. But if Russia wins, and if it is not stopped: “after that, to take, say, Estonia? I mean, it’s just a few hours’ operation.”

And if Russia does pull back? The 70-year-old statesman and author of Firebird: The Elusive Case of Russian Democracy does not believe that sanctions should be lifted right away. The people of the country should first understand what has happened. That is difficult now, because information is so heavily policed in Russia. In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, independent media has been forced offline and off the air.

The precondition for lifting sanctions? “Free press,” he said. “Nothing humiliating. There is nothing outlandish in this request, this condition. But that’s what’s needed. The Russian people should be given the right to know what is the truth.”

I had, before the end of our phone interview, a question for Kozyrev about his former colleague, Sergei Lavrov. Russia’s current foreign minister, who has staunchly defended Russia’s war-that-it-does-not-call-a-war, was once Kozyrev’s deputy. Lavrov was a career diplomat. Didn’t he know better, I asked? Didn’t he know that all of this was wrong, and was he just going along, or had he convinced himself that Putin’s war was right?

“I’m not a psychologist,” Kozyrev said. “What I see is that people sometimes degrade morally. And again, it’s step by step.”

On the first step, you sell your soul. But the Faustian scene rarely unfolds immediately before you, he said. The devil doesn’t come in with a contract “dripping in blood”. “It takes some time before you start to actually disregard human dignity.”

And that, he added, is why the response should be as full as it can. “The next step,” he warned, “will cost even more.”

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