Andrei Kozyrev, Russian ex-foreign minister: ‘The concern is whether the West has finally learned the lesson’

The head of diplomacy in the first post-Soviet government spoke with EL PAÍS about what he sees as a dangerous policy of appeasement towards Vladimir Putin

Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev at a political roundtable discussion in Washington in 2018.
Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev at a political roundtable discussion in Washington in 2018.YouTube
Amanda Mars

Every time he sees or hears Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Andrei Kozyrev is reminded of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ according to the Bible. Kozyrev, 71, was the first minister of foreign affairs in post-Soviet Russia, in the early 1990s, under Boris Yeltsin. And in that capacity he personally named Lavrov as his deputy.

“I selected him because he was a very good person and he was a personal friend and he was on my side politically. He was one of my closest partners,” said Kozyrev in a recent interview with EL PAÍS. “But he changed and now he’s on the opposite side. Why, I don’t know. I don’t recognize the guy anymore. There was one of the apostles, named Judas. I don’t pretend to be a Jesus Christ, I just mean that it’s nothing new under the sun that people change.”

The interview took place from Kozyrev’s home in the United States, which he did not want to give details about on account of the fact that he is a persona non grata to the Russian regime. He would not even accept a photo session for the article. But he did talk at length in a video conference about the Ukraine war and the response by the West, which he views as not strong enough.

Kozyrev brought up the West’s historical policy of appeasement with Hitler and noted how that failed. He asked for military planes for Kyiv, and warned that regardless of whether one calls it cold or hot, Europe is already at war with Russia.

The former minister, who has authored books such as The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy, also reserved some of the blame for the government that he was a part of, and which he joined at age 39. The most obvious mistake has a name: Vladimir Putin, whom Yeltsin named as his successor.

Question. Were you expecting a war? Or the kind of brutality against the civilian population seen in places like Bucha?

Answer. No. I knew that those were aggressive and repressive guys in Moscow. But I was surprised by this brutality and brazenness. It’s too much even for them. I didn’t want to think that Russia could do things like that, but I warned that a weak response to the Ukraine aggression would encourage Putin.

Q. Do you think him capable of using nuclear weapons?

A. An attack with a nuclear mini-missile is possible, but not likely. The risk of this happening will be greater if Putin thinks that the West and NATO are more afraid of the missiles than he is. So I think the response to the aggression should be very strong right now, which includes giving Ukraine the most powerful conventional weapons to dissuade him from putting the West to the test with a bigger escalation. For 70 years, nuclear missiles have not been used because the principle of deterrence had not been questioned: any nuclear attack would trigger an immediately response from the other side.

Q. Ever since the start of the invasion, when Ukraine showed a greater capacity for resistance than expected, analysts have been insisting that Putin needs a winner narrative in order to end this.

A. Don’t worry about him, worry about Europe. He is fully in control of his domestic propaganda machine and they will change the narrative just like that in a second. The Russian people, especially those who get their information from TV, probably have no idea of what is actually happening in Ukraine. So for him, it’s no problem. It actually makes me feel sick and tired when I hear the so-called pundits or speaking heads in the West arguing for what would be Putin’s face-saving device. In the West, there are too many wishful thinkers who are too eager to believe any signal that comes from Moscow. And it’s based on the experience in 2014, with very sluggish sanctioning [over the annexation of Crimea]. And [French President Emmanuel] Macron and many other Western leaders broke with this isolation campaign. If Putin gets away with this barbaric war in Ukraine and sanctions are lifted very soon, the next stop will be NATO. It will be the Baltic states, or Poland. So the concern is whether the West has finally learned the lesson.

Q. Has Europe been too complacent with Putin and the Kremlin in recent years?

A. It’s not even complacency, it’s called appeasement, just like when Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Until Winston Churchill finally came and said, “No, that’s enough. No appeasement anymore. We are at war.” Now, Europe is at war with an aggressive Russia. It is like a cold war because they’re not fighting directly Russian forces, but they’re being attacked by Russia or threatened by Russia.

Q. So they should accept that they are already at war with Russia, even if it is another kind of war.

A. A cold war that is not a hot war. It is not a battle war, but it still a war like the Cold War was.

Q. Would you say that this is a new cold war or rather that the Cold War never ended?

A. It never stopped in the minds of the people who are now ruling Russia. Those people are from the KGB and in their minds, the Cold War never ended. They took the democratic revolution of the early 1990s, not as a victory for the Russian people, which it was, but as a lost battle to the West. So they continue fighting the war against the West. It’s a cold war but as Ukraine shows, it could become a hot war at any time for other NATO countries.

Q. You were one of the leading figures of that revolution, the first post-Soviet foreign minister. What mistakes were made during that transition?

A. Well, that was difficult. We made mistakes, our government made mistakes, I personally made some mistakes, Americans made mistakes, Europeans too...It’s a complicated story, much more complicated than one simple thing. There are some ill-informed people who blame NATO for its so-called expansion, which is just the wrong terminology. It was not a NATO expansion, it was new democracies free from Soviet domination like Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, even Romania, who knocked on NATO doors and demanded to be members of the Alliance.

Left to right: Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Kozyrev and the president of Kazakhstan, Nusurtan Nazarbayev, in Budapest in1994.
Left to right: Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Kozyrev and the president of Kazakhstan, Nusurtan Nazarbayev, in Budapest in1994.Thierry Orban (Sygma via Getty Images)

Q. Can you elaborate on your mixed feelings about former president Boris Yeltsin?

A. Yeltsin was very instrumental. I admired him in the early 1990s when he was against the Soviet communism and courageously stood for the beginning of democracy in Russia. But after that, he was probably not a right leader at the right time, because it was not time to fight against the old system, which he did quite well, but time to start to build a new Russia. And that’s where he failed and we all failed. And then he started to backtrack more and more because he was not prepared for these new challenges. And remember that he appointed Putin to be his successor just like that. And it was televised when he said, “You will be my successor. And Mr. Putin, you keep Russia. You are responsible for Russia.” So Putin did not come from nowhere, he was selected and appointed by Yeltsin.

Q. Why did this happen now? Why did Putin launch this war?

A. It’s very difficult to say. I think that they just miscalculated in the Kremlin. One, they thought that Ukraine was weak. Two, that Ukraine would be demoralized. Three, that [US President Joe] Biden was a weak president. And so, there was a combination of factors. And on the other hand, they probably thought that time was playing against them because they might be losing their grip on Europe in terms of the oil and gas supplies. Because Europe, even without this aggression, was on the way to move from oil and gas to more environmental sources of energy.

Q. There was a controversy when President Biden said Putin shouldn’t remain in power. Do you think it was a mistake to say that?

A. No. He is emotional guy and I think he should not apologize for that. Only the Russian people could change the regime in Russia, nobody else. And President Biden had said it many times before. What he said is what everybody in the world probably feels, that this guy is ruining not only Ukraine, which is a brotherly country for us Russians, but he’s now ruining Russia also, its economy and everything, even the moral aspects. And it creates a new closed, authoritarian society. What is important is that President Biden backs up his strong words with strong action. And it’s a mistake for NATO countries not to provide the [Volodimyr] Zelenskiy government with what they are asking for, old Russian military aircraft. That’s ridiculous. Why does Putin not fear NATO? Why does NATO fear? Fear is a bad feeling and it’s bad for reasonable thinking. When you are guided by fear, you are acting like an animal. Fear is not good for sound political decisions.

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