The Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung has published an illuminating interview about Ukraine and the Kremlin with Andrei Illarionov, a prominent Russian economist who served as Vladimir Putin’s top economic adviser from 2000 to 2005, as well as the Kremlin’s representative to the G-8. Illarionov’s comments are important, given his direct knowledge of Putin’s Kremlin, and deserve a wide audience. The interview, which includes troubling truths about Russia now, follows in toto.
“Crimea is Only the First Step”
Q: What are Putin’s intentions with regard to Crimea?
A; The Russian Black Sea Fleet has its bases in Sevastopol in Crimea and Vladimir Putin wants to secure them. The Russian president fears that the new Ukrainian government may terminate the basing lease and let NATO use the ports. In addition, he wants to bring the Russian and Russian-speaking population home into his empire.
Q: A majority of the residents of Crimea voted in favor of splitting off from Ukraine.
A: The referendum offered Putin a legal basis to send his troops into Ukraine. Crimea is only the first step. Russia will not spare the South and East of Ukraine. The violent clashes in Kharkiv and Donetsk and the occupation of the local administrations there were arranged by the Kremlin. Putin wants to destabilize Eastern Ukraine and possibly plunge it into a civil war. Then, he could also invade the Eastern regions.
Q: Eastern Ukraine does not want to have anything to do with the interim government in Kyiv, claiming that there are fascists in power there. Is it not understandable that the Eastern Ukrainians want to have a protector?
A: Do you in the West believe the fable about fascists? Putin is only looking for a pretext for a larger military intervention. By the way, I have doubts that the majority of Russians believe the fascist theory.
Q: Opinion polls say that more than sixty percent of Russians would approve of a war over Crimea.
A: Opinion polls in authoritarian states are untrustworthy and do not reflect people’s real views. Public opinion in Russia is the result of propaganda and brainwashing. The best example of this is Russian television with its extremely unbalanced coverage of Ukraine.
Q: In February, Ukraine’s interim government overturned a language act, as a result of which Russian lost its status as official language. Has this not added fuel to the fire?
A: This was certainly a mistake. However, the Russian language in the East and South has never been in jeopardy.
Q: Shouldn’t the Ukrainian government reach out to the Kremlin to defuse the situation?
A: What the Ukrainian government should do above all is show strength, but it fails to do so. Kyiv should have brought Crimea under its control at the very start. Only from a position of strength would Kyiv have had a chance to be heard by the Kremlin. Just imagine: Ukrainian companies continue to deliver defense technology to Russia – knowing full well that Russia could use it against Ukraine.
Q: Was it a mistake that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s?
A: In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the West guaranteed Ukraine’s security provided it gave up its nuclear weapons. Yet now, the West is unable to keep its promise. If Ukraine had nuclear weapons right now, the crisis over Crimea would not have happened.
Q: The West has punished persons close to the Crimean government loyal to Moscow by imposing travel bans. Other sanctions are being considered. Will Putin be impressed by that?
A: No, such sanctions are not effective. They should have been agreed upon months ago. Putin will not be frightened off by travel bans.
Q: Should the West supply arms to Ukraine, as some Republicans in the United States are demanding?
A: Arms supplies are not enough. Putin must be confronted militarily. I do not mean acts of war. But the West should show a military presence in the Black Sea, for example. This is the only way to stop Putin.
Q: Does the West have to fear Putin?
A: Angela Merkel says that Putin has lost touch with reality. This is what it looks like from the viewpoint of a typical European politician, but it’s wrong. Putin does not behave like a normal statesman. The West should see the world with Putin’s eyes and understand his logic.
Q: What is Putin’s logic?
A: He is driven by personal and political power and has unleashed hysteria in Russia about becoming a new empire. This puts global security at risk. He will carry on until he is stopped.
Q: You were Putin’s adviser for a number of years. Why did you quit?
A: When I joined the Presidential team, Russia was halfway free. I wanted to help the country move ahead in economic terms, and I did. After all, Russia made a leap forward and recovered from the chaos of the 1990s. Yet in political terms, Putin ruled Russia in an increasingly authoritarian style. I dropped out after the hostage drama in Beslan. When terrorists seized the school in 2004, I argued to act with caution. Yet Putin attacked the school with tanks. More than 331 people lost their lives in the process.
A: If you were still on Putin’s team, what would your advice regarding Ukraine be now?
Q; Every prudent advisor would advise him to keep his fingers out of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Putin does not listen to advice. He is not willing to listen to anybody.