Russia’s Ex-Foreign Minister on His ‘Totalitarian’ Country

Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s first top diplomat, speaks about Putin’s ‘disastrous’ war in Ukraine and why the revisionist history about NATO enlargement is all wrong

Russia’s Ex-Foreign Minister on His ‘Totalitarian’ Country
On a visit to Turkey in 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin consults with his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev. To the right is Mircea Snegur, president of Moldova / Alexander Sentsov / Getty Images

If I were ever in doubt as to where Andrei Kozyrev stood on the fate of his homeland, I was put at ease when he told me he didn’t have very long to speak to me over Zoom as he was scheduled for an interview with “the heroes from Navalny’s TV channel.”

The former foreign minister of Russia — and its first following the dissolution of the Soviet Union — apologizes as his “producer” (his wife) tells him to improve the lighting around his computer camera. At nearly 71, Kozryev is winsome and chatty. He now lives in the United States but has asked that I keep his exact location off the record, no doubt owing to what he wants to say. And he cuts right to the point. What Russian President Vladimir Putin has built “looks more like a totalitarian state than a Latin American-style dictatorship.”

On Twitter, Kozyrev has been outspoken in his condemnation of Putin’s war against Ukraine and also helpful in judging certain diplomatic overtures (or feints) from the Russian side. For instance, he assailed Russia’s “peace” delegation in Minsk as a collection of low-level flunkies and nonentities, which should have alerted the international press to the shambolic nature of these discussions. Kozyrev has also entertained a somewhat counterintuitive perspective (one prompted by a tweet published by this writer) that as much as things seem dire in Europe, on par with 1939, there are also promising signs of 1989 if you know where to look for them.

“I think what prompted Putin and his inner circle,” Kozyrev tells me, “is that they see this is really a crucial moment, a tipping point for Europe and the world. Despite certain deviations in, say, Hungary and Turkey, there has been a general movement toward more democracy and openness. This terrifies Putin.”

For Kozyrev, it is point-missing to talk about a “new” Cold War, because the old one, at least according to the siloviki (strongmen) in Moscow, never ended. “All of these guys, mostly from the KGB, never agreed that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War to the Russian people together with the democratic world outside. They don’t buy it. They want to stop it. And now they think this is their last decisive battle.”

In his capacity as Russia’s top diplomat from 1990 to 1996, under Boris Yeltsin’s administration, Kozyrev watched as NATO began procedures to allow new member-states into its alliance, including former members of the defunct, Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin attempted to relitigate and revise this contentious period of history, going so far as to demand that the U.S.-led collective security architecture for Europe be rolled back to 1997 levels to avoid his pulling the trigger.

I ask Kozyrev about a debate that has roiled the American foreign policy establishment in the leadup to this war. Did NATO go too far? On the contrary, he thinks it didn’t go far enough.

“One thing among many I admire about the American character is your ability to look into what you did and to be very, very critical of your mistakes,” Kozyrev says, in what I’m right to assume is a slightly philosophical preliminary to an incoming polemic. “Like when Congress unanimously passed a ban on any kind of lynching. It’s a little late, but it’s important because it’s a form of national repentance. That’s what Russia doesn’t do. Russia doesn’t repent. It hasn’t really for Stalinism or for cutting a deal with Hitler. Instead, it blames Ukraine for Nazism, which is ridiculous.”

As to the pundits and policy mandarins who think the West sleepwalked into this crisis, which now threatens to bleed out beyond the borders of Russia and Belarus and Ukraine, Kozyrev thinks that’s simply nonsense. “Unfortunately, there are many wishful thinkers especially in academia here and intellectuals who have ties to Russia. They go to Valdai [a Russian think tank forum]. They consume caviar and vodka and are treated like kings by those who exist solely to manipulate them. This argument about NATO is just propaganda fed to Americans who then regurgitate it in their opinion and journal essays. The only real analysts who come here from Russia are dissidents. The rest are front people, just like in the Soviet Union, and they manufacture Western champions of the Putin regime, chumps and useful idiots.”

Well, then.

Where America erred, Kozyrev insists, was in not investing as a matter of “strategic necessity” in Russia’s nascent and fragile democracy, which he and Yeltsin — at least in the earlier phase of his career — represented.

“We had considerable public support in 1993. I was elected to the Duma [the lower house of Russia’s Parliament] in Murmansk, and a large part of my base were naval officers at that city’s major naval military base. Seventy percent of them voted for me. Why? Because our policy of partnership with the West had considerable support at that time.”

The U.S. sent plenty of economic advisers, investment bankers and McKinsey consultants to help with the privatization of state assets, but Washington, D.C., didn’t mobilize all of its resources, Kozyrev believes, “to help us win the civil war against revanchist, hardline Russian nationalists. It was the only way to get rid of this mad situation. We were ready to cut our nukes to the bare minimum and end our strategic doctrine of preparing for a showdown with the West. The window of opportunity existed until 1994. And for America this wasn’t just a moral imperative — to help us. It was an existential one.”

Kozyrev has high praise for President George H.W. Bush and his cabinet, particularly Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney. “Those guys were Cold Warriors. They understood the enormity of the problem — and also the opportunity. Unfortunately, Bush lost re-election. [Bill] Clinton came in and he was, generally speaking, helpful. But he could not … fully grasp the challenge of solidifying Russian democracy.”

The United States, Kozyrev says, thought of Russia as another France: “a partner, an ally maybe, but a difficult and self-interested one.” Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher was “a decent guy, but just a bureaucrat from the State Department and a lawyer who handled everything bureaucratically. I didn’t need a professional diplomat as a counterpart. I needed a revolutionary like myself.”

NATO entered the picture at that hinge moment, according to Kozyrev, because Russia’s hardline opposition, not just nationalists but also the unreconstructed Communists, saw it as “the last line of defense against a fundamental change in Russian foreign policy. NATO was very useful for them; the great enemy of the Soviet Union.”

In December 1991, just before that empire collapsed, Yeltsin sent a letter to NATO. “Even in my ministry, we prepared the letter but we made a mistake — a typo. It was printed in the Russian press and we were mocked. The phrase was something like, ‘We do not require immediate membership in NATO, but we will insist on that further on.’ But the ‘not’ was omitted, so it sounded like we were asking for immediate NATO membership. The crazies in Russia went even crazier.”

“But until 1994, the Russian military — many generals — wanted cooperation with NATO because they liked the idea that they’d be on the same footing with the first-class military in the world.”

Eastern European countries that joined NATO were not, contra a lot of heated rhetoric on the subject, simply gobbled up by it. “They wanted to be in NATO, and at first America and its partners didn’t want to take them in. But they had no choice, because they couldn’t deny membership for qualified liberal democracies. The same way they can’t deny it for Ukraine.”

The big mistake was placing Russia on a “low-burner process” toward partnership with, if not membership in, the alliance, Kozyrev says. “The very idea that NATO was the source of trouble is based on the old Soviet enemy image of it, an image which never changed and is now exploited by all the old customers from the KGB.”

“If NATO dissolved tomorrow, they would still claim the West was the enemy of Russia.”

I ask Kozyrev about Putin’s now notorious speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, at which he articulated a conspiratorial view of the EU, NATO and even the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operations in Europe) as agents of American hegemony. Many analysts have retroactively attributed Putin’s then-coalescing worldview at the time to the spate of “color revolutions” that had swept Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asian republics. Kozyrev maintains that such analysis is to state the matter backward.

“Putin’s speech was in fact anticipatory. He sensed that more revolutions were coming, that countries around Russia were ripe to go further with democratization and westernization. They were striving to join the very structures he criticized, and his speech was to preempt this danger.”

So much for the past. What about the future?

Kozryev thinks that Western sanctions on Russia should not be lifted if and when Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine but that they should stay in place until certain conditions inside Russia are satisfied. “It’s so important not to treat Russia as a normal country that made a miscalculation in Ukraine. If they withdraw and we go back to business as usual, it will change nothing. The West should know its enemy, as it once knew the Soviet Union, and treat it accordingly.”

Kozyrev argues that sanctions should remain until Russia has a free press, “not a Potemkin free press,” and until it holds free and fair elections.

I counter that this seems rather unlikely given that Putin shows no sign of wanting any sort of thaw; if anything, Russia is undergoing an almost instantaneous deep freeze of dissent, travel and even free thinking (if reports are true that Russian police are spot-inspecting people’s cellphones for signs of samizdat antiwar material).

“This is not about Putin himself,” Kozryev corrects me. “It’s not one figure because the personality can be changed. The problem is the character of the regime and that character must be changed.”

“This war is a disaster. If they continue, it will be a total and complete disaster. A hundred years ago, there was the tsar, the embodiment of God himself in the Russian mentality. Yet when he pushed his country into a disastrous war, exactly like today, he found it impossible to win. Then he signed his resignation as the tsar and became Citizen Romanov. That even someone appointed by God himself could resign peacefully and transfer power should tell you that Vladimir Putin is not invulnerable.”

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