20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Kremlin’s foreign policy post-2014 has constantly challenged the existing international order. Many experts believe that this foreign policy originates in Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western views. However, according to Russia’s former Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, the causes of Russian aggression are due to a consensus amongst the conservative elite which emerged as early as the mid-1990s. Kozyrev discussed these and other factors which determine Russia’s current foreign policy with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova.


June 14, 2018: Andrei Kozyrev at the CSIS/IMR's discussion in Washington, D.C. Photo: Youtube.


Olga Khvostunova: Today, many experts in both Russia and the West are discussing the current deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. Some believe that Russia’s revanche was inevitable, and that Putin is only carrying it out. Since you, as the Foreign Minister, adhered to a pro-Western line in foreign policy, how do you view the current situation? 

Andrei Kozyrev: What do you mean,— revanche for what?

OK: Citing experts, this is “revanche” for Russia’s humiliation in the 1990s, for alleged “broken promises by the West” …

AK: I see. This so-called “humiliation” is a Kremlin myth. Nobody has ever humiliated Russia. On the contrary, Russia—and I am a living witness to this—was provided with assistance from both the United States and the West in general since the very beginning of its democratic reforms, even under Gorbachev. And especially during the hard times in 1991-92. When the Soviet economy came to a complete standstill, when there were barely any medicines, and in some areas even food, we were handed help, provided with substantial humanitarian aid. Moreover, the U.S. helped us preserve our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to remain the only nuclear state in the territory of the former Soviet Union, and then to remove nuclear weapons from the territory of other former Soviet states. They helped us join the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other organizations. This all happened at a seminal moment when Russia could have lost everything—both its statehood and international status. America helped us not only to preserve all this, but also to elevate our status. Already in 1993, we began to participate in G7 summits and became a non-full member. Therefore, these “humiliations” are just myths and lies which are convenient for the Kremlin today.

OK: There exists another strand of thought regarding Russia’s current policies—that the West did not do enough. 

AK: Well, we really wanted more economic aid—political assistance was abundant. And despite some claims, the West’s economic aid was not small or humiliating, but we wanted much more. We tried to ask for it, but we did not beg … As they say, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And, perhaps, we are to blame—some members of the government and myself—for the fact that we could not put forward an alternative to Yeltsin, that we couldn’t preserve the democratic process. Still, this was Russia’s internal problem. Perhaps, more economic aid could have tipped the scales in our favor.

But instead of being grateful to America for helping us and treating us well, many today accuse it of not doing more to help. That’s not fair. Whether they could have provided more assistance or not, that was a U.S. decision. They tried to do what they could at that moment. Unfortunately, many observers in the West have fallen for the Kremlin’s myths and lies propagated to justify its policies.

OK: Why do you think you were never given the larger economic aid that you asked for?

AK: It’s hard to say… To answer this question, one needs to run a complex analysis and have a clear understanding of the U.S. domestic policy dynamics, its economic and political priorities.This is actually an odd way to pose the question. Why would the West have to give up everything and help Russia?

OK: The argument usually goes: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still had nuclear weapons, and the West needed to deal with it, not least to protect itself.

AK: Yes, but nuclear weapons are, again, our problem. We—that is, the Soviet Union—developed these weapons to counter the West, threatened it for fifty years with these weapons, and now suddenly the West was supposed to help us out? And the West did help, by the way. They essentially helped Russia to remove nuclear weapons [from other former Soviet republics], especially from Ukraine. In response, Russia, of course, promised the territorial integrity of Ukraine in its then-existing form which included Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And this promise was not broken by the West—it was broken by the Kremlin.

OK: But still, why couldn’t you get more economic aid? 

AK: Our government had its own big problems. The fact that while I was Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov headed the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the direct heirs of the KGB, is a telling sign. Primakov was the direct successor of the Soviet establishment and a veteran of the Soviet bureaucratic regime. The SVR was involved in activities that differed little from those of the KGB, both in the West and in the U.S. Many argue—and I tend to agree—that Primakov himself was KGB. Still, there is no direct evidence, as the KGB archives are still not fully declassified.

So how could the West help a country where an intelligence agency ran anti-Western operations as it had been doing in the Soviet times? Just because the Foreign Minister was pursuing a different diplomacy? Another question is: what kind of help could we expect? Let us take the Marshall Plan example. It was developed at a time when the fascist regime in Germany was completely destroyed; denazification began under U.S. guidance. There is crucial difference between what had happened to Germany and what occurred in Russia [which had not fully rejected its Soviet legacy]. In any case, the Marshall Plan was a long-term credit to Germany. The idea behind it was not to just give them fish, but to teach them how to fish for themselves. Ask Russian businessmen now if they could issue a loan to a company undergoing turmoil, torn by disagreements, with its board of directors controlled by, say, a pro-Soviet Supreme Council, as it had been the case in Russia in 1993. Nobody would give a loan to such company. This could only happen if everything was above board, if the stakeholders were interested in actual development, in moving forward. But in Russia at that time, half of the stakeholders, including, by the way, Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin], were interested in moving backwards.

OK: What essentially happened? What caused this sudden setback in Russia’s democratic development?

AK: Nothing happened suddenly. Even in Gorbachev’s time, there was a struggle between those who wanted reforms—albeit limited ones—and those who wanted to return to the past. For example, reformers Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev on the one hand, and Yegor Ligachyov on the other. This struggle seeped into our time, although we wanted much more radical reforms. We did not want to just reform the Soviet Union, we wanted to replace it with a democratic system. The fact that within one government Primakov and I worked together at the same time was an indicator of that struggle. And in the end, we, the democrats, lacked the power to implement the reforms we wanted. We managed to destroy the Communist regime with Yeltsin’s help, but we were unable to replace it with a stable democratic system.

OK: So it was Yeltsin who changed his priorities?

AK: Gradually, Yeltsin began to rely more and more on the bureaucracy and the oligarchs. The oligarchy, too, arose from the Soviet bureaucracy. Our oligarchs aren’t the boys who started Apple from a garage or who launched Facebook from their couch and became billionaires. They were people—many of them young—who, thanks to their connections in the old Gorbachev bureaucracy, gained access to various Russian officials and eventually became oligarchs. A significant portion of these people were completely retrograde, but there was a part that, like us, wanted to get rid of the Soviet red flags and happily march under the Russian tricolor. But most of them wanted to march in the wrong direction. In contrast, your humble servant, Yegor Gaidar, and some others wanted to transition to a real market economy, to a real democracy, while the former wanted to march toward the system that we ended up at. Therefore, none of this started by chance, not suddenly, and it did not begin with Putin. It doesn’t mean that Putin didn’t play a role in creating this system or that he is not responsible for it, but Putin himself was appointed by Yeltsin, which already says a lot. It was a “bureaucratic revanche,” during which we were all thrown out of the government. And now, to a large extent, Russia is a caricature of the Soviet Union, only without the red flags.

OK: How was Russia’s foreign policy affected by these developments?

AK: By 1995, it was already impossible to work. Then, after the Srebrenica massacre, Pavel Grachev and I were completely isolated at the London meeting of the international Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, where the foreign ministers and defense ministers of the Western democracies were represented. It was a shameful isolation. Yeltsin told us to side not even with the criminal Belgrade regime, but with Mladic and Karadzic, who are now recognized as war criminals. Even Grachev was shocked by Yeltsin’s decision.

OK: Why did Yeltsin decide to support them?

AK: Because he was afraid of the upcoming elections and could not find the strength… You know, democracy needs to be fought for every day. Even if it is already established, it is necessary to fight for its preservation. This is what we are seeing today in the United States. But when you need to build it and maintain its stability, it’s incredibly hard. Also, different people behave differently in different situations. When George Washington, the winner in the war [for U.S. independence] was offered to remain president and become an “uncrowned king,” he refused, stating that he would not even go to the elections and let others run. And healthwise he was in fine form. But for Yeltsin, who by 1995 was already a physical wreck, it was difficult and unbeneficial to be reelected on a democratic platform. It was easier to cater to the bureaucracy, to the oligarchs who were actively supporting him and who reckoned, quite accurately, that he would be their puppet. Thus, to mobilize this part of society, Yeltsin needed to side with Mladic and Karadzic.

After the London conference, I told Yeltsin that I wanted to resign and run for the State Duma. He pondered the decision for a long time and accepted my resignation—only by that time I had already been elected in a Murmansk district and the decision had been made for him, because the Russian Constitution forbids combining [a Duma deputy’s mandate] with a ministerial post. 

March 24, 1993: U.S. President Bill Clinton meets Russia's Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in the Oval Office. Photo: Edward Pesov | TASS.


OK: When you resigned, Primakov was appointed Foreign Minister…

AK: Right, there you go—a sign of Russia’s domestic process. The country’s foreign policy reflected it as well.

OK: It’s a clear contrast. And since you mentioned it, I’d like to dig deeper into the specifics of Russia’s foreign policy and diplomacy. On the one hand, Soviet and later Russian diplomacy is praised for its high quality and reputation, on the other hand, professional, career diplomats today, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the late Vitaly Churkin, former Russian envoy to the UN, pursued a questionable foreign policy. How do these notions coexist within the same school of thought?

АК: My answer will be slightly schematic. Diplomacy is a profession, which in a way can be compared to that of a taxi driver. An unprofessional driver doesn’t know the rules and can drive in the oncoming lane. A professional driver will follow the rules and drive fast and safely. However, a professional driver is not responsible for the destination, and nor is a professional diplomat. The passenger decides the destination, east or west.

ОK: And the passenger would be the president?

АК: And the passenger is the president. Or the current regime. However, a diplomat, like a taxi driver, can decline to drive and say “find someone else.” To go or not to go—that is the diplomat’s dilemma. Lavrov is a professional diplomat of very high quality, and Churkin was a professional diplomat of very high quality. I know this because both of them were my deputies in the Foreign Ministry. There are still many of my former deputies working there, whom I valued as professional diplomats. They decided to go east, and it’s their personal choice.

OK: How does it make you feel?

AK: Professionally, I understand, but morally, it pains me. A person always has a moral choice, and it’s painful to see that my people are… like this.

OK: Do you think under the current regime all Russia’s foreign policy goals are defined by Putin, or could there be other imperatives? 

AK: Like any other authoritarian regime, the Russian system is very non-transparent. I don’t have an insider’s view right now. I think no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. But I believe that the Foreign Ministry and Sergei Lavrov do not define Russian foreign policy, but implement “professional maintenance.” Who else defines it, besides Putin, is hard to tell.

OK: Is the current foreign policy beneficial for the regime?

AK: Up until 2014, I think Putin’s foreign policy in principle was beneficial. Why? Because a significant part of the regime members adhered to the following idea: make money in Russia but spend it in democratic countries where the lifestyle is different, more comfortable and generally better. But they didn’t want the same for the Russian people. The regime members posited that people should live under the control of the state repressive machine and propaganda, while they [the elite] can travel and spend their money in the West. Today, their options are significantly limited due to sanctions. I suppose that many members of the regime are very upset about it. Clearly, they had no intention of ending up in a mini-Soviet Union, in a godforsaken, isolated place. That is why their discontent can lead to a serious turmoil in the future.

OK: What is your assessment of the annexation of Crimea—was it an impulse decision or a working scenario that Putin realized when the chance presented itself?

AK: I have no idea—there are too many facts, theories, sources of information. It’s hard to guess. Was Crimea an unexpected move? It doesn’t really matter, nor does the decision to invade Syria. It is not surprising in a sense that these decisions fall within the Kremlin’s general agenda. There can be questions only about the form of such decisions. What is important is that Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria represent the regime’s excesses. It’s analogous to a river that one day rises and floods. All members of the regime wanted to follow the river’s course, which means anti-Western propaganda for the people, while for themselves the West as a place for living and pleasure. They agreed on such a paradigm. But the annexation of Crimea, which was absolutely unnecessary, and the adventures in eastern Ukraine and Syria resulting in serious personal sanctions led to a flood in which they can drown. 

OK: Do you think Putin failed to anticipate these implications?

AK: I don’t know how and why Putin made this decision. My explanation is that the West’s delayed reaction might have something to do with it. Incidentally, this reaction reflects that the West’s approach is overall favorable. They want to see something good in Russia, they want it to develop, to be a partner. They want good things for Russia and thus for themselves. For these reasons, the West pursued policies that may give the Kremlin regime the idea that everything is allowed. That the West will agree to anything. Perhaps, it is partially my fault: I have convinced the West that despite the difficulties, we will follow a pro-Western, democratic path. They had believed in it so strongly in the 90s that until recently this dynamic was still preserved. Perhaps, the Kremlin decided that this would continue forever. And so they got carried away.

OK: If a significant number of the Russian elite are really so unhappy with the situation, can the Kremlin’s foreign policy change? Or should the leader change first?

AK: Russian foreign policy will change only if there is real regime change and there is a real shift in the country’s domestic development. It’s not about Putin. Russia must follow the path of deep democratic reforms. The domestic situation needs to change in a way similar to what had happened in the early 90s. Changes in the regime’s personnel or leadership are a different thing. If that happens, a policy adjustment might take place—not a change of course, but an adjustment. Such excesses as the annexation of Crimea or war in eastern Ukraine or Syria can be eliminated, so that members of the regime can again travel to the West and enjoy themselves. This won’t be a different foreign policy, but it will be less adventurous, less aggressive, and less damaging for Russia in general. After all, that’s what it was prior to 2014. But whereas an adjustment is possible, a change in the course, or vector, of foreign policy is largely impossible without fundamental democratic reforms.

OK: Will democratic change eventually take place in Russia? 

AK: It will happen sooner or later. I believe it.

OK: Why?

AK: Because I know history.