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Former Putin Adviser Andrei Illarionov: Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin

Before the Russia-Ukraine war began, most analysts did not believe Vladimir Putin would actually invade—until he did.

Andrei Illarionov was one of the few that accurately predicted what was to come.

From 2000 to 2005, he was chief economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Putin’s personal representative at the G-8. In 2005, he resigned and became an outspoken critic of Putin and the Kremlin.

In this episode, he offers his take on Putin’s goals, his worldview, and why Illarionov believes the war could easily have been avoided.

 

Jan Jekielek: Dr. Andrei Illarionov, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Andrei Illarionov: Thank you very much Jan for inviting me.

Mr. Jekielek: And I hope you don’t mind, I’ll call you Andrei.

Dr. Illarionov: Not at all.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s rare that I meet someone whose name may be even a little more difficult to pronounce than my own.

Dr. Illarionov: It’s fine.

Mr. Jekielek: Andrei, you were president Vladimir Putin’s economic advisor for a period of almost six years in the early 2000s. You’re obviously very familiar with the man and also Russian economic policy. You were his chief advisor, if I understand it correctly. We’re going to talk about the Russia-Ukraine war, we’re going to talk about many things, but for starters how is it that you came to work for Mr. Putin?

Dr. Illarionov: By accident. I met Mr. Putin for the first time in late July or early August 1998, just by accident. It was the date when he was appointed the FSB (Federal Security Service) director by President Yeltsin. He came to his best friend then, Mr. Alexei Kudrin, the minister of finance of Russia. It was a coincidence because I was invited by the minister of finance to discuss the probability of a financial collapse of Russia. I discussed then, what actually happened three weeks later. I made forecasts that happened to be accurate about the devaluation of the Russian ruble, about the default that Russia would face, and about introduction of capital control.

When I was at the ministry, somebody came into this room and everybody just shifted their attention to that person. That person was behind my back, but I understood that somebody important just came into the hall. He was not very tall, I would say, and in a very strange light green colored suit, which was quite unusual for a bureaucrat, and especially for the director of the FSB. That person happened to be Mr. Putin. We had a five-minute conversation. Actually, it was not really a conversation. I was asked to talk a little bit about the coming collapse of the financial system of Russia, and I said what I knew. There was no reaction at all to my story, but that was our first meeting.

The next meeting was already a year-and-a-half later in February 2000. Putin was already the acting president of Russia and he was looking for an economic advisor. I was invited to his dacha, an estate outside of Moscow. We spent three hours discussing issues of economic policy, and then he invited me to be his economic advisor and I refused. That was the second time I refused. We met several times, three times altogether. I refused twice, but on the third time I agreed.

Mr. Jekielek: I imagine he gets refused often, at least that’s my imagination.

Dr. Illarionov: Yes, you’re probably right, yes.

Mr. Jekielek: So why did you refuse him?

Dr. Illarionov: Because I did not consider the offer as very interesting. I was working in my institute that I had created, the Institute of Economic Analysis in Moscow. By that time, I already had some experience in bureaucratic circles, because I had been economic advisor to a couple of prime ministers in Russia, Mr. Gaidar and Mr. Chernomyrdin. I knew pretty well what it meant to be in the bureaucracy, and I did not like it very much. One more invitation, even by the president, was not very attractive to me. Academic work and research work was and still is much more interesting to me. Although, it is an opportunity to advise and then to have your advice be implemented. So that is why, after two months, Mr. Putin invited me to different events, to different meetings, and to visits around the country. During these two months, I understood and it was apparent that he was really serious about economic reform.

There was a possibility of using this opportunity to implement an economic policy that would bring economic growth to the country. Russia by that time was nine years into an economic crisis and the GDP of Russia contracted by more than 40 per cent. I said, “Maybe it’s possible to do something for the livelihoods of tens of millions of Russian citizens. I finally agreed and joined the administration. Actually, I was the first person appointed to Putin’s administration, before anyone else had been appointed, in April 2000. And as you mentioned correctly, I was there for almost six years.

Mr. Jekielek: Were your suggestions and your policies applied?

Dr. Illarionov: Yes, many of my ideas and much of my economic advice was taken. As a result, instead of nine years of economic recession, Russia experienced 10 years of unprecedented economic growth. For these 10 years, Russian GDP doubled, Russian GDP per capita doubled, and private consumption per capita increased 2.3 times in real terms. This was and still is the best economic period in Russian history for a thousand years. So it was an economic miracle, on par with other well-known miracles like in China, Korea,and Taiwan. So I’m a little bit proud of that, because I was part of the team who advised on this economic policy and we got these results. But after I left, and after some period of time this policy stopped being implemented, and now for the last 14 years we have had economic stagnation in Russia. Now, with these new sanctions and isolation, we are falling.

We entered another recession and the forecasts are ranging between 10 to 30 per cent contraction for these years. Going back to the 1990s or earlier 2000s in terms of the economic size of Russia, we had a very clear nine years of economic contraction in the nineties because of bad economic policies. After that, there were 10 years of unprecedented economic growth, when the economic policy was right. After that, we had 14 years of stagnation because the policy was not good. And now after the aggression against Ukraine, it will be another contraction, but instead of contracting within nine years, they will get the results in one year that previously took nine years. This is a classic example that could be included in all economic and political textbooks; when leadership implements certain policies, certain economic results follow.

Mr. Jekielek: Why did you leave in 2005?

Dr. Illarionov: First of all, I had a contract with Mr. Putin, and laid out the conditions on which I would join his team in this administration. And I stated if any of the three main conditions were not met, I would leave immediately. Actually I had two roles when I left this position. I was not only an economic advisor, I was the Russian sherpa to G8, a kind of club for the most powerful free democratic nations. I was also the person who was leading the efforts of the Russian Federation to join G7, which then moved from G7 to G8. Russia became a full-fledged member of G8 due to the efforts of myself and my team.

In 2002, in Kananaskis, Canada, Russia was invited to the G8 club. It was the result of my two years’ work in this regard. But in 2004, Russian troops attacked the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia with tanks and flamethrowers and killed more than 330 kids, their parents and teachers. I was the person who was in communications with Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who announced that he would come and rescue the hostages in this Beslan school. Mr. Putin said “No.” He used his tanks and flamethrowers to kill all these people.

I was not only kind of the watcher from the outside, I was also on the inside, because I was in the communication line between Maskhadov and Putin. I was the person who talked to Putin about this proposal by Maskhadov to save those people. As soon as Putin said no, and gave  the order to kill those people, I said to Putin that I could not be his sherpa to G8 anymore, and I resigned from this position. He did not accept my resignation, but I stopped performing my duties. Several months later, in January 2005, he fired me from this position, not explaining to the outside world why he did so. But okay, I had already given my resignation.

Mr. Jekielek: You obviously have significant insight into the Russian president from these interactions over almost six years. One of these narratives that you commonly see in the media and Western media is that Vladimir Putin is a madman. What do you think of this narrative?

Dr. Illarionov: Absolutely baseless. No. He’s one of the most rational people that I have ever met in my life. Even today when I’m not there, I still see how he’s extremely rational, calculated, and understanding of what is going on around the world. He is making decisions based on his analysis of what’s going on in the world and based on what kind of views and positions are taken by other people, including the leaders of the Western countries, and including the president of the United States. His decisions, including the decision to invade Ukraine is based on his absolutely correct understanding of President Biden. Without Biden in the White House, Putin would never invade Ukraine.

Mr. Jekielek: Okay. Please explain that to me.

Dr. Illarionov: Mr. Putin is a very good psychologist. There are KGB files for Mr. Biden, because Mr. Biden visited Moscow in 1978 and met with the leaders of the Soviet Union. Even recently in Poland, Mr. Biden reminded the shocked audience how it was nice for him to meet Mr. Kosygin, premier of the Soviet Union. He shared this with his Polish audience when he was in Warsaw. But what was probably a shock for Polish audiences was not a shock for Mr. Putin, because he had studied the files on Mr. Biden. He understood this is a person who would never do anything against his invasion of Ukraine.

Months before that, Biden did remove sanctions on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Biden signed START III. Biden invited Putin to the climate summit last April. But he did nothing against the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border back in March and April. When there was some provocation in the Black Sea, when the Dutch Navy ship went into contact with the Russian Navy, Biden ordered the U.S. ships to leave the Black Sea, leaving that Dutch ship alone. Also, there were many, many other things, including what we have seen in preparation of this invasion of Ukraine.

When Putin started to mass Russian troops on the Ukrainian border last autumn, Biden dispatched Bill Burns, CIA director, to Moscow. For the first time a CIA director spent two days in Moscow. He discussed some so-called bilateral issues with the head of the security council of Russia, Mr. Patrushev, and with the foreign intelligence chief, Naryshkin, and then he talked to Mr. Putin. After that, Putin doubled his efforts in his preparations against Ukraine. Just after this Burns visit to Moscow, Putin said, “Okay, our American friends offered to prepare documents for providing us with so-called security guarantees.” That was exactly what he did in December last year when they were given to the American side. After that, they published the so-called two draft treaties; one draft treaty with the United States, and another draft treaty with NATO. It was very clear that the very idea of preparation of these two drafts was given to Putin by Mr. Burns and by Mr. Biden.

Then, when all the world was expecting that all these outrageous demands from the Putin side would be rejected outright—no, Mr. Sullivan, the national security assistant to President Biden said, “Oh, no, there is something interesting here. We will have negotiations.” And after that, we know that in January, in Geneva, in Brussels and in Vienna, there was a series of negotiations with the Russian side where the American side officially pronounced, “Okay, there are several good ideas from the Russian proposals that we completely accept. For example, no deployment of troops and no deployment of nuclear missiles on Ukrainian territory.” Nobody asked for that, but nevertheless, they said it right away. They said many other things, including the military drills, including the military population and so on. So it showed that Biden and the Biden administration were ready to cooperate with Putin on issues of security, even when Russian troops are on the Ukrainian border and ready to attack Ukraine. That can be understood only in one way; the Biden administration is giving the green light for Putin to attack Ukraine.

One last point, just before this attack, the Biden administration recalled American citizens from Ukraine. They recalled American instructors from the Ukrainian military. They recalled some diplomatic personnel from Kyiv. They relocated the embassy of the United States from Kyiv to Lviv. Now we know that they removed the U.S. Navy from the Black Sea. That can be interpreted in only one way, and Mr. Putin understood these signs in exactly the right way.

Mr. Jekielek: To be clear here, you are saying that it can be understood as a green light for Russia to invade, but from Vladimir Putin’s perspective?

Dr. Illarionov: No, this is the only way to understand it from any perspective. Let me give you another example, just to compare what has happened over the last few months with what happened in 2008, during the Russian invasion into Georgia. On August 11, 2008, then President Bush ordered the U.S. Navy to move into the Black Sea and the U.S. Air Force to be relocated into Turkey and Romania. President Bush announced it in the late evening, August 11th, 2008. What happened after that? In 12 hours, the Russian invasion into Georgia was stopped—stopped immediately because they understood this signal from the U.S. president.

If the United States president now, in 2022, is sending very different, very opposite signals, removing the Navy, removing diplomatic and embassy personnel, removing instructors, and removing American citizens, how are all these signals to be understood by the Kremlin? In only one way, this is a green light. Moreover, as you remember, Biden announced that he’s putting more troops into so-called border states, into Poland, Romania, and other places. How should Putin understand it? In only one way—Biden is not going to be involved in Ukraine, and Ukraine is his easy prey.

We all watched The Magnificent Seven many times, this is a great movie. When this band was attacking a Mexican village and these Mexican peasants asked for protection, they asked cowboys to do it. What did all these magnificent seven cowboys do? They went to this Mexican village, they didn’t go to the neighboring villages. If they would go to the neighboring villages, it would be a very clear sign for the bandits to attack this particular village without any problem, because it would be a very clear signal that it is easy prey. Mr. Biden did exactly that. He has shown the international bandit Putin that this village named Ukraine is easy prey, and that so-called international policemen in the shape of the U.S. administration would do nothing to defend this particular village. Moreover, even after this attack started, what did Biden do? He offered President Zelensky of Ukraine passage out of Ukraine, to which Mr. Zelensky gave his now famous answer, “I need munitions, not a ride.” That was not what Mr. Biden was expecting from the Ukrainian president.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Almost nobody in the West really believed that Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine. By the way, I know you thought he would, because I have been following your work. Why was everybody so wrong?

Dr. Illarionov: Because Western leaders, not all, but many Western leaders would prefer to live in their fantasy world. They forgot that the current world, the modern world, is not the world of only those graduating from Oxford University. There are some other people in the world, there are some despots, and there are some tyrants. They are attacking their own people within their own states, and then they’re attacking other states. They prefer not to see that, and they prefer to be blind. From this point of view, they are much less realistic than Putin. Those people who would like to have business as usual with Mr. Putin and other tyrants, they prefer to not see the obvious.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the common themes now is that Russia is responding to NATO aggression. What do you think?

Dr. Illarionov: It’s not true. Factually, it is incorrect. In 2000, 2001, 2002, the main motto of Mr. Putin was, “I would like to join NATO.” It was the official position of the Russian administration. It was the official position of Putin himself. He said it many times publicly and privately during negotiations. Even today, you can go to the website of the Russian president, and you find all these speeches by Putin in the first three years of his administration. Putin said, “I would like Russia to join NATO.” There was no fear of an expanding NATO. In 2003, there was a press conference by Mr. Putin and Mr. Kuchma, the president of Ukraine. The journalist asked, “Mr. Putin, could you tell us what would be your reaction to the potential membership of Ukraine in NATO?” The answer of Putin was, “It’s fine. It’s up to the Ukrainian people and up to the Ukrainian government whether to join or to not join NATO. We have no objections.”

In 2004, there was an expansion of NATO with a number of countries joining NATO. What was the official position of the Russian administration? “Fine, please do it. We have no objections.” This attitude of Putin changed by 2007. For the first time, during the Munich conference on security, he all of a sudden announced, “We are not happy with NATO expansion.” The real question is what changed in the period between 2004 and 2007? It was in 2008 that Russian foreign policy proclaimed this, “sphere of privileged interests,” never spoken of before.

Mr. Jekielek: Spheres of influence, right? Are there a spheres of interest?

Dr. Illarionov: Spheres of influence is an old concept. They have a so-called modernized name for that, it’s called spheres of privileged interests that never existed before. I had spent, as you mentioned, almost six years in the administration. That term was never used before, neither publicly nor internally. After that, Mr. Putin prepared these two draft treaties with the United States and with NATO with a request to return NATO to its 1997 division line, mentioning countries that should not be NATO members; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

They have repeated this list of countries in this ultimatum on December 2021, from the conversation in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna, on January, year 2022, in the statement of deputy ministers of foreign affairs of Russia Grushko and Ryabkov, on February 2022, in the written response of Russian minister of foreign affairs to the United States, on February 17th, exactly one week before the attack on Ukraine, and on March 8th and March 9th, in an official statement from the Russian minister of foreign affairs, already two weeks after the attack on Ukraine. It was the same approach, there should be the division line of 1997 in Europe, and de-NATO-ization of those Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. That is exactly the goal that has been proclaimed in all those documents.

Mr. Jekielek:  Americans might not fully grasp why these countries that you just named want so badly to be part of NATO.

Dr. Illarionov: Those people who live in those countries understand very well, because for decades they were living under the threat of attack, invasion and occupation from the former Soviet Union, and now from Putin’s Russia. That is why they see membership in NATO as the only chance to deter this attack and invasion. We see that for the whole period of NATO’s existence, there was not a single case of an attack by the Soviet Union under Brezhnev or even under Stalin on any NATO country. During Putin’s time, there was not a single case of an attack on any NATO member. But those countries that are not in NATO have been regularly attacked by the Soviet Union and by Putin’s Russia—whether it was Czechoslovakia, whether it was Hungary, whether it was the threat to Poland, whether it was invasion into Afghanistan, whether it was invasion into Georgia, whether it was invasion in Crimea or Donbass, whether it was invasion in Ukraine, whether it was a presence of Russian troops in Moldova, or an attack in Syria.

There’s a very clear-cut distinction. If any country is within NATO, it’s a guarantee for security and peace. If this country is outside of NATO, there’s a very high probability it could be attacked by Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Jekielek: We have this other thing. It does seem perplexing that while there has been a response, there have been sanctions, there has been a freezing of central bank assets—at the same time, Russia continues to be the broker in the Iran deal. You are saying that they stand to benefit  from that financially. That’s a whole other question.

Dr. Illarionov: It was December of last year when Secretary of State Blinken was meeting with the minister of foreign affairs of Russia, Lavrov, and many people outside were thinking and saying that the main topic would be Ukraine and the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. But when that meeting happened, we found that 90 per cent of the time was spent on discussing the Iran deal. Mr. Blinken was trying to convince Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Putin to participate in the negotiations with Iran, to give Iran a chance to enrich uranium. That is why our understanding of what’s really going on behind closed doors is pretty limited. That is why we see this particular mindset of the leading members of the current U.S. administration—while at the same time giving a green light to Mr. Putin to attack Ukraine, they also continue efforts to provide Iran with a deal to possibly get nuclear weapons, which is threatening to Israel.

In April of last year, with Mr. Biden’s withdrawal of 100 million U.S. dollars of military aid to Ukraine that was actually scheduled according to the law adopted by the U.S. Congress, he actually gave those hundred million U.S. dollars to Palestinian authorities who gave this money to those terrorists who attacked Israel. Only after that did they stop this operation, but it was an initial reaction. For example, they removed Houthi from the list of terrorist organizations, and Houthi used this opportunity to attack Saudi Arabian airports and facilities. We know that the U.S. administration withdrew American troops from Afghanistan in a blunder that we were all watching. So it’s not one single element. This is a very comprehensive mindset towards different countries, Houthi, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Russia. It’s the same approach.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov who I’m going to quote here, “This is not about Ukraine at all, but the world order. The current crisis is a fateful epoch-making moment in modern history. It reflects the battle over what the world order will look like.”

Dr. Illarionov: Putin understands very well that there is a unique window of opportunity during these four years, from 2021 to at least January 2025, while Mr. Biden is the president of the United States, because of the position of Mr Biden and leading members of his administration. This is a unique opportunity to change the world order, because with any other U.S. president, whoever that person would be, whether Republican or Democrat, it would be impossible to do it. But right now, with this particular team in the White House, there’s a unique chance to change world order in favor of tyrants, despots, authoritarian leaders like Mr. Putin, and the Chinese leaders. This is a new chance and this chance should be used. So, that is why they are in a hurry, they are in a rush. That is why they’re using this opportunity to attack Ukraine. That is why they were able to see what’s going on in the middle east with Iran.

That is why last year we entered a very dangerous moment in world history. This dangerous moment will last until at least January 2025, when hopefully there will be another president in the White House, regardless which party that person would represent. But for almost three years in a row, it will be a very dangerous moment that will be used and is being used by Putin and others to remake the world order.

Mr. Jekielek: It seems like Russia and China are really getting closer together here. Definitely economically, but of course there was this announcement during the Olympics. They have had this tight cooperation appear and the process of de-dollarization, for lack of a better term, has accelerated—certainly for Russia because of the sanctions imposed. There are two questions here. There have been many economic sanctions implemented to try to stop Russia from doing what it’s doing. What do you think about their impact? That’s the first question. And the second question is the China connection.

Dr. Illarionov: First of all, if I may use your question to say something very important, because there was a lot of discussion about the possibility of mainland China attacking Taiwan and capturing Taiwan. My understanding is that if Putin is victorious in Ukraine, it would substantially increase the risks for Taiwan, but if Putin is defeated and fails in Ukraine, it would substantially reduce the risks for Taiwan. That’s the first observation.

Second, the sanctions that have been implemented against Russia have demonstrated their ineffectiveness for the short or medium term. It demonstrates how narrow the foreign policy instruments used by Western powers really are. All the instruments have been reduced only to sanctions. We have already seen for eight years in a row since 2014, and especially over the last month-plus, that sanctions by themselves cannot produce changes in the decision-making process in Moscow. This is not a surprise. There was not a single case where sanctions by themself would change policies in those countries that have been sanctioned; neither Iran, North Korea, South Africa, or Cuba. Not in any case did those countries change their policies. So if sanctions did not work in all those cases, if they did not work in the case against Russia for four years in a row, what is the basis to believe that other sanctions would work in this particular case, when Putin has already proclaimed that it is a so-called holy war for him against Ukraine? There is no basis.

The United States administration and the Western leaders cannot see this very clear logic. Why do they still insist that sanctions would work? No, it is clear they don’t work. They know this policy will not work, but they continue to do it. 

Mr. Jekielek: But to be fair, it’s not just sanctions. There is increased weaponry being passed to Ukraine from many countries. It’s not just sanctions, right?

Dr. Illarionov: It is not enough. That’s very important, because we remember how many times Ukrainian presidents and Ukrainian leaders were asking for jets, for MiG-29s that were ready to be provided by Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria. Then for two weeks there was a discussion, “Okay, we can do it.” Then Mr. Blinken was saying, “We’re giving the green light to these MiG-29s.” Just to confirm, it was Biden’s administration that banned the transfer of these jets to Ukraine. So that is why it’s kind of a double game. On one hand, yes, they are ready to provide some defensive weapons like Stingers or Javelins, and that’s good, no doubt. That’s really good and that helps Ukraine, but the only thing that can stop Putin is the military defeat of his troops in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s statements and his minister of foreign affairs’ statements are very clear, they’re not going to stay there. But if they are lucky or victorious in Ukraine, they will go further. If somebody really wants to stop the war, just stop the war. It’s very simple. In 2008, as we know, the decision of George Bush Jr. to send the U.S. Navy to the Black Sea and keep the U.S. Air Force in Turkey stopped a Russian invasion within 12 hours.

The U.S. administration could do something similar today. For example, give the order to the Fifth American Corps located in Poland to move to the territory of Ukraine, not to participate in the war, not to fight on the front, but to visit coffee houses in Lviv, just to taste the coffee in the famous Lviv coffee houses. With the announcement that American troops are deploying in Ukraine, in the west of Ukraine, not doing military business, but as a peacekeeping operation or just a tourist trip into the west of Ukraine—Mr. Putin would ask for negotiations within 24 hours. He would immediately pick up the phone and call Mr. Biden and say, “Okay, what kind of arrangements would we like to have?” Very simple. There would not be a single casualty on the American side. No military involvement, nothing, but the war would be stopped and thousands, if not tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Europeans would be saved.

Mr. Jekielek: So I’ve heard you talk about nuclear deterrence. If they say, “We’re definitely not going to use nuclear weapons,” that means that weapons are off the table and it changes the diplomacy between these countries. So in this case, if these military people were to come to the coffee shops, so to speak, with the knowledge that they’re not going to do anything, isn’t that the same thing?

Dr. Illarionov: This is a different calculus. Not here, but in the Kremlin. It is an absolute game changer in the Kremlin, because Putin understands that today they’re drinking coffee, but what will happen tomorrow? It is unclear. This is a strategic ambiguity. This is exactly what is necessary. It is not necessary to suddenly say, “Yes, we’ll fight. “ This would create a new situation. What did Biden do for all these months before the invasion? He was saying, “No, United States troops will not participate in the battle, they will not fight.” How can that be read in the Kremlin? “Okay, we have a green light. We have a free hand in Ukraine.” As soon as the United States administration moves to a different strategy the Kremlin will say, “We don’t know yet what they are going to do. Are they going to drink coffee and just go sightseeing?” That’s a very different story. It means that something else can happen. And that is why it’s necessary to recalculate the whole strategy to bring about change in this situation.

It does not necessarily mean that anybody would participate in the fight, but it means that it might change. That’s exactly how it was in 2008. President Bush did not say that United States troops are going to participate in the Russian-Georgian war on the Georgian side. No. He said, “Let our Navy spend some time in the Black Sea. It’s nice weather, August, sunny, breezy. Let’s have our pilots in Tokyo and Romania. In 12 hours, everything was finished.

There are so many signs that can be read in different ways. By the way, do you know why the Belarusian dictator, Lukashenko, did not attack Ukraine? There was a lot of discussion, “Okay, he’s going to participate.” Mr. Putin was pushing Lukashenko to do it. Lukashenko even moved some troops to the Ukrainian border. There were many signs that they could cross the border within a day or several hours. And it did not happen. Do you know why? I know because I’m following these events. Those American troops, the V Corps that I mentioned before, moved to the Belarusian border near Grodno, just for tourist work along Polish-Belarusian border. They spent some time there. Mr. Lukashenko understood this signal very well and he abandoned his plans to attack Ukraine. Nothing happened. Nobody crossed the border. Nobody participated in any battle. No life was lost. It forced Mr. Lukashenko to recalculate his strategy.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s a theme to what you’re talking about. It is to project strength in an ambiguous way, basically as a strategy.

Dr. Illarionov: This is a logic that is very well known as a strategy—peace through strength. That’s exactly what President Trump was doing in the four years of his term that brought about the Abraham Accords in the middle east. It stopped missile tests in North Korea. It stopped the provocation in Syria. This is the logic of how to deal with thugs and dictators and tyrants in this world. It’s not in the style of working with your allies or with friends. No, with allies and friends, it’s a different approach. But with thugs, they only understand this language.

Mr. Jekielek: I want to touch on Russia and China getting closer together and the significance of that. You mentioned that success for Putin in Ukraine would signal to China that there’s opportunity for Taiwan as well. We know how badly the Chinese regime wants Taiwan. Is there a realignment happening or is this just a progression from before? How do you see this?

Dr. Illarionov: The Chinese are rather smart, the Chinese in Beijing. They are trying to understand the world and they are very accurate in assessing what is possible and what would be better to postpone. For example, last autumn, Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, was very much interested in Taiwan and pushing for Taiwan. Even in the conversation with President Biden, he bluntly said that he’s going to take Taiwan. But the current problems of Mr. Putin in Ukraine and the current bloody war puts Putin in the center of a very bloody picture around the world. It is not something that Mr Xi very much wants to be in. They did not abandon their plans for Taiwan. They did not abandon their plans for other issues, but they’re much more cautious and much more accurate than their friend in Moscow in this behavior in the international arena.

Mr. Jekielek: What are your final thoughts?

Dr. Illarionov: Several things. First of all, never trust Mr. Putin. For the U.S. administration, for Western countries, for Western society, never trust Putin. This is number one. Second, the war that Mr. Putin is waging against Ukraine is not only a war against Ukraine, this is a war against Europe, against NATO, against the United States, and against the West. Trust what his people are saying. They consider it as a holy war against Western civilization. As survivors from the Nazi concentration camps taught us, if somebody promises to kill you, take those promises seriously. Don’t disregard those promises. They are very serious about that. And third, the current U.S. administration provides a window of opportunity which is very dangerous for world peace and security. The only way to avoid catastrophe within the remaining three years of this administration, is to radically change attitudes and instead of providing a green light for Putin and other autocrats around the world for their adventures, and radically change the position of the United States and to provide all weapons that Ukraine needs today. This is the best way to achieve peace and security in Ukraine, in Europe and around the world.

Mr. Jekielek: I have to clarify one thing. You said, on one side, don’t trust Vladimir Putin. On the other side, you said you should trust him when he tells you something.

Dr. Illarionov: You need to trust Putin when he promises to kill. You need to trust Putin when he promises to attack. We need to trust Putin when he says that his goal is to capture Europe and to establish new division lines. That’s when we need to trust him.

Mr. Jekielek: Do you mean this December 2021 speech that you mentioned earlier?

Dr. Illarionov: Right.

Mr. Jekielek: Okay.

Dr. Illarionov: We do not have such a right to trust him when he says, “I am peaceful. I am just for peace around the world, and for security” That part of his speech we cannot trust, because for more than two decades Russia has proven just the opposite. He’s using this rhetoric, and he’s using these lectures only to cover up his aggressive intentions against the Russian population within the country and against other countries around the world, against Georgia, against Moldova, against Ukraine, against Syria, against the West, and against Europe. He said it clearly.

The main thing that he could not live with is Western civilization and Western values. From this point of view, he is a deeply anti-Western person. He’s using those attacks, not so much against Georgia as Georgia, or Ukraine as Ukraine, because he sees in those countries these elements of Western civilization that are so valuable to us, that we cherish so much. That is why he’s fighting those countries, because he’s afraid that those roots of Western civilization in those countries would flourish in those countries and sooner or later go to Russia as well. This would change his regime, his society, and his country forever. That is his most important fear. Putin understands the West as having the so-called old Western values like freedom, real democracy, rule of law, division of power, and human rights. That is what he considers as the most dangerous to himself.

He does not care much about all this decadence, about this cancel-culture. That is actually helpful for him, because it is something that is destroying Western civilization from within. And that is why he’s easily using all this rhetoric about all these issues, but he’s really very much afraid of the real roots of Western civilizations. That is why he’s fighting mercilessly, fighting those values in Russia, in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Europe, and everywhere—freedom, independence, democracy, rule of law, human rights, division of power, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. That’s exactly what he considers as his main chief enemy.

Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Andrei Illarionov, such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Dr. Illarionov: Thank you very much Jan, for inviting me.

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