I am approximately 60 seconds into lunch at a chic Mediterranean restaurant with Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s top diplomat in the 1990s, when it becomes clear that I have already made an error.

Ahead of the meal, Kozyrev had suggested reserving a private dining room, but I assured him such a formality wouldn’t be necessary. Yet no sooner are we starting to delve into events in Ukraine and Russia than it becomes clear, between the clanging of silverware against plates and chattering of business diners, that it is nearly impossible to hear one another.

“See, I was right,” Kozyrev sighs, with the resignation of a man who is used to not having his warnings heeded.

“You know, I was criticised in my time for being soft-spoken,” Kozyrev tells me in fluent English, at a register barely above a whisper. “The communists and the opposition claimed [it showed] I was a weak foreign minister.”

Kozyrev was just 39, a young, reform-minded career officer in the Soviet foreign ministry, when Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected head of the Russian republic’s parliament, selected him in 1990 to be his foreign minister. With the fall of the USSR, Kozyrev became the Russian Federation’s first foreign minister, taking a front-row seat at the initial post-Soviet US-Russian talks, and the early debate on whether to allow any former Soviet republics into Nato — the consequences of which are now reverberating louder than ever.

In his memoirs, and those of US state department officials who worked with him, Kozyrev comes off as well-intentioned but beleaguered, a pro-reform democrat in the heart of the Yeltsin administration, stymied by nationalist political opponents desperate to stop Russia’s tilt to the west, and also by his American partners who believed his country’s turn to democracy was a fait accompli.

While he lasted through Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign, Kozyrev’s tenure was rocky, with constant reports of his imminent sacking as he tried forlornly to keep the president on a pro-western course. He served two terms in the Russian Duma, then left politics for business, where he says he co-owned, among other things, a food distribution company.

Twelve years ago, he and his family resettled in the US. But he asks that I keep the city where we are meeting a secret, given the increased threat to opponents of the Kremlin. He suggests we say that the location is Langley. “In their eyes, I am CIA. Which I would love, but nobody offers me a job,” he quips darkly.

Against the backdrop of extrajudicial poisonings and the crackdown on Kremlin critics, not to mention the war in Ukraine — we are meeting on day 19 — it feels hard to deny his request.

The restaurant Kozyrev, 70, has chosen is full of men in crisp tieless suits and women in flowing dresses and blow-dried hair. Though his casual slacks, blue polo shirt and sun-tanned face give the appearance of a man in retirement, the bags under his eyes and his creased forehead betray the toll that the past few weeks have taken on him.

Kozyrev without hesitation goes for the three-course business lunch: a mezze platter to start, followed by the dorado and a Mediterranean dessert. I follow suit, choosing the tuna tartare, dorado and fruit plate.

I have spent the days before meeting him holed up with his political memoir which, in the context of recent events, reads like a slow-motion geopolitical car crash in which only the reader can see what lies ahead. I ask if all the problems today, domestically and geopolitically, stem from the ill-fated reforms of the 1990s. Kozyrev pinpoints the problem earlier — to the late Soviet period. For so many of the Soviet power players “the cold war never stopped”, he says. “That’s what most people in the US, in the west, don’t understand. That’s why they’re surprised [at recent events] and I am not.”

Born in Brussels in 1951, while his engineer father was on a two-year Soviet trade posting, Kozyrev says his accidental birthplace in the home of Nato had always been cause for suspicion among his nationalist opponents.

After working as a fixer at a factory after school, he was accepted into the Moscow State Institute of International Relations — a training ground for diplomats. At the foreign ministry, he quickly rose through the ranks, gaining notoriety in 1989, when he published an article that advocated the Soviet Union develop closer ties with the US. While at another point it might have led to his sacking, instead the then foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze promoted him. A year later, he was working for Yeltsin.

Those guys of the [George HW] Bush administration were cold war warriors and knew what the Soviet Union was about. The Clinton administration took the reformers for granted

As our starters arrive — my tartare pleasantly salty — we discuss Kozyrev’s former boss. In his memoirs, there is obvious affection for Yeltsin the man, with whom he shared family holidays, but little for Yeltsin the combustible politician who routinely undermined the reforms that Kozyrev and the other democrats were trying to implement. Of particular frustration, Kozyrev indicates, was Yeltsin’s drinking, which other foreign leaders tried to take advantage of. On one particularly boozy night in 1993, Polish president Lech Walesa got Yeltsin to agree to support Poland’s bid to join Nato — a goal that Kozyrev ultimately agreed with but feared then was premature.

At the same time he was frustrated in his dealings with the new Clinton administration in Washington, which he believed was slow-rolling aid to Russia, allowing the reformers’ nationalist opponents at home to gain the upper hand. “Those guys of the [George HW] Bush administration, they were cold war warriors and they knew what the Soviet Union was about and that in two months we could not turn it all around,” he says. “The Clinton administration, they took [the reformers] for granted.”

Kozyrev tried to alert both sides to the problem. In 1992, he delivered a cold war-style speech to the foreign ministers of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, in which he excoriated the west and suggested Moscow would force the former Soviet republics to join a new, Russian-dominated federation. An hour later, he returned to the floor to announce that the speech had been a stunt, intended as a wake-up call to the west. It was also a wake-up call to Kozyrev’s boss. “The message to Yeltsin was that if you listen to the [anti-democrat] opposition, that’s where you will be.”

For a few years, it worked. Ultimately, however, Yeltsin began to shut Kozyrev and other reformers out, replacing the reform-minded cabinet members with hardliners, and ultimately selecting Vladimir Putin, then director of the Federal Security Service, as his successor.

Our fish arrives. The dorado is carefully filleted, with the fish head still attached, and doused in olive oil, capers and parsley.

As we begin our mains, I ask if Russia’s invasion came as a shock to him. “Absolutely,” he says, even with all the US intelligence reports. “It was so brazen. So unthinkable . . . That’s why people think [Putin’s] crazy,” Kozyrev says.

For his part, Kozyrev believes Putin still thinks he is acting rationally. Not reasonably, Kozyrev clarifies, but rationally. Authoritarian regimes “cannot be sustainable without these kinds of formal aggression. Because they are unstable inside,” Kozyrev argues. Moreover, he thinks Putin has come to believe that the Ukrainian people truly want to be liberated by Moscow.

“He believes in all those lies which his propaganda feeds the Russian people.”

Business lunch x2

Diet Coke
Jasmine green tea

Kozyrev is in awe of Volodymyr Zelensky — “He’s proven to be a real wartime president, more or less like Churchill” — but shares the Ukrainian president’s frustration with the EU, US and Nato, arguing that they are not doing enough to help Ukraine.

“They continue to treat him in a regular bureaucratic way,” he says, suggesting that the west had been too focused on Ukraine meeting a certain set of criteria, such as certain anti-corruption requirements, rather than recognising the extraordinary period of crisis that Kyiv was in.

“It was the same with us,” he says, referring to the US’s insistence in the early 1990s that Russia implement serious economic reforms at the same time as the oil price was cratering and ordinary Russians’ livelihoods were in freefall. “We needed money. We needed something like a Marshall Plan.”

Kozyrev rejects the idea that Putin cannot reverse course in Ukraine. “I don’t buy all this talk that he cannot back down. For [Joe] Biden, [Boris] Johnson, the western politicians, backing down means you will lose public opinion.” Putin does not have this worry.

Kozyrev believes the current US, EU and UK sanctions are effective, but that all retaliatory measures at the west’s disposal should have been rolled out immediately and at the same time.

“If you fight with [Putin], you have to punch as strong as you can in the first punch. Don’t escalate, do it all at once.”

Kozyrev rejects too the claims by some Russian oligarchs and their associates that they are powerless to influence the Russian president, alluding to the bloody and ruthless privatisation wars of the 1990s. “Now that their assets are under pressure, they will remember that,” he says darkly. “These things come back.”

Under the broader economic sanctions, the Russian population will suffer but it’s a necessary evil, he says. “Unfortunately to wake them up you have to create a situation” where the empty refrigerator pierces the propaganda being shown on TV, he says.

We both marvel at Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russia’s state-owned Channel One TV station, who this week interrupted the primetime news broadcast by waving a placard decrying the war — an offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison. So far she has only faced a Rbs30,000 fine. “Of course, she is a hero,” says Kozyrev.

I say that I have seen comments from some Ukrainians chafing at the idea of putting Ovsyannikova on a pedestal, given her years of service to one of the regime’s chief instruments of disinformation.

Kozyrev notes that right before the protest, Ovsyannikova had posted a video statement to her social media page, expressing deep regret for what she had done and asking for forgiveness.

“To my mind that clears her. All of us make mistakes . . . there is room for Saul to become Paul. That is human.”

Our dorados are cleared and replaced by dessert. The fruit is refreshing. Kozyrev’s whipped confection looks equally good.

We dig in and go back and forth on whether the Russian public bears responsibility for the atrocities occurring in Ukraine, or if they too are victims of Putin’s authoritarian regime.

“It was one of the prophets, I think, who said people deserve the rulers they have,” Kozyrev says. “Those guys who are fighting now in the Russian army — where do they come from? They come from the people.”

But many of those soldiers didn’t know where they were going, I counter.

“It’s like Nazi Germany,” says Kozyrev. “Of course, not everyone in Germany was a Nazi. But in the end a whole nation had to come to its senses and to face the responsibility more or less.”

I wonder, looking back on Kozyrev’s record, if there are things he too wishes he had done differently?

Kozyrev does not hesitate. “We were complacent with Yeltsin,” he says flatly. “Yeltsin didn’t want to fight for reforms and did not understand what kind of reforms were needed, and other people were just paralysed.”

From the second term of Yeltsin it was already clear. This aggression exceeds my worst nightmare. But otherwise I am not surprised. I knew things were going down this slope

Earlier into Yeltsin’s first term, it was clear that the first Russian president “was not able to be a leader — physically”, Kozyrev says, a reference to Yeltsin’s alcoholism and subsequent heart attacks during the 1996 election.

The reformers should have put up their own candidate to challenge him in 1996 — perhaps Boris Nemtsov, a fellow reformer and friend of Kozyrev’s who ultimately became one of the faces of the anti-Putin opposition and was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.

Before his death, Kozyrev recalls, Nemtsov liked to point out that one of the first things Putin did when he came to power was restore the Soviet national anthem. For the pro-western reformers, hearing that anthem was like hearing a death knell for everything they had fought for in the 1990s.

“To me, from the second term of Yeltsin it was already clear,” he says, sadly. “This aggression exceeds my worst nightmare. But otherwise I am not surprised. I knew that things were going down this slope.”

Kozyrev won’t speak about his family back in Russia. He shut down his businesses there in around 2015, he says, and hasn’t been back in five years. But he says that many of his friends who remain are leaving. “People whom I know one way or another, they are going either to London or to Turkey or to Georgia. It’s a brain drain. It’s another blow to Russia.”

Our plates have been cleared. And the bill delivered. But we are still talking. Kozyrev asks the waiter for a green tea. I order a cappuccino.

I ask Kozyrev what the most realistic outcome is for Ukraine. The country, he believes, will be “considerably destroyed”. But still, he believes Ukraine will be able to push Russia back from the territory it has taken over since the most recent invasion. He hopes the west will provide adequate support to Ukraine when the fighting is over so that it can become “a prosperous country. That’s what Putin fears. That’s his nightmare.”

As for Russia, he believes it will face economic collapse, but hopes that a new and better regime emerges. I ask if the west isn’t too giddy about the chance of Putin’s political demise. Is there a chance the current president’s successor could be even worse?

“Like what?” he asks drily. “A dictator who jails the opposition? Who will start a war in Ukraine or Moldova?”

There is a sizeable Russian émigré population in the US, but Kozyrev tries to steer clear of it. “I am too recognisable. I don’t want people coming to me even for an autograph or [a comment] like, ‘Oh what are you doing? Why are you not fighting for democracy in Russia?’” Or worse, calling him a traitor, he says.

As we say our goodbyes, Kozyrev says he has thought about getting on a plane to go to Ukraine and join their fight. Then he worries, given his age, that he’d end up being more of a burden than a help for the Ukrainian soldiers.

“I’m an old horse. I like this race — for democracy,” he smiles. “But then I wake up and I think it’s probably too late.”

Courtney Weaver, the FT’s US business & politics correspondent, is a former Moscow correspondent

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This post Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev: ‘I don’t buy this talk that Putin cannot back down’ was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/72f00f52-b591-47c6-8aa3-8bd26198d262”