Since war broke out in Ukraine, Greek politician and economist Yanis Varoufakis has been accused of being a Putin apologist, a “Westsplainer”, and a conspiracy theorist. But what does he really think about this conflict? Freddie Sayers spoke to him about liberal warmongering, who’s benefitting from the war, and the West’s moral duty to put Ukrainian lives first.
Have you had experience of being cast as pro-Putin for expressing unease about some of the Western measures against Russia?
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Immensely, and painfully. But let’s be clear, my pain is neither here nor there when you have atrocities, murders, a whole country being devastated by Putin’s armies. Who gives a damn about how I feel about my treatment by people on social media?
Back in 2001, I labelled Vladimir Putin a war criminal because of the murder of 250,000 people in Grozny, Chechnya. It was in a Senate meeting of the University of Athens, which was discussing the motion for awarding an honorary doctorate to Putin, who had just become president of Russia. And I was in a minority of one opposing it. So having gone out on a limb, having condemned Putin, it was a bit surprising to be lambasted by several commentators as “Putin’s useful idiot.”
Was the charge against you based on your blaming Nato expansion for the current crisis?
The most pertinent criticism that I received was that I was “Westsplaining” — this is a version of “mansplaining” — that I was being condescending in the way that I was telling Eastern Europeans what’s in their interest. Now, that is a very serious accusation. Because we do know that mansplaining is something that we men often do.
While I’m not claiming to have the monopoly of truth, I do believe that as a European, as a citizen of the world, I have the right to, for instance, comment that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian power was built on a bedrock of animosity between the West and Russia, and that Putin exploited the humiliation of the Russians — at the hands of Nato, at the hands of the International Monetary Fund.
Don’t forget how in the Nineties, even the reformers — liberals, neoliberals in Russia — were crushed by the West, by the International Monetary Fund, forcing Russia into an awful default in 1998 that caused the life expectancy of men in Russia to drop from 75 to 58. It was a catastrophe, a humanitarian catastrophe. And Putin, being a KGB strategist, utilised that pent-up frustration of Russians against the West in order to build up his horrid empire.
Is your argument that without Nato expansion in Eastern Europe we would not be in this position?
My point is this: there was an agreement between Gorbachev and George Bush Senior that Gorbachev would let Eastern Europe go its own way, on the condition that Nato would not expand eastward. We know that; this is well established. Given that Putin was pushing Russia back towards a re-militarised stance, and Nato and Russia were always going to develop an enmity between them, is it not a good idea to have a neutral zone between the two? Do we really want Russian nuclear weapons and Nato nuclear weapons to be side by side? For me, the neutrality of Eastern Europe is not a second best, it would be first best. It will be good for the people of Eastern Europe, it will be good for Nato, and it will be good for Russia, to minimise tensions to the extent that we can do that.
But in any case, I am perfectly willing to accept an Eastern European progressive who says to me that I’m wrong. What I find intolerable is the lack of tolerance — that I’ve been told, “butt off, you’re a Westplainer in that you even have an opinion about what should be happening in Eastern Europe”. This is not a good foundation for Europeanism.
They do say that when war begins, the truth dies very quickly. But it’s not just truth. It’s a capacity that we have in the West to have a civilised, rational debate amongst ourselves.
What about the sanctions against Russia — do you support them?
Well, it’s always the case that when sanctions are slapped on a dictatorial regime they hurt the people, not the dictators. Especially in the case of Putin. Putin has a war chest, which is quite large. And he doesn’t care about the plight of Russian people. But let me be clear on this. I’m not against the sanctions. Watching the atrocities coming out now — the towns, the villages that the Russian army has vacated — watching the devastation on the coastal areas of eastern Ukraine, I can understand why people say, “look, we simply do not want to trade with these people — we’re not going to let them have access to their yachts, and to their money, and all that,” that’s fine by me.
I think that, in the end, we are going to have a lot more suffering — as a result of price increases, especially electricity prices — among the poor in Western Europe. I believe the dollar as the reserve currency is being placed under immense pressure. So I think that the American administration is going to live to regret the cutting off of the Central Bank of Russia from the dollar payment system.
But none of that matters really at this very moment. Because what matters is the war. Freddie, what keeps me up at night is that people are being killed. And what I want us to work for, all of us — and let’s iron out our differences: how can we have an immediate cessation of fire and a withdrawal of Russian troops?
What appalls me about those who purport to support Ukraine and who are attacking my position, is that they seem to be seriously considering the possibility that Ukraine is going to win the war and overthrow Putin. Now that’s completely pie in the sky. Anybody who believes that is jeopardising the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians as we speak.
At best, you’re going to have a stalemate. Now a stalemate is terrible for the people of Ukraine. Because we know what Putin is going to do. He’s going to do what he did in Grozny. He’s going to raze to the ground areas that he needs to abandon. The Ukrainian army has been very heroic, and I applaud them for having resisted. But they cannot win the war. Do we really want this painful, murderous stalemate go on and on and on? Do we really want to invest in regime change in Russia that is instigated by the United States? Whenever the United States has tried to regime change we’ve had complete catastrophe. Look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq, look at Libya. And this is a nuclear power. Do we want to play with this fire, with this nuclear fire?
We should have an immediate ceasefire. President Zelenskyy, to his credit, has now adopted the proposal that I’ve been making from day one: that we should have an agreement between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin — of course, with Zelenskyy, and the European Union participating — that makes a very simple trade, a deal. Russia withdraws from Ukraine, in exchange for an end to the sanctions and a commitment, by the West, that Ukraine is going to be part of the West but not part of Nato.
Does that include being part of the EU?
Putin wants a way out. I think that the United States and Zelenskyy, together, and the EU, must give him a way out. If he can be seen to have won a victory — something that he can present to his own people as a victory (“I have ended Nato’s eastward expansion. I went to war to stop Nato expanding and I succeeded”), I think that we have a moral duty to give him this way out. Now, I can’t guarantee that he will take it. But the West can offer him this way out, to stop the killings.
A few weeks ago, giving an off-ramp to Putin might have proven popular. But it feels like the situation is different now. We’ve had a full-scale withdrawal of Russian troops from around Kyiv, and there seems to be increased confidence that something like a full-scale defeat might actually be in sight. What’s your reaction to that?
That’s madness. There is no way that the Ukrainian army is going to defeat the panoply of the Russian army in Mariupol, in the areas between Crimea, and Donbas. All power to them if they can do it. I don’t believe that Zelenskyy believes it. I don’t believe that anybody actually believes it. Yes, it is wonderful that Putin did not walk into Kyiv unopposed. It’s wonderful that he’s been given a bloody nose. This is the time to sue for peace.
Look, the West did that after the awful civil war in Yugoslavia. You’ll recall Srebrenica. We had atrocities galore across Bosnia. And not just in Bosnia — in Croatia, in Ukraine, in various areas that were devastated by the original civil war within Yugoslavia. And yet, under the auspices of the American President, the West sat down with Milosevic and they created an imperfect peace for Bosnia, which has been holding since then. Was that a mistake? Should we have continued the bloodletting, hoping that one side would completely annihilate the other side? I don’t believe so.
There’s talk of really escalating the amount of military hardware being sent to support the Ukraine war effort. I’m presuming from what you’re saying that you’d be against that?
While the Ukrainian army is resisting, I think we have a moral duty to support them militarily. Not me and you personally, but I’m not going to criticise the West for sending weapons to the Ukrainian resistors. But the whole point of resisting is to come to the point where we sue for peace. We can come to an agreement that leaves everybody slightly dissatisfied, which is the optimal agreement. Where, for instance, Ukraine stays out of Nato, it stops arming itself. Maybe there can be a demilitarised zone on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Crimea can be discussed in the next 10 years or so.
Such an agreement could also be augmented with an understanding that Ukraine would not be prevented from entering the EU. Well, that agreement goes hand-in-hand with ending the arms race on both sides. Because who knows, maybe Putin tomorrow is going to be supported by the Chinese military? Do we really want that kind of escalation?
Something’s happened quite suddenly where to speak like that is now seen as a betrayal.
It’s what happens when war begins: we lose our head. Warmongering becomes cool and mainstream. Now, I have no doubt that there are cooler heads around Europe who are despairing. But they can’t speak out. I can see it in Germany, I can see it within the government of the Federal Republic: there are people who are besides themselves. They are pulling their hair out. Because if they speak out they will be immediately taken to task by the warmongers who are having a field day.
This is why it’s important that we band together to bring a modicum of rationality back to the debate and to focus on the only thing that matters at the moment. It’s not money. It’s not trade. It’s not natural gas. It is human lives in Ukraine. How can we stop people from dying? Because if they continue — the ones who put the theoretical right of Ukrainians to be members of Nato above the life of people in Ukraine, and above the opportunity of Ukraine to prosper as a Western democracy, which is inside the EU and outside of Nato — we’re going to be creating a quagmire that will ensure two things. Firstly, that thousands of people will die who could be saved, and secondly, that Ukraine is going to be a desert.
Do you observe that the people leading this warmongering, as you call it, would mainly describe themselves as liberals?
Yes. I can see that. But it’s not the first time. I remember when the United States were about to invade Iraq, even Left-wingers like Christopher Hitchens, a man that I admired all my life, became liberal imperialists. He was gung-ho about invading Iraq and spreading democracy. If you think of the early 1960s, it was JFK who initially showed a degree of enthusiasm for taking over Vietnam.
I do fear that it’s not just some liberal imperialists or liberal supporters of victory — of war until the final victory is achieved, as if it is possible to imagine invading Moscow. I feel that there’s something else there: a missing ingredient. Follow the money. The United States is a very complex economy. And it’s not homogeneous. Segments of the American economy are suffering as a result of the war, with the increasing price of oil. I believe Silicon Valley is not happy, because they’re being put in a very difficult situation. Even the banking sector, Wall Street, can’t really be enjoying what’s going on.
But if you are selling weapons, you are having a party. You have Olaf Scholtz, the German Chancellor, about to order 100 billion euros worth of American equipment, because the Germans are not making the stuff. If you are providing fracked oil and gas from New Mexico, from Minnesota, from Texas, you are looking at the new deals that are being struck between the European Union and the United States for LNG (liquefied natural gas), and you are rubbing your hands with glee. Because what was a dying industry in the United States now suddenly has been given a huge lease of life. This is not a conspiracy. If you have liberal imperialists, and you’ve got people that are going to make a lot of money out of this liberal imperialism, and you bring these together, you have a very powerful constituency in favour of maintaining the conflicts.
A lot of people will listen to what you’ve just said and think that it is verging on conspiracy: evil Americans in suits sitting around board tables, trying to create wars in order to profit from them.
There’s no conspiracy; nothing of what I said is conspiracy. It’s the truth that if you’re selling arms, you are making a lot of money. If you’re selling oil and gas that is fracked in the United States, you are making a lot of money. We know that.
It’s not causation though, is it? It’s one thing to observe that, but those people aren’t in charge of making the decisions.
Of course. Because why didn’t they do it ten years ago? They would have had an interest in doing this ten years ago. Nobody forced Putin to invade. It wasn’t Nato’s fault that he invaded, even if Nato created circumstances for him to be powerful, in my view. It was Putin’s criminal choice to invade Ukraine. And that gave rise to military resistance by the Ukrainians, which I applaud. And then on the coat-tails of these developments that have nothing to do with them, people come in with particular axes to grind, political ones, and financial agendas. So the whole thing acquires momentum. This is not a conspiracy theory. That is, I think, a solid rational analysis of what was going on.
How, then, should we treat the very popular and successful president of Ukraine? He has been incredibly effective at generating international attention. Should we support him? Should we be critical of him?
We should be critically supportive. Look, I followed Zelenskyy’s career. It was interesting that he was elected on a platform for making peace with Moscow, and for sidelining the oligarchic and ultra Right-wing elements within Ukraine. We have to note that. It’s also true that he failed in doing this to a very large extent: the oligarchs that he was going to wage war against effectively had him. His reign has not been easy. And the oligarchs managed to maintain their control over the country, some would say, forcing Zelenskyy to succumb.
The neo-Nazi Azov battalion in Mariupol and so on maintain their swastikas. I’m sure that Zelenskyy wanted to get rid of them, but he couldn’t. But none of this matters. Because when a country is invaded, I feel a natural duty to support the people who have been invaded and to support their leader — even if it’s somebody I would not have voted for, had I been one of them.
But what about this overt campaign by Zelenskyy to encourage more direct Western military intervention?
He’s the leader of a country that is being invaded: it is perfectly natural for him to be calling upon the rest of the world to come to their assistance. I’m sure he would have loved it if Nato waltzed in, even though I’m sure he understands that it would bring us to the precipice of a nuclear catastrophe. It is his job to ask for us to step in.
But to his credit, he’s done something else as well. He’s embraced the neutrality solution. And he is participating in discussions with Russians, and negotiations. Let’s face it, the European Union is a figment of our imagination. We’re so fragmented, we are a non-player, really. It’s only the United States that can provide Zelenskyy with the backing he needs in his negotiations with Putin.
What people object to about that is that it has the whiff of people making decisions for smaller countries over their heads. What the people of Ukraine want is neither here nor there.
My own country would not exist if we didn’t have such an arrangement back in the late 1820s. We were under the Ottomans for 400 or 500 years. We had our own revolution, our own resistance against the Ottoman armies. In the end, how did Greece come about? It came about because the great powers — the English, the French, and the Russians — sat down with the Ottomans. And they said: “Greece becomes an independent state, it’s a kind of buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the West”. And we were given a chance to exist.
What is your message, then, to people who object to the invasion of Ukraine but also feel deeply uneasy about the West’s involvement? How should they react when they are called Putin supporters?
Be kind. I don’t think you should antagonise anybody these days, because there is so much antagonism already. Maintain your cool, support the Ukrainian resistance against Putin’s armies. Do not succumb to the silence of militarism and perpetual war. And always keep your eye on the trophy, which is immediate peace, withdrawal of Russian troops — and a neutral, democratic Ukraine that we all help get back up on its feet.
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