Llibert Ferri (Barcelona, 1948) is a journalist with an in-depth knowledge of Russia, having been the special envoy for Catalan television at crucial moments in the country’s history. Ferri covered Russian news on the ground from 1987 to 2007. With his exceptional knowledge of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, a few months ago he presented a book: Putin trenta anys després del final de l’URSS (Putin Thirty Years After the End of the USSR). In this interview, he analyses the consequences of the open conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
How do you assess the latest moves?
This attack by Russia is a very strong move. I believe there are two possible scenarios: there is a possibility of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his government being detained and Russia putting in place a puppet government aligned with Moscow’s interests. The other scenario is talks, but it’s clear that this will be done under great pressure, and what Putin wants is to keep Ukraine demilitarised. The Russian intervention has been quick. In fact, it’s a very strong blow that virtually no one could have expected.
What role does the EU play in all this?
As always, the EU looks bad. It wants to use sanctions to punish Russia, but Putin is already negotiating with China to sell it oil and wheat. In fact, Putin has taken advantage of the fact that Merkel has left the German chancellery. Putin had a lot of respect for Merkel; she knew how to deal with him. In light of recent events, he has felt forced to make this long-standing tactical move. He very likely thought that Donald Trump would be in the US presidency for another four years. I don’t want to compare it to the pact between Hitler and Stalin, but with Trump and Putin it was one of those things in which you see the heir of communism and somehow, not the heir of fascism, but a character who has united the most extreme sectors of the US. Putin has felt he’s had to bring forward all these moves because what he’s looking for is, above all, a safety belt around Russia. Because even though the Ukraine issue was frozen, it could have thawed out. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a man who came to power claiming that Putin was open to dialogue – he wasn’t pro-Putin, but he very much thought he could talk to him – was putting himself in the position that he had to request not only the help of the EU but also of NATO. What could the EU’s response be? We don’t know what capacity it has to react. I remember as a child when Russian tanks entered Hungary in 1956, and no one lifted a finger. Nothing happened when they entered Czechoslovakia in 1968 either. We’ll see what they do.
Putin feels strong enough to reap his revenge?
Exactly. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, China had not reached the level of industrial strength or political influence it has now. The US was in control and the EU was not yet structured as such. Gorbachev had to accept the reunification of Germany, demanding that it become neutral, and it didn’t. Putin is acting on everything he’s had in his head since before he became president, since he was a city councillor in St Petersburg. The demise of the USSR, the collapse of the USSR as it was with the staging of a territorial surrender was a geopolitical and human catastrophe that no industrialised country had ever experienced in peacetime. And for Putin that would have consequences, which he is pushing forward with. He’s trying to reverse everything that Gorbachev was forced to accept.
Does Ukraine look too much towards Europe for Russia’s liking?
Demographic studies show that Ukraine is increasingly looking to Europe. That’s why the Euromaidan protests happened, because president Yanukovych was supposed to go and sign a treaty, not to join the EU, but one of association with it, and finally he said he wasn’t going to. That’s what sparked the Maidan uprising in December 2013, which lasted until 2014. Putin has been very harsh with Ukraine, to the point that he does not even recognise them as a people.
How have Russia-Ukraine relations been historically?
Ukraine has never had a democratic regime. It was invaded by the Soviet Union a century ago, in 1922. Russia feels Ukraine belongs to it. Aside from that, it is a border territory, an area to contain enemy tanks, and that’s sacred to Russia. In fact, they do not consider it as a country, they abuse it.
By burning their crops, for example. It’s estimated that three million people died of starvation in the Holodomor, the Ukraine’s Holocaust. It’s an abused nation. When the Nazis entered in 1941, people welcomed them with open arms, celebrating, because they saw them as liberators. And then they realised that they were just as criminal as Stalin. All this has also been used, over time, to say that Ukraine is a fascist country. But all of this is heavily manipulated by the Soviet media, and by the far-left and far-right media. Out of ignorance. Ukraine had its most peaceful time from December 1, 1991, when the Soviet Union was already in its death throes and Ukraine had a referendum on self-determination, with the majority of the population, 80%, voting. The then president, Leonid Kravchuk, was highly esteemed because he was in favour of Ukraine’s sovereignty, despite being in the Communist Party. It was a sovereignty that did not last, however; only until Kravchuk became president. When Leonid Kuchma arrived, who was a Ukrainian but of Soviet origin, he had links to the entire aerospace industry, and the destruction of intellectualism began.
And what happened? How did Ukrainian society react to this violence?
Intellectuals and also journalists were murdered. I remember a journalist who had evidence that all this was going on and he was murdered. It was later discovered that the interior minister himself had done it. Everything that happened during those years was very harsh. And it is those events that provoked the revolt, not the Euromaidan revolt, but the so-called Orange Revolution, which gave expectations to Ukrainian society that were never fulfilled. Aside from the fact that the politicians are not very strong, they are not used to negotiating, and end up suffering the worst demises: Yulia Tymoshenko ended up sick and paralysed, Viktor Yushchenko, with his face deformed, was administered a toxic liquid by KGB agents. Until Viktor Yanukovych arrived that is, as he was one of them, a pro-Russian. Putin has been pushing to dominate Ukraine ever since he came to power.
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