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Yanis Varoufakis: The West Is “Playing with Fire” If It Pushes Regime Change in Nuclear-Armed Russia

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A month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 3.6 million Ukrainians have left the country as refugees, and the war risks becoming “an Afghanistan-like quagmire,” warns Greek lawmaker Yanis Varoufakis, founder of the Progressive International with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. He says the West’s sweeping sanctions on Russia and bottomless military aid to Ukraine risk escalating the conflict and foreclosing chances of a peaceful resolution. “What is exactly the aim? Is it regime change in Russia?” asks Varoufakis. “Well, whenever the United States tried regime change, it didn’t turn out very well and has never been tried with a nuclear power. This is like playing with fire.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The European Union has signed a new deal to import more liquefied natural gas from the United States, in the latest move by NATO allies to further isolate Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. The gas deal was announced a day after President Biden took part in emergency meetings of NATO, the G7 and the European Council. During a press conference in Brussels, Biden announced new sanctions against Russia.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re also announcing new sanctions of more than 400 individuals and entities, aligned with — in alignment with the European Union: more than 300 members of the Duma, oligarchs and Russian defense companies that fuel the Russian war machine.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is in Poland today, where he’s scheduled to meet with U.S. troops, as well as Ukrainian refugees. According to the United Nations, more than 3.6 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the Russian invasion began a month ago. On Thursday, President Biden announced the United States will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

In the latest news from the battlefield, Russia is claiming it’s destroyed a military fuel depot outside Ukraine. It’s one of Ukraine’s largest.

Meanwhile, local officials in the besieged city of Mariupol say they fear 300 people died last week in a Russian airstrike on a theater, which was being used as a shelter. Outside, the words “child” were on either side of the building facing upward; the words were written in Russian.

This comes as the Ukrainian government is asking the United States to start providing 500 Javelin and 500 Stinger missiles a day to help Ukrainian forces fight the Russian invasion.

We begin today’s show with Yanis Varoufakis, member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece, founder of the Progressive International with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. He’s joining us from Athens.

It’s great to have you with us. Thanks so much for joining us, Yanis. If you can respond to this triple summit yesterday in Brussels — of NATO, of the EU, the European Union, and of the G7 — of the increased sanctions and, overall, what this war means?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: There is an unprecedented show of unity within the West, but what is lacking are two things, Amy, if I may say — firstly, an appreciation of the fact that the rest of the world is not showing complete alignment with the West. This is an understatement. Even though the majority of countries in the United Nations voted against Russia, if you look at the countries that didn’t, they contain more than half of the population of the world, including not just China but also India and many other countries.

The second thing that’s missing from this show of strength, and the impressive sanctions that have been agreed against Putin and his henchmen, is a game plan. Exactly what is President Biden aiming for? Yes, it is important for him and for his government, for his administration, to show support for the Ukrainians, to provide Stinger missiles, to provide economic sanctions for Putin, which of course we know are not going to debilitate the Putin regime. But what is exactly the aim? Is it regime change in Russia? Well, whenever the United States tried regime change, it didn’t turn out very well, and has never been tried with a nuclear power. This is like playing with fire, or nuclear fire, I should say. If it’s not regime change, what exactly is it?

And so, allow me to just say this, that the famed philosopher and military strategist from China, Sun Tzu, once said that if you are faced with a formidable enemy whose total defeat is going to kill many or most of your people, as well, what you should do, Sun Tzu said, was to build a golden bridge behind your enemy from which your enemy can escape, to give him an opportunity to withdraw while claiming that he has achieved something. Now, Biden, by proclaiming that Putin is a war criminal — I have no doubt that Putin is a very nasty piece of work; I’ve called him a war criminal 20 years ago over his massacre of Chechens in Grozny — but what is the leader of the United States doing? What is he aiming at? Because if he is not leaving any room for a compromise, then he is effectively jeopardizing the interests of Ukrainians, because a quagmire in — an Afghanistan-like quagmire in the Ukraine is not exactly in the interests of any Ukrainian I know of.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk about specifically what’s being targeted and this commitment to end the reliance on Russian energy, that is so difficult for Europe right now? I mean, it seems like at this moment, this is the moment that so many green activists, like yourself, have felt could be a shift toward renewables, but instead it looks like: How can other countries, like the United States and Canada, fill in the fossil fuel emergency that’s taking place right now? But what this means for Russia, what this means for the rest of the world?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: I think the West is inflicting major political and environmental damage on itself, whereas Mr. Putin, being a cynical agent that he is — a KGB strategist, let’s not forget — I have no doubt he was planning for all this. In the end, we’re going to damage the planet and the West more than we’re going to damage Putin, because Putin doesn’t really care much about Russians. He cares about himself.

And I can see a game plan here on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Let’s not forget that, as we speak, around $600 million to $700 million is being sent to Mr. Putin for the oil and gas that he’s selling the West. The plans that you mentioned for transporting liquefied natural gas from Texas and from Qatar to Europe, that concerns next winter, not this winter. Are we going to sacrifice the Ukrainians until next winter? This is the great question. And also, as we speak, Russia has found ways of bypassing the sanctions. We know that they’re dealing with counterparties in China, in India. A lot of dollar payments are being made to the Putin regime through these intermediaries.

I would very much have preferred for us to be discussing — you and me now, but the whole world — to be discussing President Biden’s proposals for a resolution that would mean an immediate ceasefire and an immediate withdrawal from the Ukraine in exchange for some kind of deal that Putin can sell to his own henchmen as something of a victory. Instead of that, Biden is doubling down, and he’s speaking in language which is consistent with regime change, which will be catastrophic for the people of Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain this further. You’re saying Biden should be sitting down with Putin, that Biden represents the United States, the world’s largest superpower, and could lead to a ceasefire. What isn’t he doing?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: That. Look, I wish — as a European and a Europeanist and internationalist, I wish the European Union existed in substance, so that, you know, the president of the European Union could be sitting down with Putin. But we don’t have that. The European Union is a disunion, really. So, Biden is the only representative of NATO, of the West at the moment. I’m not going to pass judgment on the gentleman. He is, however, the only one who can sit down with Putin. They can talk on the phone, to begin with, before they actually sit down. Their foreign ministers will have to come to these exchanges.

But the idea must be really very simple: Putin must be given a golden bridge from which to escape his conundrum. He must be given something he can sell to his own people as mission accomplished. The only thing we can do, as democrats and internationalists, we should be able to tolerate, is the neutrality of the Ukraine, because this is a tiny, tiny, nonexistent price to pay for ending the war, having Russian troops evacuate the Ukraine, some kind of arrangement to be established for the Donbas area — we could kick into the long grass the question of Crimea; it could be shelved, something to be discussed in 10 years or so — in order to stop the killing and to stop the toxicity which is spreading from Ukraine across Europe, across the United States. I’ve been hearing senators in the United States, members of parliament of various European countries calling for NATO to intervene — because we know what that will mean. It will mean that the nuclear threat is going to reach levels that we haven’t seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We should be moving towards a rational solution that will leave everybody slightly dissatisfied — the Ukrainians, the Russians, me, you, Biden, Putin — but which will end the killing and will lead to an independent, democratic Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in a recent article headlined “Why Stop at the Russian oligarchs?” “Perhaps the only silver lining in the Ukrainian tragedy is that it has created an opportunity to scrutinize oligarchs not only with Russian passports but also their American, Saudi, Chinese, Indian, Nigerian, and, yes, Greek counterparts. An excellent place to start would be with the London mansions that Transparency International tells us sit empty. How about turning them over to refugees from Ukraine and Yemen?” Talk more about this.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: For many, many years now, we’ve all known, through the Panama Papers, through a variety of leaks of Transparency International, that our oligarchs, the oligarchs of this planet — the Russians, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Americans, the Greeks — they have been absolutely abusing our societies, our states, our tax systems. Yes, the Russians are pretty ugly in what they’re doing. They have plundered, in a very short space of time, the mineral resources, the industries of Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And they have bought their mansions in London, football teams and so on.

So, you know, it’s a wonderful opportunity — the fact that the Ukraine has concentrated our minds on what the Russian oligarchs are doing — to contemplate moving beyond them, because Russian oligarchs, it has been estimated, have taken $200 billion out of Russia, you know, looted money, plundered money, but American oligarchs have taken $1,200 billion out of the jurisdiction of the United States of America, hiding it from the IRS. And they are not much nicer people than the Russian oligarchs, I have to say. They have not protested the massacres of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia. They have not protested the killing of journalists, like Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Embassy or Consulate in Constantinople — in Istanbul, I should say. They have not lifted their little finger to help us fund the green transition. Why should we not extend our newly found antipathy towards oligarchs, who have been defrauding and plundering our countries — why not extend it to people beyond Russia?

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about some criticism that’s been leveled against your position right now, Yanis. I want to ask your response to a piece that was in The New Republic titled “'Neutrality' Won’t Protect Ukraine.” The authors mention you, writing, “An increasing number of international commentators are also arguing neutrality might be a reasonable way to end the bloodshed quickly, by offering Putin a face-saving ‘off-ramp’ for the invasion. Ostensibly progressive voices like former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis have called for the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine, referring to Finland’s quasi-forced neutrality during the Cold War; the Russians have suggested Austria, which was formally neutral but maintained trade relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a model for Ukraine.” Can you respond to what they’re saying? Also right now Finland is talking about possibly joining NATO.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, let’s take Finland, shall we? Finland had a war with Russia, with the Soviets. There was a stalemate, very much like what we have now in Ukraine. And the result was neutrality. There was an agreement between Washington, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other, that Moscow would not interfere with Finland, it would not invade, it would take its troops out, and Finland would be allowed to live an independent, Western, democratic lifestyle, as long as it doesn’t join NATO and it doesn’t host American or European armies in its territory. The result was a wonderful state, a country, you know, that in every ranking outranks your country, the United States, my country, Greece, when it comes to education, to democracy, to technological innovation. Remember Nokia and all the great companies that came out of Finland. Finland is a success story. Neutrality allowed Finland to have democracy, independence and success and shared prosperity, a social democratic country, similarly with Sweden, similarly with Austria. So it’s a well-tested and well-tried-out model.

The reason that Ukraine has not had the same opportunity so far — because some people will say that — it’s been said that they gave up their nuclear weapons, they were not in NATO, therefore they were neutral, and nevertheless they suffered incursions and now this invasion by Mr. Putin. Well, it wasn’t the same. What Ukraine lacks is a summit, a summit between the American president and the Russian president, a summit involving the government of the United States and the government of Russia. This is what Finland had, what Austria had. The two blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, represented by the president of the Soviet Union, or the general secretary of Communist Party then, and the American president, or a series of American presidents, they agreed — they shook hands — that Finland, Sweden, Austria will be left alone, under conditions of neutrality, to prosper democratically and to be part of the West without being part of NATO.

Now, a similar arrangement, in my view, has a very good chance of granting the Ukrainians the space, the independence and the democracy they need. Now, there are no guarantees. I cannot predict the future. But can the critics, who are, as you said, chastising me for adopting and promoting the neutrality solution — can they tell me what the alternative is? Because the only alternative they can come up with is regime change in Moscow. Well, this will take 10 years, five years, eight years. What do we do with the Ukrainians who are dying until then? Are you — this is my question to them — prepared to sacrifice their lives and a fantastic chance of a successful neutrality outcome? Are you prepared to sacrifice all that for the purposes of regime change?

And I’ll say this once again, Amy — I’m addressing the people in the United States: How many times have an attempt by the American government to effect regime change anywhere in the world worked out well? Ask the women of Afghanistan. Ask the people of Iraq. How did that liberal imperialism work out for them? Not very well. Do they really propose to try this out with a nuclear power?

AMY GOODMAN: Yanis Varoufakis, I want to thank you for being with us — we’re going to have to leave it with that question — member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece, founder of the Progressive International with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

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