'What we don't want is World War III' - Clark on Ukraine

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 3 March 2022
An armed man stands at a road block in downtown Kyiv on March 1, 2022.

An armed man stands at a road block in downtown Kyiv on March 1, 2022. Photo: AFP or licensors

Russia has invaded Ukraine: for the first time since the end of World War Two, a large-scale war of territorial conquest has been declared in Europe.  

So what are Russia’s motives and justifications and potential goals with this invasion? Why is it invading now? What levers does the international community have yet to pull? And is nuclear war potentially on the horizon?  

The Detail speaks to former Prime Minister Helen Clark about the geopolitical dynamics at play, her own interactions with Vladimir Putin, how the rest of the world has responded, and how the conflict could be resolved.  

Clark on Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine 

Clark says there’s no justification for the invasion of Ukraine. 

“But if we stand back and say, ‘what really is going on in Putin’s mind?’ we can construct something like this: based on his perception – and he’s said this many times – the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. And one way or another, he’s been trying to keep a foothold on what was. 

“He doesn’t feel secure when he looks at a map of Europe and sees NATO in the Baltic countries abutting Russia. 

“This makes him feel insecure.” 

NATO is a defence alliance. Why is Putin afraid of NATO?  

Putin sees NATO as an alliance geared towards defending its members from Russia, Clark says. 

“But he would go a step further and say actually, it’s an alliance that could’ve been aggressive towards us,” she says. 

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were a series of meetings, and agreements reached between NATO and Russia, and they co-operated in various ways ... but with the invasion of the Donbas region and Crimea [in 2014] that went to custard. And I suspect that these last eight years the level of quality discussion and engagement that there had been from the early 90s pretty much evaporated.” 

On meeting Putin 

When Clark was prime minister, she met Putin at several APEC summits. 

“I, on one occasion, sat next to him at a banquet ... and spoke with him throughout much of a dinner through an interpreter. On another occasion I was seated next to him at a leaders’ lunch. 

“But I have to say – and this is not a unique comment to me – the man I was talking to is not the man I see on TV today. He’s a man who’s now been in power a very long time. He seems to have become increasingly angry, and is not, in my opinion, making decisions which are good for his country, let alone Ukraine.”  

How might this conflict end? 

Clark sees it playing out two different ways. 

“There’s the whole spectrum of ways that Russia, through overwhelming force, occupies Ukraine, puts in a puppet government, and in effect recreates it as a part of a new Soviet Union,” she says. 

“That’s the worst-case scenario, and we can’t say it’s an impossible one. The only thing that’s holding it back is that Ukraine is fighting, men and women, and their army command is intact, and the president hasn’t run away, which is incredible.” 

The best-case scenario is there are talks that establish a basis on which Ukraine and Russia will live in peace, side-by-side. 

“That will probably mean Ukraine will need to accept it is a neutral country. It doesn’t want to be in a recreated Warsaw Pact with Russia, but it probably can’t ever be in NATO either. It is a classic buffer state, where great power interests are either side of it: it is the meat in the sandwich, and when Russia has felt the buffer’s gone, that’s when it’s gotten very, very angry.  

“I can’t as I sit here see a best-case where Ukraine is able to say, ‘we’ll join what we want and do what we want’. That’s probably unrealistic.” 


* Clarification: In the podcast version of this story, we referred to the 2014 ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as a “US-backed coup". The events of 2014 are broadly considered a revolution, rather than a coup. RNZ/Newsroom regrets the error.


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