National | Helen Clark

Helen Clark on Putin: 'He’s capable of pushing the button'

“He said anyone who wanted to interfere with Russia’s special operation in Ukraine would face consequences they could hardly imagine or foresee. That means only one thing.”

Ominous words from a deeply worried former prime Minister, ex-head of the United Nations Development Programme and former nuclear-free activist. Helen Clark was commenting on the increasing number of Ukrainian civilians as well as Russian soldiers who have died since the “special operation” was launched on February 24.

"Ukraine is seeing its towns and cities shelled, its people killed, both military and civilians. But of course, for Russia, there are a lot of young soldiers, conscripts who are never going to come home," Clark said during an interview on Te Ao with Moana.

The United Nations has recorded 1207 civilian casualties since the invasion started but suspects the numbers are much higher.

“This is a tragedy of huge dimensions. Who would ever have thought that we would see again a million people fleeing a country in Europe because there's a war there.”

Why Putin invaded

Clark says one of the reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin may have decided to invade now is because of the advance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance among 28 European countries and two North American countries that Ukraine is not a part of but has been trying to join against Putin’s wishes. NATO was originally set up to combat the Cold War when the USSR was still a force.

“This isn't new that Ukraine has said it wants to be in NATO. So why has he struck now? That's the issue.”

Clark suggests it’s because Putin has sensed how weak the West has become.

“He has seen the West completely distracted by Covid-19. They saw the debacle in Afghanistan, the tragedy of the west abandoning Afghanistan after 20 years. They see the internal political debates in western countries where people don't seem to agree on anything much across these party lines, which become almost tribal in, for example, America, and he thinks, ‘Well, if not now, when?’”

But Clark says Putin has “got a lot of things wrong.

“Firstly, NATO held together. The European Union held together. And secondly, what he's facing is a very determined resistance, a president who has stayed in great danger in the capital city, Kyiv, and people just fighting. It's not a pushover.”

Meeting Putin

When Helen Clark was the prime minister, she met Putin during seven Apec leaders' summits and spoke to him in-depth through an interpreter.

"What I saw is not the man I see today. He was, of course, a leader who hadn't been there for two decades. He feels the West doesn't respect either him or Russia and you can see how, with that kind of psychology, you could bring a lot of older generation in behind you. So I think to understand this, we need the skills of psychologists."

Worst-case scenario

Clark suggests there is only one potential offering given a series of worst-case scenarios she outlined that include World War lll.

“Why would any fool bomb a nuclear power plant,” Clark says. “You’re either totally incompetent and can’t target a missile or you’re prepared to go to any lengths to crush Ukraine.”

TE AO WITH MOANA – 8pm Monday on Māori Television and online.