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'Vladimir The Little,' 'Vladimir The Bad Chess Player.' French Intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy Slams Putin

Bernard-Henri Levy, a French philosopher and intellectual, says "the stability, the architecture, and the very existence of the European Union as a political entity" is at stake if Ukraine loses the war.
Bernard-Henri Levy, a French philosopher and intellectual, says "the stability, the architecture, and the very existence of the European Union as a political entity" is at stake if Ukraine loses the war.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service spoke to prominent French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, a renowned author, philosopher, and war correspondent. Levy has been a regular visitor to Ukraine since the country's 2014 revolution that overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. He addressed crowds on Kyiv's Independence Square in 2014 and 2015, reported from the Donbas front lines, and publicly supported Ukraine's acceptance into Euro-Atlantic structures.

The author of a new documentary in which he visits the world's trouble spots, including Ukraine, Levy says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is "one of the founding fathers of Europe," whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin is merely a "bad chess player."

RFE/RL: Right before the war, you said, "If Putin invades, it will be too late." What now? What's the reality in which we now find ourselves?

Bernard-Henri Levy: The reality is the current disaster, the current carnage. And the reality is that all of that could have been avoided. All this massacre, all this devastation, could have been avoided. If we had [listened to] those who for years predicted it, it could have been avoided.

I've just finished a documentary about the current war but also about the last eight years. I spoke on the Maidan (Kyiv's Independence Square) in February 2014. And I said that this could happen. I had a debate later with one of the [influences on] Putin, [Russian political philosopher and strategist] Aleksandr Dugin, and I understood that it was an absolute plan of Russia to invade Ukraine. So, the story was written in advance and the West just sat, waited, and observed till the date of the invasion. And this fills me with sadness and sorrow. So many civilian lives could have been saved.

Putin was just waiting for the window of opportunity, for the moment. And he probably felt that the moment had come when he saw the terrible spectacle of America withdrawing from Kabul. Kabul was probably the spark. Putin, I suppose, when he saw this self-inflicted defeat for America, thought [that] the way is [clear], I just have to proceed, to go. Nobody will prevent me. They are weak. They are no longer able -- willing -- to defend their own values.

He was wrong. Since we see now America behaving well. But this was the miscalculation, so a lot of people knew that this would happen.

RFE/RL: Right now, what do you think is at stake for the West in Ukraine?

Levy: Ukrainian lives. And us, too. If Ukraine loses, it would be a wave of disaster for all Europe. This war [in] Ukraine is our war in Europe. Their defeat, the defeat of the Ukrainians, would be our defeat. The domino effect will be huge. And what is at stake is really the stability, the architecture, and the very existence of the European Union as a political entity.

If we don't stop Putin in Ukraine, Baltic countries, Poland, other countries will be at stake militarily, [and] others will be threatened politically. We know that Putin has some puppets in [all] European countries. He had, before 2014, Yanukovych in Ukraine as a puppet. We have our Yanukovychs in France: [French far-right leader] Mrs. [Marine] Le Pen, [French far-left leader] Mr. [Jean-Luc] Melenchon are sort of Yanukovych [figures].... They would be except that, thank God, they are not in power. But if they were in power, they would be the puppets of Putin.... The ultimate target of Putin, if he won in Ukraine, would be the whole of Europe. We are at stake; the stake is us.

RFE/RL: With that in mind, is the West doing enough for Ukraine? Is Ukraine receiving the Western aid that it deserves?

Levy: Europe woke up. America woke up, and the extent of solidarity is impressive. I cannot remember such an amount of help decided by the president of [the United States], voted by Congress, as [there] is now for Ukraine. Now, you have two limits to that. No. 1: The weapons, even in America, the quantity of weapons which can be delivered is not without limits. You have some limits. And my impression is that the West is close to that limit. The violence, the savagery of Putin's army is such that we will probably need for Ukraine more than we can deliver.

After that, you also have the question [of] when the weapons are available. The [timing of delivery] is not easy. It's a huge performance to deliver some weapons in such a quantity to a country which is [being] scrutinized by the FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service), with [Russia controlling the airspace]. It's a very impressive performance [and] we succeeded in delivering weapons, which, by the way, are still relatively unknown.

RFE/RL: It's quite clear that some countries are more willing to deliver than others. And when you see, for example, the Eastern Europeans giving what they've got, and then the Western Europeans being hesitant about giving even a fraction of that, that raises some questions, doesn't it?

Levy: One of the theses which I hear very often is that, for example, my country does not do enough. I'm not sure. I was on various front lines recently for this documentary in Ukraine and I saw some French weapons, some CAESAR [self-propelled howitzers], and so on. So I think that there is a real, strong, unprecedented solidarity with Ukraine.

RFE/RL: I want to ask you about President Zelenskiy himself and to quote you once again. Before the war, you said you hoped but were unsure that he would pass the exam that lay ahead of him. Three months on, has he passed?

Levy: I said it when I met him in 2019, I think. I met him for the first time before his election. And, of course, I wasn't sure. We spoke about Putin. And I asked him: What will happen when you confront Putin? Do you feel that you are strong enough and so on? By the way, he said, "Yes," and he's right.

On the very day of the invasion, this man was just great. No question. On the very day, it did not take [him even] one hour to [rise to] the level of the event. He revealed himself to be a hero overnight. He found the behavior of [British wartime leader Winston] Churchill in London in 1940…. I never saw in my lifetime such a metamorphosis in a normal [head] of state, not shaped for a tragic destiny. My feeling is that Zelenskiy was not ready for that. And nevertheless, overnight, it happened. He incarnated the resistance of his people and he became a pure hero.

Today, if there is an image of heroism in Europe, it is him. Today, if there is an embodiment of the old European values of chivalry, it is him. Today, there is one name that added itself to the list of the founding fathers of Europe: Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, and so on.

One morning to the list of the founding fathers of Europe [was added] this young man, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This young man is today one of the founding fathers of Europe. He re-founded, in a way, Europe, with his bravery, with his spirit of resistance, with his commitment to the values of Europe. He took all that in his arms, he embraced all of that, and therefore, he is, in spite of his young age, a founding father of Europe.

RFE/RL: Let me now ask about a far less likable figure, Vladimir Putin. Has he passed his own exam, if we are to deduce from his own quotes that he sees himself as an equal to Peter the Great?

Levy: Of course, no. Vladimir the Little. Vladimir the Bad Chess Player. He was supposed to be a good chess player. I remember [former world chess champion Garry] Kasparov, by the way, telling me a few years ago that mentioning Putin as a great chess player is an insult to chess. He was right. He's not even a chess player.... He miscalculated everything, he [made mistakes at] every point. He did not know his army, did not know the state of his weapons, misinterpreted the reaction of the West. He underestimated Zelenskiy. In politics, he is just a zero. Vladimir the Little.

RFE/RL: Let me ask you about your own president this time. You said that the recent visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on June 16 to Ukraine "is late but could be historic." Was it?

Levy: We need time to know if an event is historic or not. You know, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese leader at the time of Mao, was one day asked: What do you think of the French Revolution of 1789? He reflected and he said, "You know, it's a little early to know." So we will know if it is historic.

But one thing I'm sure is that Europe gave the image of its own unity. Europe spoke in one voice. Europe reasserted [its] commitment toward Ukraine. And in this sense, it was an anti-Munich 1938, when we said: "OK, Mr. Hitler, take the Sudetenland." Today, it is the exact opposite. Don't touch the Sudetenland of today, which is the Donbas. This belongs to Ukraine.

RFE/RL: Do you think that was the message this visit sent?

Levy: Oh, yeah. It is the message that Ukraine is a sovereign country, that this is a war of aggression. And that we should help Zelenskiy to win the war. This is what Macron said. He has to prevail. So it is an anti-Munich for the moment.

RFE/RL: Macron also said some other things that made people raise their eyebrows. For instance, his warnings about humiliating Moscow. What do you make of that?

Levy: I said weeks ago that the only focus we should have in the West is the defeat of Putin. The only reasonable and honorable target which we should have is Putin losing the war, losing face, and, if possible, losing power. So of course, I don't like this idea that we should find an exit door for Putin. In 1943, nobody tried to find an exit door for Hitler. Nobody thought we should not humiliate Hitler. Nobody thought we should save Hitler's face. We thought Hitler had to be defeated, period. That's exactly what has to be said about Putin. This is my opinion, but I may disagree with my president.

RFE/RL: Is such an outcome feasible?

Levy: I think it is feasible, yes. I am an eyewitness of two situations where it already happened. Out of Kyiv, on the outskirts of Kyiv, the Russians were defeated at a horrible price, of course, a horrible cost -- [reported war crimes in] Bucha and Borodyanka.... But they were defeated, they were repelled. In Mykolayiv, they were repelled also. The Russians were repelled.

Each time the Russian Army has to confront properly the Ukrainian Army, the Russian Army is defeated. The only weapon which the Russians have is the rain of bombs and missiles, with phosphorus and so on, the artillery, the mastering of the sky. But when it comes to confronting a real army and behaving as a real army, they failed.

Look what happens even in Syevyerodonetsk. Of course, when you have a rain of bombs, Ukrainians withdraw. When the Russians come in to occupy, they are unable and they withdraw again. So my belief is that if they are equipped enough, the Ukrainians will win this war. Equipped enough, they will win. I was a few times on the ground during these last 100 days and I have this absolute conviction that Ukraine can win, Ukraine cannot lose, and Ukraine will prevail. But we have to help.

RFE/RL: When France says they want to sit down at the negotiating table, there is a particular nation not so far from Ukraine that gets worried. Georgia shares the exact history of what happened the last time France said we are at the negotiating table with Russia. And we have the example of 2008 and the peace deal that then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy made to end the conflict. So how optimistic should we be about France's capacity to deliver an agreement that will be fair and upheld?

Levy: It's a very different situation from Georgia. I was in Georgia, I was a [correspondent] for Le Monde.... It was very different. The Russian tanks arrived, maybe 40 or 50 kilometers from Tbilisi. Without [any] real resistance, not very strong resistance from the army of [then-President Mikheil] Saakashvili.

Now, in Ukraine, it is a completely different situation. You have a heroic president and a heroic people, some heroic soldiers, resisting foot by foot, and sometimes repelling the Russian Army. So nobody will dictate to Zelenskiy the conditions of the end of the war. Nobody will dictate [that]. I have enough experience myself over this situation to be sure of that.

The outcome of the war will be dictated by Zelenskiy; nobody will be able to twist his arm because he's strong, he has a strong army, and he himself is strong. This man is made out of iron.... He's the boss.

RFE/RL: And that was not the case in Georgia?

Levy: In Georgia, Saakashvili was a good man and brave also. But he was about to be defeated. A few days more. I don't know the worst that could happen. Again, I saw the Russian tanks that were there. So it's a different situation. You have not such a resistance in Georgia. What happens to Ukraine is unbreakable. It's impossible to break. Really.

RFE/RL: Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are trying to get EU candidate status. And I do know already that you're supportive of that for Ukraine. But I once again have to go to Macron, who said Georgia was in a different position geopolitically and geographically, that he was supportive of Ukraine and Moldova getting the candidate status but he was unsure about Georgia. And let me ask you, both as a journalist and as an average Georgian citizen, if the consensus in the West is that Ukraine has paid for that with blood and deserves it, Georgia also paid with blood in 2008. Is Georgian blood of a different composition? Does it not count? Don't we deserve it as well?

Levy: Of course. I wrote a piece in 2008…calling for urgent entry into NATO for Georgia and Ukraine. I have believed that [for] 14 years; it has been an emergency for 14 years now, I completely agree. Now [for] Georgia, it's a scandal that we didn't yet enter the process. But now there is an emergency, which is Ukraine. In Ukraine, the blood is spilling -- rivers of blood are here. We have to stop that. No more Buchas. No more Borodyankas. And my feeling is that the emergency is to start the process with Ukraine, to accelerate it, and maybe a little later, Ukraine, like in a brotherly chain, will help Georgia or other countries of the area to join.

RFE/RL: Georgia and Moldova are the other two that want to join.

Levy: Today, let's be careful. There could be a trap here, [so we] say OK, we have to admit three, four, or five countries. If we do [it] like this, Brussels will say OK, wait a minute, impossible. So let's start now with Ukraine. And again, I'm a friend of Georgia. I pleaded for 30 years for the entrance into the EU for Bosnia-Herzegovina. For me, it is a shame that there is no organic agreement, if not entry for Bosnia. But today, let's be careful not to create a huge problem, which is impossible to solve. Ukraine now. It is possible…. Let's open the door without delay to Ukraine.

This is an abridged version of the interview and has been edited for clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.