Interview

Interview: Viktor Ivanov

Interview: Viktor Ivanov

Russia’s top drug official warned in an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday of what he called the "catastrophic" consequences of marijuana legalization measures like California’s upcoming ballot initiative, saying darkly that widespread legal drug use would produce "psychiatric deviations" and will only encourage drug addiction. 

Viktor Ivanov, a former KGB officer and prominent member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, even took the unusual step of going to Los Angeles earlier this week to "conduct a campaign against legalizing marijuana in California," as he said in the interview. He also came to Washington this week to meet with U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and U.S. Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke to discuss anti-poppy measures in Afghanistan and call for an intensified program of aerial eradication.

The United States has largely abandoned eradicating the poppy crop in favor of a narrower strategy focusing on cutting off funding to the Taliban and cracking down on traffickers. Ivanov says that isn’t enough to counter the flow of heroin into Russia, which kills tens of thousands of users every year. 

But California’s laxity, it seems, was particularly startling to him. "I hadn’t known about it before and I was absolutely shocked when I was in the city and saw these posters saying that you can get marijuana for medical purposes," he said. He met with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Leroy Baca to voice Russia’s opposition to the measure. Noting that U.S. President Barack Obama has also expressed his opposition to legalization, Ivanov described it as "one of the cases where Russia and the U.S. agree completely."

He continued: "I’m afraid that the consequences of [legalization] will be catastrophic. Even the Netherlands, where they sell marijuana legally in coffee shops, they are now reversing on this. Because there, and everywhere, drug addiction is becoming stronger and the people who are addicted develop psychiatric deviations. They say, ‘What does God do when he wants to punish a person? He deprives him of his mind.’"

Ivanov, who served in Afghanistan with the KGB during the Soviet Union’s war in the 1980s expressed skepticism about the war effort in Afghanistan. "During the last five years the perception of the foreign powers by the local population has changed," he said. "Now they take it as a military occupation of their country."  

This was Ivanov’s sixth meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Kerlikowske. In this meeting, Ivanov sought to push the United States to resume aerial eradication campaigns against poppy growing in Afghanistan. He thinks the United States should use "methods of defoliation similar to what’s used in Colombia."

According to Russian figures, heroin, nearly all of it from Afghanistan, kills 30,000 Russians every year, Ivanov said. He also believes that the Central Asian states between Russia and Afghanistan are being "destroyed from the inside" by the violence and crime associated with the drug trade.

While Ivanov stressed that coordination with the U.S. side is improving, he also noted "American officials are quite disciplined and they always stick with the strategy as it’s been laid out."

That seems to apply in particular to the State Department. After a meeting last year with Holbrooke — an outspoken skeptic of the utility of poppy eradication — Ivanov said that the envoy had "confirmed our fears that they are not prepared to destroy the production of drugs in Afghanistan." This time, Ivanov noted that, as "[Holbrooke] was a bit short of time, we started the meeting with him; then he handed us to his deputy." He said the two still don’t completely see eye to eye.

"The argument that now NATO and Holbrooke are using is that if we destroy poppy crops it will deprive peasants of their livelihood. It sounds so touching that they’re taking care of the peasants, but it’s not to be taken seriously," he says. "Those peasants do not profit from poppy. They make at most $70 per year. Those who profit from it are the landlords living in Europe and American and the Gulf countries. If we could give the land back to the Afghan government and provide these peasants with wheat, they could easily make their $70 a year growing wheat, not poppy."

Ivanov also said reports of progress on shutting down opium laboratories have been exaggerated.

"One of the results we discussed is a 92 percent increase in the number of laboratories destroyed. From the point of view of arithmetic, this is the case. In reality it looks a little bit different." According to Ivanov, the number of identified drug laboratories operating in Afghanistan has actually increased from 175 in 2008 to 425 today. The real number is likely much higher. He described the efforts to crack down on laboratories so far as a "drop in the ocean."

According to Ivanov, Russian authorities have passed on the location — including GPS coordinates — of several known Afghan drug laboratories to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But because resources for drug eradication are controlled by NATO forces, no steps have been taken to eradicate them, he claims.

Ivanov said he also has doubts about the very premise of the war in Afghanistan. "[In 2001] it was explained that the Taliban was a terrorist organization and that’s why [the invasion] was necessary. Now many years later, it turns out that there’s a so-called moderate Taliban — moderate terrorists — who can be reintegrated back into power. Does that mean we made a mistake nine years ago and all this time we have been correcting it?"

Ivanov suggested that the invasion of Afghanistan might have been partly motivated Western companies seeking to exploit Central Asian energy resources. "If we look back before the invasion, starting in 1997, a number of American companies were negotiating with the Taliban about putting in a pipeline in Afghanistan … bringing gas from Turkmenistan south toward India. There were negotiations in Kabul and Houston and Washington. In 2001, those negotiations ended in a deadlock because the American side wanted a bigger pipeline, while the Taliban wanted smaller pipes in order to provide smaller towns and villages with gas. From the American side, the negotiator was Unocal and the negotiator from that company was the employee of that company, Hamid Karzai."

It has been suggested several times, notably in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, that Karzai may have once worked as a consultant for Unocal, but both the company and the Afghan president deny any connection

Despite his staunch support for anti-drug measures, Ivanov also said that efforts so far have not borne much fruit and might in fact be making the problem worse. 

"In this one single location, 95 percent of global heroin production is taking place," he told FP. "Ironically, it’s the same place where the efforts of the global community are concentrated. It’s like a surgeon who has decided to treat one organ but as a result has cut up all the organs around it."