by Alexander Mercouris for Russia Insider
Unusually for the Western media, the German interviewers proved to be both well-informed and intelligent and avoided cliches, giving Putin a good opportunity to explain himself concisely on a wide range of topics.
The fact the interviewers from Bild-Zeitung conducted the interview so intelligently incidentally shows that the true causes of the present tensions in international relations are well understood in Germany – including by the media there – even if they are not openly articulated.
NATO Expansion – “not an inch east”
On most of the topics covered by the interview, Putin had little to say that was new. This issue was the exception.
As is well-known, the Russians have an established grievance that following the fall of the Berlin Wall NATO was expanded eastward in contradiction to promises given to Russia.
There has in recent years been a sustained attempt by some academic historians in the US to deny this.
Supposedly no promise not to extend NATO eastward was ever given, and the well-known statements – some of them public – made by various Western officials over the course of 1990 that appear to make that promise supposedly only referred to eastward deployment of NATO military installations in the former East Germany and were only intended to apply whilst the USSR was still in existence.
This denial is scarcely credible, and has been flatly contradicted by some Western officials who were actually involved in the talks.
Putin claims he recently ordered research of the Russian archives and that further confirmation the promise was given has been found there.
Putin refers to talks between Valentin Falin – the then head of the Soviet Communist Party’s International Department – and various German politicians, which he claims have never been made public up to now.
Since Valentin Falin was a Communist Party official records of his meetings would have been kept by the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee rather than by the Foreign Ministry, which may be why they have been overlooked up to now.
Putin claims these records not only provide further proof the promise was given, but show that one of Falin’s most important interlocutors – the prominent SPD politician Egon Bahr – even suggested recasting the entire European alliance system to include Russia, and warned of future dangers if this were not done.
Bahr has just died, and it may be the true reason the Russians are only disclosing what he told them now was to spare him embarrassment.
If so then Putin’s disclosure of his conversation in 1990 with Falin may have been intended as much as a reminder to contemporary German politicians – Merkel, Gabriel and Steinmeier – that the Russians keep a complete record of what they tell them, as it was to cast light on the question of what promises were given in 1990 on the question of NATO expansion.
My own view is that though a promise not to extend NATO eastward was definitely and repeatedly given the Western politicians and officials who gave it with a few notable exceptions never had any serious intention of keeping it.
Bahr – who I remember well – was no such exception. His grandiose talk of a pan-European alliance including Russia was in my opinion just another example of a German politician pulling the wool over the Russians’ eyes in order to make it easier for the Germans to achieve their goal – which was German unification within NATO.
I strongly suspect Putin thinks the same thing.
His single most interesting comment in the whole interview was his admission that Russia was itself to blame for trusting the West too much, and for not defending its interests vigorously:
“We have failed to assert our national interests, while we should have done that from the outset. Then the whole world could have been more balanced.”
That comment is as much a pointer to how the Russians will act in the future, as it is about the past.
The “Right” of East European nations to join NATO and the EU
Anyone who discusses the issue of NATO’s and the EU’s eastward expansion with one of its advocates invariably comes up against the argument that the Russians have no right to complain about NATO’s and the EU’s eastern expansion because it is the right of the people of eastern Europe to have it.
I saw this argument used again just a few days ago in a discussion between the British journalist Peter Hitchens – who opposes NATO’s and the EU’s eastward expansion – and a group of British students.
It should be said clearly that this is a bogus argument.
East European states have no “right” to join NATO or the EU. They have a right to apply to join NATO and the EU.
NATO and the EU have no obligation – legal or moral – to accept that application if it is made. On the contrary, they have a duty to refuse that application if accepting it threatens peace and contradicts promises they made previously to the Russians.
As for the Russians, they have as much right to object to NATO’s and the EU’s eastern expansion as the east Europeans have to demand it. In fact, given that they were repeatedly promised it would not happen, they have more right.
Whenever this point is made, it always seems to come as a surprise – even though it is in essence no different from what Westerners tell the Russians – that they are free to apply to join NATO or the EU if they wish, but there is no chance they will ever be admitted.
It is striking therefore to see Putin – for the first time to my knowledge – publicly make this point:
“Does the (NATO) Charter say that NATO is obliged to admit everyone who would like to join? No. There should be certain criteria and conditions. If there had been political will, if they had wanted to, they could have done anything. They just did not want to. They wanted to reign. So they sat on the throne. And then? And then came crises that we are now discussing.”
Ukraine and the Minsk Agreement
Following my piece on the importance of the appointment of Boris Gryzlov to the position of Russia’s representative on the Contact Group, there was some understandable concern that the appointment of this heavyweight was being made in order to bully the militia into making more concessions to the Ukrainians.
Putin’s interview should put that fear to rest. He makes absolutely clear that it is Kiev that is breaching the Minsk Agreement, and that it is Kiev that must compromise.
Putin also makes the same point I have made previously – that it is completely absurd to link the question of lifting EU sanctions on Russia with that of the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, when it Ukraine not Russia that is not implementing it:
“Everyone says that the Minsk Agreements must be implemented and then the sanctions issue may be reconsidered.
This is beginning to resemble the theatre of the absurd because everything essential that needs to be done with regard to implementing the Minsk Agreements is the responsibility of the current Kiev authorities.
You cannot demand that Moscow do something that needs to be done by Kiev. For example, the main, the key issue in the settlement process is political in its nature and the constitutional reform lies in its core. This is Point 11 of the Minsk Agreements. It expressly states that the constitutional reform must be carried out and it is not Moscow that is to make these decisions.
Look, everything is provided for: Ukraine is to carry out a constitutional reform with its entry into force by the end of 2015 (Paragraph 11). Now 2015 is over.”
I would add that this exchange provides a good example of Putin’s extraordinary knowledge and mastery of detail. When the German interviewers tried to trip him by misrepresenting the content of the Minsk Agreement, he had the facts at his fingertips and immediately put them right:
“Question: The constitutional reform must be carried out after the end of all military hostilities. Is that what the paragraph says?
Vladimir Putin: No, it is not.
Look, I will give you the English version. What does it say? Paragraph 9 – reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine based on the Ukrainian law on constitutional reform by the end of 2015, provided that Paragraph 11 has been fulfilled, which stipulates constitutional reform.
Consequently, the constitutional reform and political processes are to be implemented first, followed by confidence building on the basis of those reforms and the completion of all processes, including the border closure. I believe that our European partners, both the German Chancellor and the French President should scrutinise these matters more thoroughly.”
As an aside, on the question of the legitimacy of the present Ukrainian government – something that still gets talked about in Russia from time to time – I would repeat a point that I made a year ago.
Not only does Putin continue to insist that the change of power in Ukraine in February 2014 was unconstitutional and illegal and was not a revolution but a coup, but he carefully avoids using the term “Ukrainian government” to refer to the authorities in Kiev. Instead he uses words like “Kiev” or “the present Kiev authorities” to refer to them.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that Putin – and presumably the whole of the Russian government – deep down do not consider the present government in Kiev to be legitimate – and will not do so until there have been fresh elections in Ukraine following agreement on a new constitution.
Putin said nothing new on this subject, but he did repeat an important point that he has repeatedly made ever since Crimea voted to join Russia in March 2014.
This is that contrary to claims repeatedly made by Western governments and by the Western media, Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its subsequent decision to join Russia are in compliance with international law as set out by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on Kosovo, and as was argued in that case by the legal representatives of the West’s governments.
Putin is absolutely right about this, and I was very surprised to see that in an otherwise fine interview the commentator Rostislav Ishchenko does not seem to realise the fact.
The fact Putin’s interpretation of the Advisory Opinion is right is shown not just by the text of Advisory Opinion itself.
It is also shown by the way Western governments and the Western media have suppressed all discussion of it so that the Western public knows nothing about it.
This even though – as Putin’s interview shows – his German interviewers certainly know of it.
I would add that if Putin’s interpretation of the Advisory Opinion was wrong, Ukraine would certainly have brought a claim against Russia to the International Court of Justice.
Ukraine constantly litigates in other courts against Russia on other far less important subjects. It beggars belief if they really thought they would win a case over the far more important issue of Crimea they would not have brought one by now.
The fact Ukraine has not brought a claim against Russia to the International Court of Justice shows it knows – and has been warned by Western governments – it would lose.
The Russian economy
The interview concentrated mainly on foreign policy. However Putin was careful to say something about the state of the Russian economy, even though he was not asked a direct question about it.
Putin gave the figures for the Russian economy in 2015 – a contraction of 3.8% in GDP, 3.3% in industrial output, and inflation of 12.9% (the latter figure has now been confirmed by Rosstat).
He made it fairly clear that – as I expected – the Russians will respond to the further fall in oil prices since the start of the year by budget cuts rather than by raising taxes or by borrowing on the international money markets (though I notice that Reuters has now rather grudgingly admitted that Russia does indeed have this option).
“As to the worst harm inflicted by today’s situation, first of all on our economy, it is the harm caused by the falling prices on our traditional export goods.
However, both the former and the latter have their positive aspects. When oil prices are high, it is very difficult for us to resist spending oil revenues to cover current expenses. I believe that our non-oil and gas deficit had risen to a very dangerous level. So now we are forced to lower it. And this is healthy…
The total deficit is quite small. But when you subtract the non-oil and gas deficit, then you see that the oil and gas deficit is too large. In order to reduce it, such countries as Norway, for example, put a significant proportion of non-oil and gas revenues into the reserve. It is very difficult, I repeat, to resist spending oil and gas revenues to cover current expenses. It is the reduction of these expenses that improves the economy.”
The Russian budget undoubtedly does have scope for spending cuts, and this together with the continued fall of the rouble in line with oil prices should suffice to keep the deficit within controllable limits even if oil prices continue to fall.
The major problem for Russia caused by the continued oil price fall is not its effect on the budget. It is that it is forcing the Central Bank to keep interest rates high, thereby prolonging the recession.
The Middle East
Putin broke no new ground here, though as is always the case now he made it perfectly clear that he thinks it is the regime change strategy pursued by the US and some of its allies since 2001 that has destabilised the region.
Outside the still powerful and vocal community of Western liberal interventionists and neocons, there are few now who would disagree with him.
However Putin did once again explain the motives behind Russia’s intervention in Syria.
“I can tell you precisely what we do not want to happen: we do not want the Libyan or Iraqi scenario to be repeated in Syria……. In my view, no effort should be spared in strengthening legitimate governments in the region’s countries.
That also applies to Syria. Emerging state institutions in Iraq and in Libya must be revived and strengthened. Situations in Somalia and other countries must be stabilised. State authority in Afghanistan must be reinforced. However, it does not mean that everything should be left as is. Indeed, this new stability would underpin political reforms.”
In other words Russia’s current support for President Assad is not an end in itself. Russia has no geopolitical interests in Syria or in the region. However it sees the spread of chaos and violent jihadism into Syria and elsewhere as exceptionally dangerous – first and foremost for itself, but also for the world in general – and is determined to do what it can to prevent it.
The Russian intervention in Syria is intended to stabilise the situation there, with the Russians however pushing for a political solution to the conflict in parallel with their military effort.
Again, there are few people now outside the still very powerful Western liberal interventionist and neocon community who would openly disagree with this analysis, though there are some who might question whether Russia’s motives really are as uncomplicated as Putin says they are.
On the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Putin was very careful not to take sides, pointing instead to Russia’s good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, whilst making it clear that Russia’s friendship is primarily with Iran:
“We have very good relations with Iran and our partnership with Saudi Arabia is stable.”
The interview with Bild-Zeitung shows Putin at his most articulate.
If he broke no new ground, he clearly relished the opportunity to expand on points he now repeatedly makes.
The intelligence of his interviewers, and the fact they were for once well-informed, gave him a good opportunity to do this.
This contrast with the leaden discussion Putin had last year with the spectacularly ill-informed Charlie Rose, on the sheer awfulness of which I find myself for once in unique agreement with the Kyiv Post.
The interview with Bild-Zeitung covered more topics than I have discussed. It included for example a discussion of Russia’s relations with Germany, and of the nature of Putin’s relationship with Angela Merkel.
Here – for completely understandable reasons – Putin did not go beyond banalities, though he was at last given an opportunity to scotch the fantastic fable that he deliberately set his Labrador dog on Merkel in order to unsettle and discomfort her.
As he says – without doubt truthfully – he was simply unaware of Merkel’s fear of dogs when he introduced his dog to her, and he apologised to her when he found out about it.
This simple and undoubtedly true explanation will – of course – be suppressed or ignored, when stories about this incident are again told in the West.
The interview did also contain one very striking omission.
This was about Russia’s relations with China, a subject the interviewers never brought up.
This reflects Western inability to come to terms with the reality of the Russian Chinese strategic partnership, rather than in any lack of importance fot this issue.
The very unwillingness – or inability – of Westerners to talk about it, is in fact a sign of its importance.
Overall the impression of Putin that comes across from the interview is of a calm and confident man, who has thought long and hard about the issues he talks about, and who has discussed them widely and in depth with other members of the Russian government and with his advisers.
There is no doubt the views that Putin expresses are those of the government as a whole, and that Putin believes the things he says, and is sure that what he says is right.
As a result Putin is able to speak in a calm and measured way, avoiding the histrionics and hyperbole Western leaders now routinely engage in.
The only point where Putin seems to have spoken with emotion is when he angrily rebutted Western claims the Russian airforce in Syria is deliberately targeting civilians.
Since Putin unquestionably believes in the things he says, and since all the indications are that the rest of the government agrees with him and supports him as he says them – as does Russian society in general – Western hopes or expectations of any sudden change in Russia’s course are unlikely to be fulfilled.