In Interview, A Confrontational Putin Takes On NATO

Jan 11, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin has given his first big interview of the year with a foreign newspaper. Though he spoke of cooperation during his interview with the German daily Bild, he showed little inclination to back down from confrontations with the United States and its Western allies.

Reporters from Bild began by asking the Russian leader, "What went so horribly wrong with the relationship between Russia and the West?"

"We have done everything wrong," Putin said.

"Everything?" the paper asked.

"From the beginning," Putin replied, "we failed to overcome Europe's division. Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, but invisible walls were moved to the east of Europe. This has led to mutual misunderstandings and assignments of guilt. They are the cause of all crises ever since."

From there, Putin returned to a favorite theme: the idea that NATO leaders reneged on a promise not to expand the alliance eastward toward the Russian border.

Putin has used this assertion as part of his justification for many of Russia's actions, including its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. In that case, he said Russia was acting out of the fear that NATO might base troops on Ukrainian territory, near the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.

His claim that NATO promised not to expand drew a quick response Monday from NATO leaders, including Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, who tweeted that it was "simply untrue."

Stephen Pifer, a Brookings Institution scholar and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, pointed out that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has also said that no such promises were made.

'Democracy' In Crimea

When the Bild reporters noted that former Soviet allies voluntarily joined NATO, Putin replied to the effect that NATO politicians shouldn't have let them do it.

Putin also defended the annexation of Crimea, saying it was the result of a referendum in which the majority of citizens voted to belong to Russia.

"This is democracy," he said, "the people's will."

"One cannot simply challenge European state borders," the Bild reporter said.

"For me," Putin replied, "it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people's fortunes."

He compared Crimea's hastily organized referendum to the independence of Kosovo, the province that declared its independence from Serbia after a war and a nine-year occupation by United Nations peacekeepers.

The Crimean annexation, overseen by Russian troops who appeared without insignia, was the first trigger for Western sanctions that Putin called "foolish" and said are aimed at "pushing Russia back."

The Bite Of Sanctions

Putin acknowledged that the sanctions, especially on financial transactions, are hurting Russia severely.

"But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices for energy," he said. In the long run, he said, the current financial crisis will force Russia to diversify from oil and gas.

The German reporters wanted to know whether Putin trusted German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Yes, I trust her, she is a very open person," he said. But, he added, "she is also subject to certain constraints and limitations."

Putin called the European Union's current negotiations over eastern Ukraine "theater of the absurd," and blamed the Ukrainian government for not making what he said are constitutional changes required by the Minsk peace accords.

NATO accuses Russia of supporting separatist militias in the region with money, weapons and troops, a charge Putin has repeatedly denied.

Putin said that Merkel and "European partners" should "address the problems of eastern Ukraine more thoroughly."

That led the Bild reporters to bring up an incident that still rankles some Germans. When Merkel visited Putin at his residence in the southern city of Sochi back in 2007, Putin brought his big black Labrador, Koni, to the meeting.

Merkel is known to be somewhat frightened of dogs, and photos from the event show her uncomfortable reaction to the encounter.

"Did you know that the chancellor is a bit frightened of dogs, so that this would be quite unpleasant for her?" Bild asked.

"No," Putin responded, "I did not know that. I wanted to make her happy. When I learned that she does not like dogs, I apologized, of course."

But overall, the Bild interview portrays the Russian president as a man who doesn't feel he has much else to apologize for — especially when it comes to his policies toward the West.

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