This interview was originally published on 27 June 2019.
Just before midnight, Vladimir Putin perks up at the mention of the word “risk”. It encapsulates the man and his 20 years in power.
Latterly, Russia has embarked on a growing number of foreign policy gambles, from the military intervention in Syria, the annexation of Crimea and the attempted meddling in the US presidential election. Is his appetite for risk increasing with each passing year?
“It did not increase or decrease. Risk must always be well-justified,” he replies. “But this is not the case when one can use the popular Russian phrase: ‘He who doesn’t take risks, never drinks champagne’.”
His response is classic Putin: elusive and teasing. But on one issue, he is certain he made the right choice: Syria. “I believe that it has been a good and positive return. We have accomplished even more than I had expected.”
Aside from the killing of “several thousands” of Islamist militants and the shoring up of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he cites the re-emergence of Russia as a power in the Middle East uniquely able to talk to all parties from Israel to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“Besides, I would like to openly speak of the mobilisation of the Russian Armed Forces,” he adds. “Our armed forces have received such practical experience that they could not have obtained during any peacetime exercises.”
This matter of fact — some would say cynical — summation of an eight-year civil war that has led to the deaths of half a million people and caused 5.6m to become refugees and millions more to be internally displaced highlights the self-assurance of Mr Putin. Here is a man who believes Russia is back at the top table and that history is on his side.
Ever since the 2014 Crimea annexation, Mr Putin has faced a concerted attempt to isolate him internationally. But on the eve of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan and at a time when the US role in the world has never seemed more uncertain, the Russian leader is still very much at centre stage.
During a 90-minute interview in the Kremlin’s cabinet office, with statues of four of Imperial Russia’s most revered rulers looking on from each corner, the former KGB officer turned statesman took on all subjects. He ranged from the breakdown of the international rules-based order, the rise of China and the end of liberal ideology to the prospect of improved relations with the UK.
Ahead of the G20, Mr Putin highlights multiple risks to global stability. He singles out American unilateralism, starting with the tariff war against China and the threat of conflict in the Gulf. “To put it bluntly, the situation has definitely become more dramatic and explosive,” he says.
The Russian leader detects a shift in the political balance of power from traditional western liberalism to national populism, fuelled by public resentment about immigration, multiculturalism and secular values at the expense of religion.
“Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values?” asks Mr Putin, dismissing Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses. Similarly, in the Russian president’s view, liberal ideology has “outlived its purpose”.
Fragmentation characterises the world of 2019. In response, Mr Putin casts himself as a cheerleader of globalisation alongside his increasingly close ally, President Xi Jinping of China. It is an improbable role for Russia and China, but one vacated by the US under President Donald Trump, who has made “America First” his mantra.
Mr Trump’s trade conflict with China, alongside US-led sanctions against Russia, have brought Beijing and Moscow closer together. Once wary neighbours, the two Eurasian powers have formed a strategic partnership based on energy investment, trade and defence co-operation.
Mr Putin has met Mr Xi 28 times since the latter took office in 2012. Is Russia — which has few friends left in the west — putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket?
“We have sufficient eggs but there are not too many baskets to put those eggs in,” he replies. “We always assess the risks . . . Russia and China are not directing their policy against anyone.”
Later he praises China for “showing loyalty and flexibility to both its partners and opponents” — an endorsement not extended to the US.
Some believe conflict is inevitable between the US and China. They point to the parallel between a dominant Sparta and a rising Athens, the so-called Thucydides trap.
The Russian leader is circumspect. “But it is hard to say whether the United States would have enough patience not to make any rash decisions, but to respect its partners even if there are disagreements.”
Mr Putin has plenty of harsh words about America but he is studiously polite about Mr Trump, referring to him as “Donald” several times in the interview. “Mr Trump is not a career politician . . . I do not accept many of his methods when it comes to addressing problems. But do you know what I think? I think that he is a talented person. He knows very well what his voters expect from him.”
Mr Putin wearily dismisses charges of orchestrated interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. He insists Mr Trump won in his own right by tapping the anti-establishment mood and the backlash against globalisation.
“Russia has been accused, and, strange as it may seem, it is still being accused . . . of alleged interference in the US election. What happened in reality? Mr Trump looked into his opponents’ attitude to him and saw changes in American society, and he took advantage of this,” he says.
Mr Trump has reciprocated by not directly criticising Mr Putin. The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the G20 in Osaka. The question is whether they can find any common ground, notably on arms control, where bilateral cold war treaties that have underpinned nuclear stability are being torn up.
The US, accusing Russia of breaching the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, has notified Moscow it will withdraw by August 2 in the absence of compliance. Russia denies it is in breach and accuses the US of counter-breaches through missile deployment in Europe. At the same time, a second treaty (New Start) limiting the number of warheads is nearing expiry in 2021.
Mr Putin tells the Financial Times that Mr Trump intimated in a recent conversation that the US was interested in extending New Start, but no initiative has been forthcoming. “So if this treaty ceases to exist, then there would be no instrument in the world to curtail the arms race. And this is bad.”
Of the many gambles Mr Putin is accused of taking, the attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England in 2018 ranks high. Even 15 months on from the nerve agent attack which London blames on Moscow, Mr Putin bristles and says it is time to move on.
“Listen, all this fuss about spies and counterspies, it is not worth serious interstate relations. This spy story, as we say, it is not worth five kopecks.”
While the nerve agent attack did not kill Mr Skripal or his daughter, a member of the public died after coming into contact with a perfume bottle containing the nerve agent novichok, which British officials say was manufactured in Russia.
“The list of accusations and allegations against one another could go on and on . . . We need to just leave it alone and let security agencies deal with it,” says the Russian leader.
The same disdain in the face of international criticism surfaces in relation to Russia’s backing for President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela who has installed an effective dictatorship. Mr Putin denies that Russia is directly involved in propping up Mr Maduro, arguing this is one more Russophobic conspiracy theory propagated by the west. The only presence of Russians are military contractors servicing defence assets, he says, adding that more could be sent.
Mr Putin immediately raises the toppling of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi by western powers and the ensuing civil war: “So why should we do the same in Venezuela? Do we want to revert to gunboat diplomacy? What do we need it for? Is it necessary to humiliate Latin American nations so much in the modern world and impose forms of government or leaders from the outside?”
The Russian leader insists this is a matter for Venezuelans to resolve for themselves. As for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognised by the US and other western governments as the legitimate president, Mr Putin says: “He may be just wonderful, and his plans are good. But is it enough that he entered a square and proclaimed himself president?”
A popular uprising in Russia — encouraged by the west — is the stuff of nightmares for Mr Putin. Having witnessed first hand the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union, he has long harboured suspicions of western conspiracies to undermine his regime. The colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the US-led interventions in Iraq and Libya, have further convinced him of malign intentions.
For now, Mr Putin looks politically formidable. But his regime’s weakness lies in the economy, with stubbornly low growth and years of falling real incomes.
“But the most important task we need to achieve is to change the structure of the economy and secure a substantial growth of labour productivity through modern technologies.”
Such a goal has long eluded an economy heavily dependent on oil and gas. Russian citizens are feeling the pinch through higher taxes and an unpopular increase in the pension age which triggered a fall in Mr Putin’s trust rating to a 13-year low this spring. But rather than increasing spending, Mr Putin is building a war chest.
International reserves stand at about $500bn, according to the Russian central bank. “We need to create a safety net that would let us feel confident . . . Do not think that this money is just sitting on the shelf. No, it creates certain guarantees for Russia’s economic stability in the midterm.”
This is an expensive insurance policy, but it comes amid the threat of further US sanctions against Russia, which since 2014 has found itself increasingly cut off from western capital markets.
Just this week the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives approved a draft law that would sanction entities involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany — a move that would be a blow against critical energy exports.
Believing himself surrounded by real and potential enemies, Mr Putin has routinely chosen strength and aggression over compromise and restraint. His proudest accomplishment, he admits, is the restoration of the power of the Russian state after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union, an event he describes as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century”.
Mr Putin has no yearning for the communism of the past, where, he says: “life was difficult”. The tragedy, he says, was the dispersal of ethnic Russians across the newly-independent successor states of the USSR.
“25m ethnic Russians found themselves living outside the Russian Federation. Listen, is this not a tragedy? A huge one! And family relations? Jobs? Travel? It was nothing but a disaster,”
Throughout the two decades of his leadership, Mr Putin has expended blood and treasure in efforts to rectify what he sees a historical wrong. His favourite leader, he declares, is Peter the Great. A towering bronze statue of the visionary tsar looms over his ceremonial desk in the cabinet room.
Peter the Great created the Russian empire around the turn of the 18th century with a series of foreign wars that conquered land from Finland and the Baltic states in the north, to the Black Sea in the south. This is the sphere of influence that Mr Putin believes Moscow must protect at all costs; hence his visceral opposition to Nato’s expansion eastward up to Russia’s borders.
Of Peter the Great, Mr Putin says: “He will live as long as his cause is alive.”
Mr Putin cannot yet claim to be a grand domestic reformer on the scale of his hero. Nor has he shown any sign of developing a clear succession strategy. The constitution requires him to stand down as president in 2024.
The 66-year-old says he has contemplated his succession “since 2000”, but if indeed he has, it is the most closely guarded secret in Russia and a matter of some sensitivity for the president himself.
As the clock ticks towards 1am, Mr Putin cannot resist one final jab, this time at the efforts of Britain’s ruling Conservative party to choose a new leader to succeed Theresa May. Either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will then become prime minister without a general election.
“It is different from what you have in Great Britain. We are a democratic country,” he says. “The choice is always made by the Russian people.”
In fact, Mr Putin inherited the presidency on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, when Boris Yeltsin stepped down from office prematurely and endorsed him as his successor.
When reminded of this, the president shrugs: “So what?”
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