BILD: Mr President, 25 years ago, we celebrated the end of the Cold War. Now we have just had a year of more crises and wars than ever before. What went so horribly wrong in the relationship between Russia and the West?
Vladimir Putin: That is the big question. We have done everything wrong.
Putin: From the beginning, we failed to overcome Europe’s division. 25 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.
BILD: What do you mean? When did this development escalate?
Putin: Back in 2007, many people criticized me for my talk at the Munich Security Conference. But what did I say there? I merely pointed out that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Many German politicians had also warned about such a step, for instance Egon Bahr.
(Putin has his spokesperson hand him a thin folder. It contains transcripts of talks that, among others, Bahr led in Moscow back then. ”This had never been published,” Putin says.)
BILD: What kind of talks were these?
Putin: Over the course of the year 1990, the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had many conversations with President Gorbachev and other Soviet officials.
(Now Putin reads out, in Russian, the transcript of an exchange with Egon Bahr. His index finger follows each line on the paper.)
Putin: This, for instance, is what Egon Bahr said on June 26, 1990: ”If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Bahr, a wise man, had a very concrete suggestion as to how this danger could be averted: the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures. Bahr even said: If Russia agreed to the NATO expansion, he would never come to Moscow again. (Putin laughs quietly.)
BILD: Did he ever come back to Moscow?
Putin: (still laughing) To be honest, I don’t know.
BILD: But seriously: the central European states wanted to become NATO members by their own volition. They expected security for themselves from this step.
Putin: I have heard this a thousand times. Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate. But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east.
BILD: Should NATO just have said no? It wouldn’t have survived that, because…
(Putin asks back, suddenly in German, ignoring the interpreter): Why not?
BILD: Because it is part of NATO’s rules and self-understanding to accept free countries as members if they want to and if they fulfill certain conditions.
Putin: (still in German) Who has written these rules? The politicians, right?
(The President then switches back to Russian.)
Putin: Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was the political will. But people didn’t want to.
BILD: Why, do you think, was this the case?
Putin: NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But now they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.
BILD: But the USA’s missile defense shield – should it ever be installed – is merely defensive, isn’t it?
Putin: In 2009, US President Obama said that the missile defense only serves as protection from Iranian nuclear missiles. But now there is an international treaty with Iran that bans Tehran from developing a potential military nuclear project. The International Atomic Energy Agency is controlling this, the sanctions against Iran are lifted – but still the US are working on their missile defense system. Only recently a treaty with Spain was signed, a deployment in Romania is being prepared, the same will happen in Poland in 2018, and in Turkey, a radar unit is being installed. What is the point of this?
BILD: You have now explained, in detail, the mistakes that, from Russia’s perspective, the West has made. Has Russia itself not made any mistakes?
Putin: Yes, we have made mistakes! We were too late. If we had presented our national interests more clearly from the beginning, the world would still be in balance today. After the demise of the Soviet Union, we had many problems of our own for which no one was responsible but ourselves: the economic downfall, the collapse of the welfare system, the separatism, and of course the terror attacks that shook our country. In this respect, we do not have to look for guilty parties abroad.
BILD: In your last interview with BILD, ten years ago, you said that Germany and Russia had never been as close as in 2005. What is left today of this special relationship?
Putin: The mutual sympathy of our peoples is and will remain the foundation of our relations.
BILD: And nothing has changed?
(Before speaking the next sentence, the President starts to sneer.)
Putin: Even with the help of anti-Russian propaganda in the mass media, Germany has not succeeded in damaging this sympathy…
BILD: Do you mean BILD?
Putin: I do not mean you personally. But of course Germany’s media are heavily influenced by the country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
BILD: That’s news to us. So what is the state of the German-Russian relationship today?
Putin: We had a very good situation in 2005. The common budget had a volume of 80 billion dollars per year. Thousands of jobs were created in Germany by Russian investments. At the same time, a large number of German companies invested in Russia. There were countless cultural and social contacts. And today? The trade volume is half as much, only about 40 billion Euros.
BILD: Would the Munich Security Conference be a good opportunity to improve the mood?
Putin: I will not come to Munich.
BILD: What do you think about the theory that there are two Vladimir Putins? One, until 2007, the friend of the West, close friends with Chancellor Schröder. And the other one after that: the cold warrior.
Putin: I have never changed. I feel as young as I always did and remain close friends with Gerhard Schröder. But things are different in the international relations between states. In this respect, I am neither a friend, nor bride or groom. I am the president of 146 million Russians. I have to represent their interests. We are willing to settle this without any conflicts and to search for compromises on the basis of international law.
BILD: In the year 2000, you said that the most important lesson from the Cold War is that there should never be any confrontation in Europe again. Today this confrontation is back. When will we get the first Putin back, the friend of the West?
Putin: Once again, I’m still the same. Take the fight against terrorism: after the attacks of September 11, I was the first to side with US President Bush. And now, after the attacks in Paris, I have done the same with the President of France, Hollande. Terrorism threatens us all.
BILD: Does the threat posed by Islamist terrorism not create a new commonality between Russia and the West?
Putin: Yes, we should cooperate much more closely in fighting terrorism, which is a great challenge. Even if we do not always agree on every aspect, nobody should take this as an excuse to declare us as enemies.
BILD: Since you are talking about a great challenge: is Crimea, by comparison, really worth damaging Russia’s relationship with the West that severely?
Putin: What do you mean by ”Crimea”?
BILD: The one-sided movement of borders in a Europe that is based, in particular, on respecting state borders.
Putin: For me, it means: human beings.
BILD: Human beings?
Putin: The nationalists’ coup in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in February 2014 has hugely scared 2.5 million Russian people living on Crimea. So what did we do? We have not gone to war, we have not fired, not a single person was killed. Our soldiers have merely prevented the Ukrainian troops on Crimea from impeding the freedom of expression of the people. In the referendum – which was still decided to take place by the Crimea’s old parliament – the majority of citizens voted for belonging to Russia. This is democracy, the people’s will.
BILD: But one cannot simply challenge European state borders.
Putin: For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes.
BILD: What about international law?
Putin: Of course one always has to follow international law. This was also the case in Crimea. According to the Charter of the United Nations, every people has the right to self-determination. Just take Kosovo: back then, UN bodies decided that Kosovo should become independent of Serbia and that the interests of Serbia’s central government had to be subordinated. You can read that in all the records, also in the German ones.
BILD: But prior to that, the Serbian central government had waged war against the Kosovo Albanians and had driven thousands of them away. That’s a difference.
Putin: The fact is that there was a long war in which Serbia and its capital Belgrade were bombarded and attacked with missiles. It was a military intervention of the West and NATO against the then rump Yugoslavia. Now I’m asking you: if the Kosovars have the right to self-determination, why should people on Crimea not have it? I would say: everyone should comply with uniform international rules and not want to change them any time one feels like it.
BILD: If, in your view, there has been no violation of international law on Crimea, how do you explain to the citizens of Russia the severe economic sanctions of the West and the European Union?
Putin: The Russian population is absolutely clear about the situation. Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth. I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just. The West’s sanctions are not aimed at helping Ukraine, but at geo-politically pushing Russia back. They are foolish and are merely harming both sides.
BILD: How difficult are the sanctions for Russia?
Putin: Concerning our possibilities on the international financial markets, the sanctions are severely harming Russia. But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices for energy. We suffer dangerous revenue losses in our export of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere. But the whole thing also has a positive side: if you earn so many petrodollars – as we once did – that you can buy anything abroad, this slows down developments in your own country.
BILD: It is claimed that the Russian economy has suffered severely.
Putin: We are currently gradually stabilizing our economy. Last year, the gross domestic product had dropped by 3.8 per cent. Inflation is approximately 12.7 per cent. The trade balance, however, is still positive. For the first time in many years, we are exporting significantly more goods with a high added value, and we have more than 300 billion dollars in gold reserves. Several programs for modernizing the economy are being carried out.
BILD: In 2015, you talked extensively about Crimea and the crisis in eastern Ukraine with Chancellor Angela Merkel. What is your relationship like today?
Putin: We have a professional relationship. I have met her seven times last year, and we were calling each other on the phone at least 20 times. 2016 is the year of the German-Russian youth exchange, so the relations are moving on.
BILD: Do you trust Angela Merkel?
Putin: Yes, I trust her, she is a very open person. She is also subject to certain constraints and limitations. But she is honestly trying to settle the crisis, also in the south-east of Ukraine. However, what the European Union is doing with those sanctions is nothing but a theatre of the absurd.
BILD: Theatre of the absurd? In eastern Ukraine, not everything is as it should be before the sanctions are lifted.
Putin: Anything that is missing in the implementation of the Minsk Agreement is – without any exception – up to the Kiev central government of Ukraine. You cannot demand something of Moscow that, in fact, the rulers in Kiev have to deliver. The most important aspect is the constitutional reform, Point 11 of the Minsk Agreement.
(Putin asks for another small file und reads out Point 11 of the agreement in Russian. His index finger is close to the narrowly printed paper. Then he continues to talk.)
Putin: The constitutional reform is supposed to give autonomy to eastern Ukraine and to be adopted by the end of 2015. This has not happened, and the year is over. That’s not Russia’s fault.
BILD: Was the constitutional reform not supposed to be carried out once the separatists supported by Russia and the central government’s troops in eastern Ukraine have stopped shooting at each other?
Putin: No. It does not say so here. First, the constitution has to be reformed. Only then can confidence building and border security follow. Look at this.
(Putin passes the tacked papers over the table. ”It’s all in English, you can keep it,” he says. ”Thank you,” the BILD editors reply. Putin, now in German: ”You’re welcome”).
BILD: Do you think that Angela Merkel has also not properly read and understood the Minsk Agreement? She has just supported the idea of extending the sanctions against Russia.
Putin: The Chancellor and the European partners would be well-advised to address the problems in eastern Ukraine more thoroughly. Maybe they have too many domestic problems of their own at the moment. At least Germany and France have recently criticized that the Ukrainian central government has limited certain parts of the autonomy regulations to three years. They were supposed to last permanently.
BILD: After your many talks and contacts: is there anything you admire about the Chancellor?
Putin: Admire? No, I have never said that. I still appreciate her as a very professional and open person.
BILD: When the Chancellor visited you here in Sochi in 2007, you brought your dog Koni to the meeting. Did you know that the Chancellor is a bit frightened of dogs, so that this would be quite unpleasant for her?
Putin: No, I did not know that. I wanted to make her happy. When I learned that she does not like dogs, I apologized, of course.
BILD: Mr President, by now the international community has virtually ostracized Russia. You are no longer allowed to participate in the G8 meetings of the leaders of the most important industrial nations. How much are you hurt by this measure?
Putin: In the past, I had the overall impression that Russia was never a full-fledged member of the G8 group. The foreign ministers, for example, were still meeting in the old format of the seven most important states, the G7, without Russia.
BILD: And what did you think when the president of the superpower USA, Barack Obama, mocked Russia as a regional power”?
Putin: To be honest, I did not take that seriously. Of course, every head of state and government in the world is allowed to have his opinion and to voice it. Barack Obama also says America is the „chosen nation”. I do not take that seriously, either.
BILD: Does Russia not want to be a superpower?
Putin: No, we do not claim the role of a superpower for ourselves. That is far too expensive and unnecessary. We are still one of the leading economic nations in the world. As far as the concept of a ”regional power” is concerned, I would recommend taking a look at a map of the world. In the West, our region is Europe. In the east, Japan and the USA with Alaska are our neighbors. In the north, we share a border with Canada over the Arctic Ocean. If you want to lower the significance of Russia in the world, you actually just want to elevate your own country. That is a mistake.
BILD: Will you try to bring back Russia into the G8 meetings?
Putin: In 2014, we invited everyone to have a G8 meeting in Russia. It was the others who did not come. Russia is always willing to participate in the G8 meetings again, but we have not bought any tickets for the journey yet.
BILD: How valuable are the G8 meetings for you? How much do you miss them?
Putin: Overall, the G8 meetings were quite useful, since it is always good to exchange alternative opinions and to listen to Russia. We are still carrying out this exchange with the G20 states, the APEC states from the Asia-Pacific region and with the emerging nations (BRICS).
BILD: What is the state of the relationship with NATO? The, back then, specifically created NATO-Russia Council is on hold.
Putin: We have also not frozen this cooperation. Russia would like to cooperate with NATO again. There are plenty of reasons and opportunities. But it is like in real life: a happy love needs to be reciprocated. If one does not want to cooperate with us, then fine, we will leave it.
BILD: It is not only the lack of cooperation that gives rise to concerns. Now there is also a direct confrontation with a NATO state. Turkey has recently shot down a Russian jet fighter in the Turkish-Syrian border region. Can such an incident – accidentally, so to say – set the whole world on fire?
Putin: Turkey is part of NATO, but it was not attacked. NATO therefore does not have to protect Turkey, and our problems with Turkey have nothing to do with the NATO membership of that country. The Turkish leadership had better apologize for shooting the plane down, which was clearly a war crime, instead of calling NATO’s headquarters. It’s strange, isn’t it? If Turkey is pursuing its own interests in the region, neither Germany nor NATO have to support the country, correct?
BILD: How big is the risk of such an incident escalating?
Putin: I very much hope that such events do not grow into large military conflicts. But if Russia’s interests and security are threatened, Russia will resist. Everyone needs to know that.
BILD: You mentioned the region, that is, the Near and Middle East. Under your leadership, Russia has also intervened in Syria by military means. Many Western experts and politicians are saying that the Russian air strikes are not aimed at the Islamist terror militia ISIS, but at the rebels fighting against the Syrian ruler Assad. In short: does Russia bomb the wrong people?
(The interpreter translates Putin’s Russian reply into German with the words: ”You are saying everything the wrong way.” Putin laughs and intervenes by saying in German himself: ”That’s all lies, I have said.” Then he continues in Russian and is immediately serious again.)
Putin: The alleged video evidence for this claim was developed before Russian forces even began their mission. We can prove that, even though our critics refuse to believe it. And, by the way, what about the US pilots who bombed a hospital of ”Doctors Without Borders” in Kunduz, Afghanistan? Many people died there, but the Western press is not saying anything about it.
BILD: No, there was extensive coverage in many newspapers and magazines.
Putin: Well, maybe it was mentioned a few times in the press, but only because foreigners were among the victims. Then the incident was quickly forgotten again. And who still remembers the weddings in Afghanistan, where hundreds of innocent civilians were killed by an American bombardment? Our pilots do not bomb civil targets, except if you call the thousands of tanker trucks – virtually a living pipeline – a civil target. Those we bomb, yes, but so do the Americans and the French.
BILD: The Syrian President Assad bombs his own population and is responsible for many thousands of deaths. That is a fact. Is Assad your ally? If so, why?
Putin: That is a tricky question. I also think that President Assad has done much wrong over the course of this conflict. But the conflict would never have become so big if it had not been fueled by outside of Syria – with weapons, money, and fighters. Who is responsible for that? The Assad government, which is trying to hold the country together? Or the rebels who want to tear it apart and fight against this government?
BILD: What is Russia’s aim in the Syria conflict?
Putin: I can tell you what we do not want: we do not want Syria to end like Iraq or Libya. Look at Egypt: one has to praise President Sisi for taking over the responsibility and power in an emergency situation, in order to stabilize the country. Therefore one should try anything to support the legitimate rulers in Syria. But this does not mean that everything can just stay the same. Once the stabilization of the country has progressed, a constitutional reform has to follow, and then early presidential elections. Only the Syrian people can decide who should govern the country in the future.
BILD: Do you seriously think that Assad is still the legitimate ruler in Syria? He is bombing his own people.
Putin: Assad does not fight against his own population, but against those who take armed action against the government. If the civil population is then also harmed, it is not Assad’s fault, but primarily the fault of the insurgents and their foreign supporters. Once again: this is not supposed to mean that everything is fine in Syria or that Assad is doing everything right.
BILD: If there actually were presidential elections, and Assad loses, would Russia grant him asylum?
Putin: It is too early for that. But it was surely more difficult to grant Mr Snowden asylum in Russia than it would be in the case of Assad. But first the Syrian population has to be able to vote, and then we will see if Assad would have to leave his country if he loses the election. In any case, this is not a prerequisite. Until then, Russia will fight ISIS and those anti-Assad rebels who cooperate with ISIS. At the same time, we will support Assad’s forces fighting against ISIS – but also anti-Assad forces that are fighting against ISIS. That is, admittedly, quite complicated.
BILD: To what degree does the emergence of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia further complicate the Syria conflict?
Putin: This conflict indeed makes everything much more complicated: solving the Syria question, fighting together against terrorism, ending the refugee crisis. I do not want to speculate whether a full-blown conflict between these two states is to be expected. Russia maintains very good relations with both – Iran as well as Saudi Arabia. But it was a mistake of the leaders in Saudi Arabia to execute the Shiite cleric. He was not fighting with arms in his hands. In Russia, capital punishment was not even carried out in the worst times of terrorism, in the 90s and 2000s. On the other hand, it was also absolutely inappropriate to storm the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran.
BILD: Mr President, one last question: when Russia hosted the Winter Games in 2014, there was a lot of criticism beforehand concerning the state of the local democracy. Do you think there will be a similar debate prior to the FIFA World Cup 2018?
(After translating for almost two hours without a break, the interpreter is quite exhausted. Listening to him, it seems as if his translation of the question is rather cumbersome. This leads to a brief banter about the two languages, German and Russian.)
BILD: Is Russian more complicated than German?
Putin: The German language is more precise. But Russian is more versatile, colorful. Of course, this richness can also be found in the great German writers.
(Putin begins to spontaneously recite in German: ”Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, warum ich so traurig bin. Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten, das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.” This is, almost literally, the beginning of Heinrich Heine’s ”Loreley”, written in 1824, a German classic. Then Putin abruptly and impassively continues in Russian.)
Putin: Concerning democracy in Russia, I think: the powers like to talk about ”freedom” in order to wash the population’s brains. Democracy means the power of the people and the possibility of influencing the governing parties. Russia had had enough experience with a one-party-system – we will not go back there. We will further develop and perfect our democracy. 77 parties are, by now, approved for parliamentary elections. Most governors are elected directly.
BILD: But the political conditions in Russia seem to differ from a European democracy.
Putin: There is no uniform, global model for democracy. What you mean by democracy differs from county to country. This conception is different in India and in the USA and in Russia or Europe. In the USA, for example, twice in history a politician became President because he had more electoral votes, regardless of the fact that his competitor had more votes from the citizens. Does that mean the USA are not a democracy? Of course they are. And concerning the attempts to abuse sports or the World Cup in Russia for dirty political games: this is really stupid and wrong. Even if states sometimes have problems with each other, arts and sports should not suffer from that. Arts and sports are there to bring the people together – and not to divide them.
BILD: Mr President, thank you very much for this conversation.