Ahead of his first foreign visit since his re-election in March, Vladimir Putin gave a long interview to Austrian journalist Armin Wolf, who didn’t spare the long-time Russian leader many challenging, tough questions. At times, Putin responded irritably, accusing the reporter of trying to interrupt him. Meduza summarizes the contents of this interview. Read the Kremlin’s official English translation of the interview here.
What follows is a paraphrased summary of Putin’s remarks. Direct quotations are displayed “like this.”
Putin’s first foreign visit after his re-election will be to Austria because Moscow and Vienna are long-time allies, not because the Kremlin wishes to recognize the country for opposing EU sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of Russian diplomats. The political party United Russia signed a partnership agreement with the ring-wing popular Freedom Party of Austria for “purely pragmatic reasons”; Russia cooperates with those who wish to cooperate with Russia. It’s not Moscow’s goal to divide the European Union. Russia needs a strong and prosperous EU because the EU is Russia’s biggest trade and economic partner. “Why would we mess this up,” while 40 percent of Russia’s gold and foreign currency reserves are held in euros?
They say Prigozhin is Putin’s chef, and the man does indeed work in the restaurant business. But do you really believe that a restaurateur from St. Petersburg, “even if he has some hacker capabilities,” would be able to influence elections in the U.S. or some European country? “The West's information and political sphere has fallen low indeed” if a restaurateur could do all this! I know Prigozhin well, but his actions have nothing to do with the Russian state. In the U.S., they’ve got Soros, “who meddles in everything all over the world.” Ask the U.S. State Department: Why does he do this? “The State Department will tell you that it doesn’t have anything to do with this — that it’s a private matter for Mr. Soros. Well with us it’s Mr. Prigozhin’s private matter.”
Russia and the U.S. still haven’t held a bilateral summit because of America’s “continuing heated domestic political battle.” Trump is being attacked from all sides, and “now the congressional campaigning has started, and then the next presidential election is around the corner.” Moscow shares President Trump’s concerns about a new arms race, but Russia didn’t start this race,
Russia will do everything possible to deescalate the situation in the Korean peninsula. North Korea, after all, is Russia’s neighbor, and its nuclear test site is just 190 kilometers (118 miles) from the Russian border. Moscow has high hopes for the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. “The road to North Korea’s denuclearization should be a two-way street.” If Kim Jong-un says he’s ready to cancel future nuclear tests, then “the other side must take certain tangible, clear steps.”
Russian experts aren’t being allowed to participate in the international investigation, and Moscow still can’t get answers to questions “related to the activities of Ukrainian military aviation in the area at that time.” Some countries believe that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile. “I’m afraid I must disappoint and upset you, as official representatives of Malaysian Airlines recently said they don’t see Russia’s involvement in this terrible incident.” Both sides in the conflict in Ukraine are using Soviet-made and Russian-made weapons. In the 2000s, a Russian civilian aircraft was shot down by the Ukrainian army during military exercises. Ukraine completely denied its involvement in the incident, but later it was forced to admit its responsibility. Why should we believe the Ukrainian authorities now?
There are no conditions under which Russia will ever return Crimea to Ukraine. Kiev witnessed an unconstitutional armed coup. The Russian army’s presence in Crimea was to protect Moscow’s naval base there, and it was always legal. Russian troops ensured that an independent referendum on secession was possible. Is a popular referendum the same thing as annexation? If so, it also applies to Kosovo’s vote on self-determination after the invasion of NATO forces.
Russian specialists found no evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons against the people of Douma. Moscow’s experts on the ground encountered people who admitted to participating in a staged attack. Western countries claim that chemical weapons were used, but Moscow “considers this to be fake news that was used as a pretext for launching missile strikes.” The international coalition’s attack against Syria was armed aggression and a violation of international law. The West was trying to create conditions to prevent a full investigation into the Douma incident.
Moscow doesn’t embark on adventurism abroad to justify domestic problems. Russia has endured several major challenges since 2012. Yes, there have been international sanctions and restrictions, but more importantly there’s been a twofold drop in the prices on Russia’s traditional exports. The country has managed the most important thing: preserving and reinforcing Russia’s macroeconomic stability. Real wages have fallen, but the number of Russians living below the poverty line has been cut in half since 2000. Today’s inflation rate, 2.5 percent, is the lowest in modern Russian history. The country’s gold and foreign currency reserves are also growing, and foreign direct investment has doubled.
You can find rebels everywhere. In Europe, there are also people with extreme political views who try to manipulate social issues, including issues related to corruption. “We don’t want anyone foisting on us another, or a second, or a third, or a fifth Saakashvili.” Russia needs people with a positive agenda, not people with single-digit trust levels. “Why would we need clowns like Saakashvili?” (Putin once again refrained from uttering Alexey Navalny’s name.)