Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev talks about war
In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, the Russian prime minister talks about why the West is wrong on Syria and the refugees, why his country is right, and how to avoid World War III.
At his office in the Kremlin, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev explains what Russia is doing to overcome its economic crisis, why the country is intervening in the Syrian civil war, and why he thinks it’s up to the West to restore relations with his country. He also raises the specter of a new world war erupting over the Middle East. The following are excerpts from a one-hour interview. The full transcript is available on the Handelsblatt Global Edition website.
Angela Merkel is the one western leader still talking regularly to Vladimir Putin. Yes, the Russian President regularly holds talks with the Chancellor. They only discuss the situation in Ukraine. We no longer conduct the comprehensive dialogue we used to.
Perhaps Europe no longer trusts Russia after the annexation of Crimea. There’s nothing left of this trust now. Of course, opinions may differ, including on the developments in Ukraine. But why derail absolutely all contacts, from political to economic ones? Look, the Soviet Union was not the easiest partner and not the friendliest country for Europe and for other countries, yet parliamentary speakers were never declared persona non grata before, not even during the most difficult conflicts, like during the Cuban missile crisis or the Afghan war.
How can we overcome the crisis in relations between Russia and the West? It’s not Russia who must walk the greater part of this path, because it was you who told us that we are bad; that our decisions contradict international law; that you won’t invite us anywhere; that you wouldn’t trade with us; and that you would introduce sanctions against us. Now that I’ve said all of this, tell me, has this changed Russia’s stance at least one tiny bit? Regrettably, we are on the wrong path. But it is our European partners, and first of all the leaders of the EU countries who must walk the greater part of this path. I say this openly so as to avoid any misunderstandings.
What is Russia doing to help stop the civil war in Syria? Russia became involved in the Syrian conflict in order to secure its own national interests. Obviously, we would not be doing it had the Syrian leadership not requested our help and military support. It is not an unlimited but a temporary operation. And it is a local operation involving the use of aircraft and, in some cases, missiles. That is, we don’t want to take part in the land operation; we’ve only sent our advisers there. In other words, we consider this to be a localized, though very important mission.
What would a common solution to the Syrian crisis look like? We cannot agree on Ukraine and on some other issues, for example ballistic missile defense. And there are other problems in our relations. But why can’t we agree on Syria? Those [terrorist] bastards are doing their vile deeds everywhere now, including in Russia and in Europe. But our Western partners refuse to maintain contacts with us, curtailing them whenever they can. Ties at the level of defense departments are only sporadic, and they don’t want to create a coalition, claiming that we are fighting the wrong forces.
But not all those who oppose the Syrian government are terrorists. Show us the maps, show us where the so-called moderate opposition is located. We remember how it was in Afghanistan, when we were told that there are good and bad Taliban groups, and that we should befriend the good Taliban and the bad ones should be
Western leaders once thought Medvedev might push reforms. Instead Russia has cracked down on opposition and dissent.
destroyed. And then there was 9/11 and other tragic events. It’s all very complicated. And it’s not a fact that those who describe themselves as moderate are actually so. But we are willing to discuss all of this. President Putin has told this to his partners again and again. This means we must sit down at the same table, but our partners avoid this. Meanwhile, the problem has developed into a migration crisis.
The refugee crisis is probably the biggest challenge Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War.
I must say what I think on this issue. My European colleagues may not like this, but I believe that this is an all-out and total failure, an all-round fiasco of the European immigration policy. Complete washout. Couldn’t they have foreseen this several years ago? Are their analysts this bad?
What doyou mean?
I’m sorry, but flinging doors open, as they did in Europe, and inviting everyone who wants to come in is stupid, if not worse. And what now? A huge number of people from Syria and neighboring countries are entering Europe. Who are these people? Some are fleeing the war, and there are many of them. They want to survive and, frankly, to receive the promised EU financial assistance. I think these allowances are approximately ten times larger than what these people earned in Syria. We are sorry for these people, but this is the EU’s decision. However, some of these people – and it’s not just a few strange individuals or utter scoundrels, but hundreds and possibly thousands – are entering Europe as potential time bombs, and they will fulfill their missions as robots when they are told to. It’s almost impossible to find them, for they all are peaceful civilians who are fleeing the war.
Some Arab countries are calling for ground operations against the Islamic State and for the United States to assume leadership.
Our estimate is negative because all ground operations, as a rule, lead to permanent wars. Look at what is going on in Afghanistan and a number of other countries. I don’t even mention the ill-fated Libya. A ground oper-
ation draws everyone taking part in it into a war. The Americans must consider whether or not they want a permanent war. Are they hoping for a quick victory? This doesn’t happen in reality, particularly in the Arab world. They have everyone fighting everyone. They don’t have a situation where there is al-Assad and his loyal forces and some antigovernment opposition. The reality is much more complex. This means that a war will last for years, if not decades. Why would anyone want that? We must make everyone sit down to the negotiating table, rather than start a new world war.
Russia also has problems at home with an economy hit by Western sanctions and the fall in oil and gas prices. How will Russia get out of this crisis?
The government budget is suffering of course but everything is relative. When I started working in Moscow, 70 to 75 percent of our budget came from oil and gas. Now it is 45 percent. So hydrocarbons are less important than they were.
Still, a core problem of the Russian economy is its dependence on oil.
I am often asked why, if Vladimir Putin and I have been in power for so long, have we not changed the economic structure of the country. That cannot be done over 15 years. It was a structure created over 50 or 60 years and we are in a period of two crises.
What is Russia doing to stimulate and diversify the economy?
In a situation where our economy is failing and foreign capital markets are closed to us, we have to use different tools. We have to subsidize credit because naturally interest rates are high. We need to help people obtain loans so ongoing projects are not stopped, and people do not end up on the street. We did this during the crises of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Now we are more experienced in handling it.
Will you require IMF aid again?
I believe the chances of our appealing to the IMF again are miniscule at best. We would like something different. Many of our problems are artificially created. It would be easier to address many of them if European capital markets were open to us.
Is Russia’s strategy to reorient its economy from Europe to Asia?
The European Union remains our principal trade partner. Yet the latest developments and the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific market prompt us to develop closer contacts. China is our strategic partner, and also all the Asia-Pacific countries. To be in contact with both Europe and Asia simultaneously is not a political decision but rather a pragmatic necessity. If our European colleagues determine to resume a normal partnership with us, we will gladly return to our one-time close cooperation in many areas.
We must make everyone sit down to the negotiating table, rather than start a new world war.
Vladimir Putin’s popularity has risen since Russia‘s incursions into Ukraine.
Human rights groups accuse Russia of deliberately targeting civilians in Syria.
An early associate of Vladimir Putin, Medvedev has been his loyal prime minister since 2012. Sven Afhüppe is Handelsblatt’s editor in chief. Mathias Brüggmann is the paper’s foreign editor.