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Analysis & Opinion
12.09.08 Three Hours With Vladimir Putin
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

SOCHI, Southern Russia/Concluding more than three hours of discussion over lunch at a state resort, where many bitter words were said about the West’s consistent unwillingness to accommodate Russian national interests, Putin suggested that the members of the Valdai Discussion Club stand up to commemorate the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States. “Back then we supported the United States,” Putin said, apparently emphasizing the difference of the current crisis, which some commentators have described as having a similar effect on Russia’s foreign policy as September 11th had on the American one. “Let’s not forget about this common threat to us - terrorism.”

Putin revealed that before Russia moved troops en masse into Georgia, he gave several hours to the U.S. administration to react, but the latter remained silent on what he called “Georgian aggression.” In fact, Putin several times accused the United States of arming Georgia, and thus pushing it toward the conflict. On August 8, after Georgian troops attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali at night, he spoke twice to U.S. President George Bush in Beijing. First, at 11:30 a.m. local time, when, he said, Bush had told him: “Nobody wants a war.” Then, during the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, which began at 8 p.m., they spoke again.

“It would be wrong if I tell you exactly what was said, but it became clear to me from the evening conversation that the United States had done nothing and is not willing to do anything,” Putin said.

In the afternoon on August 8, Russian troops just took control of the Roki Tunnel, which connects South Ossetia and the Russian republic of North Ossetia, Putin said. The real deployment began only on August 9.

Putin said he was watching Western television channels in Beijing, where nothing was reported about the Georgian attack on South Ossetia. “I am astonished how powerful the propagandistic machine of the so-called ‘West’ is,” he said emotionally. “It’s amazing!”

He rejected the criticism of Russia’s disproportionate response. “Should we have this time also wiped the bloody snot from our face and bowed our head?” he said, indirectly referring to Russia’s humiliations over the past years. “What did you want – that we wave pocket knives?”

Low expectations

Putin also revealed that the decision to recognize the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states might have been made in the first hours of the conflict. Answering the question from Bobo Lo, the director of Russia and China study programs at the Center for European Reform in London, on whether Russia was disappointed with the Chinese reaction, Putin was rather positive about Beijing’s cautious stance. He said that in his conversations with the Chinese officials in Beijing, he told them that he understood China’s internal and foreign policy interests. “We do not expect anything from you on this issue,” Putin claimed that he told his Chinese colleagues. “We do not expect anything from anyone and are not asking anyone for anything. If somebody helps – we will take it into account.”

Yet Putin dismissed allegations of Russia’s neo-imperialist drive and attempted to disperse fears of a military conflict with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula. The percentage of Russia’s military spending in relation to its overall GDP will not grow, since Russia’s GDP itself is 25 times smaller than that of the United States. Unlike Georgia, where a civil war was fought on ethnic grounds, there is nothing of the kind in Ukraine. The talk of a return to the Cold War is also hollow, he said, because there is no ideological confrontation between Russia and the West.

Speaking to the group earlier in the day, South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity said that his republic will eventually seek unification with North Ossetia as a part of Russia. But Putin dismissed such plans. "For the time being, we consider recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states to be both necessary and sufficient," he said.

Putin reserved many unpleasant words for the “West” as a concept in itself. He said that all the main decisions – whether on the invasion of Iraq or the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in Europe – are made singlehandedly in Washington, and then the rest of NATO members are pushed to endorse them. The European Union, too, is “to a large extent an instrument of U.S. foreign policy,” except that there are many in Europe, who, like Putin’s “friend” and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, think differently. “That is why we cooperate with Europe in the Caucasus,” he said. “We would very much want to see European observers there.”

Presenting Russia as a threat to Europe is a method of consolidating the Western alliance, Putin said. “Why horde [nations] with a whip into the ‘West’ and enforce discipline, while decisions are made singlehandedly [in Washington]?” Putin said.

Putin listed numerous examples of how the West failed to accommodate Russian interests or respond to Russia’s friendly moves long before the Russian-Georgian conflict. Despite promises from the U.S. administration to lift the Jackson–Vanick amendment restricting trade with Russia, the Cold War relic is still in place, as are other prescriptive lists limiting high tech exports to Russia, Putin said. The Bush administration had asked Moscow to write off Iraq’s $12 billion debt and Russia did, but Russia’s LUKoil company was nonetheless kicked out of Iraq’s South Kurna oil field. In the meantime, U.S. State Secretary Condoleeza Rice is travelling to Greece and other countries asking them not to buy Russian oil and gas. “Is it normal to persuade other countries not to trade with us?” Putin exclaimed indignantly.

But despite his obviously bitter reaction to how the West and particularly the United States had treated Russia both before and during the Caucasus crisis, Putin spoke of Iran and North Korea in a “business as usual” tone, suggesting areas where cooperation was possible even in the current tense situation. He also surprisingly endorsed the idea of total elimination of nuclear weapons, which has been circulated by a group of activists in Washington. When asked about it by Robert Blackwill of the Rand Corporation, Putin said that one, two or three years ago he would have considered it “absolutely impossible.”

“Today I consider it almost realistic,” he said, explaining that since economically developed countries such as the United States, Russia and some other countries are capable today of producing conventional weapons of sufficient strength to dissuade any aggressor, there will be no need for the nuclear “balance of fear.” Putin said that in his opinion Russia should talk to everybody internationally, except Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

A jolly good fellow

Throughout the meeting, participants kept asking while Putin kept answering foreign and security policy questions that are the domain of the presidential office. Only once he referred a question to President Dmitry Medvedev, with whom the group meets on Friday. The exception was made in response to a question from a participant who lobbied for the Defense Minister to be sent to a conference on security in Asia.

Once confronted by Timothy Colton of Harvard University’s Davis Center on how he felt in his new capacity, the former president said he was “sorry” that Medvedev had to handle the Caucasus crisis. “I think that the West has made a big mistake,” Putin said. “He is smart, modern, liberal. He is a good fellow. And he was forced to take these steps – introduce troops [to Georgia], recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”

“I have never imposed anything on him,” Putin said. “Of course, we have consulted. But the decisions that have been made are his decisions.” As prime minister, Putin said, he is capable of working more on diversifying the Russian economy and spend less time travelling abroad “to prove that white is white and black is black” – a presidential function he grew tired of.

Putin tried to put a good spin on the outflow of foreign capital from Russia, which resulted in the drop of Russian stock indexes. He said that up to 50 billion dollars of foreign investment in Russia expected by the end of the year is sufficient – otherwise the economy gets overheated with cash, stimulating inflation – the main threat to the Russian economy, according to Putin. The decline of the ruble rate is “good for exporters” he said. As to how long Putin planned to work as prime minister, he gave a short reply: “As God grants.”

Tough but not confrontational

The participants of the Valdai Club – an international conference of Russia experts and newspaper commentators co-sponsored by the state owned RIA Novosti news agency, independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) and their daughter publications Russia Profile, Russia in Global Affairs, and The Moscow News – had their fifth annual meeting with Putin. They flew into Sochi after holding discussions in Rostov-on-Don and a short stopover in Grozny for a tour of the reconstruction of Chechnya’s capital and a visit to its president Ramzan Kadyrov.

After the meeting, the Russia experts were -- now routinely -- impressed with Putin’s communication skills. “The very comfortable and assured manner of Vladimir Putin suggests that he is comfortable in the post of prime minister and he is looking to fill it as long as God permits,” said Ariel Cohen, senior fellow at Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation. He said that now, when Russia and the West are on the brink of a serious crisis and confrontation comparable to the worst pages of Cold War history, Putin’s rhetoric was “less alarming” than Cohen had expected, and different from what he heard from some senior Russian policy advisers.

Wellsely College and Harvard Professor Marshall Goldman, on the other hand, felt that Putin had “divorced himself from the club” of world leaders. Goldman summarized Putin’s position as “we did no wrong, we did everything right, Saakashvili has to go, we won’t talk to Saakashvili.”

“What I don’t think he appreciates is that the more he attacks Saakashvili, the more people [in Georgia] are going to rally around him,” Goldman added.

Former British ambassador to Russia Sir Roderick Lyne said his impression was that Putin was keen to continue relations with the West. “The bottom line that I heard was not an ‘I want confrontation’ message,” Lyne said.
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