When Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to talk, his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is never far away. So too it was on Wednesday of this week, when Mr. Putin called him for urgent talks on a multi-billion-dollar economic crisis plan for Russia. After jumping on a helicopter to speak with Mr. Putin, Mr. Medvedev took an hour to give an exclusive interview to Handelsblatt Editor in Chief Sven Afhüppe and International Correspondent Mathias Brüggmann in Moscow. In the interview Mr. Medvedev called on the West to drop sanctions against Russia, and in a controversial remark, raised the specter of World War III erupting in Syria. The Kremlin later softened the remark in a transcript posted on the Russian government website.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Prime Minister, the world seems beset by geopolitical crises that have no solution: Ukraine, Syria, Turkey. Is disorder the new world order?
Dmitry Medvedev: The world is a fragile thing, and in addition to man-made disasters, against which no one is safe, we are really not in the best stage in terms of ensuring international security. At any rate, my own experience tells me that we have known more productive times.
What has changed?
I think there is a combination of reasons. First, some of the national and regional threats, of which my country, for example, warned as early as 10 or 15 years ago, have turned, in effect, into global threats.
I remember our fight against terrorism in Russia’s Caucasus when we said that the people who fired at our military servicemen and police were members of foreign religious extremist organisations, no one was quite willing to listen to us. We were told that they were just people displeased with the regime and fed up with corruption and that they were fighting for freedom. They drew a distinction between extremists and insurgents. But let’s admit it honestly: We found passports on them from many countries, including, for example, Turkey. In some countries, especially in the Middle East, it was already dangerous to walk the streets.
Can you elaborate?
I remember very well my first impressions from a visit to Israel. It was perhaps in 1993, when I wasn’t involved in politics. I was an ordinary lawyer and a teacher at a law department. We had traveled to that country to see what it was like. Well, when everyone carries arms and tells you: “Keep in mind a bomb can explode at any time,” that was a disturbing impression. I thought then that they were all heroes living in that environment.
Today, regrettably, this refers to all of Europe. And this is, perhaps, the main problem. Today one cannot feel safe in any country in the world. This means that terrorism has become a real global threat, transforming itself from an ordinary criminal pursuit that sought to achieve certain goals, including those of an extremist nature, into something more. In a number of countries, terrorists regard themselves as legitimate authorities and rule these countries through terrorist methods. If you don’t like it, we’ll cut your head off. If you don’t like it, we’ll cut you into pieces. In the name of what? Either in the name of certain religious dogmas, or just because “we think this is the right way.” This is the primary threat that, let’s face it, society has failed to deal with.
How serious is the threat of terrorism for Europe?
We have a lot of problems of our own on the European continent. They are of an economic nature, although at one point we even learned to face them together. I remember well what was happening in 2008 and 2009, and how we came for the first G20 meeting, and how outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush told me that Wall Street was to blame for everything that had happened. The new president, Mr Obama, said: Look, we are sitting at the G20 table, we can come to terms, there are very different countries here – America, Russia, China, but we are discussing these problems together. This did work, but, regrettably, a lot has happened since then.
Yes, there are G20 meetings, but they are mostly formalities or result in recommendations that are not always followed. The close contact, this communication has been suspended and has been stopped. Is that good? I think it’s bad for our countries and our people, and for the economy. All of this has resulted in a situation where the European Union, individual E.U. countries and Russia have almost completely severed or at least seriously weakened their ties. Still, we have rather strong ties with Germany, but they are not what they used to be. Trade between Germany and Russia has slumped by 40 percent. Who has benefited from this? It makes me wonder.
Our chancellor, Angela Merkel, more than any other leader, still seeks contact with your president, Vladimir Putin.
Yes, the Russian President regularly holds talks with the Chancellor, but they concern a rather small group of issues. They only discuss the situation in Ukraine. It’s true that this is a very serious European problem. But that’s almost all they talk about. In some cases they discuss Syria. But we no longer conduct the comprehensive dialogue we used to. I can assure you that this is the case because I participated in that process. And the conclusion is that the world has not become a better place; the number of problems has increased, and to boot some countries have stopped talking with each other altogether.