Dmitry Medvedev

Russian Prime Minister: Syria Could Trigger World War

medvedev 1 source sven afhueppe for hb
Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, in an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, warned that a U.S. led military coalition in Syria had the potential to lead to a broader war.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Russia is playing a key role in the Syrian conflict by supporting President Bashir Al-Assad, and the political decisions it makes there will impact the number of refugees arriving in Europe.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Dimitry Medvedev has been Russian prime minister since 2012 and had been president from 2008 to 2012.
    • He is seen as modern, liberalizing force in Russian politics.
    • The Russian government is considering a stimulus plan to revive the faltering economy.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

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.

 

medvedev and putin itar tass dimitry astakhov
Mr. Medvedev, a lawyer from St. Petersburg, served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 after Russia’s constitution barred Vladimir Putin from running for a third consecutive term. After 2012, Mr. Medvedev switched with Mr. Putin again, taking up his old job as prime minister. Source: ITAR / Tass Dimitry Astakhov

 

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.

 

Russian Business Under Pressure-01

 

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.

“The Soviet Union was not the easiest partner and not the friendliest country for Europe and for other countries, yet parliament speakers were never declared personae non grata before, not even during the most difficult conflicts, like during the Cuban missile crisis or the Afghan war.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Prime Minister

With President Obama there was meant to be a fresh start, but both sides have not really acted on this. How can the rift between Russia and the West be healed again?

I don’t think the blame rests with us. We never shirked contact, and we were ready to talk in any format possible. But all contact has been deliberately curtailed by the European Union, and then the same happened to Russia-NATO cooperation. So, my conclusion ahead of the Munich conference is that the world has become a more dangerous and darker place.

 

medvedev with brueggmann and afhueppe fyodor savintsev for hb
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview to Handelsblatt International Correspondent Mathias Brüggmann, middle, and Editor in Chief Sven Afhüppe, right, at his official government residence, Gorki 9, outside of Moscow on Wednesday. Source: Fyodor Savintsev for Handelsblatt

 

Europe lost faith in Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Are you surprised by that?

I agree that the issue of trust is of key importance, but let’s talk about the ways trust is created and the value of trust. Yes, we are suffering a crisis of trust. By the way, there was a crisis of trust also during the economic crisis of 2008-2009. How can this crisis be overcome? Only through contact, whereas our relations with a number of our European partners and the United States are frozen or are half-hearted attempts at dialogue.

Trust cannot develop in a matter of weeks. In fact, it took us 25 years since the establishment of new Russia as a state in 1991 to develop relations with our European partners. There came a time when I thought we were friends, that we talked the same language literally and figuratively, be it Russian, German or English, and that we understood each other well. 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 personae non grata before, not even during the most difficult conflicts, like during the Cuban missile crisis or the Afghan war. We can close the curtain and refuse to talk with one another. I believe that this would be a huge political mistake. They shouldn’t have done this as this hasn’t benefited anyone. We have our policy, for example, with regard to Ukraine and Crimea, and European countries have theirs. But we have stopped talking.

 

Russia in Numbers-01 economy GDP

 

How can we overcome this crisis, before we find ourselves in another Cold War situation?

Unfortunately, being a practical man, I can tell you that there is only one way: To restore relations and contacts, to abandon stereotypes and to coordinate reasonable compromises. But then again, 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 E.U. countries who must walk the greater part of this path. I say this openly so as to avoid any misunderstandings. Even though E.U. countries are also NATO members, and even though the United States is the largest global player, the E.U. and Europe have their own destiny, and so the leaders of European countries – not business people who want to trade, and this is clear – must decide if they want to repair relations with Russia.

The former chancellor Gerhard Schröder said recently that ties with Russia need to be stronger because the first parts of the Minsk agreement have been fulfilled. He thinks Russian sanctions were a mistake. What do you expect Western countries to do?

Gerhard Schröder is right. He’s absolutely right. It was a mistake. He’s an experienced politician. He headed the German government, but that’s not the only point. His view is fundamentally correct.

I think right now European countries just need to get together and make some difficult decisions. The European Union is not a monolithic structure, we all realize that. There are countries that feel phantom pain when it comes to the Soviet Union. They constantly suspect Russia of something. Hopefully, Germany is not one of those countries. The history of our relations went through two bloody wars in the 20th century. However, we are now close partners.

Therefore, I believe this view is correct and they need to find courage to admit it. President Putin has said it repeatedly and I have said it too: We don’t see an alternative to the Minsk Agreements. The reason is simple: We are practical people and we don’t have any other option. However, we managed to work out a roadmap. And now we are moving forward according to this roadmap, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. At least, there are no active exchanges of fire. Some other terms of the agreement have been fulfilled. But what is the problem? One clause on political settlement is still pending. But it’s not Russia’s responsibility.

 

russian black sea fleet crimea december 2015 alexei pavlishak tass
Members of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in December. Russia siezed the Crimea from Ukraine, precipitating western economic sanctions and opprobrium. In the interview, Mr. Medvedev said Russia was unwilling to relinquish the territory, and asked for economic sanctions to be lifted. Source: TASS / Alexei Pavlishak

 

So whose responsibility is it?

To be honest, our European partners can hear us, unlike the decision-makers in Kiev. Elections, the amnesty and future government of Ukraine are not the issues for us or France or Germany to decide. These are Ukraine’s issues. However, these processes are deadlocked now. Yes, the talks continue and now the United States got involved. I think that is good because, let’s be honest, Kiev is listening very closely to what Washington says and the country’s leadership is, as we know, divided into those who look up to Europe and those who look up to the United States. At any rate, the Minsk Agreements are to be fulfilled since we don’t have any other option. But let me point out that the Russian leaders believe it is Ukraine’s turn to act.

Wouldn’t it be a goodwill gesture on Russia’s part to lift some of its import bans, which would make it easier for Europe to decide on mitigating sanctions?

You see, the issue of bans has been demonized somewhat. First, you know Russia well, so you are aware that we are going through a difficult economic period, although it is far from catastrophic.

To be perfectly frank, these countermeasures are restricting our progress to some extent, but they are also helping us in some areas. I have been working on agricultural issues for many years, say, eight years, starting back when I was president. We faced a very dire situation, although Russia is an agrarian country, it has more arable lands than any other country in the world. Now we are able to feed ourselves. At some point, Russian farmers and our large agribusinesses came to believe that they can produce their own food, that they will not face competition in the form of food being dumped by some European countries at knockout prices and they have expanded their own production capacity.

In 2014, we spent around 240-250 billion roubles on support for agriculture, and we’ll spend the same amount again this year. In effect, we see this as a window of opportunity. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are determined to draw out the sanctions. Our European partners should simply understand that nature abhors a vacuum. Someone is bound to fill this vacuum.

 

syrian refugees on the turkish border on wednesday fatih aktas anadolu agency for hb
Syrian refugees fleeing bombing in Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government jets. Source: Anadolu Agency / Fatih Aktas

 

But the economy and geopolitics have a global scale. Isn’t it dangerous to fence yourselves off in some areas, as you have said, including in the economy, even when this implies a response to foreign restrictions and sanctions?

I am also a supporter of an open-market economy, and I proceed from the assumption that Russia joined WTO and accepted all principles of an open economy. Indeed, the economy is global. But Russia didn’t fence itself off; we were told that certain goods will not be sold to us.

Regarding high-tech goods, I agree that it is very hard to get anything done in isolation. The world is so permeated with all this; electronic communications systems, high-tech and digital solutions have become so commonplace that it’s impossible to imagine that we’ll renounce all this. Russia is not a country to fence itself off in this respect, the way the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is doing.

But, in some cases, this really benefits us. Let’s be honest, why should we buy Polish apples when we have exactly the same climate? Our Polish friends started actively delivering their apples to Russia; they saturated the entire Russian market and charged low prices for them. Great work! Although Poland is not a southern country, it has thriving agribusiness. Since E.U. countries weren’t too enthusiastic about buying their produce, they sold all their apples on the Russian market. But we have the same orchards, so why should we buy anything from them? In this context, I believe that import substitution projects are absolutely essential and justified.

“The ruble exchange rate is highly volatile because it is highly dependent on oil price forecasts, and prices are currently at a low.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Russian PM

 As well as sanctions, the fall in oil prices is also causing economic problems. 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. That does not mean we want to abandon it altogether. We have several projects on the go, including with Germany. The economy needs to be well balanced. The country is huge, with many options. In principle, we will be able in the future to make up government revenue with one third hydrocarbons and two-thirds trade in industrial goods, high-tech products, agricultural industries and defense. That would influence everything, including the ruble.

 

Kerry Lavrov Munich DPA
On the eve of the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, announced an agreement late Thursday that could bring about a temporary ceasefire in Syria. Source: DPA

 

Can you explain what you mean? How do government revenues affect the ruble exchange rate?

The ruble exchange rate is highly volatile because it is highly dependent on oil price forecasts, and prices are currently at a low. This affects the exchange rate for the ruble. But we have consciously chosen not to intervene. We have a free market rate, there are no currency corridors. It is set through supply and demand. But we would prefer of course that the ruble is not so dependent on oil prices. For example, the euro doesn’t depend on a single industry or a single currency. It relies on the commercial success of Germany, but also of Greece, and these factors balance each other out. As a result you get an even course. The euro has not not had an easy ride: it has been too strong and too weak, but that is how the market works.

You are saying a core problem of the Russian economy is its dependence on oil.

So the diversification of the economy is an important strategic aim. 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.

 

German Business in Russia-02

 

In what industries can Russia become internationally competitive?

I was very pleased to visit many of our new production facilities. There was a time we got all our technical equipment from our friends in Europe. I remember attending the opening of the Claas factory in the Krasnodar region of Russia. Claas is German and makes very good combine harvesters. But now we want to make our own harvesters, not just license them. We make our own harvesters, produced by Russian companies.

I was in a tractor factory recently. They made great tractors that can be sold anywhere. I was amazed to see that Germany bought some. This is great, because there are savvy customers here.

But to go down this road, Russia needs a different economic situation. The oil price has fallen so far you have to implement austerity measures. What is Russia doing to stimulate the economy and diversify?

I have spent the whole day speaking about crisis plans with the government. Then I had a discussion with the president on the same topic. What is this crisis plan? We support industries that have lasted a long time and now face closure, which would be disastrous. The same applies to agricultural machinery, transport infrastructure, the automotive industry, agriculture and high-tech industries. In a situation where our economy is failing and foreign capital markets are closed to us, we have to use different tools to support these industries. 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. But then we were just beginning. Now we are more experienced in handling it.

 

russian oil worker almetyevsk, russia source bloomberg
Russia’s oil industry, which generates a large part of the nation’s economy output, has been hammered by oversupply and the country’s plunging ruble currency. Here, a worker in Almatyevsk, Russia. Source: Bloomberg

 

Living conditions have deteriorated for many Russians. What are you doing about that?

The support of the people during a crisis is very important. This is a very complicated situation because real revenues fell due to the weakening of the ruble. People feel it. Of course nobody likes it. We want to prevent an excessively high unemployment rate. For a long time unemployment has been at a reasonable rate of 5 to 6 percent. But we also have cities where there is only one company. There the situation is much more precarious because that company could be shut down. That is why we need individualized programs to boost employment. This is an area we need to develop. And we must also think about indexed pensions and social security, so there are as few people as possible with no protection.

 

russian photo of bombing of rebel oil facilities uknown location syria released thursday source reuters
Photos released by Russia on Thursday showing its bombing of a purported IS oil facility at an unkown location in Syria. Source: Reuters

 

During the latest major economic crisis, Russia asked the International Monetary Fund for assistance, and received it. Can you rule out another bad crisis that would require IMF aid again?

I believe the chances of our appealing to the IMF again are miniscule at best. We would like something different. As you and I have already discussed, many of our problems are artificially created. It would be easier to address many of them if European capital markets were open to us. That’s the objective truth. Now we have to make do with domestic loans and subsidies.

Can we say that Russia has embarked on a strategy that has caused it to make a U-turn from Europe to Asia? But then, Russian-Chinese trade has also decreased by 30 percent. So is this strategy efficient at all?

Any nation might have problems. China and the E.U. are no exception, and neither is Russia. It isn’t so much a matter of making U-turns. In fact, it’s Russia’s destiny to look both ways, to face both east and west, and we have always said so.

However, we were very active in trade and investment partnerships with Europe in the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. Our trade hit the €450 billion mark and, on the whole, the European Union remains our principal trade partner to this day. We paid tremendous attention to this partnership, and Asia might have receded from the list of our top priorities.

And now?

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 merely 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 yet another world war.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Russian PM

As for foreign political decisions, what role in the world is Russia after? Can it afford a leading geopolitical role, considering its current economic situation?

I don’t think we are after geopolitical leadership. Let those who are out for leadership assume responsibility for the whole world. Let them answer for wars and for migrants wandering about Europe by the hundreds of thousands. That’s not what we want. We overcame that infantile disorder in the Soviet era. Now we don’t want to be global managers any longer.

However, Russia should occupy the place it deserves in the world due to its history, geography, opportunities, United Nations Security Council membership and other aspects of its formal status. Last but not least, Russia is a major nuclear power. All this places a measure of responsibility on us.

We are not trying to rule the world or impose our regulations on it, though we are accused regularly of having such ambitions. That is not so – we are a pragmatic people who realize that no one can shoulder responsibility for the whole world, not even the United States of America.

But there are crises in the world, including the fight against IS and the civil war in Syria, which cannot be stopped without Russia. How can Russia help to 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. I always give an example that nobody can object to because most of the people talking about Syria have never been there. I was in Syria on an official friendly visit before the war. I can tell you that at the time Syria made a lasting impression on me. It is an ancient country with many ethnicities and faiths living successfully together. It was a peaceful and mostly secular country – you could see it from the way women dressed, the way people looked in the street, and so on.

What happened later is a compelling lesson of how easy it is to create a problem and how difficult it is to solve it. At some point, it occurred to our colleagues that Mr al-Assad was not behaving as he should. I will tell you exactly who I am talking about: Our partners in the United States, some of our European and Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia, for example. We may differ in our opinions of certain political leaders but it is not a good enough reason to begin intervention or to stir up unrest from within. Now the country is being torn apart by a civil war. Everybody is fighting with each other, the Shiites with the Sunnis, the Sunnis with the Druze, Christians and Alawites. Does anybody benefit from this? Perhaps, al-Assad is not an exemplary democrat but the solution was to insist on an election instead of starting a military campaign. Everybody lost in the end.

Why does Russia feel the need to secure national interests in Syria?

As you know, Russia is a multinational and very complex country. We have our own religious extremists, whom we have fought for a very long time, generally with success, in the Caucasus. They still manage to leak into other countries from time to time. I’m thinking about the unfortunate (former Egyptian President) Mr. Hosni Mubarak, who told me during one of my visits: “For your information, there is a huge number of immigrants from Russia and some CIS countries here. You should thank me for being tough, otherwise we would have a bloodbath here.” Then the Arab Spring happened and we all know the destiny of poor Mubarak because our American ‘friends’ – those he was loyal to for decades – stitched him up and let the extremists take over power. It is only now that Egypt is starting a new chapter in its history and there is a revival.

Therefore, we understand that the people who went to Syria — and there are at least several thousand of them now — will come back as completely brainwashed murderers and they will do the same as what they did in the past in the northern Caucasus, in Moscow and other Russian cities, what they did in Paris and all over the world, including the United States.

This is why President Putin decided to respond to the Syrian president’s appeal to take part in this combat operation. 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.

 

merkel in middle cartoon bernd skott for hb
The German chancellor, who grew up in former East Gemany and speaks Russian, has been the West’s leading intermediary with Mr. Putin, although the German-Russian relationship has been strained by Russia’s intransignence over Ukraine. Illustration by Bernd Skott for Handelsblatt

 

What would a common solution to the Syrian crisis look like?

I will certainly speak about (it) in my speech in Munich [at the Munich Security Conference that opened today]. We cannot agree on Ukraine and on some other issues, for example BMD, and there are other problems in our relations. But why can’t we agree on Syria? Those 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. I’ve said this more than once: Let’s sit down at the negotiating table, hammer out an agreement, invite all those who are fighting terrorists and decide how we can fight this evil together.

But not all those who oppose the government are terrorists.

Show us the maps, show us where the so-called moderate opposition is located. This is a separate and very complex matter. 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 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. That is, there have been some occasional meetings, telephone conversations and contacts between our militaries. But in this situation we should create a full-scale alliance to fight this evil. 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 do you mean?

We also feel sympathy for and want to help refugees and we are doing this. 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 E.U. 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 E.U.’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 fulfil 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.

You said that Russia did not want to launch a ground operation. What is your estimate regarding the fact that some Arab countries are now ready for it and want it, and also want 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 operation draws everyone taking part in it into a war. The Americans must consider – both the U.S. president and our Arab partners – 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 anti-government 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. We know well what scenarios are followed in this context.

The Islamists’ radicalization seems to be the main threat to peace all over the world as well as to the entire international community. How can this problem be solved?

It’s a very difficult problem, but it can be solved. Let me remind you that Russia is not only a predominantly Christian country, but also an Islamic country, and that we live in peace with our Islamic brothers who have lived in Russia for many years, for centuries. This co-existence has been entirely normal and peaceful. Moreover, I can tell you that in Soviet times, when I was at school, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about this or that person’s religious beliefs. We had atheism at that time, but there were many believers as well, both Christians and Muslims. But society was absolutely monolithic.

Later this fire was fanned out. To reiterate: Europe has committed strategic mistakes: Its immigration policy has led to an uncontrolled shift in the religious balance in many countries.

What was the alternative?

The problem is not that representatives of the Islamic Ummah, or diaspora, are coming to Europe. The problem is that this influx is uncontrolled. They don’t want to become assimilated or get an education, and they even feel hostile towards everything European. But we all share European values and a European identity, and this is something characteristic of Russia. This was, therefore, a very serious and gross mistake, as I see it.

 

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Right now it’s necessary to build bridges and reduce tensions and try to come to terms with the ethnic communities.

And, again, this story differs from country to country: It’s one thing in Germany, and quite another in France, and still another in Hungary, and still another in Austria, but you are all in the E.U. There are 28 E.U. countries and you must come to terms on something together, because if you simply start ruining the Schengen space, this is likely, first, to entail what is in effect a disintegration of the European Union, and, second, you will achieve nothing because the extremists will only be pleased to migrate from country to country. We are ready to take part in these consultations. The world has become transparent, with people moving both away from and to Russia. But we have been largely removed from this dialogue. They are coming to see now that these issues cannot be addressed without Russia, both in light of its geographic location and historical experience.

Do you think this crisis will destroy the European Union?

I’m not saying this. Frankly speaking, this would be a most dramatic turn of events for the European Union. As I said, Russia is a major trade and investment partner of the E.U, even despite the current complicated relations. We keep part of our currency reserves in euro, and so we want the euro to remain stable. I have always told this to Ms. Merkel: “Angela, there’s no doubt that we are interested in a stable euro.” Moreover, I was partly against the U.S dollar because the world cannot function properly with a mono-currency system. We have partners and friends, and many of us have relatives in Europe, so we don’t want this scenario to play out. But the situation is so alarming now, and if we start cutting up everything, and doing so without coming to an agreement with one another, this would have extremely negative consequences for Europe. They will be much more serious than those that Europe faced during the latest economic crisis or when it tried to save Greece, Portugal or Spain.

Handelsblatt is Germany’s leading newspaper on economic matters. As you have said, economic relations between Germany and Russia have been developing very well for years, and now many German companies are complaining about the sanctions. How can you describe our economic relations? Do you think they can be maintained at a high level after the current sanctions phase is over?

These relations are ailing, but they can be cured. And the treatment is very simple: To resume dialogue and restore mutual trust. Businesses trust each other. The number of joint ventures has barely decreased; the volume of trade has decreased but the number of joint ventures has not. Business wants to work, both in Russia and in Germany.

But the final decision rests with European politicians. It is regrettable that Russian-German trade has plummeted by 40 percent, and our trade with the European Union is down by 50 percent, but the situation will continue to worsen if we further aggravate the problem. It takes courage to admit that the economic sanctions should be lifted because they haven’t done anything good for either Europe or Russia. We are ready for this, but once again, we are waiting for our E.U. colleagues to make the first move.

 

Sven Afhüppe is Editor in Chief of Handelsblatt. Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk, leading the coverage of the Ukraine crisis. To contact the authors: afhueppe@handelsblatt.combrueggmann@handelsblatt.com

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