Russian President Vladimir Putin met with criticism from German commentators after giving Bild newspaper a wideranging interview in which he accused the West of exacerbating international crises that had contributed to terrorism.
In the interview published on Monday, Mr. Putin said he wanted to fight terrorism jointly with the rest of the world. He condemned NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders and argued it was up to Ukraine to fulfill the terms of the Minsk Agreement that halted the fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and government troops in southeast Ukraine.
He also said German media were under “strong influence from the country on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Conservative German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung retorted to that remark in a commentary on its website.
“The world is very simple for Vladimir Putin: he is right and everyone else isn’t.”
“If that were the case, one would have to declare that in view of the fierce criticism of the United States in most German newspapers over capital punishment, the Iraq war, Guantanamo, the NSA, police violence against black people and so on, the trans-Atlantic agents of influence are pretty amateurish,” the newspaper wrote.
“The world is very simple for Vladimir Putin: he is right and everyone else isn’t,” it added.
Mr. Putin doesn’t grant Western media interviews often. So politicians in Germany, where many have cautioned that the West needs to engage with Mr. Putin to solve the Ukraine crisis, closely scrutinized his remarks.
“The fact that Mr. Putin even gave an interview is a sign of readiness to talk,” said Florian Hahn, security expert for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. “He didn’t voice any criticism of Merkel in it.”
Yet the security expert was disappointed with many of the Russian leader’s remarks. “He sees the West as solely responsible for how the problems escalated in Ukraine,” Mr. Hahn said.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU security expert who describes himself as an “avowed Transatlanticist,” was even more blunt in his assessment of Mr. Putin’s interview. “It’s obvious that he wants to divide the West with his friendly remarks about Germany and his criticism of the United States,” he told Handelsblatt. “It’s part of the hybrid war he’s waging.”
By “hybrid war,” Mr. Kiesewetter was referring to disinformation and the concealed incitement of the conflict through the deployment of troops without uniforms in eastern Ukraine. He said he was concerned about nationalist politicians in parties like Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany feeling justified about their recent support of Russia.
Mr. Putin said NATO’s desire to “rule” had caused the crisis in Europe’s security structure and that the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine had been “just” because the population had wanted it.
The Russian president conceded in the interview that it was right that every country should be allowed to decide for itself whether it wanted to join the Western defense alliance or not. But he added that he wouldn’t accept NATO’s eastward expansion because it had caused new conflicts by simply shifting the border between the two blocs to the east.
He also said Russia’s only mistake had been that it hadn’t expressed its own ambitions more clearly over the years.
Mr. Kiesewetter called that “mixing up cause and effect.” Russia had breached Ukraine’s border, he said, adding that it was the German government’s job to keep on telling Mr. Putin that his statement “borders aren’t important to me” was in breach of international law.
Ms. Merkel has taken the lead in engaging with Mr. Putin over the Ukraine crisis and was a driving force in the mediation that led last February to the Minsk Agreement to halt the civil war.
“Everyone says that the Minsk Agreements must be implemented and then the sanctions issue may be reconsidered,” Mr. Putin said, referring to Western sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Ukraine and for its role in the Ukraine crisis. “This is beginning to resemble the theater of the absurd because everything essential that needs to be done with regard to implementing the Minsk Agreements is the responsibility of the current Kiev authorities.”
Mr. Putin pointed to a clause in the peace agreement that required Ukraine to introduce constitutional reform by the end of 2015. He called this “the key issue in the settlement process.” The leaders of France and Germany, he added, “should scrutinize these matters more thoroughly.”
Niels Annen, a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, said he was disappointed that Mr. Putin had said Ukraine alone was to blame for the lack of implementation of the Minsk Agreement.
“Anyone who reads the reports of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) knows that the implementation of the Minsk Agreement is being obstructed by both sides and that the separatists too keep on breaking the ceasefire,” he said.
The German government must criticize both sides, he said, adding: “Based on those reports, there’s no reason to loosen the sanctions.”
Mr. Putin said the sanctions were “noticeably damaging Russia in its actions in the international financial markets.”
But despite all their disappointment, German politicians stressed that the West needs Russia to solve the conflicts raging in the Middle East. Mr. Annen said the country’s role at the negotiating table of the Vienna Process of Syrian peace negotiations was constructive while its military operations were anything but.
“The Russian bombings are leading to rising numbers of victims and are exacerbating the refugee crisis,” he said.
Mr. Putin described the Russian-German relations as good and said his relationship with Ms. Merkel was “professional and open.”
He even apologized for an incident in 2007 when his large Labrador Koni was let in to a meeting he was having with Ms. Merkel in his summer residence in Sochi.
“I wanted to do something nice for her,” Mr. Putin said. “When I found out that she doesn’t like dogs, of course, I apologized.”
Ms. Merkel, who had appeared uncomfortable while the dog sniffed at her, had interpreted the incident as a deliberate power play at the time, according to reports.