Vladimir Putin Defends Crimea Invasion: ‘We Have Not Gone to War’

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea but also pushed for more cooperation against terrorism in an interview with German publication Bild.

“Yes, we should cooperate much more closely in fighting terrorism, which is a great challenge,” he declared when asked about threats from radical Islamic groups. “Even if we do not always agree on every aspect, nobody should take this as an excuse to declare us as enemies.”

Russia began airstrikes in Syria on September 30 against “terrorists,” allegedly the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). However, the attacks have consistently hit areas held by groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Homs and Hama provinces. Local opposition groups say that the planes hit Zafaraneh, Rastan, and Talbiseh, which do not house ISIS.

Outside of the Middle East, Russia is the nation with the largest number of citizens joining the Islamic State. Among notable Russian ISIS recruits is military strategist Omar al-Shishani, who has appeared in various pieces of jihadi propaganda. ISIS featured him in a video last August from one of their child-terrorist training centers, where the children were forced to perform staged attacks for al-Shishani.

Putin also blamed NATO for the building tensions between the West and Russia. He pointed out that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner said that the organization would not expand into eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. He showed the interviewers a transcript that showed German politician Egon Bahr said if the expansion occurs, it would “lead to Russia’s isolation.”

The president did not back down even after the interviewers reminded him that eastern European countries have joined on their own free will:

BILD: But seriously: the central European states wanted to become NATO members by their own volition. They expected security for themselves from this step.

Putin: I have heard this a thousand times. Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate. But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east.

BILD: Should NATO just have said no? It wouldn’t have survived that, because…

(Putin asks back, suddenly in German, ignoring the interpreter): Why not?

BILD: Because it is part of NATO’s rules and self-understanding to accept free countries as members if they want to and if they fulfill certain conditions.

Putin: (still in German) Who has written these rules? The politicians, right?

(The President then switches back to Russian.)

Putin: Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was the political will. But people didn’t want to.

BILD: Why, do you think, was this the case?

Putin: NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But now they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.

Putin admitted Russia also made mistakes but did not go into specifics.

The publication then brought up the Ukrainian province of Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014 after Ukraine’s pro-West parliament ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The interviewers asked Putin about respecting state borders. Putin claimed that, for him, the invasion was all about “human beings.

“The nationalists’ coup in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in February 2014 has hugely scared 2.5 million Russian people living on Crimea,” he said, adding:

So what did we do? We have not gone to war, we have not fired, not a single person was killed. Our soldiers have merely prevented the Ukrainian troops on Crimea from impeding the freedom of expression of the people. In the referendum – which was still decided to take place by the Crimea’s old parliament – the majority of citizens voted for belonging to Russia. This is democracy, the people’s will.

He insisted Russia followed international law since the people of Crimea allegedly chose to join the Russian Federation. Unable to convince him otherwise, the publication asked Putin about the Western sanctions against Russia. He admitted the Russian people are suffering under them and the moves only harm both sides. But he claims energy prices is the biggest problem for his country.

“But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices for energy,” he explained. “We suffer dangerous revenue losses in our export of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere. But the whole thing also has a positive side: if you earn so many petrodollars – as we once did – that you can buy anything abroad, this slows down developments in your own country.”