Putin’s Revealing Financial Times Interview

By Richard Weitz

Immediately before departing for the G20 summit in Japan, Vladimir Putin gave a revealing interview to The Financial Times.

Although most attention focused on his dismissal of liberal globalism as a spent ideology, the text offers other insights into the Russian President’s national security strategy.

For example, Putin provided one of his clearest assessments of Russian gains from its military intervention in Syria, which he explains as a calculated risk: It was sufficiently high.

“However, of course, I thought carefully about this well in advance, and I considered all the circumstances and all the pros and cons.”

According to Putin, in Syria, “we have accomplished even more than I had expected”:

1) the intervention killed many terrorists who were planning to return to Russia or neighboring countries;

2) the situation in a nearby region has become more stable;

3) “we have directly strengthened Russia’s domestic security;”

4) Russia has strengthened its ties and influence in the Middle East;

5) “Our Armed Forces have received such practical experience that they could not have obtained during any peace-time exercises.”

Addressing Sino-Russian ties, Putin denies that their cooperation is driven by common hostility to the United States.

“Russia and China are not directing their policy against anyone,” he claimed. “

We are just consistently implementing our plans for expanding cooperation,” which Putin asserted were based on the goals laid out in their 2001 bilateral friendship treaty.

Nonetheless, the Russian president added that the two governments’ “positions coincide on a number of matters on the current global agenda,” including economics and trade.

In this regard, Putin noted that Chinese and Russian leaders believe that, since the share of the global GDP accounted for by the Group of Seven (G7) Western industrial countries has declined over the last 25 years from 58 percent to 40 percent, the governance of the world’s economic institutions should be adjusted accordingly.

Although he chastised Americans’ alleged unwillingness to share leadership with rising powers, and supposedly exaggerated fears of Russian and Chinese military power, Putin argued that the deterrence effect of nuclear weapons decreased his fear of a military conflict between Beijing and Washington since each understood the devastation such a war would cause.

On the sidelines of the April 2019 Moscow Security Conference, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu remarked in his meeting with Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe, “Thanks to the efforts of Russian and Chinese leaders, our relations are reaching a new, unprecedented high level,” to the general benefit of “ensuring peace and international security.”

Shoigu asserted that this high level of joint activity included “joint operational and combat training activities [and] consultations between the general staffs” as well as military exchanges and collaboration between Russian and Chinese professional military educational institutions.

Wei reciprocated, calling their mutual defense ties “the closest interaction which is the best among all relations between large countries.”

His list of notable interactions included reciprocal support “in the most important issues and strategic projects” as well as heightened “joint opposition to security threats amid instability and uncertainty prevailing in the world.”

Discussing the recent developments regarding North Korea, which included a summit between the Russian and DPRK leaders in the Russian city of Vladivostok, Putin argued that the key to incentivizing the North to renounce nuclear weapons was to determine how “to ensure the unconditional security of North Korea and how to make any country, including North Korea feel safe and protected by international law that is strictly honoured by all members of the international community.”

In Putin’s view, this required avoiding future military required avoiding future military interventions aimed at regime change, such as the NATO campaign in Libya, and instead following something like the détente policy between the USSR and the West that helped end the Cold War.

Furthermore, one of Putin’s comments seems a justification, and perhaps confirmation, of the assassination attempt against Russian intelligence officer and double agent Sergei Skripal: “treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished.

“I am not saying that the Salisbury incident is the way to do it. Not at all. But traitors must be punished.”

Regarding arms control, Putin had expressed exacerbation that the Trump administration had not accepted his offer to extend New START by five years, as provided for by the treaty: “we have not seen any relevant initiative from our American partners….Our previous conversation with Donald showed that the Americans seem to be interested in this, but still they are not making any practical steps.”

Putin and other Russian leaders had been repeating this criticism of U.S. non-responsiveness regarding New START for months, but the Russian government is partly responsible for the delay.

For years Russian officials have been expressing “concerns” about the procedure the United States was following in reducing the number of warheads on U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles, averring that their removal could be rapidly reversed in a crisis, without formally charging the U.S. with violating the treaty, thereby increasing skepticism among U.S. officials whether Moscow sincerely seeks to maintain New START.

Last month, Timothy Morrison, White House National Security Council director for weapons of mass destruction, told a Hudson Institute audience that, “there’s a significant question with respect to whether or not the Russians are interested in extending New START.

“They have these contrivances that they have hurled against us and the prior administration on how we’ve converted our ballistic missile submarines and our heavy bombers.”

In his Financial Times interview, Putin again harped on “the unilateral US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty” in 2002 as undermining “the cornerstone of the entire international security system.”

In Putin’s view, this decision, as well as the failure to develop new joint restraints or projects on Russian-U.S. missile defenses, unleashed a dangerous era of “new weapons and cutting-edge military technology” that threatens to destabilize world politics.

However, while concerns about U.S. missile defenses partly explain why Moscow has been developing and deploying new strategic delivery systems, the flow of causation for the United States was stronger in the opposite direction — the advent of new defense technologies and new types of post-Cold War threats has led the United States to pursue a more diverse range of missile defenses aimed at non-Russian targets.