Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his most controversial policies in a whirlwind interview with the RT television news network on Thursday, defending what his critics say is his crackdown on dissent, repeating the Kremlin’s warnings against foreign intervention in Syria, and engaging foreign rivals over contested issues.
In his first full-length interview since his inauguration in May, Putin appeared to fit the carefully-crafted image of a cool and confident leader with an answer for everything as he settles further into his third term as president amid global and domestic criticism.
From denying involvement in the case against members of the punk group Pussy Riot, who were jailed for two years last month over their raucous «punk prayer» in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral last February, to rebuffing criticism from abroad over the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the president commented on nearly every issue that has landed Russia in international headlines in recent months.
‘Clampdown’ Means Order
He justified what critics have said is a clampdown on dissent as a necessary move to maintain order in Russia and praised what he says are democratic reforms he introduced in the wake of mass protests against his rule.
«We should clarify what we’re talking about,» he said. «If we understand [the term ‘clampdown’] as a simple requirement that everyone, including the opposition, complies with Russian law, then this requirement will be consistently enforced.»
Putin also invoked the mass riots that erupted in the U.K. last August, apparently comparing them to the anti-Kremlin opposition movement that emerged after last December’s parliamentary elections.
«A lot of people were injured and lot of property damaged. Is it better to let things deteriorate to that state and then spend a year tracking down people and locking them up?» he said. «I think it’s best not to let things go this far.»
The former KGB officer added that he played no part in the two-year sentences for the Pussy Riot members and denied commenting on the severity of their punishment or the methods of the court, which had been accused of rushing through the case.
Instead, he reaffirmed Pussy Riot critics’ allegations that the group’s performance offended many Russians, and even offered a peculiar criticism of a 2008 demonstration in which jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and husband Pyotr Verzilov had public sex alongside several other couples in a museum to protest former President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration.
«Some fans of group sex say it’s better than one-on-one because, like in any team sport, you can slack off,» he said.
By way of defense, Putin trumpeted as successful moves which, at best, have raised suspicions about the Kremlin’s intentions and, at worst, have further consolidated criticism of his regime from several fronts.
He pointed to the return earlier this year of gubernatorial elections, which had been canceled in 2004, as well as his role in several bills introduced after his inauguration that he says have opened up the political playing field.
«These specific steps will pave the way for a more democratic Russia, and it’s true both for its people and its state,» he said.
An election law passed earlier this year was aimed at easing the party registration process and was widely seen as the Kremlin’s concession to the street protests. Critics, however, have said the law is designed to effectively splinter the opposition into a multitude of uncompetitive parties.
The president also drew heavy criticism over a recent law which requires NGOs receiving funding from abroad to be registered as «foreign agents,» as well as another critics have alleged is aimed at restricting the Internet.
The State Duma, he added, is considering a new system by which public initiatives would be submitted through the Web and moved to parliament as draft bills if they receive 100,000 votes or more.
We seek to make our society more advanced and more democratic and we intend to be consistent in following this path," he said.
Putin denied any political motivations behind the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a finance lawyer who died in pre-trial detention in 2009 while investigating alleged official tax fraud.
«What I want to emphasize is that there is absolutely no political context to this case,» he said. «It is a tragedy, but it only has to do with crime and legal procedure, not politics — not more than that.»
Putin added that the visa blacklist drafted by U.S. lawmakers and allegedly introduced by the U.K., which denies entry to Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses, is politically motivated.
«There are people who need an enemy, they are looking for an opponent to fight against,» he said. «Do you know how many people die while in prison in those countries which have condemned Russia?
When questioned about Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks currently holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London as he fights extradition to Sweden over sex charges, the president used the opportunity to criticize Britain for harboring a number of high-profile Kremlin critics, such as vehement Putin critic Boris Berezovsky and former Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev.
«Britain happens to be harboring certain individuals who have blood on their hands,» Putin said, before accusing London of a «double standard» over Assange.
On Syria, an issue which has long remained a thorny issue in U.S.-Russian relations, Putin warned that perceived Western support for anti-regime fighters could backfire.
«Today some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to accomplish their goals in Syria,» he said. «This policy is very short-sighted and is fraught with dire consequences.»
He compared alleged Western funding of radical Islamic militants to help topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime with U.S. support for Afghan rebels after the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of its Central Asia neighbor.
In his trademark combative tone, Putin also railed against Western criticism over Russia’s failure to back UN sanctions against Assad and offered little hope Moscow would change its stance in the future.
«How come Russia is the only one who’s expected to revise its stance? Don’t you think our counterparts in negotiations ought to revise theirs as well?» he said. «Because if we look back at the events in the past few years, we’ll see that quite a few of our counterparts’ initiatives have not played out the way they were intended to.»
Cold War Rivalry
In remarks aimed at the United States, however, Putin appeared open to continued talks with Washington over the hotly contested U.S. missile defense shield to be built in Europe — but that President Barack Obama is hampered by a slew of conservatives.
«My feeling is that he is a sincere man and that he sincerely wants to implement positive change. But can he do it — will they let him do it?» Putin said. «There is... the military lobby, and the Department of State, which is quite conservative.»
Washington has repeatedly said the shield is aimed at preventing an attack from the Middle East, but Moscow stands by its suspicion that it could be used against Russia.
Yet Putin also expressed concerns about U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who on the campaign trail has taken a markedly aggressive tone against Russia and Obama’s «reset» policy, should he be elected in November.
«When we talk about the missile defense system, our American partners keep telling us, ‘This is not directed against you,’» he said. «But what happens if Mr. Romney, who believes us to be America’s number one foe, is elected as president of the United States?»