TRANSCRIPT: Dmitry Medvedev’s interview with Time magazine

Dmitri Medvedev file photo

( – February 15, 2016)

Dmitry Medvedev has given an interview to Time magazine correspondent Simon Shuster following the Munich Security Conference.

Question: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview with Time magazine. I would also like to thank you for your remarks today at the conference. This was a very interesting and eloquent speech. You made a very interesting statement regarding the Cold War that didn’t go unnoticed and became a hotly debated subject here in Munich. However, I would like to start with a different question that has been dominating the news lately and is a topical issue. I’m talking about Syria. Yesterday, President Assad said in an interview that his final objective was to return the whole Syrian territory to his control. My question is whether Russia is ready to support him in achieving this objective, including by military means?

Dmitry Medvedev: I’ll start with Syria. As the Russian president and my colleagues have already said, and I reiterate, Russia doesn’t intend to stay in Syria forever. We are there to fulfill a limited, specific mission that is related to protecting our national interests. This is why, even if we are there at the request of President Assad, determining the exposure of the Russian army and Armed Forces in Syria won’t be up to the Syrian president, but to the Russian authorities, the Commander-in-Chief and all those involved in this process. This is my first point.

The second point is that, of course, we would like Syria to stay within its historic borders as a unified country. I even think that everyone shares this idea in Russia, as well as in Europe and the United States. No one wants to have a new Libya that fell apart, and no one wants to have chaos with field commanders, or, to put it plainly, outright criminals, at the head of various territories no matter what religious rhetoric they use to conceal their true nature.

We will remain in touch with our partners in this process, of course. No matter how difficult this dialogue is, it continued in Munich and it gained traction. This inspires cautious optimism that we will be able to reach an agreement in the future on a settlement in Syria, the intra-Syrian dialogue, its principles and participants, as well as a ceasefire.

Question: Assad’s troops have been on the offensive lately, backed by the Russian air force, which stands in the way of the negotiation process. When and at what stage will the offensive stop and can Russia influence it? Maybe after Aleppo there will be other cities.

Dmitry Medvedev: I think, and this is my personal opinion, that everything should stop once we get peace. If with our help or with the help of the United States or the EU, President Assad sits down at the negotiating table with the people with whom you can reach agreements (and the list of such people has yet to be drawn up), and agrees on Syria’s political future, democratic reforms and probably his own role in this process, an issue that can be hardly overlooked, this is when everything should end.

Although, of course, we are not standing by indifferently. On the contrary, we are involved in a military campaign that we undertook to protect our national interests. What does this mean: It means that we must prevent extremists and terrorists from getting to Russia from Syria. This is obvious. It is especially relevant given that there are several thousand militants from Russia and Central Asia fighting in Syria. This is a real threat. It is for that reason that we made this decision.

Question: I often hear this logic and this argument, but I don’t quite understand how airstrikes can stop terrorists from going to Russia, because there had been no ISIS terrorist attacks in Russia. The airstrikes started in September and a month later an attack came – an airplane blew up over Sinai.

Dmitry Medvedev: I’ll try to explain this now. Can you actually tell an ISIS or DAESH member from Jaish al-Islam or Jabhat al-Nusra members? Can you tell them apart from the way they look? By their ideology? They can’t even tell each other apart. I just discussed this with my colleague – French Prime Minister Valls. They are all thugs and terrorists. This is first.

Second, the extent of their religious differences is very, very hypothetical. They wander to and from each other for various reasons: They get paid more somewhere else or somebody falls out with somebody. So it is very difficult for us to separate the moderate from the not so moderate and the good from the bad. Yes, there is an ideological opposition to Assad. It’s necessary to come to terms with these people. They are part of the Syrian elite. They represent another part of the religious spectrum, the Sunni part. However, those who run around with automatic weapons, these are definitely people who earn their living in a totally different way and have other plans.

So when I’m told that there is ISIS here but no ISIS there… We remember very well how the Taliban transformed into Al-Qaeda and how Al-Qaeda transformed into something else and how all of this together transformed into the Islamic State. This is the way these people live.

I said in my speech today that we are facing a situation where the world will start to be run with so-called terrorist methods. In other words, it will be recognised that a Daesh-like model is the only method and the only form of governance in the Middle East – that is to say, where some people go around cutting off people’s heads with little deliberation. Everything else is ineffective. They collect tribute and push everyone, figuratively speaking, back into the 7th century AD.

This is the threat and this is why I believe that religious differences between these extremists are not that important.

And another thing. You asked a question about the Cold War. You see, perhaps these are conjectures that have been around for a while. I never said that a new Cold War has begun, but I said that NATO decisions bring a new Cold War nearer. I said this and I will say it again. Because before me, my former counterpart Mr Stoltenberg – he is now the NATO secretary general – spoke, but what did he say? He said Russia should be contained; [military] contingents should be beefed up and defences mounted along the borders in all areas. If this isn’t preparing for another Cold War, what is it for then? For a Hot War? Such is the reality.

Question: Yes, but when you talk about or conjure up this possible new Cold War, what scenarios worry you the most? What areas of confrontation between Russia and NATO worry you the most? The Baltic countries? Turkey?

Dmitry Medvedev: We wouldn’t like any confrontation. Neither in the Baltic region nor in Turkey – nowhere. We need to develop. You know, we have a lot of economic problems to deal with. We need to channel our resources and funds there, although of course we also need a strong army and navy. So, we don’t need any confrontation anywhere. This is first.

Regarding the behaviour of certain NATO member countries. If some of our colleagues from the Baltic region have constant phantom pains, if they have nightmares about the Soviet Union, seizures and uprisings… This, by the way, is a method of governance in the Baltic states. What is it? It’s quite straightforward: invoke a fear of Russia, with Russians trying to resurrect the Soviet Union, and if you don’t want this, you should vote for our party. A standard political trick, although this can have negative consequences.

Well, maybe that’s not a big deal, but it is much more complicated about Turkey. Turkey has set up not itself but the North Atlantic alliance as a whole, and this is extremely irresponsible.

To be blunt, if something like this happened, say, in Soviet days, there would have been a real mess – if not, God forbid, a serious war, then definitely a bad mess. There would have been a retaliatory strike and so on. It’s simply that now different decisions were made. In this respect, Russia’s course is absolutely peaceful, and even though it was a clear provocation, when the plane might have flown in for a few seconds and immediately left and was shot down in Syrian airspace, Russia did not retaliate militarily.

In this context, a great deal depends on the determination of the North Atlantic leaders to influence the most disturbed NATO members, who provoke conflicts with other countries. After all, this is an issue of discipline within the alliance. We understand well how this can end.

Question: Several days ago, in an interview with a German newspaper, you mentioned (or warned certain NATO members) about a permanent war if some of Assad’s opponents abroad start a ground operation. This idea of a permanent war – is Russia prepared to participate in such a scenario? Or is there a point where Russia tells itself no, this is too hot, the escalation has gone too far so we’ll back off.

Dmitry Medvedev: We don’t need a permanent war, and Russia would not want to become involved in anything of the kind. I only said that if military operations (after all, I was commander in chief and made military decisions) go from the sky to the ground, where soldiers appear on the ground, first in the form of special task forces and then in the form of armed formations, the situation will drag on… Remember what happened in Afghanistan to US troops. So far, they can’t pull out. So, as soon as a conflict moves to the point of ground operations it becomes endless. This is what’s dangerous. This is why this shouldn’t be done, and this prospect shouldn’t even be used as a threat. I heard John Kerry say today that if Russia and Iran do not facilitate reconciliation, they, along with their Arab friends (I believe it was an interview in fact with an Arab media outlet), will launch a ground operation. This is wrong. Is he trying to scare his partners – i.e., us – with this or what? Does he want the United States to get bogged down again – this time in Syria?

Question: One last question, if I may, about Syria. This week, the UN released a report on an investigation that accuses the Assad government of heinous crimes against humanity, including the systematic killings of detainees in Syrian prisons. This is a document drafted by the UN, not Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International. What does Russia think about having an ally like this in Syria? Do you see why the Western countries find it difficult to form an alliance with Assad now?

Dmitry Medvedev: First, we must carefully study this report and the evidence contained therein. Second, if it contains solid proof, it must receive an international legal assessment. Third, regarding allies: allies can differ in nature. I talked about the history of Syria with my colleagues today. Perhaps, Hafez al-Assad was a conventional ally of the Soviet Union. We’ve never had advanced relations with Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey had excellent relations with Syria (they are brothers and they mentioned this all the time), France, too, as well as some other countries. They helped Syria develop, and then reversed their positions overnight. Look at it in terms of the situation in Libya. Who was among the closest friends of the beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi? And then the situation changed in no time. So, the question now is not about who we call an ally, but about responsible behaviour. These data need to be properly assessed. We are absolutely open to discussing this issue.

Question: Simply put, Russia doesn’t abandon its friends when they’re in trouble, unlike Western countries, which did so with Mubarak?

Dmitry Medvedev: No, it’s not that simple, you are twisting my words a bit. I reiterate, I am perhaps the only one among the current leaders in Europe and Asia who has been there on a state visit. Our relations were good, but nothing like an alliance. Of course, we do our best to honour our contractual obligations. If someone asks us for help, we try to assist.

Question: I see, okay. Then let’s take Syria off the table for a while. I’d like to talk about the New Start Treaty, START-3. Indeed, it was (with regard to the new or old Cold War) a huge step forward in terms of disarmament. It was START-3 back then, now we see, if I may show you…

Dmitry Medvedev: Go ahead.

Question: Here’s the name, Status-6, which was first used on Russian television, if you remember that… If you can comment on this, why does Russia show or manufacture such weapons, and what does it mean in terms of a new Cold War?

Dmitry Medvedev: I will not comment on this. There’s no point in commenting on Status or any other developments in this area, because there’s nothing to discuss. However, I will say a few words about the Cold War, the arms race and START-3.

First, I believe that START-3 was a great achievement in Russian-US relations, and it was good for the international situation. In fact, we brought our nuclear arsenal down to the level of the early 1960s, which isn’t bad because an arms escalation began after that. By the way, since Russia has become an independent state, we have reduced our arsenal quite significantly, many times over, and everyone knows this because it can be verified. So, I think this is a good, solid result. It was good for Russian-American cooperation. It’s a shame that things began to take a different path after that.

Second, does the termination of negotiations on a range of issues spell the beginning of an arms race? Of course not. We are not interested an arms race. It’s expensive and, at this particular moment, there is clearly no reason for doing what the Soviet Union and the United States, along with NATO, engaged in during the late 1970s and the early 80s. Of course, it drained the blood from the Soviet economy.

Third, when someone speaks about innovative nuclear weapons, new projects, or old projects, we should keep in mind that the world has changed, and weapons have changed too. Yes, there are these kinds of deadly weapons that can destroy everything, make the planet uninhabitable and provoke a nuclear winter. Humankind has already decided that it’s necessary to do whatever it takes to prevent this from ever happening and to try to reduce membership in the nuclear club, to limit nuclear capabilities and so on.

But there are other kinds of weapons, which are never discussed openly. For example, there is the so-called non-nuclear global strike concept developed by the US and NATO. It’s based on the use of high-precision non-nuclear missiles. Isn’t that scary? Yes, it is very scary. It doesn’t fall under any restrictions, but we are well aware of the fact that if hundreds or thousands of such missiles are used in an attack, the consequences will be just as devastating. But there are no restrictions on this. And they keep encouraging us to reduce our nuclear capability, without focusing on these missiles. No, colleagues, we need to discuss everything together.

This is why we weren’t particularly happy with the idea of a missile defence system. In fact, it contributed to the reduction of our nuclear capability. It was announced to be aimed at defending the West against Iran and possible attacks from possible attacks of rogue states. Now Iran has become a friendly nation. Everyone was able to reach an agreement – with our help and support. The sanctions on Iran have been lifted, but what about the defence system? The missiles were left in place. What kind of an agreement is that?

Question: In the context of fairly tense relations between Russia and NATO, which you mentioned in your speech today, is the threat that everyone still remembers from the old Cold War, the threat of an accidental or even an intentional nuclear war possible again today? Has the possibility of such a threat increased over the past two or three years? How do you assess the risk of a nuclear war?

Dmitry Medvedev: With regard to controlling the use of nuclear weapons, I think that in general nothing has changed. In fact Russia has a treaty with the United States; we regularly exchange information, and control mechanisms are in place. All the tools are functioning. So while the situation hasn’t gotten any worse in this particular area, it has deteriorated in another respect. After recent events, including those in North Africa and the Middle East, some countries have started to think seriously about creating a nuclear bomb. I remember lengthy discussions on who has what, when we tried to understand whether Iran, Pakistan and a number of other countries had nuclear capability. At this point we have expert knowledge on who has what. For example, today we have a problem with North Korea. The uncontained expansion of the nuclear club is a very dangerous thing. However, it should be understood that some countries are really afraid for their existence and claim that they are being forced to develop a nuclear weapon.

I remember an informal meeting with the leaders of the Arab countries within the framework of the Arab League, during which they conveyed the following message: we are aware of what Iran is doing, and what some other countries are doing, and what can happen in the region. Our colleagues from Saudi Arabia said that if this is so, we will also consider it. The real danger is when a country is pushed to develop a nuclear weapon. Second, of course there is the issue of nuclear arsenals falling into the hands of terrorists, as well as the creation of the so-called dirty bomb and everything that goes with the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists and criminals. We must counter these threats.

Question: OK, let’s move on from this terrible subject to something else.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, let’s discuss something more peaceful.

Question: Today, after your speech at the conference and during other roundtable discussions, it was not uncommon to hear our Western colleagues accuse Russia of attempting to split and divide Europe, in part by using the migrant issue. I noticed the rhetoric you used in your speech… You see, I live in Germany and often hear what right-wing parties in Germany and Europe are saying. What you said sounded very similar, especially regarding the migrant issue. Why do your statements have so much in common with the stance of, say, France’s National Front or Germany’s PEGIDA? Why are your positions so close and why is Russia eager to have such parties as allies in Europe?

Dmitry Medvedev: I wouldn’t know what comes to your mind when you hear this. First, let me tell you that I’m not a left-wing politician, to be honest. Second, I can also honestly say that I believe the migration policy of the European Union and some countries to be a terrible mistake that threatens European identity. In my opinion, this is a very big problem. We all understand what could result from the emergence of colonies of refugees from troubled regions in the very heart of Europe. I don’t think that any other political force would like it. Of course, rhetoric may vary, but if you ask people on the street in any country, be it France, Germany, Italy or Britain, whether they want 1.5 to 2 million people from the Middle East to settle in their country, it’s unlikely that they would be happy about it. So the EU member states are at the root of this problem. This is not to offend them. However, you have all those entry rules, migration regulations, benefits that are being paid. This means that this course of action is deliberate. It is probably admirable in humanitarian terms. But on the other hand, for ordinary people in these countries and in terms of their economies this course of action has a lot of implications.

For example, we’ve discussed local elections in European countries against the background of the massive influx of migrants from the Middle East. I think that the right-wing parties have an opportunity to gain some support. Why? Not because people share right-wing ideology, but because they all have simple reasoning: when you have one million workers that are ready to work for little pay and some find their way to the employment bureaus and the labour market, we’ll lose our jobs because migrant labour costs less. I believe that in this sense the European Union has become hostage to an unbalanced migration policy. This is what I sincerely believe, I just feel bad for Europe.

Question: However, in terms of foreign policy, does the rise of these parties in Europe create opportunities for Russia in terms of its interests?

Dmitry Medvedev: We can’t and we don’t want to play into the hands of any forces, or anti-immigrant sentiment. We are just honest in highlighting the danger. I had a lengthy discussion on this matter with our Finnish colleagues, including the Prime Minister and yesterday the President. Let’s put it this way: they are receiving refugees from Syria, Iraq and some other countries through the territory of the Russian Federation, after we provide them with permission to enter the country. This way, they don’t face any legal liability and are not under investigation or anything else.

From the audience: They also use bikes.

Dmitry Medvedev: They use bicycles, that’s true, and some of them started buying cars. About a thousand people transited through Russia using two checkpoints on the Finnish border. Our Finnish colleagues have gotten nervous about it. We now hold consultations trying to understand how we can help, while also recognising, as you’ve said, that it is their problem. I keep telling them, even if you noticed some changes, you have 30,000 people coming in from Sweden. Here you have just one thousand, and 30,000 over there. Don’t you suspect the Swedes of anything? Aren’t they seeking to harm a neighbouring country? For some reason you believe that we are trying to manipulate these people. This is not serious.

Question: By the way, about your relations with [your] Western partners. In your speech today, you talked a great deal about the sanctions and how they are harmful to relations. How did your European colleagues react – perhaps during informal conversations – to this call to lift them and what’s stopping it?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, it so happens that whoever I discuss these sanctions with, for some reason, everyone looks down, at the floor, as if they have nothing to do with it, and say: “Well, they were introduced over there. We’re against it of course. Actually, this is bad, bad for business. We understand this very well. However, you go ahead and implement the Minsk protocol and the Minsk Agreements as soon as possible. Otherwise, we play no part in this.” However, this position is not quite honest. This was the consolidated decision of all our European friends. They voted for all this. Nobody blocked or opposed the vote. Therefore, it’s a consolidated position. And there’s no need to be ashamed of it. Say it openly: We wanted to punish you.

The next question is whether they really punished us. Perhaps they gave us some uncomfortable moments. Bad? Not really. We are developing. We live and naturally, we’ll survive. Have the Russian authorities changed their political position? They have not. Are they supported by the Russian people? You know very well that they are and they have support that no other political authority has because nobody likes it when their country is pushed around.

Therefore, responsibility for these sanctions is borne by the entire European Union and other countries that supported them. Naturally, also the United States and Canada – all those who subscribed to this. We are discussing all of this, but our position is simple. I’ve repeatedly laid it out: We will not ask for anything. You know our literature very well. There is a wonderful quote from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, when Woland says: “Never ask for anything. They’ll make the offer themselves, and give everything themselves.” So we’ll never ask for these sanctions to be lifted. They’ll come and say: Let’s finally put an end to this because nobody is better off for it; everyone is only the worse off.

Question: If we could go back to your presidency. Economic modernisation and diversification was perhaps a central issue. You were often asked this question, but it would be interesting to know what new lessons have emerged in the context of low oil prices. Low prices are also a source of concern to Russian business. Why wasn’t the economy successfully diversified at that time and can this be done more successfully in the context of low oil prices?

Dmitry Medvedev: Considering the state of our economy today and the low oil prices, taking all these factors, as well as the sanctions, into account, I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of economic modernisation and diversification, including the transition to large-scale production of new goods, based on high technology, is absolutely correct. Work is underway and we need to redouble our efforts in this regard because as soon as the oil and gas market become so volatile our economy begins to shrink. This was the case in 1998 and it’s happening now, even despite the fact that we are a little less dependent on it than say three or five years ago.

Why did it fail? Too little time. Perhaps, also mistakes and miscalculations – I won’t deny this. But of course, it is impossible to transform an oil-dependent economy affected by the Dutch disease into a high-tech economy in five years. This is a formidable challenge, but we’re working to meet it.

There are some success stories I think. Perhaps they are rather modest, but there are some because we already use a lot of our own machines, equipment and vehicles, some of which we used to procure [abroad] – be it combine harvesters or tractors. There are also some achievements in the high-tech sphere and new materials. It’s all there but of course we should put this to more effective use. This is a goal for the future.

Question: Regarding the sanctions. Last year, you estimated the cost for Russia, for the economy. The figure was $80 billion, if I remember the news reports correctly. Can you put an estimate on the sanctions now?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, this is very difficult to estimate. The question is how to count it. If, for example, we count the losses related to the lack of access to foreign (above all, European, and to a lesser extent, to US) capital markets, then these figures are rather high, because we took these loans and foreign currency liquidity was thus used for growth. This doesn’t mean direct losses in terms of economic decline – this is probably not the right way to calculate it, but this is what we failed to get. In this respect, of course, we have not fully made good on these losses. These are tens of millions of dollars in loans that we did not get but that not only our economy but also the European banking system and a number of major companies were interested in. Today I met with some German businesspeople. The volume of imports, for example, of various German machinery (means of production), fell by 40-50 percent precisely due to the lack of this cheap money component.

So, there are losses and we don’t deny this. However, this only makes it worse for all those involved in European cooperation – both for ourselves and for our European partners. This should be brought to an end, and the sooner, the better.

Remark: Let’s hope. Thank you very much.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you very much. I wish you success.

[featured image is file photo]