Editor’s Note: Dmitry Peskov is a deputy chief of staff and the press spokesperson for Russian president Vladimir Putin. He spoke with TNI’s editor Jacob Heilbrunn about U.S.-Russian relations.
Heilbrunn: There are two views in America about relations with Russia. One is that we should try and reach a mutual accommodation and the other is that we need to pursue a more hostile containment policy. Do you believe that there is a mutual solution that can be found in Ukraine that could improve U.S.-Russian relations?
Peskov: Neither Moscow nor Washington can solve the problem of Ukraine, and neither Washington nor Moscow are part of the conflict. This is a conflict inside Ukraine, and it can be fought only by Ukrainians. We do not hide, and we are not trying to hide, our unwillingness to understand attempts by Washington to recognize and to facilitate the takeover that took place in Kiev.
We sincerely cannot understand why Washington was supporting those who took part in that takeover, in that coup, to get rid of the legal president of that country, and why Washington was very proud to acknowledge an illegitimate transfer of power that occurred in Kiev after the takeover. And we were sure that that takeover was the main reason for the whole mess that we witness now in Ukraine.
At the same time, I said previously that Russia in no way can be treated as a part of the conflict. Russia cannot make an order to those people in Donetsk, in Lugansk, saying that you should do that or you should do this. The understanding can be reached only between Kiev and those people, and the understanding can be reached only through dialogue. Unless we see a dialogue, we cannot hope for a really long-lasting solution. These days the only thing that we can do is to help them to ensure a sustainable situation in the region in order to make civilian populations safe from shelling by artillery. This will take huge efforts from all of us in order to rebuild mutual confidence. Now it’s very hard to expect that they would trust each other in terms of implementing conditions of an agreement, and we see how complicated the way is with implementing the conditions of the Minsk agreement.
Heilbrunn: I believe that President Putin said that he would not find a massive military offensive by the Kiev government against the rebels acceptable. I was wondering what that meant, what the Russian response would be if Kiev did attempt to impose a military solution on the conflict as it stands now?
Peskov: As a matter of fact, any attempt like that can only be compared with madness, to solve the problem by using military force would be a way to nowhere, the way to further disaster, to further catastrophe in terms of the future of this country and in terms of the future of those people who are in a terrible situation. As a matter of fact, Moscow and Washington cannot have the same view of the situation in Ukraine because Washington is situated on a different continent, and Russia is next to Ukraine’s borders, and Russia is, much more than any other country in the world, interested in having a predictable, economically stable, developing, and being able to provide its own people with the necessary social infrastructure, state.
So we’re interested in a normal situation in Ukraine--much more than Washington would potentially be, because for us it’s an extremely sensitive issue. And unfortunately, it was Kiev that at the very beginning made a decision to use military forces, to use heavy artillery, to solve the problem of the relationship with the eastern regions of their own country. And unfortunately we’ve all seen what was the result. It’s impossible to solve this problem by military methods, but this attempt ruined the infrastructure in the region, left a lot of people homeless, first of all, and, what is most important, led to the physical death of thousands and thousands of citizens of Ukraine. And the social and economic consequences of that attempt that failed, we’ll be feeling those consequences for decades. Another attempt of that nature would be disastrous.
Heilbrunn: Let me turn to a different topic. The ruble has lost 40 percent of its value, crude oil is heading towards below $60 a barrel. How much is this affecting the Russian economy, and do you think it will spur reform inside Russia economically, including battling against corruption in order to improve the economy?
Peskov: Well, on the hand really we’re facing economic problems right now. We definitely have some negative consequences of the sanctions that are being implemented by the United States, by the European Union, by some other countries against Russia. We still consider the sanctions to be illegal, to be absurd, and to be unacceptable, but they exist and they do bring negative consequences for our economy.
One should not exaggerate their harmfulness, but nonetheless it exists. We have the current situation in the global economy, the current situation in markets of energy, the environment is not positive for our economy, and this adds another burden. So generally, yes, we have problems in our economy.
But on the other hand, we never kept it secret that we were dissatisfied with the level of our dependence on oil and gas money. We suggested that this was something that we’d like to get rid of, and we have been diversifying our economy for more than a decade, but maybe we were not as effective as we would desire, and maybe the time is not sufficient for such a complicated process in terms of the economy in such a huge country as Russia. But nonetheless now we have the chance, if we are wise enough, to get rid of this dependence--to make our economy, despite sanctions, despite world oil prices, really effective. If we make it self-confident, if we manage to minimize the costs to our economy and to increase the productivity of labor, then we can be successful, and all that actually potentially is possible within a short period of time, within a couple of years. And the coming years will show if we are really successful. Currently we have all the reasons to believe that there is a chance to be successful, and we hope for the best.
Heilbrunn: You mentioned sanctions, which brings me to President Obama. Do you see a significant possibility for an improvement in relations with the United States in the next two years, or do you think, now that we have a Republican Senate, that the obstacles will be too great to have a real improvement in relations between the two countries?
Peskov: Well, we’re really sorry that, unfortunately, what we see in Washington is an unwillingness to understand Russia’s position. We see a totally nonflexible and nonconstructive approach towards everything that is somehow connected to Russia. We definitely cannot agree with that. We would like to hope for the best, for more objectivity in our relationship from Washington, but currently, unfortunately, we don’t witness that. But at the same time we are still waiting for a revival in our relationship, for reviving the mechanisms of the dialogue, let it be economy, let it be investment, let it be political dialogue, we are open to that. It takes two to tango. So we keep waiting for a resolution, but we cannot do it on our own.
Heilbrunn: There’s another country that’s very significant for Russia as well, which is Germany. I recently read that Chancellor Merkel speaks with President Putin once a week. Do you believe that she is playing a valuable role?
Peskov: Well, we do value a very pragmatic and very open dialogue between Moscow and Berlin and between our two leaders. It is very helpful and very important in terms of exchanging information and exchanging views on our approaches. Yes, they are in quite regular contact and yes, they can listen to each other. In our current situation it’s very important to listen to each other and to be willing to listen to each other. They do disagree on lots of things when it comes to Ukraine, and they never hide these disagreements, but at the same time they most frequently share the same opinions on the final goals of our current interaction. On some issues, they differ in their approach, yes, and for us the European Union and the leading countries of the European Union like Germany and France of course are of extreme importance in our relationship, because they are our leading economic partners, we have tremendous trade channel and investments channel.
Heilbrunn: Can I ask you a personal question? You were born in 1967 and I was wondering what did you think, and what were you doing, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and do you feel that in the intervening time, Russia is now back on the international stage, since the collapse of the Soviet Union?