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Exclusive: Russia’s Prime Minister on Syria, Sanctions and a New Cold War

12 minute read

On Feb. 13, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev sat down for an interview with TIME on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of military and political leaders from around the world, to discuss Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, its tense relations with the West and a range of other issues.

The interview took place one day after top-ranking diplomats from Russia, the U.S. and 15 other countries reached a U.N.-brokered deal in Munich to end the hostilities in Syria. In his interview with TIME, Medvedev left little room to hope that the peace deal would actually take hold.

Below are excerpts from that conversation.

TIME: Thank you very much for agreeing to the interview, and for your remarks today at the conference. You made a very interesting statement regarding a new Cold War, which became a hotly debated subject here in Munich. But I’d like to start with a different question, one that’s been dominating the news. I’m talking about Syria. Yesterday, President Bashar Assad said in an interview that his final objective was to return all Syrian territory to his control. My question is whether Russia is ready to support him in achieving this objective, including by military means?

Medvedev: 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, albeit at the request of President Assad. Therefore, he’s not the one who will determine the extent of the Russian military’s presence over there, but rather it will be the Russian authorities, the Commander-in-Chief [President Vladimir Putin] 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 think that everyone shares this idea in Russia, as well as in Europe and the United States. None of us need another Libya, which broke up into several pieces, nor do we need the kind of chaos in which various territories are under the control of field commanders or, to put it plainly, bandits, regardless what religious rhetoric they use as cover. So that is what we will proceed from.

But, of course, we will remain in touch with our partners in this process. No matter how difficult this dialogue is, it continued in Munich and it gained traction. This at least gives us grounds for some cautious optimism in the hope that we will be able to reach an agreement about the future, about the way the resolution process in Syria will go, about intra-Syrian dialogue, its principles, its participants. And about a ceasefire.

TIME: Assad’s troops have been on the offensive lately, backed by the Russian air force, which stands in the way of the negotiating process. When will the offensive stop?

Medvedev: In my personal opinion, I think it all has to stop when peace arrives. If with our help or with the help of the United States or the Europeans, President Assad sits down at the negotiating table with the people capable of reaching an agreement – that circle of people still has to be determined – and agrees on the future political structure of Syria, democratic reforms and probably his own role and place in this process – because otherwise it would be strange – at that moment everything should come to an end.

Although, of course, we are not indifferent observers here. 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 an obvious thing. When you have thousands of militants from Russia and Central Asia fighting in Syria, this is a real threat to us. That is why we made this decision.

TIME: I often hear this logic, this argument, but I don’t quite understand it. How do airstrikes stop terrorists from going back to Russia? There were no ISIS terrorist attacks in Russia before September, when the airstrikes started. But there was an attack a month later, when the Russian airplane blew up over Sinai. So I don’t understand the logic.

Medvedev: I’ll try to explain. I’ll even go a bit further. Can you actually tell an ISIS or Daesh member from Jaysh 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 [Manuel] Valls. They are all bandits and terrorists. This is this first thing.

Second, the extent of their religious differences is very, very tentative. They move around amongst themselves for various reasons: They get paid more somewhere else, or somebody has a falling out with somebody else. So it is very difficult for us to tell the difference between the very moderate ones and the not-so-moderate ones, 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. But 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.

And another thing. You asked a question about the Cold War. You know, maybe this is a construction that has been wafting around in the air. But I never said that a new Cold War has begun. I said that NATO’s decisions are pushing us toward a new Cold War. I said this and I will again confirm it. Because before me, my former counterpart Mr. [Jens] Stoltenberg – he is now the NATO secretary general – spoke [at the Munich conference], but what did he say? He said Russia should be contained; [military] contingents should be beefed up and defenses 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.

TIME: 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?

Medvedev: We wouldn’t like any confrontation. God forbid. What do we need confrontation for? Not in the Baltics, not 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.

But what Turkey cooked up [by shooting down a Russian fighter jet in late November], that is of course extremely dangerous behavior, it is irresponsible behavior. Turkey has not just exposed itself. It exposed the entire North Atlantic alliance.

I’ll be blunt. If something like this happened, for instance, in Soviet times, there would have been a real mess – if not, God forbid, a serious war, then definitely a real 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 approach is absolutely peaceful, and even though it was a clear provocation – when the plane flew in for a few seconds and flew out, and was shot down already in Syrian airspace – Russia did not retaliate militarily. However, we were forced to respond by cutting back political and economic cooperation.

A lot depends on the decisiveness of the leadership of the North Atlantic alliance in terms of cleaning out the brains of the more anxious members of NATO, who are provoking conflict with other countries. Ultimately it’s a question of discipline within the alliance. We understand perfectly well how such things end.

TIME: Several days ago, in an interview with a German newspaper, you mentioned, or rather, you warned certain NATO members, about a “permanent war” if some of Assad’s foreign opponents start a ground operation in Syria. 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?’

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 go from the sky to the ground, where soldiers appear on the ground, first in the form of special forces and then in the form of armed formations, the situation will drag on… Remember what happened in Afghanistan to US troops. They still can’t leave. So, as soon as a conflict moves to the point of ground operations, it becomes endless. This is what’s dangerous. So don’t do it. Don’t even use it as a scare tactic. Today I heard [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry say that if Russia and Iran do not facilitate reconciliation, they, along with their Arab friends will launch a ground operation. This is wrong. What is he, trying scare us, his partners, with that? Does he want the United States of America to get bogged down, this time in Syria?

TIME: 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. What does Russia think about having an ally like this in Syria? Do you see why the Western countries find it difficult to form any kind of alliance with Assad in light of such crimes?

Medvedev: First, we must carefully study this report and the evidence it brings to bear. Second, if it contains solid proof, it must receive an international legal assessment. Third, regarding allies: allies can differ in nature. 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. Now compare that to the situation in Libya. Who was among the closest friends of the beleaguered [Libyan dictator] Muammar Gaddafi? We know who. And then the situation changed in no time. So, the question now is not about who we call an ally, but about responsible behavior.

TIME: Simply put, you’re saying Russia, unlike Western countries, doesn’t abandon its friends when they’re in trouble?

Medvedev: No, it’s not that simple. You are twisting my words a bit. … Our relations [with Syria] were good, but nothing like an alliance. Of course, we do our best to honor our contractual obligations. If someone asks us for help, we try to assist. Do we use the famous formula of the United States, about “our son of a bitch?” Not always. That’s an American idea.

TIME: In your speech today, you talked a great deal about the Western sanctions imposed against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, and how they are harmful to Russian relations with the West. How did your European colleagues react – perhaps during informal conversations – to this call to lift the sanctions? What’s standing in the way?

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 imposed over there. We’re against it of course. Actually, this is bad, bad for business…” But this position is not quite honest. This was the consolidated decision of all our European friends. They all voted for 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. 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.” And we, too, will never ask for these sanctions to be lifted. They’ll come themselves and say: “Let’s finally put an end to this, because nobody is better off for it; everyone is only the worse off.”

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