On the eve of his visit to Vienna, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an interview to the Austrian ORF channel on June 5, during which he answered a number of questions, some of them concerning Ukraine.
In response to a remark by the anchor Armin Wolf that after the release of the conclusions of the Joint Investigation Team, nobody believed anymore the Russian Federation’s denials of involvement in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, Putin complained that Russian experts were denied access to the investigation. As for the annexation of Crimea, the leader of the Russian Federation said that, in his opinion, “there are no such conditions and there can never be” under which the peninsula would return to Ukraine. He once again repeated that Crimea “gained independence through the free will of the Crimeans expressed in an open referendum, not as a result of an invasion by Russian forces.” When the anchor said that “there is no one who would recognize that vote, there is no one who would recognize the annexation,” Putin replied: “Your arguments sound completely unconvincing, because no one has to recognize the will of citizens residing in a certain area.” In general, Putin gave a detailed account during this conversation of how the occupation of Crimea had been taking place. As for Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, the Russian president noted that this was not the only problem, recalling the language law as well and adding that it was important for Russia that no military installations appear on the territory of Ukraine that could threaten the security of his country. It is worth noting that Putin’s interlocutor Wolf argued his rather uncomfortable questions to Putin in a quite professional manner, as indicated by the leader of the Russian Federation’s irritated response: “If you do not like my answers, then do not ask me questions.”
Putin’s visit to Vienna prompted sharp criticism of the Austrian government within the country over its actions that undermine the united European stance on Russia. The protesting bodies have included the NEOS party and the human rights organizations Forum for Religious Freedom Europe and Human Rights without Frontiers, Die Presse writes. In addition, another concerning development was Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache’s call on the eve of the visit for lifting sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, as he argued that they hurt the Austrian economy.
“RUSSIA IS TRYING TO SPLIT THE EU THROUGH ITS PROPAGANDA, MONEY, BRIBERY”
The Day asked director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies Hryhorii PEREPELYTSIA what conclusion should be drawn from the statements of the Russian president, and why Austria, against the background of a consolidated position of the West with regard to Russia, still invited Putin to visit.
“The ultimate objective of the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine is the destruction of Ukraine as a state. Putin mentioned several issues related to that.
“For example, he recalled history and said that ideologues of Ukrainian independence, whom he considers nationalists, stated the need to establish a sovereign state which would be independent of Russia as early as in the 19th century, but at the same time, many of them spoke about the need to maintain good relations with Russia. In this context, the Russian president calls into question the very need for the existence of a Ukrainian state independent of Russia by quoting Ukrainian nationalists who are considered fascists in Russia. Under what conditions can we establish good relations with Russia? Of course, it will be when the Ukrainian state will be formed on a federal basis. He stresses the same idea, only repackaging it so that it is attractive to the Western world, and especially to Austria: whatever happens, Russia must dominate in this region and determine itself what form of government should Ukraine have – federal, confederal, or as part of Russia.
“He then spoke about the conditions for ending the conflict: it will happen if we accept the terms of the so-called Russian World, that is, if the Ukrainians come back to that entity, because the recently passed language law is discriminatory, it violates the right of ethnic minorities to use other languages. That is, Putin does not recognize the fact of the existence of the Ukrainian language as a national one, but considers it as a factor of hostility to Russia. Thus, the Russian president denies us national identity and culture.
“It is all subordinated to the main objectives of the Russian war on Ukraine: the destruction of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state and the prevention of a revival of the Ukrainian national identity, formation of the Ukrainians as a nation. He then comes back to the claim that ‘we are all Russians, full stop.’ This is a diplomatic formulation of the Russian war objectives.
“Interestingly, when asked by the journalist whether Russia would be satisfied if Ukraine declared itself neutral and abandoned its NATO aspirations, Putin’s answer was: ‘This is one of the problems, but not the only one.’ Russia’s problem is that Ukraine is an independent and sovereign state and that the Ukrainians are becoming a full-fledged European nation.”
The Austrian government was criticized over Putin’s visit. Why did this visit become possible at all?
“The pro-Russian sentiment prevails in Austria. This country is politically oriented towards liberal views and social democracy, socialists have always been popular there. Accordingly, they are committed to partnership and close ties with Russia. Even the statement of the vice chancellor that it is time to lift sanctions imposed on Russia is very telling in itself.
“Russia is trying to split the EU with its money, bribery, funding of right-wing and left-wing radical parties and political forces, and total propaganda which is very skillfully tailored to the sentiments of European countries’ populations. Russia is engaged in a strong but, unfortunately, successful subversive effort, aimed at changing the very sentiments of a given population. For example, many supporters of the so-called Russian World in the Netherlands or Austria see in Russia an alternative development path for Europe. Although they themselves do not visit Russia and do not see what the real situation there is, propaganda still does its job. Thus, Russophile enclaves appear within the EU, and Austria is one of them. That is why Putin decided to visit Austria. I think that he will then go to Greece, Italy – that is, the countries where the Russocentric sentiment is very popular both with the population and with politicians, especially those from populist parties.”
President of France Emmanuel Macron visited Russia earlier, and Nord Stream 2 is being built. Does this indicate that Russia is succeeding in splitting the West, after all?
“Yes, this is a direct indication that the Russian hybrid war brings big dividends to Russia. As a result of such propaganda and bribing of Western politicians, populists have entered the Italian parliament; in Germany, a third of seats in the parliament have been taken by the pro-Russian party Alternative for Germany. Angela Merkel’s standing has been severely undermined, and this explains her depressed appearance at a meeting with Putin in Sochi, or at least it was evident at the press conference. That is, to a large extent, Russia has succeeded in undermining the Western world from within. For example, look how Russia interfered in the US election, thus calling into question the legitimacy of President Donald Trump. Since European countries have mostly parliamentary political systems, Putin acts through legislative and presidential elections there. For example, look at Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose pro-Russian sympathies were obvious to everyone, especially since he belonged to Gerhard Schroeder’s generation and team, and the latter has been effectively bought by and is now serving Russia’s Gazprom. That generation of business-connected politicians is easily bribed with Russian money or preferential treatment. We can also look to other examples, like Silvio Berlusconi’s party or Marin Le Pen’s party, which has a significant representation in the French parliament. In this way, climate is changing in favor of Russia. Even head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker says that it is necessary to lift sanctions imposed on Russia, to renew the partnership, to rely on Russia, because it is large, while Europe is small and has to take into account the interests of the Russian Federation, to find a compromise, and the Russian Federation has its legitimate interests in Ukraine as well. He hints that Ukraine is a traditional sphere of influence of Russia and that they must take that into account.
“All these examples show that Russia is winning this hybrid war. And one of its objectives is the destruction of the enemy society from within. And we are seeing how Russia is destroying Europe and the EU from within by changing popular sentiments, changing the interests of politicians.”
“WE MUST BECOME STRONG!”
What is the way out of this situation? How should Ukraine and Europe act to protect their interests?
“We must become strong! It is necessary to carry out a firm strength-based policy, just like Russia does.
“For example, look at the situation with our prisoners. We catch Russian saboteurs and spies and then ask Russia when it will like to take them back. At the same time, Russia catches our citizens, detains them on totally fabricated charges, and sentences them to prison terms of 12 or 20 years, as in the cases of Roman Sushchenko and Oleh Sentsov. Which Russian saboteur has been jailed for 20 years? Another example is the situation with FSB operatives who were detained in Kherson, with the court ruling that their trespassing of the Ukrainian border and operations on our soil amounted to mere hooliganism. In my opinion, such spies and saboteurs should be given life sentences, not exchanged. Then the Russian FSB and Russian saboteurs would feel less enthusiastic about organizing terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage. For now, they perceive Ukraine as their own turf and operate freely here. Why do we not have a strict counter-intelligence regime? Why do our courts, at best, subject saboteurs to house arrest, and at worst, acquit them outright? According to the rules applicable in wartime, the judges themselves should be tried for that according to the military tribunal rules. Since such conditions are neither present nor likely to appear in this country, all our enemies feel free to act here.”