Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Likens Iraq Quagmire to Soviet-Afghan War

President Vladimir Putin says the United States now faces in Iraq the possibility of a prolonged, violent and ultimately futile war like the one that mired the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In an expansive interview on Saturday evening, Putin warned that Iraq could "become a new center, a new magnet for all destructive elements." He added, without naming them, that "a great number of members of different terrorist organizations" have been drawn into the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

To respond to this emerging threat, he said, the Bush administration must move quickly to restore sovereignty to Iraqis and to secure a new United Nations resolution that would clearly define how long international forces remain there.

"How would the local population treat forces whose official name is the occupying forces?" he asked, suggesting that further hostility to the United States was inevitable unless its occupation received the international legitimacy it now lacks.

Putin said for the first time that Russia was prepared to offer partial relief on the $8 billion it is owed by Iraq, but only in coordination with other major creditor nations in the Paris Club. The United States has been struggling to persuade its European allies to make significant contributions to the multibillion-dollar rebuilding of Iraq.

During an interview that lasted nearly three hours and ranged from Iraq to Russia's economic development to the state of democracy here, Putin repeatedly characterized Russia's relations with the United States, and his own with President George W. Bush, as close and frank -- those of a partner, even, at times, an ally.

But at the same time, he was sharply critical of American complaints about Chechnya, of humiliating new visa requirements for Russians, of what he called lingering cold-war habits of mind, and of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, which he simply called "an error."

Hussein's government had, with reason, been called "a criminal one," Putin said, but he disputed one of the core reasons given by Bush for attacking Iraq in March: the assertion that it had ties to international Islamic militancy and terrorism. Rather, he suggested that the invasion of Iraq had created a terrorist haven where one did not previously exist.

"It struggled against the fundamentalists," he said of Hussein's government. "He either exterminated them physically or put them in jail or just sent them into exile."

Now, he added, with Hussein ousted, "The coalition forces received two enemies at once -- both the remains of the Saddam regime, who fight with them, and those who Saddam himself had fought in the past -- the fundamentalists."

Putin did not identify the militants entering Iraq, but he said they came "from all the Muslim world." Those militants, he suggested, may now find themselves at ease in Iraq, as they once were among the Afghans, and the "danger exists" of a decade-long struggle like the one fought by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Such fears, he added, "are not groundless."

Putin spoke at his wooded presidential compound in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, appearing relaxed but also fiercely concentrated. His growing understanding of English was on display in the not infrequent correction of an interpreter on his use of particular words.

As he did during his recent trip to the United States, he seemed eager to present a softer, more congenial image -- perhaps in response to a flurry of advertisements, protests and newspaper columns suggesting that he was an autocrat bent on reversing Russia's democracy. Putin affectionately stroked his black Labrador, Koni, who bounded in -- seemingly on cue for the kinder-Russian-ruler campaign -- halfway through the interview.

Repeatedly, Putin used American analogies to drive home his points. Why, he asked, was his wide use of the security services any different from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security? Why should terrorism in Chechnya provoke any lesser response here than America's if the same problems arose in Texas? Why should his former role as a KGB agent prompt concern when the first Bush was once head of the CIA?

Turning to Iran, Putin said Russia had sought to address U.S. concerns about its aid in the construction of a civilian nuclear reactor in Iran by insisting that Iran return any spent nuclear fuel -- a demand not yet ironed out in talks with Iran. Without identifying them, he complained that American and European companies also assisted Iran's nuclear ambitions but did not face sanctions, as some Russian companies had.

He made it clear that Russia reserved the right to complete Iran's reactor at Bushehr. But he also reiterated his call for Iranian leaders to accept expanded international inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, saying they had no reason to object if they had nothing to hide. "We are not only hearing what our U.S. partners are telling us, we are listening to what they have to say," Putin said. "And we are finding that some of their assertions are justified."

On the conflict in Chechnya, an open sore in Russia's standing in the world, Putin portrayed the presidential election held Sunday as an important step toward a political settlement to end four years of conflict -- not unlike, he said, what was needed in Iraq. The election has been widely criticized as a farce.

Putin dismissed the criticism and bemoaned what he called a U.S. double standard in which Islamic fighters in Chechnya were called democrats, while those in Afghanistan and Iraq were viewed as criminals. He also joked that when it came to elections, the United States had its own problems. "As yet you have not yet mastered well the situation in California," he said.

Bush was "courageous" for expressing support for Russian policies in Chechnya, he said, but he complained that other United States "agencies and ministries" were far less helpful -- a legacy, he said, of a Cold War mentality he also perceived in a recent American decision, now revoked, to send surveillance flights over the Black Sea.

Putin spoke a week after a four-day trip to the United States that ended with an overnight stay with Bush at Camp David. A qualitatively new relationship now exists between Russia and the United States -- one mature enough to withstand pointed criticism and frank advice, Putin said. "Our interests in the sphere of the fight against radicalism and terrorism coincide," he said.

But on Iraq, differences clearly remain. Putin ruled out, for now, sending Russian troops to help there and said that although a variety of international military contingents provided political support for America in Iraq, they were not much use in other respects because they "abuse alcohol," "begin to sell weapons" and only thought about "fleeing as soon as possible."

He declined to say which countries' soldiers he had in mind, but described the troops as "motley" rather than multinational. Several dozen nations have contributed to the America-led force in Iraq -- including Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Spain, Portugal and Mongolia -- usually with small contingents.

As to the postwar looting and chaos in Iraq, Putin said Russia had not been surprised by the collapse of Iraqi institutions. But, like the Bush administration, Russia believed before the war that unconventional weapons might be found. "The question is what has happened" to the weapons, he said.

Although Russia seeks a rapid return of sovereignty to Iraq, it would accept a dominant role for the American military in providing security, he said, as well as a gradual rather than a rapid transfer of actual power to the Iraqi authorities. Given the money it has spent and is spending there, America has to play a leading role in Iraq, he suggested.

This position -- calling for a greater United Nations role in Iraq but apparently acknowledging American primacy -- puts Russia at odds with some countries, like France, that have been more critical of the United States. Putin described the Russian position as "very pragmatic and flexible."

Asked if he believed that the United States now treated Russia as a junior partner, he offered a striking admission, saying he was "fully aware of what Russia is, what place it occupies in the world, what are our capabilities." At the same time, however, he said Russia "with all the problems it has" would not subsume its national interests to those of the United States or any other country.

Turning to the rift between the United States and its European allies, particularly France and Germany, Putin said the difficulties would be overcome. "We think that it is kind of a quarrel in a holy family -- and sooner or later it will heal," he said. "The less emotion expressed here the better."

He noted that the European Union accounted for half of Russia's trade and said it would have a "special level of relationship" with the union that stopped short, he emphasized, of becoming a member. Russia, he said, was intent on "setting up a unified economic and humanitarian space in Europe," one that ensured that "no new divisive lines" are established on the continent.

As for the state of democracy in Russia -- the state control of television, the harassment of some rights groups, the growing influence of former security agents, like himself -- he said different countries had different identities.

"But on the whole, the main principles of humanism -- human rights, freedom of speech -- remain fundamental for all countries, and Russia enjoys no right to claim any exclusive status in this area," he said.

He described tremendous progress since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- noting that it had taken centuries for democratic institutions to evolve in Western Europe and the United States. While the Inquisition in Europe ended centuries ago, Russia's own form of Inquisition ended barely a decade ago, he said.

The country, for all its problems, is following an irreversible trajectory toward democracy and a free market, he declared.

Russia would seek to spur foreign investment, including a possible deal involving ExxonMobil acquiring a stake in the oil company Yukos, he said, because "we favor foreign capital investment."

Putin alluded to Boris Yeltsin's decisive achievement in bringing freedom to Russia and suggested that his own mission was to consolidate his predecessor's by completing Russia's transition. "Even if someone wanted it to, it is impossible for the country to make a U-turn."

Excerpts From the Interview With Putin

On the oligarchs and press freedom:
We have a category of people who have become billionaires, as we say, overnight. The state appointed them as billionaires. It simply gave out a huge amount of property, practically for free. They said it themselves. "I was appointed a billionaire." Then as the play developed, they got the impression that the gods themselves slept on their heads, that everything is permitted to them. In essence, an attempt was made in Russia to create a system of oligarchic rule, when behind the backs of visible political figures there would in fact be other people who did not appear on the surface but in reality formed political decisions of national import. I will remind you that Western public opinion did not like this very much at the time. These so-called oligarchs are smart, wily people. They understood very well how to manipulate public opinion. And in essence they began to behave with the mass media and the national television channels in the same way that they behaved with natural resources, subjugating them to their group interests first of all and replacing national interests with group interests first.

We, in order to ensure the real freedom of the press, must ensure the real economic independence of the mass media. We will be persistent in trying to achieve this end. We will offer comprehensive support of the real independence of the press, even if we do not like those ideas and opinions that are expressed.

On Exxon's possible purchase of a stake in Yukos:
To the best of my knowledge, this deal has not yet been concluded. It is under discussion. You know what was our attitude to the purchase by British Petroleum of 50 percent of another major company of ours, TNK. We favor foreign capital involvement in Russia's economy. ExxonMobil is operating in the Far East, in Sakhalin, it is involved in investing a lot of money there, and we will support their further activities there. As regards purchasing part of the Yukos company, again this is a corporate matter, but once again we are talking about a possible major deal here, and I think it would be the right thing to do to have preliminary consultations with the Russian government on this matter.

We just had a meeting of the Davos forum here in Moscow and before that the energy summit between the U.S. and Russia that took place in St. Petersburg. And representatives of international business, including American business, noted with regret that they now believe that they had committed a mistake in their corporate plans with the level of investment that they made in Russia, which currently they find not to be sufficient. This is a very positive sign as regards prospects of their further involvement. So, we will see what happens next.

On changes to U.S. visas for Russians:
What is the point in summoning every person for an interview from all the territory of the huge Russian Federation, which, as know is the biggest country in the world in terms of territory? And to make them answer foolish, having nothing to do with security issues questions in the questionnaire? For example, women are asked if they are prostitutes. All the rest are asked if they have been involved in terrorism. Even if a woman was or is a prostitute or a man was involved into terrorist activity, I think they are not likely to voluntarily confess in answering this question on the questionnaire. It is a complete nightmare, which has nothing to do with realistic tasks of struggle against terrorism. It is done just for people working at the special services. Since the time when I myself worked at the special services, they were called the "foam removers." They just sit and remove the foam. They are still there doing this.