Corriere della Sera : Relations between Russia and Italy seem rosy. Our government is among the few in Europe to push for a review of sanctions, yet we are the ones who suffer the most from the block on various consumer goods that your government has adopted as a countermeasure. Wouldn’t it be a conciliatory gesture if Russia began to unilaterally abolish counter-sanctions?
Vladimir Putin : We have a special relationship with Italy that has stood the test of time, and we enjoy a dialogue with its leadership based on trust. We constantly work together in the fields of politics, economics, science and the arts. We greatly appreciate this mutual trust and partnership. We naturally took this into account, and had no desire to extend the limitations on economic ties to affect Italy. But the fact is that in adopting response measures – against illegal sanctions – we could not act selectively, because otherwise we would have run into problems with the World Trade Organization. I would like to add that the decision to implement sanctions against Russia was adopted by the European Commission and voted by all EU countries. I would however like to stress that Russian measures are circumscribed, and do not prevent us from successfully exchanging investments or engaging in industrial cooperation. As a result, no Italian company has abandoned the Russian market. Promising bilateral contracts were signed at the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum in the industrial, oil, gas and petrochemical sectors. As far as the abolition of sanctions is concerned, the first step must be taken by the body that pushed for them, namely the European Union. Then Russia could cancel the response measures it adopted. We are confident that common sense will prevail, that Europe will be guided above all by its own interests and not by outside influence. We will then be able to develop, to our mutual benefit, wide-ranging cooperation projected towards the future.”
Corriere della Sera : In a world that, in a certain sense, seems more unstable now than in the years of the Cold War, the disarmament agreements between Russia and the US are in crisis. Are we on the verge of a new arms race with unpredictable results, despite what seemed like a good start between you and Trump? To what extent is your country responsible for these developments?
Vladimir Putin : To no extent! The collapse of the international security system began with the unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) by the US. This was the cornerstone of the whole arms control system. Compare how much Russia spends on defence – about $48 billion – with the US military budget – over $700 billion. So what arms race are we talking about? We have no intention of getting involved in such a race, but we also have an obligation to ensure our security. Precisely for this reason we have been forced to design ultra-modern vehicles and weapons, as a response to the increase in US military spending and its blatantly unconstructive approach. A perfect example is the situation regarding the INF Treaty [regarding medium-range missiles, Ed]. On several occasions we asked the US to provide objective, concrete clarification on the issues surrounding this document, but met with a refusal. As a result, the Americans are de facto dismantling yet another agreement. How we should go forward together to reduce strategic armaments remains unclear. In early 2021 the New START treaty [on intercontinental missiles, Ed.] expires. However, we are not currently seeing any US willingness to discuss its extension or to draft a completely new agreement. Another fact is worth mentioning. In October last year, we made a proposal to the United States regarding the adoption of a joint declaration on the “inadmissibility” of nuclear war and the acknowledgement of its destructive consequences. To date, the Americans have not replied. There have recently been signs that Washington is beginning to consider resuming bilateral dialogue on a wide-ranging strategic agenda. I think that the achievement of concrete agreements in the field of arms control would contribute to strengthening international stability. Russia has the political will to work towards this. Now it’s up to the US. I talked to President Trump about this during our recent meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan.
Corriere della Sera : In Russia there is talk of NATO expansion, while many European countries, especially in the East, claim they fear possible aggression from Moscow. How can these mutual fears be assuaged? Is a new Helsinki agreement conceivable? Do you think that Italy and Russia could jointly launch a new forum for dialogue along the lines of the Russia-NATO council that was established in Pratica di Mare in 2002?
Vladimir Putin : If we are to emerge from the current toxic climate, we need to abandon the archaic ideas of the Cold War based on “deterrence” and the “concept of blocs”. There has to be a single, indivisible security system. It must be based on the fundamental principles established in the UN Charter and in the Helsinki Final Act, including the commitment to neither use or threaten force, non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, peaceful appeasement, and a policy of dispute management. We appreciate Italy’s commitment to strengthening mutual understanding in the Euro-Atlantic area. We are always willing to work jointly with Italian and Western partners to combat real security challenges and threats, including international terrorism, drug trafficking and cyber crime.
Corriere della Sera : There has been much talk of interference from hackers based in your country during the election campaign. Some countries have directly accused your government. How do you respond to these charges? Do you not think that interference is a serious problem in relations with Europe?
Vladimir Putin : The most absurd thing was the accusation that Russia interfered in the American elections. We all know how that ended: no case to answer. And the Mueller commission’s conclusions on the absence of such a plot are clear; they failed to gather concrete evidence simply because nothing had happened. Interestingly, the sanctions issued against our country on the pretext of these charges are still in force. We witnessed a similar hubbub over alleged Russian interference in the EU elections, a rumour that was insistently circulated on the eve of the vote. There seemed to be an attempt to suggest in advance to Europeans that “evil Russian interference” was to blame for the poor results of individual political forces in the elections. But the main objective of those spreading such rumours remained the same: to continue to “demonize” Russia in the eyes of ordinary European citizens. I want to make this very clear: we have not interfered and do not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of either EU member states or any other states. This is what sets us apart from the US and a number of their allies who, for example, supported the coup in Ukraine in February 2014. We are interested in restoring “full-scale” relations between Russia and the EU, in order to maintain peace, security and stability in our shared continent, and are ready for a constructive relationship with all the political forces that have been elected by European voters.
Corriere della Sera : What exactly are Russia’s relations with Matteo Salvini’s League? Is he your contact leader in Italy? How would you define your relationship with Silvio Berlusconi?
Vladimir Putin : Contacts with the political parties of foreign states are normally maintained on an inter-party basis. Consequently, Italy’s League and our United Russia cooperate within the framework of a cooperation agreement. The League and its leader Salvini actively support the restoration of full cooperation between Italy and Russia; they are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU. On this issue our points of view coincide. Salvini has a welcoming attitude towards our country, and is well informed on the situation in Russia. We met in 2014 in Milan, where we discussed the prospect of developing Italian-Russian ties and relations between Russia and the European Union. Since then, as far as I know, Mr. Salvini and representatives of his party have maintained contact with their Russian counterparts interested in developing cooperation with their Italian partners. I have said this on several occasions, and I repeat: in our relations with foreign states we engage with legally elected, legitimate leaders. We are ready to work with whoever has been chosen by the Italian people, regardless of their political affiliation. As for Berlusconi, we are bound by a friendship stretching back many years. Silvio is a politician of global stature, a true leader who strongly advocates the interests of his country in the international arena. We respect his sincere desire to preserve and consolidate the potential benefits of relations between our countries. We are unable to meet often, but when the opportunity arises, he never takes the liberty of discussing internal political affairs. And nor do I. It is important for there to be absolute consensus among all political forces in Italy regarding the development of good relations with Russia. We too are equally committed to such an outcome.
Corriere della Sera : During the recent visit of Prime Minister Conte to Moscow, was there talk of Russia possibly purchasing Italian public debt?
Vladimir Putin : We didn’t discuss this issue, and, as far as I know, nor has there been an official request along these lines from Italy.
Corriere della Sera : With the election of Vladimir Zelensky as the Ukrainian president, many expected a thaw with Moscow, a rapid solution to the conflict in the Donbass and the beginning of constructive dialogue. Is this possible?
Vladimir Putin : Yes, it’s possible if Zelensky begins to fulfil his pre-election promises, including that of seeking direct dialogue with his fellow citizens in the Donbass and of ceasing to call them separatists. It’s possible if the Ukrainian authorities respect the Minsk agreements, rather than ignoring them. Coercive “Ukrainianization”; bans on the use of the Russian language (which is the mother tongue of millions of Ukrainian citizens), including its teaching in universities and schools; unbridled neo-Nazism; civil war in the south-east of the country; and the attempts by previous powers to destroy the fragile interdenominational peace are only a small part of the disgraceful inheritance that the new president will have to deal with. So I repeat: the Ukraine’s citizens do not expect declarations of intent from Zelensky and his ministers, but concrete action and a change for the better as soon as possible. Moreover, the authorities in Kiev must finally understand that confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is not in our common interest, while the development of pragmatic cooperation based on trust and mutual understanding clearly is. We’re ready.
Corriere della Sera : You have no real political opponents, and obtained almost 77 percent of the vote in presidential elections last year; the opposition is almost non-existent. Why then do your development plans struggle to take off? What are the biggest obstacles?
Vladimir Putin : It’s not a question of the percentage of votes in the elections, but of the economic reality that Russia has to deal with, such as falls or fluctuations in international prices for our traditional export goods, from oil and gas to metals. Nor should we forget the influence of external restrictions. However, we are implementing a well-considered, realistic policy. We ensure macroeconomic stability, and keep unemployment in check. What’s more, we have managed to channel considerable resources into starting major national projects that will guarantee significant development in key sectors of the economy and society, and an improved quality of life for the people. As for the implementation of these plans, this does not, admittedly, always happen as quickly as we would like. Unforeseen events, complications and miscalculations also occur. This is however a problem common to all countries, and is understandable: we have a gargantuan task ahead of us, not only in the economy but also other fields. The essential thing is that, in many ways, people themselves must change, become aware of the need for transformation, of their role in these processes, and help to work towards the common goal. Things like that don’t happen automatically. Everyone needs to realize that the world around them is changing radically. Technology is developing at an ever-increasing rate, and this is why our plans are projected into the future. We are creating the conditions to allow people to make the most of their talents and abilities, especially the young. Among the many initiatives necessary in this field, of particular importance is the project “Russia is the country of opportunity”, aimed at fostering the personal and professional growth of people of various generations. We will certainly achieve our goals, based on energy, freedom and our citizens’ initiative.
Corriere della Sera : Are you considering the possibility of a post-Putin Russia after 2024? Will you leave politics or, as many believe, will you remain in another capacity?
Vladimir Putin : It’s premature to talk about this. There are still five years of intense work ahead, and considering the dizzying speed with which the world is changing, it’s difficult to make predictions. Believe me, I have lots to be getting on with in my current role.
Corriere della Sera : What constitutes the basis for economic and commercial relations between Italy and Russia? What projects are currently being implemented and discussed?
Vladimir Putin : Italy is one of our country’s main trading partners, ranking fifth in the world after China, Germany, the Netherlands and Belarus. About 500 Italian companies are represented in Russia, and despite the sanctions we discussed before, bilateral ties are successfully being developed. Trade grew 12.7 percent in 2018 to $26.9 billion. Italian direct investments at the beginning of this year reached $4.7 billion, and Russian investments in Italy are also significant, amounting to $2.7 billion. Companies from both countries have already created a series of major investment projects. Among the most important are four power stations in the Tver, Ekaterinburg and Stavropol regions managed by Enel; two joint ventures for the production of tyres in Voronezh and Kirov with Pirelli; and a plant in Chelyabinsk that manufactures pumps for the oil industry with Termomeccanica S.p.A. In Chelyabinsk, another five companies operate in joint ventures with Italian partners, including a steel production plant, and manufacturers of energy apparatus and cryogenic machinery. Last year in this region, a plant opened for the production of high voltage electric motors involving the Italian company Nidec. Giants such as Eni, Maire Tecnimont and Iveco all actively invest in the Russian economy. Among the significant Russian investments in Italy, I would like to mention Lukoil, in the refining and distribution of oil products, and one of the largest alumina factories in Europe, located in Sardinia and owned by Rusal. A series of major investment projects in Russia with Italian participation are now in the development phase: Enel wind energy plans; the construction of a chemical company in the Samara region; a methane processing factory in the Amur region with the participation of Maire Tecnimont; and a new Barilla pasta factory. There is another major Russian-Italian project outside both our countries, in Egypt: the Zohr field where Eni and Rosneft work side by side. I would like to thank our Italian business partners for their commitment to developing business ties. We really appreciate this, and feel sure that Russian-Italian economic cooperation will continue to benefit our countries and peoples in the future.
Interviewed by Fabrizio Dragosei and Paolo Valentino.
English translation by Simon Tanner
Corriere Della Sera (Italy)