Putin Says Deal With Ukraine Was a Good-Will Gesture
By David M. Herszenhorn, NY Times, December 19, 2013
MOSCOW—President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday explained his decision to rescue Ukraine with a $15 billion bailout and discounts on natural gas as a gesture of good will given the close historic ties between the two countries.
"I will be very frank with you and don’t take it as an irony—we very often use the term ‘brother nation’ or ‘sister nation,’" Mr. Putin said, seeming buoyant and supremely confident at his annual news conference here.
"We see the current situation, both political and economical is quite difficult," Mr. Putin said. "So if we say it is a sister nation, we should do what family members do. We should support our sister nation when in dire straits. This is the number one reason why this decision was taken."
Mr. Putin’s announcement of the loan and gas deal on Tuesday threw a lifeline to Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, who has been facing not only a severe and deepening economic crisis but also more than three weeks of civil unrest from protesters who have occupied Independence Square and seized control of several public buildings in Kiev, the capital.
The loan from Russia, using money from its national welfare fund, spares Mr. Yanukovich—at least for the moment—from further negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which in exchange for its own aid package had demanded systemic economic reforms, including some tough austerity measures.
Mr. Putin’s move to offer unilateral assistance was a bold and risky step. The rules for investing money from the Russian national welfare fund require long-term bond ratings of at least AA, while Ukraine’s current rating from both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s is B- with a negative outlook.
But the bailout also underscored Russia’s economic and strategic interests in Ukraine and Mr. Putin’s resolve in keeping Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence.
Russia maneuvered aggressively to dissuade Mr. Yanukovich from signing far-reaching political and trade agreements with the European Union and, by offering the bailout package, Mr. Putin ensured that Mr. Yanukovich would not revive those accords anytime soon.
To Mr. Putin’s evident glee, his bold steps left European officials stunned, and scrambling for a response.
Mr. Putin traditionally holds a large news conference in December, spending hours answering questions about the past year. Compared to a year ago, when he seemed tense and appeared to be in pain from a lingering back injury, Mr. Putin on Thursday seemed in high spirits and eager to spar with reporters.
In recent months, he has recorded a number of foreign policy successes that have established Russia as a dominant force in counterbalancing Western dominance of world affairs. These have included granting temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who exposed aggressive American surveillance programs; protecting his longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from an American military strike by proposing a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons; and swooping in to help Ukraine.
In just over a month, Mr. Putin will play host to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which he seems clearly to view as integral to his legacy as Russia’s pre-eminent leader of the 21st century. Ahead of the Olympics, Russia has come under criticism for its human rights record, and also for some new legislation, including a law banning propaganda on nontraditional relationships that is widely viewed in the West as an effort to suppress homosexuality.
In response to a question about what seems to be a clash of cultures between Russia and the West, Mr. Putin said that Russia was merely defending its values and traditions, and he suggested that the West was trying to impose its views on others.
"It is not about criticizing somebody," Mr. Putin said. "It is about protecting us from aggressive behavior on the part of some social groups, which I believe do not just live in a way they like, but they try to aggressively impose their opinion on other people and other countries."
In response to a question, Mr. Putin said that he had not met personally with Mr. Snowden, whose disclosures about surveillance programs have changed the way many governments, including some of Washington’s closest allies, view their relationship with the United States.
"I was not lucky to meet Snowden personally," Mr. Putin said. "I have many tasks at hand."
Asked about his relationship with President Obama, in the context of the Snowden situation, Mr. Putin said, “I envy him. I envy him because he can do all this and he is not going to be punished for it.” He also joked: “Well, espionage is one of the oldest professions, along with some other professions that I will not elaborate about.”
On another security topic, Mr. Putin denied that Russia had deployed short-range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave nestled between Lithuania and Poland, but said that the country may do so as a counterbalance to American efforts to install a missile defense shield in Europe.
"We haven’t made that decision," Mr. Putin said, responding to a question from a state-run television channel about reports that the missiles were located in the enclave. "They should calm down," he said.