Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes last week, in advance of his Monday address at the United Nations General Assembly.
The interview, which aired Sunday evening, is classic Putin: He is at turns blunt, evasive, and a braggart, often defending against criticisms of himself and of Russian foreign policy by turning those criticisms back on the United States. But it was also an interesting glimpse — despite, or at times because of, his less-than-honest spin — into how Putin sees the world and Russia's place in it.
These are, to my eye, five of the most revealing and important quotes from his interview.
1) "There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism."
Russia has just sent a military intervention force to Syria, stationing a couple dozen military aircraft and some troops to guard them, meant to aid Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
Putin's Russia has long supported Assad, which has put him at odds with the United States, but he may now see an opening to turn the US to his side in Syria — and to offer Russian assistance in fighting ISIS. His characterization of the Syrian civil war as a categorical fight between Assad on one side and terrorists on the other is longstanding and self-serving, but he may now believe he has a more receptive audience in the US to that message.
2) "More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory."
American analyses of Russia's intervention in Syria tend to assume that it's all about us; that it's aimed at undercutting American efforts in Syria and American influence in the Middle East. There is likely some truth to that, but Putin is probably also motivated by Russian concerns as well, which in no small part includes a fear of Russian or Central Asian fighters in Syria one day returning home.
Russia has a long and bloody history with jihadist terrorism; Putin, since taking power in 2000, has heavily emphasized his guarantee to the Russian people of security against terrorism. His fears are well-founded that Russian fighters in Syria, as well as fighters from other post-Soviet states, could return to Russia to commit acts of terrorism. There is probably real truth to his claim here that his intervention in Syria is in part designed to protect against that terrorism.
3) Charlie Rose: "You respect the sovereignty of Ukraine?"
Vladimir Putin: "Sure. But we want countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries and Ukraine in particular. Respect for sovereignty means to not allow unconstitutional action and coups d'état, the removal of legitimate power."
Putin did not discuss Ukraine much in his interview, but it was striking how little his rhetoric on the country has changed in the year and half since the war in eastern Ukraine began. It is not a promising sign for his willingness to seek or accept peace there.
Rose's question is a clear, if unstated, nod to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, as well as Russian support for and guidance of the separatist rebels there, neither of which Putin has ever acknowledged. Putin's response is classic whataboutism: He deflect the criticism of Russian action by turning it back on the US, which he accuses of secretly fomenting the 2013 unrest that presaged the crisis.
Putin's position still seems to be that Ukraine's long-ousted, pro-Moscow administration is the legitimate government, that Russia is not directly involved in eastern Ukraine, that this is really all the West's fault. None of that suggests a softening line on Ukraine or a willingness to find peace.
4) Charlie Rose: "But you are in part a major power because of the nuclear weapons you have. You are a force to be reckoned with."
Vladimir Putin: "I hope so. I definitely hope so. Otherwise, why do we have nuclear weapons at all?"
This is a pretty frightening way for a head of state to think about nuclear weapons. It's not new: Putin has long treated nuclear weapons as both Russia's membership card in the great powers club and as the country's final guarantee against an implacably hostile West. But it is striking to see it laid out here so plainly.
And it is, to put it lightly, a concerning view for a major head of state to have about nuclear weapons, which are today typically thought of as deterrents, never to be used. The distinction matters: Putin, seeking to compensate for his weakness compared to the West, has indulged in an awful lot of nuclear saber-rattling, introducing a heightened nuclear risk to nonnuclear situations.
Given the remote but non-zero possibility of conflict between Russia and the Western nuclear powers, Putin's willingness to use nuclear weapons as props creates a greater risk that any such conflict would go nuclear. That risk isn't making headlines in the same way as Ukraine or Syria, but it is a concerning one.
5) "I indeed said that I believe that the collapse of the USSR was a huge tragedy of the 20th century. You know why? Because, first of all, in an instant 25 million Russian people found themselves beyond the borders of the Russian state, although they were living within the borders of the Soviet Union. ... Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world."
This is a line that Putin has increasingly taken over the past couple of years: that the existence of ethnic Russian minorities in former Soviet republics is a tragedy and a major problem, that these ethnic Russians are Putin's responsibility and his problem to solve.
In Putin's worldview, this gives Russia the right to meddle or perhaps even intervene in other countries with ethnic Russian minorities to protect those minorities. That includes the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — all of which are NATO allies right on Russia's borders. Fears that Russia could try to intervene in those countries, or stir up unrest among Russian minorities there, have led the US to conduct military exercises in those countries, at times just along the Russian border.
The big fear is that Putin could try to do in the Baltic states some version of what he did in Ukraine. Because those states are NATO allies, that would, at least in theory, compel the US and rest of NATO to come to their aid — putting all three Western nuclear powers at conflict with Russia. Again, that is a remote scenario, and analysts disagree about whether Putin would ever even consider it, but it's one that Western leaders are taking seriously. And when Putin talks about ethnic Russians abroad as a still-unresolved tragedy that is Moscow's obligation to resolve, he adds credence to those fears.