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A tight spot for Putin?

In an interview with "Bild" newspaper, Russian President Putin repeated familliar accusations against the West - but struck some new notes, too. Is a change in policy in the air? Christian Trippe reports from Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took the time to speak for two hours with the chief editor of German mass-circulation newspaper "Bild," Kai Diekmann, and the daily's chief political correspondent, Nikolas Blome. The lengthy interview, held at Putin's country residence in Sochi at the beginning of last week, topped the headlines nationwide in Russia's TV news on Monday, even though, at first glance, Putin didn't really have anything spectacularly new to say. Instead, he reiterated his long-established views: that NATO had broken its promises and violated agreements regarding its eastern enlargement, and that the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was necessary to protect the 2.5 million Russians living there following the "coup" in Kyiv.

Putin told "Bild" that the West wanted to continue to harm Russian interests, describing the international sanctions against his country, for example, as a "theater of the absurd." The European Union and the USA imposed economic sanctions on Russia after the Crimea annexation and because of Moscow's covert military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin said the aim here was not to help Ukraine, but to advance the West's plan to "roll back Russia's influence."

'Everyone made mistakes'

Putin's answers and statements - but not the questions put to him by the German journalists – were broadcast on all Russian TV news channels. The whole thing sometimes took on the character of a lecture, as when Putin quoted from documents, sliding his finger over the lines as he read. Putin admitted that the Russian economy was faced with "dangerously heavy losses to its income" because of the fall in the price of crude oil. But he insisted that the economy would soon stabilize and be stronger again for the crisis.

Putin also apologized for an incident that happened nearly nine years ago, but which still has people talking in Berlin: At a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin let his boisterous Labrador bitch Koni loose into the room. The dog sniffed at the chancellor. Merkel, who is afraid of dogs, played down the situation. He hadn't wanted to frighten Merkel, Putin said. "I wanted to do something that would be nice for her." He said that he had known nothing about Merkel's aversion to dogs. "When I found out she did not like dogs, I apologized, of course," said Putin. This story about Koni the Labrador was top news in some Russian online news portals – next to Putin's comments on the economic crisis.

Merkel and Putin with dog

Putin and Koni the Labrador met with Merkel in 2007

In its online summary of the interview, the business daily "Vedomosti," which is the mouthpiece of Russia's economic elite and the newspaper of choice for Western-oriented business leaders, found one sentence about foreign policy to be of notable interest: "Everyone made mistakes," admitted Putin, saying that the current discord was Russia's fault just as much as it was the West's. An admission that gives scope for speculation.

No fresh start for relations

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of a Kremlin-friendly foreign policy journal, warned DW against too high expectations: "This is not a fresh start for relations between Russia and the West." But he said Russia was looking for cooperation on practical issues and wanted to move "away from confrontation." Alexey Malashenko, from the Moscow office of the Carnegie Foundation, is of the view that the Russian president is definitely in a tight spot: "Putin is beginning to realize that the Russian economy is in a catastrophic situation," said Malashenko in an interview with DW. According to his analysis, Russia is overstretching itself with expensive military ventures and increasingly isolating itself. "The situation is dangerous for the inner stability of Russia," he said. That's why Putin was looking for a dialogue with the West, as the interview with the two German journalists from "Bild" went to prove, he said.

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