ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that he does not believe there will be a new Cold War with the United States, and Russia does not want it.
But he warned that Russia’s interests must be taken seriously and accused the West of having ignored Russia’s concerns over Ukraine. He also criticized Britain’s Prince Charles’ reported recent remarks comparing him to Hitler as “unacceptable” and “not royal behavior.”
“I wouldn’t like to think that this is the start of a new Cold War — we’re not interested in that and I don’t believe it will happen,” Putin said when asked about the future of U.S.-Russian relations, which are at their lowest point in the two decades since the end of the Soviet Union because of the crisis in Ukraine.
He said there have been many points of contact and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in recent years, but “these instruments are only good when they are really used, if they are really platforms for bilateral work. These platforms are not there for us to drink tea or coffee. These are platforms for searching for compromise.”
Speaking to representatives of major news agencies, including The Associated Press, on the margins of a major economic forum in this former imperial capital, Putin accused Western politicians of interfering in Ukraine without taking into account how important Russia sees its neighbor to its own security and economic interests.
Russia fears the new Western-leaning government in Kiev would try to take Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, into the U.S.-dominated Atlantic Alliance. When Russia annexed Crimea in March, Putin said the decision was driven in part by the need to prevent NATO ships from ever being based on the Black Sea peninsula.
“Where is the guarantee that, after the forceful change of power, Ukraine will not tomorrow end up in NATO?” Putin said. “We hear only one answer, as if on a record: Every nation has a right to determine on its own the security system in which it wants to live, and that doesn’t concern you,” he said.
“If the main bonus (of relations) Russia gets is to sit in the room and listen to what other people are saying, then that is not a role Russia can agree to,” Putin said. “We always take into account the interests of our partners … but there are some lines that cannot be crossed, and Ukraine and Crimea was that line.”
As an indication of how badly Putin’s relations with the West have fallen in some quarters, he was asked about Prince Charles’ reported comment in a private conversation during a visit to Canada comparing the annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
If Charles said that, the comparison was “unacceptable” and “not royal behavior,” Putin replied.
“I think he understands that himself,” Putin said.
Putin spoke on the eve of presidential elections in Ukraine that the West hopes will be a step toward resolving the crisis with Russia. Pro-Russia armed separatists in the east of Ukraine have threatened to block the vote, which was called after the Russia-leaning president fled in February following months of street protests. Putin has called the ouster an illegal “coup d’etat” and accused Western countries of helping to bring it about rather than as an expression of popular will.
Late Saturday, the Kremlin said Putin held a three-way telephone conversation with the leaders of Germany and France in which they all expressed their desire to see a peaceful election in Ukraine.
Putin on Friday had cheered a packed audience of investors at Russia’s annual international economic forum by promising to respect the result of Sunday’s election and work with Ukraine’s new leader. The forum has been a stage for Putin to highlight Russia’s economic independence and he has used it to showcase a major new gas deal with China and to reach out to European business executives to participate in major infrastructure projects Russia is planning.
While still insisting that Sunday’s election in Ukraine does not pass constitutional muster in his view, he nevertheless hinted that it could open a new chapter and provide an opportunity for talks to begin between authorities in Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“We need direct dialogue between the powers in Kiev and the people in the east,” Putin said. “If they want to preserve the unity of the country they have to open up to a dialogue, and not just among themselves. They have to show them (those in the east) prospects for a future within a Ukrainian government and that their rights will be guaranteed.” So far there is little of that, he said, but “I hope that this will happen nonetheless after the elections.”
Putin suggested a mediator between the Kiev government and those fighting for independence in the east: Viktor Medvedchuk, a onetime administrative chief to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, considered close to Russia.
Medvedchuk supported the ousted Ukrainian government and is among those hit by U.S. sanctions over the Russian seizure of Crimea. Because of his strong opposition to the pro-European demonstrations, however, the choice seemed unlikely to be acceptable to the new Kiev leadership.