Russia yesterday hardened its stance towards Iran on the nuclear issue, but still stopped short of calling for UN sanctions without further negotiations.
Speaking with The Independent on Sunday at his official residence near Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had called on Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programme, and that he had personally spoken to Iran's President Ahmadinejad "in frank terms" several times.
While stressing that the nuclear issue was broader than just Iran, and needed to be tackled internationally, he said Iran was a particular case. Not only was it the only country to have called for the destruction of another - Israel - but the whole region was volatile.
Russia wanted further consultations with the other countries in the group negotiating with Iran: the EU three - Britain, France and Germany - the US and China, and further talks with Iran, said Mr Putin. Only then should any decision be taken about how to proceed. If sanctions could be avoided, "so much the better".
While still clearly reluctant to broach UN sanctions, Mr Putin's phrasing suggested that Russia's prime concern was for the six negotiating countries to maintain their united front, and that it would no longer rule out sanctions completely.
Mr Putin's remarks about Iran were just one part of a three-hour question and answer session with an international group of Russia-watching academics and journalists, called the Valdai Club. It was the third year running that such a meeting had been held, and followed a three-hour lunch - prepared by Moscow's premier Italian chef, Mirco Zagoin - at the President's residence in an elite suburb of Moscow.
Throughout, Mr Putin was concerned to address what he clearly regards as Western "misunderstanding" of Russian policy on issues as diverse as energy supplies, relations with Ukraine, and how long he would remain in office. He fiercely denied that Russia was an "energy superpower", describing "superpower" as a Cold War term that no longer applied. Russia, he said, wanted all its oil and gas exports to be put on a long-term contractual basis that would be equitable both to the customer and to the supplier.
Mr Putin also paid a surprising tribute to Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian President, whose "Orange Revolution" Russia had so strongly opposed. Every year for 15 years, Mr Putin said, Russia and Ukraine had signed only a one-year agreement for gas supplies, and the absence of a long-term agreement had been a factor in last winter's stand-off.
This year, Mr Putin said, Ukraine had for the first time signed a five-year contract to guarantee the transit of gas to Europe, and this issue had been separated from negotiations on the price Ukraine would pay Russia for its own supplies. This, he said, was a "huge step for energy security" and was largely down to Mr Yushchenko, who had shown himself a "wise, reliable and stable partner" who did not indulge in any "grandstanding".
As for his own long-term intentions, Mr Putin stood by his earlier commitment to leave office in 2008, after two terms.
He said he understood that Russians - as the polls currently testify - might want him to stay on, because they were concerned about stability after so much upheaval. But, he said, "stability is not guaranteed by one person, but by the state of society and the people", adding: "If I say - as I do - that people must abide by the law, I have no right to break it. To do so would itself be highly destabilising." The post-Soviet Russian constitution limits the president to two four-year terms.Reuse content