| ST PETERSBURG, Russia
ST PETERSBURG, Russia May 25 You can't say
Vladimir Putin lacks a pointed sense of humour. The entrée at
the Russian president's dinner for news agency editors on
Saturday night was "Crimean flounder." No kidding.
As dinner was ending in the ornate Konstantinovsky Palace,
Putin was asked whether he speaks regularly with U.S. President
"We have some contacts," he shrugged. "But now I have to go
speak with Mr. (Francois) Hollande and Mrs. (Angela) Merkel,"
the French president and the German chancellor, respectively.
With that he gave a champagne toast, and left.
But before that he spoke at length on many topics during a
three-hour interview before and during a seven-course dinner
that included "soft smoked sturgeon salad" and "white asparagus
soup with black caviar" as well as the recently Russified
The topics ranged from the over-arching (Ukraine and the
prospect of a new Cold War) to the less well-known (the status
of four islands disputed by Japan and Russia, in response to a
Japanese editor's query).
The former communist quoted the Bible several times,
dismissed suggestions that he wants to recreate the former
Soviet Union, and said he doesn't want a new Cold War.
He also declared himself "liberal" on social and sexual
mores, but added that people should not be "aggressive" in
foisting their values on others.
Speaking in Russian, with simultaneous translation into
seven other languages, Putin came across as a clever, articulate
man, with a grasp of the intricacies of issues, big and
small. But the strongest impression, which emerged time and
again, was of Putin's strong sense of aggrievement over the
West's relegation of Russia, in his view, to second-tier status.
It's bitter. And it's personal.
"I always treat our partners with due respect," he said at
one point, "and I hope others treat Russia and me, personally,
in the same way." Regarding Obama's denunciation of Russia's
annexation of Crimea, Putin snapped: "No one should talk like
that to Russia."
At another point during dinner he declared: "If Russia is
only allowed to sit next to someone and listen to what others
say" at international conclaves, "that is not the rightful role
He also decried "rude, forceful action against Russian
interests" that might have led to Ukraine joining NATO and
deploying missiles within easy range of Russia. He added: "(The
West) should have considered the consequences" of encouraging
When an Italian editor asked about his reaction to rising
nationalism and right-wing radicalism in Western Europe, Putin
replied: "I hope you are not blaming us for that!"
The editor hadn't suggested, even indirectly, that Russia
was to blame. And the notion that he is trying to re-create the
old Soviet Union, Putin declared, was "a tool in the information
war" fomented by Western media.
The dinner for journalists culminated the three-day St.
Petersburg International Economic Forum, a discussion and
networking event, patterned after the annual talkfest in
Davos. The forum's aim was to attract foreign investment, which
Russia badly needs. Its economy is teetering on recession, and
the Ukraine crisis has helped spark what the central bank put at
almost $64 billion in net capital flight in the first three
months in the year, almost as much as in the whole of last year.
Putin pointed repeatedly to a recent commercial success: his
new deal to provide China with $400 billion of natural gas over
three decades. But most American chief executives stayed away
from the forum, at the urging of the Obama administration. And
despite Putin's desire to focus the conference on investment
opportunities, the discussion kept returning to Ukraine.
After his speech to the conference's plenary session on
Friday, for example, Putin sat for an on-stage interview with
CNBC Europe anchor Geoff Cutmore. At one point, when Cutmore
kept pressing Putin on Ukraine, the president snapped: "Oh, come
on, really. You are a difficult man to deal with!"
During the dinner with journalists he declined to name the
national leader, past or present, he admires the most. "There is
a saying in the Bible, 'Thou shall not make a graven image," he
explained. "That said, I love history and read it a lot, and I
surf the web a lot. I often ask myself what other leaders would
do in my situation."
But Putin expansively answered most questions, including one
from a German journalist about widespread Russian revulsion at
the recent winner of the annual Eurovision song contest: an
Austrian bearded male drag artist wearing a dress.
"The Bible talks about the two genders, man and woman, and
the main purpose of union between them is to produce children,"
Putin explained. "For us it is important to reaffirm traditional
values.... I personally am very liberal (on matters of personal
morality). People have the right to live their lives the way
they want. But they should not be aggressive, or put it up for
On the sidelines of the economic forum there was lots of talk
about moving past politics - as if the Ukraine crisis was akin
to an everyday spat between Tories and Liberals, Democrats and
Republicans, or Social Democrats and Christian Democrats - and
getting on with business. The head of the Russian subsidiary of
a major American manufacturer expressed hope that the current
East-West crisis would pass within months. And a Russian
journalist said he expected that the Russian-American tensions
would ease after Obama leaves office.
But asked for evidence to support their views, neither the
businessman nor the journalist had much to offer. And the war of
rhetoric shows little sign of abating.
Commenting on Britain's Prince Charles, who compared Russia's
seizure of Crimea to Hitler's aggression, Putin said: "It
reminds me of a proverb: If you are angry, that means you are
wrong.... This comparison is not acceptable. It is not what
And at another point, the Russian president observed: "We
have a saying: 'You cannot make other people like you'."
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)