After midnight in the library, Putin sets out his world view

ST PETERSBURG, Russia - It was two minutes before midnight when Russian President Vladimir Putinfinally entered the meeting room in the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, more than three hours late, to be interviewed by a dozen exhausted journal...

ST PETERSBURG,  Russia  - It was two minutes before midnight when Russian President  Vladimir Putin finally entered the meeting room in the  Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library , more than three hours late, to be interviewed by a dozen exhausted journalists.

His retinue seemed wearily accustomed to the late-night regimen, but Putin himself - after back-to-back meetings, a speech and an on-stage interview at his annual business conference here in his home town of St Petersburg - was fresh, fulsome and feisty.

"We won in a free fight and we are going to host  the World Cup ," he declared, slapping away suggestions that  Russia  cheated with scandal-plagued FIFA to snare the 2018 competition. "That's it!"

As for whether  Russia  can't, or simply won't, control its border to stop heavy weapons flowing to separatists in Ukraine : "These people got weapons with which to defend themselves. They got them in various ways."

To the suggestion by  Canada 's premier,  Stephen Harper , that  Russia  be expelled formally from the  Group of Eight major economies: "I don't want to offend anyone, but if the  United States  says  Russia  should return to the G8, the prime minister will change his opinion."


All of it was pure Putin, veritable Vlad. He's habitually hours late for meetings - with the pope,  Germany 's  Angela Merkel  and most others - so it's clear who's in charge before discussions begin.

He's seemingly indefatigable at age 62. He's always assertive. And he clings to perceived slights at the hands of the West, particularly the  United States .

"I am convinced that ... after the  Soviet Union  was gone from the political map of the world, some of our partners in the West, including and primarily the  United States , of course, were in a state of euphoria," he told  Charlie Rose , the American television interviewer chosen by the Kremlin to do an on-stage interview at the conference on Friday afternoon.

Referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, he said: "Some of our partners seem to have got the illusion that ... a vacuum of sorts developed that had to be filled quickly. I think such an approach is a mistake."

He added: "Is there anyone who wants to be neglected and humiliated? There is something about respect, or lack of respect. When we see an unwillingness of partners to talk to us, then we see disrespect of our side."



The conference, officially the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, has lost luster since last year, when the West imposed economic sanctions after  Russia  seized Crimea and supported separatists in  eastern Ukraine . In years past, Sting and other headliners provided entertainment. This year,  Carla Bruni , wife of former French President  Nicolas Sarkozy , gave a concert, followed by a midnight dinner.


Few senior Western executives attended, save for some from oil companies seeking Russian deals. Last year some executives predicted  Russia 's alienation from the West would pass quickly. Nobody was saying that this year.

The big-name prime ministers attending this year were all "formers" - Britain's  Tony BlairItaly 's Romano  Prodi  and Francois Fillon  of  FranceKyrgyzstan 's president and  Mongolia 's prime minister were there, but the most prominent among the small-nation chiefs was  Alexis Tsipras  of  Greece .

The leftist prime minister, whose nation teeters on a debt default that could eventually threaten its membership of the  European Union , got a prized speaking spot on Friday, right after Putin. His presence and warm embrace by Putin were a clear jab at the EU establishment. Tsipras did not make major pronouncements on the debt crisis, but spoke in general terms about the strategic importance of  Greece .

Putin, however, laced his speech with enough statistics to clog a computer. Among them:  Russia 's unemployment rate (a modest 5.8 percent), gold and foreign currency reserves ($361.6 billion), budget deficit from January to May (3.6 percent), "non-raw commodity" exports (up 17 percent in first quarter).

His message:  Russia  is weathering Western sanctions just fine. "I would like to point out that at the end of last year we were warned ... there would be a deep crisis," he declared. "It has not happened. We have stabilized the situation..."

Putin didn't mention the 3.2 percent economic contraction this year forecast by  Russia's central bank , or the 11.5 percent prime interest rate to prop up the rouble.

Both are pinching the lives of average Russians, though Putin's appeal to patriotism and increasing control over the media has kept his domestic approval rating above 80 percent.



In the interview he placed blame for the  Ukraine  crisis squarely on the  Kiev government  and the West. "It was a coup d'état, an armed seizure of power," he said, referring to last year's revolt that ousted a  Moscow -backed Ukrainian president.

Only Western pressure on Kiev for a political settlement that gives substantial autonomy to  Ukraine 's Russian-speaking east and amnesty to rebel fighters will resolve the crisis, he said, adding: "We are against solving issues by force."

That smacks of duplicity to Western leaders who say the  Russian military  is covertly fighting in  Ukraine  alongside the separatists. Putin stoutly denies that.

As for Western suspicions that the separatists used a Russian missile to shoot down a civilian airliner last summer, albeit probably by accident, Putin says he's seen evidence the missile might have penetrated the plane's tail section with a trajectory indicating it came from  Ukrainian government  forces.

It's like two parallel views of reality, never intersecting, but Putin seems to revel in every rebuttal.

Well past midnight, after an hour of discussion, the Russian president did find one thing for which to compliment America : its move toward diplomatic recognition of  Cuba . "We welcome that," he said. "It is the right thing for the U.S."

As the clock neared 1:30 a.m., Putin was asked about his personal life. "My daughters came to St Petersburg and I was up until 2 a.m. yesterday talking to them," he said. "I have good relations with my ex-wife. I have a good plan for the future. I'm okay."

What To Read Next
Get Local