vladimir putin.jpg
Photograph: Hina/ BETA/ Marko RUPENA/ik

A defiant President Vladimir Putin defended Russia's positions on Ukraine, NATO expansion and the Crimea in an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper published Monday, describing European Union sanctions against his country as "absurd."

"What the European Union is doing with those sanctions is nothing but a theatre of the absurd," Putin said in the interview with Germany's most popular tabloid.

The referendum by Crimea in 2014 to separate from Ukraine and join Russia was "democracy, the people's will," he said.

"The reunification of Crimea and Russia is just. The West's sanctions are not aimed at helping Ukraine, but at geo-politically pushing Russia back. They are foolish and are merely harming both sides," Putin said.

He also rejected criticism of Russia's role in the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, saying the peace agreement between Kiev and the pro-Russian rebels had not been properly implemented.

"The constitutional reform is supposed to give autonomy to eastern Ukraine and to be adopted by the end of 2015. This has not happened, and the year is over. That's not Russia's fault," Putin said.

His harshest criticism was for NATO, which he said was to blame for the ongoing tensions with Russia because of the alliance's expansion to include former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe.

"NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But now they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have," Putin said.

He rejected the idea that because these countries asked to join NATO, they could not be refused.

"I have heard this a thousand times. But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east," Putin said.

"All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was the political will. But people didn't want to," Putin said.

He pointed out that US plans for a missile defence system in Eastern Europe to counter a nuclear attack from Iran were still going ahead despite the fact that a deal had been reached to halt Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

Asked if Russia had made mistakes in the past, Putin replied: "Yes, we have made mistakes! We were too late. If we had presented our national interests more clearly from the beginning, the world would still be in balance today."

When asked about Russian-German relations, he said the two peoples had a good relationship.

"Even with the help of anti-Russian propaganda in the mass media, Germany has not succeeded in damaging this sympathy," Putin said.

But he admitted that EU sanctions had led to bilateral trade halving from 80 billion dollars in 2005 to just 40 billion dollars now.

The sanctions were having an impact on the Russian economy, but Putin claimed Russia was "gradually stabilizing our economy."

The United States however has repeatedly pointed to the damage the sanctions are causing to the Russian economy, even as they appear to have done little to change Moscow's calculus on Ukraine.

Putin said that gross domestic product dropped by 3.8 per cent in 2015, while inflation is approximately 12.7 per cent.

"The trade balance, however, is still positive. For the first time in many years, we are exporting significantly more goods with a high added value, and we have more than 300 billion dollars in gold reserves," Putin said.

"Several programmes for modernizing the economy are being carried out."

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