What We Learned From President Putin's "60 Minutes" Interview

September 28th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday night, where he discussed the violent conflict in Syria, the political sovereignty of Ukraine, and his vision for Russia's place in the world.

The interview came in advance of Putin's Monday speech before the United Nations, where the Russian president addressed many of the same issues. His country has come under increased scrutiny for its roll in some of the world's most pressing political issues.

Here are three of the most important takeaways from Putin's "60 Minutes" interview.

1. On ISIS and the conflict in the Middle East

"60 Minutes" correspondent Charlie Rose pressed Putin on his continued support of Syria's regime run by President Bashar-al Assad, which has been a controversial factor in the dogged conflict there between regime forces, separatist militias, and members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Although Assad's government forces have faced persistent accusations of torture, abuse, and indiscriminate killing, Russia has remained a staunch backer—a position Putin supported in the interview.

"We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it's my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated," Putin said.

"There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism," Putin continued.

2. On the sovereignty of Ukraine

Putin and Russia have faced a good deal of criticism following accusations that he sent clandestine forces to fight in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. When Rose asked him if he respects the sovereignty of Ukraine, Putin was careful to frame Russia's role in the conflict around the dangers of political upheaval in general and the normalcy of countries having a military presence in areas outside their borders.

"[W]e want countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries and Ukraine in particular," Putin said. "Respect for sovereignty means to not allow unconstitutional action and coup d'états, the removal of legitimate power."

Putin compared Russia's military presence along the border with Ukraine with America storing nuclear weapons in Europe. "American tactical nuclear weapons are in Europe," Putin continued. "Let's not forget that. What does this mean? Does it mean that you've occupied Germany or that you've transformed the occupation forces into NATO forces? And if we have our military forces on our territory, on the border with some state, you believe this is a crime?"

3. On Russian identity and status as a world power

The Russian annexation of a portion of Eastern Ukraine (known as the Crimea) last year has served as an entry point for a larger conversation around Russia's relationship to former Soviet Union (USSR) countries. During the interview, Putin, who has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a mistake, expounded on his views: "I indeed said that I believe that the collapse of the USSR was a huge tragedy of the 20th century."

"Do you think its normal that 25 million Russian people were abroad all of a sudden," he asked, referring to the sudden collapse of the republic. "Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world. It's not a problem? Well, maybe not for you. But it's a problem for me."

Rose asked Putin if his aim to make Russia a prominent player in the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East was indicative of a broader desire to elevate Russia on the world stage. Putin contended that his country had no "obsession with being a superpower in the international arena," but noted that he hoped Russia's nuclear arsenal lent them clout in the global arena.

"I hope so," Putin continued. "I definitely hope so. Otherwise why do we have nuclear weapons at all?"

Still, the Russian leader maintained that his country's role in the Middle East did not indicate any new control strategy.

In his Monday speech at the UN, Putin laid blame on Western countries for spiraling political instability in the Middle East and North Africa. The problems, Putin said, were largely a result of U.S. interventionism, including the support of democratic self-determination in popular uprisings since 2011.

In an earlier speech at the UN, President Barack Obama criticized Putin and Russia for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict. "We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated," Obama said. "If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today."