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Tony Blair on Putin, extremists and Kazakhstan

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Tony Blair at a gymnastics club the the northeast of England supported by one of his foundations on Monday Nov. 24. Zuma PressTony Blair at a gymnastics club the the northeast of England supported by one of his foundations on Monday Nov. 24. Zuma PressThe former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair said the West should work with Vladimir Putin on issues like Islamist extremism, despite standing firm against Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, and said he was more worried about the Israel-Palestinian situation than at any time since he took over as special Middle East envoy in 2007, he told Wall Street Journal in an interview in Brussels on Tuesday.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the interview:

Russia and Ukraine

Q: To Russia. You were prime minister and met Putin early on. Did you see a change in him over time? What explains what’s happened to his approach?

A: The key to understanding Putin is that he’s a Russian nationalist. He believes in a stronger Russia. He is on record as decrying the break-up of the Soviet Union. Now, I think there is a way of making Russia strong which is about internal reform, changing the institutions of the country and connecting Russia to the modern world. His brand of nationalism is popular within Russia and I think that he came to feel over time that America and the West were operating in a way that was hostile to Russia’s interest. So in my view, we need to be careful in how we approach the issue of what is happening with Russia today.

I support entirely a strong position on Ukraine. You can’t have the annexation of the territory of a country on the doorstep of Europe and be indifferent to it. Or to the fact that over 4,000 people have now died in Ukraine, including almost 1,000 since the declaration of the ceasefire.

I think the West has to take a strong and clear position on it. I think it’s also important that we are willing to cooperate with Russia where it’s absolutely necessary that we do so [for example] in the fight against Islamist extremism. It’s hard to see that you will have a solution ultimately in Syria without some form of coordination and cooperation with Russia. When I say we have to deal with Russia with care, it’s important we take a strong position on Ukraine but it’s important we also recognize Russia remains a powerful player, and in certain areas including the Middle East at the present time they are an important component of how we deal with these challenges.

Q: Do you think the West and the U.S. bear any responsibility for what has happened?

A: Yeah I think we should be perfectly prepared to be self-critical not least in the handling of the issues in Ukraine. That said, you still can’t justify what’s happening. And for the sake of the other countries in the region, it’s very important that the West takes a clear position and stands with strength.

One of the problems today is that some of these international questions are incredibly complex and some of them involve the relationship between issues where we will be in opposition to Russia on certain issues but where we have a common interest on others. And even though it sometimes strikes people as contradictory that you on the one hand say you’re strongly opposed to this aspect of Russian policy but on the other hand you’re prepared to cooperate on another international issue, I think you’ve got to do that. In particular in what I think is the largest long-term security threat we face which is around this Islamist extremism, there East and West – and by East I don’t just mean Russia, I mean China, I mean India and other countries of the East – I think we have a common interest.

Q: When you say the West needs to be self-critical on the issue of Ukraine, do you think the EU in some ways sleepwalked into this, into the association agreement? Should it have been better thought through?

A: You can always say these things should have been better thought through but in the end the choice must be for the Ukrainian people to decide their own future. The difference between our position and the Russian position is that in the end, if the Ukrainian people had said we actually don’t want to be part of the European Union, we want to choose a future with Russia, we might have regretted that but we wouldn’t have tried by physical force to stop it.

So you have to take a strong position but you’ve got to recognize at the same time that there will be other dimensions of international relations in which you’re working with Russia. Now some people find that too hard or too complicated a position to adopt but I think the nature of the challenges we face in the world today means that you have to do it.

Tony Blair about Kazakhstan 

Q: Before we close, I’d like to ask you about Tony Blair Associates. You’ve come under criticism for giving advice to countries like Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and so on. Is that something you feel sensitive to? Have you ever felt that that criticism has some justification?

A: I spend probably 70% of my time on the unpaid work, the role in the Middle East which is ex officio and takes an enormous amount of my time, and the two foundations, one is Africa and interfaith.

The business side is important however. It helps create the whole infrastructure. We have 200 people working for us now.

But I don’t do anything that I don’t think is justified in its own terms. As I always say to people about Kazakhstan, I totally understand all the criticisms and the need for the country to evolve politically and in human-rights terms. But the work we are doing there is to help the country make reforms around things like civil administration, public procurement and rule of law, these are important reforms and Kazakhstan is an important country. It’s the size of western Europe with a population of 17 million people, between Russia and China yet an ally of the West, majority Muslim population country, yet moderate, and open-minded and tolerant. It gave up its nuclear weapons rather than retaining them, and multiplied its economic growth 10 times over the last 20 years. It’s an important ally for the West and the work we do there is important for the future of the country. In the end, I work in places where I think it’s justified. And I don’t where I don’t.

November 27 2014, 13:54

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