NEW YORK -- U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) has defended an opinion piece he wrote this week that was critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, telling Yuri Zhigalkin of RFE/RL's Russian Service that his remarks were based on the facts about rights abuses in Russia.
RFE/RL: Senator, I had the feeling that critics and supporters of your op-ed in Pravda.ru -- and this is kind of surprising -- are about evenly split. Some say that McCain is basically saying what a good Russian human rights activist should say. Others say he is just an old man outside Russia who doesn't understand a thing about Russia. Your reaction to that?
John McCain: The comments I make are based on facts -- about repression, about [Sergei] Magnitsky [the whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who died in custody in 2009], about total control of the media, and the human rights abuses that continue.
RFE/RL: Why did you decide to write this article? What was your goal, what were you trying to achieve?
McCain: The truth is always an important thing, and the comments that Mr. Putin made [in his "New York Times" op-ed] about the United States of America and events here were directly contradicted by the situation in Russia, and if I ever have a chance to speak to the people of Russia, no matter how insignificant it will be, I will seize that opportunity because I am pro-Russian, and the abuses that are being heaped upon them by the Putin autocracy is, in my view, something that deserves our sympathy and our opposition.
RFE/RL: What was your main issue with Putin's op-ed in the NYT? Many people in Russia basically appreciate his point that the United States doesn't need to take any military action against Syria, that it is much better to resolve the conflict diplomatically. What is your view on that?
McCain: The only times that I know of that the United States has acted [militarily] is in the interest of our national security and that of people in the world. In Bosnia, with Russian support, there was butchering of the people. In Kosovo, with Russian support, the Serbs were butchering people who were of different ethnicities. We intervened there and we stopped that -- after 8,000 people were massacred in Srebrenica, we stepped in.
RFE/RL: What is your stand on how to approach the Syrian conflict? Should military action be considered or should the path proposed by Russia -- using the means of diplomacy -- be taken?
McCain: I see again that Vladimir Putin says that the Syrian rebels launched a chemical attack as "sly provocation." Vladimir Putin knows that's not true. So are we really going to take the word of a guy who's just saying an absolute falsehood? It's obvious that this was not an attack by the rebels.
We have to give assistance to those who are fighting, and the Free Syrian Army, because as we speak, there are planeloads of Russian arms landing in Damascus, which Bashar al-Assad uses to butcher his people.
RFE/RL: The state of human rights in Russia was a big part of your article in Pravda.ru. You were talking about Russia's greatness. What do you think Russia's greatness is about?
McCain: I believe that the Russian people are incredibly brave, I think they showed that in World War II, and I think their intellectual level is incredibly high, and I'm a great admirer of Russia. But I think they should have the same rights not to be imprisoned, and not to be harassed because of their sexual orientation, not to have laws against them. And right now, when you look at all the human rights organizations in the world, they will tell you that Russia is not free, and it's a very bad environment.
RFE/RL: What do you think is the right U.S. position toward human rights issues in Russia? Do you think the United States should be more persistent?
McCain: I think that the Magnitsky Act that we passed [a U.S. law passed in 2012 authorizing sanctions against Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky's death and other rights abuses] when expanded, can have a beneficial effect, just as the Jackson-Vanik bill [a U.S. law that imposed trade barriers against the Soviet Union for restricting Jews' ability to emigrate] had an effect during the so-called Cold War.
There are many pressures that can be brought to bear to convince the Russians [of the benefits of] basic adherence to human rights and freedoms. And people should be [able to live in] freedom of being arrested in cases like Magnitsky, or sentenced ... as [former oil tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky has been -- they should be free from that.
RFE/RL: There is a great deal of interest in the Magnitsky Act in Russia. How far do you think this law could go in terms of its scope, in terms of people, its effects in Russia?
McCain: I don't believe that all the people who were involved in the needless torture and beating and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, all those responsible, have been held responsible. And the Department of the Treasury took the narrowest interpretation of the law that we passed.
RFE/RL: Russian President Putin mentioned at a discussion this week at the Valdai forum that he has not ruled out running for a fourth presidential term in an election due in 2018. What do you think of Putin? It seems you don't like him much, is that right?
McCain: No, I don't dislike [Putin] at all. It's not a matter of personality, it's a matter of action. I have known many people who I don't particularly like but I respect and admire, it's not a matter of liking, it's a matter of what his government does. Why would we want to pass a law before the [Sochi] Olympics that views it as criminal activity if someone has a sexual orientation that he doesn't agree with?
RFE/RL: What do you think about the future of Russia-U.S. relations, and about the "reset" policy? Some people say that this policy has failed, that it is over. If it is over, then what is next?
McCain: We need to have a realistic approach to our relations with Russia, understand Vladimir Putin for what he is and what his motivation is, which is to restore the prestige and power of the Russian empire. And he will take extraordinary steps in order to do that. In Chechnya, there was wholesale slaughter, we all know that. He invaded Georgia, he is now pressuring all the countries around in the region that he believes are the so-called near abroad. It is Vladimir Putin -- we just have to understand him for what he is.