In a striking rebuke to Syria's embattled government, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has warned that the Assad regime's days may be numbered and a ceasefire with rebel forces must be reached.
With international support waning for President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Putin declined to stand squarely by the dictatorship that he was once thought to prop up.
"We don't have a special relationship," the Russian leader said in an interview with the editors of six major international newspapers, including The Globe and Mail.
"It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country. We need to make sure they stop killing each other."
Asked if Mr. al-Assad can survive, he said: "I don't know. I don't know. It's obviously a grave problem. The reforms are long awaited and should be carried out. Whether the Syrian government is ready to reach a consensus, I don't know."
Mr. Putin is standing for election Sunday to return to the position of President, which he vacated four years ago after serving the limit of two terms. He has acted as Prime Minister since 2008, while the constitution was changed to allow his return to the Kremlin.
The Russian leader addressed a range of domestic and global issues during the three-hour dinner at his country home outside Moscow. He spoke additionally with The Globe and Mail later Thursday night at his regular men's shinny game, which included Russian greats Alexander Yakushev and Viacheslav Fetisov at a suburban sports club in Moscow.
On Syria, Mr. Putin rebuked the West for applying a double standard – by putting pressure on Mr. al-Assad to pull back his military in the conflict zone while failing to pressure rebel forces to lay down their arms.
Separately, Mr. Putin urged the Harper government to diversify energy exports from the United States, form a scientific team with Russia to help determine Arctic boundaries and increase trade and investment with Russia.
On other issues, he said:
– Iran and Israel need to cool their "pugnacious" words about Tehran's nuclear program and what it might unleash. He said Russia would do whatever is required to prevent military conflict, which he fears would spill across his country's southern borders.
– The Obama administration continues to drag its feet on an agreement over missile defence, leading to military uncertainty for both Russia and North America. (The Russians have struck an increasingly bellicose tone over U.S. plans to roll out a missile-defence shield in Europe, and Mr. Putin lamented the lack of progress on the issue.) "In this very room, two years ago, we met with President Obama, who was sitting where you are sitting, and I'm sure President Obama is a very sincere person. He was very sincere, very frank. Many of his ideas I share." But the agreement Mr. Putin thought the two former rivals reached has yet to appear on paper. "We said, 'Okay, provide us something in writing,' and nothing came."
– The European debt crisis has not been resolved. "I don't think the worst is over because the fundamentals of the crisis have not been dealt with." He said European governments need to cut their deficits more drastically, and place additional restrictions on financial derivatives. "You can't take two jumps over a precipice. You need to take one jump. Just like you can't cut a dog's tail in two goes. You need to do it in one go."
– Russia will launch a new wave of privatization in the next two years, while trying to avoid the scandalous selloffs of the Yeltsin era. "We have plans for privatizations. We're not going to act under the model of the 1990s. We will aim to get the best price. We will aim for a structural shift to private ownership, but we would not sell public assets at a knockdown price."
On Syria, Russia has been seen as the main barrier to a UN declaration that would condemn the government and open the door for humanitarian corridors. But Mr. Putin suggested Syria cannot count on Russia like it once did.
"I don't think we have more economic ties with Syria than Great Britain does. When Assad came to power, he first visited France and Great Britain. He didn't come to Moscow until three years after coming to power. We don't have a special relationship."
Despite his lukewarm view of the regime, he cautioned that direct pressure on Mr. al-Assad would not have any success, suggesting metaphorically: "Put him in a coffin and play loud music. He won't hear it, because it's his funeral."
He blamed the West – especially the United States – for pushing too aggressively for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, while not demanding higher standards from the insurgents who inevitably took power.
"Our goal is not to help one of the parties but to achieve reconciliation. We don't want a repeat of what's happened in Libya."
He said the UN has failed to create a compromise that would require both sides to lay down their arms. "It should not result in one party destroying another completely," he said of the UN resolution that Moscow vetoed.
During the interview, he confirmed that should he win the presidency on Sunday he will ask the current president Dmitry Medvedev to assume the role of Prime Minister.
"If the public decides to elect yours truly as President, I might think it is possible to offer Mr. Medvedev the prime ministership."
The job swap – which was probably in the works since 2008 when Mr. Putin had to leave the Kremlin – has incited mass protests in Russia's biggest cities. Mr. Putin is widely respected for bringing peace and economic growth to the country, but his presumption of power has alienated a rapidly growing middle class.
Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Medvedev had an agreement – formed at least a year ago – that the man with the higher popularity rating would seek the presidency and the other would be appointed by him as prime minister.
"It was clear last year that the rating of yours truly was slightly higher than Mr. Medvedev. We need to act in a concerted manner and not act in some personal manner … and look at whose chances are higher to win. What's unusual about that?" said Mr. Putin, who, fixing a steely glare on the questioner, was visibly testy when asked about the pact.
He added, "My decision to seek the presidency is not just a personal desire to be in power but a desire to continue the reforms."
He took issue with a suggestion that he is losing the support of the so-called New Russia, the professionals of Moscow and St. Petersburg who complain the government is autocratic and increasingly corrupt. "These people in the rural areas, don't they constitute the New Russia? … Last year, we became the third-largest grain exporter after the U.S. and Canada."
On the domestic protests, he said he "was not surprised at all" because Russians have felt the European financial crisis and are blaming their own governing party, United Russia.
"I'm very glad the situation is unfolding the way it is, because it means the power structures respond to the needs of the people … so I think it's a very good experience."