TRANSCRIPT: [Putin at] Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club (partial transcript continued)
(Kremlin.ru – Novgorod Region, September 19, 2013)
MODERATOR SVETLANA MIRONYUK: They say that Senator McCain followed your example and published an article of his own in Pravda newspaper. He probably remembers from the Soviet years that Pravda was a well-known publication and the most popular newspaper in the country. True, a lot of time has passed and things have changed a bit since then, so it’s no longer true. I don’t know if you heard about this or not, Mr President.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: No, I didn’t know about it. I have met the senator before. He was in Munich when I made the speech there that went on to become so famous. Actually, there was nothing anti-American in that speech. I simply stated our position frankly and honestly, and there was nothing aggressive in what I said, if you only take a closer look. What I said then was that we were promised at one point that NATO would not expand beyond the former Federal Republic of Germany’s eastern border. That was a promise directly made to Gorbachev. True, it was not actually set out and written down. But where is NATO today, where is the border? We got cheated, to put it quite simply. That’s the whole story. But there’s nothing aggressive here. It’s more just a reluctance to admit to what I just said. But I didn’t say those words to offend anyone. I said them so that we would be able to lay everything before each other plain and clear and discuss the problems in an honest, open fashion. It’s easier to reach agreements this way. You shouldn’t keep things hidden.
The senator has his own views. I do think though that he is lacking information about our country. The fact that he chose to publish his article in Pravda and he wanted after all to publish it in the most influential and widely read newspaper suggests that he is lacking information. Pravda is a respected publication of the Communist Party, which is now in opposition, but it does not have very wide circulation around the country now. He wants to get his views across to as many people as possible, and so his choice simply suggests that he is not well-informed about our country.
Actually, I would have been happy to see him here at the Valdai Club say, taking part in the discussions. As far as I know, our big television channels, the national channels, proposed that he come and take part in an open and honest discussion. There you have it, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. He is welcome to share his point of view with the whole country and discuss things with his equals, with political analysts and politicians, members of the State Duma or the Federation Council.
In this respect, I can only express my regret that our American colleagues did not react to our parliamentarians’ proposal and refused to receive them in Washington for a discussion on Syria. Why did they do this? To be honest, I don’t see anything so bad about this proposal, which, on the contrary, seems to me of interest and the right thing to do. The more we actually discuss things directly with each other, the easier it will be to find solutions.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Are there more questions from the floor?
Let’s stick to the subjects if we can, so as not to jump from one topic to another.
Bridget Kendall, go ahead.
DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT FOR THE BBC BRIDGET KENDALL: Thank you.
Again about Syria, Russia has been lauded for its achievement for bringing about a deal which looks as though it could lead to the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, all the more an achievement given that the Syrian government didn’t admit it had them until very recently. Would you have been able to persuade President Assad to do this if there hadn’t been a threat of American military strikes? In other words, did the threat of US military strikes actually play a rather useful role?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Am I right in understanding that you are asking about whether it is the threat of military strikes that plays a part in Syria’s agreeing to have its weapons placed under control?
First, I’d like to ask you all to address your questions to everyone taking part in today’s discussion, so as not to turn this into a boring dialogue. If you permit, I will redirect your question to my colleagues and ask them to share their points of view on this issue.
The threat of the use of force and actual use of force are far from being a cure-all for international problems. Look at what we are actually talking about after all. We are forgetting the heart of the matter. We are talking about using force outside the framework of current international law. We’ve just been saying how the US Congress and Senate are discussing whether to use force or not. But it is not there that this matter should be discussed. It should be discussed in the UN Security Council. That is the heart of the issue. That is my first point.
Second, on whether we will manage to convince Assad or not, I don’t know. So far it looks as though Syria has fully agreed to our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that the international community is putting together, working through the UN. Russia and the USA, in the persons of Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have already practically drafted the outlines of this plan. There is a special organisation that will work together with the UN on this matter of eliminating chemical weapons. Syria has declared that it will join and that it indeed already considers itself to have joined the International Chemical Weapons Convention. These are practical steps that the Syrian government has already taken. Will we succeed in taking the process through to completion? I cannot give a 100% guarantee. But what we have seen just lately, over these last few days, gives us hope that this is possible and will be done.
Let me just remind you about how these chemical weapons came about. Syria got itself chemical weapons as an alternative to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, as we know. What can be done about the various issues associated with proliferation and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a very relevant question today, perhaps the most important issue of our time. If this situation gets out of control, like it once happened with gunpowder, the consequences will be unimaginable. We therefore need to strive towards nuclear-free status in particular parts of the world, especially in such volatile regions as the Middle East.
We need to be very careful in our action so as to give unconditional security guarantees for all participants in this process. After all, there are people in Israel itself who categorically oppose nuclear weapons. You remember the well-known case when a nuclear physicist was sent to prison, served his sentence and still continues to think that his position was right. Why? There is nothing anti-Israeli in his position. He is a Jew himself and a citizen of his country, but he simply believes that Israel’s technological superiority is such that the country does not need nuclear weapons. Israel is already technologically and militarily a long way ahead of the region’s other countries. But nuclear weapons only turn the country into a target and create foreign policy problems. In this respect, there is sense in the position of this nuclear physicist, who disclosed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But to come back to your question about whether the plan will succeed or not, we hope that it will.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Mr President, I suggest that since we have veered away from defence and security issues, we should give Mr Rühe a chance to reply, ask a question, and express his opinion.
Mr Rühe, you have the floor.
FORMER DEFENCE MINISTER OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY VOLKER RÜHE: Well, I wanted to speak about the young generation in this country.
First, I would like to begin because I’ve been here from the beginning to also compliment our Russian friends on the format of Valdai, the architects because it would not be enough to call them organisers. What we have seen here, I call the culture of inclusiveness and a love of pluralism. And I can tell you, Mr President, we are quite fascinated by the pluralistic voices from Russia, including very powerful statements by people that are in opposition to your politics, and I think this shows the strength of the country, that it was organised in this way.
I’ve never looked at Russia with the somewhat narrow eyes of a defence minister, you know this. I was first here in 1971, and Sergei Karaganov is a friend of mine since the late 1970s. We don’t look it, but it’s a fact of life. We have lived through SS-20 and Pershing.
And what I would like to say is, I came here as Defence Minister in 1995 and I went to St Petersburg. And I said, I don’t want to see any tanks or artillery, or any generals. I want to see the Mayor, Sobchak. And I got to know you also, you were part of his team. Why? He was a lighthouse for me, as a young member of parliament in West Germany, still in the divided Germany, and I think what he was doing was much more important than tanks and artillery, and it has proved to be this way. So it’s a lifelong interest in a neighbour. And we all, I believe, on this continent, are interested in a successful, modern Russia.
Now, the young generation. What I’ve seen and of course it was very interesting for me to listen to his daughter, who is a powerful voice for the young generation, two days ago.
So what I’ve seen here, what I’ve seen in Russia is you have really an asset to the country, your young generation. They are very intelligent. They want to have a good education. They want to be more internationally connected. And they want to have a bigger say in the politics of your country. They are knocking at the doors of the Kremlin.
The young generation in my country, they also want to build their private lives, they are very much internationally connected. The doors to our Kremlins, which is the parliament and the government, are very open, but they don’t knock at it. They leave it to politicians because they think things have been arranged very well. And we are very sad that some of the very best just want to have a successful private life, but don’t engage in public life.
So my message really is, Russia can be proud of a young generation, even if there are political opponents that want to engage in public life, which is not the case in many of the west European countries. And I’ve said earlier in Russia also, we should give up this visa regime in the West, because that would enable hundreds of thousands of young Russians to come and see our life and our political system. But I must say, it would also change Russia, because once they have studied in Rome or in London or in Washington, because they’ll be forces of change, the necessary change in this country. But I think it would make the country also more competitive.
Now what has that to do with security? I think this is the best way to ensure security and to develop common points of view. And I’m very glad that this culture of Valdai, I don’t think there’s anything I have been to many conferences, and also to Munich, but Munich is very narrow security-wise, there’s no conference like this in the world.
And also when we listen for four hours to your people about ideas and politics we very often just talk from Monday to Thursday about our politics. It was very fascinating to see that the Russian speakers are much more interested in fundamental questions of society than we are, which is very much on the surface, what we are debating. So I think this is something to start from, but the real message is, I think it would be a great project of your third term to integrate this young generation when they’re knocking at the door of the Kremlin, because don’t forget, we want more people to knock at the doors of political power in the West, and you can be proud of these people. That’s my message.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you, Mr Rühe.
Other questions, please.
PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER OF THE CENTER ON GLOBAL INTERESTS IN WASHINGTON NIKOLAI ZLOBIN: Good afternoon.
Everyone seems to be expecting me to ask you about 2018 and whether you will run for a new term. But I’m not going to ask that question. Everyone else I have put this question to so far have all said no though, so you might have to run anyway in the end, or else there won’t be anyone at all.
But I want to come back to a question we have already discussed. Unlike you, I did read McCain’s article. It should be said that it is not exactly a reply to your article, because it is really quite a personal article and not related to Syria. I think it is not very politically correct really, but that is my personal view.
Actually, he says there that no criticism of Putin is allowed in Russia. I’m here as a living example of someone who is always criticising you. Even here at Valdai I have often argued with you, but I’m still here as you can see, alive and well. To be honest, I do not entirely agree with the things you said today either. But McCain says that the government Russia has today does not adequately represent Russian society, and that Russia deserves a different government.
In this respect I have a question. I know that relations between the public and the authorities is indeed one of Russia’s big problems, an old, historical problem. Before last year’s election, I recall that you said that there is perhaps a need to change the Constitution, change the relations between government and society, change the mutual responsibility, develop local government and so on. There was the very good idea too of bringing more young people into government. Sometimes I hear voices among the opposition saying that this government should be swept aside and that a new government is needed. You are now serving your third term as President. How do you view today the relations between government and society in Russia? Are you happy with these relations? What should be changed? Is the Constitution really the issue, or is McCain perhaps right in a way? I do not think his argument is correct. But what is your vision now, in the twenty-first century, of the relations between Russia’s highest authorities and society?
Thank you, Mr President.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: You recall the words of one of the world’s outstanding political leaders, a former British Prime Minister, who said of democracy that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Probably then not probably, but for certain Russia does deserve a better quality of government. Is there an ideal form of government in other countries, including the one that you and Mr McCain represent? This is a big question, a very big question, if we are talking about democracy.
It has happened twice in US history that the President of the United States was chosen by a majority in the electoral colleges, but with a minority of the actual voters. This is an obvious flaw in the electoral procedure, that is to say, a flaw at the very heart of American democracy. In other words, everyone has their own problems.
We perhaps have no fewer problems than you, and maybe even more, though this would only be natural. Russia has gone through the experience of rule under the tsars, then communism, then the disintegration of the 1990s. This has been a period of very difficult and complicated rebuilding. But it is very clear that Russia is on the road to democracy and is looking for its own ways to strengthen these democratic foundations. There is this very fact that for ten years now we have been getting together, debating, openly discussing, even when we used to meet behind closed doors, it all became public anyway. And this is not to mention the other aspects of our life.
As for what kind of government Russia should have, this is something for our citizens to decide, and not for our colleagues from abroad. We held an election a year ago, not so long ago, and the majority of Russia’s citizens voted for me. I base myself on this decision. That does not mean we can now sit on our laurels. I have to work on myself, and our institutions need to improve too. This is just what we are all doing.
Note that we have returned to holding gubernatorial elections in the regions. This practice is not so widespread in the world. Such elections are the practice in the United States, but India say, has a completely different procedure. Many countries do things very much their own way. Germany has its system, France has its way of doing things, and in Russia we have decided to elect regional governors by direct secret ballot.
We have liberalised political parties’ activity. As a specialist on Russia, you know just how many new political parties took part in the regional elections. In many cases they achieved victory, and as far as I know, the winners of elections from these new political parties are here at Valdai too. The improvement process is therefore going ahead. I think it will never stop, because government organisation, the political organisation of society, and democratic procedures need to keep up more or less with a society’s current needs and demands, and society is developing and changing. The political system will change and develop with it.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Any other questions?
FOUNDER DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR EUROPEAN REFORM CHARLES GRANT: Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform, London.
I have a question for the President, but if other panellists wish to comment, I would be grateful, because it’s about Ukraine. I know Mr Prodi has a special interest in Ukraine.
I’d like the President to tell us whether he sees Ukraine as a normal, sovereign, independent country or a country that’s a bit different. I ask that because we have a question now Ukraine has to choose whether to join the Customs Union with Russia and other countries, or to reach a closer agreement with the EU. And we’ve heard from participants here in the last few days that some people in Ukraine find Russia’s heavy-armed tactics closing the borders, blocking exports from Ukraine counterproductive. They have told us this is pushing public opinion in Ukraine to be a little more critical of Russia and perhaps closer to the EU. So could you explain what your strategy is with regard to Ukraine and what kind of country you believe it is.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: My good, long-time friend Romano headed the European Commission for many years. So let’s ask him to open the discussion. I have an answer, and I’m ready to reply to you, but I would like to hear his opinion.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ITALY ROMANO PRODI: First of all, you remember that I was President of the European Commission. And I remember that in our last common press conference, when I was asked about the relation between the European Union and Russia, I said, they must be like vodka and caviar I don’t know which is which but we are so strict, and things are not going in this direction. There is something that we have to move or to change, because really well, maybe my vision is influenced by the fact I am by education an economist but I see such a complementarity, such a necessity of working together, that I think we have to work in this direction.
And clearly, it’s not only a Russian problem. Europe is fairly divided. In this case, you have countries that are much more inclined to deal with Russia, some others are not confident in that. We also have a different vision in very simple problems like the visa. And I agree that the first step is to have free circulation of young people. The Erasmus project in Europe, which is a very simple circulation of students, is changing the mentality of a generation. We must do the same with Russia.
And clearly, in the case of Ukraine, I think it’s going in the same direction. There is now a double proposal that says, one is the association agreement that will be signed probably in Vilnius at the end of November, and then there is the proposal of, let’s say, the Eurasian economy.
First of all, I am not a technical expert of trade, but all my consultants say, “Look, the two proposals are not incompatible. They are incompatible taken as a picture, as static, but if we sit around the table, with good will, we can make very few changes and then make them compatible.” And so, as I answer to Mr Grant, reinforce the identity of Ukraine not as a dividing country, but as a bridge between Russia and Europe, because we need bridges, and Ukraine must and can be a bridge between us. This is, I think, my position. And I’m working in this direction because Ukraine is a great country. Forty-five million people, even if the decreasing population is, geopolitically, very important. And it must be an exercise in cooperation between Russia and European Union.
Vladimir, on this point, clearly, why I am so warm about that? Because I think that if we create two divided trade areas, we’ll be, for the future, damaging the structure. Because clearly, Europe is going in the direction of transatlantic trade investment partnership with such a big area.
Russia, with this Customs Union, will have a dimension that is not comparable to the other one. So I think well, I don’t want to judge Russia, because I do not have the right to do it but the dimensions of the country, the characteristics of the country, are such that the great change that you are working for, modernisation and technology, needs a strong link with you. From this point of view, really, we are like vodka and caviar. I think the complementarity is so high that you cannot do without us and we cannot do without you. So you have to be very prudent following your doctrine, your diversity cooperation, very prudent to create a structure that then will diverge in the future.
This is the moment in which we must stay around the table, as you did with Syria. Your proposal with Syria is a masterpiece, because first of all, it has avoided the war, and even the American president was not so happy with this war. And second, it was giving the possibility to the Americans to set the big principles of being against the chemical weapons. So they could get a proposal that could be accepted by you.
I think this is the moment in the relations between Europe and Russia to use the same methodology as has been done with Syria. Because if we start to diverge, Russia will be more alone, Europe will be worse off, and the future relations cannot help us in the direction that we both tried to explore in the past.
I agree that to dance, we need to be two. One cannot dance alone. But I think this is the moment in which we have to make these proposals.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: You see what a good idea it was to gave the floor to Mr Prodi.
Yes, Romano and I have been working together for a long time, and we do have a very good personal relationship. That’s how things have played out. In Italy, I have always had good relations with him, and with Mr Berlusconi, with whom he is in constant conflict in the political arena. And Berlusconi is currently on trial for living with women, but nobody would lay a finger on him if he were gay. (Laughter.)
Anyway, I want to talk about Mr Romano’s words. Please note that he is not just an intellectual, although he is indeed a professor, a scientist, a true European intellectual. But he is also a European bureaucrat, down to his core. Just look at what he said: relations between Russia and Europe are like caviar and vodka. But both caviar and vodka are Russian products, products of Russian origin. (Laughter.)
After all, Europe is used to the well-known principle of eating from one’s neighbours’ plate before eating from one’s own.
ROMANO PRODI: Let it be whisky and soda.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Well, whisky and soda is a bad drink to begin with; why ruin the whisky? You should be drinking it straight.
Regarding Ukraine. Ukraine, without a doubt, is an independent state. That is how history has unfolded. But let’s not forget that today’s Russian statehood has roots in the Dnieper; as we say, we have a common Dnieper baptistery. Kievan Rus started out as the foundation of the enormous future Russian state. We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.
Of course, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language have wonderful features that make up the identity of the Ukrainian nation. And we not only respect it, but moreover, I, for one, really love it, I like all of it. It is part of our greater Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian, world. But history has unfolded in such a way that today, this territory is an independent state, and we respect that.
By the way, Ukraine had a long and difficult path to reach its current state today. It was part of one state, then another state, and in each, a part of Ukraine’s public entities were not privileged. The Ukrainian people had a very difficult destiny, but when we united into one Rus, that part of the nation began to develop rapidly, began developing infrastructure and trade. After World War II, the Soviet government allotted somewhere around 1.5 trillion rubles to restore certain companies very large companies. One third of that funding went to Ukraine.
Let me reiterate: today, Ukraine is an independent state, and we respect that fact. Naturally, selecting priorities and selecting allies is the national, sovereign right of the Ukrainian people and the legitimate Ukrainian government.
How do we see this process of [Ukraine] joining the EU or signing a Customs Union agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus? After all, Russia is also going to sign a new framework agreement. We have already discussed signing [an agreement on] some form of a free trade zone with the European Union, and Romano and I have talked about this as well. This is all possible.
You know what the difference is? The fact that during negotiations on Russia’s WTO accession we agreed on a certain level of tariff protection. This is hard for us because our competition has cheap and we can say frankly quite high-quality agricultural products, agricultural machinery. Things are very difficult for us in several other sectors, for our industries. But the level of customs protection in Russia is higher than in Ukraine; I think it is twice as high, or near that.
Why are we marking time in negotiation processes with our European partners? It’s true what I said earlier about them earlier that before eating what’s on their plate, they first eat the neighbours’ food. They are very nice guys, very friendly, polite, pleasant to talk with, we can eat caviar and drink vodka, good German beer or Italian or French wines, but they are very tough negotiators.
At present we can’t even move forward and conclude a new framework agreement, much less a further agreement about free trade. That is because we believe our partners are making excessive demands and, in fact, imposing on us an agreement that we refer to as WTO Plus. That is, it comprises the WTO requirements with regards to open markets and several other things, particularly regarding standards, plus some additional demands.
But first of all we need to digest WTO accession; we cannot go too fast. And we believe that if Ukraine joined the Customs Union and we coordinated our efforts and negotiated with the Europeans, we would have more chances to negotiate better terms of trade with our main economic and trade partner. Europe remains our major trading partner; 50% of our trade is with the European Union.
In this sense, we believe that [joining the Customs Union] serves both our and Ukrainian interests. All the more so since during the negotiation process we would lower energy prices and open Russian markets. According to our calculations, and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences confirms this, Ukraine would receive an additional $9 billion. Not a minus, but a plus.
How would Ukraine benefit from joining the EU? Open markets? Well, this would make the economy more liberal. But I have no idea whether Ukraine’s economy can cope with such liberalism. It’s none of our business really, our Ukrainian partners must decide this for themselves.
But what is our problem? If import duties are further reduced in Ukraine, then good quality and cheap European goods will make their way there. They will squeeze products of Ukrainian origin out of the domestic market, pushing them where? Towards us. This creates problems. We are therefore warning in advance and saying: we understand all this, it’s your choice, go ahead if you want to, but keep in mind that we will somehow have to protect our market and introduce protectionist measures. We are saying this openly and in advance, so that afterwards you will not accuse us of interfering with anyone or questioning another country’s sovereign right to decide in favour of the EU.
You understand that we will simply need to consider how many goods can access our market and what protectionist measures we will have to take, that’s all. After all, look at the share of agricultural products that Ukraine imports and which end up on the Russian market. I think probably about 70 to 80% of all food imports. And what will they do with their pipes and other products? There’s a whole range of issues, we engage in massive internal cooperation, and some businesses cannot exist without their counterparts. And if we introduce such limitations, these companies and perhaps whole industries will then face severe problems. That’s what we’re talking about, that’s what we’re warning about. We are doing so in good faith and in advance, without in any way encroaching on [Ukraine’s] sovereign right to take a foreign policy decision.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you very much, Mr President.
I want to give Mr Simes the chance to reply.
PRESIDENT OF THE US CENTRE FOR THE NATIONAL INTEREST DIMITRI SIMES: I enjoyed listening to this whole conversation and the President’s speech. I feel a little uncomfortable, like the honest old man who said: “Mr President, I am an honest old man, I have nothing to lose, and you are a genius.” I do not want to speak like that and won’t do so here.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: That’s a pity. It’s not hard just say it. (Laughter.)
DIMITRI SIMES: Maybe you’ll like [what I have to say], we’ll see.
I found our previous conversation a little perturbing because it seemed like “all is well, my beautiful marchioness”, except for a tiny trifle. Yes, of course there are problems between Russia and the European Union, there are disagreements between Russia and the United States, but on the whole everything is done with goodwill and mutual understanding. I had the feeling while listening to the conversation earlier that all we have to do is show some goodwill and common sense, and everything will go smoothly.
Friends, we have not yet recovered from, and have only just begun to seek a way out of one of the most serious international crises since World War II. We have not yet emerged from this crisis. Apart from the technical aspects of the situation with Syria’s chemical weapons, there is also a fundamental difference of views. As the President said, Russia’s position is that there should be no use of force.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Without UN Security Council approval.
DIMITRI SIMES: Without UN Security Council approval.
In addition, as the President said, there is no proof that chemical weapons were used by Assad’s government, which in the United States and in Europe is usually referred to only as the regime. The American position and that of leading European powers is fundamentally different.
Why was President Obama forced to take on President Putin’s initiative? As I understand it, not because he fundamentally rejected the idea of a military strike on Syria. As Mr President just said, Mr had Obama addressed the Congress and was clearly preparing the country for a military strike, but he failed. First he was let down by the British Parliament, and then suddenly by American public opinion.
I have never seen anything like what has just happened in the United States. I emigrated there forty years ago, in 1973, and what I have seen in that time is that the majority of Americans are political realists who do not like any foreign humanitarian interventions, and who do not want to spread democracy by using force.
Public opinion does not matter much, because for most people it wasn’t an important issue; that is not why they voted the way they did. And then suddenly, for the first time a real protest hurricane developed very fast, and took on momentum like a snowball. When it began the Administration was certain that they had the support of the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. And after the Senate’s vote, it would be possible to pressure the House [of Representatives], which has a Republican majority.
And suddenly I saw on American television and I’m sure my American colleagues did too how at these meetings of congressional representatives, senators and voters, including Senator John McCain, the voters shouted: “How dare you?! What are you doing?!” And the more the Administration and President Obama talked about needing to attack Syria, the greater was the public opposition.
Then your initiative appeared, Mr President, one that allowed President Obama to save face and to recognise the inevitable, that strikes won’t work. But the main motives remain: removing Assad, demonstrating that if the United States and President Obama personally set some kind of red line, in this case the use of chemical weapons, then it cannot be crossed. And if it does happen, then America won’t tolerate that the perpetrator remains in power, or for evil not to be punished, as Washington said. All these points remain valid.
The problem is much broader than Syria. When you talk about Russia’s national identity, I remembered how I was in Russia in 1991 with former President Nixon, and how he spoke at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He surprised everyone there by saying that Russia is a part of Western civilisation and that naturally Russia must understand that there are some common democratic mechanisms and free market principles.
He said that Russia should never simply follow along behind US foreign policy, nor should it adopt American Western values . Not only is it unnatural for Russia, because it is simply dressing-up the country as something it isn’t, but it will have a boomerang effect. Russian public opinion, Russian policy will never support this in the long term. As a result, there will be some resentment of the United States and the West, and they will have to pay for this.
In conclusion, Winston Churchill, who President Putin referred to earlier, said a very interesting and wise thing about the United States: He said that “you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing but only after they’ve tried everything else.” I hope that we are coming to the end of trying everything else, and that this will open up a real opportunity for Russian-American relations.
I fully support President Putin’s tough stance, not because I’m not an American patriot, but because I believe that baby talk among great powers is not the way to reach an agreement. One has to understand what to expect from the other country, and what their mettle is.
My question to the President is as follows. I think you showed in your Munich speech and in your highly effective article in The New York Times what Russia will not allow, and the red lines that Russia is laying down. But if you talk one-on-one with President Obama (and I understand that an audience such as this is a different format), what does Russia disagree with in addition to what you said in The New York Times? What would you tell him if the United States saw a window of opportunity and tried to use it? How would you see the possibilities for cooperation with Russia? What concessions could you offer? Is it possible, for example that Russia’s position on some important issues might change?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: First of all, I do not think that the initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under [international] supervision contributed, as you said, to saving President Obama’s face. It has nothing to do with saving anyone’s face. It was his decision, based on an empirical analysis of the situation, and I’m very pleased that our positions on this issue coincided. That’s the first point.
Secondly, what would I say? You know, there is no secret here. After all, I spoke to President Obama one-on-one, including last time we met in St Petersburg, we talked on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and at previous meetings in Los Cabos [in 2012]. You know, I always have the same question. After all, the vast majority of people sitting here are experts and I can ask them all, and you too, one of the most respected experts on Russia and international politics, the same question: what is it the purpose? You know, I always ask: what are you trying to achieve? If evil must be punished, what is evil there? The fact that President Assad’s family has been in power for 40 years? Is that evil? The fact that there is no democracy there? Indeed, perhaps there is none as the American establishment defines it.
REMARK: There is no democracy in Saudi Arabia either, but for some reason no one is bombing it.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: See, they say there is no democracy in Saudi Arabia either, and it’s difficult to disagree with that. Nobody is getting ready to bomb Saudi Arabia.
The issue is that we establish a trusting dialogue with Americans and Europeans so that we can listen to each other and hear our respective arguments.
“Evil must be punished. There must be a democracy.” Look at what happened in Egypt: there was a state of emergency there for forty years, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground. Then they were allowed to come out into the open, elections were held and they were elected. Now everything is back like it was before. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed underground, and there’s a state of emergency. Is this good or bad? You know, we need to realise that there are probably countries and even entire regions that cannot function according to universal templates, reproducing the patterns of American or European democracy. Just try to understand that there is another society there and other traditions. Everything in Egypt has come full circle, came back to what they started with.
Apparently, those who committed the now famous military actions in Libya were also inspired by noble motives. But what was the outcome? There too they fought for democracy. And where is that democracy? The country is divided into several parts which are run by different tribes. Everybody is fighting against everybody else. Where is democracy? They killed the US ambassador. Do you understand that this is also the result of the current policy? This is a direct outcome.
I don’t say this now to criticise or attack anyone. I just want to encourage all of our partners to listen to each other, and to each other’s arguments. Russia has not special interests in Syria, and that is not what we are trying to protect by supporting the current government. Of course not. In my article, I think I wrote something like “We are fighting to preserve the principles of international law.” After all, it was at the initiative of the American founding fathers that when the statutes of the United Nations and its Security Council were signed and I would stress that this was at American initiative that they contained a provision that decisions pertaining to war and peace must be made unanimously. This holds profound meaning. No matter how hard or how difficult this may be.
After all, you understand that if any country feels invulnerable and strikes unilaterally wherever it deems necessary, then the international order and the very meaning of the UN and the Security Council will be reduced to zero. This would be a blow to the world order, not simply to Syria. That’s what I’m talking about, do you understand? That’s what I’d like to say to you and this audience, and to our partners in the United States.
SVETLANA MIRONYUK: Thank you.
Mr Fillon wants to speak.
FORMER FRENCH PRIME MINISTER, DEPUTY OF THE FRENCH NATIONAL ASSEMBLY FRANCOIS FILLON (translated from Russian): I have great respect for President Putin for two reasons.
First, because he is the president of a great country, a vast land with a centuries-old culture, and so dialogue with him is essential. But I respect him for another reason too. He is someone who keeps his promises and with whom dialogue is possible. It is not always an easy dialogue, but it is always possible.
Over the five years that I headed the government, I often saw formal discussions in international relations, sometimes rather tedious events, where the participants would all simply read out documents prepared by their assistants. I can say that with Vladimir Putin the discussions were also a lot lengthier and more spontaneous and alive, and of course more constructive too. This brings me to two moments.
First, of course we cannot simply export our political system. I believe that every people has the right choose how they want to live in accordance with their own culture and way of life. But at the same time, we, whether in Russia or Europe, cannot be completely indifferent to a situation in which mass murder has been taking place for two years now.
One country intervening in another’s affairs in an attempt to impose its model is not the same thing as attempting to stop mass killing. In this context, if we had not intervened in the situation in Libya, as Vladimir Putin knows very well, the Libyan army would have wiped the city of Benghazi from the face of the earth.
Vladimir Putin has made several references to Christianity, to which he, like I, is deeply committed. But it is in Christianity that we find values that oblige us not to be just silent witnesses to these mass killings. Of course we must respect international law in the actions we take. France therefore opposes airstrikes at this moment, because I think that airstrikes carried out outside international law would only worsen the situation in Syria.
I call for building relations of trust in the Security Council. We can build these relations of trust if we take steps towards each other. We might have doubts about the UN experts’ report, but it is better to have this report than not to have it. Now that we have it, we need to work together to build between Russia, Europe, the USA and the Security Council members the relations of trust that will allow us to avoid war and will push the conflicting parties in Syria towards a political solution.
Vladimir Putin took my words about responsibility as if they were addressed to him alone. What I meant was that Russia of course has particular responsibilities through its ties with Bashar Assad’s regime, and we in Europe also have our responsibilities through the ties that we have with the opposition. This responsibility should impel us towards one and the same result to get the two sides to stop the fighting. We are not talking about imposing Western-style democracy there, but about stopping the mass killing, which is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that it should have gone on for so long.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let me just make one remark in this respect.
Of course we cannot simply watch calmly as mass murder takes place, but at the same time, let’s be honest with each other. Yes, an internal conflict began there, but it immediately started being fuelled from abroad. Weapons began flowing in, fighters began arriving in Syria. They started coming right from the outset, maybe even earlier. This is a clear and well-known fact.
Where did Al-Nusra, an organisation linked to Al-Qaeda, come from? And there’s another group there too, also linked to Al-Qaeda. The State Department recognises this, recognises these groups’ links. They have admitted after all that groups that are part of Al-Qaeda are fighting there. What do we make of this?
In my discussions on this matter with my colleagues, I say, “Ok, you’re essentially wanting to take their side and help them come to power, but what will you do next? Just grab a newspaper and chase them away from the power they’ve taken?” It doesn’t happen that way. We know it’s not possible. It doesn’t work that way. So I ask them, “What will you do?” They say, “We don’t know.” That’s a direct discussion, no secrets to hide. But if you don’t know what you’re going to do next, what’s the point in rushing in and bombing away when you don’t know the outcome? That’s the big question.
You know what the main difference in our approaches is? If we try to intervene in favour of one of the parties to the conflict, give them our support, it will ultimately make it impossible to establish an internal balance of power in the country. Everything will start to come apart and then collapse. Difficult though it may be, we need to force them to look for common ground, force them to reach agreements among themselves and find a balance of interests, and then it might be possible to bring longer-lasting stability to the country and eventually even have things level out. But if we lend our full force to one or the other conflicting party no balance will be possible.
People in the US recognise now that the operations in Iraq were a mistake. We said this would be the case, but no one wanted to listen. I remember my discussions with the former President, and with the former British prime minister. I won’t repeat the details, but we spoke about precisely these things. And yet no one wanted to listen. As for the result, I’m sure this audience is already fully aware of the result.
You say that Benghazi would have been destroyed. I don’t know. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps not. But is today’s situation better, when a civil war is underway and people are being killed every day? To this day we are still seeing dozens of people dying every day in Iraq. Every single day! The number of people killed since the end of the military operations is already greater than the number of people killed during the military action itself. And what is the result? It is exactly the opposite to what was hoped for, and that is what we are trying to get across, and why we seek a constructive dialogue with our partners in Europe and in the USA.
In Libya, living standards were a lot higher before. What is the fighting there all about? The fighting today is about different tribes trying to get control of the oil resources. I am not saying that Libya had a good or balanced regime. Gaddafi thought up some political theory of his own. This does not mean that things should have continued unchanged there for another 100 years. But to resolve the problem the way they tried, in the end they failed to resolve it at all, and are unlikely to do so any time soon.
To be continued