President of Interstate Television and Radio Company Mir Radik Batyrshin: The Collective Security Treaty Organisation celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The benefits for Russia’s allies are clear. Firstly, they receive the latest Russian arms at discount prices. Secondly, their armed forces personnel receive training at Russian military academies. Thirdly, they have access to Russian armed forces’ intelligence data, and then there is the space and air defence the Russian Federation provides, and much more.
Furthermore, we should not forget that if any of the CSTO member states is attacked, the Russian armed forces have an obligation to defend it. The Russian armed forces are the biggest in the CSTO today, and, as the operation in Syria has shown, they are among the most effective in the world. The advantages for our allies are therefore clear, but what does Russia gain from membership in the CSTO?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Russia has a vital interest in maintaining stability in the post-Soviet space. We are well aware of the threats that exist on our borders, and we will probably touch upon this later. I will not speak now about our western borders, but in the east, we have Afghanistan. The fewer the threats Russia has in the various directions, and the more effective our common actions, the better.
We should not forget that there are threats today that do not stop at borders but are trans-national in nature. They include terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking, and we can fight these threats effectively only if we combine our efforts. We have proposed joining forces on a global scale. I made this call at the UN, as you may know. At the regional level, we can achieve this, and, as we can see, we are doing so quite effectively.
An organisation such as the CSTO has certainly justified its existence. This year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the CSTO treaty signing, and also the 15th anniversary of the CSTO’s existence as an organisation. These important milestones give us the opportunity to look back and assess ecerything we have achieved in the security area. This must be a critical analysis. We need to make changes if necessary, take additional steps to coordinate actions and strengthen our legal base. Overall, I strongly believe that security cooperation is a priority for both us and our partners, and all participants in the Collective Security Organisation benefit from this work.
Radik Batyrshin: If we were to make a list of the threats for the CSTO countries’ security, how would it look?
Vladimir Putin: First on the list would be terrorism and extremism of all kinds. I would include drug trafficking and trans-border crime, and we cannot forget about the more global threats, of course. We know the various theories being tried out around the world, causing serious destabilisation in the affected regions. We cannot allow such a thing to happen in our region, of course, and we will take the necessary measures in Russia itself and support our CSTO partners.
Radik Batyrshin: We have seen some success in combating ISIS, which is banned in Russia and the CIS countries, but we must also remember another front in the fight against terrorism – Afghanistan. Every day, we see how Taliban militants and other radical Islamists are creeping ever closer to the CIS borders. How do you assess the CSTO’s efforts in this area?
Vladimir Putin: This is a very dangerous area for us all. We already know examples, tragic examples, when militants crossed the border from Afghanistan. I am not talking here about drug trafficking and criminals infiltrating our countries, but about large armed groups entering our territories. There was a case in Kyrgyzstan several years ago, for example, when the armed forces had to be deployed to fight these armed groups.
We are conscious of the great danger this poses to our own country, the Russian Federation. It is for this reason as well that we maintain our 201stmilitary base in Tajikistan. This is an important element of stability in the region. The biggest threat is terrorism, and the terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan is very serious indeed. However, as far as the Taliban are concerned, many countries have contacts of one form or another with this organisation [the Taliban]. Of course, they have many radicals in their ranks, but together with our partners, including UN representatives, we always take the view that we must develop relations with all forces in Afghanistan based on three main principles: recognition of Afghanistan’s constitution, disarmament, and reaching full national accord.
We strongly hope that we will never have to use our armed forces, including the units at our 201st base in Tajikistan. This is certainly an area of concern, like the Afghan border, which is long, more than 1000 kilometres, 1,300 kilometres. Our view is that by assisting Afghanistan’s legitimate government, together with other participants in the settlement process we will eventually achieve reconciliation there and will help to set Afghanistan on the track of a peaceful resolution of its internal problems and development.
Radik Batyrshin: But Afghanistan also means the transit of drugs, which you mentioned, and drug trafficking is one of the terrorists’ ‘feeding grounds’.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, this is so. Sadly, drug trafficking is increasing, production volumes, if we can speak in these terms, are increasing too. A third of Afghanistan’s rural territory is under Taliban control today. We see that ever more frequently the so-called international coalition (it is mostly made up of American troops) has to engage in various combat operations, and we even hear talk of plans for a full return of the US military contingent to Afghanistan. This is related to the complicated processes underway in that country.
Radik Batyrshin: Effective border protection is essential for the security of the CSTO as a major political alliance. How do you assess the CSTO’s efforts to protect its external borders?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, this is a very important area and we are bolstering our cooperation here at Kyrgyzstan’s initiative. Last year, we took appropriate decisions to intensify work in this area. We hold frequent joint exercises and our border guards and intelligence and security services are not simply in contact with each other, but work together and exchange information on a permanent basis. We are establishing a data bank and actively using it in our joint practical efforts. Everything we do through the CSTO is translated into practice. This is our daily joint work.
Regarding border guard services in particular, we work together with our colleagues and also supply them with arms and equipment and assist with training.
Radik Batyrshin: Thousands of people from the CIS countries have joined ISIS. The day will come when we vanquish ISIS and these people will return to their home countries and establish new terrorist cells. What is the CSTO doing in this respect?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, we have not yet achieved this victory. To achieve it, we must join efforts, not only within the CSTO, but also in a broader international coalition. Otherwise, there will be scant chance of success.
Regarding your question, I would certainly like to see this victory achieved, and achieved in such a way that no one returns to our country. Our contingent in Syria pursues precisely this goal. Our service personnel are fighting terrorists on foreign soil, not Russian soil, precisely to ensure that none of them returns here. When this does happen from time to time, it is further evidence that we made the right choice and that we must do all we can to minimise any possible return. This is my first point.
Secondly, you are right in that, according to various estimates, around 20,000 foreign militants are fighting in Syria, and nearly 10,000 of them come from the CIS countries. Various estimates put the figure at around 9,000, of which slightly less than half come from Russia and around 5,000 from the Central Asian countries, mostly from the CSTO member-states. The threat is therefore very real and very serious. We are aware of it, understand the scale of this threat, and will do everything possible to minimise it. We are working on it.
Radik Batyrshin: The CSTO heads of state decided to establish the Collective Rapid Reaction Force – the CRRF. Did the establishment of the force take into account the experience of the Russian special operations forces, which have proven themselves quite effective in the North Caucasus and Syria?
Vladimir Putin: Our special operations forces have been working as they do, with the results we know, only in the past year, in other words, after the CRRF was established. Generally, well-trained units went into the CRRF, but the Russian special operations forces are really a new chapter in our military development.
I can say with all responsibility that we never had forces of this calibre before, not even during the Soviet era. These are top-class professionals, well equipped, and able to work effectively in very difficult conditions. These people are highly motivated and professional. I know, of course, what they do and how they do it. They are true patriots.
Of course, we will do everything possible to ensure that the CRRF also learn the latest methods and have the latest equipment available to our special operations forces. We will share our experience, of course, with our CSTO allies.
Radik Batyrshin: The CSTO has often been compared to another military-political bloc, NATO. What are their similarities, and why does the CSTO not make political declarations the way NATO does? How should the CSTO respond to what I would call a demonstrative increase of the NATO contingent along the borders of Russia and its allies?
Vladimir Putin: NATO was established during the Cold War, at a time of confrontation between two blocs. Things have changed today. There is no division along ideological lines between countries today, including in Europe. However, NATO still bears the birthmarks of the era that bore it and continues to live in a paradigm of bloc-based confrontation. It is a highly ideological organisation, despite the various statements about the need to change in current conditions. We have heard many such declarations, but see no real transformation.
The CSTO was created in a new situation, to address today’s threats. I listed them in order of importance: terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and trans-border crime. Maybe it is for this reason that we do not make direct joint political or politicised declarations. The CSTO makes its decisions on a consensus basis, not formally, but in substance. This creates a completely different atmosphere within the organisation.
We all witnessed the recent US airstrikes against Syria. How did the American NATO allies react? They all nodded away in docile agreement, without even bothering to analyse what was actually happening. Where is the proof that the Syrian government forces used chemical weapons? There is no proof. However, there has been a violation of international law. This is a clear and evident fact. An airstrike has been carried out against a sovereign state without the UN Security Council’s approval. But despite this flagrant violation of international law, they all just nod their agreement and give their support.
I spoke recently with my Italian colleague, as you probably saw. The same thing happened back in 2003, when a pretext was concocted to justify sending troops to Iraq. The country was destroyed as a result, and it was after this that we saw the rapid emergence of various terrorist organisations and groups, the emergence of ISIS and other organisations. Everyone knows this, but here they go, making the same mistakes again. This is how NATO works. The CSTO works differently.
As I have said, the CSTO was established in a different situation, and above all in order to concentrate efforts on real threats and join forces to combat these threats. At the same time, we cannot ignore the global issues that create a threat for the entire world. We have repeatedly stated our opposition to the deployment of missile defence systems, the deployment of weapons in space and so on. In other words, we believe it is possible to formulate a common approach on such fundamental global issues, and this is what we are doing.
Radik Batyrshin: You said after the meeting with the President of Italy that the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province, which led to the US air strike on a Syrian air base, was an ISIS provocation. You also said that ISIS was preparing another provocation with the use of chemical weapons, this time in a Damascus suburb. Doesn’t this mean that the Americans’ actions are helping the terrorists instead of fighting them?
Vladimir Putin: I do not remember saying that it was an ISIS provocation. I did infer that it was a provocation, but I did not say who staged it. There are several possibilities. To give the final answer, this event must be thoroughly investigated. There is no other option. And this is exactly what we have proposed doing.
Moreover, everyone knows very well that a major project was completed at the Russian and US initiative to liquidate the chemical weapons in the possession of the Syrian authorities. They have done their part of the job; they have implemented all their obligations, as far as we know. A specialised UN body has confirmed this. But in case of doubts a verification inspection can be organised.
You know that this can be done easily using modern technology, methods of analysis and equipment. If the authorities used chemical weapons, there will be traces of the powder on weapons and in the area. Modern technology can surely detect them. It should be quite simple: go to the airfield the Americans bombed, from which aircraft with chemical bombs allegedly took off and inspect it thoroughly.
If our partners say that peaceful civilians were injured in the Syrian air strike, these peaceful civilians should allow UN and other international observers to inspect the sites that were hit in the attack. There are several version, two of which I consider as priorities.
The first is that the Syrian bombs hit a secret chemical weapons facility. This is quite possible, considering that the terrorists have used chemical weapons many times, and nobody has contested this fact. They have used these weapons in Iraq against the international coalition and the Iraqi army. These attacks have been recorded, but they are hushed up. There is no outrage over them, although everyone agreed that the terrorists have used toxic agents. This means that the terrorists have these weapons, so why can’t they have them in Syria? They are all together in this. This was my first version.
According to the second version, it was a staged provocation, a deliberate incident designed to create a pretext for increasing pressure on the legitimate Syrian authorities. That is all. But it must be investigated. We believe that no move should be made against the Syrian authorities otherwise.
Radik Batyrshin: Was Donald Trump’s decision unexpected for you?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, it was completely unexpected, aside from the fact, of course, that we learned about it a few hours in advance.
Radik Batyrshin: Can we say that Russian-American relations have deteriorated to an even lower point than before? In other words, have relations deteriorated with Trump in office from what they were under his predecessor?
Vladimir Putin: We could say that at the working level, the degree of trust has dropped, especially in the military area. It has not improved and has probably worsened.
Radik Batyrshin: Let us return to the CIS, after all, we are a CIS broadcasting company. We cannot forget the tragedy of April 3 in St Petersburg. The lone terrorist who exploded a bomb in the metro was a Russian citizen, but he was an ethnic Uzbek born in Osh. Voices were raised immediately in Russia, saying that labour migration from the post-Soviet countries should be stopped and the visa-free regime cancelled. What is your view on this idea?
Vladimir Putin: Firstly, I understand our citizens’ concerns. There have been a good many events that could be seen as a threat to national security coming from militants infiltrating our territory via the former Soviet republics, and not just Central Asia, but other republics as well. Some of these militants come from further abroad. Today’s world is such that it is impossible to completely end migration. This is true not only for Russia, but for practically every country. The issue is how to organise strict control over migration flows.
Secondly, the vast majority of people who come to Russia do so to work and help their families. The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union implies free movement of labour, capital, services and goods. This is a great advantage for our countries’ development, a great opportunity. In today’s world, economic success or failure can decide the fate of entire regions. This is therefore a key issue for our life and our future.
Economic success is possible only with integration. This is the way today’s world works. It is therefore not possible, simply for objective reasons, to include or exclude something. The security services need to work better, more efficiently, and as we work on economic processes, we must not forget our cooperation on security. This was why we established the CSTO.
You mentioned [President of Kazakhstan Nursultan] Nazarbayev’s decision to revoke the Kazakhstani citizenship of those guilty of involvement in ISIS’ criminal activity. Under the Russian Constitution, we cannot revoke anyone’s citizenship, but we can overturn the decisions that served as the basis for granting someone Russian citizenship. We are in consultation with our legal experts and I think that this decision will be taken very soon.
Radik Batyrshin: You have mentioned a project that involves nearly all the CSTO member states: the Eurasian Economic Union. It has started working, although the start was a difficult one. Many of the countries involved have met with dificculties.
Nearly all the countries in the EAEU are now facing the same problems that the Russian economy encountered after sanctions were introduced against Russia. And now they say that the Russian economy has collapsed and buried them, and this is why they cannot demonstrate the obvious advantages of common capital and labour markets. What can you say about this?
Vladimir Putin: This is not true, absolutely not. Frankly speaking, sanctions have nothing or very little to do with this. The really serious problem they encountered is due to the changes in the global market. They have definitely affected the Russian economy, but these negative changes have also influenced our partners’ economies. They did not do so through Russia, but directly. Of course, there is a degree of interdependence, including our partners’ dependence on the Russian economy, but our economy depends on them, too.
However, the obvious part is the advantages offered by these integration processes, if they are managed properly. I believe that we are acting carefully and in an economically balanced manner. We are not trying to leap forward, as some EU countries have done. They introduced a common currency and adopted many other decisions before it was established that some economies cannot operate properly if they are attached to the strong euro. They cannot use monetary instruments to weaken the national currency, which would give them room for manoeuvre in a difficult situation.
If you look at countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, for example, which joined the Eurasian Economic Union later, the benefits are obvious. Their trade with us has increased rapidly. I think Kyrgyzstan’s trade is up 2.5-fold, and Armenia’s trade has increased by 80 percent. This is one thing.
The other one is that in value terms, some of the figures might seem cause for concern. This is due to exchange rate differences. However, in physical terms, trade has not fallen; moreover, it is growing. Another very important point, in my view, is that our trade structure has improved. The share of mineral raw materials and mineral goods has fallen, and the share of machines, equipment, high-tech and financial services has increased. This is very important and shows that the integration organisation and the instruments we have established do help us to improve our economies’ structure. This is the main road and the main goal of our development. What we want is a high-tech economy with good, well-paid jobs.
Radik Batyrshin: The CIS is a region without visa barriers, the CSTO is about common security, and the Eurasian Economic Union is a common market for capital and labour. Our interstate broadcasting company Mir creates a common information space for the CIS. What would you wish our viewers in our different countries, concluding this interview?
Vladimir Putin: The simplest but most essential things – happiness, health, and prosperity. As we have been discussing our organisation responsible for peace and security, I also wish peace, and confidence that our armed forces and common efforts will preserve this peace.