Vladimir Putin: Good evening: I am very glad to see you and to welcome you at the Kremlin. On the eve of the official visit to the United States I would be glad to answer any questions that interest you. I wouldn’t like to waste time on general introductory words and I suggest that we get down to business at once. You are welcome to ask your questions.
Question: Mr. President, you have backed the United States at a difficult and critical moment in the war on terrorism without any preconditions. What would you like to see in exchange, and what result would you like to get? That’s the first question.
The second question is about bin Laden’s claim, quoted by the media, that he has nuclear weapons. Do you think that is true? And a related question. Are you sure that the safety of the Russian nuclear arsenal is ensured?
Vladimir Putin: First, regarding our vision of the results of the joint fight against terrorism and what we would like to see as the result of our joint activities. First of all we would like the results of the joint Russian-American fight against terrorism to be positive so that terrorism is eradicated, destroyed and liquidated not only in Afghanistan, but in the whole world, so that the conditions that breed extremism of various types be eradicated, so that the channels of financing extremism in all its forms be destroyed and so that the citizens of our countries feel secure. And finally, as the upshot of our joint work we would like to create a new relationship between Russia and the United States that would enable us to cooperate in all the other areas. We would like to create a new quality of relations between us. And of course we would like to see the United States as a reliable and predictable partner. That ultimate objective is far more important, I think, than gaining some immediate material benefits.
As regards the threat of international terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction, we have already faced them in the Caucasus. As a rule, such threats are made and used to provoke fear and uncertainty among the population and to influence the leaders of countries that are fighting terrorism.
In the Caucasus so far it has boiled down to the use of homemade devices which might have had a negative environmental impact. Yes, such attempts have been made, although they have been ineffective. I think that in that sense the man you have named is little different from his disciples who are operating in the North Caucasus in Russia. But I wouldn’t like to exaggerate the danger. Nor would it be correct to underestimate it, especially since we know about bin Laden’s links with some radical circles in Pakistan, and Pakistan, after all, is a nuclear power. And of course in this connection we should give every support to General Musharraf in his effort to consolidate the public forces in that country, support his bid to make Pakistan part of the international effort in the fight against terror.
Question: Mr. President, setting forth your position on the ABM you said earlier that it is now more flexible than before. Could you be more specific and say in what way has it become more flexible, and does it have something to do with the possibility of creating a US national missile defence in Alaska? And if so, could you explain in what way your position is more flexible compared with what it was before?
Vladimir Putin: I don’t think I will divulge a big secret if I disclose what I told President Bush at our last meeting in Shanghai. I told him that our position indeed used to be tougher, especially when we were engaged in a dialogue with the previous US Administration. I will repeat it and say absolutely frankly: indeed, it was so, because we proceeded from the basis that we would conduct a serious dialogue with the man who would be in the White House over the next four or perhaps eight years.
It is very pleasant for me and for all of us that the man is President Bush with whom we have built up a very good personal relationship. And today we say that we are ready to discuss the parameters of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but first we must have a statement of the American position: what specifically do they propose to change? What specifically impedes the program the US Administration has conceived?
And we said, and I stressed it in my talks with the American President, that we think it would be right to consider defence systems alongside offensive weapons because these are two sides of one coin. We are pleased to note that our links today are marked not only by the good personal chemistry between the two presidents but also by the wish to find a compromise. We know the President’s proposals today and his opinion that offensive weapons can and must be reduced. That is already a compromise, a compromise in the right direction.
Politics is all about the art of compromise. We are also ready for compromises, the question is what we are going to be offered for discussion and what compromises we are expected to make. We should know it from the specific proposals of our American partners, and it should be determined by specialists: lawyers, military experts and diplomats. After several variants have been proposed it will remain for political leaders to choose between different options that may be worked out. And I am very optimistic that they can be found.
Question: I would like to ask you what possible changes you see in Russia’s role in the current US campaign, I mean your country’s role as a partner of the US in the military aspects of the operation?
The second part of the question is about bin Laden’s claim that he possesses a nuclear weapon. And in this connection, can you say with confidence that Russian nuclear potential is safely guarded and that there is no link between bin Laden’s statement and Russia’s nuclear arsenal?
Vladimir Putin: As regards a possible increase of the Russian contribution to the counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan I will remind you of what we are doing today.
We have offered our air corridors for the flight of American planes. We provide intelligence, and I assure you, it is very valuable intelligence. We have agreed positions with our partners and allies in Central Asia on assisting the United States. We are rendering tens of millions of dollars worth of military-technical aid to the Northern Alliance.
We have very close contacts with the legitimate and internationally recognized government of Rabbani. I assure you that they are not confined to the supply of weapons — we are helping them in many other ways.
As I have said, we are ready, if the need arises, to help rescue American citizens and American crews if, I repeat, there is a need for that, including our current opportunities on the territory of Afghanistan, wherever we can do it.
And there is another circumstance and another field of activities that cannot be passed unnoticed. We are conducting a land operation against international terrorism in the Northern Caucasus. The problem of Chechnya is far more complicated than simply the problem of international terrorism, but it is a fact that international terrorists are present there.
Various countries have contributed a thousand or two thousand troops to the land operation. We in the North Caucasus have now lost more than three thousand of our troops, and this is not hot air or propaganda: by now about 500 mercenaries from Arab countries have been destroyed. Our special services have lists of identified people, and that list runs to more than 100 names, with another 300-odd names in the process of being identified.
According to our data, there are between 500 and 700 mercenaries from various Islamic countries fighting there, many of whom harbour plans to come back to Afghanistan, and some of them have come to the territory of the Russian Federation from Afghanistan in order, as they themselves, say, to kill Americans. Our Armed Forces are containing that potential. As soon as we loosen up, they will instantly be in Afghanistan and will be up to what they are doing in Russia’s North Caucasus.
And I have to correct the interpreter, they are speaking not about killing American servicemen: radio intercepts made by our special services speak about killing Americans, and I have shown these documents to President Bush at our last meeting in Shanghai. That is the first point I would like to make.
There is one other thing we should bear in mind when speaking about Afghanistan. First, I would like to note that the events there are developing exactly as we have predicted. Unfortunately, we cannot set a solid barrier to the moving of these fundamentalist forces in the North Caucasus and Chechnya. In general, I think that our special services would be ready to pass on the lists of persons who have emerged from the North Caucasus via Georgia and Turkey and are preparing to move to Afghanistan. We have the list of their names. As regards the development of the situation in Afghanistan, I must repeat that it is basically developing according to the scenario we had foreseen. At present, as we see, the Northern Alliance has launched the planned operation, in fact it is taking the whole northern part of Afghanistan under its control. I repeat, that is how we envisaged the situation.
This is what we agreed with President Bush and this is what I was discussing with the leadership of Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, when I stopped over in Dushanbe en route from Shanghai.
And of course we should bear in mind past experience when we speak about Afghanistan’s future, including the negative experience of the Soviet Union. It is often said that the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, but if we take a close and professional look, putting propaganda aside, at what happened in those years in Afghanistan, we will see that the Soviet Union did not suffer a military defeat: it achieved all the military objectives it set itself. But some unpardonable political mistakes were made. The military results were such that even after the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghan territory – and the withdrawal was carried out with exceptional skill from the military point of view – the Najibullah regime held out for three more years. That is a long time in such an unstable country. The political mistake was that the Najibullah government did not have broad support among the political forces and all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan and also had no broad international support.
But the former Soviet leadership could not but make that kind of mistake. That mistake was predetermined by the ideological split in the international community. Thank God, that split no longer exists, and we are able to neutralize that mistake, we are able to avoid such mistakes. Herein lies the main value of the international anti-terrorist coalition.
As for the weapons of mass destruction that terrorists in Afghanistan might have, I have already said that in my opinion this is unlikely, but of course we cannot ignore the fact that they could get hold of weapons of mass destruction. But in any case these could not come from the Soviet Union or Russia, I am absolutely sure of that.
And I think that is another benefit of the state in which the civilized world and the whole humankind find themselves after the end of the Cold War, and this is the main benefit. In fact, the present state of affairs gives us hope that the leaders of the main countries of the world, including President Bush and myself, will manage to create conditions in which people would feel much more secure than yesterday or today.
Question: Mr. President, we are witnessing a surprising warming in the relations between Russia and the United States after September 11. In your answers to the previous questions you have said that you would like that improvement and these good relations to become permanent and that you would like to see the Untied States as a long-term and reliable partner. In this connection I would like to ask you what other issues do you consider to be especially important in addition to strategic weapons and ABM? What are your priorities? And in this connection, what is your view of the issues of NATO, cooperation with NATO and the problem of NATO enlargement? In particular, how would you react if the United States makes the decision and agrees to admit all the three Baltic states to NATO?
Vladimir Putin: There are many questions that are of considerable interest to us. The first of these is of course the problem of international security with due account of the national interests of the Russian Federation. Then there is economic cooperation on terms that are at least standard and non-discriminatory.
As for NATO, that is a separate topic. That organization was created as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. And at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union it was necessary to understand that the very nature of NATO would have to change. I pity the person who does not understand it because he is behind the times. The people who don’t understand it will of course make mistakes and are in fact making them.
We proceed from the assumption that NATO is a serious part of present-day international realities and we seek broader cooperation with NATO.
I think the body that has been created – the Permanent Council, the so-called PJC – has on the whole been useful at a certain stage. But today this body is totally insufficient for changing the quality of relations between Russia and NATO.
I think everybody understands that we will act effectively, vigorously and persistently in pursuing goals and tasks that are worked out with our participation. And if we don’t take part in working out these goals, then it is natural that the Russian Federation will behave accordingly. I think that is clear to any person and any country.
One of the first questions was about our participation in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. We have declared our support of a quality and on a scale of support that has never happened before, and that was hard to imagine. But I can say that we can consider enhancing our mutual efforts, but that would depend on a change in the quality of the relations between Russia and the leading Western countries, on our relations with the Untied States and of course with NATO.
We are talking about the fight against terrorism. But there are other modern challenges just as dangerous, and they have been mentioned here. One of these problems is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I think it is no less important than terrorism and it is at least as dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous. It is not by chance that these two topics have been repeatedly linked during this conversation here. But today anyone, even the most ordinary person, understands that we can only effectively counter these and other threats and challenges of our time if we pool our efforts. And we can only pool our efforts effectively if we raise the bar of trust in each other, and raise it qualitatively.
And I think that not only Russia is interested in a qualitative shift in our relations with NATO, I think our Western partners – the United States, other key NATO countries and the organization as a whole – are at least as interested in it.
To tell you frankly, I have very general ideas and I am not ready to formulate them now. I think President Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom we have talked about it, and some other leaders of key NATO countries, have very promising new ideas.
As regards the possible accession of the Baltic States to NATO, I have this to say: what was NATO created for in the first place? It is a defensive organisation; it was created to enhance the level of security of at least its member countries. If you go out into the street in New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin or Rome and ask any passer-by whether he thinks his country and he himself will be more secure after the admission of the Baltic states to NATO, the answer will obviously be no. I am absolutely sure that whatever my colleagues from the Baltic countries may say, it will not enhance their own security, although of course every country has the right to choose and has to make its own choices about security, and nobody is challenging that.
But if we think in new terms, and not in the terms of the Cold War, we will have to understand and determine what threatens us today and how we can counter these threats. Once we understand this, we will promptly conclude that the character of the organization should change, that Russia should become involved, because Russia is one country that can make a substantial and real contribution, alongside all the others, to international security, including that of key NATO countries. We are ready to work on this with our NATO partners, we are working and we have grounds to think that considering the positive attitude of our partners, we can achieve positive results. Mechanical expansion of NATO without regard to the national interests of Russia – I don’t think that is a move in the right direction, which is why we object to it, of course.
Question: In addition to developing and maintaining contacts with Western countries Russia preserves very warm relations with such countries as North Korea, Iraq and especially Belarus. These are hardly countries with developed democracy. Could you comment on how Russia, given its fairly close relations with these countries, could help them move towards democracy so that these countries could become more integrated into the international community, in the mainstream of the international democratic community?
Vladimir Putin: Do you remember what a Soviet leader said: “Of course Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch”? I think I am mistaken, though. It wasn’t a Soviet leader, it was an American leader, but let us not delve into history. I don’t think it was a sound thesis. There are no sons of bitches among our partners, but each country has its own history and its own history of relations with Russia.
Russia has changed greatly during the past decade. Of course, our relations with these states have also changed; those who don’t see it simply don’t want to see it. But we are not going to neglect any positive aspects of interstate relations.
In general, one should treat one’s partners with respect. It is only when you look from the outside that you may feel that this or that country could easily accomplish something, but when you become immersed in the problems of this or that state you find that things are not all that simple. And behaving like a bull in a china shop is not the best way to behave in relations between states. The biggest mistake would be to try to isolate some country from the international community. That is true of any country, including the countries you have mentioned. We do maintain relations with all these countries, and they are different with each of them, and they are absolutely open, we are not concealing anything. Indeed, as you know, we are in constant contact with our partners in other countries, including the United States.
As regards North Korea, it is a country with which we have a common border, it is our neighbour. There are a lot of Koreans living in Russia. Like the United States, we want peace to come to the Korean Peninsula and conditions for a positive development of the country, and the Korean nation to be formed.
As you know, I visited the DPRK before the Okinawa Summit. And I must say that my observations and meetings with the North Korean leader and the information that I shared with colleagues in the G8 met with a positive reaction and with great interest. Moreover, I for one believe that it largely contributed to the development of Korea’s relations with some states: with Canada, speaking about the Western Hemisphere, and with some European countries. Drawing North Korea into global processes, I think, is a very positive trend.
As far as we know, the US State Department is also seeking to promote relations, including with North Korea, it is actively involved in the inter-Korean dialogue and I think that Russia can play a very positive role there.
As for Iraq, Russia has its opinion and its approach to the situation in that country. Russia’s position is anything but one of confrontation, and it does not run counter to the opinion of the international community, or of the Western community as to how that situation should develop. In fact we have common goals. The main goal is to make sure that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, that it is not producing them, is not planning to produce them and so on. And that is also what we want; we share a common goal. The question is how to achieve that goal. By tightening sanctions? I don’t think that tougher sanctions against a country, even against the political establishment, are always effective in relations with any specific country. We may differ in our approach and I think the Russian approach has much to be said for it. Because what we propose is to get the Iraqi leaders to allow international observers to visit the facilities of interest to the international community, on the one hand, and to lift sanctions, on the other hand, but I must say that unfortunately we have still been unable to agree on that issue with the Iraqi leadership, so it is a fairly complicated process.
As for Belarus, that is a special situation. We all understand that it is a republic of the former Soviet Union with which we have a special relationship. The people in both countries – Belarus and the Russian Federation – would like to see united state structures built up, and it would be folly to ignore that wish. The Belarusian and Russian people are very close ethnically, culturally and linguistically; they have to a large extent a common history and share great mutual sympathy.
Question: Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said recently that he agreed that the ABM was not an untouchable instrument and that consideration could be given to revising it. Don’t you think in this connection that the ABM Treaty is indeed obsolete? And how would you comment on Sergei Ivanov’s change of stance compared with what was said several months or several years earlier, namely, that the ABM Treaty is the cornerstone of the whole security system?
And the second part of the question. Concerning the agreements you hope to achieve with President Bush during your visit to the United States next week: will it be a formal agreement or will you merely say that you have agreed on everything?
Vladimir Putin: As regards the description of the 1972 ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of international security, we still think so. Why do we think so? Because a whole system of other agreements in the sphere of international security is linked to the ABM Treaty. In that sense Ivanov’s position has not changed, I assure you, because | know his position well. True, we have several Ivanovs, but nor has the other Ivanov changed his position, either. This is not to say that we do not recognize the legitimate concerns of the US Administration about the future of the international security system.
President Bush has agreed that offensive and defensive systems can be considered together. He has done more, because he now says that the United States is ready to cut offensive weapons. For our part we are ready to look at the problems the United States faces in developing its anti-missile defence system, but I repeat, first we must have a statement from our American partners of their position in military-technical terms, and so far there has been no such statement. We see that one can work toward an agreement with the US Administration and we are ready to walk our part of the way, only we must know what they want from us in the military-technical sense.
As regards concrete agreements, we have various proposals as to what results we could achieve with President Bush. But with your permission I would like to say it to him personally and not through your newspaper, much as I respect it.
Question: Because I represent the Wall Street Journal, an economic newspaper, I would like to know how future or predicted oil prices could affect the economic outlook for the development of Russia? And another question: is the state planning to propose to oil exporters to reduce exports?
Vladimir Putin: Domestic consumption of oil and derivative products in this country routinely increases in winter. In America, as far as I know, it drops a little bit because there is less air conditioning, but we are a northerly country and in winter demand for fuel oil and other petroleum products goes up, so we have no need to take any measures to cut exports, they drop naturally. That is one thing.
We are coordinating our actions with OPEC, but we are not members of OPEC. Our coordination consists in keeping a close eye on what is happening and having consultations. But, I stress, we are not members of OPEC. As for oil prices, our position is as follows. We favour what we call a fair price corridor. We believe that the corridor that OPEC indicated is fair. It is in the band between 21 and 26–27 dollars per barrel. That is a corridor of prices that would enable consumer countries to develop effectively and the oil-producing countries to address their economic and social problems.
As for the impact of oil prices on the Russian economy, it cannot be denied. You know that this is not a recent phenomenon, which we have created, it has been created by the whole history of economic development of the Soviet Union. I find it hard to disagree with those economists who think that after the Samotlor oilfield was discovered we lost the incentive to develop our economy. The Soviet Union started living off petrodollars, and there were probably more minuses than pluses for the development of the Soviet economy. Today 40% of hard currency earnings come from the sale of oil and its products, so the degree of dependence is high, and it is not so much the economy as society that depends on it. As you all know very well, in the last ten years, unfortunately, little was done to restructure the Russian economy to make it less dependent on the energy sector and to make it truly modern and effective.
But as is well known, in the last year or year and a half much has been done to wean us of that dependence. Revolutionary changes have been made in the tax sphere, in fighting red tape in the economy, and other market laws have been passed which, I think, gave a good impetus to development. The 8.3% growth of GDP last year was not only due to oil prices: the greatest contribution to growth was made by light industry.
I don’t think that a drop in world oil process would have a serious negative impact on our economy because the budget is based on a worst-case scenario of oil price dynamics. But if prices continue to decline and drop below the lowest limit assumed in the budget, well, we will have to take additional measures, improve management and improve other performance indicators. Still, we intend to continue liberal reforms and, if necessary, we will work with international financial institutions. At present, as you know, we are repaying our debts to the International Monetary Fund ahead of schedule. In general, we are not panicking over the issue, but we do feel some concern, we are thinking about it and we are looking at various scenarios.
We continue to develop the energy sector and we are actively cooperating with our American partners there. You will know that Exxon Mobil decided to launch a 12-billion dollar investment project, between 12 and 15 billion, and the total outlays on the project may be up to 30 billion. I think that is a very sound decision from the economic and political points of view, because the world economy must diversify risks and have multiple sources of energy. Russia in its present shape can well solve such problems.
Question: The Russians’ perception of America has changed and the Americans’ perception of Russia has changed. Some people, perhaps even in your Administration, in Russia, may think and say that Putin is moving along the path on which Gorbachev embarked in the times of the Soviet Union and which Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin followed when he met the United States halfway while getting little in return. On the other hand, some Americans may think and probably do think that America is helping Russia today, and in 10–15 years will discover that it has fostered an enemy. Can you comment on that?
Vladimir Putin: First, about the incentives for cooperating with America. These are not about gaining some kind of benefits here and now. These are not tactical motives. Of course it takes two to tango. And of course we expect the United States to really change its policy with regard to the Russian Federation. Judging from what we hear at present, that is possible.
But the reaction is not the most important thing. We are making decisions on international issues not because we expect approval from the United States or some other Western countries, but because we believe that the steps we are taking meet the national interests of Russia.
Some people believe that in the future the Russian Federation may become a rival of the United States, but then all countries in the world are rivals. And if somebody thinks that Russia may again become an enemy of the United States, I think these people don’t understand what has happened in the world and what has happened to Russia and what kind of country it has become.
What the Russian leadership is doing today is prompted not only by its political philosophy. Russia’s actions are prompted by its domestic situation and popular sentiments.
The most important thing is that the overwhelming majority of the Russian population wants to see democratic institutions function effectively. The vast majority of the Russian population wants to live in the context of a social market, wants itself and the country to be a natural part of modern civilization, wants to see this at both the interstate level and at the everyday, personal level. People want to freely travel in the world; they want to enjoy all the benefits offered by a normal modern democratic society.
But that does not mean that Russia has no national interests. Every country has them. Even if you take the NATO countries, all of which are members of a single defensive bloc, don’t these countries argue among themselves in seeking to defend their national interests? And take the countries of the WTO, don’t they have ongoing problems in the sphere of the free market and free movement of goods? There are a good many such situations arising in international relations. The Russian Federation will of course clearly formulate and uphold its national interests. But I think the time is gone when we believed that we should do it through confrontation, those times are long gone.
And if you look at the modern challenges, it becomes clear that the Russian Federation can be an effective partner, if not an ally, of the whole civilized world, including the United States, in neutralizing the threats we face today and may face in the near future. That is a fact.
Question: Mr. President, I would like you to clarify what you said at the very beginning of our talk. You said that the Islamic terrorists fighting in Chechnya are planning to move to Afghanistan and to kill Americans there. Could you elaborate a little bit: are these just sporadic threats, or, on the contrary, you have managed to uncover a conspiracy, a concrete plan?
And the second question about Chechnya: do you have any intelligence data on the so-called Chechen trail in the terrorist attacks on September 11?
Vladimir Putin: I will begin with the second part. We have no information to the effect that the terrorists operating in the Russian Federation, including the Chechen Republic, have any connection with these terrorist attacks. All we know is what you know yourselves: the people suspected of committing the crimes on September 11 told their relatives that they were going to Chechnya.
But what we do have – it is an established fact and it is not challenged by the special services of the United States – is the link between some international terrorists operating in Chechnya with international criminal terrorist organizations, including bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. That is for certain. These are people practically from the same organization. They were trained together in the same terrorist centres, they consider bin Laden to be their teacher – he trained them at his bases in Afghanistan – and they fought the Soviet troops in Afghanistan together, and so on.
At the time Russia withdrew from Chechnya, as you know, it happened in 1995, more than 2000 insurgents, militants had been trained on the territory of Chechnya at the most conservative estimate. They later took part in conflicts in some other trouble spots around the globe: in Kosovo, Kashmir, Sudan and Afghanistan. It was a single system, a single network, as it were, and it is hard to distinguish between where the centre is, and where its branches are.. They are the same people, they know each other very well, and they have the same sources of financing. That is not a great secret either, and we have passed this information to our American partners. We have a rough idea about who finances whom and from what sources. This is not a secret, or at least it is no longer a secret.
As regards the information on the possible movement of bandits to Afghanistan from the North Caucasus, this is simply accurate operational data. I repeat, we even have lists of the names of persons who are being sent to Turkey via Georgia. We even know the reaction of the Turkish authorities. I don’t want to go into detail because, frankly, this is not quite the President’s level, although we are aware of the nuances of the talks between official Georgian and Turkish representatives on this matter.
You have asked me about their intention to move to Afghanistan. But I have nothing to add to what they say themselves, and what they say is: “Enough fighting here. We will be back in two or three years and finish the job here, in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. But for now we are needed more in Afghanistan.” And they are simply looking for ways to get there. That’s all. And of course it is difficult considering that our troops and special services have sealed the borders tightly.
Question: The Soviet Union and the United States have a long history of rivalry in South Asia.
Vladimir Putin: We’ve gone too far. We should have stopped at a certain point. We didn’t realize that it was time to stop.
Question: In the 1990s there was rivalry over oilfields in Central Asia. Many critics in Russia say in this connection that the present alliance with the United States could result in the US gaining strategic advantages, using the current situation and deriving strategic benefits in the Central Asian region and elsewhere. How could you prevent this, especially considering the fact that the United States is apparently getting a chance to set up bases in Tajikistan and possibly in Uzbekistan? In other words, where is the limit to the current cooperation between Russia and the United States? Where do you draw the line in terms of your strategic interests?
Vladimir Putin: You know, what was important in the former frame of reference is becoming irrelevant in many ways today. If Russia becomes a full-fledged member of the international community it should not and will not be afraid to see its neighbours develop relations with other countries, and that applies to the development of relations between the Central Asian states and the United States.
First, they are independent states. Yes, of course, we have traditional links, we mutually influence each other, they influence the situation in Russia and we, I think, can influence the situation there because of past history, but I repeat they are independent states and they make their choices independently. Of course, in determining policy and the position we have taken together in support of the United States, the Russian position is important for them and their position is important for us. Many Russians live in these countries. We are greatly interdependent in economic terms. And of course what is taking place there is a position that we have all agreed upon, Russia and our Central Asian partners.
If we continue to work out our foreign policy guided by old fears, that policy will be no good: the United States will have problems with international terrorism, and we have already witnessed extreme manifestations of that. We should promptly react to everything that happens in the regions of the world which have effectively been occupied by fundamentalists and the people whom we call radicals, and Russia and the Central Asian countries will face similar problems. So we must realize that if we want to get rid of this we should all cast aside the old fears, trust each other more and act together and effectively.
The same applies to economic cooperation in developing various fields, if you are interested in concrete matters. If Russia becomes a full-fledged member of the international community, while upholding its national interests in that sphere, it may derive benefits from such cooperation, for example, from our joint work on the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which we recently completed together with our American partners, or the development of the oilfields on Sakhalin. I have already mentioned the project that we are working on with our Indian partners and with Exxon Mobil, I mentioned that company’s investments earlier.
At the end of the day, if there is more trust and cooperation, both the United States and Russia stand to gain.
What is the alternative to this kind of policy? It is precisely what you said at the beginning of your question: continued rivalry, and you know the results of rivalry. The United States created or at least did nothing to prevent the creation of the Taliban while opposing the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has also done a good many “favours” to the United States by supporting all its rivals and enemies. We forgot that sooner or later these things would get out of control. As a result international terrorist training camps sprang up in Afghanistan, and terrorists are regularly sent into the Russian Federation and Chechnya, and the United States faced an unprecedented terrorist attack on Washington and New York on September 11.
I think we should put an end to this folly, and I have a feeling that President Bush and I can do it.
Question: A short specific question. You have just mentioned the transfer of militants from Chechnya to Afghanistan via Georgia and Turkey. Would it be correct to interpret your words to mean that the Georgian Government is contributing to that movement consciously and actively?
Vladimir Putin: It is hard for me to say to what extent the top Georgian leaders are involved in it. That it is happening with the connivance of the authorities is not open to question. As of today we know for a fact that many wounded militants are getting treatment in Georgian hospitals, including the main military hospital of the Georgian Army in Tbilisi. And anyway, how can you imagine groups of militants numbering several hundred people moving freely from one part of Georgia to another, I mean, of course, from the Pankisi to the Kodori Gorge, crossing the whole country? It is simply impossible to do so secretly. All this gives grounds for thinking that certain circles in Georgia at least connive with international terrorist activities on their territory.
Question: Have you discussed the issue with the Georgian Government?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, we have repeatedly discussed this topic. And when we raise these problems we hear in reply: “Yes, we know very well what terrorism means.”
“We remember, they say, international terrorists killing Georgians and, forgive me for such details, playing football with the heads of murdered people. We remember all that.” They say one thing in private, but in public they say a different thing. For example, I was surprised when I heard from the Georgian President that he did not regard as terrorists some of the people who have been put on the international wanted list and who have many bloody crimes to their names.
I think an attempt to use any armed units, especially terrorist units, to solve political problems in any country, including Georgia, is a very dangerous way to solve internal political issues, an absolutely unacceptable way in international affairs and, most importantly, an absolutely futile way. That is how our experts see the attempt to use the militants who came from the Chechen Republic – and there are international terrorists and foreigners there – to solve problems in the relations between Georgia and Abkhazia. It is an absolutely futile and dangerous idea.
And that is, to put it mildly, not partner-like behaviour with regard to Russia because, without warning us, they posed a threat to us on a very serious stretch of the border, which at the time was poorly protected, in the area of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Circassia – and you know that that is within a few kilometres of the main Russian holiday resorts on the Black Sea. I don’t think our Georgian colleagues have behaved as partners should behave. But our latest contacts with the Georgian president give us grounds to think that he wants to cooperate and is committed to cooperation.
I am absolutely sure that the problem which has arisen in connection with the presence of international terrorists on Georgian territory – and the presence of terrorists there has indeed become a problem for Georgia – can be solved exclusively through cooperation with other countries and above all, with Russia through close coordination of efforts in the fight against terrorism.
Thank you very much.