David Frost: In his first television interview with a Western or indeed a foreign journalist since he entered the Kremlin I asked him about relations with the West, Chechnya and his background in the KGB, but I started by asking him about his stated determination to make Russia strong again. Was this, as some have feared, an indication of a throwback to the days of the Cold War?
Vladimir Putin: My position is that our country should be a strong, powerful state, a capable and effective state, in which both its citizens and all those who want to cooperate with Russia could feel comfortable and protected, could always feel in their own shoes – if you allow the expression – psychologically and morally, and well off. But this has nothing to do with aggression. If we again and again go back to the terminology of the Cold War we are never going to discard attitudes and problems that humanity had to grapple with a mere 15–20 years ago. We in Russia have to a large extent rid ourselves of what is related to the Cold War. Regrettably, it appears that our partners in the West are all too often still in the grip of old notions and tend to picture Russia as a potential aggressor. That is a completely wrong conception of our country. It gets in the way of developing normal relations in Europe and in the world.
David Frost: Looking at the opinion polls today, which show your popularity rating at approximately 60% and Zyuganov at 23%, you must be very happy?
Vladimir Putin: Outside the framework of this interview we talked about sports a little. You know that I have been into sports since I was a kid, I like sports. We have always been taught that any partner, any opponent should be treated with respect. That means that in some ways he may be stronger than you, so I am not inclined to believe that I am assured of victory, that I have it in my hand, that the campaign is over. I don't think I have a right to consider myself a winner. Gennady Zyuganov and his Communist party enjoy substantial social support.
David Frost: Let's move on now to the subject of Chechnya. First of all, could you explain to me, you said once that this entire part of the Russian Federation has been occupied by the criminal world and turned into a fortress. What is it that makes you feel so strongly about Chechnya?
Vladimir Putin: When I think about Chechnya my first thoughts are that the Chechen people have fallen victim to international extremism. I think that ordinary people in Chechnya suffer because of the policies conducted by Russia over the past few years. Let's face it: Chechnya enjoyed de-facto – and I want to stress that – de-facto complete independence since 1996. Regrettably, no coherent state structure ever came into being in Chechnya. And then extremist forces took advantage of that vacuum, they broke up the territory of the Chechen Republic into a maze of small separate entities, each headed by a warlord, a so-called field commander – outside the framework of any constitution, any legal foundation. So what we got was like a mini-Afghanistan. The warlords became the real masters of these tiny entities within a small and, undoubtedly, a proud nation. And that precipitated the tragedy with which we are confronted today. Those extremist forces began reclaiming this territory, as it were. Arms were supplied to them from outside the country, money began to flow, mercenaries began to arrive. It should also be said that in these few years 220,000 ethnic Russians left the republic – just think of that – and about 550,000–600,000 Chechens. They all voted with their feet, they all fled from that regime.
Last summer there was a completely unprovoked attack on the republic of Dagestan, which borders on Chechnya. The bandits then blew up several residential blocks in Moscow, Volgodonsk and other cities of the Russian Federation. As a symbol of their revenge they killed almost 1,500 people in those blasts. And from that moment on it became crystal clear to us that unless we deliver a blow at the very lair of terrorism, at the bases situated in the Chechen Republic, we would never be able to rid ourselves of this scourge, this gangrene. With their actions the terrorists forced us to pursue this option – and I just don't think they expected us to act as resolutely as we did.
David Frost: You undoubtedly have seen the accusations of possible war crimes against civilians in that German film and, for instance, in today's Moscow Times. Do you think it is possible there have been any such war crimes committed by Russian troops or by contract soldiers?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to give you an extended answer to this question. There are terrorists who kidnap innocent people by the hundred and keep them in cellars, torture and execute them. I stress, we are talking about perfectly innocent people, kidnapped not for political reasons, but for purely criminal commercial gain. And I know that citizens of your country have also fallen victim to those criminals.
Are these cutthroats any better than Nazi criminals? We are liberating the people of Chechnya from this scourge, and we feel obliged to do that in the name of the Chechen people and other peoples of the Russian Federation. We have stressed again and again that all our actions are geared to minimising those casualties. And, mind you, there have been no large numbers of casualties among civilians. We understand that one of the forms of struggle is information warfare. The video footage you mentioned, which had been shown to the world by German television, has now been refuted by our own media. Izvestia newspaper has carried information coming straight from the man who really shot those sequences and he accused his German colleague of falsification. In fact, the German journalist simply bought the tape off our cameraman and what it shows is the burial of rebels killed in action.
That was then presented to the international public as evidence of torture and execution of prisoners. Which had nothing to do with reality. This is nothing more and nothing less than a frontline of information warfare, of confrontation. I repeat, this is a complete lie and falsification.
We have no need to kill civilians. It is a fact that our troops have been taking the biggest cities and towns in Chechnya with the help of Chechen people, with direct support from the people of Chechnya, without a single shot. So what is the sense in brutalising civilians? On the contrary, we are counting on their support and are receiving it. Why would we aggravate the civilians?
David Frost: But Peter Buchert from the Moscow Times says he's got a hundred cases that he can document. I presume that you would investigate such cases and if you found that a soldier was guilty he would be punished?
Vladimir Putin: We want to extend a helping hand to the people of Chechnya so that peace finally comes to the Chechen land. That is unthinkable without cooperation with the Chechens themselves. So if there are facts of cruelty, of crimes against peaceful citizens of Chechnya – then that goes against the aims set by the Russian political leadership and me personally. Of course, if there are people who violate laws, they will try to conceal that. But there are instruments to reveal such facts and find out the truth, there are people who work to achieve the goals that I personally set forth. Naturally, all such facts will be scrupulously investigated.
David Frost: And when, do you think, will the war be over?
Vladimir Putin: Only last night in one of the mountainous areas, where fairly large formations of militants were concentrated, our troops managed to inflict several powerful blows. And I think that from this moment on organised resistance is virtually impossible. Our task is to defeat those international criminals, who rely on support from extremist forces in Afghanistan and other countries in this region and to offer the people of Chechnya and its neighbours a chance to decide on their republics' future through political means. I think in the nearest future the military phase of the operation will have been completed. It will take some time to restore the social sphere, schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, to reinstate the supplies, to reinstate the basic bodies of government, municipal bodies. That will take some time, but that won't be connected with any kind of military action.
We have no aim of cornering the Chechen people, chasing them into a cave. We don't want them to develop a syndrome of a defeated nation. The people should understand that they are not a defeated people. They are a liberated people – liberated from outside pressure.
David Frost: And wouldn't it be a positive move also if more journalists were allowed into Chechnya so they could see those things you are talking about for themselves?
Vladimir Putin: I agree, of course. And that is exactly what we've been doing. We have set in place a significantly simplified procedure of accrediting foreign journalists in Chechnya and the Caucasus as a whole. I have already mentioned that the authorities have a vested interest in obtaining objective information. It is not only the public that is interested in receiving objective information, we are, too. This is an instrument we would gladly use. The only thing that causes our concern is security considerations.
David Frost: Tell me about your views on NATO, if you would. Do you see NATO as a potential partner, or a rival or an enemy?
Vladimir Putin: Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy. I think even posing the question this way will not do any good to Russia or the world. The very question is capable of causing damage.
Russia strives for equitable and candid relations with its partners. The main problem here lies in attempts to discard previously agreed common decision-making instruments –primarily as regards international security. We are open to equitable cooperation, to partnership.
We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO but only if Russia is regarded as an equal partner. You are aware we have been constantly voicing our opposition to NATO's eastward enlargement.
David Frost: Is it possible that Russia could join NATO?
Vladimir Putin: I don't see why not. I would not rule out such a possibility, but I repeat – if and when Russia's views are taken into account as those of an equal partner. I want to stress this again and again. The situation that was laid down in the founding principles of the United Nations took into account realities that took shape in the world after the end of World War II. I agree that the situation may have changed. Let's assume there is a desire on the part of those who perceive the change to install new mechanisms of ensuring international security. But pretending, or proceeding from the assumption that Russia has nothing to do with it, and trying to exclude it from this process is hardly feasible.
When we talk about our opposition to NATO's eastward expansion, we do not have in mind our special ambitions with respect to some or other regions of the world. Mind you, we have never declared any region of the world a zone of our special interests. I prefer to talk about strategic partnership. A zone of strategic interests in any region means above all the interests of the people who live in that particular region.
Our main concern is our own country, its place in the world today and tomorrow. When we are confronted with attempts to exclude us from the process of decision-making, this naturally causes concern and irritation on our part. But that does not mean we are going to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world. Isolationism is not an option.
David Frost: You worked in Europe, in Germany, for several years, but have you ever been to Britain or the United States?
Vladimir Putin: I have twice been to the United States on very short visits, on business. And I have been to Britain a couple of times at the invitation of the Foreign Office together with the former Mayor of St Petersburg Mr Sobchak. We went to Edinburgh, London and Manchester. Manchester and St Petersburg are sister-cities and have for a long time maintained very close ties.
David Frost: When did you realise that the old way of doing things, the old Communist economic way of doing things was no longer working?
Vladimir Putin: That was at the start of the 1990s, or the end of the 1980s, when it became clear that the proclaimed standards of living, which the then leadership wasn't bold enough to revise or declare unrealistic, that those standards of living were unreachable with the help of the economic mechanisms that were then in place. Secondly, my concern became particularly strong when it became clear that the best achievements of our fundamental and applied science could not be implemented on the obsolete technological basis we then possessed. What made matters worse is my clear realization that the technological basis could not be developed properly within the framework of the economic system that had been built on Russian territory for the past 70 years. This awareness came to me in the middle or late 1980s.
David Frost: And in fact, your biographies always say that as a boy you'd always wanted, it was always your ambition to join the KGB, to be a secret agent, to be a James Bond. Was it always your dream?
Vladimir Putin: You know, we have our own heroes, and they are not fiction. I have never wanted to be a James Bond. But working in state security bodies was something I had always wanted – since I was in school. Just as many young people get all the various ideas, ambitions, that was not my only ambition. I also wanted to be a pilot, a seaman. And then at some stage I got this bug to work for national security, and foreign intelligence at that. It is true.
David Frost: And in international intelligence, you were working in Germany and so on, was that a productive time for you, in your development?
Vladimir Putin: On the whole, yes. Working with information in general – and foreign intelligence is primarily information – is always productive and stimulating. But I also want to say that the outer side of this activity – you have mentioned James Bond – did not appeal to me that much. What did attract me was probably based on some books and films. In the Soviet Union, they never stressed the glamour, but what they did foster was a sense of patriotism, love of your country.
David Frost: And so as you look at Russia today and the journey that Russia is making in terms of coming to a freer economy and all of those things. How far would you say you are along the journey towards the Russia that you dream of, are you half way there, nearly there, a long way away?
Vladimir Putin: Victory is only possible when every citizen of this country feels that the values we promote yield positive changes in their day-to-day lives. That they're beginning to live better, eat better, feel safer and so on. But in this sense one can say we are still very far from our goal. I think we are still at the start of that road. But I have no doubt that the road we have chosen is the right one. And our goal is to follow this road, and to make sure our policies are absolutely open and clear for the majority of the Russian people.