Question: Mr President, will you take any steps to re-establish the G7 format as the G8?
And another question: what did you think when the US President said that Russia is a regional power?
Vladimir Putin: I did not think anything in particular. Every individual, all the more so the President of the United States, is entitled to his or her own opinion on anything, on partners and on other countries. That is his own opinion, as I also know his opinion that the American nation, the United States is unique. I cannot agree with either of those opinions.
Let me clarify a few things about Russia. First, we do not claim the role of a superpower. This role is very costly and it is meaningless. Our economy is fifth or sixth in the world in terms of volume. It may have moved down to a lower place at present taking into account the economic difficulties I have mentioned but we are confident that we have very good development prospects and potential. We occupy, roughly, the sixth place in the world in terms of purchasing power parity.
If we say that Russia is a regional power, we should first determine what region we are referring to. Look at the map and ask: “What is it, is it part of Europe? Or is it part of the eastern region, bordering on Japan and the United States, if we mean Alaska and China? Or is it part of Asia? Or perhaps the southern region?” Or look at the north. Essentially, in the north we border on Canada across the Arctic Ocean. Or in the south? Where is it? What region are we speaking about? I think that speculations about other countries, an attempt to speak disrespectfully about other countries is an attempt to prove one’s exceptionalism by contrast. In my view, that is a misguided position.
Question: And what about the G8?
Vladimir Putin: We planned to host the G8 summit in 2014. I think Russia never became a full-fledged G8 member, since there were always separate negotiations between foreign ministers of the other seven countries. I would not say that this mechanism is useless. Meetings, discussions, seeking solutions together are always beneficial.
I believe that Russia’s presence was useful, since it provided an alternative view on some issues under discussion. We examine pretty much the same issues within the G20, APEC in the East and within BRICS. We were ready to host the G8 summit in 2014. It was not us who did not go somewhere; other countries did not come to Russia. If our counterparts decide to come for a visit, they will be most welcome, but we have not booked any tickets yet.
Question: What do you think about the possibility of re-establishing cooperation, if not within the G8, then, perhaps, with NATO? There was the Russia-NATO Council after all, and you conducted joint military exercises. Is there a chance to re-establish such cooperation or should we forego the prospect altogether?
Vladimir Putin: At the outset, the idea of creating the Council was actively supported, if not initiated, by Mr Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy, and I believe it was in Italy that we signed the document on establishing the Russia-NATO Council. It was not Russia that cut off cooperation through the G8 or the Russia-NATO Council. We are willing to interact with everyone, once there is a matter for common discussion. We think that there is one, but a relationship can be happy only when the feeling is mutual. If we are not welcome as partners, that is fine with us then.
Question: Regrettably, at the moment the Russia-NATO relations are at the stage of confrontation, rather than cooperation. Turkish military forces have downed a Russian aircraft, and Russian and Turkish warships are reported to come dangerously close to one another all the more often. Do you think that such developments may at a certain point cause an escalation from a cold war to actual hostilities?
Vladimir Putin: Turkey is a NATO member. However, the problems that have emerged have nothing to do with Turkey’s NATO membership; nobody has attacked Turkey. Instead of trying to provide us with an explanation for the war crime they committed, that is, for downing our fighter jet that was targeting terrorists, the Turkish government rushed to NATO headquarters seeking protection, which looks quite odd and, in my view, humiliating for Turkey.
I repeat, NATO has to protect its members from attack, but nobody has attacked Turkey. If Turkey has vested interests elsewhere in the world, in the adjacent countries, does it mean that NATO must protect and secure these interests? Does it mean that Germany, as a NATO member, must help Turkey to expand into neighbouring territories?
I hope that such incidents will not cause large-scale hostilities. Of course, we all realise that Russia, once under threat, would defend its security interests by all available means at its disposal, should such threats against Russia arise.
Question: Now let’s turn to Syria, if you do not mind.
We say that we are tackling common challenges there. This is the joint fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, some people in the West say that Russian military forces in Syria are fighting the anti-Assad rebels, rather than ISIS. What would be your response to the allegations that Russia is hitting the wrong targets?
Vladimir Putin: They are telling lies. Look, the videos that support this version appeared before our pilots even started to carry out strikes against terrorists. This can be corroborated. However, those who criticise us prefer to ignore it.
American pilots hit the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, by mistake, I am sure. There were casualties and fatalities among civilians and doctors. Western media outlets have attempted to hush this up, to drop the subject and have a very short memory span when it comes to such things. They mentioned it a couple of times and put it on ice. And those few mentions were only due to foreign citizens from the Doctors Without Borders present there.
Who now remembers the wiped out wedding parties? Over 100 people were killed with a single strike.
Yet this phony evidence about our pilots reportedly striking civilian targets keeps circulating. If we tag the “live pipelines” that consist of thousands of petrol and oil tankers as civilian targets, than, indeed, one might believe that our pilots are bombing these targets, but everyone is bombing them, including the Americans, the French and everyone else.
Question: However, it is clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is carrying out strikes against his own population. Can we say that al-Assad is your ally?
Vladimir Putin: You know, this is a rather subtle issue. I think that President al-Assad has made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict. However, don’t we all realise full well that this conflict would never have escalated to such a degree if it had not been supported from abroad through supplying money, weapons and fighters? Tragically, it is civilians who suffer in such conflicts.
But who is responsible for that? Is it the government, which seeks to secure its sovereignty and fights these anti-constitutional actions, or those who have masterminded the anti-government insurgency?
Regarding your question if al-Assad is an ally or not and our goals in Syria. I can tell you precisely what we do not want to happen: we do not want the Libyan or Iraqi scenario to be repeated in Syria. I have to give due credit to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and I told him this myself, because had he not taken on the responsibility, demonstrated fortitude and brought the country under control, then we might have witnessed the Libyan scenario in Egypt. In my view, no effort should be spared in strengthening legitimate governments in the region’s countries. That also applies to Syria. Emerging state institutions in Iraq and in Libya must be revived and strengthened. Situations in Somalia and other countries must be stabilised. State authority in Afghanistan must be reinforced. However, it does not mean that everything should be left as is. Indeed, this new stability would underpin political reforms.
As far as Syria is concerned, I think that we should work towards a constitutional reform. It is a complicated process. Then, early presidential and parliamentary elections should be held, based on the new Constitution. It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who and how should run their country. This is the only way to achieve stability and security, to create conditions for economic growth and prosperity, so that people can live in their own homes, in their homeland, rather than flee to Europe.
Question: But do you believe al-Assad is a legitimate leader if he allows the destruction of his country’s population?
Vladimir Putin: It is not his goal to destroy his country’s population. He is fighting those who rose up against him with deadly force. And if the civilians suffer, I think that the primary responsibility for this is with those who fight against him with deadly force as well as those who assist armed groups.
As I have already said, though, this does not mean that everything is all right out there and that everyone is right. This is exactly why I believe political reforms are needed so much there. The first step in that direction should be to develop and adopt a new Constitution.
Question: If, contrary to expectations, al-Assad loses the elections, will you grant him the possibility of asylum in your country?
Vladimir Putin: I think it is quite premature to discuss this. We granted asylum to Mr Snowden, which was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr al-Assad.
First, the Syrian people should be given the opportunity to have their say. I assure you, if this process is conducted democratically, then al-Assad will probably not need to leave the country at all. And it is not important whether he remains President or not.
You have been talking about our targets and means, and now you are talking about al-Assad being our ally. Do you know that we support military operations of the armed opposition that combats ISIS? Armed opposition against al-Assad that is fighting ISIS. We coordinate our joint operations with them and support their offensives by airstrikes in various sections of the frontline. This is hundreds, thousands of armed people fighting ISIS. We support both the al-Assad’s army and the armed opposition. Some of them have publicly declared this, others prefer to remain silent, but the work is on-going.
Question: Finally, I would like to touch upon a topic that has never come up before, that is the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as if Syria was not enough. Does it mean that this rift can lead us to a very grave conflict?
Vladimir Putin: It hampers the efforts to settle the Syrian crisis and the fight against terrorism, as well as the process of halting the inflow of refugees to Europe, that much is certain.
As for whether this will lead to a major regional clash, I do not know. I would rather not talk or even think in these terms. We have very good relations with Iran and our partnership with Saudi Arabia is stable.
Of course, we regret that these things happened there. But you have no death penalty in your country, right? Despite a very hard period in the 1990s–early 2000s, when we were fighting terrorism in Russia, we abolished the death penalty. And there is no death penalty in Russia at present. There are certain countries that use the death penalty – Saudi Arabia, the United States and some others.
We regret this has happened, especially given that the cleric had not been fighting against Saudi Arabia with lethal force. Yet it is true that an embassy attack is a totally unacceptable occurrence in the modern world. As far as I know, the Iranian authorities have arrested several perpetrators of the assault. If our participation in any form is needed, we are ready to do everything possible to resolve the conflict as soon as possible.
Question: One last question, Mr President.
During the preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there was heavy criticism in the West of democratic development and human rights situation in Russia. Do you expect similar criticism to arise again during the preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
I think the Russian language is more extensive than German. (Noting the long translation of the question from German into Russian.)
Vladimir Putin: I would say the German language is more precise.
The Russian language is more diverse, more elegant. However, such genius minds as, say, Goethe make the German language sound very elegant and beautiful. One can feel its beauty only in German, and to be able to feel it one needs to understand it.
As far as democracy is concerned, the ruling classes usually talk about freedom to pull the wool over the eyes of those whom they govern. There is nothing new about democracy in Russia. As we have already identified, democracy is the rule of the people and the influence of the people over the authorities. We have learned very well the lesson of one-party rule – that of the Communist Party (CPSU). Therefore, we made our choice long ago and we will continue developing democratic institutions in our country. At present, 77 political parties can take part in parliamentary elections in Russia. We have come back to direct gubernatorial elections.
We are advancing the instruments of direct democracy, meaning various public organisations, and will continue to do so. There can be no identical clichés in democracy – be it American, European (German), Russian or Indian. Do you know that twice in American history the President was elected by the majority of delegates representing the minority of voters? Does it mean the absence of democracy? Of course not. But it is not the only or the most important problem. One of the European leaders once told me: “In the United States it is impossible to run for presidency without a few billion dollars in your pocket.”
Now, regarding the parliamentary system of democracy.
I am repeatedly asked: “How long have you been President?” But in a parliamentary democracy, the person number one is the Prime Minister, who can head the Government an unlimited number of times.
We have returned to direct elections of regional heads. In some countries, however, heads of regions are appointed by the central government. I am not sure, I may be wrong, it is probably better to leave it out or to double-check it, but, as far as I know, that is the case in India.
We still have a number of problems to solve before people feel confident that they have real influence over the authorities and that the authorities respond to their demands. We are going to work towards improving our instruments.
As for the attempts to use sport in political rifts and political competition, I believe that is a huge mistake. That is what stupid people do. If problems arise, particularly at the interstate level, sport, art, music, ballet and opera are the very means that should bring people closer together rather than divide them. It is vital to foster this role of art and sport rather than belittle and suppress it.
Question: Thank you, Mr President, for a wonderful and very detailed conversation.