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Talk with Vladimir Putin at St Petersburg International Economic Forum

| Saint Petersburg (Russia)
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Plenary session moderator, CNN host Fareed Zakaria: Thank you to all three of you: two presidents, one prime minister, though in Italy, you are allowed to say ”President Renzi“ also. By the format we have agreed upon, what I will do is we will begin this discussion first with our host president, President Putin, and then I will widen that conversation to include Prime Minister Renzi and President Nazarbayev. We started a little bit late, so we will go a little bit longer.

President Putin, let me ask you a very simple question. Since 2014, you have had European Union sanctions and US sanctions against Russia. NATO has announced just this week that it is going to build up forces in states that border Russia. Russia has announced its own buildup. Are we settling into a low-grade, lower-level cold war between the West and Russia?

Vladimir Putin: I do not want to believe that we are moving towards another Cold War, and I am sure nobody wants this. We certainly do not. There is no need for this. The main logic behind international relations development is that no matter how dramatic it might seem, it is not the logic of global confrontation. What is the root of the problem?

I will tell you. I will have to take you back in time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we expected overall prosperity and overall trust. Unfortunately, Russia had to face numerous challenges, speaking in modern terms: economic, social and domestic policy. We came up against separatism, radicalism, aggression of international terror, because undoubtedly we were fighting against Al Qaeda militants in the Caucasus, it is an obvious fact, and there can be no second thoughts about it. But instead of support from our partners in our struggle with these problems, we sadly came across something different – support for the separatists. We were told, “We do not accept your separatists at the top political level, only at the technological.”

Very well. We appreciate it. But we also saw information support, financial support and administrative backup.

Later, after we tackled those problems, went through serious hardships, we came to face another thing. The Soviet Union was no more; the Warsaw Pact had ceased to exist. But for some reason, NATO continues to expand its infrastructure towards Russia’s borders. It started long before yesterday. Montenegro is becoming a [NATO] member. Who is threatening Montenegro? You see, our position is being totally ignored.

Another, equally important, or perhaps, the most important issue is the unilateral withdrawal [of the US] from the ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty was once concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States for a good reason. Two regions were allowed to stay – Moscow and the site of US ICBM silos.

The treaty was designed to provide a strategic balance in the world. However, they unilaterally quit the treaty, saying in a friendly manner, “This is not aimed against you. You want to develop your offensive arms, and we assume it is not aimed against us.”

You know why they said so? It is simple: nobody expected Russia in the early 2000s, when it was struggling with its domestic problems, torn apart by internal conflicts, political and economic problems, tortured by terrorists, to restore its defence sector. Clearly, nobody expected us to be able to maintain our arsenals, let alone have new strategic weapons. They thought they would build up their missile defence forces unilaterally while our arsenals would be shrinking.

All of this was done under the pretext of combatting the Iranian nuclear threat. What has become of the Iranian nuclear threat now? There is none, but the project continues. This is the way it is, step by step, one after another, and so on.

Then they began to support all kinds of colour revolutions, including the so-called Arab Spring. They fervently supported it. How many positive takes did we hear on what was going on? What did it lead to? Chaos.

I am not interested in laying blame now. I simply want to say that if this policy of unilateral actions continues and if steps in the international arena that are very sensitive to the international community are not coordinated then such consequences are inevitable. Conversely, if we listen to one another and seek out a balance of interests, this will not happen. Yes, it is a difficult process, the process of reaching agreement, but it is the only path to acceptable solutions.

I believe that if we ensure such cooperation, there will be no talk of a cold war. After all, since the Arab Spring, they have already approached our borders. Why did they have to support the coup in Ukraine? I have often spoken about this. The internal political situation there is complicated and the opposition that is in power now would most likely have come to power democratically, through elections. That’s it. We would have worked with them as we had with the government that was in power before President Yanukovych.

But no, they had to proceed with a coup, casualties, unleash bloodshed, a civil war, and scare the Russian-speaking population of southeastern Ukraine and Crimea. All for the sake of what? And after we had to, simply had to take measures to protect certain social groups, they began to escalate the situation, ratcheting up tensions. In my opinion, this is being done, among other things, to justify the existence of the North Atlantic bloc. They need an external adversary, an external enemy – otherwise why is this organisation necessary in the first place? There is no Warsaw Pact, no Soviet Union –who is it directed against?

If we continue to act according to this logic, escalating [tensions] and redoubling efforts to scare each other, then one day it will come to a cold war. Our logic is totally different. It is focused on cooperation and the search for compromise. (Applause.)

Fareed Zakaria: So let me ask you, Mr President, then what is the way out? Because I saw an interview of yours that you did with Die Welt, the German newspaper, in which you said, the key problem is that the Minsk Accords have not been implemented by the Government in Ukraine, by Kiev, the constitutional reforms. They say on the other side that in Eastern Ukraine, the violence has not come down, and the separatists are not restraining themselves, and they believe Russia should help. So since neither side seems to back down, will the sanctions just continue, will this low-grade cold war just continue? What is the way out?

Vladimir Putin: And it is all about people, no matter what you call them. It is about people trying to protect their legal rights and interests, who fear repression if these interests are not upheld at the political level.

If we look at the Minsk agreements, there are only a few points, and we discussed them all through the night. What was the bone of contention? What aspect is of primary importance? And we agreed ultimately that political solutions that ensure the security of people living in Donbass were the priority.

What are these political solutions? They are laid down in detail in the agreements. Constitutional amendments that had to be adopted by the end of 2015. But where are they? They are nowhere to be seen. The law on a special status of these territories, which we call “unrecognized republics”, should have been put into practice. The law has been passed by the country’s parliament but still hasn’t come into effect. There should have been an amnesty law. It was passed by the Ukrainian parliament but was never signed by the president, it has no effect.

What kind of elections are we talking about? What sort of election process can be organised during an anti-terrorist operation? Do any countries do that? We do not talk about it, but does any other country hold election campaigns when an anti-terrorist operation is taking place on its territory?

They [elections] have to be cancelled and our work should focus on economic and humanitarian restoration. Nothing is being done, nothing at all. Postponing these problems over on-going violence on the frontlines is just an excuse. What is happening in reality is that both sides are accusing each other of opening fire. Why do you think it is separatists who are shooting? If you ask them, they say, “It is Ukrainian government forces, the Ukrainian army.”

One side opens fire, the other side responds – that’s what exchanging fire means. Do you think this is a good enough reason to delay political reforms? On the contrary, political reforms that will constitute the foundation of a final settlement on security are a pressing priority.

Some things have to be done in parallel. I agree with Mr Poroshenko that the OSCE mission has to be reinforced to the point of authorizing OSCE observers to carry firearms. Other things can be done to improve security. But we cannot afford to continue putting off key political decision by citing the lack of security in the area. That’s it. (Applause.)

Fareed Zakaria: There are so many areas to cover with you, Mr President, so let me go to the Middle East, where Russia has had a forceful intervention to bolster the Assad regime. President Assad now says that his goal is to take back every square inch of his territory. Do you believe that the solution in Syria is that the Assad regime should take back and govern every square inch of Syria?

Vladimir Putin: I think that the problems of Syria, of course, concern primarily the anti-terrorist struggle, but there is more to it. It goes without saying that the Syrian conflict is rooted in contradictions within Syrian society, and President Bashar al-Assad understands this very well. The task is not just to expand control over various territories, although this is very important. The point is to ensure the confidence of the entire society and trust between different parts of this society, and to establish on this foundation a modern and efficient government that will be trusted by the country’s entire population. And political negotiations are the only road to this. We have urged this more than once. President al-Assad also spoke about this – he accepts this process.

What needs to be done today? It is necessary to join more actively the process of forming the new Constitution and to conduct, on this basis, future elections, both presidential and parliamentary. When President al-Assad was in Moscow, we spoke about this with him and he fully agreed with this. Moreover, it is extremely important to conduct the elections under strict international control, with the participation of the United Nations. Yesterday we discussed this issue in detail with Mr de Mistura and the UN Secretary-General. They all agree with this, but we need action. We hope very much that our partners, primarily from the United States, will work with their allies that support the opposition to encourage constructive cooperation with the Syrian authorities.

What do we mean by this? In general, when I ask my colleagues: “Why are you doing this?” they reply: “To assert the principles of democracy. President al-Assad’s regime is not democratic and the triumph of democracy must be ensured.” Fine. “Is democracy everywhere there?” “No, not yet but democracy should exist in Syria.” “Ok. And how do you make society democratic? Is it only possible to achieve this by force of arms or simply by force?” “No, this may be done only with the help of democratic institutions and procedures.” And what are they all about? There is no more democratic way of forming a government than elections on the basis of fundamental law: a Constitution that is formulated in a clear way, that is transparent and accepted by the overwhelming majority of society. Pass the Constitution and hold elections on its basis. What’s bad about this, especially if they are held under international control?

Occasionally we hear that some countries of the region do not fully understand what democracy is. Do we want to replace one undemocratic regime with another undemocratic one? And if we still want to promote the principle of democracy let’s do this by democratic means. But considering this is a complicated process and results will not come tomorrow or the day after tomorrow but will require time, while we still need to do something today, I agree with the proposals of our partners, primarily our American partners that suggest (I don’t know, maybe I’m saying too much although, on the other hand, this US proposal is known in the region, and the negotiators of both sides – the government and the opposition – are familiar with it and I consider it absolutely acceptable), they suggested considering the possibility of bringing representatives of the opposition into existing power structures, for instance, the Government. It is necessary to think about what powers this Government will have.

However, it is important not to go too far. It is necessary to proceed from the current realities and to refrain from declaring unfeasible, unrealistic goals. Many of our partners are saying that Assad should go. Today they are saying no, let’s restructure governing institutions in such and such a way, but in practical terms it will also mean his departure. But this is also unrealistic. Therefore, it is necessary to act carefully, step by step, gradually winning the confidence of all sides to the conflict.

If this happens, and I think this will happen in any event and the sooner the better, it will be possible to go further and speak both about subsequent elections and a final settlement. The main point is to prevent the country’s collapse. And if things continue to go as they are today, collapse will become inevitable. And this is the worst-case scenario because we cannot assume that after the country’s collapse some quasi-state formations will co-exist in peace and harmony. No, this will be a destabilising factor for the region and the rest of the world.

Fareed Zakaria: Let me ask you, Mr President, about another democracy that is having a very different kind of drama. You made some comments about the American Republican presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. You called him brilliant, outstanding, talented. These comments were reported around the world. I was wondering, what in him led you to that judgement, and do you still hold that judgement?

Vladimir Putin: You are well known in our country, you personally. Not only as a host of a major TV corporation, but also as an intellectual. Why are you distorting everything? The journalist in you is getting the better of the analyst. Look, what did I say? I said in passing that Trump is a vivid personality. Is he not? He is. I did not ascribe any other characteristics to him. However, what I definitely note and what I definitely welcome – and I see nothing wrong about this, just the opposite – is that Mr Trump said that he is ready for the full-scale restoration of Russian-US relations. What is wrong with that? We all welcome this! Don’t you?

We never interfere in the internal politics of other countries, especially the United States. However, we will work with any president that the US people vote for. Although I do not think, by the way, that… Well, they lecture everyone on how to live and on democracy. Now, do you really think presidential elections there are democratic? Look, twice in US history a president was elected by a majority of electors, but standing behind those electors was a smaller number of voters. Is that democracy? And when (sometimes we have debates with our colleagues; we never accuse anyone of anything, we simply have debates) we are told: “Do not meddle in our affairs. Mind your own business. This is how we do things,” we feel like saying: “Well then, do not meddle in our affairs. Why do you? Put your own house in order first.”

But, to reiterate, indeed, this is none of our business although, in my opinion, even prosecutors there chase international observers away from polling stations during election campaigns. US prosecutors threaten to jail them. However, these are their own problems; this is how they do things and they like it. America is a great power, today perhaps the only superpower. We accept this. We want to work with the United States and we are prepared to. No matter how these elections go, eventually they will take place. There will be a [new] head of state with extensive powers. There are complicated internal political and economic processes at work in the United States. The world needs a powerful country like the United States, and we also need it. But we do not need it to continuously interfere in our affairs, telling us how to live, and preventing Europe from building a relationship with us.

How are the sanctions that you have mentioned affecting the United States? In no way whatsoever. It could not care less about these sanctions because the consequences of our actions in response have no impact on it. They impact Europe but not the United States. Zero effect. However, the Americans are telling their partners: “Be patient.” Why should they? I do not understand. If they want to, let them.

Matteo, why should they be patient? Now Matteo will explain why they should. He is a brilliant orator, we’re seeing it now. His remarks were excellent. I am saying this sincerely, honestly. Italy can be proud of its Prime Minister, really. Just beautiful.

We do not lavish praise on anybody. It’s none of our business. As Germans say, “this is not our beer.” Because when they make their choice, we will work with any president who has received the support of the American people, in the hope that it will be a person who seeks to develop relations with our country and help build a more secure world.

Fareed Zakaria: Just to be clear, Mr President, the word ”brilliant“ was in the Interfax translation, I realize that other translations might say ”bright,“ but I used the official Interfax translation. But let me ask you about another person you have dealt with a great deal. Mr Trump, you’ve never met. Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. In your very long questions and answers with the Russian people, you made a joke when somebody asked you about her – you said, I think that the Russia idiom is, the husband and wife is the same devil. And what it means in the English version is, it’s two sides of the same coin. What did you mean by that, and how did she do as Secretary of State? You dealt with her extensively.

Vladimir Putin: I did not work with her, Lavrov did. Ask him. He is sitting here.

I was not a foreign minister, but Sergei Lavrov was. He will soon tie [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko. (Addressing Sergei Lavrov.) How long have you been in office?

I worked with Bill Clinton, although for a very short time, and we had a very good relationship. I can even say that I am grateful to him for certain moments as I was entering the big stage in politics. On several occasions, he showed signs of attention, respect for me personally, as well as for Russia. I remember this and I am grateful to him.

About Ms Clinton. Perhaps she has her own view on the development of Russian-US relations. You know, there is something I would like to draw [your] attention to, which has nothing to do with Russian-US relations or with national politics. It is related, rather, to personnel policy.

In my experience, I have often seen what happens with people before they take on a certain job and afterward. Often, you cannot recognise them, because once they reach a new level of responsibility they begin to talk and think differently, they even look different. We act on the assumption that the sense of responsibility of the US head of state, the head of the country on which a great deal in the world depends today, that this sense of responsibility will encourage the newly elected president to cooperate with Russia and, I would like to repeat, build a more secure world.

Fareed Zakaria: President Putin, let me finally ask you one question about news reports about Russian athletes. There are now two major investigations that have shown that Russian athletes have engaged in doping on a massive scale, and that there has been a systematic evasion and doctoring of testing and lab samples. And I was just wondering what you reaction to these reports is.

Vladimir Putin: I did not understand what kind of programme it is – to tamper with the samples that were collected for tests? If samples are collected they are immediately transferred to international organisations for storage and we have nothing to do with them. Samples are collected and taken somewhere, to Lausanne or wherever, I do not know where, but they are not on Russian territory. They can be opened, re-checked, and this is what specialists are doing now.

Doping is not only a Russian problem. It is a problem of the entire sports world. If somebody tries to politicise something in this sphere, I think this is a big mistake, because just like culture, for example, sport cannot be politicised. These are the bridges that bring people, nations and states closer together. This is the way to approach it, not try to forge some anti-Russian or anti-whatever policy on this basis.

As for the Russian authorities, I can assure you, we are categorically against all doping for several reasons. First, as a former amateur athlete, I can tell you, and I think that the overwhelming majority of people will agree with this: if we know there is doping, it’s not interesting to watch the event; millions of fans lose interest in the sport.

Second, no less important, and maybe even most important, there is the health of the athletes themselves. You can’t justify anything that damages health. This is why we have combated and will continue to combat doping in sport on the national level.

Furthermore, as far as I know, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee have been closely looking into all facts reported in the media, among others. Simply, this must not be turned into a campaign, especially a campaign disparaging sport, including Russian sport.

Next, the third point I would like to make. There is a legal concept that says responsibility can only be individual. Collective responsibility cannot be imposed on all athletes or athletes of a certain sports federation if certain individuals have been caught doping. An entire team cannot be held responsible for those who have committed this violation. I believe that this is an absolutely natural, correct approach.

However, doping is not the only problem today. There are plenty of problems in sport. Euro 2016 is underway. I believe that less attention is being paid to football than to brawling between fans. This is very sad and I regret this, but here too we should always proceed from some general criteria. To reiterate, responsibility for misconduct should be individualised as much as possible and the approach toward perpetrators should be the same.

Euro 2016 began with a high-profile case: a fight between Russian and British fans. This is absolutely outrageous. Granted, I do not know how 200 Russian fans were able to pummel several thousand Britons. I do not understand. But in any case, law enforcement agencies should take the same approach toward all perpetrators.

This is the way we have organised this work and will continue to combat doping and enforce discipline among fans. We will work with these fan associations. I very much hope that there are plenty of intelligent, sensible people among the fans, who really love sport and who understand that violations do nothing to support their team but, on the contrary, cause damage to the team and to sport. However, a great deal has yet to be done here, including in conjunction with our [foreign] colleagues.

I would like to stress that there has been absolutely no support and can be absolutely no support for violations in sport, let alone doping violations, at the state level. We have worked and will continue to work with all international organisations in this sphere.

<…>

Fareed Zakaria: Well, we’ve had a very wide-ranging discussion, and there have been points of disagreement, and then points of profound agreement, such as on the quality of Kazakh-qualified women to rule the world. President Putin, I was wondering if you may have some closing thoughts that you could give us and then we will wrap up the session.

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I would like to thank all those who came to St Petersburg.

I would like to thank our moderator. I think we have had a very lively discussion. We agree on some points and disagree on others but there are still more things that unite us – this is absolutely clear.

Our Italian friend scared me a bit toward the end by saying that unless it changes, Europe will be no more. This sounds alarming, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s the case – after all, Europe is Europe. The foundations of its economy don’t give us reason to believe that Europe will come to an end at any point, no matter what internal processes are playing out. It is our leading trade and economic partner. It is clear that European leaders want to gain some momentum, just like we in Russia certainly want to do the same. In my speech I described how we are going to achieve this.

You know, it is so symptomatic that today we have here the leader of a European country (and one that is developing fairly rapidly) – Italy, and the leader of Kazakhstan – our closest partner and ally with which we are building an integration association. Today we have gathered everyone together. This is symptomatic because we must focus our attention on joining forces for the sake of development if we want to achieve it.

For its part, Russia will do everything to follow this very road, actively developing at home and remaining open to cooperation with all of our partners.

Many thanks to all of you and best of luck.

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