Russian President Vladimir Putin has given a major interview to French media on pressing international issues – Ukraine, Crimea, US relations and Russia’s future policies – on the eve of attending the 70th anniversary D-Day celebrations in France.
Putin voiced his stance on many issues that have been in the center of international attention for the past months in an exclusive interview to Radio Europe 1 and TF1 TV at his Sochi residence. They included Russia’s stance on Ukraine’s sovereignty and the ongoing crisis, and on Crimea, its referendum and its historical ties to Russia. Putin also discussed the political tensions between Moscow and Washington, Syria and its recent presidential elections, Russia and its domestic policies.
Question: Good afternoon Mr President. Good afternoon, President Putin. Thank you very much for agreeing to give this exclusive interview to Radio Europe 1 and the TF1 TV channel at your Sochi residence. On Thursday evening you will meet with President Francois Hollande in the Elysee Palace, and the next day you will attend the D-Day 70th Anniversary Commemoration. This will be your first trip to the beaches of Normandy, and you will be the first Russian President to attend the ceremony. What do you as a Russian citizen think about being invited to this exceptional ceremony?
Vladimir Putin: This will be an important event for Europe and the rest of the world. We will pay tribute to those who prevented Nazism from enslaving Europe, and I believe that Russia’s attendance is a momentous event. The thing is that Russia and the anti-Hitler coalition countries, including France, were allies in that struggle for freedom, and my country played a vital and maybe even the decisive role in defeating Nazism. But we’ll never forget the French Resistance fighters and the French soldiers who fought side by side with us on the Soviet-German front, which is also called the Eastern front. I believe that this should not only remind us about our history, but also help to promote our relations now and in the future.
Q: Of course, you and Russia will take your rightful place on the beaches of Normandy. You lived in the Soviet Union until you were 40, you saw its collapse, and now you are actively contributing to Russia’s revival. What would you like to see happen now? What are your goals? Is Russia’s strategy a path of dialogue or expansion and conquest?
VP: Well, a policy of expansionism and conquest has no future in the modern world. We’re confident that Russia can and should be a partner with its traditional allies, in the broad sense, now and also in the future.
This is what we want, and this is what we will keep working towards. We see no other way to develop relations with our neighbours and all other countries.
Q: Do you want to defend the Russian nation or to become the symbol of Russian nationalism and the Russian Empire? We remember what you said about the Soviet Union’s dissolution. You said that it was the worst geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. You also said that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those who want to restore it have no brains. You have brains. What do you propose: Russian nationalism, or the restoration of the Russian Empire to its previous borders?
VP: We will not promote Russian nationalism, and we do not intend to revive the Russian Empire. What did I mean when I said that the Soviet Union’s collapse was one of the largest humanitarian – above all humanitarian – disasters of the 20th century? I meant that all the citizens of the Soviet Union lived in a union state irrespective of their ethnicity, and after its collapse 25 million Russians suddenly became foreign citizens. It was a huge humanitarian disaster. Not a political or ideological disaster, but a purely humanitarian upheaval. Families were divided; people lost their jobs and means of subsistence, and had no means to communicate with each other normally. This was the problem.
Q: And what about the future? Do you want to restore the empire within the former borders or do you want to continue developing your country within your own borders?
VP: We want to develop our country within our own borders, of course. But – and this is very important – like other countries in other parts of the world, we want to use modern policies to improve our competitive advantage, including economic integration. This is what we are doing in the post-Soviet space within the Customs Union and now also within the Eurasian Union.
Q: Mr Putin, we are now talking about why a neighbouring country, Ukraine, is being torn apart by war. There is no other word for it. Now pro-Russian forces want to breach Ukraine’s borders. Who can stop them and what is your policy?
VP: I wouldn’t call them either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. They are people who have certain rights, political, humanitarian rights, and they must have a chance to exercise those rights.
For example, in Ukraine governors are still appointed by Kiev. After the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev last February, the first thing the new authorities tried to do was deprive the ethnic minorities of the right to use their native language. This caused great concern among the people living in eastern Ukraine.
Q: You did not let this happen but are you saying that we are on the verge of another Cold War?
VP: I hope we are not on the verge of any war. Second, I insist that people – wherever they live – have their rights and they must be able to fight for them. That’s the point.
Q: Is there any risk of a war? Now, as we see tanks on their way from Kiev, many people in France are asking this question. Were you tempted to send troops to eastern Ukraine?
VP: This is an interview, which implies short questions and short answers. But if you have patience and give me a minute, I will tell you how we see it. Here’s our position. What actually happened there? There was a conflict and that conflict arose because the former Ukrainian president refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. Russia had a certain stance on this issue. We believed it was indeed unreasonable to sign that agreement because it would have a grave impact on the economy, including the Russian economy. We have 390 economic agreements with Ukraine and Ukraine is a member of the free trade zone within the CIS. And we wouldn’t be able to continue this economic relationship with Ukraine as a member of the free trade zone. We discussed this with our European partners. Instead of continuing the debates by legitimate and diplomatic means, our European friends and our friends from the United States supported the anti-constitutional armed coup. This is what happened. We did not cause this crisis to happen. We were against this course of events but after the anti-constitutional coup – let’s face it, after all…
Q: But now we see so much tension in politics. Yet despite this, you will be in Normandy speaking about peace while Barack Obama keeps urging Europe to arm itself.
VP: Well, we must always talk about peace but we should understand the causes and nature of the crisis. The point is no one should be brought to power through an armed anti-constitutional coup, and this is especially true of the post-Soviet space where government institutions are not fully mature. When it happened some people accepted this regime and were happy about it while other people, say, in eastern and southern Ukraine just won’t accept it. And it is vital to talk with those people who didn’t accept this change of power instead of sending tanks there, as you said yourself, instead of firing missiles at civilians from the air and bombing non-military targets.
Q: But, Mr President, the United States and the White House claim they have evidence that Russia intervened in the conflict, sent its troops and supplied weapons. They claim they have proof. Do you believe that?
VP: Proof? Why don’t they show it? The entire world remembers the US Secretary of State demonstrating the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council. Eventually, the US troops invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein was hanged and later it turned out there had never been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You know, it’s one thing to say things and another to actually have evidence. I will tell you again:no Russian troops…
Q: Are you saying the US is lying?
VP: There are no armed forces, no Russian ‘instructors’ in southeastern Ukraine. And there never were any.
Q: So you do not want to annex Ukraine and you never tried to destabilise the situation there?
VP: We never did that. The Ukrainian government must now sit down and talk with their own people instead of using weapons, tanks, planes and helicopters. They must start the negotiating process.
Q: The new Ukrainian president was elected on May 25 through a democratic vote. Do you recognise Mr Poroshenko as a legitimate president?
VP: I’ve already told you and will say it again: we will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and we will cooperate with Ukrainian authorities.
Q: In other words, if you meet him on 6 June on the beaches of Normandy, and if President Hollande helps to make this meeting possible, will you shake hands with him? Will you talk with him?
VP: You know, I don’t plan to evade anyone. President Hollande kindly invited me as the representative of Russia to attend this commemoration, even though the event it will commemorate was tragic. I was pleased to accept his invitation, and I’m grateful to the President for inviting me. There will be other guests, and I’m not going to avoid any of them. I will talk with all of them.
Q: But will you meet with Poroshenko? You said you would only work with him on the condition that he would not totally yield to US influence.
VP: I didn’t say that he shouldn’t yield to US influence. He is free to accept any influence he wants. Ukrainians voted for him, and he is free to develop a policy. If he chooses to accept anyone’s strong influence, let him. But I wouldn’t…
Q: Do you recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and its neutral stance with respect to relations between Russia and the West?
VP: Yes, we recognize its sovereignty. Moreover, we’d like Ukraine to act as a sovereign state. Joining any military bloc or any other rigid integration alliance amounts to a partial loss of sovereignty. But if a country opts for this and wants to cede part of its sovereignty, it’s free to do so. Regarding Ukraine and military blocs, this is what worries us, because if Ukraine joins, say, NATO, NATO’s infrastructure will move directly towards the Russian border, which cannot leave us indifferent.
Q: Mr President, Russian troops annexed Crimea recently. Will you ever give it back?
VP: It’s a delusion that Russian troops annexed Crimea. Russian troops did nothing of the kind. Frankly...
Q: But Crimea has been included on the map of Russia, the kind of maps we used in school. It’s part of Russia now. What was it, annexation or reunification? Which word should we use?
VP: If you’ll let me finish, I think you’ll see what I mean.
Russian troops were in Crimea under the international treaty on the deployment of the Russian military base. It’s true that Russian troops helped Crimeans hold a referendum on their (a) independence and (b) desire to join the Russian Federation. No one can prevent these people from exercising a right that is stipulated in Article 1 of the UN Charter, the right of nations to self-determination.
Q: In other words, you will not return Crimea [to Ukraine]?Crimea is Russia, is that it?
VP: In accordance with the expression of the will of people who live there, Crimea is part of the Russian Federation and its constituent entity.
I want everyone to understand this clearly. We conducted an exclusively diplomatic and peaceful dialogue – I want to stress this – with our partners in Europe and the United States. In response to our attempts to hold such a dialogue and to negotiate an acceptable solution, they supported the anti-constitutional state coup in Ukraine, and following that we could not be sure that Ukraine would not become part of the North Atlantic military bloc. In that situation, we could not allow a historical part of the Russian territory with a predominantly ethnic Russian population to be incorporated into an international military alliance, especially because Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia. I am sorry, but we couldn’t act differently.
Q: So, Francois Hollande has invited you to France, to Paris and Normandy. You know him very well. Can you move further forward, and can you describe your relations as confidential?
VP: Yes, I think so.
Q: Do you think so, or are you sure?
VP: I’ve always thought so. I see no reasons to think otherwise. We have very good interstate relations, but we have much to do yet to promote our economic ties.
But our personal relations have always been trust-based, which helps in work as well. I hope it will stay this way.
Q: You are talking about trust-based relations – both in defense and the economy. You have paid over a billion euros for two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, and Russian naval officials are to visit Saint-Nazaire in a few days. Have you given them special permission to go to France?
VP: I believe we are living in a civilized world and we will all continue to fulfill our obligations and contractual commitments. I’ve heard a lot of talk about these ships going to Russia and some people believe that Russia shouldn’t get them. You know, here in Russia we had a lot of opposition to this contract. France is entitled to decide against selling the ships, but in that case we should get out money back. This would mean that out countries won’t have an opportunity to develop ties in the defense sector – but overall we are ready to expand our cooperation and even to place new orders, if our French partners are interested.
Q: Despite external pressure, you have asked France to supply these assault ships – and if France does it you may place other orders as well, right?
VP: We expect our French partners to fulfill their contractual obligations, and if everything goes as we agreed, we will not rule out the possibility of further orders – and not necessarily in naval shipbuilding; they may concern other sectors as well. Overall, our relations in this area are developing well, and we would like to continue strengthening them – in aviation, shipbuilding, and other sectors. We have successful cooperation experience in space exploration, at the Guiana Space Centre near Kourou.
Q: Do you think France is a sovereign and independent state whose opinion is respected? What do you think of Germany? You speak with Angela Merkel in both Russian and German, while François Hollande doesn’t speak Russian and you don’t speak French. Do you have a common language of communication?
VP: The fact that I don’t speak French and Mr Hollande doesn’t speak Russian is not a barrier for us. It does not prevent us from speaking a common language, and we understand each other well even via an interpreter.
Speaking of the level of sovereignty, I will say it again – any country that becomes a member of a military alliance gives away some of its sovereignty to a supranational body. For Russia, this would be unacceptable. As for other countries, it has nothing to do with us. They have to decide such matters for themselves. In this regard, I think of the Gaullist tradition and General Charles de Gaulle, who protected France’s sovereignty. I think this deserves respect. And there’s another example: François Mitterrand, who spoke of European confederation, with Russia as its member. I think this opportunity still exists and we will have it in the future.
Q: My next question concerns the United States. You will meet with Barack Obama in a few days, you will sit a few metres away from him. But he doesn’t seem to be willing to speak to you. What will this meeting be like and how will relations develop between the world’s richest country and its largest country? How can you avoid speaking to each other when there’s a real need for this since the war is not too far off?
VP: Well, you’re exaggerating about the war being not far off. You seem to be feeling aggressive. Whatever gave you this idea, and why are you determined to frighten us all? As for...
Q: Because Ukraine is near Russia.
VP: So what?
Q: And this is where the war is going on. When he mentioned the war, he said it is not far off.
VP: There is a punitive operation launched by Kiev’s government against the country’s own citizens. It is not a war between states, it is something entirely different. As for...
Q: Do you think it should be stopped immediately?
VP: I think Mr Poroshenko, who has no blood on his hands so far, has a unique chance to halt this punitive operation now and start a dialogue with people in southeastern Ukraine.
As for my relations with Barack Obama, I have no reason whatsoever to believe he is not willing to talk to the President of Russia. But ultimately, it is his choice. I am always ready for dialogue, and I think that dialogue is the best way to bridge any gaps. We have been in contact until now, we have talked on the telephone regularly.
Q: Russia and the United States are experiencing some problems. Are these problems between two powers or between two people, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin?
VP: Problems between countries always exist, especially between such big countries as Russia and the United States. There have always been some issues, but I don’t think we should go to extremes. At any rate, it wouldn’t be our choice. I’m always willing to talk to any of my partners, including President Obama.
Q: So you are willing to talk and you regret what is happening? But don’t you think the United States is trying to surround Russia, to make you weaker as a leader and perhaps isolate you from the world? You are being very diplomatic now but you know the facts.
VP: Facts? You’ve said it yourself: Russia is the biggest country in the world. It would be very difficult to surround it, and the world is changing so fast that it would basically be impossible, even in theory.
Of course, we can see attempts by the United States to pressure their allies by employing their obvious leadership in the Western community, in order to influence Russia’s policy.
Russia’s policy is based solely on its national interests. Of course, we take the opinions of our partners into account but we are guided by the interests of the Russian people.
Q: Mr President, it is very convenient that you are meeting with Mr Obama on June 6. Perhaps, it would be worse if you were meeting with Hillary Clinton. Only a few days ago, she said that what Russia is doing in Eastern Europe resembles what Hitler was doing in the 1930s.
VP: It’s better not to argue with women. But Ms Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements. Still, we always met afterwards and had cordial conversations at various international events. I think even in this case we could reach an agreement. When people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman.
Q: Women must be respected, of course, and I’m sure you respect them. Do you think she went too far? There is a lot of mockery and cartoons in the media – including those showing you. What was your first reaction? Were you angry? Did you want to get back at her or laugh? We have never seen you laugh.
VP: Someday I will indulge myself and we will laugh together at some good joke. But when I hear such extreme statements, to me it only means that they don’t have any valid arguments. Speaking of US policy, it’s clear that the United States is pursuing the most aggressive and toughest policy to defend their own interests – at least, this is how the American leaders see it – and they do it persistently.
There are basically no Russian troops abroad while US troops are everywhere. There are US military bases everywhere around the world and they are always involved in the fates of other countries even though they are thousands of kilometres away from US borders. So it is ironic that our US partners accuse us of breaching some of these rules.
Q: But you have taken some decisions regarding your defense budget. Are you as President taking any special decisions on security and defense now, because the general environment is more risky?
VP: Regarding the defense budget. I’d like to say, for reference’ sake, because only the analysts know this, that the defence budget of the United States, which we talked about only yesterday, is larger than the combined military budgets of every country in the world – every country – combined. So who’s pursuing an aggressive policy?
As for our [defense] budget, it has hardly grown in terms of percent of GDP, barely by one-tenth of a percent. But we want to rearm our army and navy based on modern, advanced technology, by reducing quantity and improving quality. We have a relevant rearmament programme, and it was not adopted yesterday or in response to the Ukrainian crisis. It has been our policy, which we will continue to implement.
Q: Mr President, Syrian leader Bashar Assad has been re-elected president without much effort. Can you influence him? Can you ask him to order his army to stop its atrocities, to stop fighting their own people?
VP: All sides are guilty of atrocities there, but primarily the extremist organizations that are thriving in Syria. We are mostly worried about…
Q: Religious, Islamic [organizations]…
VP: …those organizations that are directly connected with Al Qaeda. There are many of them there, which no one tries to deny any longer. It’s a general fact. But we are mostly worried that the wrong action could turn Syria into another Afghanistan, a completely uncontrollable spawning ground for the terrorist threat, including for European countries. All the terrorists who are operating there now would eventually move to other countries, including in Europe.
Q: We don’t quite understand why you, Vladimir Putin, the man who wants to modernize Russia, support a person who is killing his own people, who is covered in their blood. How can this be?
VP: I’ll explain very simply and clearly, and I hope that the majority of the French people who are watching and listening to this interview will understand me. We very much fear that Syria will fall apart like Sudan. We very much fear that Syria will follow in the footsteps of Iraq or Afghanistan. This is why we would like the legal authority to remain in power in Syria, so that Russia can cooperate with Syria and with ours partners in Europe and the United States to consider possible methods to change Syrian society, to modernize the regime and make it more viable and humane.
Q: I’d like to ask you about your country, Russia. How would you describe its current political regime? Some describe it as a democracy, while others argue that Russia is so huge that it needs an iron hand. How does Vladimir Putin define the Putin regime?
VP: The current regime is not connected to any particular person, including the incumbent President. We have common democratic state institutions, although they reflect Russia’s needs. What are they? The overwhelming majority of Russian citizens tend to rely on their traditions, their history and, if I may say so, their traditional values. I see this as the foundation and a factor of stability in the Russian state, but none of this is associated with the President as an individual. Moreover, it should be remembered that we only started introducing standard democratic institutions recently. They are still in the process of evolving.
Q: Can a person stand in opposition to the authorities in Russia without fear of losing his ties and reputation, without being punished?
VP: We have many opposition parties, and we have recently liberalized the procedure for registering political parties. We have dozens of parties that participate in municipal and regional elections.
Q: But is it possible to be a personal opponent of Vladimir Putin without exposing oneself to risks?
VP: If you listen to some of our radio stations and watch some TV shows, I assure you, you are unlikely to find anything similar to this kind of opposition in France.
Q: There have always been periods of strict order and authoritarian power in Russia. But in the age of the Internet, can a country develop by restricting freedoms?
VP: It is impossible and we are not restricting the Internet. We have certain… You know, whatever we do, someone tries to find something that goes against democratic principles, including the Internet. Are there any restrictions in Russia? I don’t believe so. Some of our opponents say there are unacceptable restrictions. What kind of restrictions do we have? For example, we have banned the promotion of suicide, drugs and pedophilia. These are our restrictions. What’s wrong with that?
Q: And homosexuality. It is not pedophilia, it’s a different story.
VP: That’s not true, we did not ban homosexuality. We banned the promotion of homosexuality among minors. You see, these are two different things. In the United States, since we talked about it, homosexuality is illegal in some states. We impose no criminal liability whatsoever. We banned only promoting homosexuality among minors. It is our right to protect our children and we will do it.
Q: We would like to talk about the end of your term in 2018. We would like to talk about labor camps. We find such things surprising in the West. For example, Pussy Riot were sentenced to a term in labor camps, and it wasn’t just an ordinary prison. Will you close those camps by the end of your term?
VP: These are not camps. These are places where the inmates’ freedom is limited but they can live a more or less normal life. These are not prisons where people are not allowed to work.
Prisons where people can’t even work is the worst punishment you can think of. And I don’t think we should put all convicts in such facilities where people are deprived of their freedom. I think it is much worse than what you are describing.
Q: Who convinced you that you are carrying out a special mission for Russia?
VP: Why do you think that I believe I’m carrying out a special mission? I have the trust of my voters. Over 63% of Russian citizens voted for me. I believe I hold a national mandate to carry out domestic and foreign policy, and I will fulfill my obligations under this mandate.
Q: Do you have a role model in the Russian history? Are you guided by Soviet or Russian politics?
VP: I have great love and respect for Russian history and culture. But the world is changing and Russia is too. Russia is part of the modern world, not the world of the past but the modern world. And I believe it has an even greater future than some other countries that can’t take care of their young people, of the new generations, of their children, and believe that they can just let things slide.
Q: And the last question, Mr President. In 2013, Forbes rated you as the most powerful person in the world. Were you flattered by this title?
VP: You know, I’m an adult and I know what power means in the modern world. In the modern world, power is mainly defined by such factors as the economy, defense and cultural influence. I believe that in terms of defense, Russia is without any doubt one of the leaders because we are a nuclear power and our nuclear weapons are perhaps the best in the world.
With regard to cultural influence, we are proud of the Russian culture – literature, the arts and so on.
As for the economy, we are aware that we still have a lot to do before we reach the top. Although lately, we have made major strides forward and are now the fifth largest economy in the world. It is a success but we can do more.
Q: We don’t know yet how Vladimir Putin’s era will go down in history. What would you like to be remembered for? And would you like to be seen as a democrat or an authoritarian leader?
VP: I would like to be remembered as a person who did his best for the happiness and prosperity of his country and his people.
Q: Thank you very much. Have a good trip to France, Mr President. Good-bye.
VP: Thank you.