28 august, 2008 18:00  

"We are a peace-loving state, and we want to cooperate with all our neighbors and all our partners. But if someone thinks that they can come and kill us, that our place is at the cemetery, these people should think about the consequences of such a policy for themselves."

Vladimir Putin Interview with the U.S. television network CNN

Transcript of the meeting: 

Matthew Chance: Thank you very much, Vladimir Putin for joining us. Many people around the world, even though you are not the president of Russia any more, see you as the main decision-maker in this country. Wasn't it you who ordered Russian forces into Georgia and you who should take the responsibility for the consequences?

Vladimir Putin: No, of course not. In accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the issues of foreign policy and defence are the responsibility of the Russian president. The Russian president was acting within his powers.

As you know, yours truly was at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing at that time. This alone made it impossible for me to take part in that decision, although of course, President Medvedev was aware of my opinion on that issue. I'll be frank with you, it is no secret that we had of course considered all the possible scenarios of events, including direct aggression by the Georgian leadership.

We had to think in advance about how to provide for the security of our peacekeepers and Russian citizens who are residents of South Ossetia. But, let me repeat once again, only the president of the Russian Federation and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Mr. Medvedev, could make this decision. This is his decision.

Matthew Chance: It's been no secret either that for years you've been urging the West to take more seriously Russia's concerns about international issues, for instance, about NATO expansion, about the deployment of missile defence systems in Eastern Europe.

Wasn't this conflict a way of demonstrating that in this region it's Russia that's the power, not NATO and certainly not the United States?

Vladimir Putin: Certainly not. Moreover, we did not want such conflicts and we do not want them in the future.

But if this conflict has taken place, if it broke out nevertheless, this is only because our concerns remained unheeded.

In general, Matthew, I will say this: We must take a broader view of this conflict.

I think that you and your audience today will be interested to learn a little more about the history of relations between the peoples and ethnic groups in this part of the world, because people know little or nothing about this.

If you consider it unimportant, you may cut it from the program. Please, do. I don't mind.

But I would like to recall that all these state entities, each in its own time, joined the Russian Empire of their own free will. Ossetia was the first to become part of the Russian Empire in the middle of the 18th century, in 1745-1747. At that time, it was a united entity; North and South Ossetia were a single state.

In 1801, if my memory serves me, Georgia itself, which was under pressure from the Ottoman Empire, voluntarily became part of the Russian Empire.
Only 12 years later, in 1812, Abkhazia joined the Russian Empire. Before that it had existed as an independent state, an independent principality.

It was only in the middle of the 19th century that it was decided to incorporate South Ossetia into to Tiflis Province. Within a single country, the matter was regarded as not very important. But I can assure you that subsequent years showed that Ossetians did not like it too much. However, de facto the tsar's central government put them under the jurisdiction of what is today's Georgia.

When the Russian Empire collapsed after the First World War, Georgia declared its own state, while Ossetia expressed the desire to remain part of Russia. This was immediately after the events of 1917.

In response Georgia conducted a punitive operation there, a very cruel one, and repeated it again in 1921.

When the Soviet Union was formed, on Stalin's orders these territories were definitively given to Georgia. As you know, Stalin was of Georgian origin.

Therefore, those who insist that those territories should continue to belong to Georgia are Stalinists. They defend a decision made by Joseph Stalin.

But no matter what may be happening now, and no matter by what motives the people involved in the conflict were guided, everything that we are witnessing today is, unquestionably, a tragedy.

For us it is a special tragedy, because over many years of joint existence, Georgian culture - and the Georgian people have an ancient culture - has undoubtedly become part of Russia's multinational culture.

You know, for us, there is even a tinge of a civil war, although Georgia is of course an independent state; there is no doubt about it. We have never infringed on Georgia's sovereignty, and have no intention of doing so in the future. And yet, we have special spiritual links with that country and its people, considering that almost a million, or even more than a million Georgians live in this country. For us, this is a special tragedy.

Let me assure you that while mourning the Russian soldiers who died, and, above all, the civilians, many in Russia are also mourning the Georgians who died.

The responsibility for these deaths rests squarely with the present Georgian leadership, which decided upon these criminal actions.

I apologize for the long monologue. I thought this would be of interest.

Matthew Chance: It's very interesting that you are talking about Russia's imperial history in these regions because one of the effects of Russian intervention in Georgia is that other countries of the former Soviet Union are now deeply concerned that they could be next, they could be part of the resurgent Russia empire, particularly countries like Ukraine that have big ethnic Russian populations, but also Moldova, the Central Asian states, even some of the Baltic states. Can you guarantee to us that Russia will never again use its military forces against the neighboring state?

Vladimir Putin: I am categorically opposed to the way this question is formulated. It is not we who should guarantee that we will not attack anybody. We have not attacked anyone. It is we who are demanding guarantees from others that they will not attack us anymore and will not kill our citizens. And yet there are attempts to portray us as the aggressor.

I have here at the chronology of the events that took place on August 7th, 8th and 9th. At 14:42 on the 7th, the Georgian officers who were at the headquarters of the Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPF) left it, walked away from the headquarters - where there were our servicemen, as well as Georgian and Ossetian servicemen - saying that they had orders from their commanders. They left their posts and left our servicemen there alone and did not return until the start of hostilities. An hour later, heavy artillery shelling started.

At 22:35 a massive shelling of the city of Tskhinvali began. At 22:50 Georgian ground force unitss started to move into the area of hostilities. At the same time, Georgian field hospitals were set up nearby. At 23:30 Mr. Kruashvili, brigadier general, the commander of the Georgian peacekeeping force in this region, announced that Georgia had decided to start a war with South Ossetia. They announced this directly, publically, looking right into the television cameras.

At the same time, we tried to contact the Georgian leadership but all of them refused to talk to us. At 0:45 on August 8, Mr. Kruashvili repeated this once again. At 5:20 tank columns of Georgian troops launched an attack on Tskhinvali, preceded by massive fire from GRAD systems, and we began to sustain casualties among our personnel.

As you know, I was in Beijing at that time, and had a chance to have a short talk with the president of the United States. I told him directly that we had not been able to get in contact with the Georgian leadership, and that one of the heads of the Georgian Armed Forces had declared that they had started a war with South Ossetia.

As I've already stated in public, George told me that nobody wanted a war. We hoped that the U.S. Administration would interfere in this conflict and stop the aggressive actions of the Georgian leadership, but nothing of the kind happened.

Moreover, at noon, local time, the units of the Georgian Armed Forces seized the peacekeeping base in the south of Tskhinvali. It is called Yuzhny, which means "southern", and our servicemen - outnumbered 6:1 by the Georgians - had to retreat to the city center. Besides, our peacekeepers did not have any heavy weapons, and what they did have was destroyed by the first artillery strikes. One of the first strikes had killed ten of our people at once.

Then an attack was launched on the northern camp of the peacemaking force. Let me read out for you the report from the General Staff: "As of 12:30, a battalion of the peacemaking force of the Russian Federation, deployed in the north of the city, had repelled five attacks and was continuing combat."

At the same time, Georgian aviation bombed the town of Java, which was outside the zone of hostilities in the central part of South Ossetia.

So who was the attacker, and who was attacked? We have no intention of attacking anyone, and we have no intention of going to war with anyone.

During my eight years as president, I often heard the same question: What place does Russia reserve for itself in the world; how does it see itself; what is its place? We are a peace-loving state, and we want to cooperate with all our neighbors and all our partners. But if someone thinks that they can come and kill us, that our place is at the cemetery, these people should think about the consequences of such a policy for themselves.

Matthew Chance: You've always enjoyed over your period as president of Russia and still now a very close personal relationship with the U.S. President George W. Bush. Do you think that his failure to restrain the Georgian forces on this occasion has damaged this relationship?

Vladimir Putin: This has certainly damaged our relations, interstate contacts above all.

But it is not just a matter of the U.S. administration being unable to restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal action; the U.S. side had in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.

Why conduct difficult talks for many years and search for intricate compromise solutions to interethnic conflicts? It is easier to arm one of the sides, push it to kill the other side, and have it done with. That seems such an easy solution. But in reality it transpires that it does not always work out like that.

I have other considerations as well. What I am going to say now is only a supposition and it has to be properly verified. But I think there is food for thought.

Even during the Cold War, a time of tough confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we always avoided a direct clash between our civilians, not to mention military servicemen.

We have serious grounds to believe that there were U.S. citizens right in the combat zone. If that is so, if that is confirmed, this is very bad. This is very dangerous, and this is a misguided policy.

But if this is the case, the said events may have a U.S. domestic politics dimension.

If my suppositions are confirmed, then there are grounds to suspect that some people in the United States deliberately provoked this conflict to aggravate the situation and create an advantage for one of the candidates in the U.S. presidential race. If this is true, this is nothing else but the abuse of administrative resources in the domestic political struggle in its worst, bloodiest form.

Matthew Chance: These are quite astounding claims. Just to be clear, Mr Prime Minister, are you suggesting, that there were US operatives on the ground assisting Georgian forces, perhaps even provoking a conflict in order to give a presidential candidate in the United States some kind of a talking point?

Vladimir Putin: Let me explain.

Matthew Chance: I want to clarify. And if you are, if you are suggesting that, what evidence do you have?

Vladimir Putin: I have told you that if the presence of U.S. citizens in the zone of hostilities is confirmed, it means only one thing - that they could have been there only at the direct instructions of their leadership. If that is so, then in the combat zone there are U.S. citizens, who are fulfilling their duties there. They can only do this under orders from their leadership, not on their own initiative.

Ordinary experts, even if they are training military personnel, must do this at testing grounds or training centers rather than on the battlefield.

Let me repeat that this requires further confirmation. I'm quoting our military to you. Needless to say, I will seek additional evidence from them.

Why do you find my supposition astounding? I don't understand. There are problems in the Middle East; reconciliation has not been reached there. The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Moreover, the Taliban has launched a fall offensive, and dozens of NATO servicemen are being killed.

In Iraq, after the euphoria of the first victories there are problems everywhere, and the death toll has already exceeded 4,000.

There are problems in the economy, as we know only too well. There are financial problems and the mortgage crisis. We are concerned about it ourselves, and want it to end as soon as possible, but it is still there.

A small victorious war would be helpful. And if it fails, the blame can be laid at our door. We can be portrayed as the enemy, and against the backdrop of this jingoism the nation can be rallied around certain political forces.

I'm surprised that you are astounded at what I am saying. It's as clear as day.

Matthew Chance: It sounds a little far-fetched but I'm interested because I was in Georgia at the time of the conflict and the country was swirling with rumors. One of the rumors was that U.S. personnel had been captured by Russian forces in combat areas. Is there any truth in that rumor?

Vladimir Putin: I don't have such information. I don't think this is true.

Let me repeat, I will ask our military to provide additional information confirming the presence of American citizens in the conflict zone during the hostilities.

Matthew Chance: Let's get back to the diplomatic fallout of this conflict, because one of the consequences is that action is threatened at least against Russia by many countries of the world. It could be kicked out of the G8 group of industrialized nations and there are threats that it could have its contacts with the NATO military alliance suspended. What will Russia's response be if the country is diplomatically isolated as the result of this tension between Russia and the West?

Vladimir Putin: First, if my hypothesis about the coloring the conflict has in American domestic politics is right, I don't see why the United States' allies should support one American party against the other in the election campaign. That would be, on the whole, dishonest toward the American people. We cannot rule out, however, that the U.S. Administration will bend its allies to its will, as it has done in the past.

Now, what can we do? What choices do we have? Shall we wait to be killed as the price for staying with the G8? And who will stay in the G8 if we are all killed off?

You mentioned the potential threat from Russia. You and I are sitting here now having a peaceful conversation in the city of Sochi. Several hundred kilometers from here U.S. missile-bearing warships have approached, and the range of their missiles is precisely those several hundred kilometers. It is not our ships approaching your coast, but your ships approaching ours. What choice do we have?

We don't want any complications. We don't want to bicker with, let alone fight anyone. We want normal partnership and respect for us and our interests. Is that too much?

You mentioned the G8. But the way it is now the G8 is already a bit inadequate. Indeed, without China or India, without consulting with them, without influencing their decisions, normal development of the world economy is impossible.

Now, take the fight against drugs, infectious diseases and terrorism. Take nonproliferation. Fine, if someone wants to do it all without Russia. But how effective will such work be without Russia?

I don't think we need to concentrate on that, and we don't need to frighten anyone. We are not afraid. What we need is a correct analysis of the situation, to look to the future and establish normal relations with respect for one another's interests.

Matthew Chance: There are, as you mentioned, areas of cooperation still between the United States and Russia, particularly, for instance, over the issue of Iran's very controversial nuclear program. Are you suggesting that you may withdraw your cooperation with the United Nations in tackling this problem from the United States if the diplomatic pressure were to be ratcheted up between Russia and the West?

Vladimir Putin: Russia is very consistent and conscientious about working with its partners on all the problems I have listed and you have just mentioned-not because we are asked to act this way or for appearances' sake. We behave this way because it promotes our national interests and because we share national interests with many European countries and the United States in these fields. If no one wants to talk to us on these matters and needs cooperation with Russia-OK, work on your own.

Matthew Chance: And what about the issue of energy supplies, because obviously European countries in particular are increasingly dependent on Russian gas and on Russian oil. Would Russia ever use the supply of energy to Western Europe as a lever to apply pressure should the diplomatic tensions be ratcheted up?

Vladimir Putin: We have never done that. The construction of the first gas pipelines started in the 1960s, when the Cold War was at its peak-and all these years, from the 1960s to this day, Russia has steadily and reliably fulfilled its contract commitments irrespective of political situations.

We have never politicized economic relations, and we are very surprised by the position of certain officials in the U.S. Administration as they travel from one European country to another to persuade them not to buy our products-lets say, gas. This is a stunning instance of politicizing the economic sphere. It is very harmful, in fact.

Yes, Europeans depend on our supplies, but we, too, depend on the purchasers of our gas. This interdependence guarantees stability.

Now that we have turned to economic issues, I, too, want to tell you about a decision to be made quite soon. I want to make it understood from the beginning that it is not connected with any crisis, whether in Abkhazia or South Ossetia. This is a purely economic matter. Let me explain what I mean.

There have been discussions for a long time in Russia about imports from many countries, including the United States. The most heated debates usually concern imports of agricultural products.

Our sanitary inspectors made random checks of U.S. poultry meat exporters in July and August. They found that 19 companies had ignored demands our experts made back in 2007. These 19 companies will be stricken off the list of poultry meat exporters to Russia.

Another 29 companies were warned that they must urgently follow our sanitary experts' demands. We hope they will be quick enough about it, and carry on supplies to the Russian market.

I have this information from the Agriculture Minister.

I repeat, I don't want to see everything piled up together-conflict situations, politics, the economy and meat. These are all separate issues totally unconnected with each other.

Matthew Chance: But, Mr. Putin, this appears or may be interpreted in the United States as tantamount to economic sanctions. Specifically what have these 19 agricultural companies been exporting to Russia that you have found to be flawed?

Vladimir Putin: I am no agricultural expert. This is what the Agriculture Minister told me this morning-I repeat it once again.

Our sanitary inspectors made random checks of U.S. poultry meat exporters in July and August. And they found that 19 companies had ignored some of the demands our experts made as long ago as last year. They have not done anything to correct the defects revealed by previous inspections. The Agriculture Ministry has determined to strike these companies off the list of poultry meat exporters.

Certain violations were revealed in another 29 companies. Relevant papers have been drawn up the changes that must be made if available export contracts are to stay in force. These 29 companies will carry on supplies, for the time being, and we hope they will correct these violations soon.

It all concerns the concentration in their products of certain substances closely monitored in Russia, for instance, an excess of antibiotics and, if I am not mistaken, something like arsenic-I am not sure. It is up to experts. Politics have no bearing on it whatsoever. These are not sanctions. We have taken similar measures on many occasions before. This is no catastrophe, we just have to work at it together.

What is more, when the minister called me today, he said: "We are at a loss. This will look like sanctions-but we must do something. We could, of course, postpone it for a while."

Arsenic was mentioned, if I am not mistaken. But we have our own standards. If you want to supply our market, you must comply with our standards. They know it. They were already told about it last year.

Matthew Chance: They're not going like that. They're not going to like that in the United States.

Vladimir Putin: We, too, dislike some things that happen. You simply need to work moreclosely with our Agriculture Ministry.

Such situations occurred before when we have made bans and lifted them later. It has happened not only with American but also Brazilian exporters.

Matthew Chance: I think we've got more than enough. I'd like to ask one final question to finish the interview.

Vladimir Putin: We can go on talking. I have time.

Matthew Chance: Prime Minister Putin, perhaps, more than anyone else you are credited with restoring a degree of international prestige to this country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the chaos of the 1990s. Are you concerned that you are squandering the international prestige by your actions over Georgia, by actions like these, the banning of bird meat imports from the United States? Does this mean that concerns you?

Vladimir Putin: As I have said, the ban on poultry meat imports from certain American companies that have been ignoring our demands for a year is not what this is about.

We must protect our domestic market and our consumers. Every country does so, and the United States is no exception.

As for Russia's prestige, we don't like what is going on but we did not provoke this situation. If we are to speak of prestige, several other countries' prestige has been very seriously damaged in recent years. Indeed, in recent years our American partners have cultivated the principle of "might is right" instead of international law. No one listened when we tried to block the decision on Kosovo. We asked them to wait, not to act yet. "You are making our position in the Caucasus very difficult. What shall we say to the small Caucasian nations? That they cannot get independence while Kosovo can? You are putting us in a really awkward situation." No one but Russia referred to international law in those days. Now everyone has remembered it. Everybody is talking about international law now.

But who opened this Pandora's box? Was it us? No, it wasn't us. It was not our decision and not our policy.

There are both aspects in international law: there is the principle of the territorial integrity of states, and there is the right to self-determination. What we need is to make the rules of the game clear. I think it is high time to do so.

As for public perception of the situation, it largely depends not only on politicians but also on their skill in manipulating the media and their impact on world public opinion. Our American colleagues do it much better than we, and we have a lot to learn from them. But is information always honest and objective, and does it always follow a normal, democratic pattern?

Let us recollect, for instance, an interview with a 12-year-old girl and her aunt who live in the United States. The child was an eyewitness to the events in South Ossetia. The presenter of Fox News, one of the principal channels, kept interrupting her. He constantly interrupted her. As soon as she said something he did not like, he started coughing or making wheezing, squeaky noises. He did everything he could to interrupt. What more could he do? Soil his pants to make them silent with the shock? That was the only thing he did not do-but, figuratively speaking, he was just in a state to do so. Do you call this honest and unbiased information? Was it the way to inform his fellow countrymen? No, that was disinformation.

We want to live in peace and accord. We want normal trade and work in every field, be it international security, disarmament, the fight against terrorism, against drugs, the Iranian nuclear problem-and the North Korean, which at the moment is getting somewhat more acute. We are willing to do all of this, but we want that work to be an honest, open partnership, and not self-seeking.

It is wrong to make anyone into an enemy; it is wrong to frighten the people of one's own country with that enemy and try to rally some supporters on that basis. What we need is to work openly and honestly on solutions to the problem. We want that and we are ready for that.

Matthew Chance: I just want to briefly to go back to this idea that the United States provoked the war, orchestrated the conflict in Georgia, because diplomats in the United States accuse Russia of provoking the war by supporting the separatists in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia, by arming them, by increasing forces in the territories and by recognizing their institutions, basically giving them the green light to go ahead and operate as a de-facto state. Wasn't it Russia that really caused this conflict?

Vladimir Putin: I can easily answer this question. Since the 1990s, as soon as the conflict started, and it started in recent history when Georgia resolved to deprive Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their autonomous rights. In 1990 and 1991, the Georgian leadership deprived Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the autonomy they had within Georgia in Soviet times. Interethnic clashes and hostilities started as soon as the decision was implemented.

Then, Russia signed a number of international agreements, with which it complied. What we had in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was only a peacekeeping contingent, which was defined in those documents, and we observed its limit.

The other party-in particular, Georgia-blatantly violated all the agreements with U.S. support.

Under the disguise of units of the Interior Ministry Georgia covertly introduced regular troops, special units and heavy artillery to the conflict zone. In fact, these guns and tanks besieged Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Tanks encircled our peacekeepers and shot at them at point-blank range.

Only after that, when we had our first casualties and their list grew to several tens-15-20 peacekeepers were killed, if I am not mistaken, and there were several hundred civilian victims-only after that did the Russian President decide to send a contingent to save the lives of civilians and our peacekeepers.

What is more, when our troops started moving in the direction of Tskhinvali, they came upon an area covertly fortified by the Georgian military. Tanks and heavy guns had been dug into ground there, and they shot at our troops en route.

All that violated previous international agreements.

It is of course conceivable that our U.S. partners were unaware of all that. But it is highly unlikely.

Ms Zurabishvili, former Georgian Foreign Minister and an absolutely neutral person-she is a French citizen, if I am not mistaken, and is in Paris now-said on the air that there were a huge number of U.S. advisers there and that, of course, they knew everything.

If our supposition that U.S. citizens' were present in the combat zone is proved correct-I repeat, we need further information from the military-then our suspicions are quite justified.

Those who pursue such a policy toward Russia, what do they think? Will they like us only when we die?

Matthew Chance: Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.