Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin interviewed by the German ARD TV channel
Thomas Roth: Mr Prime Minister,
After the escalation of tensions in Georgia, the Western public and politicians, as well as the press and other people, believe that you have set Russia against the whole world.
Vladimir Putin: Who do you think started the war?
Roth: The final trigger was Georgia's attack on Tskhinvali.
Putin: Thank you for this answer. It is true. This is exactly what happened. We will talk about this in more detail later, but for now I just want to point out that it wasn't us who created this situation.
And now about Russia's reputation. I firmly believe that the reputation of any country which is capable of defending the life and dignity of its citizens, and can conduct independent foreign policy will only improve in mid- and long-term perspective.
To the contrary, the reputation of those countries which cater to the foreign policy interests of other states at the expense of their own national interests will go down regardless of how they explain their actions.
Roth: You did not say why you decided to put you country at isolation.
Putin: I thought I had replied to this question. But if you want me to explain this in more detail, I'll do this.
I believe that a country, Russia in this case, which can defend the honour and dignity of its citizens, protect their lives, and fulfill its international legal commitments under the peacekeeping mandate, will not find itself in isolation, no matter what our partners in Europe or the United States may think, expressing their bloc mentality. Europe and the United States are not the whole world, for that matter.
And vice versa, I want to emphasize that if some countries believe that they can ignore their own national interests to cater to the foreign policy interests of other states, their prestige in the world will gradually go down no matter how they may explain their position.
In this context, if European countries want to cater to U.S. foreign policy interests, I don't think that they stand to gain anything.
Now let's take our international legal commitments. Under the international agreements, the Russian peacekeepers are committed to protect the population of South Ossetia.
And now let's recall Bosnia in 1995. As we know well, the European peacekeeping contingent, represented by the Dutch troops, did not want to get involved with one of the attacking sides, and allowed it to destroy a whole village. Hundreds of people were killed or injured. The tragedy in Srebrenica is well known in Europe.
Would you have wanted us to do the same? To leave and allow the Georgian troops to kill people in Tskhinvali?
Roth: Your critics say that Russia's goal was not to protect the civilians of Tskhinvali but to remove President Saakashvili from power, and further destabilise Georgia, and thus to prevent it from joining NATO. Is that true?
Putin: No, that is not true. That is just twisting the facts. It is a lie.
If this had been our goal we would probably have started this conflict ourselves. But as you said yourself, this conflict was started by Georgia.
Now I'd like to recall some facts from recent history. After the unlawful decision to recognize Kosovo, everyone expected Russia to respond by recognizing the independence and sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is true, this is how it was. Everyone was waiting for Russia's decision. And we had the moral right to make it but we did not. We were more than restrained. I don't even want to comment on it. In truth, we "swallowed" it.
And what did we get in return? An escalation of the conflict, an attack on our peacekeepers, and an attack and killings of civilians in South Ossetia. You know what happened there, all these facts have already been published.
The French Foreign Minister visited North Ossetia and met with the refugees. Eye-witnesses say that Georgian army units ran over women and children with their tanks, drove people into houses and burned them alive. When Georgian troops captured Tskhinvali, they in passing threw grenades into the basements where women and children took shelter. What was it if not genocide?
Now a few words about the Georgian leadership. The people who have brought their country to the brink of a catastrophe - and with their actions the Georgian leaders have undermined Georgia's territorial integrity and statehood - I believe that these people have no right to govern any country, big or small. If they had any decency, they would have resigned immediately.
Roth: This is not your decision; it is Georgia's decision.
Putin: Absolutely, although we also know about other precedents.
Let's recall how U.S. troops entered Iraq and what they did to Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shiite villages. And here, in the first hours of hostilities ten Ossetian villages were completely destroyed, wiped off the face of the Earth.
Roth: Mr Prime Minister, do you think this gives you the right to invade a sovereign country, not to remain in the conflict zone but to bomb its territory? I sit here next to you only by sheer luck because a bomb from your aircraft exploded in Gori's residential area just a hundred meters away from me. Doesn't your de facto occupation of a small country violate international law? What gives you this right?
Putin: Of course, we have the right to do this...
Roth: Let me specify once again - the bomb was dropped on a residential building.
Putin: Of course, we acted in line with international law. For us, the attacks on our peacekeeping posts, and the murder of our peacekeepers and our citizens were tantamount to an attack on Russia.
Georgian troops killed several dozen of our peacekeepers in the first hours of hostilities. Their tanks surrounded our base Yuzhny (we had Yuzhny and Severny peacekeepers' bases) and opened direct fire at it.
When our peacekeepers tried to get equipment out of a shed, a Grad rocket hit them. Ten people in the shed were instantly killed. They burned alive.
I haven't finished yet. Then Georgian aviation bombed several targets in South Ossetia, not in Tskhinvali but in the centre of South Ossetia. We were forced to start suppressing fire control positions beyond the zone of hostilities and beyond the security belt. But it was from these positions that the troops were receiving their orders, and strikes were being dealt at the Russian troops and peacekeepers.
Roth: I've already said that residential areas were bombed. Perhaps, you don't know all the facts?
Putin: Perhaps, I don't know everything. Mistakes can occur during hostilities.
For instance, just now the U.S. aviation killed almost a hundred civilians by striking ostensibly at the Taliban. This is one possibility, but another is more likely. The Georgian side sometimes deployed fire and aviation control points and radars in residential areas to limit our use of aircraft. They were using civilians, including you, as hostages.
Roth: Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister of France, which now presides over the EU, recently expressed concern that a new conflict may break out in Ukraine, notably the Crimea and Sevastopol, a Russian naval base. Are the Crimea and Sevastopol the next target for Russia?
Putin: You said, "the next target". We did not have a target in this conflict, so I think it is simply inappropriate to speak about some "next target". This is my first point.
Roth: So you rule this out?
Putin: If you let me finish, you will be satisfied with my answer.
The Crimea is not a disputed territory. Unlike the case of Georgia and South Ossetia, there has been no ethnic conflict there.
Russia has long recognized the borders of today's Ukraine. By and large, we have completed our talks on the border. Now we have to deal with the demarcation, but this is a technical issue.
I think that asking a question about Russia's targets of this kind reeks of provocation.
There are complicated processes going on in society in the Crimea. There are problems of the Crimean Tatars, the Ukrainian population, the Russian population, the Slavic population in general, but this is Ukraine's domestic political problem.
We have an agreement with Ukraine on stationing our fleet there until 2017, and we will be guided by it.
Roth: Another Foreign Secretary, Mr Miliband of the UK, has recently voiced his concerns over the start of the new Cold War and a new arms race. What do you think about this situation? Are we on the threshold of a new Ice Age, a new Cold War and a new arms race? What do you think?
Putin: There's this joke: Whoever is the first to cry "Stop the thief" is the one who is guilty.
Roth: The British Foreign Secretary.
Putin: These are your words, not mine. Excellent. It's a pleasure talking with you. But these were your words.
Speaking seriously, Russia does not want to aggravate relations with anyone. We don't want any tensions. We want a good, friendly partnership with everyone.
If you let me, I'll tell you what I think on this score. There used to be the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There used to be Soviet troops in the GDR. And we must honestly admit that they were occupation troops, which remained in Germany after WWII under the guise of allied troops. Now these occupation troops are gone, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and the Warsaw Pact is no more. There is no Soviet threat, but NATO and U.S. troops are still in Europe. What for?
A foreign threat is useful to put things in order in one's own camp, to make one's allies follow the bloc discipline. Iran does not fit this role too well, and it is very tempting to revive Russia's image of the enemy. But nobody in Europe is afraid anymore.
Roth: A meeting of the EU Council opens in Brussels on Monday. They will talk about Russia, about sanctions against it. In any event, these issues will be discussed. What do you think about all that? You don't care? You still believe that the European Union speaks in very many languages?
Putin: It would be a lie to say that we don't care. Of course, we do care.
Of course, we will closely follow what is taking place there. We are simply hoping that common sense will prevail. We are hoping for an objective rather than politicised assessment of events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
We are hoping that the actions of the Russian peacekeepers will be supported and that the criminal actions of the Georgian side will be denounced.
Roth: In this context, I'd like to ask you how you are going to resolve the following dilemma. On the one hand, Russia is interested in further cooperation with the EU. Otherwise, it cannot reach its economic goals. On the other hand, Russia wants to play by its own, Russian rules. So, on the one hand, there is commitment to European common goals, but on the other, a resolve to play by the Russian rules. But you can't do both at the same time.
Putin: You know, we are not going to play by some special rules of our own. We want everyone to follow the same rules that are also referred to as international law. But we do not want anyone to manipulate with these notions.
We'll use one set of rules in one region, and another in another region, as long as it promotes our national interests.
We want to have standard rules which will take into account the interests of all participants in international relations.
Roth: Are you saying that in different parts of the world the EU plays by different rules, which do not correspond to international law?
Putin: Absolutely. How was Kosovo recognized? They forgot about the territorial integrity of a state, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which they had themselves adopted and supported. Why could it have been done there, but not in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Why not?
Roth: In other words, Russia is the only arbiter of international law. Everyone else is being manipulated, and they are not aware of this. They either have different interests, or they do not care. Have I understood you correctly?
Putin: No, you have not. Have you accepted Kosovo's independence? Yes or no?
Roth: I personally... I'm a journalist.
Putin: I meant the Western countries.
Putin: They have recognized it for the most part.
But you have recognized it there, then also recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is no difference, no difference at all in these positions. Any difference would be far-fetched.
They had an ethnic conflict there, and they also had it here. Crimes were committed by both sides there, and we could also find them here.
If we make a real effort, we can probably find them.
There it was decided that these nations cannot live in one and the same state, and here they do not want to live in the same state.
There is no difference whatsoever, and everyone understands this. This is all idle talk to cover up illegal decisions. This is the law of strength, or fist law. Russia will never accept that.
Mr Roth, you have lived in Russia for a long time. You speak wonderful Russian, almost without an accent. It is no surprise that you have understood me. I'm very happy about that.
But I would also like your and my European colleagues to understand me when they meet on September 1 to think over this conflict.
Did they adopt Resolution 1244? Yes, they did. It provided for Serbia's territorial integrity. Now it has been thrown out and forgotten. They have made attempts to twist and turn it but this is not possible. Have they forgotten all about it? Why? The White House issued an order and it was carried out.
If European countries continue to behave like this, we will have to discuss European affairs with Washington.
Roth: I understand what you are saying. Can we talk without an interpreter?
Roth: Thank you. I would like to ask you about Russian-German relations regardless of the existing assessments. But given our special relations, can Germany play the role of a mediator?
Putin: We have very good relations with Germany, very trustworthy, both in politics and in the economy.
When we talked with Mr Sarkozy during his visit to Moscow, we told him directly that we are not going to annex any part of the Georgian territory, and that we will leave the positions which we are now occupying. But we will remain in the security zone which was envisaged by existing international agreements. We are not going to be there forever. We believe that this is Georgian territory. Our only goal is to guarantee security in this region, not to allow another secret concentration of troops and equipment, as it happened this time, and to prevent another armed conflict.
In this context I can say that we will only welcome the participation of international observers, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including those from Germany. All we have to do is agree on the principles of joint work.
Roth: Does this mean that you will withdraw the troops in any event?
Putin: Absolutely. For us the main aim is to guarantee security in this area. At the next stage, we have to help South Ossetia to secure its borders. And then we will have no grounds to stay in this security zone. In the course of this work we will also welcome cooperation with the European agencies, and the OSCE.
Roth: What can you do to resolve the current crisis of relations (with the United States and Europe)?
Putin: First, I have already spoken about this with your colleagues from CNN. I think that this crisis has been largely provoked, in particular, by our American friends during the election campaign. This is certainly the use of the administrative resource, in its most deplorable form, for giving an advantage to one of the nominees, in this case, to the nominee of the ruling party.
Roth: Do you have facts to prove this?
Putin: We have analysed the situation. We know that there were many American advisors there. Equipping one side of an ethnic conflict and then prodding it to resolve its ethnic problems by force of arms is a very bad policy. At first glance it seems to be a much easier solution than to conduct talks for many years and to search for a compromise. But this policy is very dangerous, as the development of events showed.
Instructors or "teachers" in the broad sense of this word, all this personnel which trains soldiers to work with the supplied equipment, where should they be? They should be at testing grounds and at training centres. But where were they? They were in the combat area.
This alone goes to show that the U.S. leadership were aware of the planned military action, and, moreover, probably took part in it because U.S. citizens have no right to be in a combat without permission of their leadership. Only local residents, OSCE observers and peacekeepers had the right to be there whereas we found traces of U.S. citizens, who did not fit into any of these three categories. This poses a question: Why did U.S. top leadership allow its citizens to be in the area, where they had no right to be? If they allowed this, I suspect this was done for a purpose - to organise a small victorious war. And if the attempt failed, Russia could be portrayed as the enemy, and the voters could be rallied round one of the presidential nominees. I mean, of course, the candidate from the ruling party, because only a ruling party can have such a resource.
This is my line of thought and my assumptions. It is up to you whether to accept them or not. But they have a right to exist because we have discovered traces of U.S. citizens in the combat area.
Roth: Here is my last question, which is of great interest to me. Don't you think that you are personally trapped by your authoritarian state? In the existing system, you receive information from your secret services, you get information from different sources, including top economic ones. But even the media are sometimes afraid to say something different from what you may wish to hear.
Isn't the system created by you now preventing you from taking a broad view at the current processes in Europe and other parts of the world?
Putin: Mr Roth, you have described our political system as authoritarian. In the course of our discussion today, you have mentioned common values several times. Where are these values?
There are some fundamental principles, for instance the right to live. The United States, for instance, has capital punishment and we don't. You don't have it in Europe, either. European and American values do not fully coincide. Will this motivate you to quit NATO?
Or take the conflict that we are discussing now. Aren't you aware of what has been happening in Georgia in these past few years? Prime Minister Zhvania's mysterious death; the crackdown on the opposition; violent dispersal of opposition rallies; the conduct of national elections in what was almost an emergency situation. Finally, this criminal action in Ossetia, involving many human losses. And this is, certainly, a democratic country with which others should maintain dialogue, and which should be accepted into NATO, and possibly even the EU.
But if another country protects its interests, simply its citizens' right to live when they have been attacked... We had 80 deaths immediately. All in all, 2,000 civilians died. And we have no right to protect them there? Or, if we protect our lives, we will be deprived of sausage? What is our choice? Between sausage and life? We choose life, Mr Roth.
Now about one more value - the freedom of the press. Look at how these events are covered by the U.S. press, this torch of democracy, and also in the European press for that matter.
I was in Beijing when these events started. The city of Tskhinvali was subjected to massive shelling, Georgian troops started ground operations, there were numerous losses but nobody said a word. Your channel said nothing, the American media said nothing. There was total silence, as if nothing was happening. But when the aggressor was hit in the face, when he got his teeth knocked out, when he abandoned all his American weapons and fled as fast as he could, everyone suddenly remembered international law and the evil Russia. Everybody instantly started wailing.
Now let me say a few words about sausage, about the economy. We want normal economic relations with all of our partners. We are a very reliable partner. We have never let anyone down.
When we were building a pipeline system to the Federal Republic of Germany in the early 1960s, our overseas partners also advised the Germans against this project. I'm sure you're aware of that. But then the German leaders made the right decision, and the system was built in cooperation with the Soviet Union. Now it is one of the reliable sources of hydrocarbons for the German economy. Germany receives 40 billion cubic meters of gas every year. It received it last year, and it will receive it this year. We guarantee this.
Now let's take a broader view at the matter. What is the structure of our exports to European countries and North America? More than 80% of these resources are raw materials: oil, gas, petrochemicals, timber, different metals, and chemical fertilizer. This is what the economy in Europe and the rest of the world badly needs. These products are very much in demand in the world markets.
We also have opportunities in the high-tech field but for the time being they are very limited. Moreover, despite our existing agreements with the EU, for instance, on nuclear fuel supplies, we are being kept away from the European market for no reason. Incidentally, this is because of the position of our French partners. But they know about this, we have had many debates with them on this score.
But if someone wants to disrupt these contacts, there is nothing we can do about it. We don't want this to happen.
We are hoping very much that our partners will fulfill their commitments as we have been and intend to do in the future.
These were our exports. As for your exports, that is, our imports, Russia is a very reliable and big market. I don't remember the figure but, for example, the German machine-building industry has been increasing its supplies to Russia every year. These supplies are huge. Does someone want to discontinue these supplies? We'll buy from somebody else. But I don't understand who needs this?
We are urging an unbiased analysis of the current situation. We are hoping that common sense and justice will prevail.
We are a victim of aggression, and we count on the support of our European partners.
Roth: Please accept my sincere gratitude for this interview, Mr Prime Minister.
Putin: Many thanks.