Transcript Source : Kremlin
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Friends and colleagues,
We regularly meet at the end of the year. Only recently I made my Address [to the Federal Assembly]. Honestly speaking, I do not know what else to add to what I said then. I believe I covered all the key points.
Nevertheless, there must be issues, which you want us to clarify. When I say ‘us’, I am referring to my colleagues in the Presidential Executive Office and the Government Cabinet and myself.
Therefore, I suggest that we skip any lengthy monologues and get right down to your questions so as not to waste time.
Yelena Teslova: Yelena Teslova with the Anadolu news agency. I have a similar question. I would also like to start off with the fact that in your Address to the Federal Assembly, you said that we should not put the Turkish people and the part of the Turkish elite that is directly responsible for the death of our military personnel in Syria on the same plane. On a day-to-day level, however, the impression is somewhat different. Complaints are coming to the Turkish embassy in Moscow from students saying they have been expelled and from business people who say they are about to be deported. What is to be done about this?
The second question concerns Syria. The position on the fate of the Syrian president is well-known. Russia says it should be decided by the Syrian people while the United States and its allies insist that he has no political future. Did you address the issue with John Kerry during his visit to Moscow? Will this issue be raised in New York? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: And your question please.
Fuad Safarov: Mr President, Fuad Safarov with the Turkish news agency Cihan.
The rapid deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey benefits neither side. What is more, this has only harmed both sides. Do you believe there is a third party in this scenario?
The second question, if you allow me. An Islamic anti-ISIS coalition was established recently, but we know that there is also the NATO-led coalition and the Russian-Syrian coalition. It turns out that there are three coalitions against ISIS. Is it really so difficult to deal with this evil? Maybe there are some other goals and some other plans here? Maybe it is not ISIS that is the problem? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Okay, I will talk about Syria in the end. Now, regarding the conflict that has flared up. We believe that the actions of the Turkish authorities (in relation to our warplane, which they shot down) are not an unfriendly, but a hostile act. They shot down a warplane and our people were killed.
What outraged us so much? If it was an accident, as we heard later, apparently, the Turkish authorities did not even know it was a Russian plane… What is usually done in such cases? After all, people were killed. They immediately make a phone call and straighten things out. Instead, they immediately ran to Brussels, shouting: “Help, we have been hurt.” Who is hurting you? Did we touch anybody there? No. They started covering themselves with NATO. Does NATO need this? As it turned out, apparently it does not.
What is the most important thing for us? I want you to understand this. I want our people to hear this and I want Turkey to hear this as well. Apart from the tragedy, the fact that our people were killed, what has upset us so much, do you know? After all, we have not abandoned cooperation. When I was last in Antalya I had contact with Turkey’s entire leadership. Our Turkish colleagues raised very sensitive issues and asked for support. Even though our relations have soured now (I will not say what the issue was – this is not my style), but believe me, they raised issues with us that are very sensitive and that do not fit into the context of international law when we consider the decisions proposed by the Turkish side.
You will be surprised, but we said, “Yes, we understand, and we are willing to help.” You see, I had not heard about the Turkomans (Syrian Turks) before. I knew that Turkmen – our Turkmen – lived in Turkmenistan, and so I was confused… Nobody told us about them. But after we indicated our willingness to cooperate on the issues that are sensitive to Turkey, why did not they phone us via the cooperation channels between our militaries to say that during our discussions we overlooked a certain part of the border where Turkey has vested interests. They could have expressed their concerns or asked us not to hit certain areas. But nobody said anything.
As I said, we were willing to cooperate with Turkey on very sensitive issues. So why did they do it? Tell me, why? What have they accomplished? Did they think we would just pack up and go? They could not have thought that of course, Russia is not that kind of country. We have increased our presence and increased the number of warplanes [in Syria]. We did not have air defence systems there, but after that we dispatched S-400 systems to the area. We are also adjusting the Syrian air defence system and have serviced the highly effective Buk systems that we had sent them before. Turkish planes used to fly there all the time, violating Syrian air space. Let them try it now. Why did they do it?
You asked if there is a third party involved. I see what you mean. We do not know, but if someone in Turkish leadership has decided to brown nose the Americans, I am not sure if they did the right thing. First, I do not know if the US needed this. I can imagine that certain agreements were reached at some level that they would down a Russian plane, while the US closes its eyes to Turkish troops entering Iraq, and occupying it. I do not know if there was such an exchange. We do not know. But whatever happened, they have put everyone in a bind. In my opinion – I have looked at the situation and everything that has happened and is happening there – it appears that ISIS is losing priority. I will share my impressions with you.
Some time ago, they invaded Iraq and destroyed that country (for good or bad is beside the point). The void set in. Then, elements tied to the oil trading emerged. This situation has been building up over the years. It is a business, a huge trafficking operation run on an industrial scale. Of course, they needed a military force to protect smuggling operations and illegal exports. It is great to be able to cite the Islamic factor and slogans to that effect in order to attract cannon fodder. Instead, the recruits are being manipulated in a game based on economic interests. They started urging people to join this movement. I think that is how ISIS came about. Next, they needed to protect delivery routes. We began attacking their convoys. Now, we can see that they are splitting up with five, six, ten, fifteen trucks hitting the roads after dark. However, another flow, the bulk of the truck fleet, is headed for Iraq, and across Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan. In one place there – I will ask the Defence Ministry to show this picture – we spotted 11,000 oil trucks. Just think of it – 11,000 oil trucks in one place. Unbelievable.
Whether there is a third party involved is anyone’s guess, but a scenario whereby these moves were never agreed with anyone is quite likely. However, today, the Turkish authorities are taking quite a lot of heat – not directly, though – for islamising their country. I am not saying if it is bad or good, but I admit that the current Turkish leaders have decided to let the Americans and Europeans know – yes, we are islamising our country, but we are modern and civilised Islamists. Remember, what President Reagan said about Somoza in his time: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.” Just keep it in mind, we are Islamists, but we are on your side, we are your Islamists.
There may be such an overtone, but nothing good came out of what happened. The goals, even if Turkey had any, not only were not achieved, but, on the contrary, only exacerbated the situation.
Now, regarding Turkic peoples residing in Russia. Of course we should maintain contacts with those who are close to us ethnically. I am saying “us,” because Turkic-speaking peoples of Russia are part of Russia, and in this sense the Turkish people, whom I mentioned in my Address as a friendly people, and other Turkic-speaking peoples remain our partners and friends. Of course, we will and must maintain contacts with them.
We have learned from experience that it is hard or almost impossible to reach common ground with the current Turkish leadership. Even when we tell them “yes, we agree,” they are trying to outflank or stab us in the back for absolutely no good reason.
Consequently, I do not see any prospects for improving relations with the Turkish leaders in terms of state-to-state relations, while remaining completely open to humanitarian cooperation. However, even this area is not without issues. I think that Turkish leaders have actually gone beyond their own expectations. Russia is forced to impose restrictive economic and other measures, for example, in tourism.
You know, the creeping islamisation that would have made Ataturk turn over in his own grave, affects Russia. We know that there are fighters from the North Caucasus on Turkish soil. We have told our partners time and again: “We do not do such things with respect to Turkey.” But these fighters are still there, they receive treatment and protection. They benefit from visa-free travel arrangements and are able to enter Russian territory using Turkish passports and disappear, while we have to go after them in the Caucasus or in our million plus cities. For this reason, we will certainly have to do it along with a number of other initiatives to ensure our national security.
The fate of the Syrian president. I have said it many times, and I would like to repeat it: We will never agree with the idea of a third party, whoever it is, imposing its opinion about who governs who. This is beyond any common sense and international law. Of course, we discussed it with US Secretary of State Kerry. Our opinion remains the same, and this is our principled approach. We believe that only Syrians can choose their leaders, establish their government standards and rules.
Therefore, I will say something very important now. We support the initiative of the United States, including with respect to the UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria. The Secretary of State’s visit mainly focused on this resolution. We generally agree with it. I think Syrian officials will agree with the draft, too. There may be something that somebody does not like. But in an attempt to resolve this bloody conflict of many years, there is always room for compromise on either side. We believe it is a generally acceptable proposal, although there could be improvements.
As I have said before, this is an initiative of the United States and President Obama. This means that both the US and Europe are highly concerned with the current situation in the Middle East, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. We will do what we can to help settle the crisis and will aim to satisfy all parties with our solutions, however complicated the situation.
But first, it is necessary to work together on a constitution and a procedure to oversee possible future elections. It must be a transparent procedure that everyone trusts. Based on these democratic procedures, Syria will decide which form of government is the most suitable and who will lead the country.
Anton Vernitsky: Back to the Syria issue. Mr Putin, do we have a clear-cut plan on Syria or we are acting impulsively? I mean, Turkey shot down our plane and we immediately increased our military presence in Syria. When will our military operation end? What will you regard as the end point of our military operation in Syrian airspace?
Do you believe that the intra-Syrian conflict can, after all, be switched to a political track? Though you already talked about it, is it possible?
VladimirPutin: I was trying to answer this just now. We think that, A, it is possible; and, B, we believe that there is no other way to resolve the situation. This will have to be done in any case sooner or later, and better sooner than later because there will be fewer casualties and losses, and there will be fewer threats, including to Europe and to the United States as well. Look, 14 people were killed in the United States − ISIS has made its way into the US. US law enforcement has acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack committed by ISIS, so it is a threat to everyone. And the sooner we do it, resolve this, the better.
Let me repeat, there is no solution to this problem except a political one. Do we have a plan? Yes, we do, and I just spelled it out. In its key aspects, strange as it may sound, it coincides with the American vision, proposed by the United States: cooperative work on the constitution, creating mechanisms to control future early elections, holding the elections and recognising the results based on this political process.
Of course, it is a complicated objective and of course there are various mutual grievances: some do nt like this group and others do not like that group, some want to work with the Syrian Government and others refuse do so categorically. But what is necessary is that all conflicting parties make an effort to meet each other halfway.
Anton Vernitsky: And the military operation?
Vladimir Putin: What about the military operation? We said a long time ago that we will carry out air strikes to provide support for offensive operations by the Syrian army. And that is what we have been doing while the Syrian army conducts their operations.
By the way, I have recently said publicly – the idea was proposed by Francois Hollande – that we should try to pool the forces of the Syrian army and at least part of the armed opposition in the fight against ISIS. We have succeeded in working towards this goal, even if partly.
At the least, we have found common ground with these people. This part of the Syrian opposition, these irreconcilable and armed people want to fight against ISIS and are actually doing so. We are supporting their fight against ISIS by delivering air strikes, just as we are doing to support the Syrian army. When we see that the process of rapprochement has begun and the Syrian army and Syrian authorities believe that the time has come to stop shooting and to start talking, this is when we will stop being more Syrian than Syrians themselves. We do not need to act in their place. And the sooner this happens, the better for everyone.
Dmitry Peskov: Mr Brilyov, do you have anything to add?
Sergei Brilyov: Thank you. Yes, I want to add to what my Turkish colleagues and Anton [Vernitsky] have said.
Mr President, first I would like to ask if the Turkish ship has sailed. Can President Erdogan do anything to reverse the situation? And second, we do not have to be more Syrian than Syrians themselves, but since Turkey’s actions have forced Russia to increase its contingent at Latakia, maybe we should keep that base to ensure stability in Syria and the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean?
Vladimir Putin: I do not want to answer for other people and the leaders of other countries. If they believe it possible and necessary to do something, let them do so. We do not see any change so far. So why should I speak about it now? That is my answer to the first question.
As for the second question, about the base, opinions differ, you know. Some people in Europe and the US repeatedly said that our interests would be respected, and that our [military] base can remain there if we want it to. But I do not know if we need a base there. A military base implies considerable infrastructure and investment.
After all, what we have there today is our planes and temporary modules, which serve as a cafeteria and dormitories. We can pack up in a matter of two days, get everything aboard Antei transport planes and go home. Maintaining a base is different.
Some believe, including in Russia, that we must have a base there. I am not so sure. Why? My European colleagues told me that I am probably nurturing such ideas. I asked why, and they said: so that you can control things there. Why would we want to control things there? This is a major question.
We showed that we in fact did not have any medium-range missiles. We destroyed them all, because all we had were ground-based medium-range missiles. The Americans have destroyed their Pershing ground-based medium-range missiles as well. However, they have kept their sea- and aircraft-based Tomahawks. We did not have such missiles, but now we do – a 1,500-kilometre-range Kalibr sea-based missile and aircraft-carried Kh-101 missile with a 4,500-kilometre range.
So why would we need a base there? Should we need to reach somebody, we can do so without a base.
It might make sense, I am not sure. We still need to give it some thought. Perhaps we might need some kind of temporary site, but taking root there and getting ourselves heavily involved does not make sense, I believe.