Lavrov’s interview for Zvezda network

April 22, 2019

Lavrov’s interview for Zvezda network

 

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview for Glavnoye with Olga Belova programme on Zvezda network, Moscow, April 21, 2019

http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3622162?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB

Olga Belova: Mr Lavrov, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview today. Thank you for your time. We are recording this interview on the eve of the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election, so if you would allow me, we will begin with this subject, since it is currently making headlines. Against this backdrop we cannot fail but to recall the events that took place five years ago during the 2014 election in Ukraine. Since then the question of whether Russia had to recognise the outcome of the 2014 election resurfaces from time to time in the public space. What will happen this time around? Does recognising this election make any sense? We understand all too well that Russia has many formal and moral reasons to break up all contacts with the Ukrainian authorities.

Sergey Lavrov: Five years ago when the presidential election was called in Ukraine, it happened in the aftermath of an armed and anti-constitutional government coup that, for some reason, was carried out within a day after the signing of an agreement between the opposition and President Viktor Yanukovich. Moreover, foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France assumed the role of guarantors under this agreement that was also proactively backed by the US. But the next morning the opposition announced on Maidan Square that they had seized power and had formed a government of victors. This is when they began splitting their people apart. This agreement was signed on February 21, 2014, and if we recall its text, the first paragraph sets forth the need to form a “national unity government.” Instead, they established a government of victors, and started treating everyone else like losers. They put forward multiple requirements that ran counter to the interests of a significant part of people in Ukraine, including minorities such as Russians and Russian speakers. All this brought about serious problems and triggered a referendum in Crimea as a response to the threats made by nationalists to expel Russians from the peninsula and attempts to take over the Supreme Council building by force.

Let me mention one more event. In mid-April, that is before the election was called, but after the referendum in Crimea, Geneva hosted a meeting attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, yours truly, EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, and then acting Foreign Minister of Ukraine Andrey Deshitsa. At this meeting we agreed on a one-page declaration, and its key provision consisted of supporting the intention of the Ukrainian authorities to implement federalisation, that is to decentralise the country with the involvement of all regions. A representative of the new Ukrainian government that came to power in Kiev following a coup signed this document, guaranteeing federalisation with the involvement of all regions of the country.

But this commitment was instantly forgotten. Against this backdrop, when people started to state their intention to run for president, President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko was saying on every street corner that he was a “president of peace” and would settle the conflict in a matter of two or three weeks. It is for this reason that Western capitals, Paris and Berlin, urged Russia to refrain from making a statement rejecting the election outcome. We did refrain in order to give them a chance.

In early June 2014, President-elect Petr Poroshenko met with President of France Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of Russia Vladimir Putin, when they all attended celebrations of the allied Normandy landings. The very fact that Vladimir Putin took part in this meeting, proposed by France and Germany, attested to Russia’s commitment to peace in Donbass and protecting the rights of those who were firm in their refusal to accept an armed coup. We proceeded from the premise that Petro Poroshenko was primarily elected for this promise to resolve the problem peacefully. With this in mind, I would refrain from stirring up the past on this particular matter.

By the way, during the Normandy format meetings that followed, Petr Poroshenko proved that he was not a “president of the peace,” and was forced by the developments on the ground to sign the Minsk Agreements. Russia also believed that it was unacceptable for him to consistently fool his people, while also lying to his curators abroad, since they were irritated by Poroshenko “getting out of hand.” I am talking about the Europeans represented within the Normandy Format, namely France and Germany. When the Minsk Agreements were signed everyone let out a sigh of relief, considering that this created a clear path to peace, especially since the UN Security Council approved the Minsk Agreements, thus implementing them into international law. However, in this sphere as well Petr Poroshenko proved to be very apt in dodging responsibility, turning for protection to the US administration which does not encourage Ukraine to abide by the Minsk Agreements. The Europeans found themselves in an awkward situation.

This was a look at the past, but coming back to your question, we have seen electoral programmes released by Petr Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky. We see how they approached the run-off. I have the impression that what matters the most for them at this point is to attract voters by some kind of a constructive agenda in order to secure victory. This is what their efforts are all about. I would rather not draw any final conclusions on what Vladimir Zelensky’s policy will look like if he is elected president, which is a done deal as far as observers are concerned. I would refrain from paying too much attention to declarations coming from his campaign. We have to wait for the second round results when they will have to deal with real things instead of campaign slogans and propaganda. Only then will we understand what this person as president thinks about the millions of his compatriots who speak Russian, love the Russian language and culture and want to live according to their values and the values of the winners in the Great Patriotic War, instead of being guided by values that extoll Roman Shukhevich, Stepan Bandera and other Petlyuras.

Olga Belova: You said we need to wait for the president-elect to take actual steps. Everyone realises that it is imperative to sit down and talk no matter what happens. What should Kiev’s first actions, statements and steps be so that, to use your words, Moscow “gives them another chance” to a peaceful resolution of the situation?

Sergey Lavrov: Most importantly, the new or old government should be able to talk and reach agreements and to respect international law and Ukraine’s international obligations. Such obligations include an international legal instrument which is the UN Security Council resolution, which approved the Minsk Agreements. A direct dialogue between Kiev, on the one hand, and Donetsk and Lugansk, on the other hand, lies at the core of these agreements. This will be the key to success. To reiterate, we heard about the plans to continue the settlement in the election statements, in particular, on the part of Mr Zelensky and his staff, but this time with the involvement of the United States and Great Britain and without direct dialogue with the proclaimed republics − DPR and LPR.

When contenders for a post make such statements, they will then be somehow tied in with such a position in the future. I hope that life will make them realise that there’s no alternative to implementing the Minsk Agreements and, in any case, that there’s no alternative to direct dialogue with the people who represent an enormous part of your nation, if you still consider them to be such, of course.

Olga Belova: We see that so far no one has been talking to them, and there’s no direct dialogue with the republics. Recently, the DPR published the foreign policy concept which shows a certain dualism: on the one hand, there’s a commitment to the Minsk Agreements and, on the other hand, the Republic of Donbass recognises itself as an independent state. What does Moscow think about the dualism of this document? What is your vision of the future of that region following the elections?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t see anything unusual here, because these republics proclaimed sovereignty five years ago, in May 2014, responding to what we just talked about, namely, radical nationalists who came out with strong anti-Russian statements and launched an attack on the language, cultural and religious rights of ethnic minorities. It started a long time ago. These republics responded by declaring independence. Let’s remind our Western colleagues, if they ever take any interest in these unpleasant facts from recent history, that these republics did not attack the rest of Ukraine. The rest of Ukraine declared them terrorists. This, of course, is a stunning phenomenon in modern diplomacy and politics.

The rest of Ukraine was represented by the putschists who seized power in Kiev and launched an attack on millions of their fellow citizens demanding that they submit to illegal authorities. So, as I understand it, independence was simply reaffirmed in these doctrinal documents adopted in Donbass. But after this independence was declared five years ago in May − returning to what we think about the then elections and the election of Poroshenko solely because he proclaimed that his goal was immediate peace and an immediate agreement on resolving the Donbass problem by way of talks, Russia talked these republics into agreeing to a political process.

Political and diplomatic efforts were interrupted by the military actions of Kiev, which did not respect the truce and ceasefire agreement. There was the August offensive which ended badly for the Ukrainian armed forces and, most importantly, claimed a huge number of human lives, followed by the January offensive in Debaltsevo. Only after receiving a rebuff, did Petr Poroshenko sit down at the negotiating table. That’s how the Minsk Agreements were signed.

I was in Minsk and saw how the leaders of the four countries spent 17 hours at the negotiating table taking short breaks, mostly talking between themselves, and sometimes inviting us as experts to clarify certain fine points. It took considerable effort to convince the leaders of the DPR and LPR who were present in Minsk to give the go-ahead to the Minsk Agreements. We did it. We convinced them to once again demonstrate their willingness, even determination, if you will, to achieve peace with the rest of Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the way the current Ukrainian authorities see our efforts is disappointing. Despite provocations, we will push for these agreements to be implemented. We are a country that is capable of reaching agreements.

Olga Belova: That is, if I understood you correctly, Moscow is still capable and willing to continue to influence the leadership of these republics? Are we going to push them to sit down and talk as best we can, or not? I’m asking this because the leaders of the republics have made it clear that they have parted ways with Kiev.

Sergey Lavrov: You said there was a dual decision to reaffirm independence and commitment to the Minsk Agreements. To a certain extent (I will not frame it in terms of a percentage), this is the result of our influence on them and our call for them not to follow the example of the Ukrainian authorities which break down and trample upon their own promises. We will continue to exert this influence. We have long been calling, above all, the Germans and the French, to realise their responsibility for Kiev’s behaviour, because the Minsk Agreements involve, above all, proactive steps on the part of the Ukrainian authorities. The Contact Group is the only format where Donetsk, Lugansk and Kiev sit down at one table with the representatives of the OSCE and Russia. It took an inordinate amount of effort to create it, primarily because Mr Poroshenko began to back pedal shortly after the Minsk Agreements had been signed, and refused to maintain direct dialogue with the republics. But we forced our Ukrainian colleagues do that. Although in practical work − the Contact Group meets every month −  and even more often than that the Ukrainian government outwardly sabotages everything that was agreed upon, be it security, separating forces and means, the political process, coordinating the formula for conducting elections or providing this region with a special status in accordance with the Minsk Agreements. There is an open and blatant sabotage. We need to understand how the election results will affect the Ukrainian delegation’s activities in the Contact Group, and what kind of people will be delegated there.

Olga Belova: Indeed, now everything depends on how the presidential election will end, including the situation in the Kerch Strait, which was endlessly brought up in the first part of the campaign, before the first round. How harshly are we ready to respond if another provocation is made, especially considering that NATO has declared its readiness to support Ukrainian warships if they undertake another breakthrough?

Sergey Lavrov: Morally and politically – maybe they will support it. But I do not see a situation where NATO ships will join these adventurers for a military provocation. I do not foresee such a situation, and, considering the information that we have, I have reason to believe that this has already been decided at NATO.

Olga Belova: So all the support they will be getting is just words?

Sergey Lavrov: Probably, as it was the last time, a condemnation, and once again they will come up with some new sanctions. As we have said many times, we have no problem with Ukrainian warships passing from the Black Sea to their ports in the Sea of ​​Azov. The only condition is to comply with the safety requirement for navigation along the Kerch Strait. It is a complex stretch of water, which is quite shallow and doesn’t go in a straight line and requires compulsory pilotage as well as coordination when it comes to the weather conditions. All ships — and there are thousands of them — stop at the entrance to the Kerch Strait, report to the channel operators, pilotage, recommendations, and, depending on the weather forecast, move on to the Sea of ​​Azov, as was done before Ukraine’s warships last November. They passed smoothly without any incidents.

In November 2018, Petr Poroshenko, obviously during the election heat, tried to create a scandal to have reason to appeal to the West again, complaining of Russia harassing him, and insisting on more sanctions. He is better at it than many others. So the warships tried to secretly pass through the Kerch Strait, trespassing into our territorial waters – the part that was Russia’s territorial waters even before the referendum in Crimea. What they did actually boiled down to probing the limits of those who ensure the security of the Kerch Strait and the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

I must note that among the numerous arguments our opponents seem to forget is the fact that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea actually implies a so-called unimpeded passage through the territorial waters of a foreign state, including military vessels, subject to several conditions. One of them is the mandatory fulfillment of security requirements, which in this case was grossly violated. The second is that a coastal state cannot allow military ships to maneuver through its territorial waters. That is, you either pass complying with the rules or you violate the Convention. What they did was military maneuvers, trying to hide from our border guards. This much is clear to all without exception. I have no doubt about it.

That we have nothing to hide can be confirmed by a very simple fact.

In mid-December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin to allow German specialists to observe the process to better understand what the hitch was and to study the conditions for passing through the Kerch Strait. Vladimir Putin immediately agreed. We reaffirmed the agreement and asked for their names and dates that would suit them. They made a pause, and then suddenly my colleague, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, said at a meeting in January when I reminded him of this that they wanted to bring French experts along.

I said that was new, but I was confident that our President would also agree to French specialists being on this study tour. But after some time, the Germans sent us the concept of their visit, which was not a single visit at all but involved establishing a kind of permanent observation mission, which would be associated with the OSCE mission in Donbass, and would also include Ukrainians. All of them would be staying in our territory doing I do not know what.

Olga Belova: You mean they actually wanted to come and stay there?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, they certainly wanted to stay. The Germans are usually very punctual and precise people. When Angela Merkel asked Vladimir Putin whether their experts could come and see, he said yes… Apparently, after that, they consulted with their big brothers.

Olga Belova: So they just thought it would be a good reason to enter and station their ships there?

Sergey Lavrov: Of course, but this is an absolutely hopeless story. At the same time, I can assure with all responsibility that if the Germans and the French still have an interest in visiting and seeing it firsthand, so as not to rely on the gossip that the Ukrainian side spreads, they are very welcome.

Olga Belova: You believe that Russia will not directly clash with NATO ships in the Kerch Strait because NATO will not have the courage to sail there.

But there is another place where Russian interests clash with those of its Western partners, which is Venezuela. Will Washington decide to stage a military intervention there? What do you think of this? If yes, how far is Russia ready to go in this region? Are we prepared for a direct and tough stand-off in the region that would culminate in a peace enforcement operation against those who don’t want this, provided that all legal formalities are complied with?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t want to bring up this scenario. I am convinced that Washington does not yet completely understand that its line regarding Venezuela has become deadlocked. They believed that the people of Venezuela would rebel against the incumbent government from the very outset, that they would be disappointed with the government’s inability to ensure the normal operation of the socioeconomic sector. Our Western colleagues took care of this: The United States froze the Venezuelan oil company’s accounts, and the United Kingdom impounded the country’s gold reserves. They hoped to stifle Venezuela using economic methods. When the crisis was in its early stage, they also organised humanitarian relief aid deliveries and tried to cross the Venezuelan border. Obviously, that was a very cheap show. Yes, they said all the options were on the table, but they obviously expected a blitzkrieg. However, they admit that no blitzkrieg took place. Indeed, the country faces a very complicated economic situation which was complicated and continued to deteriorate even before all this began. We repeatedly advised the government of Venezuela, at its request, how to launch economic reforms. Quite possibly, someone did not like this, and they also decided to halt this process, so as to prevent the situation from working in favour of the Maduro government. They decided to further stifle Venezuela by economic and financial methods. When the blitzkrieg petered out, when it became clear that the people of Venezuela had their own pride and a feeling of national dignity, when they became obviously insulted by a situation when, speaking from abroad, US Vice President Mike Pence noted that he was appointing Juan Guaido as Acting President, one should be very far from historical experience while hoping that the people of Venezuela would “swallow” this.

Today, when the Americans continue to say that all options are on the table, I don’t doubt the fact that they are assessing the consequences of an audacious military undertaking. It is highly unlikely that anyone in Latin America will support them. To the best of my knowledge, they are counting on one or two countries. I have no doubts, and I know that the Latin Americans have a great feeling of personal dignity. This would pose a challenge to all of them, all the more so as a righteous rejection of such a dictate has been accumulating for several months already, especially when the Americans de-mothballed the Monroe Doctrine and said it was quite appropriate to use this doctrine in the current situation.

On April 17, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States was bringing its own version of freedom to the region. And what version of freedom does the region prefer? Would you like to ask them how they perceive their own freedom?

I hope very much that a line which stipulates talks and which is conducted by Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay and the Caribbean Community will prevail. President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro is ready for such talks, and he has repeatedly confirmed this in public. Juan Guaido emphatically and ostentatiously refuses, comprehending Washington’s support and counting on this support alone. It appears that he has copied the bad example of President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko who also behaved in the same way with regard to the need for conducting a national dialogue that would involve all political forces, and he hoped that Washington would shield him whatever the situation.

Olga Belova: Washington says it is bringing freedom to the region. But what is it that we are bringing to the region?

Sergey Lavrov: We want international law to be respected in the region as well as in the world at large. This means that states build their relations via dialogue and a balance of interests takes shape. This also means that we listen to each other and want to negotiate mutually beneficial security, economic and humanitarian projects as well as projects in any other spheres, where countries and peoples operate. Our relations with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) rest precisely on this basis. We are finalising talks with the South American Common Market (MERCOSUR). There is an agreement with the Central American Integration System (CAIS) and a number of other sub-regional organisations.

We have even-handed and good relations with practically all the Latin American countries. We don’t force anyone to do things we would like to get as unilateral advantages. The entire US policy towards Russia comes down to the US ambassador in any country visiting, with envious regularity, government agencies and demanding that they don’t receive Russian delegations, nor send delegations to Russia, nor trade with Russia, nor buy anything from Russia, particularly military products, and the like.

You can’t conceal information in today’s world. We learn this the moment these “visits” occur, the more so that the Americans are not particularly hiding the fact. They publicly say: Don’t communicate with Russia. It is Russia along with Iran and Cuba that are to blame for what is going on in Venezuela. They demand that not a single Russian soldier be found in Venezuela because the US wants it this way: no one located outside of the Western Hemisphere has the right to be there at all. Our explanation that the Russian military are performing contractual obligations servicing military equipment that was supplied on fully legitimate terms way back in the 2000s are simply disregarded. The fact that the US military and other NATO personnel – Britons and Canadians – have filled Ukraine is not mentioned. It looks like they proceed from logic suggested by the saying “What is allowed to Jupiter, is not allowed to the bull.” This is rotten logic, very much so, and it will not help our US colleagues. I am quite hopeful that they will come to understand this. Yes, within some historically very brief period preceding the next electoral cycles in the US, they are likely to reap certain benefits because they are brazenly putting pressure on countries that are unable to resist them. But in the long term, increasingly more countries will proceed from the assumption that America is just an unreliable and impolite partner that is abusing its influence in the world. The UN Charter insists on sovereign equality of states. We build our relations precisely in this way.

I cannot refrain from mentioning the fact that the United States has recently added a frontal attack on Orthodox Christianity to the arsenal of its policy towards Russia. Given that the Russian Orthodox Church was a world Orthodoxy leader, the crazy gamble involving the conferral of autocephality on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, known today as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a gamble undertaken by the Istanbul Patriarch Bartholomew, has been – we have enough facts to claim this – inspired and supported by Washington. Today Washington is engaged in tough diplomatic action as it works with other Orthodox Churches that have refused to support the Istanbul Patriarch’s self-willed decision. Its aim is to somehow make them recognise what has happened. This unceremonious and gross interference in church affairs is at odds with all diplomatic norms and international law in general. And this is deplorable.

We would like the United States to be a decent member of the world community. We are open to dialogue but their approach to relations is highly utilitarian and selfish.

They suggest that we and the Chinese cooperate with them when it comes to Afghanistan and North Korea because they are unable to operate successfully on their own there. And we accept this because a settlement in Afghanistan, on the Korean Peninsula and in Syria, on which we can communicate usefully, is also in our interests. We don’t dig in our heels and say that we will not negotiate on these issues if they don’t want to discuss other ones. Our position is more pragmatic. Russia is ready to work with all influential parties who see eye to eye with us and can help to achieve a settlement.

But generally their policy towards Russia is based solely on the wish to make us accept their unilateral domination and renounce international law. This is deplorable and cannot last ad infinitum. The Americans will be unable to sustain this course for long. They are antagonising a huge number of countries. So, it is in their best interests to come back to square one and start talking to all countries respectfully. Currently, they are doing this arrogantly, something that cannot help their interests.    

Olga Belova: We do need to talk, but so far talking to these Western partners of ours has been quite challenging. There is a saying: Those who do not want to talk with Sergey Lavrov will have to deal with Sergey Shoigu. This echoes what you have been saying. In your opinion, who is the main guardian of peace now, the military or the diplomats? What enables Russia to maintain parity: state-of-the-art armaments or the power of words? Who has priority at present?

Sergey Lavrov: When the Soviet Union was being dissolved, pro-democracy forces both here in Russia and in the West were ecstatic. There was a theory whereby the factor of strength in international relations was no longer relevant now that the bipolar world order was no more, the Cold War became a thing of the past, ideological differences faded away and we all came together on a strong democratic footing. This euphoric state persisted for several years. The situation was far from rosy of course, but as you may remember, in the 1990s Russia was young and proactive in its commitment to working with the US and NATO, all but deciding to join the alliance. However, disillusionment came very quickly. It dawned on everyone that behind the veil of these beautiful words the West meant only one thing: Russia was to give up on using the factor of strength in its policy, while the West would continue relying on it. Why was NATO still around after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved? How come we did not come together within the OSCE to transform it into a pan-European, Euro-Atlantic organisation without any western or eastern variants in order to address all questions without exception based on consensus? It did not happen. Of course, the plan they nurtured was to use Russia’s weakness in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to achieve an overwhelming military and strategic advantage.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin has talked about this on numerous occasions. It became clear to us that our positive attitude towards the West was not reciprocal. The West continued to push NATO further east in violation of all possible promises, moving its military infrastructure to our borders, and there was no end in sight, especially when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty. At this point, everything was clear. Decisions were taken, paving the way to the development of the weapons the President presented during his address last year to the Federal Assembly. Of course, it is highly regrettable that in today’s world no one will talk to you, unless you have a strong army and cutting-edge weapons.

Olga Belova: Has it become easier to talk?

Sergey Lavrov: When I was appointed to this post, the situation was already beginning to change. However, I would not say that talking was a challenge before, and that now things are easier. Unfortunately, the US, as our main partner, labelled Russia its “high-priority adversary,” as you have said. Later the US backtracked, and propelled China to this position. Later Russia was again on the list, and after that we were accompanied by China and Iran. They want to set their policy straight. They want to be in total control, but have yet to understand how this can be done. Sanctions work in some cases, but definitely not with Russia. They will not work with other countries that respect their history and identity.

We have no problems talking with the Europeans when it comes to relations with each specific country. There are challenges in our dialogue with NATO, since the US decided to convene meetings of the Russia-NATO Council with the sole purpose of lecturing us on Ukraine and other matters or criticising us for allegedly violating and dismantling the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. We do not intend to attend any meetings of this kind in the future. If they want to have a serious conversation, they have to convene a Russia-NATO Council meeting at the military level. The outgoing Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations, General Curtis Scaparrotti, recently voiced regret over the lack of military-to-military interaction with Russia that existed even during the Cold War. Better late than never. Let us hope that his successor in this position is receptive to this advice. This is what we hope for.

We have a very good dialogue with each country of the European Union. Yes, we sometimes happen to disagree. We have problems with the Baltic countries, with Poland, but we are ready to talk about them. Especially because the Baltic states are our neighbours, and we have good trade and investment cooperation in business. There are also security issues, because NATO is pushing its units into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It is too close to our borders. At the same time, NATO is moving away from implementing the understandings we reached following the initiative of President of Finland Sauli Niinisto concerning flight safety over the Baltic. We responded to it; our military proposed ideas that would help allay concerns. It is possible to talk with everyone. On a bilateral basis, even the Baltic countries show interest: President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid has visited Moscow. We are talking in a neighbourly way about what we can do so that people can live comfortably and there would be no security concerns. But the collective platforms – NATO and the EU – are dominated by mutual responsibility: the Russophobic minority in the EU imposed sanctions on Russia, punishing us for supporting the will of the people of Crimea. This position of the European Union is now extended every six months, and no one can do anything, although individually, they assure us that the majority already understands that this is a dead end and something needs to be done. We are patient people, but as long as the EU as an organisation is not ready to restore all the mechanisms of our strategic partnership – we used to have summits twice a year, a ministerial council that oversaw more than 20 sectoral dialogues, four common spaces … All that was frozen because someone decided to try to “punish” us. Funny, honestly.

We are always open to honest, equal and respectful dialogue both through the military and through diplomatic channels. We have a very good tradition with a number of countries, in particular, with Italy and Japan, the 2 + 2 format, when Sergey Shoigu and I meet with our colleagues, the four of us. This is a very interesting format. It enables us to consider security issues through the prism of diplomacy and vice versa – purely military issues in foreign policy. We had such formats with the Americans and the British – but they froze them on their own initiative. But with the Italians and the Japanese, we continue these processes.

Olga Belova: I seem to understand why they froze them. Because when you two come to the negotiations, it’s simply impossible to resist you in such a duo.

Sergey Lavrov: Oh, don’t say that. We are modest people. Modest and polite.

Olga Belova: You’re modest and polite – but are you ready to give everyone a second chance, as with Ukraine?

Sergey Lavrov: Some do not need to be given a chance – they already rely on their national interests, not on what some foreign brother tells them. But if someone digs in their heels and expects an apology from us – well, we have nothing to apologise for. Our actions are guided by international law, and the UN Charter. We respect the right of any nation to determine its own future. This also applies to the rights of national minorities, in Crimea or anywhere else. We are always ready for dialogue.

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President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference December 20, 2018

December 20, 2018

President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference December 20, 2018

President  Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference

December 20, 2018

 

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues, friends.

Let us begin our traditional end-of-year meeting that we call a news conference.

As always, I will spend just a few brief seconds to sum up the results of the outgoing year. A lot has been said already, but I have the latest data reflecting the most recent results, some just a couple of days old.

In the first nine months of 2018, GDP increased by 1.7 percent, while the Economic Development Ministry expects the annual increase to total 1.8 percent. Industrial output was growing at a faster pace, totalling 2.9 percent in the first ten months of 2018, with the annual results expected at 3 percent, up from a 2.1 percent growth in 2017. In addition, processing industries have been growing at a somewhat faster pace of 3.2 percent.

In the first three quarters fixed capital investment increased by 4.1 percent. Cargo shipments and retail trade are on the rise, having increased by 2.6 percent. Consumer demand growth has been apparent. This is a positive factor. After a lengthy interval, the population’s real income has shown some, albeit very moderate, growth. According to the latest statistics, real incomes will increase by 0.5 percent. I hope that this momentum will be maintained, since real pay levels are on the rise, having grown by 7.4 percent in the first nine months, which is expected to give us 6.9 or 7 percent by the end of the year.

Inflation remains at an acceptable level, although it has increased a little in the past week, by 0.5 percent, I think. Therefore, we will be able to reach the Central Bank’s reference rate of 4 percent and will have an inflation rate of 4.1 percent to 4.2 percent – somewhere just over 4 percent.

The unemployment rate is going down, which is good news. If last year it hit a historical low of 5.2 percent, this year it will be even lower – 4.8 percent.

The trade balance surplus is growing. In 2017, if you remember, it was around $115 billion. Over the three quarters of this year we already achieved $157 million. As of the end of the year, we expect it to reach $190 billion.

Our finances are growing stronger. Our gold and foreign currency reserves have grown by over 7 percent. In the early 2018, they amounted to $432 billion while now they stand at almost $464 billion.

For the first time since 2011, we will have a budget surplus. We are about to reach the federal budget surplus of 2.1 percent of the GDP. The National Welfare Fund has grown by around 22 percent.

The average annual insurance component of the retirement pension stood at 13,677 rubles in 2017. By the end of this year, it will be 14,163 rubles.

Life expectancy has also increased slightly compared to 2017, from 72.7 to 72.9 years.

These are the general results that I wanted to mention in the beginning. Let’s not waste our time and proceed to your questions and my attempts to answer them.

Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov: Let us begin by giving some priority to the Kremlin pool. Its members worked with us throughout the year, following the President both in Russia and abroad.

ITAR-TASS, the state news agency.

Veronika Romanenkova: Thank you.

The year 2018 arguably went by under the sign of new national projects that you launched with the May Executive Order. They are expected to cost an enormous amount of money. However, some experts, members of the State Council, as was mentioned in Yalta only recently, have questioned the feasibility of these national projects and whether they are needed. How well thought out are the performance assessment criteria for the national projects? For example, the Accounts Chamber Chairman said that there is no way to assess their effectiveness. What can you say to counter this?

Vladimir Putin: I will have to begin by saying a few words on whether these projects are needed, since you said that some question this.

I have said it on numerous occasions, and I will repeat it today. We need a breakthrough. We need to transition to a new technological paradigm. Without it, the country has no future. This is a matter of principle, and we have to be clear on this.

How can this be done? We need to focus the available resources, find and channel them to the essential development initiatives. How can these efforts be organised? By simply distributing money, and that’s it?

First, we had to find this money. It took us the entire year 2017 to articulate the objectives and find the resources. Both the Government and the Presidential Executive Office contributed to this effort. By the way, when some call for more changes within the Cabinet, we have to understand that it was the Government’s financial and economic block that developed the national development programme to 2024. For this reason, they are the ones who must take responsibility for the plans they made. There is no way around it.

So how should this effort be organised? By simply distributing money? After all, as much as 20.8 trillion rubles are expected to go into the national projects alone, and another 6.5 trillion will be invested in a separate infrastructure development plan. Of course, the allocation of these resources has to be set forth in documents of some kind on achieving breakthroughs. You can refer to these development plans any way you wish. We call them national projects. After all, it makes it clear that there are goals that have to be achieved. If there are no objectives, you will never achieve the final outcome, no matter how you manage these investments. It is for this reason that the 12 national projects were developed alongside an infrastructure development plan. Let me remind you of the main vectors.

Healthcare, education, research and human capital come first, since without them there is no way a breakthrough can be achieved. The second vector deals with manufacturing and the economy. Of course, everything is related to the economy, including the first part. But the second part is directly linked to the economy, since it deals with the digital economy, robotics, etc. I have already mentioned infrastructure.

Why did we have this meeting in Yalta, Crimea, to discuss with our colleagues from the Government and the regions how we will proceed in these efforts? Because there are questions on how to assess performance under these projects. We need effective controls, while making sure that all efforts by the federal centre to monitor what is happening in the regions are effective. It is true that there are challenges in this regard, but we are working on them. So what is the tricky part? The tricky part is that funding mostly comes from the federal centre, and this applies to all programmes, while most of the efforts are undertaken in the regions. The regions must be ready to work constructively. Instead of simply hiking up prices in response to an increase in the available funds, they must focus on achieving concrete results that will be clearly visible. This is the first point I wanted to make.

Second, we need to understand whether they will be able to succeed. This is a real question. Some argue that this would be impossible. But this is what we hear from those who must deliver. Instead of having these thoughts they need to work on delivering on these objectives, and if they feel that they are unable to do so, they have to clear the way for those who are positive about their ability to deliver and are ready to work. To tell you the truth, I have not seen anyone who did not want to do it or said that it was impossible. These messages come from outside observers.

Without ambitious goals we will never achieve anything. For this reason, I do hope that the federal centre and the regions will be able to work together in a consolidated and positive manner. Yes, some indicators have to be adjusted. Our colleagues from the regions have submitted their proposals to this effect, and I have high hopes that the Government will take them into consideration and adjust specific indicators so that we can move forward effectively.

Pavel Zarubin: Rossiya TV channel.

I would like to expand on a topic that has already been raised. Many economics experts, including Alexei Kudrin, assert that in reality, the Russian economy has been growing just by one percent on average over the past ten years, and if so, this is essentially marking time, or stagnation. You set the goal of making a breakthrough, a leap, but for this, even if we take the lowest estimate, the growth rate should be at least four to five times higher. The Government promises to achieve the goal, but that same Government acknowledges that in the next few years, GDP growth rates will not exceed even 2 percent. In this regard, here are my questions: what does the Government rely on in its forecasts, in the planning of its work? Is a breakthrough possible at all, in this context, or will the economy continue operating like this: we make some money on oil surplus, put it aside, then spend it when there is a need for it? In general, are you satisfied with the Medvedev team?

Dmitry Peskov: Friends, I would ask you please to respect each other – ask only one question each.

Vladimir Putin: Look, economic growth has been one percent per year for a certain period of time. But, first of all, it was while Mr Kudrin was Deputy Prime Minister, so you must not blame the mirror for showing a crooked face, as they say. This is the first point.

The second is, one should not just count mechanically. I have great respect for Mr Kudrin, he is my friend and a good professional, and as a rule, I listen to his recommendations. He is a reliable specialist, a good one. But look, from 2008 to 2018, the economy grew by about 7.4 percent. In simple maths – yes, it equals one percent, a little more. However, let us not forget how the economy developed. There were higher growth rates, alternating with recessions associated with the global crisis. In 2009, after the crisis in the global economy, not in ours – Russia was not the cause of the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, it came to us from the outside – the decline was about 7.8 percent. Then little by little, we were crawling out of it for many years.

Then, in 2014–2015, another meltdown occurred – a collapse in the oil prices, our main exports. That is why I am saying we should not simply count mechanically.

However, of course, the country’s GDP, the GDP growth rate is one of the main indicators. But we will not be able to achieve the GDP growth rates necessary for this breakthrough unless the structure of the economy is changed. This is what the national projects are aimed at, and why such enormous funds will be invested, which I have already said – to change the structure and build an innovation-based economy. The Government is counting on this, because if this happens, and we should all work towards this, then the growth rates will increase and there will be other opportunities for development.

By the way, you mentioned the projected 2 percent growth for the next two years. Yes, in the next years, 2019–2020, two percent each, but from 2021, the Government is already planning 3 percent, and then more. Therefore, I strongly hope that we will manage to do all this. Some fluctuations are probably possible, but, I repeat, the most important thing is that we need… Do you see what we need to do? We need to join another league of economies, and not only in terms of volumes. I think that taking the fifth place in terms of volume is quite possible. We used to rank fifth in terms of the economy, in purchasing power parity, and we will do it again, I think. However, we need to ascend to another league in terms of the quality of the economy. This is what our national projects are aimed at.

Pavel Zarubin: Are you satisfied with the Medvedev team?

Vladimir Putin: Overall, yes.

Question: Good afternoon.

Mr President, in my city of Volgograd we had a wonderful year. We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. You made it a federal holiday and we really appreciate it. You also paid us a visit.

We successfully hosted the World Cup and our region indeed began to breathe and develop.

There is a lot that still needs to be done. I think the economy will be extensively discussed. But Volgograd residents have a big wish and a great favour to ask. In 1998, the Kacha Higher Military Aviation School of Pilots, which had a very long history, was shut down.

It was established at the Tsar’s decree in 1910 and we were truly proud of it and want to be proud of it further. We want the military traditions to live on. Please consider re-opening it.

Vladimir Putin: In which year was it shut down?

Remark: In 1998, unfortunately. It had the Order of the Red Banner and a long history.

Vladimir Putin: You see, it is already 2018. It happened 20 years ago and I do not quite know what is left of this legendary school.

You are right, it was indeed a legendary school. But the Russian Defence Ministry plans personnel training resources based on whether there is a demand for specific types of personnel in the Armed Forces.

Therefore, we need to look at what can be done not only to remember it but perhaps to preserve the remaining traditions. I will make sure to look into this and consult with the Defence Ministry.

Maria Balyuk: Mr President, good afternoon. My name is Maria Balyuk, I represent the Prime news agency.

Mr President, the budget in the current year and the next year will have a surplus. However, starting January 1, a number of decisions are coming into effect that may cause a significant increase in prices of a wide range of goods and services.

For example, the VAT will increase to 20 percent, which has already triggered a two-stage increase in the housing and utilities rates next year. There is also the new tax for self-employed persons in pilot regions. Please tell us how these measures agree with the state’s economic policy.

Vladimir Putin: Housing and utilities rates in two stages, and what else?

Maria Balyuk: And, for example, a tax on self-employed people in pilot regions.

Isn’t this amount of new measures too much of a burden on Russians and the economy?

Vladimir Putin: You said about the surplus.

Yes, this is indeed a good indicator of the Government’s economic block performance. As I said in my opening remarks, for the first time since 2011 we will have a budget surplus of 2.1 percent. And this is good.

Let us not forget that as an oil producing country and a country that derives much of its revenue from selling oil and gas, we also have what is called a non-oil-and-gas deficit. This is what the country earns from selling products and services other than oil and gas.

Let me remind you that this non-oil-and-gas deficit was 13 percent in 2009, which is a lot. In the early 2000s, it was at about 3 percent, but the global economic crisis forced us to use our oil revenues to meet our social commitments and finance the Armed Forces, so we had to tap into the oil revenues.

In this situation, the non-oil-and-gas deficit surged into the double digits almost reaching13 percent, I believe. This was a very serious challenge for the Russian economy. We have now reduced it to 6.6 percent, and next year it is expected to decline to 6 percent and remain at this level for the next few years.

This is a very important indicator of economic resilience for the Russian Federation. Therefore, the increase in the VAT rate, among other things, is due to the need to maintain the non-oil-and-gas deficit at a certain level.

Second, in many countries VAT is 20 percent or even higher. It used to be higher in Russia as well, but we reduced it at a certain point. Now we have returned to a 20-percent tax rate.

However, the effective VAT rate for the overall economy will be below 20 percent since almost all benefits remain in place: for pharmaceuticals, children’s goods, and so on, including for IT companies. Many benefits have been preserved. With this in mind, the effective rate will be actually lower.

Finally, I do hope that the rate hike will be only a one-off measure with a possible slight increase in prices and inflation in the beginning of the year, after which the inflation will go down.

The Central Bank also seeks to prevent inflation from picking up. Only recently, the interest rate was increased by 0.25 percentage points.

While there are definitely both benefits and disadvantages to this decision, all this is done in order to prevent inflation and prices from growing. For this reason, I believe that the overall decision was correct and balanced, creating additional budget revenue and the possibility to deliver on our development plans as part of the national projects.

As for increases in housing and utilities tariffs, over the past years they grew by about 4 percent per year. It is true that next year there will be two hikes: the first one will be at about 1.7 percent, and the second one I think will be about 2.4 percent, but in total this still makes up 4.1 percent.

Why will the increase be spread out in two stages? The reason is that with a higher VAT, prices of some goods and services are expected to increase, and we need to make sure that the utilities sector does not come under stress.

For this reason, in order to shield companies in this sector from these developments and ultimately in the interests of the people, we decided to proceed in two stages. That said, the overall increase should not exceed 4.1 percent.

In some regions, where the utilities infrastructure requires major upgrades and bigger hikes are required, this can be done as an exception, and subject to federal Government approval.

Yekaterina Gagarina: Good afternoon, Mr President. My name is Yekaterina Gagarina. I represent the Rossiya TV channel in Novosibirsk.

The importance of the Akademgorodok 2.0 [Academic Town] project that you supported during your visit to Novosibirsk is obvious not only to Siberian scientists. This project is unique for the entire country.

But behind the technological component of this project there are a number of tasks of a similarly large scale. They include building housing, roads, kindergartens and schools. My question is what if our scientific ambitions crash at daily living problems? Will the scientists have somewhere to live?

Vladimir Putin: I would not want them to crash.

I understand that it is a very important part of the entire process. Of course, we will be working on this with the regional officials. When I visited Novosibirsk, I also spoke about this with my colleagues.

The first objective of the federal government is to honour its obligations related to the facilities which trigger the development of Akademgorodok – which, by the way, is the opportunity to earn money on these high technologies. The social component will definitely be carried out after this.

But if any additional action is required to resolve the scientists’ social issues, of course, we will try to do it. By the way, the mortgage sector has been growing lately. We will support it as well. It is growing very fast for everybody. The growth of the mortgage sector stands at over 20 percent.

But, of course, we will try to address these issues for Akademgorodok. If there is a critical need for a response from the federal government, we will discuss it.

Sergei Marov: Hello, Mr President. My name is Sergei Marov, Zvezda newspaper, Volgograd Region. I will start with small details and bring you to the bigger question.

I will give you a simple example. Next to our editorial office, there is a company which for nine years…

Vladimir Putin: A company?

Sergei Marov: Yes.

For nine years, it has been putting gigantic efforts into building a technological chain for full-cycle flax processing. Imagine…

Vladimir Putin: Excuse me, for the full cycle of processing…

Sergei Marov: Flax.

Vladimir Putin: I see.

Sergei Marov: From planting a seed to finished clothing. This is what they did.

It appears that the message from these industrial workers is clear. At the same time, when I was going to this conference, I had serious consultations with the company’s workers, and they said: “The last research institute dealing with flax is in the process of liquidation.”

The last training institute for executive personnel in the fibre flax cultivation is in the process of liquidation. We are receiving completely different messages from the industrial companies working on the product and from the government that is supposed to support these industries.

Therefore, I have a question. How do you assess the state of industrial production and its growth rate? Do you believe that at this stage the government provides sufficient support to Russian producers?

Vladimir Putin: Frankly speaking, I am not aware of the problems of this flax research institute. But in general, flax is one of Russia’s traditional industries. It has always been our signature product, our pride. I will look into this situation.

Usually the problem is worse than it appears from the outside. I just do not know the details of what is going on with that institute – although, of course, flax production, once again, has always been Russia’s pride. If the industry needs this institute, it may be preserved, but we need to understand how this can be done. I promise you to look into this.

Now over to industrial production. As I said, industrial growth in general is ahead of GDP growth at 3 percent. The processing industry has grown by 3.2 percent. This is a good performance indicator.

As concerns light industry, it is developing even faster. Over the ten months of this year, food production has grown by 13 percent, which is, by the way, confirmed by the consumption figures that are generally growing. Clothing and footwear industries posted a growth of 9 percent, a very good result.

Now, is government support sufficient or not? It is not. This is why we have mapped out a number of programmes to support specific production sectors. Overall, by 2024, this support will amount to 1.376 trillion rubles and will extend to the light industry, aviation, the defence industry and some other sectors.

We have individual programmes for major industries. Next year, they will receive 450 billion rubles in support. The year after, it will be 450 to 470 billion rubles. These are the indicators, the figures. The total funding stands at 1.376 trillion rubles.

Anton Vernitsky: Mr President, as Soviet-era children, all of us feared a nuclear war very much. As you remember, various songs dealt with this issue. One of them had the following lyrics: “Sunny world: Yes, yes, yes; nuclear explosion: No, no, no.”

Vladimir Putin: Are you not afraid today?

Anton Vernitsky: Forty years have passed, and major media outlets on both sides of the ocean are beginning to publish a scenario for a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. The word “war” is sounding more and more often at household level, in kitchens.

Mr President, how can you calm down my little son who, just like me, also fears a nuclear war today? What words and actions can calm us all down?

Vladimir Putin: You know, I think you are right.

I just thought that all this, including the danger of such developments in the world, is now being hushed up and played down to some extent. It seems impossible or something that is not so important. At the same time, if, God forbid, something like this happens, it might destroy the whole of civilisation or perhaps the entire planet.

These issues are therefore serious, and it is a great pity that there is such a tendency to underestimate the problem, and that this tendency is probably becoming more pronounced. What are the current distinguishing features and dangers?

First, all of us are now witnessing the disintegration of the international system for arms control and for deterring the arms race. This process is taking place after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that, as I have already noted a thousand times, was the cornerstone in the sphere of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and deterring the arms race.

After that, we were forced to respond by developing new weapons systems that could breach these ABM systems. Now, we hear that Russia has gained an advantage. Yes, this is true. So far, the world has no such weapons systems. Leading powers will develop them, but, as yet they do not exist.

In this sense, there are certain advantages. But, speaking of the entire strategic balance, this is just an element of deterrence and for equalising parities. This is just the preservation of parity, and nothing more.

They are now about to take another step and withdraw from the INF Treaty. What will happen? It is very difficult to imagine how the situation will unfold. What if these missiles show up in Europe? What are we supposed to do then?

Of course, we will need to take some steps to ensure our safety. And they should not whine later that we are allegedly trying to gain certain advantages. We are not. We are simply trying to maintain the balance and ensure our security.

The same goes for the START III Treaty, which expires in 2021. There are no talks on this issue. Is it because no one is interested, or believes it is necessary? Fine, we can live with that.

We will ensure our security. We know how to do it. But in general, for humanity, this is very bad, because this takes us to a very dangerous line.

Finally, there is another circumstance I cannot ignore. There is a trend to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. There are plans to create low-impact nuclear charges, which translates to tactical rather than global use. Such ideas are coming from Western analysts who say it is okay to use such weapons. However, lowering the threshold can lead to a global nuclear disaster. This is one danger we are facing today.

The second is the use of non-nuclear ballistic missiles. True, our US partners seem to have dropped this idea, but it still exists. What does it mean?

Suppose, a ballistic missile is launched, nuclear or non-nuclear. The missile attack warning system identifies the launch and the launch site, and, seconds later, determines the flight path and the possible warhead landing area. This is all on the verge of a possible error. It is terrible, and we cannot take it that far. Nevertheless, such an idea of using non-nuclear ballistic missiles exists.

Suppose, a submarine fired a ballistic missile from the World Ocean, but who the hell knows if it is nuclear or not, go figure. This is very dangerous. All of that is being widely discussed, which is dangerous.

However, I believe humanity has enough common sense and enough of a sense of self-preservation not to take these things to the extreme.

Dmitry Peskov: Let us go to this sector. I see the Ukrainian flag in the second row.

Vladimir Putin: You attend all our news conferences, correct? You are from Ukraine?

Dmitry Peskov: Yes, he is our colleague from Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin: Right, my colleagues told me it was better not to let him speak, because he would cause a scandal. Are you going to cause a scandal now?

Please go ahead.

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: Yegor Sozayev-Guryev, Izvestia. My question is about the incident in the Kerch Strait.

Vladimir Putin: But Izvestia is not from Ukraine, is it?

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: Well, my question is about Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin: Well, go ahead.

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev: I have a question about the precedent in the Kerch Strait, I wonder about the future of the captured Ukrainian military. What will happen to them? Do you think this provocation was a success?

I cannot help asking about the citizens of Russia imprisoned in the United States. I mean Butina and Yaroshenko. How can Russia protect their rights? Perhaps, we should look at our Chinese partners? A Chinese citizen representing Huawei was detained in Canada. In response, they detained several Canadian citizens. Perhaps, we could learn from that experience?

Vladimir Putin: With regard to your first question, you said: “Do you think this provocation was a success?” First, let us state that it was a provocation, and you agree with that. This is already a good start.

Now, whether it was a success or not, I believe provocations are a bad thing whatever way you look at them. Provocations seek to aggravate things. Why do our Ukrainian partners need things to go that way? Clearly, they are in the middle of an election campaign right now, and they want to aggravate the situation in order to raise the ratings of one of the contenders, I mean the incumbent president and the current government. Well, this is bad, it is ultimately bad for the interests of the Ukrainian people and state. However, it is possible to move forward without any provocations and do so calmly, as before.

Whether it was a success or not, I mean in terms of improving popularity ratings, maybe it was, as Mr Poroshenko’s ratings seem to have increased a little and he has moved from the fifth position to the second or third, where the figure fluctuates around 12 percent. Ms Tymoshenko, I believe, has 20 percent or even more, whereas Zelinsky, Boyko and Poroshenko have around 12 percent each. In this sense, yes, he probably achieved the goal. At the expense of the country’s interests, I believe. This is a bad way to boost ratings.

With regard to the future of the Ukrainian servicemen, they were sent on this mission and some of them were expected to die in the process. I can see that the leadership is very upset by the fact that no one died. They expected some of them to die. Thank God, this did not happen. An investigation is underway. Once it is over, we will know what to do with them.

Still, I will ask you to give the microphone to our colleague from Ukraine.

Roman Tsymbalyuk: Thank you. There will be no scandal. There never was a scandal actually.

Vladimir Putin: Thank God.That already is good news.

Roman Tsymbalyuk: Mr President, I would like to ask you how much money you are spending on the occupied Donbass? Under your leadership, people there are living in poverty. Let us face it, they have become slaves to Russia. You are concerned about the threat of a nuclear war and at the same time, you are preparing for a war against NATO, and, in fact, you are shooting at Ukrainian citizens. It was you as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief who issued the order to open fire at seamen. My question is what are the terms of the exchange?

And a question about the elections, if I may. You say that you analyse the approval ratings.

Vladimir Putin: Just a second. Terms of exchange?

Roman Tsymbalyuk: The terms of exchange of Ukrainian political prisoners and Ukrainian servicemen. You do need your Russian citizens back, don’t you?

And about the elections, if I may. You constantly analyse the ratings and one gets the impression that…

Vladimir Putin: I do not analyse them, I look at them inasmuch as you print them.

Roman Tsymbalyuk: … in this way you are meddling in the electoral process like you did in the United States. Doesn’t it seem to you that a direct dialogue between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia will never take place until you change your job?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Regarding the suffering of the people who live in Donbass. You are a Ukrainian citizen, aren’t you? And you consider the people who live on this territory to be the citizens of your country. Can you tell me who established the blockade between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine? Did Russia do it? The Ukrainian authorities did it: they imposed a total economic blockade of the territory they consider to be their own. They shoot at the people they consider to be their own citizens. People are killed there almost every day, peaceful civilians, by the way.

We do render humanitarian and other assistance and support to the people who live on that territory. But we do it only to prevent them from being finally crushed, devoured and torn to pieces, and we will continue doing it. Because attempts to solve these political issues by force – and we have seen this being done by the current Kiev authorities for several years – are doomed to failure. This has to be kept in mind.

Now concerning how to settle these relations and who will and will not remain in power. It is not about personalities, it is about the attitude towards people. We want to see peace and prosperity on the entire territory of Ukraine, including Donbass. We are interested in it because Ukraine remains one of our biggest trade and economic partners.

Trade between Ukraine and Russia, in spite of all the efforts of the current Kiev authorities, is growing, it has grown in the outgoing year, it has grown during the current year. Is it strange? No, it is not strange because these are natural ties. These natural ties will sooner or later make themselves felt. But as long as the Kiev corridors of power are peopled by Russophobes who do not understand the interests of their own people this abnormal situation will persist. Regardless of who is in power at the Kremlin.

We have attended to the issue of exchange all along. Mr Medvedchuk, on instructions from Poroshenko, by the way, has been constantly engaged in this. He came to Moscow just recently and raised the issue of the release of Ukrainian servicemen detained in the Kerch Strait, in the Black Sea to be more precise. Yes, Medvedchuk raised this issue. However, as I have said, these issues could only be tackled after the criminal case is closed.

Margarita Baulina: Good afternoon, colleagues, Mr President. My name is Margarita Baulina, I am from the Family, Society, Traditions publication.

Two years ago, a group of activists from my paper decided to take part in a social project to build a covered football pitch for disadvantaged children, as well as for kids from children’s homes.

For two years, we have been knocking on the doors of various committees, writing letters, holding meetings and still everybody is totally indifferent to our cause. I do not want to speak ill of my colleagues from other professional fields, but we are treated like we want to open a flower shop or a gas station, and nobody pays attention to the fact that we want to help the state perform its functions and carry out an important mission.

Vladimir Putin: Sorry, I did not understand you: what are you trying to do?

Margarita Baulina: We are trying to open a covered football pitch for disadvantaged children and children from children’s homes, to give them an opportunity to fulfil themselves for free, to find their true identity not in the streets through some harmful activities.

Vladimir Putin: Do you have a non-governmental non-profit organisation established, or what?

Margarita Baulina: We are registered as a limited liability company on the base of our publication.

Vladimir Putin: So it means this is a business?

Margarita Baulina: Currently, yes, because we cannot find other ways to implement our project.

Vladimir Putin: Who have you addressed?

Margarita Baulina: We are trying to address this issue with several committees in out city, such as the Property Committee, Sports Committee and the Committee for Youth and Social Policy. And each time we go from one committee to another, and exchange letters with them, etc.

Vladimir Putin: How much does your project cost?

Margarita Baulina: At the moment we need 11 million rubles.

Vladimir Putin: What was your city again?

Margarita Baulina: St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: I will speak with the Acting Governor. I am sure we can solve this problem.

Margarita Baulina: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I am sure.

Kseniya Golovanova: Congratulations on Counterintelligence Day, Mr President. This is observed today.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you and the same to you. I feel that you are quite closely connected to this sphere…

Intelligence, counterintelligence and information work are all the same. At the end of the day, they are all about information: you work with information, and so do the special services.

Kseniya Golovanova: Russian society, especially its younger part, have recently witnessed strange actions by the authorities that I believe can cause unnecessary conflict. One example is the case of the rappers – I think you are already familiar with this word. They come under pressure, with crackdowns on their concerts.

Vladimir Putin: Are you questioning my competency?

Kseniya Golovanova: Not at all.

Vladimir Putin: You said, “I think you are already familiar with this word.” Well, I knew it even before.

Kseniya Golovanova: Well, you tend to use it more often now.

Vladimir Putin: There were rappers among my authorised representatives. Take Timati, for example. Just look at this spectacular guy. By the way, he is a wonderful person and a brilliant artist.

Kseniya Golovanova: During the meeting of the Council for Culture, you said that if you cannot rein in a movement, you have to become its leader. Could you tell me why the state has to have a role in all this? Why not just leave it alone? Why did the people have to be dispersed? Who needed it? So they use obscene language in their songs – let them be.

There is a second question I wanted to ask that also deals with young people. A lot of people have recently voiced their misgivings over a legislative initiative on introducing tighter responsibility for negative statements regarding the state and authorities. This will also primarily target young people on social media. Aren’t you afraid that these initiatives could cost you their support?

Vladimir Putin: Let me start with the question on alienating young people or attracting them.

You know, in any discussion about the youth, I always remember ceratin tragic and heroic chapters from our recent past. Do you remember the airborne squadron of 96 young lads, 19 or 20 years old, who found themselves in the Armed Forces almost immediately after graduating from school? These 96 soldiers fought against 2,000. Only six survived. They fought for almost three days, at times fighting at close quarters, with shovels and knives. They are heroes, and they were young, 19 or 20 years old (Applause).

Take volunteers, for example. There are thousands and thousands of them. I think that as many as 35,000 worked at the World Cup. And what about those involved in battlefield archaeology? There are thousands of them as well. They are all young people.

People of this kind form a very substantial social stratum, a large social group. They are all young, they are the foundation of Russia’s present and future. There are also young researchers, talented artists and musicians, including rappers.

As for responsibility for desecration of the flag or other state symbols, it exists in almost every country. People must respect their country. There are rules that must be respected everywhere. If there is responsibility offline, it must also exist online.

In what way does online behaviour differ from offline activity? After all, these are still social interactions, especially since the internet has penetrated all areas of our lives. For this reason, there is nothing extraordinary about it.

As for these rappers being detained, I agree with you. This does not make any sense and brings about the opposite effect to what was intended, leading nowhere. That being said, there is nothing good in what you said about letting people use obscene language and not paying attention to it.

Recently, as you must have seen, I attended Yury Temirkanov’s birthday celebration; he turned 80. He said something very common and still absolutely correct: “Art does not exist to indulge base motives, base interests and low cultural profile. Culture is there to raise the level of those things.”

Of course, this is not something people should be caught, restricted or punished for. This would be wrong. But there are other things. For example, remember, I did not know it was broadcast live, where I told my interlocutor: “Let us all use foul language here at the Council on Culture meeting.” Everyone laughed. Why? It never occurs to anyone to do this. Why should we condone it? No, we should not do this.

But there are other elements. For example, drug propaganda. Do we want our young people to use drugs? Why should we condone the promotion of drug use? This is a degradation of society, a degradation of young people, and a degradation of the nation.

Do we want to degenerate? Someone wants to promote drugs – so let them. But we should not do this, and in no way should we encourage it, and we should not turn a blind eye either. Only, we need a different way of dealing with these trends.

Another example: it has become trendy to promote suicide among young people. So what do you say, let’s go now and hang ourselves, or what? Then you go first, not me. You do not want to, right? This cannot be allowed in the youth environment. That is what I said – you take the lead.

This is different from catching, restricting or telling someone to ”do as I do.“ No, this is not aviation. Here you have to act differently. Are there any different methods? Of course there are. We need to carefully and calmly build our case, convince people of the greater appeal of other values. But you cannot ban it outright, I agree with you.

Dmitry Peskov: Are there, in addition to the Ukrainian media, media representatives from other countries as well? Our Japanese colleagues from Kyodo Tsushin in the middle of this centre section, please, take the floor. Please, pass the microphone there.

Hirofumi Sugizaki: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Hirofumi Sugizaki: Hirofumi Sugizaki,Kyodo Tsushin, Japan.

It is natural that my question is, unfortunately, about the peace treaty that, as I understand, our countries are seeking to sign. After your meeting with Mr Shinzo Abe in Singapore, where you agreed to push the negotiating process forward on the basis of the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of 1956, our public’s only concern is about how many islands we are going to get: nil, two, three or four – we do not know. On the other hand, as I understand, the Russians are also puzzled, as they mainly ask questions like, “Why should we return them?” Some people even approach us with a threat: “We will not yield an inch of our land.” And so on. The question is about the delimitation that we must carry out. But if our new treaty – a peace treaty – is confined to the delimitation of borders, this will not be enough and will not be interesting to our nations, and people will not understand this. What new idea do you think should be embedded in a treaty to bring our relations to a new level?

There is another question that I cannot fail to ask in connection with the above. Russia – and you yourself – has brought up security issues recently, I mean the deployment of the US missile defence system in Japan and the possibility of deploying American troops and military infrastructure on the islands should they be transferred to Japan. We are holding negotiations at an expert level, but in military matters Japan almost fully depends on the US. Do you think these issues can be resolved on a bilateral basis, or will you have to deal directly with the US? Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Let us talk about the final part of your question so that we do not forget what you said. The issues of security are crucially important, including when signing a peace treaty. You spoke about the deployment of the US military infrastructure in Japan, but it is already there, the largest US base is in Okinawa, it has been there for decades, as we know.

Now, about Japan’s ability to take part in this decision-making. To us, this is an unclear, closed issue. We do not understand the level of Japan’s sovereignty in making such decisions. You know better than all other colleagues, and I know too that the Okinawa Governor is opposed to some decisions related to improving and expanding the base. He is against it, but he cannot do anything about it. People who live there are also against it.

There is a lot of evidence of that; there have been opinion polls and protests demanding the withdrawal of this base. And, in any case, they are opposed to strengthening the US Air Force part of the base that is there. There are plans to improve and expand it, and it is happening despite the fact that everybody is against it.

We do not know what will happen after the peace treaty is concluded, but without an answer to this question it will be very difficult to make any crucial decisions. And, of course, we are concerned about the plans to place ABM systems there. I told the United States this many times and I will repeat again that we do not consider this to be defensive weapons; this is part of the US strategic nuclear potential placed outside. And these systems, they are synchronised with the missile strike systems.

So there are no illusions and we understand everything. But nevertheless we are sincerely striving and will strive to sign a peace treaty with Japan. It is because I am confident, and Prime Minister Abe shares my confidence, that the current state of affairs is not normal. Both Japan and Russia are interested in a complete settlement of our relations, and it is not only because we need something from Japan in terms of the economy. Our economy is more or less developing.

Just this morning, Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin reported on his trip to Japan. There is some progress, including an agreement on deliveries, on opening the Japanese market to Russian meat and poultry products. There are other improvements as well. Therefore, we are moving forward, and will continue to move forward, as it will be necessary. But the normalisation is important to us, both for Russia and Japan. It is a difficult process, but we are ready to move forward together with our colleagues.

Dmitry Peskov: Thank you. As you may know, British media regulator Ofcom has just found RT guilty of violating broadcasting regulations and is looking into the possibility of introducing sanctions against it. I saw an RT correspondent somewhere here. Let us give him the floor, as he is the main source of such information.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, please.

Ilya Petrenko: Thank you, Mr Peskov.

Good afternoon. My name isIlya Petrenko from the Russia Today television channel.

But I have a different question. First, I would like to inquire about a recent decision to simplify procedures for the people of Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship. Our channel often dealt with this issue, as well as with bureaucracy. It goes without saying that this is an important step, but I would like to ask you to explain the logic of this from a purely political standpoint. If this is so essential, and if this is needed to help people in eastern Ukraine, why didn’t we do it earlier? Are you not afraid that bureaucracy will persist, and that papers will, from now on, be placed to the left, rather than the right?

I would also like to come back to the question from my Izvestia colleague. There is the Skripal scandal and the Western response to it. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, was murdered, and this incident caused an entirely different response. Kirill Vyshinsky and Maria Butina, as well as Huawei Chief Financial Officer were arrested. And Donald Trump is saying openly that sheis a bargaining chip in a trade war. My colleague wanted to know if we would ever see this happening in Russia, when foreign citizens would be arrested under far-fetched pretexts and exchanged for someone else. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Let us start with the last part of your question. I do not want to comment on US-Chinese relations, who arrested whom and for what actions, etc. This is a very sensitive area, and we will not act according to the laws of the Code of Hammurabi here. The law of retaliation states, “An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.” We need to act very cautiously here, and we need to be real. We will respond if certain people violate Russian legislation, regardless of their national and state affiliation. But we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.

As for the fate of Russian nationals, we do care about them, including the fact that Butina is being forced to admit something over there. I cannot understand what she could possibly have admitted, since she was not following any instructions from the Russian Government or its agencies. I am saying this because I mean it, no matter what she says under the threat of being sentenced to 12 or 15 years in prison. It is understandable that together with her lawyer she is fighting to get out of prison. I do not quite understand why they put her there in the first place. There were simply no grounds for it. But now this is a question of saving face for them and finding a way out. I am primarily referring to the US justice system. We will see how it plays out. We do care, and we will keep an eye on this case and provide our support accordingly.

As for the Skripals and Khashoggi, no comment is required. Khashoggi was obviously murdered, and everyone acknowledged it. Skripal is alive, thank Heaven. Nevertheless, Russia was slapped with a salvo of sanctions in this connection, with no end in sight, which contrasts with complete silence in the second case. This is a politically-driven, Rusophobic approach. It serves as a pretext for attacking Russia once more. Without the Skripal case, they would have come up with something else. This is quite obvious to me. Their only goal is to contain Russia and prevent it from emerging as a potential competitor. I do not see any other end to it.

Regarding red tape on citizenship matters. You said “red tape.” How so? Red tape is perennial. You cannot defeat it. At the same time, you cannot live without it either, and this has to be said as well. It is true that there must be rules for this bureaucracy and governance mechanisms, etc.

Regarding naturalisation, this does not have to do only with what is taking place in southeastern Ukraine. Our initiatives do not target exclusively people living in these territories. The Government is currently working on amendments to the relevant law on citizenship and naturalisation. What for? These efforts are designed to show that we do not seek and will not support policies of division or the ones designed to alienate the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. What are the current [Ukrainian] authorities doing? What is their mission? What are they trying to achieve on the back of Russophobia they are promoting? They are practically admitting that they are pursuing a historic task of separating the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. This is what they are up to. And for that, they can get away with anything.

Your colleague from the Ukrainian media talked about the challenges faced by people living in Donbass and the Lugansk Region, and their poor living standards. But is it any better in Ukraine? The situation is quite similar compared to Donbass, and it is getting worse all the time. Anything can be forgiven within the country, and even more so outside it against the backdrop of war, hostilities and tensions. And they are getting paid for this. They are about to receive another IMF tranche. We do understand what this is all about: just enough to pay out pensions and salaries to social sector employees, and the future generations will have to foot the bill. For this reason the overall situation is quite unfavourable. I believe this to be the case for the economy, society and domestic political processes. But our nations are very close and share the same history, so we will do everything to move in this direction.

The law on citizenship is currently being amended, and it will be adopted in early 2019.

Yury Abumov: Yury Abumov, Khakassia newspaper.

Mr President, I would like to ask about the latest regional elections. It is no secret that in some regions, they were quite turbulent and tense, and sometimes even long, like in Primorye, where they have just ended, and Khakassia actually set a record of holding elections that went on for two whole months.

But the most important thing is that, as a result of the protest vote, opposition parties’ candidates won. In particular, a candidate from the Communist Party won in Khakassia, and candidates from LDPR won in Khabarovsk and in Vladimir Region. This raises some questions.

First, why do you think this happened? Second, why, contrary to the tradition you established, have you not met with the elected regional heads yet? And most importantly, how do you intend to build relations with the regions where the opposition parties won? Because there are concerns that the federal Government may cut their funding and support – there are such fears.

Vladimir Putin: Do not worry about it. It is strange that this question even occurred.

About the meetings. The elections in Vladivostok were held just last Sunday, and that is why there were no meetings. They will be, and they are scheduled for next week, I believe. We will have the State Council meeting, and, I have already instructed the Executive Office to schedule a separate meeting with the newly elected heads of the regions you have just mentioned. We had to wait for the voting results in Vladivostok. This is the first point.

Second. This is not the first time that representatives of opposition parties win elections, is it? For several years now, an LDPR representative has been heading Smolensk; in Omsk, there is someone from United Russia, I think, and in other regions, there are representatives of the Communist Party. So what? They are working; everything is fine.

I am not a member of any party. True, I created the United Russia, but the President is not a member of any party. And the main thing for me is that people in the cities and regions of the Russian Federation feel that life is changing for the better.

In fact, if they cast their vote for a specific person who does not represent the United Russia party, that is their choice. I will help in every way any elected leader of the region.

The only question is that the newly elected heads of regions themselves should rise to the challenge, should be able to fulfil the electoral promises they made to the people.

Yelena Glushakova: My name is Yelena Glushakova, and I am from RIA Novosti.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Yelena Glushakova: I have also brought a picture, Masha and the Bear, that relates to the topic of my question. As my colleagues have said, Russia has been living under a huge amount of the most varied sanctions for the past few years. It can be hard to keep track at times, and, in some cases, they are vowing to introduce sanctions against cartoon characters.

But this is beside the point. My question is more serious. They are planning to introduce even more serious sanctions; for example, US lawmakers are preparing for this. And is Russia prepared for a new round of sanctions escalation? Does the Government have any plan for minimising their impact on the Russian economy? And what do you think the impact is, all the more so given the widely differing views expressed on it?

Vladimir Putin: Well, we have discussed sanctions many times. If you want to discuss this issue once again, that is okay with me.

Throughout virtually its entire history, Russia has faced various restrictions and sanctions. Really its entire history.

If you look at the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will see that the situation is always the same. You can read diplomatic correspondence dating to the 19th century and the early 20th century. Everything is the same. They urged Russian diplomats to quickly establish order in the Caucasus and to do many other things. Nothing changes.

How can this be explained? I have already discussed this, and I hope that an overwhelming majority of today’s audience also realises that it is related to Russia’s growing might and its greater competitiveness. A mighty and powerful player is emerging, one that has to be reckoned with, even if others would rather not.

Quite recently, they believed that a country like that no longer existed, but it turns out it does and it must be reckoned with. Our country has a population of 160 million. This is not just some wishful thinking on the part of its leaders, it represents the interests of the people that we are defending. By the way, we are carefully defending these interests with calm and restraint, nothing boorish. But we are going about our business, and we will continue to move in this direction.

Speaking of present-day sanctions, they have just mentioned the Skripals and Khashoggi incidents. So, is there any logic here? No, there is none. This is just a pretext for taking additional action to contain Russia.

Our economy, as it has been said many times, has adapted to these external restrictions. Look, in the beginning of this meeting I mentioned that after the 2008−2009 global crisis, our GDP dropped by 7.8 percent. There were no sanctions at the time. After the sanctions were imposed in 2014, the drop was 2.5 percent.

You asked how we assess this situation? We always assess it in our favour. But let us look at how our opponents see it – those who impose the sanctions. For example, the US Treasury Department believes that this 2.5-percent drop in 2015 was one-third due to the sanctions and two-thirds due to the collapsed prices on energy sources, mainly, oil. In fact, I think that one-third is too much. But all, right, they did affect our GDP.

The sanctions also affect those who introduced them. According to the European Parliament, the European economy lost around 500 billion euros due to the sanctions against Russia because they lost our market, they under-export and they under-import certain goods from us. The number of jobs has dropped.

It is significant for them because many EU countries suffer from a very high unemployment rate. In Spain, if I am not mistaken, it is still around 15 percent. We have 4.8 percent and they have 15 percent, you know. And the development of global trade, which lost over 400 billion, is also a result of such an unpredictable policy, including sanctions. This policy is harmful to everybody.

I will repeat once again, our economy has adapted to this. Yes, there are some adverse effects but look, there are also positive sides to these sanctions. What are they? The sanctions made us switch on our brains in many areas and Western experts also acknowledge this. The share of Russian transport machine building was 98 percent in 2017. Automobile production accounted for 85 percent. Several other industries, also key areas, accounted for around 80 percent.

This year, we spent 600 billion rubles on import substitution, including 125 to 128 billion from the federal budget. I will not even mention agriculture. We had to compensate for the imports in the market. Yes, unfortunately, this resulted in a short-term price increase in the domestic food market but right now, the prices have stabilised to a large extent in this sector of the economy and agriculture has made a breakthrough that we could not have ever imagined.

Since 2000, the amount of exports has increased 16-fold, which is just unbelievable except it is actually happening. There are negative and positive sides but in any case, we would like the world economy to develop without any shocks, unlawful measures or external restrictions, to develop naturally, for its own benefit.

Dmitry Peskov: Now, to our respected regional media. Chelyabinsk, please.

Vladimir Putin: Wait a second. I see a poster saying ‘KGB and children.’ Today is December 20, the day of the Cheka. What do you mean, there are children in the KGB? What is it? Please, hand them a microphone.

Remark: As my good friend said once, “We all are the children of the KGB, but life has taught us different things.”

Vladimir Putin: If you are the children of the KGB, why does life teach you? The KGB should do that.

Question: Mr President, society strongly demands social justice. According to Levada Centre, 66 percent of respondents feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union. And here is my question: do you think that a restoration of socialism is possible in Russia?

Vladimir Putin: I think this is impossible.

I believe that the deep changes that have taken place in our society make restoring socialism in the sense you mean impossible.

There can be social elements in the economy and the social sector, but expenses will always exceed profits, and as a result, the economy would be at a dead end.

But the just distribution of resources, the fair treatment of people who live below the poverty line, and a state policy aimed to lower the number of people who have to live like that, to provide the majority of people with healthcare services and education in acceptable conditions, if this is the socialism we are talking about, we are holding to the very same policy. Our national programmes that we talked about in the beginning of this meeting, are mostly aimed at all this.

Dmitry Peskov: If it is not about the KGB then please go ahead. You are from Chelyabinsk, aren’t you?

Yana Skonechnaya: Thank you.

My name is Yana Skonechnaya, I represent the Southern Urals State Television and Radio Company, the city of Chelyabinsk.

I have a question that concerns not only Chelyabinsk, but all of Russia. I am talking about waste management, waste sorting, in particular. Not a single city in our country has either the industry for separate trash collection, or a culture of waste sorting. I have a colleague who does separate trash collection, but her entire apartment is filled with trash bags, because she needs to collect a certain amount of it, then load it into her car, take it to the other end of the city and only then dispose of it. Of course, some regions have already begun building the appropriate infrastructure, but this is all a drop in the ocean. You raised this issue on many occasions. So why is it so hard to make it happen? Why can we not use international experience and have our waste properly recycled?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: You know, the answer is fairly simple. The situation is complicated, but the answer is simple – we have never dealt with it. For decades, since Soviet times, we have been dumping garbage in pits, to put it colorfully. No one has ever engaged in its processing, unless minimally in certain areas, while we produce, I believe, 70 million tonnes of trash annually, and there is no place to dispose of it. The amount of waste tends to increase with the development of industry, including the development of the consumer goods industry. As chemistry progresses, the amount of plastic trash increases. In the Pacific, there are entire islands of it the size of France and several metres thick. Plastic tends to accumulate in these spots and there is nothing you can do about it. However, this is the Pacific, while we dump it all in landfills.

We need to address several key and top priorities. First, we need to eliminate illegal landfills. Second, we should create a waste treatment industry. What your colleague is doing is great, and is highly commendable, but this is a problem for environmentally conscious people. The state, first of all the regions, and then the municipalities, should create conditions for separate trash collection and subsequent recycling. I understand the people who oppose the construction of waste disposal plants. You have just mentioned international best practices. It is necessary to use them in our country. We often manage to do so. Here, we need to do the same. Some environmentalists and even some citizens object to building even waste incineration plants in the regions. These plants need to be of high quality and efficient, so as not to have to scrimp on the filters for them. They are the most expensive part of the processing and incineration plants. Everything has be done according to the corresponding technology and methodology.

In Tokyo (as our colleague will confirm, I think), waste incineration plants are located in central parts of the city. There is no smell, no problems whatsoever, because the process is adhered to. We need to do the same. We must build 200 waste treatment plants before 2024. I am not sure this will be enough, but we must have at least 200 such plants in our country.

Alexander Ilyin: Alexander Ilyin, Yakutia newspaper.

Mr President, my question is this. The Crimean Bridge has become a symbol of Crimea’s return to its homeland. The bridge over the Lena River can become a symbol of the development of Russia’s Asian part. I would like to ask you, should we expect this bridge to be built? If so, when? Because the Yakut people really need it. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I see. A symbol is always good; it is always a landmark of some stage of work that has been completed and a springboard for further progress. In this sense, the Crimean Bridge is both. I agree with you: it is both a symbol of Crimea’s reunification with Russia, and an opportunity for the peninsula’s development. It opens opportunities for development. It is very important.

The same applies to the bridge across the Lena River. You said it has to spur development. This needs to be calculated carefully. The cost of this project – and we have been talking about it for a long time, for several years – is very high. It is an expensive project. We need to look if it will simply stop at the city and that is it, or if there is a possibility of developing the region as a whole, the area on the other side of the Lena River: the local economy, infrastructure, access to mineral deposits. Here is what we need to decide. We need to match the costs against the end result for the economy of the region as a whole. If our colleagues at the Transport Ministry and the Economic Development Ministry agree, then of course we will implement this project.

Vladimir Putin: Let us go on. Nature, Motherland, people.

Remark: (From the audience.) We will soon run out of gas.

Vladimir Putin: We will talk about gas in a moment. We will not run out of gas. We have more gas than the rest of the world. We have 67 trillion cubic metres in Yamal alone.

Go ahead, please.

Sergei Lisovsky: Mr President,

Thank you for the opportunity to ask you a question. Sergei Lisovsky, editor-in-chief of Society and the Environmentnewspaper. I have been publishing it in St Petersburg for 19 years now. Next year it will turn 20 – the oldest environmental newspaper in Russia, steadily published. Small but steady.

Vladimir Putin: We will celebrate.

Sergei Lisovsky: That is what I wanted to say, before asking a serious question, I would like to invite you to St Petersburg to attend a roundtable discussion on Russia’s development strategy, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Society and the Environment.

My question is as follows. We are working on the protection of the Neva River, the protection of forests, water resources, the protection of the Don River… And thank you so much for issuing instructions at the Russian Popular Front’s media forum on April 23 to report to you on the construction of the Bagayevsky hydroelectric dam, this dangerous facility the local residents are opposing.

Mr Kiriyenko at the RPF congress told me that your instructions remain in force. But local officials are reluctant to comply with them. Therefore, I would like to ask you to pay attention to the Don River – this is as great a Russian river as the Volga and the Neva. This is my first point.

And second, Mr President.

On December 15, you chaired a meeting of the Council for Culture [and Art] at the Constantine Palace. All the questions asked there were very good and correct, including about drug addiction. But Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky asked one of the key questions, and I would like to follow up on this issue after thinking it over.

He said that Russia now lacks an ambitious national development idea. The Russian Empire had the following triad: Orthodox Christianity, autocracy and nationality. The Soviet Union had the moral code of the builder of communism. Today, it is unclear what kind of society we are building, but it looks more like the amoral code of the builder of capitalism.

I came up with a triad of my own, and I would like to ask you to get our federal television channels, including Channel One, NTV and Rossiya, to hold a nationwide discussion of what kind of country and society we are building, after all. So, I suggest the following triad: nature, motherland and the people. Its three component – nature, motherland and the people – cannot exist without one another. And that is why we now watch shows about who left whom and who cheated on whom. That is, there is a kind of media lawlessness. And if we raise the issue of all television shows …

Dmitry Peskov: What is your question, please?

Sergey Lisovsky: Yes, is it possible to create a television show on strategically important issues related to Russia’s long-term development?

Vladimir Putin: It is always very interesting to speak with Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. He is very insightful. He has his own opinions, which he is not afraid to express, whether you agree or not. He is not a conformist, and he speaks his mind. He is an insightful person.

I have repeatedly discussed whether we have an idea for building the state, the country – the foundation on which to build. I believe that patriotism in the best sense of the word, rather than the basest, simply has to be the foundation for strengthening our state in the broadest and noblest sense of this word.

As for our many channels on television and online that probably are not worth the air time they take up, you know, Daniil Granin (I believe that I mentioned this some time ago) discussed the matter at our last meeting.

We had a long private conversation, and I never saw him again, he passed away some time later. He said: “Look, you have to do something about this.” I asked: “What are you talking about?” “We are all tired of it,” he replied. “What do you mean?” I asked. “All the television channels are telling us about people who stole money, how much, how they did it. I am really sick and tired of it. Are there really no happy and positive events in life here?” I said: “Well, that is their programming choice.”

As I see it, things are actually gradually changing for the better, to some extent, the information is becoming more balanced perhaps, although I don’t go online or watch television very often just because I don’t have enough time.

I try to keep an eye on the media environment, and I get the impression that there has been some improvement. But there would certainly be no harm in discussing what you have suggested. I will need to speak with my colleagues.

They can hear you now, and I hope that they will respond.

The Chicago Tribune’s correspondent over there, you have the floor, please.

Rachel Marsden: President Putin, Rachel Marsden with the Tribune Publishing out of Chicago, United States.

Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria. He also announced that, in his opinion, the United States defeated ISIS in Syria, he made that very clear.

What is your position with respect to his statements, both on the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria and also with his statement regarding the defeat of ISIS by the United States?

And, secondly, do you have concern that the American troops will remain in some form? There has been much discussion, for example, around the presence, potentially, of contractors in other jurisdictions where the United States is either out of militarily or might want to be out of militarily but in a more discreet way.

Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: As concerns the defeat of ISIS, overall I agree with the President of the United States. I already said that we achieved significant progress in the fight against terrorism in that territory and delivered major strikes on ISIS in Syria.

There is a risk of these and similar groups migrating to neighbouring regions and Afghanistan, to other countries, to their home countries, and they are partly returning.

It is a great danger for all of us, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Asian countries, including Central Asia. We know that, we understand the risk fully. Donald is right about that, and I agree with him.

As concerns the withdrawal of American troops, I do not know what that is. The United States have been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years, and every year they talk about withdrawing the troops. But they are still there. This is my second point.

Third. So far, we have not seen any evidence of their withdrawal but I suppose it is possible, the more so because we are progressing towards a political settlement. The current issue on the agenda is building a constitutional committee.

By the way, when we met in Istanbul – I mean Russia, Turkey, France and Germany – we agreed to make every possible effort to create this constitutional committee and Russia, for its part, has done everything in its power for this to happen.

As strange as it may seem, we fully agreed on the list of members with President al-Assad, who designated 50 people and was involved in selecting 50 more from civil society. Despite the fact that he is not happy with everything, he agreed with this.

Turkey, which represents the interests of the opposition, also agreed. Iran agreed. We submitted the list to the UN and, as Minister Lavrov reported to me just yesterday, unexpectedly, prompted by our partners – Germany, France and the United States – UN representatives (Mr de Mistura) decided to wait and see.

I do not understand what is going on there but at any rate, I want to believe that this work is in its final stage. Maybe not by the end of this year but in the beginning of the next the list will be agreed and this will open the next stage of the settlement, which will be political settlement.

Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is. However, let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your troops, is illegitimate as it was not approved by a UN Security Council resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian Government. Russian troops were invited by the Syrian Government. The United States did not get either of these so if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.

There is another very important component in this process. Despite all the disagreements, our specialists, our military personnel, security services and foreign ministries have established a rather constructive dialogue to address acute issues in combating terrorism in Syria. Overall, we are satisfied with our cooperation.

Remark: (From the audience) You will not forget about Gazprom, will you?

Vladimir Putin: How can I forget about Gazprom? Just a second.

Olga Ivanova: Good afternoon. My name is Olga, I represent the Selskaya Zhisn (Rural Life) newspaper. It marked its 100th anniversary last March. You congratulated our editorial board, and we are very thankful for that.

Here is my question. Judging by the current statistics, the growth rate of the agricultural sector has slowed down despite the absence of competition because of the sanctions and the terrific environment. How can you explain that? And does that bother you?

And another one: there are no national projects for agriculture, why is that?

Vladimir Putin: As for national projects and agriculture, agriculture has long been a national project in Russia. It receives state support worth hundreds of billions of rubles, and it will keep receiving it, both large and small farms, all segments of the sector.

As for the low growth rate. Yes, it is true. Are we worried? No. And the environment is far from being terrific, our agricultural producers work in difficult conditions.

First, there is still competition. Thank God, competition is developing inside the country, and this is very important for the development of this sector of the economy. There is also foreign competition. Not all countries imposed sanctions, which means we did not take counter-measures against them. We introduced such measures against the EU countries, the US and other countries that imposed sanctions against Russia at the instruction of the US. But the majority of countries in the world did not, and there are many of them. They supply us with their products and therefore there is competition.

Speaking of what is going on in agriculture, these are statistics and they relate to grain production. As you know, last year we had a record-breaking grain harvest of 135.5 million tonnes. This is the main factor influencing the statistics. This year, due to unfavourable weather conditions – and in 27 regions a state of emergency was declared – the harvest was smaller: 110.5 million tonnes. Therefore, as compared to last year, there is a decline. However, these 110 million tonnes rank third in terms of production volume in the past 25 years. It is a very good result. Combined with the reserves from last year, potential exports grew to 52.5 million tonnes. We will fulfil all obligations and contracts. So we are not worried at all.

In the agricultural sector, there are areas where we need to act and maintain our efforts. What are these areas? We need to improve our competitiveness, and expand the infrastructure, in order to boost exports, among other things. Incidentally, last year exports totalled 20 billion, and this year they will reach 25 billion. There was a time when these figures were hard to imagine. Russia exports 16 billion worth of arms, while agricultural exports are at 25 billion. We will continue to support agricultural and export infrastructure development; about 400 billion rubles will go toward these ends over the next few years. This includes developing ports, roads and so forth, and supporting exports with financial instruments. This is how we can enhance our competitiveness. Of course, professional training, selection breeding, etc. are also important. You know this better than I do.

Second, we need to promote high value-added production, including meat and meat processing.

For course, we also need to address matters related to the social development of rural areas. This programme will remain in place.

Artyom Artemenko: Good afternoon, Artyom Artemenko, Crimea 24 television network.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Artyom Artemenko: Mr President, you recently said that the restrictions Russia is facing from some countries have a direct bearing on the people living in Crimea who voted for reunification with Russia in 2014. Can you explain what you meant? How do we deal with this? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I did say this, even though I can hardly recall where I was at the time, but I can explain it. This is an interesting situation. What we hear from the outside is that Russia annexed Crimea. But what does annexation mean? It means a forcible takeover. If this had been an annexation and a takeover by force, the people in Crimea would have had nothing to do with it and would not be to blame. But if they came out and voted, this was not an annexation. So what is going on? After all, sanctions were imposed against them, against you. What are these sanctions? Restriction on mobility, restrictions on border crossings, visas, financial transactions, insurance companies, marine infrastructure use and the use of other facilities. These measures affect almost everyone living there. They were the ones targeted by these sanctions, and this is not just about singling out specific individuals like the government leaders in the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, but about targeting everyone. If they had had nothing to do with it, if it had been annexation, why were the people sanctioned? But if you were sanctioned for taking part in a specific vote, then they would have to admit that it actually took place. This is what this is about, and this is what I meant.

Alexander Yunashev: Good afternoon. Alexander Yunashev, Life online publication.

Mr President, there is a state programme for supporting positive content in cinema and television, which is, in fact, funded with our taxes. Are such support measures possible and necessary for the Russian segment of the internet?

And the state channels will not ask: when are you getting married? And to whom? (Laughter.)

Vladimir Putin: These are two completely different questions.

Are you married?

Alexander Yunashev: Yes, I am, and I have no regrets about it. I can recommend it.

Vladimir Putin: He is married, and wants me to be in the same boat. (Laughter.) Well, all right. Let us assume that I answered your second question, although as a gentleman I will probably have to do so at some point. (Laughter.)

Now, with regard to supporting the Russian segment of the internet. Yes, it is the right thing to do, and we are already doing so. We have grants, I am not sure about the exact amounts, but they are measured in hundreds of millions of rubles. These grants are related to content, and we are allocating, I believe, 144 billion rubles to this end. Overall, we officially allocate about 400 million rubles for this type of activity, so we are doing this and will continue to do so.

Let us continue with the Eurasian Women’s Community. It is an important follow-up to the question of marriage. Please go ahead.

Marina Volynkina: Eurasian Women’s Community, Marina Volynkina.

Mr President, first of all, I would like to thank you for attending the Second Eurasian Women’s Forum. It was important for the women of the world.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

Marina Volynkina: There was a panel dedicated to the media at that forum. After we conducted this panel, 15 memorandums on peace were signed by the participants about responsible media which joined our campaign and which support the idea that information in the world should be positive.

In this regard, I have a question for you: how important is it for you, as President, that all the journalists present here not just tell the truth, but also do their job objectively and responsibly, so that they act as a serious soft power, and not just as a medium to resolve certain business problems.

Today, for us, women, it is very important, amid aggression and tensions – and we are really afraid of war – for the soft power to work. Is there soft power in Russia and what is the role of responsible journalism?

Vladimir Putin: You know, the truth is not in power …

Marina Volynkina: The power is in the truth.

Vladimir Putin: The power is in the truth, that’s right. This formula includes what the media are all about. The power is in the truth, and this is the only way that the media can win the trust of millions of people.

Unfortunately, let us face it – our life is very much commercialised just as in the past in the Soviet era everything was politicised, which undermines media credibility with many people.

People are dividing everything they see or read by 100 or 1,000. Still, we must strive for this. Clearly, we must strive to be as objective as possible in matters that are vital for our country and the rest of the world.

This is important not just for me, but for all of us. I hope that this trend is still there, and I think it will continue.

Let us have the question about Afghanistan, as I promised.

Question: On December 6, Russia refused to support a UN General Assembly resolution on Afghanistan because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries.

Vladimir Putin: Because of what?

Remark: Because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries.

Vladimir Putin: What was that resolution about? Can you remind me, please?

Remark: Western countries.

They said the situation in Afghanistan was good, while Russia believed that…

Vladimir Putin: We believe that it is not good. What do you think about this?

Remark: I would like to know what you think.

Vladimir Putin: Do you want my opinion?

Question: At the same time, the US is conducting separate talks with the Taliban. In light of this, what will be the future of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan, which were attended by delegates from 11 countries?

Vladimir Putin: The Moscow format?

Remark: Yes.

Vladimir Putin: To be honest, I do not recall the details of that draft resolution. But I think you will agree with me, and I am sure that the majority of those who live in Afghanistan will agree with me.

I do not know what our Western partners wanted to achieve with that resolution. If they wanted to declare that everything is fine there, this has little to do with reality.

What part of the country does the Kabul government control officially? Not more than one third, to be perfectly frank; do you agree? When elections are held, it takes months to add up the results. Is this how it should be? So what is there to approve of?

Talks are underway with the Taliban. This is probably unavoidable. But we must understand the subject of these talks and their possible outcome. If there is a force that controls the bulk of Afghanistan’s territory, its opinion must be taken into account, but this should be done openly and publicly, so it is clear what we are talking about.

I believe that this is probably the essence of our Foreign Ministry’s position at the talks. We are not against a settlement. Overall, we believe that the problem can be settled exclusively through an agreement between all parties to the political process in Afghanistan.

Until then, we will need to reinforce our military base in Tajikistan. We believe that the people of Afghanistan will eventually reach an agreement, and that all political forces and ethnic groups will reach a consensus.

We will facilitate this process as much as we can, including by promoting economic cooperation with Afghanistan and by taking part in various international projects, such as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline [gas trunk line], TAPI.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, let’s give the floor to Andrei Kolesnikov.

Vladimir Putin: You have not been called on for four years in a row. How can this be? Go ahead. It is [Dmitry] Peskov’s fault. We will punish him.

(Addressing Andrei Kolesnikov.) Andrei, please, let the young lady speak first. She has not been called on for four years in a row.

Remark: It is seven years for us.

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal: Thank you very much for sparing me having to wait another year.

After the law on foreign agents was passed, there was an enormous uproar over human rights being violated and so on.

Vladimir Putin: One of my colleagues – I will not give his name – was asked during talks: “What is the situation with human rights in your country?” [Allusion to a Soviet-era joke.] He looked at his interlocutor and asked: “Who is the human being you are talking about?” I would like to ask you: who is the human being you are referring to?

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal: In our country this primarily applies to legal entities, while Maria Butina was arrested in the United States as a private individual. This law [on foreign agents] has been in effect in the US since 1938. I would like to ask you if it makes sense to borrow from the experience of our Western partners here.

I have another question that is very important to us. I represent Tsargrad TV channel and we want to know what you think about the situation developing around Orthodoxy globally, given recent sectarian activities by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Kiev. Perhaps, everyone is now beginning to realise that the United States is the main player here. So it turns out that religion is heavily dominated by geopolitics. Is that the case?

Vladimir Putin: Regarding the first part of your question, we have relied on international experience when we passed the law on foreign agents. This is not about bans. This law requires that any entity receiving funding from abroad to carry out its public political activities must be registered as a foreign agent. That is it. Incidentally, this type of activity is banned in the United States and here you have the result: under this law Butina was arrested and taken into custody and might be sentenced to 12 years in prison. We do nothing of the sort here. Our law only requires registration for entities receiving funding from abroad. There is nothing here to fear. Frankly speaking, I do not see any problems here, as far as law enforcement is concerned. However, we, of course, need to look into the matter.

When I meet with human rights activists, they point out certain drawbacks in this law, aspects actually related to charity rather than politics. And I think they are right. We need to pay close attention to what is happening in life and make adjustments where necessary. This must not interfere with our normal life and must not hinder the activity of honest and decent people who want to solve problems, including with the support of like-minded people abroad. There is nothing wrong with this. But political activity must, of course, be prohibited. Well, not prohibited but at least subject to law.

Second, the Orthodox church. The situation with the Orthodox church defies comprehension. This is direct interference of the state in religious life. This has not happened since the Soviet Union. But, unfortunately, it is happening in Ukraine now. They created this breakaway church of the Istanbul curacy. They did not like the Moscow curacy so let it be the Istanbul curacy.

Note that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy was completely independent. Perhaps few people know this but it was actually a completely independent church. They did everything independently, including the election of bishops. The only connection was spiritual as they mentioned the name of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia during sermons. That was all. Now look at how dependent they are becoming on Turkey, on the Turkish Patriarchy. Many appointments and, most importantly, a lot of money. I think this is Bartholomew’s main impelling motive, to bring this territory into subjection and make money on it. I believe this is the main underlying motive – except for a tip from Washington, of course. The fact that the State Secretary called Kiev about this matter and discussed it is an outrage. Absolutely unacceptable. However, it is happening.

Of course, this is another indication of the fact that the measure is also related to the election campaign and is meant to further widen the gap between Russian and Ukrainian people. The rationale behind it is, without doubt, political, and it is not good news for religious freedom in general. This is a clear and flagrant violation of the freedom of religion. I am mostly concerned about the likelihood that property redistribution will follow. This is already happening. This redistribution could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed, God forbid. I am sorry for the people who are defending their interests. They are usually helpless and unarmed. They are usually seniors and women. But there is, of course, the risk of property redistribution.

Dmitry Peskov: You promised a word to Kolesnikov, Mr President. We have been on for two hours now.

Andrei Kolesnikov: Good afternoon. Andrei Kolesnikov, Kommersant newspaper.

Mr President, the French protests against the fuel hike have, as everyone knows, morphed into a general protest against everything. President Macron has had to impose emergency social and economic measures. What is your take on the events in France? Are there any plans to raise fuel prices in Russia? There has been much talk about it recently. How likely do you believe it is that Russians would take to the streets, and what should the Government prioritise in that case? Its responsibility to protect the rights of the protesters or the need to uphold the rule of law?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: One does not exclude the other. Let’s begin with the final part of your question. We certainly must ensure our citizens’ freedom of expression, their right to voice their opinions including by holding public events. But such events, including public gatherings, must always remain legal. Activities that violate the law are unacceptable, and warrant the government’s response.

Let’s now turn to the events in France and to how they are seen from our shores. I believe that of course they have to do with the rise in fuel prices. But the hike was a trigger that sparked the unrest involving a large part of French society, and generally native French people. Recent data suggest that a significant proportion of the French, over 7 percent, support this. However, I do not believe it would be right to judge the French authorities’ response to this.

What is the difference between what we see in Russia and the situation in France with regard to fuel prices and the rest? The French Government was deliberate in its decision to increase the price of petrochemicals and fuel, which means that the Government did it. It was a policy move. This initiative was intended to redistribute resources, in this case, the resources of the population, and to use them to address other matters related to the energy policy. The funds that the Government expected to raise from gasoline, diesel fuel and motor oil sales were to go towards developing alternative energy sources such as solar energy, wind power, and so on. This was a deliberate move. The people did not like it, because they did not want to be the ones to pay for these changes.

What is happening in Russia? Gasoline prices have been growing since mid-2018 as the price of oil went up on the global markets. However, the Russian Government was prompt to take action in order to contain and even lower prices, and an agreement to this effect was reached with the main oil companies and refineries. That is the difference: over there the price hike was a conscious move, they were the ones who did it, while the Russian Government is fighting to ensure that prices do not go up.

Of course, no one likes it when prices go up, but the fact that the Government is acting this way is obvious. Whether it is for the better or for worse is another question, but this is what is going on. An agreement has been reached, and it covers a period until March 2019. Yes, an adjustment is possible when VAT goes up in early January, but I do not expect it to be substantial. This should be an adjustment in the order of 1–1.5 percent, not more, after which the Government will carefully monitor developments on the Russian and international markets.

I can share more details on this subject later on, but generally speaking this worked, even if we had to micromanage the situation, and I hope that it will also work in the future, so that the Government will be able to prevent any sharp surges in fuel prices next year.

Remark: (From the audience)

Vladimir Putin: What did you say? I cannot hear you.

Dmitry Peskov: This is about the potential for protest in Russia.

Vladimir Putin: I have already answered this question. I said that people have the right to express their point of view and to defend it, including in public, at rallies, but only within the limits of the law.

Alexandra Tinyayeva: Alexandra Tinyayeva, Ryazansky Krai TV company.

Mr President, digital television is fast approaching, and our region will be one of the first to get it. Analog television will be turned off as soon as February 11.

In this regard, the question is how do you assess the level of preparedness of all the regions for the transition to digital television? Will small towns and villages not be left out?

How to ensure the interests of those for whom buying even the cheapest console or any kind of equipment, for that matter, is a major expense? Of course, digital television of excellent quality and 20 free channels are a good thing. But what about regional media?

I think many colleagues will support me, because for us it means we should pack up and grab the want ads, as we will not be able to survive in analog television, and they will not let us into the multiplex.

Vladimir Putin: I am fully with you. My colleagues are aware of it. I am not pretending, or making up anything. When I discussed this matter with them, and when they insisted on moving ahead with digital, I agreed with them, just as I agree with you now – it improves the quality and the quantity of free channels.

Trust me, just like you, almost word for word, I asked them this question: “Is it possible that someone in a small village will be left without television?” That is the question. They say no. So, we agreed that we would proceed very carefully, in small steps.

Currently, Tver is undergoing such an experiment, then you. So far, there have been no complaints in Tver. The governor reported to me that he had gone to almost every village and is on top of things. They will help everyone in need of support in order to help them switch to digital, including the small devices needed to receive television of such quality. Then, another couple of regions, on and on …

Truth be told, there was a proposal to move fast and be done in six months. I said, “No, we cannot do that. We must act very carefully and monitor things on the ground and, of course, ensure the interests of the people who cannot afford these consoles, even though they are not expensive.” We will see how it goes in individual regions and then take small steps along this path.

Sergei Brilyov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

For understandable reasons, when international politics are discussed at this news conference, it is commonly about conflict, with the possible exception of China.

Today, on December 20, I wanted to mention a project I am working on with my British colleagues. This unprecedented project is on the history of cooperation between Soviet and British secret services during the Great Patriotic War, and the story of 36 Soviet agents that were sent to Nazi-occupied Europe. If you allow me, I will send the materials to you through Mr Peskov.

In this connection, I cannot help but ask you about the current status of Russian-British relations. Let us start with the small things. After the G20 summit, Dmitry Peskov told us that he did not know whether you had met with Theresa May, but you did meet with her. What do you think of these relations? And another interesting question: How, in your opinion, will Brexit impact Russia? What if it does affect us?

Vladimir Putin: Regarding these meetings, there are many meetings at events like the G20; you cannot even list them all because everyone is busy, and we meet, as they say, on the sidelines.

What does “on the sidelines” mean? We get up, we are walking near each other, you greet someone and say something to them. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and I greeted each other in about the same way and said a few words to each other. In my opinion, Russian-British relations are at an impasse, and it is in the interests of both states to move beyond this impasse.

How will Brexit impact us? The impact will be minimal, but it will affect the entire European economy and the global economy, as well. Therefore, it will affect us indirectly.

Are we interested in restoring full relations with the United Kingdom or not? Yes, we are interested; besides, in my opinion, the United Kingdom, primarily its business community, is also interested in this.

We know the British work in our country – fairly actively, I can tell you. Flagships of the British economy like British Petroleum, one of the key shareholders in our leading oil and gas company, Rosneft, – they are working here, and continue to do so, actively operating in our market, and they want to continue, and not just them.

Now, in connection with Brexit – if this eventually goes through to the end, and, by the way, I understand the position of the Prime Minister, she is fighting for Brexit (let them decide this for themselves, this is none of our business, or else they might accuse us of wrongdoing again), but the referendum did take place. So what can she do?

She must implement the will of the people as expressed in the referendum, or that is no referendum at all. Some didn’t like it – and the whole thing goes around and around. Is this democracy? I wonder how the critics of this process will assess the situation if and when some spit on this Brexit deal and carry out all these events again until they satisfy someone.

So what is the point of holding a referendum and what is the meaning of direct democracy? Well, anyway, this is their concern, never mind. But, they are interested in our market, interested in direct partnerships. We did not discuss this with the prime minister, but we discussed it with our colleagues and friends; we have many in Britain, especially among the businesspeople.

You know, if you look at direct foreign investment, where has most of the direct foreign investment come from this year? From Britain – $22 billion. Germany is second, followed by Singapore. That says something, right?

True, this may be partly due to the repatriation of our capital, because they have somewhat scared it off over there, but all the same, there is huge interest in our agriculture (our export potential is enormous and keeps growing), industrial production and the energy sector. There are so many areas. And I hope that common sense will prevail.

What about the skis over there? I find it interesting; it’s winter now.

Svetlana Shaganova: Svetlana Shaganova, State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, Karachayevo-Circassia. I have one simple problem for you: Putin plus skiing equals our region – Karachayevo-Circassia. You are certainly faithful to judo and sambo, but we would be happy if you visited our region, our new Arkhyz resort and enjoy the skiing there. Will you find such an opportunity in your busy schedule?

Vladimir Putin: I would very much like to do this. Either way, I congratulate you on the development of tourism. The republic is developing, these are competitive advantages for the republic – developing resorts like this. I’m sure this will develop further. If I can, I will come with pleasure. Thank you very much.

Remark: Regarding Gazprom, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Ah yes, Gazprom. Yes, one more question now, please, and then about Gazprom.

Goar Botoyan: Thank you.

AZG Daily, Armenia, Goar Botoyan. Thank you for letting me ask you a question for the fourth time already.

Vladimir Putin: I am listening.

Goar Botoyan: My question is, how will Russia restore its policy towards Armenia after the elections?

Vladimir Putin: What do you mean, restore? We have nothing that collapsed to the point of needing to be restored. Russia and Armenia have smooth relations, this country is our strategic partner in the region and the world in general; it is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. What is there to restore? We only need to build on the foundation that has been created by the previous generations of leaders. The Armenian people are the closest ally of the Russian people in Transcaucasia; that is the way it has been historically, the way it is today and the way it, hopefully, always will be. We need to proceed from the realities of the current situation in the world and the region, proceed from the needs and our capabilities. We will discuss this soon with Mr Pashinyan, who is to pay us a visit next week.

Goar Botoyan: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: What about Gazprom, what’s up? Why are you scaring us?

Viktor Smirnov: Viktor Smirnov, 47news.ru, Leningrad Region. I will explain why Gazprom has no more gas.

Vladimir Putin: Do, please.

Viktor Smirnov: A bit of an introduction first. As you know, the Nord Stream pipeline passes through Leningrad Region; Nord Stream 2 is underway as well. You are now launching the TurkStream project, it all sounds good. But many Leningrad Region residents, who see these pipelines pass through their territory, have not had any gas for many years. Just recently, on December 7, Gazprom went ahead and said that it had no gas for the new consumers residing on the territory of the entire Karelian Isthmus.

Vladimir Putin: The Karelian Isthmus, you say?

Viktor Smirnov: The Karelian Isthmus, yes, two Leningrad Region districts and a section of St Petersburg’s territory. They believe the reconstruction of some compressor station for supplying people with gas is unnecessary (either they do not have money to spare or have already allocated it someplace else).

Similarly (this is just for the record, though), a couple of years ago, a pipe was stolen there – simply stolen. It cost a total of 1.8 billion rubles. No criminal proceedings have been initiated since.

Vladimir Putin: I do not understand. Did someone dig it out and drag it away, or what?

Viktor Smirnov: No, it was not installed, but the paperwork was all in place. So it kind of exists, but kind of does not.

Vladimir Putin: You mean, the money was allocated, but no pipe was laid?

Viktor Smirnov: Right. No criminal proceedings were initiated either.

Vladimir Putin: Where did this take place?

Viktor Smirnov: Priozersky District. You have been there before, you have seen it.

Vladimir Putin: I have indeed.

Viktor Smirnov: On top of this, the deadlines for connecting the Leningrad Region users to gas grids are often missed, but in the gas monopoly they use the beautiful words “postponement and synchronisation,” annual. That is, the deadlines are missed, and missed, and missed again, but this is synchronisation.

And the fourth point I would like to mention. With all the problems in the gas monopoly and the problems of the residents who also suffer from these problems (some have had no access to gas since 2009), despite all this, the children of the board members, the specific individuals we wrote about, have no qualms about taking top management positions in subsidiaries. And they have no qualms about posting photos of luxury cars on the internet, and flying in business jets to watch football in Italy. How is that for national wealth, Mr President? Aren’t they going too far?

Vladimir Putin: Well, it always helps to keep track of expenses, on superjet flights, to look what they actually did there, and what kind of football they watched. After all, Gazprom, among other things, sponsors foreign football clubs, like FC Schalke 04 in Germany. But why does it sponsor them? Because it does a lot of work there, in Germany, and in Italy too. These contacts need to be maintained. As long as it is within in the bounds of common sense, all is well, and we must always watch this very carefully. So you are right to pay attention to this. I will also look what they fly on and where.

As for domestic gas supply, it is growing. True, our sales on the foreign market are growing also. This year, exports will top 200 billion cubic metres – this is a very good result, a historic high. This is what Russia needs, not Gazprom, it is what our national economy and the federal budget need, because the bulk of Gazprom’s revenues, which then flow into the budget, come from exports, as it should be.

As for internal issues and decisions on connection, I repeat once again, things are moving forward. It is not only about Gazprom, Gazprom lays the pipelines to populated areas, and then there is further distribution, and the so-called last mile, so this problem should be resolved with the help of the region.

Viktor Smirnov: Well, the region has built it.

Vladimir Putin: Built it?

Viktor Smirnov: Yes.

Vladimir Putin: Well, I will check it out. I do not know, I will check and see.

Of course, Gazprom is driven by considerations of economic feasibility, but in addition to economic feasibility, there are social issues, of course, including the provision of gas to households in a given area.

I will see how it is built. You know, in any case, very often there is a discrepancy between the statements of local authorities and the reality. I will definitely pay attention to this. Priozersky District is what I heard. Priozersky, right?

Viktor Smirnov: Part of Priozersky, part of Vyborg, and part of St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: Ok.

Viktor Smirnov: Gazprom says that their station is not ready.

Vladimir Putin: I assure you, I will definitely look into this and respond.

Everything is not smooth sailing with us, but things are more or less stable. Here is Novaya Gazeta, I am sure they will come up with something. Please go ahead.

Ilya Azar: Good afternoon.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Ilya Azar: My colleagues and friends Alexander Rastorguyev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko died in the Central African Republic this year.

Vladimir Putin: This is a major tragedy, I agree.

Ilya Azar: What do you know about the circumstances of their death and, in particular, the possible involvement of private military company Wagner in this?

Secondly, do you think it is right that a businessman whom everyone calls your chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is believed to be involved in managing PMC Wagner?

In general, what do you think about private military companies? One gets the impression that you are somewhat embarrassed by or deny their existence. Perhaps, we should be proud of them, because they operate in Syria, Donbass, Central Africa and other countries.

And another short question. As you are aware, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a 77-year-old man, was arrested and jailed for 15 days for a post on Facebook. What do you as a human being think about this? Is that a normal thing to do?

Vladimir Putin: Let us start with Wagner and chefs.

All my chefs are employed by the Federal Guard Service. They are servicemen holding different ranks. I have no other chefs.

This matter should be made clear once and for all so that we do not have to return to it in the future. If someone wants to label someone, they are free to do so, and there is nothing wrong with that. This is part of politicking in our country. There is even such a thing as “safe food.” For your information, we do not outsource this job, and the Federal Guard Service employees do all the work.

Now, on to Wagner and what these people are doing. Everything must remain within the law, everything. We can ban private security firms altogether, but once we do so, I think you will be flooded with petitions demanding to protect this section of the labour market. Almost a million people are employed there. If this Wagner group breaks any laws, the General Prosecutor’s Office will go ahead and give it a legal assessment.

Now, about their presence in foreign countries. To reiterate, if they comply with Russian laws, they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world.

Finally, the tragedy that you mentioned. It was certainly a tragedy. These people died and left behind families and friends. In general, unfortunately, a lot of tragedies are connected with journalists. I think we should never forget them, including the journalists who died in southeastern Ukraine under fire, or were killed in gun attacks, practically assassinated. Please do not forget about them, either.

As far as I know, your colleagues travelled to Africa as tourists, not even as journalists, without notifying local authorities. According to the data available to date, some local groups are behind this attack.

As far as I understand, an investigation is underway. Unfortunately, there is no reliable information yet, but we strongly hope that it will be eventually obtained. We are on top of this situation through our diplomatic channels. I hope that at least at some point we will find out what happened there. My heart goes out to you, to all members of the editorial board and the families of the people who died there.

Sergei Milvit: Vladivostok!

Vladimir Putin: Okay, let us hear from Vladivostok. It is louder than the others…

Sergei Milvit: Good afternoon, Mr President. Thank you very much for giving me the floor.

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of all residents of Vladivostok for your decision to make it the capital of the Far Eastern Federal District. Thank you very much.

At the last news conference I asked you questions about ecology, a waste incineration plant, Snegovaya Pad and forest clearance. Thank you very much for the closure of the waste incineration plant. I hope it will not be reopened.

The only problem is that there are some companies that would like to handle separated garbage but for some reason the regional operator does not allow it because it is leased and a land plot cannot be subleased and so on.

Recently we had elections and as you know of course, the pension reform was the main reason for protests. This is why the elections were drawn out, this was the main reason.

I would like to continue talking about environmental protection and the sports complex that has not been finished and house equity holders that have been cheated – their residential houses have not been finished. Dalkhimprom-Karyernaya is where our marines are deployed. There is also school #55 that was closed and now children have to go to faraway schools.

And one more thing. The lands of the forest fund are government property like the strategic Primvodokanal facility. What is happening currently? To this day forests have not undergone cadastral registration. They are being cut down and cottages are being built – nothing has changed.

Lakes and water reservoirs at Primvodokanal that should be government property are now privately owned. I would like to ask you to clear up this question.

Remark: Question!

Sergei Milvit: Ok. Excuse me please. We will move on to the next issue. If you could comment briefly on the pension reform.

It seems to me that you were likely deceived about the pension reform. I will explain why. It appears that the pension deficit for 2018 amounts to 257 billion, right?

And when there was some popular unrest, they decided to give them another 500 billion so as to provide some benefits. Don’t you think that it is worth paying attention to this and maybe it is better to cancel the pension reform?

We are spending a lot of money. We have a deficit but are still spending so much. I think generally I have said everything I wanted about the pension reform.

Wait a minute. I would like to say happy New Year to Mr President and wish him strength, every success and all the best.

And, sorry guys, I would like to make one last point. Mr Peskov said that there was some information and I would like to share it.

Instead of all the requests that journalists want me to make, I will speak about the most important issue.

Mr President, please help. Vladislav Shestakov has been sick for three years. He is from the Irkutsk Region, the city of Cheremkhovo. He simply needs to be transferred to Moscow.

People have raised money. Please help us resolve this problem. And please answer the questions that I asked.

Please take measures to return the forest fund to the state and lakes to Primvodokanal.

Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the most sensitive issue.

I apologise to Novaya Gazeta – you asked me about Lev Ponomaryov. We discussed this issue at a meeting with human rights activists at a Council meeting. It is not because I want to dodge the question, I just skipped over it inadvertently.

With regard to Ponomaryov, the court ruled based on calls for an unauthorised rally. I do not want to question court decisions or the fairness of this particular ruling.

Now, regarding the sensitive issue of the pension reform. In the early and mid-2000s, and you are aware of my position, I said that I was strongly against raising the retirement age, and it was impossible to do so back then.

I still believe this was the correct position, because life expectancy was at a low of 65, and the number of workers (the workers/non-workers ratio) was different and more or less acceptable.

Now, things have changed dramatically. The point is not about the current shortages. The fact is that trends are such that the number of workers is declining, while the number of non-working pensioners is on the rise.

You are right, we can leave this issue unaddressed, and I said so in my remarks. We can forget about it for the next five to seven years; however, then the country will have to do it no matter what, but it will have to be done abruptly, without a transition period, or any easing of terms, including for women.

We will then have to act quickly, that is the problem. If I did not see these trends, I would have never allowed this to happen, but these are objective trends that cannot be ignored.

You know, I was well aware of how people would react. No matter what arguments one can come up with, when a particular person’s interests are at stake, no one is delighted with the prospect. I was well aware that criticism would be coming both from the right and the left.

We know what was done by the left. In their time, they dismantled the Soviet Union with their economic policy, and later, in the 1990s, almost destroyed Russia. We would not be living in the Russian Federation now. Instead, we would be left with Moscovia, or something like it. We managed to keep the situation in check. Moreover, the country is getting stronger and better.

This is an unpleasant and, clearly, not a fun thing to do, but it has to be done nonetheless. To reiterate, if I was not convinced that it would have to be done some time down the road, I would have never allowed it to happen.

Now, regarding the specific questions that you asked, including forest reserves, the school and the sports complex. This, as you understand, requires separate consideration, as these are separate issues.

I promise that I will definitely look into them. I hope that Oleg Kozhemyako will do so as well. I am sure he can hear me now. I want him to submit the corresponding information to me and report accordingly.

Regarding the transfer of the administrative centre to Vladivostok, [Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District] Trutnev raised this issue a very long time ago. Vladivostok is doing very well and is really the centre of the region and, to a certain extent, a centre of gravity, I mean with regard to neighbouring countries, so I think this is a well-grounded decision.

Sergei Milvit: More about the child…

Vladimir Putin: Where is the boy now?

Sergei Milvit: The town of Cheremkhovo, Irkutsk Region.

Vladimir Putin: What is wrong with him?

Sergei Milvit: He is ill.

Vladimir Putin: All right, we will definitely help him.

Dmitry Peskov: Our colleagues will take your contact information.

Vladimir Putin: Please go ahead.

Anastasia Melnikova: Good afternoon, my name is Anastasia Melnikova, Znak.com.

Mr President, torture at some prisons, pre-trial detention facilities and special penitentiaries has been reported with frightening regularity lately.

I am now talking about the Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Orenburg and Saratov regions, Khakassia and the Trans-Baikal Territory. Then last summer, thanks to our colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, we learned about atrocious torture at the Yaroslavl prison.

At the same time we hear the story of serial killer Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz, who, while being held at a high-security prison, was allowed the pleasure of eating crab, caviar and the like.

Don’t you think the Federal Penitentiary Service desperately needs reforming – and this needs to be done right now? Since I am clearly not the first to alert you to this problem, can you tell us what is being done and who will be given this responsibility?

When will prisons in Russia stop being a place for recreation for some people and a place where other people are subject to medieval torture? Because this is really too much, I mean the things that are now happening at federal penitentiaries. This is really too much even for our country.

Vladimir Putin: The situation at the prisons must constantly be overseen by the prosecutor’s offices, first of all. Clearly, the incidents that are being reported are absolutely unacceptable.

Any violation of the law, to say nothing of torture, is a crime. Those who violate the law, who commit these crimes must be held responsible. Incidentally, this is what happens when these kinds of stories come to light, in part, thanks to the media.

But it would also be incorrect to say that we need to destroy the whole system. We should improve the system and bring public oversight to a new level – I completely agree with this.

In connection with this, I would like to remind you that we have established commissions that must work on this and which will receive support from the Government and the President. I expect them to play a positive role in resolving the problems that the system definitely has.

Rustam Falyakhov: Gazeta.Ru, I am Rustam Falyakhov, good afternoon.

Mr President, when you opened the press conference, you summed up macroeconomic results and it seems we are living increasingly better. Paris residents might just be very jealous if we believe the statistics.

Vladimir Putin: Native residents of Paris are moving to the suburbs for a number of reasons. This is why a hike in petrol prices caused such discontent, many native Parisians moved to the suburbs and higher petrol prices are very hard on their budgets. But this is a different issue.

Let us speak about housing construction.

Go ahead, please.

Rustam Falyahov: I have a question about the accuracy of statistics, the accuracy of the information used to measure the standard of living in Russia. If we believe the Government reports, incomes are growing, you also gave the number of half a percent.

Incomes are rising whereas prices are falling. When Russians see price tags on goods and services, they understand that government officials are just playing loose with the numbers. I am speaking about the statistics from the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Economic Development, the Finance Ministry and others.

Experts are also bewildered as their numbers and their data do not conform to official statistical data, and apparently, desperate experts are already proposing to introduce a somewhat exotic happiness index, which would take into account the voice of the Russians.

My question is very simple – is it time to fine-tune official statistics? Otherwise, the May Executive Order will be fulfilled easily whereas the happiness index will stand at zero.

Vladimir Putin: I understand and partly share your concern, but only partly in the sense that it should be explained to people where the numbers come from and what they mean, and how they should be taken.

Because when pure numbers are presented and it is said that life has become better and happier whereas people see, as you say, real prices in the shops going up, it causes bewilderment and mistrust of the statistics. They are not perfect, by the way. If we can, if we do not get tired of talking for such a long tome, we can revisit the issue.

The statistics are not ideal but the point is not so much their quality, which needs perfecting, the point is also that people should be told that those are average figures.

We are talking about living standards. We are talking about salaries. I said that in the first ten months there was a 7.4 percent increase, and that by the end of the year it will be 6.9 percent. But people will see this and say, “I have had no such increase.”

This is an average. It concerns certain sectors and certain regions. Somewhere there is an increase in a certain sector, for example, for oil workers or steel workers. And in some cases, there is no increase. These are average figures. That’s the point.

Among the most important indicators are the disposable income of the population and retail sales numbers. This more or less conforms with the real state of affairs. And what is this like?

In 2015, we had an over-2-percent drop in the real disposable income of the population, in 2016 – minus 5.8, and in 2017 – 1.2, but also on the minus side. This is the disposable income of the population.

Incidentally, analysts certainly understand what I am talking about. But for the majority of people it’s unclear. Let me explain what it means and how these figures are calculated, it will take 30 seconds.

It is fairly easy to calculate people’s expenses: how and where they spend money and how much. In other words, if people spent money, they had it. Added to this are bank deposits and cash savings. This is, on the whole, a calculable sum, because it is more or less clear how much money people keep in banks. The Central Bank, which regulates the money supply, is aware of the total amount: how much is kept in banks, how much is in the hands of consumers. Cash savings in foreign currencies are harder to calculate. But this is basically clear. Then the taxes paid by an individual (personal income tax, or property tax if there is any property) are deducted, and then the figures are adjusted for inflation.

These are the disposable incomes of the population. Again, they had been falling in our country in these years. And only now, by the end of this year, we may have a 0.1-percent increase, but only if we do not take into account the lump-sum payments of 5,000 rubles to pensioners at the end of 2017.

So, the trend is generally positive, and it is backed up by other data. What data? Sales volumes – sales are picking up. Despite some problems in the auto industry itself, car sales have grown 27 percent.

As I said, the production of clothing and footwear has increased, food production is up 13 percent compared with the previous increase of 9 percent.

The volume of international air transportation has surged 46 percent, while domestic air travel has grown by more than 20 percent. These are all signs of growing consumer purchasing power. It is gradual and cautious, but it has been recovering.

It seems to me that if we explain this to people in normal human language and show it as a whole, it will become clearer where we are and where we are going. But this system undoubtedly needs to be improved, I completely agree with you.

It is difficult for me to decide… The one with the Russian flag – by all means.

Yelena Yeskina: Thank you very much Mr President, first of all from the cameramen because it appears that my flag was in their way. But do not worry, the flag was the longest but my question will be brief. My name is Yelena.

Vladimir Putin: The Russian flag cannot be in anybody’s way.

Yelena Yeskina: You see, camera operators. So, my name is Yelena Yeskina, and I am a journalist of the Dagestan State Television And Radio Broadcasting Company.

We live in a multi-ethnic country and this is wonderful, is it not?

Vladimir Putin: It is very good.

Yelena Yeskina: Here is my brief question. I will just add a little. I am indeed lucky because I live in a multi-ethnic country…

Vladimir Putin: Please say a few words about yourself. Go ahead please.

Yelena Yeskina: …in the multi-ethnic republic of Dagestan and plus in a multi-ethnic family. I am Russian and my husband is Avar, so our children do not really look Slavic.

Vladimir Putin: You yourself look like an Avar.

Yelena Yeskina: Really?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, a bit.

Yelena Yeskina: Must be all the years of living in Dagestan.

Vladimir Putin: Indeed. (Laughter)

Yelena Yeskina: After I had children, I started paying attention to what they show on Russian television. Very often, if not always, they show in ads beautiful children – so fair, with light hair, light eyes, big blue eyes.

And I started wondering where the other types, for instance Mongoloids, were. After all, Russia is multi-ethnic; we have about 200 ethnic groups. Let us take a regiment, the main regiment of the country– the Kremlin regiment and the guys there look Slavic. There is an unspoken requirement that Slavic guys should form this regiment. Do you not think so?

Vladimir Putin: No, I do not.

Yelena Yeskina: You do not. Then it just seemed so to me. Okay, Then I will just ask you…

Vladimir Putin: It just seems like that to you.

Yelena Yeskina: Probably it does, I apologise.

I have a request for you. This has nothing to do with seeming, and it is a big request. Please look into the investigation of the Gasanguseinov brothers’ case.

Two teenagers were shot in Shamil District in 2016. It turned out later that they were not militants and were not involved in illegal armed units.

Now the case has been reclassified and is being investigated under Article 105 Murder where the father is considered the injured party. This case has been transferred to Moscow but has not been brought to a close.

I would like to ask you to personally oversee the investigation of the case of the murder of the Gasanguseinov brothers and please rehabilitate them officially as soon as possible. I just feel so sorry for their parents.

Vladimir Putin: I must give corresponding instructions to Mr Bastrykin [Chairman of the Investigative Committee]. Consider it done. He will take control and report to me on what is happening there.

To be honest, this is the first I have heard of it, but I promise you that I will give it the attention it deserves and Alexander Bastrykin will receive corresponding instructions.

Turkey… Please pass the microphone.

Fuad Safarov: Fuad Safarov, journalist and analyst on Turkey, RiA Vesti (Russia and Azerbaijan Vesti) news website.

Mr President,

Recently, Turkey marked the anniversary [of the death] of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. I would like to know what you think of Ataturk as a person and his historic role in global policy. Looking back at Ataturk, how will you assess today’s progress in relations between Russia and Turkey?

Vladimir Putin: Ataturk is certainly an outstanding figure in Turkish history. He made an extraordinary contribution to the efforts to preserve and restore Turkey as a state, he did quite a lot to achieve this.

He was a great friend of Russia, we know this, and he cooperated with Russia, worked with it and we appreciate his input very much.

Ataturk created modern Turkey, having laid the foundation for the state. This is what I think of him.

As for the status of our relations today, I think we should be satisfied with the progress in the development of ties between Russia and Turkey in the economy and on security issues. Although our interests have not always coincided on some matters, we have managed to make compromise decisions on how to resolve the Syria crisis.

We respect the national interests of the Turkish Republic and the Turkish people in this area, and we see that our Turkish partners are willing to compromise and so together we make these compromise decisions to secure the development of a favourable situation in Syria and for the sake of fighting terrorism and strengthening our relations.

As for the economy, you can see yourself that our ties are growing stronger. Despite Turkey being a NATO member country, it delivers on its commitments, as far as we can see. At the same time, being a NATO member it is pursuing an independent foreign policy.

We appreciate this, as it creates conditions for maintaining predictable and healthy relations. Of course, in this sense, the role of the incumbent Turkish President is great. Hopefully, this trend will continue under the leadership of Mr Erdogan.

Dmitry Peskov: The CIS TV and radio company MIR, if you please.

Vladimir Putin: The next one will be for equity holders, okay?

Elina Dashkuyeva: Hello, Mr President. Elina Dashkuyeva, MIR.

You said at the Russia Calling! forum that the dollar is leaving Russia. First of all, what advantages and disadvantages can we expect from this? What currency will the Eurasian Economic Union countries now use to pay each other – will they adopt an interstate currency or use new digital technologies such as blockchain?

Vladimir Putin: A very important and interesting question. About dollarisation and weaning the economy off the dollar, including the Russian economy.

In general, according to the IMF, payments in dollars have slightly decreased around the world. The year before last, they were a little over 63 percent I think, and now slightly over 62. But for Russia, this figure is higher, 69 percent.

This is due to the fact that our main export products, primarily oil, are listed on world exchanges in dollars, and this is a large amount.

Our foreign exchange reserves in dollars are declining; only recently, we were holders of American securities quoted in dollars in the amount of $104 billion, now down to $14.4 billion. Payments in yen and pounds have slightly grown in world trade.

As for weaning Russia off the dollar, it will exclusively concern settlements between economic entities, but will in no way affect citizens.

When we were discussing today’s news conference yesterday, Mr Peskov told me that they are removing exchange rate ads in some cities, including Moscow, and people are wondering about the reason behind this, whether this may be connected with some restrictions on using dollars.

There is nothing of the kind, and it will not happen, I would like to reassure everyone. Advertising exchange rates on currency exchange offices is only connected with one thing: the fight against illegal money exchange businesses. This is about streamlining the sphere of finance, money circulation, and cracking down on grey businesses operating in this area, nothing more.

Regarding the ruble. Yes, use of the ruble as a reserve currency in transactions is growing, maybe not a lot, but it is growing, primarily in transactions between the EAEU countries and in the post-Soviet space.

For example, use of the ruble has grown significantly in transactions between Russia and Belarus, reaching, if I’m correct, over 60 percent, almost 70 percent in clearing transactions while the numbers in cash settlements are smaller. But the role of the ruble will certainly increase in this segment, that’s obvious.

It’s more reliable and does not involve extra costs, especially the costs associated with dollar transactions. Because you and I know perfectly well: wherever clearing operations are made, they all go through US banks.

And if there are restrictions, it makes you want to sidestep these restrictions which is a natural reaction. This is happening around the world, by the way, in view of instability with these transactions.

However, several issues must be resolved for the ruble to be used at least as a regional currency. First, cutting volatility. The exchange rate must be stable, and we have generally managed to maintain it recently.

This is related to the activities of the Central Bank and the Government of the Russian Federation. As you have seen, it is stable; it has somewhat lost its dependency on fuel and oil price fluctuations partly due to the introduction of a floating exchange rate for the ruble.

This is the first goal. But we have to ensure further stability and keep inflation low. This is an extremely important condition.

Then comes the next step – we have to develop the financial infrastructure for transactions in the ruble. It is clear what this means. We need to improve the settlement mechanisms between economic parties and financial institutions. We will be working on this.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr Putin, perhaps you will take a question from foreign media. I can see The Wall Street Journalhere.

Ann Maria Simmons: Good afternoon, Mr President. Thank you very much for the opportunity to ask you a question.

In the West, many politicians, experts and even ordinary people see Russia as a great threat. They even think that you, as the President of Russia, want to rule the world.

Vladimir Putin: Well, of course.

Ann Maria Simmons: I want to know if you really want this. Also, please, what is the real goal of your foreign policy? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: With regard to ruling the world, we know where the headquarters that is trying to do so is located, and it is not in Moscow. However, this is related to the leading role of the United States in the global economy and defence spending: the United States is spending over $700 billion on defence, while we spend only $46 billion.

Just think of it, we have 146 million people in Russia, whereas the NATO countries’ population is 600 million, and you think our goal is to rule the world? This is a cliché imposed on public opinion in Western countries in order to resolve intra-bloc and domestic political issues.

When I say intra-bloc, I mean that in order for NATO to rally countries around itself, it needs an external threat. It does not work otherwise. You have to have someone to rally against. As a major nuclear power, Russia fits the bill perfectly.

With regard to domestic political issues, unfortunately, Russophobia continues to flourish in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe. For what purpose? In order to use old historical fears to ensure their own domestic political well-being.

This is also harmful, because, ultimately, it is about exploiting the phobias of the past, which prevent us from moving forward. It is harmful for the countries and peoples whose leaders are trying to pursue such a policy.

In fact, the main goal of our foreign policy is to provide favourable conditions for the Russian Federation, its economy and social sphere, to ensure unfettered movement forward and to strengthen our country from the inside, above all, so that it can take its rightful place in the international arena as an equal among equals.

We are in favour of consolidating the system of international law, ensuring unconditional compliance with the UN Charter, and using this platform to develop equal relations with all the participants of international affairs.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, you promised to talk about housing equity holders. Who wanted to ask about this?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, please. This is an important question.

Alla Andreyeva: Good afternoon, Mr President! Alla Andreyeva, Ryazanskaya Oblastnaya Gazeta newspaper. Mr President, thank you very much for giving me the floor.

Vladimir Putin: You are welcome.

Alla Andreyeva: I am speaking on behalf of St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: St Petersburg?

Alla Andreyeva: Like you, I am from St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: St Petersburg again. A Ryazan newspaper from St Petersburg. St Petersburg is everywhere.

Alla Andreyeva: We both work in different places than where we were born.

Vladimir Putin: Totally different.

Alla Andreyeva: Mr President, I have a very big request for you: can you please pay more attention to housing equity holders that have been cheated: in St Petersburg, the Leningrad Region and all across Russia.

What is happening now? Unfinished buildings that do not comply with building equity contracts are being commissioned in St Petersburg just to report to Moscow that everything is fine. You see, during your Direct Line on June 15, 2017, Albin and Minenko, a federal inspector, stood in front of my house, which had not been finished; construction was ongoing, but they officially declared the building commissioned, thus committing a criminal offence. But, you see, activists like me are being bullied for taking this position. They are trying to open a criminal case against me, because I am trying to write the truth about the officials.

My husband was killed on October 6, 2015. The investigation has not made any progress. Over the first 18 months they have made my life a nightmare, as well as the lives of my family, because someone leaked information to mass media. My mother passed away when she heard about this from a television report. Can you see what is happening in St Petersburg? My car was burned before that. All of this is happening in our hometown, our St Petersburg. Please, I am begging you to look into this case, to look into housing equity holders not only in St Petersburg, but in the Leningrad Region and everywhere in Russia.

I do not know. Let us, together with you… We are just like you, we do not bite. Come to St Petersburg and meet our activists. We will tell you the truth. We will tell you everything as it is, without these fake reports and road maps, without these useless scraps of paper published by these officials on their websites all over the country. I communicate with equity holders practically from all regions. We have a large group of activists. I have a pressing request. This is not even a question but a cry for help: please help the cheated equity holders and on the investigation of my husband’s case.

Vladimir Putin: Do you think your husband’s murder was related to your activities to protect the interests of equity holders?

Alla Andreyeva: Yes, this is the only connection I can see.

Vladimir Putin: Is that so? I promise you to pay attention to this by all means. Do not have any doubts about this. This is the first thing I will say.

The second is about the problem you raised, it is very urgent indeed. This gives me an opportunity to speak in greater detail about the problem and the construction industry. You know, this will never end if we do not sort out the mess and switch to civilised ways of housing construction. Indeed, the real estate industry is faced with the task of building 120 million square metres of housing but we must stop the practice of attracting people’s money and irresponsibly spending it.

This is what happens: yes, we keep the cost of housing relatively low but at the expense of what? Because some people acquire this housing at relatively low prices. In particular, this is also done at the expense of the people whose money is taken but who do not receive anything – either money or housing. This is the root of the problem and all evil. So we must certainly switch to civilised ways of funding this industry even if this leads to a certain reduction in the construction sector and some increase in prices. But without this we will never be able to put things in order there.

We must switch to bank financing, to normal and civilised loans or else this will never end. The people who found themselves in a difficult situation because they paid the money but received no housing must certainly be helped. We should not shut our eyes to the scale of this problem. It is clear and I agree with you that even the figures that are now shown, the figures on cheated equity holders and their personal problems do not click with reality. In fact, the problem is even more urgent than these documents show.

As for the situation you described in your question, I do not know these buildings of course, but we will see. I will also talk to the Acting Governor of this region, Mr Beglov. He is a very experienced man and can figure this out. I hope the situation will improve. In any case, be sure that this will be a subject of my conversation with him. The first thing that will happen is that he will meet with you.

Colleagues, listen to me. If we want to go on a little longer, we must not turn our press conference into an unauthorised rally. OK? Let us not. So I ask you to calm down.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, let me authorise: Marina Kim, The Great Game.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, please.

Marina Kim: Good afternoon, Channel One.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to ask questions. By the way, regarding the question of whether there are non-Slavic faces on Russian TV, well, there are and Channel One shows me live on a daily basis.

Our question is: The Great Game show is about Russia-US relations. We would like to know if a meeting with Mr Trump is possible after he cancelled it himself, for example, in the immediate future. Are you ready for one?

And to quote Kipling, the 19th century, who said the Great Game is finished when everyone is dead. And it was a standoff of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Vladimir Putin: That’s great! “Would you like to meet?” “Will there be a meeting?” “Everyone will die.”

Marina Kim: I will explain. There was a standoff between the Anglo-Saxon world and the Russian world in the 19thcentury. Have the rules changed now or is it the same game? Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Unfortunately, we see that many birthmarks of the past, as Karl Marx used to say, are still there, but I hope that some things will somehow be made right. Ultimately we will reach the bottom in our relations and will understand that we have to go up, to push off from that bottom, go up, take a lungful of fresh air and with a clear head start thinking how to proceed.

I do not know if we have a meeting or not, I said a number of times that we are ready. We believe there are issues that we have to discuss together. Work at the expert level on Syria, for example, is ongoing. We also have to speak about North Korea, and Afghanistan, a great many other situations in the world.

After all, we need to talk about bilateral relations; we are interested in this, as well as our American partners are, by the way. Of course, there is no super-global interest. Our mutual trade stands at a meagre 28 billion, or even lower now, less than 28, 25 to 27 billion maybe. This is nothing, zero. With China, we will reach 100 billion this year, and with the US, everything is in decline. Who is interested in this? No one, not even the President of the United States, who is promoting the idea of reviving the economy, as he says, in his quest to make America great again.

I certainly believe that working with Russia is important in itself, and this includes economic cooperation, at least bearing in mind that we play a key role in the global energy market; cooperation in the field of nonproliferation and global security also matters, among other things. We have a lot to talk about. But we see what is happening there. Now power will change in Congress. Almost certainly, 100 percent sure, there will be new attacks on the current President. Under these conditions, whether he will be able to achieve any kind of direct dialogue with Russia, I do not know; you will have to ask them.

What worries me though? You mentioned the Anglo-Saxon world, where some deep-rooted, tectonic changes are occurring. After all, please note, Trump won – this is an obvious fact no one seems to be arguing with, but they do not want to recognise his victory either. This actually shows disrespect for the voters – refusing to recognise his victory, doing everything to delegitimise the incumbent President.

The same applies to Britain: Brexit got the majority vote – but no one wants to implement it. What are they refusing to recognise? The referendum results. Democratic procedures are being dropped out of the equation, and destroyed; their value is being destroyed. That is what is happening there. This is a serious process. I have pointed out that Western analysts are already discussing this matter, both in the States, by the way, and in Britain. We must keep this in mind. But whatever happens, we still need to build bilateral relations. We are willing to. As soon as possible. As soon as the other side is ready, we will do this.

This one. [Sign] “How’s the health?” Did you mean your health, mine or someone else’s? Or did you mean the country’s healthcare?

Yekaterina Butkevich: Good afternoon.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Yekaterina Butkevich: I’m Yekaterina from Ministry of Ideas TV channel. I was asking about your health.

Vladimir Putin: What is the channel’s name?

Yekaterina Butkevich: Ministry of Ideas. It is a private TV channel located in Yekaterinburg. The question is about your health. How are you feeling? How are you?

Vladimir Putin: Don’t hold your breath! (Laughter in the audience.)

Yekaterina Butkevich: I mean everyone is just asking their questions but no one is wondering how you are and whether you need help in some matters. (Laughter in the audience.)

Vladimir Putin: What is your name?

Yekaterina Butkevich: Yekaterina.

Vladimir Putin: Yekaterina, we will discuss it later. (Laughter in the audience.)

Yekaterina Butkevich: Mine is not a question but a proposal.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.

Yekaterina Butkevich: We all know that everything is based on ideas. Our life, our future and our country are also based on ideas. And our team proposes to establish a Ministry of Ideas of the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin: Establishing the Ministry of Ideas is a good idea.

Yekaterina Butkevich: I would like to hear your opinion on this matter. And we are ready to help establish this agency.

Vladimir Putin: I believe that our Ministry of Economic Development should fulfill this function, because it should generate ideas to promote development. But I am ready to discuss your proposal. We just need to understand the substance, what it means. You and your colleagues please think about it, explain what the “ministry of ideas” is, what it should do, how it will function, on what principles, and what the substance of its work would be.

As for my health, it really does not differ from anyone else’s. I mean, thank God, I do sports, and I am fine. I try to take care of my health. But just like everyone else, I can catch flu or something in the offseason. So far, everything is okay. Thank you very much for your concern.

Yekaterina Butkevich: Thank you.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, you have not taken any sports-related questions so far. Will you take one from Sovietsky Sport?

Vladimir Putin: Fine. There is something about a pike. What is up with the pike?

Nikolai Yaremenko: Good afternoon, Nikolai Yaremenko, Sovietsky Sport.

There are many sporting events, but I have only one question. I will not mention the World Cup, which we hosted brilliantly (strangely, no one has mentioned it today), nor will I say anything about Mutko leaving football forever yesterday, or even the upcoming 95th anniversary of our newspaper and our hope to see you as a guest in our editorial offices.

I have a quick question about doping which is a longstanding issue. It appears that this has long since become a political matter. Similar to the sanctions, international sports organisations seem willing to take a bite at us whenever they get the chance.

On the other hand, this is a comfortable position for many of our sports officials as they can sit on their hands and blame everything on politics. Do you think we are now clean enough in this area to be able to say that everything is fine now?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, to a large extent, we ourselves are to blame for this situation, because our athletes did use doping.

It is a different matter that we were accused of authorising the use of doping at the state level. This is not true, and it has never happened and will never happen, because we must keep in mind not only the results, which, of course are important, but also the health of our athletes.

However, since this has happened, we must, first, acknowledge it and, second, admit our fault, which means that we were unable to properly control doping. This is the responsibility of the organisations and government agencies that were supposed to do this.

With regard to whether we have stopped this or not, probably not, not 100 percent. Enormous efforts were made, and a good framework was created to do it properly and to make sure it was done with integrity.

But this is not just our scourge; doping is used around the world. Nevertheless, we must strive to reduce it completely.

The WADA commission is currently working in our country. They are holding talks with the Ministry of Sport, including on access to related materials. But you are right about the political aspect of it, which I hope will be overcome completely as well.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, we have been working for quite a while, almost three and a half hours. And so I have a suggestion. There are three veteran journalists from the national level – Terekhov from Interfax, Gamov from Komsomolskaya Pravda and Kondratyev from NTV television channel. I suggest wraping up by taking three questions from them.

Go ahead, Mr Terekhov.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, but let several other colleagues ask their questions too.

Dmitry Peskov: Since you are the most experienced you must express yourself in a few words.

Vyacheslav Terekhov: Absolutely.

In the very beginning you spoke about health, medications, healthcare and the like. In many respects our health depends on medications. Could you please tell us to what extent we are independent of foreign supplies as regards medications? How do our medications compare with their foreign counterparts in efficacy and who is responsible for the fact that our analogues are even worse than planned?

Vladimir Putin: You know, we must put things right here in many respects and counter the assertions you just made. You asked: Who is responsible for the inferior quality of our medications compared to their foreign counterparts? This is not true, they are in no way inferior, however we must combat certain things in several areas.

Doctors that prescribe these medications should cooperate less with producers and think more about their patients. Do you understand? Because when they cooperate with specific producers they say: “Ours are worse – take this imported one.”

But this does not mean that we should get rid of all imported medications. If a certain medication is required, it should be prescribed. This is a sensitive process but it is important to understand what the problem is in all respects.

Now I will say a few words about the scale. First, we have even started to export our medications. This year we will export 700 million worth of medications. This is not so much but still a considerable amount – 700 million.

If we look at price tags, 30 percent of medications are produced at home for the domestic market. They are 60 percent of the range.

As for our dependence or independence, everything is interrelated in this world. That said we produce, say, 80 percent of vital medications. Importantly, there are an increasing number of substances produced in Russia, not simply generics that are brought in from abroad. On the whole, this programme is working. I believe it was launched in 2015 and will be carried out until 2020.

As for the development of the pharmaceutical and medical industry, it is working. About 200 billion rubles are allocated for it and it is fairly effective on the whole. This is a very important area of our work and we will certainly continue it.

Alexander Gamov: Komsomolskaya Pravda website, radio and newspaper.

Mr President, frankly speaking, I feel sorry for President Putin because we have nice numbers, truthful numbers, they are real, they do not raise doubts among experts, I think. Meanwhile, ordinary people do not quite trust them because life is hard in Russia. This is my first point.

The second. There is no peace, I do not mean the situation itself, but in people’s hearts, souls, minds, and thoughts. In other words, people worry a lot about both you and the country. So why does this happen? I believe that the middle tier official, the top tier, ministers, governors – they are all afraid of Putin. You have appointed everyone, lined them up, there are basically all normal people. Whereas those officials who want to talk about an excise tax on sausage, or the Kremlin banning births or whatever, they muddy the waters and make it harder for people to believe Putin, the state and so on. I think some sort of reform is needed. We must do something with this middle tier. Let us retrain them, and let us help you.

To conclude, literally just before the press conference I got a telephone message, a very short one, “Gamov, ask Vladimir Putin if it is time to look into the disastrous gap between the incomes of top managers and ordinary people? When will the President finally make a clear statement about it?” Because you have revisted that topic several times.

Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: The point you are making is an eternal Russian argument: The Tsar is good while the courtiers are thieves and outlaws. You see, if something does not go well, it is everyone’s fault. This is my first point. And secondly, as I have already said, the point is not that the numbers are somehow wrong. The point is that they do not work well with the numbers. They do not explain the numbers to the people. Whereas you said that the numbers are good but they are not trusted. As if you failed to hear what I said in the beginning and in the middle, when I gave data related to a decline in the real disposable incomes of the population. What is good about that? I did not say it was good. Incomes fell in the country in 2015 while in 2016 they were down by 5.8 percent. What is good about that? And I did not say it was good, I said the trend is righting itself, thank God, and it is an objective factor. I do not think that people here do not believe it. These are truthful things, and I hope people do understand that.

Speaking about officials in general, you, of course, know that there are people who have no idea what they are saying. They are not where they should be and are not careful with their words. There are people like this. But this is what we all are, our environment. That kind of person was just someone yesterday and is an official now, so they can blab. They are not ready. This means they are simply not ready for the job.

And, of course, we must work with people, with all the officials. There are many good and active people among them, too. This is a fact, we should accept this. You see, it is impossible to close everything and then open the box to make it right. It is not a coincidence that Moses and the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Well, we cannot lead 146 million people across the desert for so long.

This is a process of growing up for the civil service. We are working with it; see, we are organising various contests for young people. We have a human resources contest, Leaders of Russia. We teach them later at our academy. I believe 12 or 15 graduates have already become governors, two are federal ministers and five or six are deputy ministers. Little by little we will be expanding this. It is a long process.

Alexander Gamov: You have not talked about the gap.

Vladimir Putin: Speaking about the gap. First, unfortunately, it does exist.

Second, which is also unfortunate, as rule, this is a global trend. In any case, this is what is happening in large economies. Look what is happening in the US. Our US colleagues are present here, they must read US analyses. The gap between those who earn a lot and those who earn very little is expanding by their estimation. By the way, the campaign of President Trump, the current president, noted this very clearly. They used this in their campaign and turned out to be right.

Of course we must take this into consideration. At the very least we must decrease the number of poor people. This is true.

Is that all?

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, we have a veteran to wrap things up.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, another veteran.

Vladimir Kondratyev: I will really be brief.

Mr President, speaking at an earlier press conference, you said something interesting, that you collect emotions. You collect emotions, and this is your wealth as the country’s leader. What kind of year was this in terms of emotions? Which event do you consider the biggest?

Vladimir Putin: Two events.

Vladimir Kondratyev: Two events?

Vladimir Putin: Yes. Certainly, the presidential election, as this is important for the whole country. And the World Cup, which also turned out to be important for the whole country and the world.

Ussuriysk, please go ahead.

Yekaterina Kharina: Good afternoon, I am Yekaterina Kharina, Telemix TV Channel, Ussuriysk.

Mr President, last week you signed an executive order on moving the capital of the Far East from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok. I have a question about this: what plans does the Government have to strengthen the regions in the Far East and in particular, of Primorye Territory? Will we live to see the gasification of the entire region? And what do you think about the merging of our territory with Sakhalin Region?

Vladimir Putin: You see, the merging of any constituent entities in the Federation is a matter for the entities of the Federation themselves according to current law. If Sakhalin and Primorye Territory decide to unite, they can; they have to go through their respective procedures in parliament or hold a referendum, whichever is provided for in the regional legislation. But looking deeper, Sakhalin is a self-sustaining region, it provides a large share of its own budget, and the average income of the population is higher than in the Territory in general, but this is the internal business of the two regions. That is my first point.

The second concerns development. We have a complete programme, a package of measures to develop the Far East and Primorye Territory, a complete programme to establish favourable development conditions in the Far East. This includes the well-known Priority Development Areas, which is the ‘Far Eastern hectare’, the development of infrastructure, ports, airports, it is support for exports, including, and primarily, non-energy exports. We will do all this; it will never disappear. On the contrary, all of this will be actively pursued. There must be no doubt about it whatsoever. This will offer us an additional competitive edge.

We will definitely develop science and education; we will keep supporting the Far Eastern Federal University. We will certainly develop the shipbuilding sector and continue the construction of the shipyard in Vladivostok. And you know, the first steps have already been taken for this, and fairly big steps. Russia’s largest tonnage ships will be built in Vladivostok. We will build ships that are bigger than anything seen in the Soviet Union.

We will obviously continue our support for the aviation sector; plants will have contracts to keep busy, and research will be developed. And a totally new sector has emerged – aerospace, the new Vostochny Space Launch Centre. Marine biology, everything connected with fisheries – this will all be a priority for us. I have no doubt that we will achieve positive results.

I promised Euronews. Go ahead, please.

Galina Polonskaya: Hello, Mr President. Galina Polonskaya, Euronews TV channel. Thank you for the opportunity to ask you a question. I will put down the sign, I have already become one with it during these four hours.

The UN adopted a resolution about Russia’s militarisation of the Sea of ​​Azov, Crimea, and part of the Black Sea. After what happened with the Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, there were reports that Russia was sending military equipment to Crimea. Why should Russia reinforce its military presence in Crimea? Is Russia ready to declare the entire water area of ​​the Sea of ​​Azov its territory? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Look, in 2014, people living in Crimea came out for the referendum and ultimately voted for reunification with the Russian Federation. From that moment, after the relevant domestic procedures, Crimea became part of the Russian Federation, part of Russia. Therefore, we are entitled to and will continue to pursue our military policy on any part of our territory, as we see fit to ensure national security. Crimea is no exception. If the General Staff, if the border guards believe that we need to do something extra in some area, we will do it. Russia’s security in this area will certainly be ensured. We are not going to overdo it there, but what needs to be done, will be done. This is the first point.

Now about the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. We almost immediately announced that we intended to build a bridge to link up with Crimea, which we did. First we built an energy bridge, then a gas pipe, and now we are building two power plants there, in Sevastopol and in Simferopol, with a total capacity of 940 megawatts. We are building the Tavrida road, to be completed by the end of 2020. Next year, I think, the two-lane road will open, and by the end of 2020, a four-lane road.

We will develop the local infrastructure. That is, it is not only about reinforcing the military component, but above all, the civilian, infrastructure component. All this will certainly be implemented. We have a federal targeted programme for the development of Crimea. For the next two years, we have allocated 300 billion rubles for the development of the peninsula. All this will progress. Along with that, the military component will be strengthened, as far as we need it.

As for the Kerch straits, the situation is difficult, in terms of nature. These straits are very narrow and rather shallow. Their depth is about 13 metres. Let me emphasise that pilotage has always been conducted there. The construction of the bridge does not interfere with anything. Pilots escort ships as they used to.

Freight turnover is growing, in particular, in the ports of the Sea of Azov, this is true. But work there is organised and all participants in these economic activities know how this is being done. There is a queue there. Sometimes it is bigger and sometimes it is smaller. Just look at the number of vessels in front of the entrance to the port of Novorossiysk. There are quite a few of them.

I will have to repeat this once again: On September 11 of the past year Ukrainian vessels, including warships, fulfilled all requirements of passage through these straits and under the bridge and were calmly led by our pilots into the Sea of Azov and further on to their destination in the Sea. Nobody interfered with them – just helped.

This time everything was different. This is a deliberate provocation in the course of Mr Poroshenko’s election campaign. We have already shown in the media the logbook that contains the order to “enter secretly.” What does “secretly” mean? Nobody can say what might happen there without pilotage, all the more so when some politicians say in public that they are ready to blow up the bridge. Naturally, we cannot allow this to happen. This would be simply absurd for us, period. As for routine activities, nobody restricts them.

Now a few words about the regime in the Sea of Azov. We have a treaty dating back to 2003, I think. What does it say? It reads that there is a coastal area of five kilometres, not the usual 12 sea miles in accordance with the international Law of the Sea, but five kilometres off the coast. These are the territorial waters of a state, in this case of Russia or Ukraine, and the rest is common sea. Incidentally, our fishermen were once captured although they did not enter the five km zone. Nonetheless, they were seized and their captain is still detained. And your Euronews channel does not even mention this as if this is how it should be. The same is true of other Russian seamen: there is a dry-cargo vessel with its crew out there somewhere, but nobody recalls anything. Therefore, we should observe these agreements and abstain from announcing any unilateral actions.

As for warships, they should be in constant contact with our border guards. The border guards conduct their border mission. In conditions of martial law, I can hardly imagine warships going to and fro, but in general we would like to normalise the situation. We do not create any obstacles to vessels, including warships. Let me repeat that last September vessels were led by our pilot and nobody interfered with them, on the contrary we only helped.

This is a complicated problem, which we will certainly keep working on. You are right about this, I agree.

As far as the amendments to the Constitution are concerned, this is a matter for broad public discussion.

Dmitry Peskov: Mr President, there is a banner “Russians in Danger.” Please, tell us, which Russians are in danger? The last row. Show it, you raised it before.

Khamzat Batukayev: I am Khamzat Batukayev, Grozny TV Channel, Chechen Republic.

First, thank you for noticing the back row. The press conference has been going on for over three hours, and only the front rows and middle rows…

I have a personal request. We have guests from Latin America here. During each break they keep yelling “Latin America,” but no one is paying attention. If possible, will you please give them the floor after me; they have come a long way.

And now, properly, Mr President, just a second. I have already forgotten what I was going to say.

Vladimir Putin: Let’s talk to the people from Latin America then.

Khamzat Batukayev: This is a serious subject, in fact. I wrote “Russians in Danger” because thousands of our compatriots are still in Syria. They are there for one reason or another, but there are also children who are not there by choice.

Their parents have been sentenced to long prison terms, maybe even life terms. The children are left without parents, without care, and there are many such cases. How can we bring them back? We know your principled position on the issue, so the question is how can we proceed with this?

And, if I may, a second brief question. One of the first requests from the first president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov, that was addressed to you regarded the construction of the airport in Grozny, the restoration, to be exact.

It was restored, but ever since it has been suspended in some technical phase, which means it was not completely finished. Currently the republic’s government is holding discussions with various ministries on the second stage and apparently, there are some problems.

How can this be completed? Objectively, Chechnya is still developing, but we host hundreds of thousands of tourists, and the airport capacity is not sufficient.

And the last thing. You know Mr President, we have a main avenue that is named in your honour. You might not be aware that we are currently building the Vladimir Putin Judo Palace.

You always receive one of the highest percentage of votes in the region, I can honestly tell you that Chechens have deep respect for you, this is why I would like to invite you there.

You have also received an invitation from Adygeya or Karachayevo-Circassia, so when you go there, you can also come to the Chechen Republic as a second leg of your trip.

Vladimir Putin: I cannot go to Chechnya on my way to or from. I must go there directly. And I certainly will. This is the first thing.

Second, regarding the children. I believe this is a priority. We are engaged in this; we have a programme for repatriating these children to their homeland, to Russia, Chechnya, to the Caucasus, wherever. And Ramzan Kadyrov is also involved in this. We are doing this and will continue with it.

Urals, there is a sign that says Urals.

Roman Zykov: Good afternoon.

My name is Zykov Roman, Urals television.

Mr President, you say that patriotism should be our national idea. Isn’t it time we codify this in law, amend the Constitution to stipulate that patriotism is the national idea? Right now, a national idea is prohibited by of the Constitution. This is my first question.

Vladimir Putin: It is ideology as a leading force that is prohibited, not patriotism. I hear you. This is a subject for a wide public discussion.

Roman Zykov: And the second question. We have spoken about active patriotism; now, I am worried about the environment.

A lot of money is being allocated for the purification of water, which then goes to consumers, but there is practically no money allocated to maintain the quality of the pipes that deliver it to consumers, and to ensure that the sewage does not pollute our nature.

Unfortunately, 30 percent of sewage water pollutes nature – experts confirm this. Could you look into the issue and possibly adopt some technical regulations so that the quality of the pipes that deliver water to consumers like you and me is higher and we do not pollute the surrounding waters?

Vladimir Putin: This is a question of technical regulations.

You are certainly right. We must look into what is being supplied. I agree with you. It is a problem. But the problem is not only the pipes.

The problem is in the discharge of wastewater, and its purification. This is an issue that affects the entire country. But the relevant decisions have actually been taken here. This also applies to industry.

Applicable law provides for a transition to the latest available technologies. Penalties are imposed for the discharge of untreated water, and, generally, for waste, on companies that do not comply with the environmental requirements.

As for the airport, when needed, it operates as an international airport. If something more is needed, Mr Kadyrov will come and tell me. I will see what needs to be done; I just do not see what else needs to be done. The airport is functioning, but if we need to do more, we will see. Will that do? And thank you for the invitation.

Friendship of Peoples – over there, a young woman is standing in a kokoshnik. Yes, please, give her the microphone.

Valeria Pavlyuchenko: Mr President, good afternoon! My name is Valeria Pavlyuchenko; I am a representative of the First Russian ethnic TV channel.

I believe you know about our TV channel, because it was established with the support of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations. I would like to expand on the topic raised by our colleague from Dagestan, who spoke about ethnic and interethnic journalism.

We are a young team, let us say, a developing channel, and we report about the achievements of the regions, and interethnic stories. We would like to ask for your assistance, we really want to become information partners in the implementation of ethnic policies. Can you help us with this?

Vladimir Putin: Look, we have the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations. I will definitely ask my colleagues to get in touch with you and find opportunities to work with you on this most important matter for our country.

I wish you all a Happy New Year. Please do not be mad at me, we really have to wrap up now. Thank you very much for your attention, and for your questions. I sincerely wish you all the best.

Thank you.

Russia, Ukraine and the Minsk agreement fiction (Exclusive!)

Russia, Ukraine and the Minsk agreement fiction (Exclusive!)

December 18, 2018

by Pepe Escobar exclusive for The Saker Blog

Rostislav Ishchenko is arguably the leading international analyst focused on the extraordinarily turbulent Russia-Ukraine relations. He posts regularly on Ukraina.ru, with frequent English translations here.

In contrast to the 24/7 “Russian aggression” demonization campaign effective on all corners of the Beltway and spreading towards selected European capitals, Ishchenko’s analysis, for instance of the information war deployed on all fronts of the Russia-Ukraine saga comes as a breath of fresh air.

Although we were not able to meet in person during my recent visit to Moscow, due to conflicting schedules (the meeting will take place later in the winter), Ishchenko graciously accepted to answer my most pressing questions regarding what could happen next on the Russia-Ukraine front, with translation by Scott Humor.

Ishchenko’s answers on the situation in Donbass should also be expanded to Crimea, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed he had information about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko planning an armed provocation on the border with Crimea in the last ten days of December.

Considering the terrain in winter is usually propitious for tank advance, would Poroshenko, in desperation, go for a major provocation in the Donbass, perhaps between Christmas and New Year’s Eve? 

First of all, this winter is too warm and the area is not yet favorable for an offensive. Second, even if frost strikes and an attack becomes possible, it is too big of a risk for Poroshenko. He does not have enough military power to defeat the DPR/LPR forces, without even mentioning that surprises are still possible as it happened in August 2008 in South Ossetia. After all, the Minsk peace agreement has not been canceled yet, and it is unlikely that the West will be able to stand against Russia in a consolidated manner at the moment when Russia is conducting a peace coercion of the confectioner, who is out of his mind with fear, and whom the West has already written off. The West requires a mandatory holding of elections, and any war would mean a cancellation of elections. If the war is facilitated by Poroshenko, he will be blamed for the cancellation of the elections and there will be no need to protect him.

Is there any possibility of the Minsk agreements being fulfilled in case of a slightly less anti-Russian government in place in Kiev after the next elections? 

No, it’s not possible. Kiev is unable to implement the Minsk agreements because this would imply the federalization of Ukraine, while the Kiev elites are able to rule only within the rigid vertical of the unitary state. They basically do not imagine a different system of relationships. Since 2014, the internal resources which could satisfy appetites of oligarchic groups were exhausted, and there is no material basis for compromise. Therefore, they are doomed to fight among themselves for the dominance. Even if Russia, Crimea, Donbass and the whole world would suddenly vanish, the civil war in Ukraine, no longer restrained from the outside, would only intensify.

Is Kiev aware that in case of a military attack on Donbass, the Russian response would be devastating? And that in Brussels, as I confirmed with many diplomatic sources, nobody really cares about Poroshenko’s fate anymore? 

I think that he knows this very well. That’s exactly why he organized his provocations in the Kerch Strait and also in Kiev (attacking the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate), but not in Donbass.

 

Ukraine sets up for a possible winter offensive in LDNR

December 11, 2018

by GH Eliason for The Saker BlogUkraine sets up for a possible winter offensive in LDNR

Everything is pointing to Ukraine starting a winter offensive in Donbass and the possible use of a chemical weapon false flag event to kick it off.

The Ukraine of 2018 is far different than what Europe was expecting. Instead of economic and social reform that was promised at Ukraine’s 2014 Euro-maidan coup, the government of Petr Poroshenko is taking a brute force approach to retaining power past the 2019 elections.

European and NGO supporters have been worried that the powers given with Poroshenko’s martial law declaration may be too spellbinding for Poroshenko. They are worried Kiev will trample on human and civil rights in Ukraine.

On December 10th, DNR’s Eduard Basurin stated they had Intelligence Kiev is going to stage an attack on December 14th, the day before the Ukrainian Orthodox Church votes for Autocephaly (freedom from the Moscow Patriarchate).

Ukraine is going to start their attack from the Mariupol region with a 12,000 man group with over 50 tanks and 40 multiple rocket launchers.

This group will make an offensive drive up the border trying to gain as much of it as possible before the offensive stalls.

From the Saker in September– When Ukraine starts the assault on LDNR, I expect it will be conducted in a similar fashion to 2014. The reason for this is simple. Unless they bought an airforce or large scale surface to surface missiles, the terrain and layout hasn’t changed. Trying to blitz in will only go so far before your troops are decimated. The Ukrainians started pounding Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014 to get the republics to defend the cities and then tried to roll in around them.

The first targets to take are the two main roads connecting the cities. Next, Ukraine will probably try to roll in overland and avoid contact as much as possible on the way to the border. In 2014, they had guides taking them across the open land.

The 12000 troops and equipment in Mariupol are there for two reasons. One is to serve Ukrainian propaganda with possibly a feint to draw DPR resources away from where Ukraine wants to be. The other reason is to roll up the entire border while the contact line troops engage DNR and LNR defenses. In 2014, Ukraine did not allocate near enough resources to do this even though other than key border areas the borders were relatively unprotected. This led to Ukrainian Diaspora volunteers sniping locals that were trying to flee the conflict.

Kerch

The Kerch incident and its ramifications are still high on the international watch list because United States Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker is saying the Ukrainian ships might have been in international waters when the Russian coast guard fired on and confiscated them.

Part of what’s embarrassing about Volker saying that is the Bellingcat report he gleaned this from used Google maps to make the assessment and according to the author, Russia was 500 yards over the territorial line. Bellingcat should invest in better resources because they made US Rep to Ukraine Volker look foolish because of this mistake.

Going further, Ukraine is claiming the right to transit through the strait without using the established procedures including using a channel pilot to guide the ships through safely. Russia is saying Ukraine refused to call the Kerch Port ahead to set up passage through the Kerch Strait and this neglect was for the purpose of creating an international incident.

Ukraine took warships through the Strait in September with Russian escort. This is a matter of record that was even videoed. However, directly after, the Ukrainian Navy called it a victory saying they did not call or confirm transit or use a pilot to navigate the shallow channel.

The passage of Ukraine’s navy through the Strait in September was clearly recorded as was this latest attempt in November. If the September record, which includes video is looked at, the accepted law and procedure in place can be shown.

Most western sources are saying the Russians violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is a misnomer because the Azov Sea is considered a private internal sea by both Ukraine and Russia. It is not the high sea and it contains no exclusive economic zones. Either case would have made the UNCLOS applicable.

The text of the 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia favors Russia in this instance.

Martial Law and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The only gain from the Kerch Incident was Petr Poroshenko declaring martial law the same day. It was just ahead of the initial Autocephaly vote for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) separation. The vote was cancelled and pushed back to December 15th, which is one day after DNR Intel says Ukraine will mount an attack.

In the meantime, Ukraine has decided dissenting Bishops are treasonous in an effort to skew the results of the vote to favor the Kyiv Patriarchate.

Ukraine’s relation to its existing churches and the one it hopes to have with a positive vote by Bishops for Autocephaly (independence) is murky.

And yet, Poroshenko’s SBU (Ukraine’s version of FBI) is taking groups of Bishops in for questioning. Ukraine is calling the current Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) Moscow Patriarchate Bishop a security threat and questioning the Bishops and Metropolitans ahead of the vote (Sobor) in what looks like a blatant attempt to change their vote to favor UOC independence.

By delivering the Church to Ukrainian nationalist Bishop Filaret, Poroshenko will be making good on his campaign platform of a united and rebuilt Ukrainian Language-Army-Church.

Recognizing Stepan Bandera Voted a Hero of Ukraine

The Ukrainian Senate (Rada) just voted to recognize assassinated WWII Ukrainian Nationalist leader Stepan Bandera as a hero of Ukraine once again. This move is beyond controversial because the OUNB (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists- Bandera) were WWII’s most enthusiastic murders.

For those unfamiliar with Bandera, his armies included 3 or 4 Waffen SS Battalions that were also prison guards at the extermination camps. The OUN is responsible for the murder of more than 3 million Soviet prisoners of war through forced starvation inside Ukraine.

The OUN committed WWII’s first Holocaust acts at Katyn and Babi Yar just outside Kiev. Today at Babi Yar, instead of a promised Holocaust memorial commemorating the 36,000 Jews that were murdered there, the Ukrainian government put up memorials to OUN members that may have taken part in the crimes against humanity.

Ukraine attempts to say Bandera and the OUN were against the German Nazis, but not according to Slava Stetsko, his one remaining lieutenant and leader of the OUN in 1991. She is the one person that would know the truth and Stetsko clearly says she was in Berlin in 1945 begging Hitler for more money to build armies to serve the Reich.

Recognition of Stepan Bandera by Ukraine on any level should be the factor showing exactly where the country exists politically. Bandera was a fascist and believed in a strongman government. His follower’s politics today is the same.

What kind of country is Ukraine to make a man Adolf Hitler considered violent and unstable its national hero?

Europe and the US would do well to educate the Ukrainian Diaspora and Ukrainian government on what it means to be Democratic. The country has never found its bearings on the one really important factor needed to enter international society and need help.

NATO’s Aggression Reaches for Russian Waters

December 7, 2018 (Tony Cartalucci – NEO) – The recent Kerch Strait incident marks a new low amid the US-led expansion of NATO eastward.

The intentional provocation executed by Kiev saw three Ukrainian naval vessels seized by Russia. The vessels were intentionally violating protocol for passing through the Strait – protocol previously agreed upon by Kiev and previously observed by Ukrainian naval vessels.

The extent to which Ukraine was aware of these protocols and the 2003 agreement that put them in place includes entire events organized in Ukraine by NATO-sponsored “think tanks” discussing the necessity to “rip them up” and attempt to assert greater control over the current joint-use of the Sea of Azov.

In the wake of this incident – predictable calls are being made to use it as a pretext to expand NATO even further east, with senior American Foreign Policy Council fellow and former professor at the US Army War College Stephen Blank declaring the need for the US to “lease” Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, patrol the sea with US warships,  all while committing to the “full-fledged” arming of Ukrainian forces.

Blank’s commentary – published in The Hill in a piece titled, “Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an act of war,” predicates an anti-Russian narrative and NATO’s eastward expansion into Ukraine upon a number of blatant falsehoods.

He mentions Russia’s “seizure” of Crimea, its “claiming that Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Kerch Strait are exclusively Russian waters,” and the building of the Crimean Bridge which Blank claims is impeding Ukrainian commerce in the Sea of Azov – all as Russian provocations.

However, Blank conveniently omits the US-NATO backed putsch that seized power in Ukraine in 2013 – setting off Ukrainian-Russian tensions in the first place. Nowhere in Blank’s commentary does he mention the prominent role paramilitary Neo-Nazi organizations have played in both overthrowing the elected government in 2013 and militancy carried out against Russian businesses, institutions, and even Ukrainians of Russian decedent – particularly in Donbass, eastern Ukraine.


Blank would even feign ignorance over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives in repatriating Crimea and taking measures against a now fully hostile Ukraine sitting on Russia’s borders.

Also conveniently omitted from Blank’s commentary was any mention of decades of NATO’s eastward expansion along with various episodes in NATO’s history where it waged wars well beyond its jurisdiction and mandate, including in Libya and Afghanistan.

Coupled together with Blank’s prescription for a “response” – it is abundantly clear who stood most to benefit from the Kerch Strait incident – especially considering the systematic expansion of NATO that has been ongoing long before President Putin ever came to power.

Blank suggests:

Beyond imposing more sanctions, waging a robust informational campaign and transferring more arms to Ukraine we can and must do something more innovative and decisive. We have the means and precedent for doing so.

He then suggests (emphasis added):

Ukraine could lease ports on the Black Sea and even in the Sea of Azov to the U.S. while we lend them military equipment they need for air, naval, and ground warfare. The U.S. or NATO naval vessels could then stay at those ports for as long as necessary without bringing Ukraine formally into NATO. It would greatly diminish the chance of Russian attack if those forces patrolled the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Blank concludes by claiming:

Not only do these forces deter future Russian attacks they show everyone, not least in Moscow, that Putin’s reckless adventurism has merely brought NATO into Ukraine to stay, the exact opposite of his goals.

Yet, claiming Russia’s actions prompted NATO’s entrance into Ukraine is preposterous – especially considering NATO’s decades-long and relentless expansion eastward. The US-NATO backed putsch in 2013 was aimed wholly at placing a proxy regime in power that would uproot all Russian influence and interests in Ukraine, fast-track Ukraine’s entry into both the European Union and NATO, and join the front-line of NATO expansion – literally right on Russia’s borders.

NATO Expansion was the Goal Long Before “Putin’s Reckless Adventurism”  

Despite assurances from senior US representatives to the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War that NATO would not be expanded “one inch to the east,” it has since been expanded directly to Russia’s borders.

NATO members bordering Russia now include Estonia, Latvia, and Norway – with Georgia and Ukraine both bordering Russia and being considered “aspirant” countries.

Norway was host of one of the largest NATO exercises in decades – Trident Juncture. Other exercises are regularly held in the Baltic states bordering Russia. And US troops have carried out training, have provided arms to, and have ensured compliant regimes remain in power in Ukraine and Georgia.

Then US Secretary of State James Baker – as revealed in now declassified documents maintained in archives by George Washington University – personally and repeatedly made assurances to then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not be further expanded toward Russian borders.

In one document titled, “Memorandum of conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow,” Baker would state in regards to the reunification of Germany (emphasis added):

We fought a war [World War 2] together to bring peace to Europe. We didn’t do so well handling the peace in the Cold War. And now we are faced with rapid and fundamental change. And we are in a better position to cooperate in preserving peace. I want you to know one thing for certain. The President and I have made clear that we seek no unilateral advantage in this process. 

In other words – the US recognized the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany and admitted both nations failed to broker peace in the war’s aftermath. The US also stated it sought to cooperate with Russia regarding the reunification of Germany and the post-Cold War political order in Eastern Europe. It would stand to reason that in exchange for any sort of cooperation from Moscow, certain assurances would have to be made that NATO would not be expanded further eastward.

Baker would continue, claiming (emphasis added):

All our allies and East Europeans we have spoken to have told us that they want us to maintain a presence in Europe. I am not sure whether you favor that or not. But let me say that if our allies want us to go, we will be gone in a minute. Indeed, if they want us to leave, we’ll go and I can assure you that the sentiment of the American people is such that they will want us to leave immediately. The mechanism by which we have a US military presence in Europe is NATO. If you abolish NATO, there will be no more US presence. 

Of course, if the sentiment of the American people was and is for the US to withdraw its military presence from Europe – as a defender of global democracy – the US finds itself making a very undemocratic decision by keeping its military in Europe regardless.

Baker then claims (emphasis added):

We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is part of NATO, there would no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.

Baker would reiterate this point by asking Gorbachev the question:

Would you prefer a united Germany outside of NATO that is independent and has no US forces or would you prefer a united Germany with ties to NATO and assurances that there would be no extension of NATO’s current jurisdiction eastward? 

Obviously then, just as now, Russia had nothing to gain by allowing NATO to continue expanding eastward. A meeting between then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Gorbachev following the Baker-Gorbachev meeting would again reiterate commitments not to expand NATO any further eastward.

The US has – in retrospect and to no one’s surprise – claimed that the meetings, language used, and agreements were non-binding, misinterpreted, and ultimately did not equate to any sort of constraint on NATO’s expansion, including up to and along Russia’s borders.Some have claimed that the assurances only applied to NATO’s presence in Germany – but clearly Baker’s assurances of not expanding NATO’s jurisdiction eastward inside of Germany was an acknowledgement that NATO’s move eastward – anywhere – was seen as a threat and provocation by Moscow.

If the US understood that eastward expansion of NATO’s jurisdiction inside of Germany would be perceived rightfully as a threat and provocation, why wouldn’t it be equally understood that eastward expansion outside of Germany and up to Russia’s borders would be perceived as an even greater threat and provocation?  Wouldn’t the US equally see similar expansion by Russia westward as a threat and provocation?

Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot – How Would Washington React to “Russian Expansion?”

To understand how bad NATO expansion actually looks outside the bubble of American exceptionalism and just what sort of situation Moscow is faced with – consider what Washington’s reaction would be to a Russian-backed coup in Canada, Mexico, or both.

Consider both nation’s hosting Russian troops and receiving Russian arms with high-level Russian politicians vowing to overthrow the political order of the United States next.

Consider as Russia did this, it also imposed sanctions on the United States – crippling its economy – then blamed Washington’s “incompetence” rather than Russia’s own sanctions for the predictable economic crisis. Consider if Russia also imposed secondary sanctions on American allies, preventing them from trading with the US, thus attempting to impose a modern-day blockade on the United States itself.

It takes little imagination to conclude Washington would not tolerate such activity – and considering what the US has already done in reaction to unfounded claims of “Russian meddling” in US elections, such extreme meddling, sanctions, and military and economic encirclement carried out along America’s borders would fall well within the realm as “acts of war.”

Washington has lied the American people into serial wars abroad, destroying entire regions of the planet and killing millions. One can only imagine what Washington would do if actually confronted with genuine acts of war carried out directly on its borders.

And yet Russia’s reaction to exactly these sort of very real provocations carried out by the US and NATO all along its borders and against its allies has been measured, patient – and for some – considered even woefully inadequate.

Despite this, US policymakers and the Western media still manage to twist the narrative a full 180 degrees and portray Russia – a nation with a military budget and GDP a fraction of those of the United States – as the “aggressor.”

NATO Will Not Stop Itself  

It is clear that NATO’s expansion is aimed at Moscow itself. It will continue until it is forcibly stopped. This means either by Russia warding off NATO expansion until NATO collapses under its own unsustainable weight, or Russia outmatches NATO at the very edge of the West’s extent in areas Moscow clearly holds the military, sociopolitical, and economic advantage.

The Kerch Strait incident and attempts to leverage it as a pretext to place NATO warships in the Sea of Azov is a dangerous provocation – the Sea of Azov is not “international waters” and is considered by both Ukraine and Russia as an inland sea they share control over.

If people like Stephen Blank have their way and warships enter the Sea of Azov – NATO will be one step past many of the proxy wars the West is already fighting Russia through – and one step closer to fighting Russian forces directly.

Blank’s claiming NATO must act to confront Russian “provocations” is an instance of inverse reality. In this case – NATO is encircling Russia, violently stripping it of buffer states where the West and East have and could have continued to share influence to avoid conflict, and is instead turning them into frontier fortresses in preparation for what is clearly further and more direct conflict planned with Russia in the future.

A nation leading an alliance that must cross the Atlantic Ocean and several seas to station its vessels in Russian waters is not reacting to provocations – it is the provocateur.

Tony Cartalucci, Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook”.

FSB holds briefing on Kerch Strait crisis

 

December 08, 2018

FSB holds briefing on Kerch Strait crisis

FSB holds briefing on Kerch Strait crisis

A briefing on Kerch Strait crisis held by the First Deputy Head of the Coast Guard Department of the FSB Border Service Aleksey Volsky and Head of the Investigative Department of FSB Mikhail Shishov in Moscow on Saturday dedicated to the Kerch Strait crisis on Saturday, December 8.

Tensions rose off Crimea on November 25th as three Ukrainian navy vessels breached Russian territorial waters, before being impounded by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). According to the Ukrainian authorities, their vessels had the right to pass freely through the Kerch Strait, under international law. Moscow says it was not given advanced warning. The FSB described the vessels’ transit as “illegal,” all 24 Ukrainian sailors were sentenced to two months in custody until January 25, 2019.

 

Under Pressure: Trump Cancels Upcoming Putin Meeting But Refuses To Blame Russia For Kerch Strait

Image result for Under Pressure: Trump Cancels Upcoming Putin Meeting But Refuses To Blame Russia For Kerch Strait

MOSCOW, Russian Federation –  U.S President Donald Trump announced that he was canceling a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina.

US President Donald Trump
He made this decision after reading the report on the incident in the Kerch Strait. According to him, the main reason for the incident was the fact that ships and sailors did not return to Ukraine. Trump was criticized by both Neocon Republicans and Clinton Democrats alike, for failing to ‘condemn’ Russia.

“I look forward to a meaningful summit again as soon as the situation is resolved!” – Trump wrote on Twitter .

The Russians, for their part, have also made an official statement. RIA reports that the spokesman for the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Kremlin has no official information about canceling the meeting.

At the same time, he noted that if the United States confirms the refusal, then Putin will have a couple extra hours to meet on the sidelines of the summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump
The last time world leaders could briefly talk in early November in Paris on the “margins” of events in honor of the centenary of the end of the First World War.

In mid-July, the first full-format meeting between Putin and Trump was held in Helsinki. The conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States began in a one-on-one format, then negotiations continued with the participation of members of delegations. The heads of state discussed ways of normalizing and developing bilateral relations, and pressing issues on the international agenda.

Provocation in the Kerch Strait

On the morning of November 25, the ships of the Ukrainian Navy, Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yana Kapu, violated the state border of Russia and maneuvered dangerously for several hours without reacting to the legal demands of Russian boats and ships.

Shipping in the Kerch Strait resumed
The vessels were detained, 24 Ukrainian military men were on board, including the SBU officers, who, according to the Center for Public Relations of the FSB, coordinated the provocations.

A criminal case: violation of the state border

Vladimir Putin called the situation in the Kerch Strait pre-prepared provocation, which Petro Poroshenko used as a pretext to impose a state of emergency in Ukraine on the eve of presidential elections.

At the same time, the head of state stressed that Russian border guards were fulfilling their duty to protect the state border.

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