On the December 17 President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin held his annual marathon press conference. The conference was broadcasted live by Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24 and Channel One, as well as Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio stations.
Answering several questions about recent incident with a Russian Su-24 bomber jet downed by Turkey in Syria and Russo-Turkish relations, President Putin stated:
«We believe that the actions of the Turkish authorities (in relation to our warplane, which they shot down) are not an unfriendly, but a hostile act. They shot down a warplane and our people were killed.
What outraged us so much? If it was an accident, as we heard later, apparently, the Turkish authorities did not even know it was a Russian plane… What is usually done in such cases? After all, people were killed. They immediately make a phone call and straighten things out. Instead, they immediately ran to Brussels, shouting: «Help, we have been hurt». Who is hurting you? Did we touch anybody there? No. They started covering themselves with NATO. Does NATO need this? As it turned out, apparently it does not.
After all, we have not abandoned cooperation. When I was last in Antalya I had contact with Turkey’s entire leadership. Our Turkish colleagues raised very sensitive issues and asked for support. Even though our relations have soured now (I will not say what the issue was – this is not my style), but believe me, they raised issues with us that are very sensitive and that do not fit into the context of international law when we consider the decisions proposed by the Turkish side.
You will be surprised, but we said, «Yes, we understand, and we are willing to help». You see, I had not heard about the Turkomans (Syrian Turks) before. I knew that Turkmen – our Turkmen – lived in Turkmenistan, and so I was confused… Nobody told us about them. But after we indicated our willingness to cooperate on the issues that are sensitive to Turkey, why did not they phone us via the cooperation channels between our militaries to say that during our discussions we overlooked a certain part of the border where Turkey has vested interests. They could have expressed their concerns or asked us not to hit certain areas. But nobody said anything.
As I said, we were willing to cooperate with Turkey on very sensitive issues. So why did they do it? Tell me, why? What have they accomplished? Did they think we would just pack up and go? They could not have thought that of course, Russia is not that kind of country. We have increased our presence and increased the number of warplanes [in Syria]. We did not have air defence systems there, but after that we dispatched S-400 systems to the area. We are also adjusting the Syrian air defence system and have serviced the highly effective Buk systems that we had sent them before. Turkish planes used to fly there all the time, violating Syrian air space. Let them try it now. Why did they do it?
You asked if there is a third party involved. I see what you mean. We do not know, but if someone in Turkish leadership has decided to brown nose the Americans, I am not sure if they did the right thing. First, I do not know if the US needed this. I can imagine that certain agreements were reached at some level that they would down a Russian plane, while the US closes its eyes to Turkish troops entering Iraq, and occupying it. I do not know if there was such an exchange. We do not know. But whatever happened, they have put everyone in a bind. In my opinion – I have looked at the situation and everything that has happened and is happening there – it appears that ISIS is losing priority. I will share my impressions with you.
Some time ago, they invaded Iraq and destroyed that country (whether this is good or bad is beyond the point). The void set in. Then, elements tied to the oil trading emerged. This situation has been building up over the years. It’s a business, a huge trafficking operation run on a commercial scale. Of course, they needed a military force to protect smuggling operations and illegal exports. It’s great to be able to cite the Islamic factor and slogans to that effect in order to attract cannon fodder. Instead, the recruits are being manipulated in a game based on economic interests. They started urging people to join this movement. That’s how I think, ISIS came about. Next, they needed to protect delivery routes. We began attacking their convoys. Now, we can see that they are splitting up with five to 15 trucks hitting the roads after dark. However, another flow, the bulk of the truck fleet, is headed for Iraq, and across Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan. In one place there – I will ask the Defence Ministry to show this picture – we spotted 11,000 oil trucks. Just think of it – 11,000 oil trucks in one place. Unbelievable.
Whether there’s a third party involved is anyone’s guess, but a scenario whereby these moves were never agreed with anyone is quite likely. However, today, the Turkish authorities are taking quite a lot of heat – not directly, though – for islamising their country. I'm not saying if it’s bad or good, but I admit that the current Turkish leaders have decided to let the Americans and Europeans know – yes, we are islamising our country, but we are modern and civilised Islamists. Remember, what President Reagan said about Somoza: Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. Just keep it in mind, we are Islamists, but we are on your side, we are your Islamists.
There may be such an overtone, but nothing good came out of what happened. And the goals, even if Turkey had any, not only were not achieved, but, on the contrary, the situation got even worse.
… We have learned from experience that it is hard or almost impossible to reach common ground with the current Turkish leadership. Even when we tell them «yes, we agree,» they are trying to outflank or stab us in the back for absolutely no good reason.
Consequently, I don’t see any prospects for improving relations with the Turkish leaders in terms of state-to-state relations, while remaining completely open to humanitarian cooperation. However, even this area is not without issues. I think that Turkish leaders have actually gone beyond their own expectations. Russia is forced to impose restrictive economic and other measures, for example, in tourism.
You know, the creeping islamisation that would have made Ataturk turn over in his own grave, affects Russia. We know that there are fighters from the North Caucasus on Turkish soil. We have told our partners time and again: «We don’t do such things with respect to Turkey». But these fighters are still there, they receive treatment and protection. They benefit from visa-free travel arrangements and are able to enter Russian territory using Turkish passports and disappear, while we have to go after them in the Caucasus or in our million plus cities. For this reason, we will certainly have to do it along with a number of other initiatives to ensure our national security».
When asked about Syria, Vladimir Putin said: «The fate of the Syrian President. I have said it many times, and I would like to repeat it: We will never agree with the idea of a third party, whoever it is, imposing its opinion about who governs who. This is beyond any common sense and international law. Of course, we discussed it with US Secretary of State Kerry. Our opinion remains the same, and this is our principled approach. We believe that only Syrians can choose their leaders, establish their government standards and rules.
Therefore, I will say something very important now. We support the initiative of the United States, including with respect to the UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria. The Secretary of State’s visit mainly focused on this resolution. We generally agree with it. I think Syrian officials will agree with the draft, too. There may be something that somebody does not like. But in an attempt to resolve this bloody conflict of many years, there is always room for compromise on either side. We believe it is a generally acceptable proposal, although there could be improvements.
As I have said before, this is an initiative of the United States and President Obama. This means that both the US and Europe are highly concerned with the current situation in the Middle East, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. We will do what we can to help settle the crisis and will aim to satisfy all parties with our solutions, however complicated the situation.
But first, it is necessary to work together on a constitution and a procedure to oversee possible future elections. It must be a transparent procedure that everyone trusts. Based on these democratic procedures, Syria will decide which form of government is the most suitable and who will lead the country.
We think that [the intra-Syrian conflict can be switched to a political track], we believe that there is no other way to resolve the situation. Anyway, this will have to be done sooner or later, and better sooner than later because there will be fewer casualties and costs, and there will be fewer threats, including to Europe and to the United States as well. Look, 14 people were killed in the United States − ISIS has made its way into the US. US law enforcement has acknowledged that it was a terrorist act committed by ISIS, so it’s a threat to everyone. And the sooner we do it, resolve this, the better.
Let me repeat, there is no solution to this problem except a political one. Do we have a plan? Yes. And I just spelled it out. In its key aspects, strange as it may sound, it coincides with the American vision, proposed by the United States: cooperative work on the constitution, creating mechanisms to control future early elections, holding the elections and recognizing the results based on this political process. Of course, it’s a complicated objective and of course there are various claims: some don’t like this group and others don’t like that group, some want to work with the Syrian Government and others refuse categorically. But what is necessary is that all conflicting parties make an effort to meet each other halfway.
… we would carry out air strikes to provide support for offensive operations by the Syrian army. And that’s what we’ve been doing while the Syrian army conducts their operations.
By the way, I have recently said publicly – the idea was proposed by Francois Hollande – that we should try to pool the forces of the Syrian army and at least part of the armed opposition in the fight against ISIS. We have succeeded in working towards this goal, even if partly.
At the least, we have found common ground with these people. This part of the Syrian opposition, these irreconcilable and armed people want to fight against ISIS and are actually doing so. We are supporting their fight against ISIS by delivering air strikes, just as we are doing to support the Syrian army. When we see that the process of rapprochement has begun and the Syrian army and Syrian authorities believe that the time has come to stop shooting and to start talking, this is when we will stop being more Syrian than Syrians themselves. We do not need to act in their place. And the sooner this happens, the better for everyone».
Speaking about Ukrainian crisis, Vladimir Putin said:
«We’ve never said there are no people there who deal with certain matters, including in the military area, but this does not mean that regular Russian troops are present there. Feel the difference …
On January 1, regrettably for us, we predict a deterioration in our economic relations because we had to make the decision that from January 1, we will no longer treat Ukraine as a member of the CIS free trade zone …
We’ve tried to maintain good economic relations with Ukraine, since Ukraine is member of the free trade area which offers mutual preferences and zero rates. In its economic relations with Russia and the CIS, Ukraine has used standards, technical regulations and customs rules which we inherited from the past and which we are gradually changing together. Ukraine is unilaterally withdrawing from this system and joining the European standards. Those, for example, state that all the goods in the Ukrainian market must comply with EU technical standards and regulations. But see, our products don’t comply with them yet.
Does this mean Ukraine has to keep our goods from its market? Okay, they heard us. Now Ukraine is officially allowed to keep both compliant and non-compliant products in their market. It’s not an obligation but a right. Whether it uses it or not, we don’t know. They have the right to establish a subcommission to decide, but again, it is not an obligation. However, Russia is expressly required to maintain all preferences in place. No, it doesn’t work that way.
Moreover, one doesn’t have to be an expert to see that Russia is required to bring CIS customs regulations into compliance with EU standards.
In Paris, I told them: this doesn’t make any sense. The three of us (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) have argued for years about these customs duties. And you want us to change the CIS customs regulations just because Ukraine entered into this agreement with the EU. This is not a fair requirement. It will take years to accomplish.
Also, it was stated that we must comply with EU phytosanitary requirements. Ukraine is willing but nobody discussed it with us. It is expressly written that Russia has agreed to comply. Since when? We may be in favour of the idea but it will take time. How can you not understand that it takes time and money? Tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars. We need time too.
By the way I was told in Paris that «their standards are better and maybe we had better switch to those standards». Well, it’s true, and we want to, but we need money – we need investments. And we still have our access to external financing blocked. You understand that it is impossible, I said, so why did you write all this? They said, «But we haven’t read this yet». Look, you haven’t even read it, but you sent us this official paper. Should we agree with it?
Now, about what we will do. We are not going to impose any sanctions on Ukraine – I want this to be heard. We are just switching to a most-favoured-nation treatment in trade. Which means Ukraine cannot be put in conditions worse than those any other foreign partner is in. But of course, Russia will grant no more privileges or preferences to Ukraine from January 1, 2016.
What will this mean in practice? In practice, it means that the zero tariffs in trade between Russia and Ukraine will change to the weighted average tariff of 6 percent. Various rates will range from 3 to 8 or 10 percent. But this is not our choice. We have fought for this not to happen. But they did not want to listen to us. They did so unilaterally and in the style I just described to you. But we have to work in the conditions we have.
Now, about all sorts of attacks. As you know, I told you frankly that we are not interested in exacerbating the conflict. On the contrary, we are interested in resolving this conflict as soon as possible, but not by way of physical annihilation of people in southeastern Ukraine. By the way, look at the results of the municipal elections and see the voting pattern in the area. In nearly all the regions – nine or ten I think – the opposition bloc came first or second.
Even in those territories of Donbass that are controlled by the Ukrainian authorities, the Lugansk Region, more than 43 percent voted for the opposition. Don’t the Kiev authorities see this? Are they so reluctant to take into account the sentiments and expectations of their own people? We very much hope that we will have an open, honest dialogue.
Now about the Minsk agreements. We’ve heard it a hundred times, that Russia must stick to the Minsk agreements. And this is what we want! Let’s look at their provisions. First – to introduce amendments to the Constitution and coordinate them with Donbass on a permanent basis. Has this been done? Transitional provisions were amended, it seems. And what are those amendments? The law on the special status was incorporated into the transitional provisions. «On a permanent basis?» I ask all my colleagues. They all say, «Yes, permanent». I say, «Do you know that this law has only been adopted for three years? A year has already passed». They all say, «Really?» I say, «Yes». «Is that true, Mr Poroshenko?» He answers, «Yes». This is almost a direct quote. Everybody says, «You know, he should do it on a permanent basis». I say, «He should, nobody’s stopping him».
Now the law on the special status. Has Rada passed this law? Yes. Under the Minsk agreements, it should be «implemented within 30 days by having the Rada adopt a resolution to this effect». Have they adopted the resolution? Yes. But how? They added an article, I think number 10, to the law, which stipulates that it can only be implemented after elections, which means more delays. I told them, «Listen, it says here that the law must be implemented». «No, it doesn’t. It says: the Rada must pass a resolution. We’ve done it. That’s it». But this is a manipulation.
If we really want to resolve the problem, let’s stop this, let’s work together. And we are willing to influence people in the southeast of the country and persuade them to accept a compromise. We are willing and we want it to happen, but we need our partners in Kiev to be willing as well».
Answering a question about relations between Russia and Georgia, President Putin replied:
«… The former Georgian leaders and the then President Saakashvili should not have made the adventurist decisions that triggered Georgia’s territorial disintegration. This is their fault, their historical fault. They are fully to blame for this.
Now the export of politicians has begun. They are actively operating in another former Soviet republic – independent Ukraine. As you can see, they haven’t changed their approach.
I’ve already mentioned this but I’d like to repeat it. I think this is simply a slap in the face of the Ukrainian people. Not only have they been put under an external administration but they’ve also had to accept so-called politicians that were delegated there. By the way, I think Saakashvili was never granted a work visa to the United States but they sent him to run the show in Ukraine and he is functioning there. What was Ukraine told? We won’t just organise you – we’ll send people who will administer over you, people from more civilised countries – either your neighbours or from overseas.
We’ll put all of them into key positions: finance, the economy, and so on and so forth because you don’t know how to do it well. Others know but you don’t.
Is it impossible to find five or ten honest, decent and efficient managers out of 45 million people? This is simply a slap in the face of the Ukrainian people.
Now let’s turn to relations with Georgia. We didn’t initiate the collapse of these relations bit we’re willing to restore them. As for Georgia’s territorial integrity, this is primarily up to the people of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It would be necessary to work with them. We’ll accept any decision.
Today, despite the difficulties you mentioned we notice signals from the current Georgian leaders and we are receiving them. Imagine, today Russia accounts for two thirds of Georgia’s wine and wine stock exports. They are coming to the Russian market not to some other market abroad. We are importing these products as well as others and our trade has increased. It declined a little this year due to general economic difficulties, but on the whole it is demonstrating fairly high growth rates.
As for visas, we’re ready to cancel them with Georgia».