Russia has no imperial ambitions – Putin

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has met political experts and journalists from all over the world for the first time since the military conflict in the Caucasus. The annual forum, the Valdai Discussion Club, which aims to

The following is the transcript of the highlights of the meeting in Sochi.

Vladimir Putin: If I remember right, this is our fifth time together. The fact that your interest for meetings in this format remains keen indicates that you want them to continue. To me and my colleagues, these meetings are interesting and important as well. They offer us an opportunity to talk directly to people who, as I have said in our previous meetings, have chosen Russia with its politics and international affairs as one of their occupations.

I am very pleased to deal with experts and have a chance to engage in a living, direct dialogue in order to discuss urgent problems that mankind in general and Russia in particular face today.

Of course, one of the most difficult problems today is the current situation in the Caucasus: South Ossetia, Abkhazia and everything related to the recent tragic events caused by the aggression of the Georgian leadership against these two states. I call them “states,” because, as you know, Russia has made a decision to recognise their sovereignty.

Of course, I am ready to talk on this subject, although I would like us not to limit ourselves to the problems of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia only. I would like us to discuss a wider range of problems. I assure you that my position will be, as always, open, frank and straightforward. I don't expect our views to be exactly the same on every problem, but I assure you that our discussion and my answers will be frank.

Once again, I greet you. I hope you enjoy your stay in Sochi, and enjoy your meal. That's all I'd like to say at the beginning, because long monologues are tiresome, especially for those who listen. Let's go on to a direct dialogue. Thank you for having the patience to listen to me.

'Western propaganda machine is unbelievably powerful’

Jonathan Steele, a journalist: The first time we met was in Beslan with the tragic events there. Now we are meeting with even more tragic events of the Caucasus. I understand that you have been extremely angered, as indeed most Russian officials have been, by the western reaction and by the western media reaction. But there were elements of western media which did try and report fairly at the beginning, which did say that the Georgians escalated this war and provoked it, which did go to Vladikavkaz and interview refugees from Ossetia who told stories of Georgian atrocities. But then over the next few days the situation changed and you regained control on behalf of the South Ossetians of the territory. Then Russian forces moved forward. And whereas at the beginning you had the moral high ground, if I may say so, the story changed.  And the Russian planes were bombing Gori, suddenly there were more Georgian refugees than Ossetian ones and the operation began to look more like something that was almost about revenge rather than defending South Ossetia. So, my question is: Why did Russian forces go so far beyond South Ossetia into civilian areas causing the civilian distress? Even before this crisis we heard that the Russian side wanted to put forward proposals for totally new European security architecture. This idea is much more important now. What are the Russian proposals that you are preparing for a new security architecture that would either replace or include NATO in some way but that would obviously give Russia a very different position in Europe than it has at the moment?          

Vladimir Putin:You know, your question doesn't surprise me. What really surprises me is how powerful the propaganda machine of the so-called “West” is. This is just amazing. This is unbelievable. This is totally incredible. And yet, it's happening.

Of course, this is because, first, people are very susceptible to suggestion. Second, ordinary people usually don't follow world events that closely. So, it is very easy to misrepresent the actual course of events and to impose somebody else's point of view.

I don't believe there is one person among us here who is not familiar with the facts. At least in this room, everybody knows perfectly well how the events unfolded in reality. I have given the true account on several occasions, including my recent interviews with CNN and ARD.

'Georgia’s action was well-prepared'

Without any provocation from our side, the Georgian army – I emphasize, the army, not just some individual units – started a military operation to, I quote, “restore constitutional order in South Ossetia.”

In the evening, or even in the afternoon, of August 7 they started bombarding our peacekeepers' bases. Then their ground troops moved in. They had military hospitals set up very close to where the action took place. These hospitals were ready to receive their wounded. Everything was organised the way military operations should be organised.

They attacked our peacekeepers' base. Essentially, they started a large-scale military operation that involved heavy artillery, tanks, and infantry.

Since the ratio between Georgian troops and our peacekeepers was 7:1, our troops had to retreat into the central part of Tskhinval. The Goergian military seized our peacekeepers' base ‘South’.

Essentially, the Georgians occupied the entire city of Tskhinval, the center included. Only the northern part of the city and our ‘North’ base continued to offer resistance.

Then they started to bomb the entire territory of South Ossetia. Some air strikes were against the town of Dzhava, which is in the central part of Ossetia, pretty far from Tskhinval. So, a small number of peacekeepers and Ossetian volunteers continued to hold back the Georgian attacks for almost 48 hours.

All of this started on August 7 in the afternoon, and our troops did not enter Tskhinval until the 9th – in fact, until the night of the 9th.

'World media was silent at start of war as if under orders'

I was in Beijing at the time. I looked through the world electronic media – complete silence! As if absolutely nothing is going on. It was as if somebody ordered everyone to keep their mouths shut. To those who organised all this, I can only say: congratulations. Congratulations. You did an excellent job.

The only problem, your results are poor. And this will always be the case, because the work you do is unfair and immoral. In the long run, immoral policies always lose.

What was actually taking place over the last few years? You are people who follow the events, so you must have noticed that almost in every international meeting, we – myself and others – pointed out time and again that tensions were escalating in the zone of South Ossetian-Georgian and Abkhazian-Georgian conflicts.

'U.S. prompted Georgia to launch military operation'

Our American partners kept training the Georgian military. They invested a lot of money there. They sent a large number of instructors there, who helped mobilize the Georgian army. Instead of looking for a solution to the difficult problem of ethnic strife and ethnic conflicts, they just prompted the Georgian side to launch a military operation. This is what actually happened.

So, naturally, we had to respond. What else did you expect? Did you expect us wipe our bleeding nose and bow our head down? What do you want to do? To destabilise the situation in the Northern Caucasus completely?

I'll tell you more. We are aware of the fact that an NGO was established in a certain republic in the Northern Caucasus, which claimed that since Russia did not protect South Ossetia, their republic should seek independence from Russia.

So, if we protect South Ossetia, we are wrong. If we don't protect it, they deal us another blow, destabilising the Northern Caucasus inside Russia. With some, their insolence has no limits.

'Aggressor should always be punished'

Now, you asked why we did it the way we did. Because the infrastructure used in attacks against our peacekeepers, Tskhinvali and South Ossetia in general, went far beyond Tskhinval city limits. Their command centers, their radars, their munitions depots. What did you expect us to do, wield a stationery knife there?

They accuse us of the disproportionate use of force. Well, what use of force do you call proportionate? They had tanks, multi-rocket launchers, heavy artillery. Did you expect us to fight with slingshots? What would be a proportionate use of force in this situation?

Of course, those who planned this provocation should have expected that they would get a hefty punch in return. If a command center is located outside the conflict zone, we should hit it there. What else can we do? Military science requires us to do it.

Now, let me explain why we went there. I have already explained the military aspect to you. Now let's remember how WW2 started. On September 1, Nazi Germany attacked Poland. Then they attacked the Soviet Union. What do you think the Russian Army should have done? Do you think it should have reached the border and stopped there? By the way, it wasn't just Russian troops that entered Berlin. The Americans, the French and the British were there as well. Why did they go there? Why didn't they stop at the German border? They didn't stop because the aggressor should always be punished.

’We support sovereignty of former Soviet states’

As for former Soviet republics, it was Russia who initiated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was Russia. But for Russia's position, the USSR would have existed to this day.We made this decision a long time ago. We have absolutely no intention of infringing the sovereignty of former Soviet republics. On the contrary, we support it.

But what is the actual situation? First of all, as I have many times said in the past, we should have rules of conduct in international affairs that would apply to everybody. You can't, for selfish reasons, make self-determination the top priority in Kosovo, and at the same time give priority to the principle of territorial integrity in Georgia.

'Europe follows the U.S. obediently'

So, let's make a decision, which rules are we going to live by. We have spoken about this many times. We have warned our partners against creating a precedent in Kosovo. But no, they insisted on doing things their way. They ignored everything: international law, UN resolutions, everything. They did it their way, the way they thought was best based on their geopolitical interests. By “they,” I mean our Western partners, primarily our American partners, of course. The Europeans just follow them obediently.

Well, they did what they did. I emphasize, we didn't recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia immediately after they recognised Kosovo. We didn't react. As I have recently said, we ‘swallowed’ it. The only thing we did at the time was that I signed a decree on developing closer economic ties with these two territories. By the way, this was what the UN called for. It recommended that these territories not be isolated economically. That was all we did. In principle, we were ready to continue the dialogue.

But no, they wanted to use military force here too. They enjoy shooting and bombing so much they thought they could achieve success here too. You weren't successful in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Middle East – what makes you think you could be successful here? They failed here as well, and they will always fail – those who think that force is the most effective foreign policy tool in the modern world.

This is why Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed to work out some new rules. What are these rules? It's all very simple. The same principle should apply to everyone. Let's decide which rules we are going to live by.

It is absolutely obvious that no country, however powerful it economy or its military is, cannot solve all the problems in the world all by itself, without inviting reasonable partners to join it. But once you invite partners to join you, you have to take their interests into account. You can't act like you are a Roman emperor. You have to take into account your partners' interests and respect them. This is what we suggest. And we are ready to work in this way.

'There is not ground for Cold War'

Richard Sakwa from University of Kent: For 200 yeas Russia has not been able to establish a stable, confident relationship with the West. Why not?  

Vladimir Putin: Look, you're asking me why Russia has not been able to establish a stable relationship with the West. Well, let me ask you: why the West has not established a stable relationship with Russia? This is the first thing I want to say. Both sides should work on this. This is something I mentioned when answering the first question. Both sides should make effort. If we are to have an equitable relationship, we have to respect each other. And respect means we recognise each other as an equal partner.

The U.S. will never be able to make us similar to Western Europe. No offence meant, but Western Europe has no foreign policy of its own today. Russia cannot and will not exist in this way. Yet, we want to have normal partnership. So let's build this relationship together.

You mentioned some events from days of yore: the 19th century, and so on. Indeed, there have been many cases of conflicting interests. But the world has changed.

Look at the political practice of our American partners. God forbid that you do on the continent of America something that contradicts the U.S. interests. They consider America to be their holy of holies. Yet sending their missile cruisers to a place only 200 kilometers from where we are now is a small thing to them. Is this what you call an equitable relationship?!

So, I'd say, on the one hand, we do need to analyse our past. ‘He who doesn't know his past has no future.’ But we need to take the actual situation into account. Today, we don't have any Ideological differences, unlike during the Cold War. There is no ground to have a Cold War. Of course, we may have competition, different geopolitical interests, but there is no solid foundation for enmity. At least, I think it's not there.

On the contrary, we have many problems in common. We won't be able solve them effectively unless we join our efforts. We all know what they are: terrorism, non-proliferation, infectious diseases, which pose a great threat to mankind, you name it.

We all know that the problem of non-proliferation is very urgent at the moment – I refer to North Korea, Iran and some other places. Our partners always encourage us to play a more active role in these matters. And we are ready to do it. But let's keep in mind that we should take into account the real situation.

'International law doesn’t exist today'

Again, you all are experts. So, you know that Ossetia joined the Russian Empire in the middle 18th century. It joined Russia as one state, as one territory. It wasn't until 100 years later that its southern half was made part of Tiflis Province – still within the Russian Empire. It wasn't Georgia, it was Tiflis Province. This was done when this was one state. Now this state was dissolved. Well, the Ossetians don't want to live in this Tiflis Province.

Consider Georgia. It doesn't want to be a part of Russia any longer. It wants to live separately. And we recognise their right to do so. Now, why don't the Georgians recognise the right of an even smaller people, the Ossetians, to live separately?

However, if we can decide on common rules, this will greatly enhance stability in the world.
Today, there is no stability. Even those countries that build up their military justify it by instability. They say international law does not offer them any guarantees of their security today. Because they say, essentially, international law doesn't exist today.

I think if both sides do their best, we will be able to build a relationship. And I think this will benefit both our Western partners and Russia.

'We want constructive relationships with U.S., Europe and Asia'

In fact, there is one last thing I'd like to say. You contrasted the West with Russia. The West is not homogeneous. It's not a monolith. What is the West? Is it a geographical notion, or a political one? Is it NATO? What about Japan: is it part of the West or not?

Incidentally, there are many problems in Asia as well. North Korea is not the only problem there. Historically, relationships between countries there are very complicated. Now that certain Asian countries have become quite powerful, this affects the global situation, and one cannot simply ignore this.

The West is not homogeneous at all, and Europe is not homogeneous too. It existed as a frozen monolith during the Cold War. There was a common and, seemingly, very dangerous enemy at the time, the Soviet Union. But there is no enemy today. There is no enemy, and the Europeans are no longer scared.

No matter how some scare Europe with what happened in the Caucasus, everybody understands that this will have no effect on Europe. It is impossible because Russia has changed. We have no imperial ambitions, which some like to accuse us of. And we'll never have any, because our society has become intrinsically different now. Our people will never accept any form of imperialism any more.

On the other hand, building a constructive relationship with our partners in the U.S., in Europe and in Asia is something we can do, something we must do, something we want to do. This is what the Russian people want today. And this is the policy we ant to pursue, not withstanding various diplomatic difficulties.