Putin: U.S. spoiled our relationship and should fix it

Russia is not looking to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia and expand its territory. That's according to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who gave the assurance in an interview with France's 'Le Figaro' newspaper.

Putin: Russia has always delivered on its obligations, and it is also going to do that in the future. First of all, I would like to say that the current situation that has developed is not through Russia’s fault, but through the fault of the current Georgian leadership that embarked on that bloody venture in the attack against South Ossetia.

Once again, I say that the actions taken by the Russian army were forced. That was in response to an armed provocation from the part of the Georgian leadership, and the murder of our peacekeepers and local residents in South Ossetia. We only went beyond the peacekeepers’ control zone because we were forced to suppress control points that were used to organize hostilities against South Ossetia, and our peacekeepers outside the peacekeeping area.

We had to destroy control points and radar stations that were used to counteract our air forces, and had to suppress organized long-range artillery positions that were used, among other targets, to fire at refugees who were leaving Tskhinval.

After the Georgian army in its current form ceased to exist, following strikes from the Russian army, our peacekeepers, reinforced by Russian Army units, only remain in the security zone that has been outlined in international agreements.

The Russian Federation has the largest territory in the world, and you and I realize perfectly – and I am confident that so do the readers of your newspaper – that Russia by no means needs any additional territories at the expense of Georgia.

We think that the agreements achieved with the European Union are extremely important. I think that French President Mr. Sarkozy, who is currently head of the united Europe, played a great personal role in that.

We think that the agreements achieved with the “Europe Three” will be observed by our European partners as well.

We also hope that observers from the OSCE, UN, and the European Union will assume responsibility in the security zone where Russian peacekeepers are now deployed. If this is done, then, of course, Russia will fulfill all its obligations, and pull its peacekeepers, even out of that security zone. However, there are obligations on the other parts, not only on Russia’s.   Our European partners also have obligations. They have to assume the responsibility of maintaining security in the area. We will welcome cooperation with our European partners in that region.

Le Figaro: There’s another question regarding the extra observers to be sent to Georgia. Why do you deny those observers access to the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Putin: We don’t, but those are sovereign states, the sovereignty and independence of which we have recognized. For any foreign observers to appear on their territory, one needs to talk to the governments of those countries first of all, not to Russia.

Le Figaro: You have put a special emphasis on the role Mr. Sarkozy played in achieving and executing the peace agreements. How would you characterize your relationships with the President of France?

Putin: They are of a very business-like and constructive nature. There has also been a more personal touch to them recently, I think. We have very kind, trustful relationships. He also does some wrestling, and we have agreed to have a training session together one day.

Le Figaro: Mr. Prime Minister, in your interview to CNN on August 28th, you said there had been American soldiers standing behind Georgian troops. Have you found any proof of that information, which was only a hypothesis at the time of the interview?

Putin: I wasn’t talking about American soldiers. I was talking about American citizens.

The fact that Georgia’s army had been armed by our American partners is an established fact that nobody is going to dispute. The fact that American instructors had tried to train Georgia’s army is also a truth that nobody questions.

And I think even the former Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, a citizen of France, Mrs. Zurabishvili has publicly announced that.

I said that, according to our intelligence, there had been American citizens in the war zone. I said that they had been within the security zone outlined by international agreements, and there were only three categories of people authorized to be in that zone: locals, peacekeepers, and OSCE observers.

We have documentary proof that indicates there were American citizens within that zone who did not fit into any of those three categories. A copy of the passport of one of those American citizens was shown to the press by the Deputy Head of the General Staff.

Of course, we would like to know what that person and other United States citizens were doing in that zone.

Therefore, answering your question, I can say that yes, those hypotheses have found proof.

Le Figaro: Mr. Prime Minister, relations between the USA and Russia have deteriorated significantly over the last few days. What do you expect of the new American administration?

Putin: I expect improvement in those relationships. They spoiled them, so they should fix them.

You know, in Lincoln’s time, a political figure of the day, the then Secretary of State, said that we always prefer relationships with Russia to relationships with all other European states, at least because Russia always wishes us well.

Of course, a lot has changed since then. Our relationships have been determined by various factors in different periods. However, whenever the world faced a global crisis, Russia and America have always emerged together.

That does mean something. It means that, during global crises, common interests prevail over certain differences. This was the case in World War One and World War Two. We in Russia never forget that, and we would like our American partners to remember that too.

Le Figaro: Mr. Prime Minister, attacks against freedom of speech and the murders of several journalists in Russia have been the cause of special concern in Europe, and France in particular. What measures are you going to take to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Putin: You know, I am more and more surprised by questions pertaining to freedom of speech and the press in Russia, especially after the events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

An attentive observer couldn’t help but notice how silent the free press was, of our Western partners, when some people were under the false impression that Georgia’s aggression could end favourably for it. For two days, when it was unclear how this all was going to end, everybody was silent, and then they all rushed, as if on command, – and I think it WAS on command – to accuse Russia of using inappropriate force. This applies not only to the European press, but to the American as well.

As for our mass media, their number is growing. There are, I think, some 3,500 electronic mass media, and about 40 thousand periodicals. You see, they are impossible to control, even if we had the desire to. I am not even talking about the Internet, which is a free platform in itself.

I have already mentioned that, but you know, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad. We have watched many times the Fox News interview, with a 12-year-old girl, and her aunt, who had witnessed the attack of Georgian forces against South Ossetia. They were invited to the Fox News studio for a live show, but when they began talking about what they had really seen, they were not allowed to talk. And after that, they are trying to say there is no freedom of press in Russia, but there is such freedom in the West. You know, it’s simply not interesting anymore.

As for criminal actions, or any atrocities against specific persons, journalists included, they are all being investigated, and we will bring those investigations to completion. There can be no doubt about that.

Le Figaro: I understand your question. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine all mass media unanimously supporting one and the same version. You have cited Fox News as an example, but there were other channels who conveyed a different point of view to the masses.

Putin: They didn’t. During the first day – over eight hours – everybody was silent, as if nothing was happening. I can tell you why. Everybody was waiting for the results of that aggression, thinking it might end favourably for those who had started it. Afterwards, when the Russian army took effective action, the entire propaganda machine was turned around: “disproportionate use of force”, “delivering strikes at civilian objects”, “refugees”, “Russia’s imperial ambitions”… They simply forgot the source of all that; they forgot who had “authored” the situation by arming up and attacking South Ossetia. Do you want to persuade me this was objective coverage of the event? Don’t.

Le Figaro: Mr. Prime Minister, may I ask you a more personal question? What is the relationship between the new head of government and the new state leader?

Putin: My relationship with President Medvedev formed long ago. We have worked together for 17 years. He is a very honest person and he is well-trained professionally.

I am saying this with full responsibility, because he headed the Presidential Administration when I was the President of Russia. He was involved in the solving of many problems and in many issues of domestic and international politics.

The Head of Government has an enormous scope of work that encompasses issues of economics, society, health, and education. It also includes prospective plans for economic development until the year 2020.

Mr. Medvedev and I knew in advance that one of the ways to mount attacks against him would be to try to picture him as a man who is not independent. We knew that perfectly well and discussed it over a year ago. That’s exactly how it happened.

Let me assure you, though, that both I and President Medvedev are morally prepared for this. This was not difficult to predict a year or half a year ago.

All the speculation pertaining to this matter is unfounded. The head of government has its own scope of competency, which is quite substantial. The president, too, has his own capacities outlined by the Constitution. The president is the key figure in Russia’s political system, and President Medvedev does his job well.

That doesn’t prevent him from consulting with Parliament and members of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. But, the final decisions on the key issues of the country’s development and international affairs are up to the President of the Russian Federation.

Le Figaro: Thank you, Mister Prime Minister.