On the eve of his visit to France, Vladimir Putin answered questions from the author and leading news programs of the Europe-1 radio station, Jean-Pierre Elkabach, and Gilles Boulot, the leading evening news release on the TF1 channel. The recording of the interview took place on June 3 in Sochi.
QUESTION (As translated): Good evening, Mr. President! Good evening, President Putin! Thank you very much for accepting Europe-1 radio and the TF1 channel at your residence in Sochi for this exceptional conversation.
On Thursday evening, you will be received by President Francois Hollande at the Elysée Palace, and the next day you will participate in the ceremony dedicated to the 70 anniversary of the Allied landing, and go to the beaches of Normandy, the President of Russia will participate in these events. What feelings do you have as a citizen of Russia, is this an invitation?
V.PUTIN: This is an important event in the life of Europe and the whole world. We will pay tribute to those who did not allow Nazism to enslave European countries, and it seems that Russia's participation in this event is significant. Bearing in mind that Russia, the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition, including France, were allies in this struggle for freedom, and our country played a crucial, if not decisive role in the victory over fascism. But we will never forget the fighters of the French Resistance, never forget those who on the Soviet-German front, on the so-called Eastern Front, fought along with us - from among the citizens of France. It seems to me that this is something that should be reminiscent of the past, but help build relationships today and help us build our relations in the future.
QUESTION: Just together with Russia, of course, you have a decent place on the beaches of Normandy. Until 40 years you lived in the Soviet Union, you saw how it collapsed, and you actively participated in the revival of Russia. What do you want, what are you striving for? And your strategy for the Russian way is a strategy of dialogue or expansionism and conquests?
V.PUTIN: In the modern world, there can be no future for a policy that is based on expansionism and some kind of conquest. Of course, we are talking about the fact that Russia in the modern world and in the future can and should be a partner for our traditional countries - allies in the broad sense of the word. We want this and we will always strive for this, in a different way we do not even conceive of relations with our neighbors, and with all countries of the world.
QUESTION: But you want to be a defender of the Russian nation or a symbol of Russian nationalism, of the Russian Empire? We know what you said when the Soviet Union collapsed. You said that it was the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. And you said that the one who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has no soul, but the one who wants to restore it, he has no mind. You have a mind. What do you suggest: Russian nationalism or Russian empire in past borders?
V.PUTIN: We will not support Russian nationalism, nor are we going to revive the empire. When I said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the largest humanitarian disasters, humanitarian first of all, those of the 20th century, I meant what? That within the framework of the Soviet Union all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, lived in one single state, and after the collapse of the USSR 25, millions of Russian people suddenly found themselves abroad. And this is a real humanitarian catastrophe. This is not a political, not an ideological catastrophe, it is a purely humanitarian problem. Families were cut, people were left without work, without means of subsistence, without the ability to communicate normally with each other. This is the problem.
QUESTION: In regard to the future. Do you want to restore the empire in the past borders or do you want to continue to develop your country within your borders?
V.PUTIN: We want to develop our country, of course, within our borders. But, which is very important, we want that we, like other countries in many regions of the world, use modern means of increasing our competitiveness, including through economic integration. What we are doing in the post-Soviet space within the framework of the Customs Union and now the Eurasian Union.
QUESTION: Mr Putin, we are talking to you now, and the neighboring country, Ukraine, is going through a real war. It cannot be called any other way. And now pro-Russian forces want to violate the borders of Ukraine. Who will stop them and what do you want?
V.PUTIN: I would not call them pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. There are people who have certain rights - political rights, humanitarian rights, and they should be able to exercise these rights.
Here in Ukraine so far everything, for example, the governors were appointed exclusively from the capital. After the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev was committed in February of this year, the first thing the new authorities did was to declare the abolition of the rights of national minorities to use their native language. All this caused great concern among people who live in the east of Ukraine.
QUESTION: You did not allow this, but you want to say that we are now entering a new phase of the "cold war"?
V.PUTIN: I hope we are not entering into any new phase of some kind of cold war. Secondly, and I insist on this, people, no matter where they live, have certain rights and should be able to defend these rights. Only in this case.
QUESTION: Is there a danger of war? Now, at this moment, we see tanks that are traveling from Kiev. Many French people are asking themselves this question: have you ever been tempted to enter Eastern Ukraine, to send troops there?
V.PUTIN: We have an interview, it involves short questions and short answers, but if you gain patience and give me one minute, I will tell you in a minute how we see it.
We see it as follows. What happened? There was a conflict, a conflict arose on the basis that the former Ukrainian president refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and Russia took a certain position on this issue. We believed that in the form in which this document was proposed, it would be really inadvisable to sign it, and this would cause, including Russia, certain economic damage. I mean that we have various economic agreements with Ukraine and 390, and Ukraine is a member of the free trade zone within the CIS. And we could not continue to maintain economic relations with Ukraine in the same way as with a member of the free trade zone.
We talked about it and argued with our European partners. Instead of continuing this dispute with us by legitimate, diplomatic means, our European and US friends supported an unconstitutional armed seizure of power. That's what happened. We did not create this crisis, we were opposed to such a development of events, but after the anti-constitutional coup took place ... We have to admit it, in the end ...
QUESTION: But today, today is a climate of tension. And against this background, you will talk about peace in Normandy, and Barack Obama at the same time says that you need to arm in Europe.
V.PUTIN: Wonderful. We must always talk about the world, but we need to understand the reason and the essence of the crisis. So this is the essence: it is impossible nowhere, and especially in the post-Soviet space, where state structures that have not yet formed, to bring any political forces to power through an armed, unconstitutional coup.
When this happened, some people recognized and rejoiced, and some people, say, in the east and south of Ukraine, do not want to accept this. It is necessary to negotiate with those people who did not accept this coup, and not send tanks to them, as you said, and not shoot civilians from an airplane, launching rocket-bombing attacks on peaceful objects.
QUESTION: But, Mr. President, the United States and the White House say that they have evidence that Russia intervened in the situation in Ukraine, sent its armed forces there and supplied weapon. They have evidence. Do you believe it?
V.PUTIN: Proof of? So let them present them. We saw, the whole world saw how the United States Secretary of State showed in the UN Security Council evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, waving a test tube with some kind of laundry detergent. In the end, the United States troops entered Iraq, hung Saddam Hussein, and then it turned out that there were no means of mass destruction in Iraq. You know, talking is one thing, and having proof is completely different. I say to you one more time: no Armed Forces of the Russian Federation ...
QUESTION: That is, Americans are lying now?
V.PUTIN: There are no Armed Forces, no Russian instructors even in the south-east of Ukraine. It was not and is not.
QUESTION: You do not want to annex Ukraine and you have never tried to destabilize the situation there?
V.PUTIN: This has never been done and we are not doing it. The Ukrainian authorities of today need to establish a dialogue with their own population, and not with the help of weapons, tanks, airplanes and helicopters, but with the help of the negotiation process.
QUESTION: The new President of Ukraine was elected democratically on May 25, this is Mr. Poroshenko. Do you recognize its legitimacy?
V.PUTIN: I have already spoken about this, I want to repeat: we will respect and relate to the choice of the Ukrainian people and will work with the Ukrainian authorities.
QUESTION: That is, if you meet with him 6 June in Normandy and if President Francois Hollande helps to ensure that this meeting takes place, you will shake his hand? Will you talk to him?
V.PUTIN: You know, I'm not going to run from anyone. President Hollande was so kind that he invited me, as the representative of Russia, to these solemn events - tragic, sad and at the same time solemn. I am pleased to accept this invitation and thank the President for his gesture. But there are other guests there, I'm not going to run from anyone, and I will, of course, communicate with everyone.
QUESTION: But will you meet with Poroshenko? You said that you could work with him on the condition that he would not be under too strong influence of the United States.
V.PUTIN: I did not say that he should not be strongly influenced by the United States. He can be influenced by anyone. People voted for him, and it is his choice how to build his policy. If he wants to be under the strong influence of anyone else, let him be.
QUESTION: But do you recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine and its neutrality in relations between Russia and the West?
V.PUTIN: We recognize sovereignty, and, moreover, we would, on the contrary, very much like Ukraine to feel that it is a sovereign state. After all, entering into any military blocs, into any such rigid integration associations means the loss of a certain degree of sovereignty. But if a country chooses such a path and wants to lose some of its sovereignty, its business.
But when we talk about Ukraine and military blocs, then, of course, we cannot but be disturbed, because in this case, if, say, Ukraine joins NATO, the military infrastructure comes close to the Russian borders, and we cannot be this is indifferent.
QUESTION: Mr. President, Russian troops annexed the Crimea a few weeks ago. Will you return it?
V.PUTIN: This is a misconception that Russian troops annexed Crimea, Russian troops did not annex anything. I will not hide….
QUESTION: But Crimea is now painted on the map of Russia, as it was painted in school earlier, now it is part of Russia. Is it annexation or return? What word should i use?
V.PUTIN: If you let me finish the sentence, it seems to me that it will be clear what I mean.
So, the Russian troops were in the Crimea in accordance with an international agreement on the presence of a Russian military base there. And the Russian troops really helped the residents of the Crimea to hold a referendum on their independence and desire to join the Russian Federation. And no one has the right to refuse to these people that they exercise the right provided for in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, the right of nations to self-determination.
QUESTION: That is, you will not return the Crimea? Crimea is yours, do you want to say this?
V.PUTIN: Crimea, in accordance with the will of the people who live in this territory, is part of the Russian Federation, a subject of Russia.
I want it to be completely clear and quite frank. We have conducted a dialogue with our partners, both with the Europeans and with the Americans, I repeat once again, exclusively through diplomatic, peaceful means.
We were responded to our attempts to conduct a dialogue in this way and agree on acceptable solutions by supporting the state anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine, and then we had no guarantees that Ukraine will not become part of the North Atlantic military bloc tomorrow.
Under these conditions, allow the historical Russian territory with the predominant ethnic Russian population to go there, to some international military alliance, despite the fact that the residents of Crimea themselves want to be part of Russia - excuse me, we could not do otherwise.
QUESTION: So, Francois Hollande invited you to France, to Paris, to Normandy. You are already familiar with him. Can you move on and can you say that you have a relationship of trust?
V.PUTIN: I think yes.
QUESTION: Are you thinking or are you sure?
V.PUTIN: Until now, I thought so. I see no reason to think otherwise. We have good, very good interstate relations, and we still have a lot to do in terms of expanding economic ties. But there was always a very trusting personal relationship, which helps to conduct and official business. I hope this will continue.
QUESTION: You are talking about trusting relationships - both military and economic. You have already paid more than a billion euros for two Mistral helicopter carriers, and Russian sailors should arrive in Saint-Nazaire in a few days. Did you give them such permission to go to France?
V.PUTIN: I hope that we live in a civilized world, and we will all fulfill our obligations, including contractual obligations. But I heard a lot of talk about the fact that there is an opinion not to transfer these ships to Russia. Do you know that? We in Russia had many opponents of this contract, and there are quite a lot of them. But if France decides not to transfer, then this is her decision, then return the money, but this will not give us the opportunity, of course, to develop relations in the military-technical sphere. And so, on the whole, we are ready both to expand our cooperation and to new orders, perhaps even if the will of our French partners is to that.
QUESTION: Despite external pressure, you are asking France to put these helicopter carriers, and if France does, you may place other orders, right?
V.PUTIN: We expect that our French partners will fulfill contractual obligations, and if this happens as we agreed, we do not exclude any new orders, and not necessarily in the field of military shipbuilding - and in other areas too.
In general, we have a very good development of these relations, and we would like and are ready to develop them further. In the field of aviation, shipbuilding, in other areas. We cooperate very well in space, in Kourou.
QUESTION: France, in your opinion, is it a sovereign and independent power, to which they listen? What is your attitude to Germany? Compared to Germany?
You speak to Angela Merkel in Russian and German, and Francois Hollande does not know Russian, you do not know French. Can you say that you speak the same language?
V.PUTIN: This does not prevent us (ignorance on my part of French and Russian on the part of Francois) to speak, in fact, in the same language, even through translators, we understand each other well.
As for the level of sovereignty, I repeat, any country entering into certain military alliances voluntarily transfers part of its sovereignty to supranational bodies. For Russia, this is unacceptable. As for other countries, it is not our business, the countries themselves must determine how to act and how to act.
But in this connection, I recall the traditions of Gollism, and I recall General de Gaulle, who defended the sovereignty of France. It seems to me that it is worthy of respect.
There is another example, the example of Mitterrand, who spoke about the European confederation, by the way, with the participation of Russia.
It seems to me that nothing is lost, I mean the future of Europe.
QUESTION: I would like to talk about the USA. In a few days you will meet with Barack Obama, you will be a few meters from him. But it seems that he does not want to talk to you. How will this meeting take place, how will relations develop between the richest country in the world and the largest country in the world? How can you not talk, because there is a need for this, because the war is not far?
V.PUTIN: First, you exaggerate that the war is near. You are some kind of aggressive journalist. Where did you get that war is not far, why are you scaring us all?
QUESTION: Because Ukraine is near.
V.PUTIN: Ну и что?
QUESTION: That is where the war is going. And when we speak, then about this war, it is just near.
V.PUTIN: There is a punitive operation of the central authorities against their own people. This is not a war between states, these are different things.
QUESTION: Should it be discontinued? Do you think you need to quickly stop it?
V.PUTIN: I believe that Poroshenko has a unique chance: he is still not covered with blood and he can stop this punitive operation and begin a direct dialogue with his citizens in the east and south of his country.
As for relations with Obama (I have not forgotten this question), I have no reason to believe that he does not want to communicate with the President of Russia at all, but in the end, this is his choice. I am always ready for dialogue and I think that dialogue is the best way to build bridges. So far we have talked with him, called up, talked on the phone.
QUESTION: Now you have problems in relations between Russia and the United States. Are these problems in the relations of the two powers or problems in the relations of two people - Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin?
V.PUTIN: There are always problems between countries, especially between such large countries as Russia and the United States. They have always been, but I do not think that they need to be brought to some extreme limit. Anyway, this is not our choice. I am ready to communicate with all my partners, including President Obama.
QUESTION: So are you ready to talk and do you regret that this is not happening? But you do not have the feeling that America now wants to surround Russia, weaken you personally, Vladimir Putin, and, possibly, isolate you in the international arena? You speak very politely today, but you see reality.
V.PUTIN: Reality? But you yourself said that Russia is the largest country in the world by territory. Surround it is very difficult. And then, the world is changing so quickly that even virtually it is almost impossible to do this.
Of course, we see attempts by the US administration to pressure its allies, using its clear leadership positions in the Western community, in order to influence Russia's policy.
Russia's policy will be conducted solely on the basis of our national interests. Of course, we take into account the opinion of our partners, but we will be guided by the interests of the Russian people.
QUESTION: Mr. President, this is a very good opportunity that you will meet with Obama on June 6. If you had met Hillary Clinton, it would probably be worse. She said a few days ago that what Russia is doing in Eastern Europe is similar to what Hitler did in the 30s.
V.PUTIN: It is better not to argue with women and it is better not to engage in an argument with them. But Mrs. Clinton had not previously had a particular grace in terms. Nothing, we met with her after that and talked nicely at various international events. I think that in this case it would be possible to find a common language. When people pass certain limits of decency, it does not speak about their strength, but about their weakness. But for a woman, weakness is not a bad quality.
QUESTION: About women - you need to respect them, of course, I am sure that you respect them. You think that she has gone far, and in many media a lot of cartoons appear on this issue, including with your participation. What is your first reaction: anger, desire to punish or laugh? We have never seen you laugh.
V.PUTIN: Somehow I will bring myself and you this pleasure, we will laugh with you many times over a good joke. But when I see some extreme statements, I repeat, I see that people simply no longer have arguments, and this is not the best argument — extreme statements.
As for the policies of the United States themselves, it is no secret that the United States conducts the most aggressive, most rigid policy in defense of its own interests (as American leaders understand it), and from year to year.
There are practically no Russian troops abroad, Russian, - American troops everywhere abroad, everywhere around the world, American military bases, and everywhere they take part in deciding the fate of other nations, thousands of kilometers from their own borders. Therefore, to reproach us that we are breaking something is very strange on the part of our American partners.
QUESTION: But you made some efforts on the military budget, and at the moment the President of Russia, does he take any special decisions on security and defense? Because the general climate is dangerous.
V.PUTIN: Yes, about the military budget. So, for reference (not everyone knows, experts know, but not all): the military budget of the United States of America, which we have just talked about, exceeds the military budgets of all countries of the world combined. So who is pursuing an aggressive policy?
As for our [military] budget. It is practically not increasing as a percentage of GDP — a small [increase], by a tenth of a percent. But we want to re-equip our army and navy on a modern, highly intellectual base, reduce the quantity and improve the quality. We have a whole program, it did not arise yesterday, this rearmament program, not in connection with any events in Ukraine. This is a planned work, and we will do it.
QUESTION: Mr President, Syrian President Bashar Asad has just been re-elected to the presidency without any effort. Can you influence him? Why don't you ask him to stop the atrocities that his army is doing, to stop fighting against its own people?
V.PUTIN: Atrocities are happening there from all sides. And not in the last, and maybe, first of all, from the side of extremist organizations, which bred in large numbers in Syria. Do you know what worries us most?
QUESTION: Religious, Islamist ...
V.PUTIN: ... organizations associated directly with al-Qaida. They are full there. No one even denies this. This is a well-known fact. But we are most concerned about the fact that Syria can turn if we act carelessly, into some sort of Afghanistan, into a hotbed, into an absolutely uncontrollable hotbed of terrorist threat, by the way, including for European states. Because these extremists who are sitting there today will sooner or later move to other countries, including Europe.
QUESTION: We do not quite understand why you, Vladimir Putin, want to modernize Russia, but you support a person who is killing his own population, which is covered in blood. How can it be?
V.PUTIN: I will explain it very simply and intelligibly, and I hope that most French viewers and listeners will understand me. We are very afraid of the collapse of Syria, just as it happened, for example, in Sudan. We are very afraid of the situation that might arise there, the same as in Iraq, and we are very afraid of turning Syria into some sort of Afghanistan. That is why we want to preserve the legal authority and then gradually, along with the Syrian people, together with our partners in Europe and the United States, think about how to transform this society in order to make it more modern, more viable and more humanistic.
QUESTION: I would like to talk about your country, about Russia. How would you describe the political regime that is now in Russia? Some say that it is a democracy, some say that it is a huge territory, so you need a hard hand. How does Vladimir Putin define what is called the Putin regime?
V.PUTIN: We have no regime related to a specific person, including the current President. We have absolutely standard democratic state institutions, which, of course, have some kind of their own specifics. What is this specific? It lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of our citizens are inclined to lean on their historical traditions, on their history and, if I may say so, to traditional values.
In my opinion, this is a certain foundation, an element of the sustainability of Russian statehood. But this is nothing special, this is nothing that is personified with the person of the President. And, above all, we must not forget that quite recently democratic standard institutions began to be introduced in our country. This process is in a state of constant development.
QUESTION: Is it possible to be an oppositionist in Russia and not risk his connections, his reputation, to avoid punishment by the Russian justice?
V.PUTIN: We have a large number of opposition parties, we just recently liberalized the registration of political parties, we already have dozens of parties that participate in municipal and regional elections.
QUESTION: But can one be an oppositionist, a personal oppositionist to Vladimir Putin and avoid risks?
V.PUTIN: If you listen to some of our radio stations, watch some television programs, then I assure you, you are still unlikely to find any analogue of such opposition activities in France.
QUESTION: Yes, of course, in Russia there have always been such periods of order and authoritarian power, but in the era of the Internet, can a country develop by restricting freedoms?
V.PUTIN: It is impossible, we do not limit the Internet.
You know that we do not do it, immediately someone is trying to find some element that contradicts the principles of democracy, including on the Internet. Do we have restrictions or not? I think not. Some of our opponents say: “No, these are impossible restrictions!” What are our limitations? We, for example, have restrictions connected with the prohibition of propaganda on the Internet of methods of suicide, drug propaganda, pedophilia - these are our prohibitions. What is it?
QUESTION: And homosexuality. But this is another matter, this is not pedophilia.
V.PUTIN: It is not, we do not have a ban on homosexuality. We have a ban on promoting homosexuality among minors. These are different things, understand?
In the United States, which we talked about, there is criminal responsibility for homosexuality in some states. We have no responsibility whatsoever. There is a ban on the promotion of homosexuality among minors. We have the right to protect our children, and we will do it.
QUESTION: We want to talk about the end of your presidential term in 2018. We would like to talk about labor camps. These things are surprising in our West. Suppose Pussy Riot were sentenced to labor camps, it was not a normal prison. Will you close these camps by the end of your term?
V.PUTIN: These are not camps, they are zones where people are limited in freedom, but they can live more or less normal human life. These are not prisons in which a person cannot work.
In general, prison, where a person is prohibited from engaging in labor activity, is the worst way of punishment. And I do not think that we should move all people to such institutions where a person is deprived of liberty. I think it is much worse than what you said.
QUESTION: Who convinced you that you have a special mission for Russia?
V.PUTIN: Where did you get that I believe that I have some special mission? I have the confidence of my voters - over 63% of voters in the Russian Federation voted for me. I believe that I have a national mandate to conduct domestic and foreign policy, and I will fulfill my duties in accordance with this mandate.
QUESTION: Do you think that you have an example in the history of Russia? Do you focus on the Soviet or Russian model?
V.PUTIN: I have great respect and love for national history and culture. But the world is developing, and Russia is developing along with the world. Russia is a part of the modern world, not yesterday’s, but a modern one, and I think that it has even a bigger future than some other countries that cannot take care of their young people, their new generations, their children, think that all this can be let loose.
QUESTION: Last question, Mr. President. American magazine Forbs called you the most influential person in the world in 2013. Did it flatter you?
V.PUTIN: You know, I am an adult, I am able to understand and understand what influence is in the modern world. In the modern world, influence is primarily determined by such factors as economy, defense and humanitarian influences.
I think that as regards Russia's defense capability, in this sense, our country is undoubtedly one of the leaders in the world, because it is a nuclear power, and in terms of the quality of our nuclear weapons, we, perhaps, really hold, maybe even the first place in the world - by quality.
As for humanitarian influence, this is also a matter of our pride - I mean the great Russian culture, literature, painting, and so on.
As for the economy, we really realize that we still have a lot to do to take some leading positions, although lately we have made great strides, we have become the fifth economy in the world. This is, in general, success for us, but it is not enough.
QUESTION: Vladimir Putin - the story does not yet know what will remain of these years, of the Putin era. What would you like to have left? And would you like to be considered a democrat or a person who left the authoritarian system?
V.PUTIN: I would like me to be considered the person who did the most he could do, for the happiness and prosperity of his own country, for his people.
REPLICA: Thank you very much. And a wonderful trip to France, Mr. President. Goodbye!
V.PUTIN: Thank you.