(Excerpts from Putin’s annual press conference, 23 December 2021, Moscow. For the Russian original, click here)
Petr Kozlov: Good afternoon, Mr President.
Petr Kozlov, BBC Russian Service.
Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.
Petr Kozlov: Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and headquarters were designated as extremist organisations and disbanded this year. He is in prison now, after being poisoned, conducting an investigation into the poisoning and claiming to have identified the individuals involved.
Over 100 media outlets have been put on the foreign agents’ registry. Most of them were listed this year, actually, during the past six months.
What happened in Russia recently for the number of those who the authorities consider extremists, undesirable organisations or foreign agents to have grown so fast?
Let me say a few words about history. You often talk about history, and you know it. Probably, you remember that each time power in Russia was concentrated in the hands of one person in the absence of active opposition, when Russia was in a state of active, acute confrontation with the West, ultimately this situation prompted a response which plunged the country into the abyss of wars and revolutions. Do you not think that you, possessing all the power, are now laying the foundation, perhaps, for such wars and revolutions?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, speaking of history, as a reminder, our opponents have been saying throughout the centuries that Russia cannot be defeated, but can only be destroyed from within, which they successfully accomplished during World War I, or rather, after it ended, and then in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was being dismantled from within. Who was doing it? Someone serving the interests of others that run counter to the interests of the Russian and other peoples of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation today.
You mentioned the person who was allegedly poisoned. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation has sent multiple official inquiries asking to provide at least some materials corroborating that he was in fact poisoned. There are none. How can this be explained? Not a single thing about Novichok or whatever you call it.
We suggested that our specialists go there and join the investigation. I spoke with the President of France and the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, asking them to allow our specialists to come, take samples and verify things, so that we can at least have some grounds to open a criminal case. No response whatsoever. We ask them: how can this be explained? Silence. So, there is no need to discuss it, let us turn the page if there is nothing to say in response.
As for inmates, every country has always had them, and that is never going to change. Do not commit criminal offences under the guise of political activity.
Next, regarding the list of media acting as foreign agents and media outlets designated as foreign agents. I agree with you, it’s not good. But let me remind you once again that this law was not invented here; it was invented in a state that – you represent the UK here, and the UK is the closest ally of the United States – a state everyone considers to be the beacon of democracy.
The United States adopted this act back in the 1930s, but this is not the point. What is important is that it is in effect now. It is in force today. About 0.034 [percent] organisations have been labelled foreign agents there. Is this surprising now? We have the same share of foreign agents, 0.034, the same number. What is the difference? The difference is that in the United States, if you have not shut down, you face criminal liability, up to five years in prison. Even if you stop any activity and close the organisation it does not exempt you from criminal liability – five years.
We do nothing like that. We do not prohibit the work of these organisations; we just want organisations that are engaged in internal political activity in Russia to clearly explain and disclose the sources of funding for their operations. That is all, they can continue doing what they are doing. Our law is much more liberal. If you think this is not enough, if, like your colleague here, you think we need to introduce liability, administrative or criminal, for failure to get vaccinated – why don’t we introduce criminal liability for foreign agents’ operations if the organisation fails to close, like in the US? But we do not even demand termination of their operations – we just want them to be honest about their sources of funding.
There may be questions about the understanding of ‘political activity.’ I agree with you here. There may be questions about regulating this kind of activity. We have 74 organisations designated as foreign agents of 200,000 registered NGOs – that’s 0.034. Just like in the States, but we do not have such severe penalties, which include criminal liability.
Now, regarding keeping power in the same hands. We have distinct branches of power – the executive, legislative and judicial authorities. Clearly, the delineation of authority between these branches can have minor variations depending on the specific country at a specific stage of its development. We will strive to ensure that they are independent, so that the country is cohesive, efficient and forward-looking. And in the end, it will be up to the Russian people to choose their system of society and state, not up to those who you serve today.
Dmitry Peskov: Let us continue. I suggest giving the floor to the television channels
Vladimir Putin: Of course.
Dmitry Peskov: I see NTV, Irada Zeinalova. You do not need to introduce yourself.
Irada Zeinalova: Good afternoon, Mr President, colleagues.
Since we were talking about history, I would say that things are happening almost according to [Alexander] Gorchakov, who said, “Russia is focusing.” Of course, we would like to focus on our internal problems, to address our internal affairs.
However, over the past few weeks the global media have been fuelling tension, saying that the Russians are coming, Russia is planning to attack Ukraine and wants war. Serious people call you, and you talk with them and explain our position, but they do not calm down. As a result, we send our proposals, establish our ‘red lines’ and, roughly speaking, explain the rules of the game, which, you must agree, did not exist before. For the past 30 years, we have been living in a swamp and have been told that we do not meet certain standards.
We have set our red lines, and we know that we have outlined our security priorities and interests. But we also remember from history that any agreement reached during negotiations can remain on paper, the way it happened many times in the past. The smallest provocation after such talks can lead to a big war, and the agreements remain on paper or are forgotten again.
So, here is my question. Mr President, what should we prepare for? What is a realistic outlook, and since the word “war” has been said out-loud, have we estimated the probability of war even as the result of a provocation?
Vladimir Putin: You brought up Gorchakov and the end of his phrase, “Russia is focusing.” You may also recall that the first part of the phrase – in reply to a question about whether Russa was angry – was, “No, Russia is not angry, Russia is focusing.”
I will try to give a short answer, yet I will have to begin at the beginning. The aggravation began in 2014. Before that, even though the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and part of historically Russian territories with a historically Russian population, primarily in Ukraine, had found themselves living outside Russia, we accepted that as a fact of life and felt more or less comfortable about it. We even helped those new republics to get back on their feet, and we worked, were ready to work and are still working together with their governments, whatever their foreign policy priorities.
Suffice it to recall our relations with President [Viktor] Yushchenko and Prime Minister [Yulia] Timoshenko, who indicated, like the current Ukrainian leadership, their absolutely pro-Western position. But we worked with them anyway. It is true that we argued over gas, and there were conflicts, but eventually we came to an agreement, and we worked, and were ready to continue to work together, and we never even thought about doing anything about Crimea.
But what happened in 2014? A bloody coup, people were killed and burned alive. I am not talking now about who was right and who was to blame. Obviously, Ukrainian citizens were rightfully indignant and displeased at what was happening in the country. The then president, Yanukovych, had agreed to everything. Three foreign ministers – of Poland, Germany and France – guaranteed the peaceful development of the situation and the peace process. I talked with the US president at that time at his initiative. He asked me to support this process as well. Everyone agreed but then a coup took place in a day or two. What for? There is no answer. Why was it needed? President Yanukovych agreed to everything anyway. He was ready to give up power anytime. The elections and the victory of the opposition were inevitable. Everyone knew this very well. Why was it done then?
Then Crimea happened. But how could we turn down the request of Sevastopol and Crimea, the people who lived there, to take them under our protection, under our wing? It was not possible. We were simply put in a situation where we could not have acted differently. Or were we supposed to just look on passively at what was happening in the southeast, in Donbass, which has only ever thought of itself as part of Russia, even during the formation of the USSR in 1922–1924? But Lenin and his comrades wedged Donbass in there by force. At first, they decided to make it part of Russia and then said the decision had to be revised.
They revised it and created a country that had never existed before. We will not talk about it now, but this is what happened then. They crammed in there the historical lands of people whom nobody asked how or where they wanted to live. All right, this is what happened, we agreed. But we had to do something in 2014 and this led to the crisis that is unfolding today.
All right, the Ukrainian authorities twice attempted to resolve the Donbass problem by force although we persuaded them not to do this. I personally persuaded Mr Poroshenko: Anything but military operations! Yes, yes, he said and then resorted to force. What was the result? Encirclement, losses and the Minsk agreements. Are they good or not? I think they are the only possible way out. So, what is the problem? There is no desire to implement them. They adopted a law on indigenous people and announced that the Russian people who lived on this land, on their own land, were not indigenous. Incidentally, the same was done to Poles, Hungarians and Romanians. Hence the disputes in Ukraine’s relations with these countries. They exist. They do not get a lot of attention, but they are there.
Language came next. The Russians and the Russian-speaking population are being forced from their historical lands – that is what is happening. All right. Everyone says: Russia must abide by the Minsk agreements. We agreed. But they, the government suddenly submitted to parliament a law on a transitional period. How does it tally with the Minsk agreements? Instead of amnesty, this law provides for a ban on amnesty, all but criminal liability for amnesty. Instead of elections, this law introduces military government, and instead of amnesty – lustration. What is all this about? And they got it approved by the Venice Commission. So, how are we supposed to react to all this?
This is the domestic policy component. But then we hear: war, war, war. You could get the impression that maybe a third military operation is in the making. Moreover, they are warning us in advance: “Do not interfere, do no protect these people. If you do interfere to protect these people, certain sanctions will follow.” It may well be that they are preparing for this. This is the first option we need to respond to, and act, while keeping this in mind.
The second option is, in general, to create, as I said in my article, an anti-Russia of sorts on this territory by constantly stockpiling the latest weapons there and brainwashing the local population. Just imagine how Russia must live and carry on, from a historical perspective? Do we have to live, while constantly keeping an eye on what is going on over there, and what new weapons’ systems were delivered? Under the cover of these new weapons’ systems radicals may well decide to settle the Donbass issue, as well as the Crimean issue, by military means. Why did they support the Crimean Platform? On the sidelines they keep saying: “Fine, let’s forget about Crimea.” But no! They mean to get even there.
After all, we have to be mindful of our own security, not just for today and not just for next week, but in the short term. How is Russia to live with all this? Do we always have to stay on guard, watching what happens there and when a strike might come?
This is a serious matter. I have just spoken about our plans for infrastructure development, social policy, and healthcare. But what does it all mean if we end up in the conflict you are asking about? This is not our choice, and we do not want this.
It is for this reason that I responded to President Biden’s proposal, who suggested appointing responsible representatives to lead strategic stability talks. Stability and security, ensuring security on this territory and in this area is one of the key matters on today’s agenda. We must understand how to ensure our security. With this in mind, we spoke out clearly and directly against any further eastward expansion by NATO. The ball is in their court. They need to respond in one way or another.
In this connection, I would like to emphasise that the overall response we have been seeing has been quite positive. Our American partners are telling us that they are ready to launch this conversation by starting talks early next year in Geneva. Both sides have appointed representatives. I hope that the situation develops in this very direction.
Dmitry Peskov: Maybe we should give the floor to foreign media.
Diana Magnay: Thank you for taking my question. I am afraid it is in English.
You have talked a lot about security guarantees, and now we have seen your proposals. You also say you have no intention of invading Ukraine.
So, will you guarantee unconditionally that you will not invade Ukraine or any other sovereign country? Or does that depend on how negotiations go?
And another question: what is it, do you think, that the West does not understand about Russia or about your intentions?
Vladimir Putin: Regarding your question about guarantees or whether things depend on the negotiations, our actions will not depend on the negotiation process, but rather on unconditional guarantees for Russia’s security today and in the historical perspective.
In this connection, we have made it clear that any further movement of NATO to the East is unacceptable. Is there anything unclear about this? Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep. Is it going too far to demand that no strike systems be placed near our home? What is so unusual about this?
What would the Americans say if we stationed our missiles on the border between Canada and the United States, or between Mexico and the United States? Haven’t Mexico and the US had territorial disputes in the past? Which country owned California? And Texas? Have you forgotten? All right, nobody is talking about this now the way they are talking about Crimea. Very well. But we are trying to avoid talking about the creation of Ukraine as well. Who created it? Vladimir Lenin did, when he established the Soviet Union. This is set out in the 1922 Treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union and in the 1924 Constitution. True, this happened after his death, but in accordance with the principles he formulated.
But the matter at hand concerns security, not history, but security guarantees. This is why it is not the negotiations themselves but the results that matter to us.
We remember, as I have mentioned many times before and as you know very well, how you promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly: there have been five waves of NATO expansion, and now the weapons systems I mentioned have been deployed in Romania and deployment has recently begun in Poland. This is what we are talking about, can you not see?
We are not threatening anyone. Have we approached US borders? Or the borders of Britain or any other country? It is you who have come to our border, and now you say that Ukraine will become a member of NATO as well. Or, even if it does not join NATO, that military bases and strike systems will be placed on its territory under bilateral agreements. This is the point.
And you are demanding guarantees from me. It is you who must give us guarantees, and you must do it immediately, right now, instead of talking about it for decades and doing what you want, while talking quietly about the need for security guarantees to everyone. This is the point. Are we threatening anyone?
Now to your second question. Repeat it, please.
Diana Magnay: What is it that you think that the West does not understand about Russia or about your intentions?
Vladimir Putin: Does the West understand or fail to understand something? You know, sometimes I get the feeling we live in different worlds. I just talked about things that are obvious. How can you not understand them? They told us: there will be no expansion, but they expanded. They promised us equal guarantees for all under several international treaties. But this equal security has failed to materialise.
Look, back in 1918, an aide to US President Woodrow Wilson said that it would be a relief for the entire world if instead of one huge Russia, that a separate state in Siberia and another four countries in the European part be created.
In 1991, we divided ourselves into 12, I believe, parts, and we did this ourselves. Still, it seems that this was not enough for our partners. They believe that Russia is too big as it is today. This is because the European countries themselves turned into small states. Instead of vast empires, they are now small states with 60 to 80 million people. However, even after the Soviet Union collapsed, and we were left with just 146 million, it is still too much for them. I believe that this is the only way to explain this unrelenting pressure.
Take the 1990s, for example. The Soviet Union did everything to build normal relations with the West and the United States. I have said this many times, and I will repeat it, so that your listeners and viewers understand. I do not recall what media outlet you represent, but this is not the point. We had representatives from American intelligence services at our nuclear, military facilities; monitoring Russia’s nuclear weapons sites was their job. They went there every day and even lived there. Many advisors, including CIA staffers, worked in the Russian Government.
What else did you need? Why did they have to support terrorists in the North Caucasus and use organisations of a clearly terrorist nature in attempts to break the Russian Federation apart? But they did this, and as former Director of the Federal Security Service, I know this all too well. We worked with double agents, and they reported to us on the objectives set for them by Western intelligence services. But why? They should have treated Russia as a potential ally, and made it stronger, but it all went in the opposite direction; they wanted to break it down even further.
And then they started expanding NATO eastwards. Of course, we told them not to do this, arguing that they promised not to. But they asked us: “Do you have any paper record? No? If not, go away, we don’t care about your concerns.” This continued year after year, every time we showed our teeth and tried to prevent something and voice our concerns. But no: they did not want to hear anything, saying that they would do what they considered necessary.
There were one, two, three, four, five – five waves of expansion. What is it they don’t understand? I don’t know. You can say that this is all abundantly clear. I do believe that it is clear as daylight: we want to ensure our security.
Ekho Moskvy, please.
Maxim Kurnikov: Maxim Kurnikov, Ekho Moskvy.
Mr President, I would like to continue with the topic that my colleague from Sky News began. She asked for some guarantees, and you said we would not give any guarantees. But you have already spoken with Biden several times, at least twice, as far as we know, and I want to understand how you see this situation. Do you have the same vision for the future of Donbass, and the future of the Minsk agreements? Because when later we hear statements from the White House, and statements from Mr Peskov, it sounds as if many things coincide, or seems to coincide, and yet the word ‘war’ is heard increasingly often.
Here we are, discussing the possibility of war. But at this very moment, Ukrainians are probably watching us and spitting at the screen, because war already came to their land in 2014, and they actually hold you and me responsible for it. They might not be aware of the details of who issues which orders, but they actually believe Russia is already at war with Ukraine.
You refused to give guarantees. How do you see it?
I received calls from listeners the day before yesterday, and we talked about how their families were discussing a possible war with Ukraine. And actually, it is shocking enough just to say the words. How do these thoughts appear inside your head, what do you think about this, is it possible? How can one give an order to a Russian soldier to shoot at a Ukrainian one, and vice versa?
And one more short remark. There are people who could not attend this news conference, and my colleague from Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel prize winner, gave me a question for you. I will read it out, so as not to miss a single word: “Mr President, do you personally know the names of those who ordered the murders of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov?”
Vladimir Putin: Let us start with the last part. I made every effort to see these cases solved; all the necessary instructions, directives and orders were given to every law enforcement and special service. As you know, people have been convicted and incarcerated for the crimes they have committed. Some say they are contractors, not the employers – the latter got left out of the equation, went into hiding or were given shelter, but investigative bodies have no knowledge of this. They have made every effort to expose the perpetrators of these crimes, and some of them died while being apprehended. I think you are aware of this.
And in general, I think that this score-settling is not just unacceptable, it does nothing but harm our country. So, I am absolutely sure that, even if there were some political motives, that can also be accommodated in the minds of those who do not understand what they are doing. But they must understand that the state will fight this kind of crime. We will continue doing everything within our power. If it was really ordered by someone that we do not know about, we will look for them. This is my first point.
Now, the first part of your question, the future of Donbass. The future of Donbass must be determined by the people who live in Donbass. There is no other way. We see ourselves as mediators for creating the best conditions in which the local population can determine its own future. Are there problems? Yes, because, according to the Minsk agreements, Russia is to act as a mediator but somebody else wants to make us a party to this conflict. There is no such provision in the Minsk agreements and it is not something we agreed to.
Speaking about those who may be spitting at the screen while watching this or any other event, there will always be people to spit at the screen, whether it is showing today’s event or what is happening in Ukraine: horrible poverty and the prospect of a harsh winter. When Verkhovna Rada deputies visit regions, they meet pensioners who ask them: “Why are you killing us?” Of course, they spit at the TV when they hear the bragging of the current Kiev regime. No matter the cause, there will always be people who spit, on both sides.
How can someone issue orders to shoot? You should ask the political leaders of Ukraine how they bring themselves to issue orders to fire on Donbass every single day.
You know, some time ago we reached agreement that only senior officials, all the way up to the relevant ministries, are allowed to issue orders to retaliate if either party fires. In one case it is Donetsk and Lugansk, and in another it is Kiev.
Why that decision? To make sure that attacks cease. The Kiev officials later back-pedalled and authorised field commanders to issue this kind of order. The shooting resumed. Ask them why they did that and how they brought themselves to issue orders to shoot at their own citizens since they consider Donbass residents Ukrainian citizens? Their own citizens. Not some other country.
As for the future, the Minsk agreements state that the Ukrainian Constitution must be amended to grant these regions autonomy, to hold elections and grant amnesty. As I said, what do we see in the draft law on transition period? A military government instead of elections. Lustration instead of amnesty. Returning troops to their permanent bases instead of elections and political solutions to political issues. This is the reality. What does it mean, returning troops to their permanent bases? It means sending troops to the territory without any political process or elections.
Look, as I have already said, there is a requirement in the Minsk Agreements to amend the Constitution. Where are these amendments? It is written there that these amendments must be coordinated with the representatives of the LPR and the DPR. They must be coordinated. I remember this perfectly well because I took part in drafting these solutions. Far from coordinating anything or making any proposals on amending the Constitution, they are refusing pointblank even to talk with Donbass representatives, although when these agreements were signed in Minsk, they insisted that Donbass representatives sign this document. And they did. Frankly, they were refusing to sign it. We had to talk to them to persuade them to do it. They did but now nobody is even talking to them. They are called terrorists and any possibility of talking with them is rejected. Can you explain why? Because instead of responding to the call for peace in Ukrainian society, which Zelensky exploited to come to power, he chose not to keep his promises, having fallen, like previous leaders, under the influence of radical elements that are called “natsi’ in Ukraine.
What is the problem for us? I think I have said about Donbass. We want to build friendly relations with Ukraine, moreover, we want to achieve this at any cost and will go to practically any lengths. But how is it possible to develop relations with the current leaders, considering what they are doing? It is practically impossible.
However, we are ready to work with those who would like to develop relations with Russia in the spirit of friendship. What is happening with these forces? Extrajudicial executions, sanctions against Ukrainian nationals in violation of Ukrainian law and Constitution, or simply killings in the street. Nobody is looking for the murderers.
You just asked me about murders that sadly took place in our country. You asked, where are those who ordered the contract killing? People are in prison. Whether they ordered it or not, they are in prison in any event. And what happens there? If a murder takes place in the street, nobody searches for the culprit at all. People were burned alive in the Trade Union House in Odessa – has anyone lifted a finger to find the criminals? Not in the least.
In other words, we do not have any chance of working with those people who want to move relations forward. The people who want to work with us are being destroyed – this is the gist of the problem.
Now about my agreements with President Biden. Yes, I have already said that he suggested appointing official representatives for discussing strategic stability issues including our concerns over the growing threat from Ukraine. He made an offer, we countered, and I think it was a very constructive and quick deal. Incidentally, I told him during our conversation: I promise you that we will send you our proposals in the near future. And we did this, we sent them to both the United States and NATO. We are ready to discuss them at the OSCE platform as well. I hope this first positive reaction and the announcement that work will begin shortly, in the first days of January, will allow us to move forward.
(While answering a question about the 2022 Olympic Games:)
I have already talked about the situation with NATO’s eastward expansion. Why did they have to do this? Take, for instance, Egon Bahr. He was a politician from the Social Democratic Party of Germany and proposed building a new security architecture in Europe after the Soviet troops left Germany and Eastern Europe: keeping NATO without expanding it to Central and Eastern European countries, and creating a new system of equal security with Canada, the United States and Russia. According to the archival documents on his talks with the Soviet leaders, including Falin and others, otherwise the virtual Berlin wall will keep moving east, leaving us with the same problems. This is precisely what happened. Why? This was an attempt at containment. However, this is an erroneous policy, just like the attempt to use sports for momentary political gain.