Oliver Stone conducted interviews with Vladimir Putin on four separate trips to Russia for a total of nine days between July 2, 2015 and February 10, 2017.
The following is a selection of parts of the interviews where Putin talks about Ukraine.
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July 4, 2015
STONE: Okay, Ukraine. I want to say first of all that I interviewed Mr. Yanukovych here in Moscow a few months ago. And he told me his version of events.
PUTIN: The thing is, here is an objective sequence of events. These events can be assessed differently, and you can name these events using different words, different formulas. But it’s quite evident you can follow what was happening day after day. And then you can give the people a chance to make an assessment of their own of what has really happened.
STONE: Well, I would like your perspective on it from November to February 20th, 2013 into 2014. During those three months, there was quite a bit of protest in Ukraine. You must have been aware of it.
PUTIN: Do you want to know what was happening in Ukraine starting from the early 1990s? What was happening there was the systemic robbery of the Ukrainian people. Right away after independence, Ukraine started an even wilder privatization and robbery of state property, which led to the deterioration of the standard of living—right after Ukraine gained independence. Whatever powers came into force, nothing changed for the lives of ordinary people.
And certainly the people were fed up with all those arbitrary actions and that crazy corruption, the impoverishment and the illegal enrichment of other people. That was the root of the discontent the people were feeling. And certainly people were thinking that exiting in any way to the EU would liberate them from the terrible conditions they had found themselves in starting from the beginning of the 1990s. I think that was the driving force behind the developments in Ukraine.
And the crisis was sparked, as is well known, when President Yanukovych said he had to postpone the signing of the association agreement with the European Union. That was the starting point. And our partners in Europe and the United States managed to mount this horse of discontent of the people. And instead of trying to find out what was really happening, they decided to support the coup d’état.
And now let me tell you how it unfolded and what our position was. Mr. Yanukovych announced that he had to postpone, not cancel, the signing of the association agreement with the European Union because, at that moment, Ukraine had already been a member of the Free Trade Area of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).
Ukraine itself was the engine behind the establishment of the free trade area in the CIS space. And it was the force that led to the creation of this zone. As a result of this, and the fact that the economies of Russia and Ukraine were emerging as a united economy and had unique economic relations, many of our enterprises could not exist independently. There was very deep co-operation between those enterprises.
The markets of Russia were absolutely open to imports from Ukraine. We had and still have a zero tariff barrier. We have a single energy system and a single transportation system. There are many other elements which bring our economies together. For 17 years we have been in negotiations with the European Union on the conditions of Russia’s accession to the WTO, and all of a sudden, it was announced to us that Ukraine and the EU were signing an association agreement. And that meant the opening up of the Ukrainian markets. It meant that the technical standards and trade regulation and other elements of the economic policy of the EU were to be implemented in Ukraine, and that was happening very fast without a transition period. At the same time, our customs border with Ukraine was absolutely open. And the EU was able to enter our territory with all of their goods without any negotiations, despite the agreements—principled agreements—which we had reached with them before, during those 17-year talks on our accession to the WTO.
Certainly we had to respond to that. And we said that if Ukraine had decided to act like that it was its choice. And we respected that choice. But this didn’t mean that we had to pay for that choice. Why do people living in Russia today have to pay for this choice the Ukrainian leadership has made? That’s why we told them that we would have to take protective measures, and those protected measures were nothing special and they were not discriminatory. We were just trying to extend the regular trade regime to the territory of Ukraine which in international private law is called most favored nation status. So we’re just going to withdraw the preferences. But without preferences, the Ukrainian enterprises would not exist too long in the Russian market. And we proposed that we hold talks with our European partners in a trilateral format. But there was a flat refusal. They told us that we had better stay out of it. They told us, if we are talking to Canada, you would not interfere, right? If you are in talks with China, we are not interfering with those talks—that’s what they told us. And they asked us not to interfere in their relations with Ukraine.
And we said, those situations are quite different—Canada, China, and Russia/Ukrainian relations—these are different stories. But we told them, if you think like that then we’re not going to interfere. But in that case, we ask them to respect our right to undertake protective measures and to continue this economic policy. I would go even further, talking about the economics, and after the coup d’état, after the leadership changed in Ukraine, and Mr. Poroshenko arrived in power, at the request of our American partners and the request of the Ukrainian side, we did not implement protective measures.
Whereas the Ukrainian leadership signed the association agreement with the European Union. And they ratified this agreement, and after that they postponed that agreement from entering into force until January 1st, 2016. So you’re now shooting this documentary in mid-2015, and as of now, this association agreement between Ukraine and the EU has not yet entered into force.
That’s exactly what I had proposed to Mr. Yanukovych. He had proposed that the signing should be postponed. So the question is what was the reason for the coup d’état? Why did they drive this country into chaos, into civil war? So what was the sense behind all that? And now as to the unfolding of the political situation, indeed you have now mentioned the fact that there were riots and a coup d’état was perpetrated.
Let me remind you that before that, on February 21st, 2014, if my memory serves me correctly, three foreign ministers from European countries arrived in Kiev. They took part in the meeting between President Yanukovych and the opposition, and they agreed that early elections were to be held. They agreed on the future of relations between the president and the opposition.
And the following day, President Yanukovych went to the second largest city of Ukraine, Kharkov—he went there to participate in a regional conference. And once he departed, his residence was seized, his administration was seized, and the government was seized as well with the use of force. What would you call that? And the Prosecutor General was shot at, one of his security officers was wounded. And the motorcade of President Yanukovych himself was shot at. So it’s nothing more than an armed seizure of power. Naturally, someone supported this coup d’état. Where I started from this—not just personally against Yanukovych, but against the government itself because people were fed up with the chaos of what was happening. The poverty, they were fed up with it, as well as with corruption. After power was seized, some people liked it. But others didn’t like it. People were frightened by this surge of nationalism, radicalism.
The first thing the newly-arrived in power started to talk about was the need to adopt a law limiting the use of the Russian language. The Europeans prevented them from doing that. But the signal had already been sent to society, and people understood the direction the country was moving towards in such places as Crimea, where the overwhelming majority of people are Russians by nationality. Whereas Ukrainians who live in those places, as a whole, believe their native language to be the Russian language. Certainly, people in Crimea were especially frightened by this situation. Furthermore there were threats made against them directly. And all that led to the circumstances which are well known. I’ve elaborated on them on many occasions, so if you are interested, I can repeat. But something like that started to happen in the southeastern part of Ukraine on the whole. In the territory which is called Donbass, there are two large cities, and people didn’t accept the coup d’état there either. First there were attempts at arresting them using the police, but the police defected to their side quite quickly. Then the central authorities started to use special forces and in the night people were snatched and taken to prison. And afterwards there was the tragedy in Odessa. And people who were unarmed took to the streets for peaceful protests and they were pushed into a building and were massacred atrociously. Even pregnant women. That is a catastrophe. But still no one is going to investigate it. Certainly not people in Donbass. After that they took up arms.
But once hostilities started, instead of engaging in a dialogue with people in the southeast part of Ukraine, after they used Special Forces, they started to use weapons directly—tanks and even military aircraft. There were strikes from the multiple rocket launchers against residential neighborhoods. We repeatedly appealed to the new leadership of Ukraine, asking them to abstain from extreme actions. They started hostilities once, they were put to rout, they stopped, then elections took place, then this new president arrived in power. I talked to him [Poroshenko] on many occasions. I tried to persuade him not to resume hostilities. And he had an opinion of his own about what was happening. He always referred to the losses his forces had sustained to two or three as people during the hostilities with the militia. Certainly that was a tragedy. It is always sad when people die. But when he resumed the hostilities, thousands of people died. And the official forces suffered another defeat. Then they started hostilities for the third time. And once again they were defeated. After that, the latest Minsk Agreements were signed. They agreed that these agreements would be adhered to by both parties. Unfortunately, we’re not witnessing that, and I think the official authorities in Kiev are not willing to engage in any direct dialogue with Donbass. They refuse to be engaged in direct dialogue. Up to now. All the provisions of the Minsk agreements stipulate directly that issues related to amendments to the Constitution, issues related to the adoption of the law, on municipal elections, issues related to this special status of Donbass—all these issues have to be coordinated, that’s what it says. But nothing like that is happening.
Right now, the Kiev authorities are trying to make amendments to the Constitution. But according to the information I have—just yesterday I received new information—there is no contact, no negotiations with Donbass. Moreover, the Minsk agreements say directly that the law which had already been adopted by the Verkhovna Rada should enter into force. This is along with the special status of Donbass. Unfortunately, just several days ago President Poroshenko announced that no special status would be granted to Donbass. I have to talk to him. I have to understand what it means. Does it mean that the Kiev authorities refuse to adhere to the Minsk agreements? There are other considerations at work here. One of the provisions of the Minsk agreements says that it’s necessary to adopt a law on amnesty. But the law has not been adopted yet. How can you talk to people in Donbass who are threatened with criminal prosecution? Another provision—the economy and the social sphere of Donbass have to be restored. But instead the authorities are strengthening the blockade of these territories. And all things boiled down to one thing—they are saying that Donbass is fighting against them and that’s why they’re not going to pay them anything. And I say there are pensioners who are entitled, according to the law of Ukraine, to a pension, that there are people with disabilities who are not fighting anyone. They are just victims of this situation—hostages. I asked them, “Do you consider them to be citizens of your country? Well in that case you have to take care of them.” Their response was quite simple—“We do not have money and we’re not going to pay them anything.” We are supplying energy. Ukraine has refused to pay for that energy.
So on the whole, it’s a full-fledged, very tough blockade. Many people criticize Israel for the blockade of Palestine. I’m not going to elaborate on that, I’m not going to talk about that because it’s a different story entirely. But the same thing is happening here and everyone seems not to notice what is happening. There is not enough food there, not enough medicine. Nothing. And that is a serious issue. We assume that there is no other way to find a solution to this issue, other than adhering to the Minsk agreements—they have to be implemented.
We always hear appeals that we have to influence somehow the leadership of these unrecognized republics. Just recently, the leaders of these republics announced publicly that they were willing to go back to the Ukrainian state under certain conditions—if the Minsk agreements were observed. But these agreements were not implemented. And Donbass is not to blame for that. Let me reiterate, I believe that there is no other way to settle this crisis. And the Minsk agreement is the only way toward that end.
STONE: Well, obviously there are problems with it. What if the people in Donbass came across the border to Russia? That would be their only hope if things got really bad.
PUTIN: Do you mean that the best way to solve this issue is to push these people from their homeland?
STONE: I’m not saying that, I’m saying if they have no water, no food, and they can’t go on living, the only way you can travel is on your feet. I mean we’re talking about major migration.
PUTIN: Yes, many people have already resorted to these means—two and a half million Ukrainian citizens are in Russia. The overwhelming majority of them are men who are under conscription. They’re eligible for conscription. But in these territories there used to be four and a half million people. Right now estimates are around three million people are left there.
STONE: So what if they come?
PUTIN: Well, they are already doing that. They are coming. But once the situation quiets down, they go back to their homes.
STONE: Yes, I understand. Of course the Kiev government would claim that the Russian army or the Russian government has intervened already in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea. And the troops—they’re saying there are paratroopers or whatever you want to call them, contractors, soldiers and arms dealers helping them or helping the separatists.
PUTIN: As to Crimea, I’d like to ask you, what is democracy? Democracy is a policy which is based on the will of the people. And how do we know the will of the people? In a modern world we use the voting procedure. People came to a referendum and there were no whips, no machine guns. And you cannot use these means to make a person come to a polling station to vote. People came, the turnout was more than 90 percent. And more than 90 percent voted in favor of re-unifying with Russia. The choice of the people has to be respected. And you cannot try to conform international law to your political interests against the principles of democracy.
STONE: Nonetheless, the United States would say that you have violated international law—and that’s been a theme that has been repeated again and again by the EU. And you yourself acknowledged that the US had done that in Iraq, so it’s a question of course, at the end of the day, of power, isn’t it?
PUTIN: Yes, that’s correct. As to armed forces of the United States coming to Iraq. And there were no elections there. No elections were held. As to Crimea, yes, we created conditions for people to be able to come to polling stations. But we were not engaged in any hostilities there, no one was shooting there, no one was killed.
STONE: But literally the US would argue that elections were held eventually in Iraq.
PUTIN: In the end, yes, but before that there was a war. And there was no war in Crimea. That’s the first thing. Secondly, there is another criticism addressed to Russia. They are saying that international law was violated. I have already talked about that but I’d like to emphasize that in the course of the Kosovo crisis, the International Court of Justice considered very cautiously this situation and the ICJ arrived at a conclusion saying that when the issue of self-determination of a nation is concerned, in accordance with Point Two of the United Nations charter, if my memory serves me correctly, the concerns of the central authorities of this or that country on this matter are not required. And thirdly, since you are preparing this documentary and you have time, I’d like to ask you to do something—have a look at what was said on that matter by the representatives of the United States, and the representatives of certain European countries—Germany, Great Britain—what they said in those matters when they were talking about them with the ICJ. All of them were saying that no consent from Belgrade was needed, and they were saying that everything was done in accordance with the United Nations Charter. I was always wondering if Kosovars were allowed to do it, why is that not allowed to Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Crimeans? There is no difference whatsoever. Moreover, the decision on the independence of Kosovo was adopted by the decision of the parliament. Whereas, in Crimea first the parliament voted in favor of independence, and afterwards they held a referendum and during that referendum the people said that they were willing to go back to Russia. Every step has a reason behind it.
STONE: Was there any UN condemnation of the annexation of Crimea?
PUTIN: No, I don’t know anything of that.
STONE: Can we talk a little bit about the airplane that was shot down in July—the Malaysian Airliner [MH17]?
PUTIN: Yes, certainly.
STONE: Thank you. I’ve heard both sides. I know Russian intelligence has claimed there were two planes in the air, or at least two planes, and there was a possible shooting down of the airplane from another aircraft. Is that correct?
PUTIN: There are two principal versions. The first version is that this plane was shot down by the Buk air defense system of the Ukrainian armed forces. And the second version is that the same system, the same system of arms—the Buk systems that are produced in Russia—was employed by the militia, the separatists. Primarily, let me say that in any case it’s a terrible catastrophe. And that is simply atrocious. And in this regard, let me say something. That would not have happened if the leadership of Ukraine had listened to us and had not started full-fledged hostilities. It was the Ukrainian authorities who started to use all kinds of weapons systems in Donbass.
Now as to the aircraft, the planes which were in the air—as far as I know, right away after this terrible catastrophe, one of the Ukrainian air controllers, I think he was a specialist originating from Spain, announced that he had seen a military aircraft in the corridor assigned for civil aircraft. And there could have been no other military aircraft than the one controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. Certainly that needs to be investigated. I’m not saying that this plane was shot down. I do not say that this military aircraft shot down the civil aircraft, but the question is what was that plane doing in the corridor because that is against the existing rules of the international flights of civil air aviation. As for the Buk air defense systems, which can send missiles from Earth—according to our specialists and experts, and not just our intelligence services but also our ballistic experts—the reports that I’ve received say that the strike hit the tail of the aircraft. And if that is the case, then that is exactly where the air defense system of the Ukrainian armed forces were stationed. So I don’t understand what they were doing there in the first place. Why were they there and why were they pulled out of there so quickly? In any case, that requires a thorough and de-politicized investigation.
STONE: Do you believe the American intelligence has any information about this, because wouldn’t they be watching this situation after the coup? Wouldn’t they have intelligence from satellites and whatever?
PUTIN: I’m confident that that is exactly the case. But regrettably, there is no proof from the partners that we’ve received.
STONE: But they have not shown much?
PUTIN: No, that’s quite understandable, because we understand their position on Ukraine. And certainly they all wanted to shift the blame on the militia fighters in Donbass and indirectly Russia, who supports the militia.
STONE: So if they had contrary information they don’t want to release it?
PUTIN: Yes, if this information is contrary then they will never reveal it.
STONE: Can we talk about outside influences in this Ukraine story now?
PUTIN: Yes, certainly.
STONE: We know about the NGOs that were operating in Ukraine. We know that Victoria Nuland, the Undersecretary of State for Eastern Europe I believe, was very active supporting a change in government. We know that Senator John McCain visited and was seen at rallies with extremist leaders, including some neo-Nazis. We know that America and the National Endowment for Democracy, which is also a very influential private nonprofit NGO was very active, very active here. Paul Gershman, who was the president of it made very strong independent speeches—he wanted an independent Ukraine. And we know that the Hungarian billionaire hedge funder George Soros was also very involved in supporting the groups in Ukraine.
PUTIN: Yes, all that is true. You know I do not always understand the rationale behind the actions of our partners. I already said that sometimes I fall under the impression that they’ve got to control or enforce some discipline in their Euro-Atlantic camp. And to that end they need some external enemy. And despite all the concerns they have, Iran at this point cannot fulfill this need.
STONE: In other words, the United States can keep a united pro-American Europe and NATO with an external enemy such as Russia.
PUTIN: I can say something definitely—that is true. I know that, I feel that. Without this internal discipline, the Euro-Atlantic cause is destabilized. This is not the Cold War we’re living in. Several years ago, certain leaders told me that our American friends were asking me to frighten them. But they said that they were not afraid. They understood that the world had changed. And that external threat—it is impossible to enforce this strict discipline. And in that regard, that is probably in the interests of someone, but I think that is the wrong logic. Because this logic is looking back into the past. But you have to look into the future. You have to understand that the world is different now. There are new threats arising, strategic threats included. You cannot freeze it as if we were still living through the Cold War. I told you about the ABM system, about the ABM treaty, about the fight against terrorism. Regrettably, I have to say that all our attempts at fostering a relationship with the United States were met either with the lack of understanding or total indifference. But this situation cannot persist.
STONE: I’m surprised. I’ve always had great respect for Russian intelligence services and their knowledge of the West, but in this situation I was surprised by their lack of, it seems, information of what was going on in Ukraine. It’s been said that you yourself were surprised by this takeover, and that you were paying attention to the Sochi Olympics and you weren’t paying attention to what was going on in Ukraine. What happened to your intelligence service?
PUTIN: No, that is not true. I had a fairly good picture of what was happening within Ukrainian society. And there is no doubt about that. This take-over could have happened at any time. There was a takeover when Kuchma was leaving office.
STONE: And a pro-Western group came in, is that what you’re saying?
PUTIN: Yes, and Yanukovych was the one to win the elections. But the street did not agree with that outcome of the election, and a third round of elections was proclaimed in violation of the Constitution. So it was also a quasi-coup d’état. Back then I thought they had made a grave mistake. Even though pro-Western politicians arrived in power, people very soon lost their confidence in those leaders as well. Because those politicians continue to do everything that had been done before them by the previous leaders of the country. And that’s why they were defeated in the subsequent elections. Unfortunately, President Yanukovych didn’t manage to change much in the country either. And the same thing happened to him. The very paradigm has to be changed of their relation to the people. They were talking about the need to get rid of the oligarchs. And now the oligarchs are in power. So nothing has changed really. They were talking about the need to get rid of corruption. What has changed? Nothing. The governor of the Odessa region is now former President [of Georgia] Saakashvili.
STONE: Yeah, I know.
PUTIN: That’s just a spit in the face, an insult to the people of Odessa and to the whole of the Ukrainian people. I do not want to give any assessments of Saakashvili, I think that would be the wrong thing to do. Whatever person he is, he was president of a nation [Georgia]. And it is up to the Georgian people to give him assessments. And besides, we are personally acquainted with him. He was not even granted a working visa in the United States. The investors he tried to get did not want to give him a permanent job. But quite strangely, he can act as the governor of the Odessa region [in Ukraine]. Are there no people with integrity, people from Ukraine who can do this job quite as well? It’s just ridiculous. And it’s an insult to the Ukrainian people.
STONE: I have three specific questions about Ukraine, then perhaps we can take a walk? During the Maidan massacre, did you get any intelligence of what was going on? It’s the strangest massacre. Because of the number of casualties of policemen, and the civilians who were killed, and the policemen not firing back, they were retreating and called back by Yanukovych. And during that it seems like there was a sniper force that was definitely aiming at the policemen and civilians to create the chaos necessary for the takeover.
PUTIN: To start with, that is absolutely correct. Yanukovych didn’t give an order to use weapons against civilians. And incidentally, our western partners, including the United States, asked us to influence him so that he did not give any orders to those weapons. And President Yanukovych said that he couldn’t imagine any other way of dealing with this situation. He couldn’t sign an order on the use of weapons. And when both the police and the protesters were shot at, it’s correct what you’ve said—the goal was to sow chaos. And certainly President Yanukovych was not interested in the expansion of this chaos. He was interested in containing the situation. But I have to say that the so-called protesters were very aggressive.
STONE: Some of them, yes.
PUTIN: Some of them centered in the office of the party of regents which was headed by President Yanukovych. And they burned it down. And technical workers came out and they said we are not members of the party. There was one electrician. And he was shot and they were thrown into the basement and then everything was burned. And that was even before the takeover. So Yanukovych was not interested in chaos, he did everything he could in order to quiet the situation, to restore calm.
STONE: Well, who are these snipers?
PUTIN: Well, who could have placed these snipers? Interested parties, parties who wanted to escalate the situation. I do not have any data on who precisely those snipers were, but elementary logic tells me.
STONE: Have you heard any reports about the training that was going on in other cities, in Minsk and so forth, of battalions and the Right Sector—hardened people of the right? There were 100-man units that came to the city, I am told, in the days before the Maidan massacre.
PUTIN: No, not in Minsk, but we have information available to us that armed groups were trained in the western parts of Ukraine itself, in Poland, and in a number of other places.
STONE: I see. Have you heard of the Azov battalion?
PUTIN: Yes, certainly. There are certain armed formations which are not accountable to anyone, nor are they accountable to the central authorities in Kiev. I believe that is one of the reasons why the current leadership right now cannot put an end to these hostilities. That is simply because they are frightened that these uncontrollable armed forces will return to the capital.
STONE: My second question—Mr. Obama, during this period, what kind of communications did you have with him?
PUTIN: We were in constant contact. Well, I can say it was almost on a permanent basis. And Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, they had personal meetings months ago and they also had telephone conversations. And myself and the president of the United States, we both had a great deal of regular telephone conversations.
STONE: Obviously you didn’t agree.
PUTIN: Yes, we had different assessments as to the causes of the Ukrainian crisis and its unfolding.
STONE: Are you still talking to him?
PUTIN: Yes, just a couple of days ago I had a telephone conversation with him. We talked about our bilateral relations, the Middle East situation, and also the Ukrainian situation. But I have to tell you—I think that there is some understanding on a number of issues—despite the differences in our assessments. There is some common understanding.
STONE: Would you say relations or the dialogue is cordial?
PUTIN: No, but they are businesslike. And quite even.
STONE: Do you see each other visually when you talk?
PUTIN: No, but I can tell you that this dialogue is a dialogue of interested parties. So there is no confrontation behind it. I think that President Obama is a thinking person, he assesses the real situation, with some things he agrees, with others he disagrees. But we also manage to find points of common understanding on a number of complicated issues. And this is a fruitful dialogue.
STONE: This is a just a trivial question, but I’ve always been curious, do you call each other Vladimir and Barack?
STONE: You call him Barack or Barry?
STONE: You do—first name, that’s great. Last question—Sebastopol and the meaning of it. It was your major submarine base, I believe, on the Black Sea. And it has obviously been a major defense facility. And you had an agreement with Crimea to have troops there—it was a base that was agreed to. I don’t know exactly when the treaty was made. How, when this was going down, obviously this is important in your mind—if the United States or NATO troops are able to take over this base, what are the consequences of that?
PUTIN: I was thinking that this never was supposed to happen. Well, there is the subjunctive mood as we say, but there can be no subjunctive mood in politics—the “what if.”
PUTIN: And this treaty with Ukraine was supposed to be enforced until 2019. And after that it was supposed to be prolonged even further, I don’t remember—another 20 years probably. But in response to that we reduced the price of Russian natural gas for Ukraine. We gave them a large discount. And I’d like to draw attention to the fact that even though Crimea is right now part of the Russian Federation, this gas discount for Ukraine has not been withdrawn.
STONE: Right. The consequences of a US seizure of the base or a NATO base?
PUTIN: Those consequences would have been very grave, because, well this base per-se doesn’t mean anything—no significance, but if they had tried to station either ABM systems or offensive systems in those territories, that would no doubt have aggravated this situation in the whole of Europe. Incidentally, that is what is happening in Eastern European countries. I already talked about that. I just wanted to tell you about one nuance—why we are responding so acutely to the expansion of NATO? Well, as a matter of fact, we understand the value—or lack thereof—and the threat of this organization. I know this organization is a loose one and it’s not viable, even despite Article 5 of the treaty. What we’re concerned about is the practice of how decisions are made there. I know how decisions are made there. And the experience of previous years of work has given me full information as to how decisions are made. When a country becomes a member of NATO, bilateral talks are held on this country and it’s quite easy to deal with this country on a bilateral basis, including on the placement of weapons systems that are threatening to our security. Once a country becomes a member of NATO, it is hard to resist the pressure of such a large presence as the United States, and any weapons system can be stationed in this country all of a sudden. An ABM system, new military bases, and if need be, new offensive systems. And what are we supposed to do in that case? In this case we have to take countermeasures, and that means that we have to aim our missile systems at facilities which, in our view, are becoming a threat to us. And the situation becomes more tense. And who needs that, and why?
STONE: You said that the base in Crimea didn’t mean anything in itself. Does that mean to say that you would have built another naval base on the Black Sea elsewhere?
PUTIN: We already built such a military base.
STONE: Oh, where’s that?
PUTIN: In the city of Novorossiysk. And it’s more modern, more sophisticated than the last one.
STONE: Interesting. What province or region?
PUTIN: It’s the Krasnodar region between Sochi and the Crimea.
STONE: I see, good to know.
PUTIN: So it’s also the Black Sea coast. Right. Thank you very much.
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May 9, 2016
STONE: Quick updates on Syria and Ukraine—I’m talking about security on the borders of Russia. I was very impressed with the classical music symphony in Palmyra, but can you give me a quick update on Syria as it concerns Russian security and Ukraine?
PUTIN: As far as Ukraine is concerned, I think you know what is going on. They have this crisis which, in a slackened form, is still going on. I think that the most important component of the Minsk Agreement is the political settlement, but regrettably it is up to the Kiev authorities to implement this part of the agreement, and so far they are not doing that. They should have amended the Constitution in accordance with the Minsk Agreement, and that should have been done before the end of 2015. But they didn’t do that. They were supposed to pass a bill, a law on amnesty. This law was adopted by the parliament, but it was not signed by the president, nor has it entered into force yet. There is another law that should be adopted and that should enter into force—that is the law on the special status of these unrecognized republics. The current Ukrainian leadership says the following: they say that since, at the line of conflict, there are still clashes, there is still violence, then they say the conditions are not yet in place to implement this political settlement. But in my view, this is only a hollow pretext because you can easily create a clash somewhere at the line of contact and then this is going to go on ad infinitum. The most important thing right now is to achieve a political settlement. Then there is a second course which explains why this is being done according to the Ukrainian counterparts. The Ukrainian leadership insisting that the Russian-Ukrainian border where the unrecognized republics are located, should be closed. And indeed the Minsk Agreements presuppose the closing of the Russian border by the Ukrainian frontier offices, but only after the key political decisions have been taken.
But until these political decisions have been taken and implemented, until people are safe in those unrecognized republics, the closing of the border will only mean one thing—that they are going to be encircled and later eliminated. We talked about that during the long night when we hammered out the Minsk agreements. We talked about that in great detail. And our Ukrainian counterparts first agreed to that, but right now they seem as if they do not understand what is going on. Right now we support a proposal set forth by President Poroshenko to reinforce the observer contingent on the line of contact. He is the one who initiated this proposal and I have supported it. Moreover, he suggested that the OSC observers should be equipped with arms and we support that as well. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that the economic and internal political situation in Ukraine has deteriorated dramatically. And right now, some of our partners—I’m not going to name them—are saying that the Ukrainian president is not capable of making these political decisions due to the difficult internal political situation in Ukraine. And a year ago, I suggested that President Poroshenko should hold early elections and thereby reinforce his position, so that, even though we had differences, he would be able to push through all the required political decisions. But back then, our American friends, our European friends told us that the prime minister—back then it was Mr. Yatsenyuk and President Poroshenko had to pull their efforts together, they had to work together and we know how it ended—by a split up in the government and a very difficult political situation. And right now when I remind our partners of that, they simply shrug their shoulders. The question is, how does Russia fit into all this. And the United States and Europe keep coming up with new accusations, trying to accuse Russia of something new because they cannot publicly admit that they’ve made mistakes. That’s why they choose to blame Russia. We have quite a famous poet who wrote fables—his name was Krylov—and one of these fables features a dialogue between a wolf and a lamb. In this dialogue with the wolf, the lamb is trying to justify himself, saying that he is not to blame for anything. And once the wolf has run out of arguments, he decides to put an end to this discussion. And he says, “Dear lamb, you are only to blame because I am hungry.” [laughter]
STONE: If this happens—you used the word “eliminated” I believe—what’s the worst-case? I mean, how many Russian-Ukrainians would be at risk?
PUTIN: It’s not about the leadership of those unrecognized republics. You see, it’s that everyone who lives in those unrecognized republics—there are about three million citizens there—they participated in the election campaign, they took to the polls, and that’s why—in the absence of a law on amnesty—they can all be persecuted as separatists.
STONE: Three million people at the great risk. So it could turn into another situation like in Serbia, Bosnia?
PUTIN: Certainly, that’s what it looks like. We remember the tragedy of what took place in Odessa. More than 40 people—innocent, unarmed—were encircled and burned to death. And those who tried to get away were beaten to death with iron rods. And who was responsible? People adhering to extreme, radical views and such people can enter the territory of these republics and do the same thing there. When I talk about this issue with some of my Western partners, when I’m telling them that mass infringements of human rights can be transpiring there, do you know what they tell me? They tell me that these people have to go to human rights organizations to seek protection. They have to ask for help—different international organizations. Think of what took place at the trade union building in Odessa and ask yourself who is going to apply to an international organization after the massacre that took place there?
STONE: I can’t imagine Russia standing by and watching that happen.
PUTIN: Not in the least—certainly not. We are going to help, but we cannot do so unilaterally. Because the key decisions are to be taken by the Kiev authorities.
* * *
May 11, 2016
STONE: Okay, I’d like to skip forward from 2008 into the Ukraine crisis. We’ve had this discussion before on my first visit, on the terrace, and I’ve listened to it and realized there are things I didn’t ask. And I want to go over it, just to be really clear, because this will be very important to the people who will be watching the documentary or reading this transcript.
PUTIN: Certainly. Indeed, it requires a great deal of effort to clarify all that. Because your colleagues, your Western journalists are very talented people. They are capable of convincing people that black is white and vice versa. Just as an example—the tragic events, the assault against South Ossetia—Mr. Saakashvili publicly announced that he ordered his troops to commence that action. One of his dignitaries even spoke on television saying the same thing. I didn’t believe it when I heard it, when the media was accusing Russia of this attack. And millions of TV viewers believed that all across the world. This is just astounding, this capacity that your American and European journalists can have. You’re all very talented. But when our journalists try to protect Russian national interests, when they take a stance, they are declared immediately the mouthpiece of Kremlin propaganda—much to my chagrin.
STONE: It’s a double standard. I would love to see a debate—a meeting between Mr. Saakashvili and you—it would be great to see the two of you in a room.
PUTIN: We met on many occasions.
STONE: Are you convinced he’s still mad?
PUTIN: I have never said that.
STONE: I thought you said he was mad?
PUTIN: No, I was told by my Western counterparts that he was mad. And I could never afford to say anything like that to my counterpart, either the incumbent or the previous ones.
STONE: When’s the last time you saw him?
PUTIN: I do not remember. Certainly before the crisis in South Ossetia.
STONE: Not after the war, though?
PUTIN: No, but on many occasions I said to him, “Mikheil Nikolaevich, please do everything to prevent bloodshed. If you want to restore relations with these parts of Georgia, you have to be very cautious.” These fictions, these divergences, they had a reason a long time ago—not hundreds of years of ago—but back in 1919 when the Russian empire was splitting up. Those parts of Georgia, which incidentally had been part of the Russian Empire as independent states before Georgia became part of the Russian empire. Back then, those parts declared that they were ready, that they wanted to still be part of Russia. And back then very harsh actions, military measures were employed against them. Local populations still view those actions as genocide and mass elimination of people. In order to surmount all these difficulties, patience was required, as well as certain diplomatic art.
STONE: Yeah, I understand.
PUTIN: And that was lacking apparently. That’s what the Georgian leadership back then was lacking. Moreover, the current Georgian leadership believe that this action Saakashvili performed was a terrible crime against the Georgian people in the first place, because it has led to very grave consequences.
STONE: I was shocked when Shevardnadze—hard name to pronounce—I was shocked because I really respected him as a foreign minister with Gorbachev. You may not agree, but I was shocked when he wanted to join NATO and he became corrupt, I heard. He was a very respected figure in the 1980s.
PUTIN: Well, everything passes, everything changes.
STONE: That’s true. But just quickly—Obama’s in office now, take it from 2008 to the Ukraine crisis and how this … nothing really major, dramatic happened, as I remember, except for the Snowden affair in 2013. He was offered asylum here in Russia and that upset America. But was there anything else in that period that you remember, between you and the US that was exacerbated, was argued about?
PUTIN: Well, how can you say that nothing major happened? When President Kuchma’s term came to an end—I do not remember exactly the year—presidential elections took place in Ukraine.
And Mr. Yanukovych won that presidential election, but the opposition didn’t like that. And mass riots erupted. These riots were fueled quiet actively by the United States. And a third round of elections was announced—in violation of the country’s constitution. Per se, this can be perceived as a coup d’état. And pro-Western politicians arrived in power after that—Mr. Yushchenko and Timoshenko. I cannot say that I welcomed this way of changing the government. Nowhere is that proper, but in the post-Soviet space, especially, constitutions cannot be broken. Luckily no bloodshed took place there.
STONE: Did you have a phone call with Obama about this issue?
PUTIN: That was before Obama came to office, and yet we maintained cooperation with the Ukrainian leadership of Mr. Yushchenko and Timoshenko. I went to Kiev, they came back to Moscow. We met in third party countries. And we implemented all our plans of cooperation, but their policy, it was not well-liked by the Ukrainian people. That is why after the presidential term of President Yushchenko ended, Mr. Yanukovych won the election once again and everyone acknowledged that. It was recognized by everyone. But apparently this was not the best form of government either. Economic difficulties, together with social difficulties, to a great extent had undermined the trust in the new leadership as well. What needed to be done in order to rectify the situation? They should have organized another election. And they should have chosen people with different economic and social views. These people should have made another attempt at arriving back in power. But certainly they should have prevented any escalation to bloodshed, and what’s absolutely certain is that no one should have supported these bloody events.
STONE: But you’re talking about 2014—you’re jumping ahead.
PUTIN: Yes, in 2014.
STONE: But between ’08 and ’14, there was this one election you’re talking about which is in 2012, I think?
PUTIN: I do not remember.
STONE: There were so many, I mean, the Ukraine to us—we were not paying attention.
VP; Yes, well you personally might not have been paying attention, but the CIA was paying a great deal of attention.
STONE: I know. It was very confusing. There was a guy with a poisoned face earlier in the century.
PUTIN: Yes, you’re talking about Yushchenko—he said that he’d been poisoned during the election campaign. And yet he was elected to office. And he worked and I met with him on many occasions. Why did they need to resort to violence? That’s something I cannot quite understand. Moreover, I talked about that repeatedly and the 2014 President Yanukovych was in office and he signed an agreement with the opposition. He agreed to all the requirements that they had set forth.
STONE: In the crisis, in the final days?
PUTIN: Yes and he even agreed to hold early elections. So why do they need to perform this coup d’état? I do not understand.
STONE: Okay. So we all remember, I remember you vividly on television saying—I think it was with Charlie Rose, I forgot—but you said there was much evidence and you smiled as you said it. There was much evidence—implying that a thousand eyes were upon this. You know that expression, a thousand eyes were upon this coup. It was a coup in slow motion. It was pretty evident, transparent to the Russians.
STONE: And you said that on television, but I think the American people find it difficult to understand but, by talking about the evidence and showing it, we might be able to convince the American public that they were being fooled by the Western narrative of events and that there indeed was a coup d’état that went down.
PUTIN: That’s very easy to achieve—you simply have to look at the developments. After Yanukovych announced that he had to postpone the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, no one listened to the reasons why, to the terms, to the timetables—mass riots erupted right away after the announcement. These riots led to the seizure of his residence, and on the eve of that, he had signed an agreement with the opposition on settling the situation, on the possible organization of early elections, and three foreign ministers of European countries added their signatures to the agreement. Where are these guarantees? Once the president went to the second largest city of the country to attended a political event, armed men seized the residence of the president. Imagine something like that in the US, if the White House was seized—what would it be called? A coup d’état, or would you say that they have come to sweep the floors. The prosecutor general was shot at. There were so many shootings, so much violence.
STONE: I had an interview with Mr. Yanukovych, so I know his version, but it was characterized in the US press as if Yanukovych abandoned Kiev, because he felt the crowd would tear him apart.
PUTIN: Yes, that’s the version used to justify the support granted to the coup d’état. Mr. Yanukovych didn’t leave to go abroad. He was in the country when his residence was taken. Moreover, one day afterwards, he used our support and he relocated to the Crimea. Back then, the Crimea was still part of Ukraine. And Yanukovych stayed there for more than 10 days—at least a week in the Crimea, thinking there was still a chance that those people who had put their signatures under the agreement with the opposition would make some attempt, with a view to settling this conflict by civilized, democratic, legal means. But it never happened. It became evident that if he was taken by these people he would simply be killed by them. And, afterwards, he found himself in Russia. Everything can be perverted or distorted, millions of people can be deceived if you have a monopoly on the media. But in the end, I believe for an objective and impartial spectator it’s clear what happened. A coup d’état had taken place. All right, if this coup d’état had made some positive changes … but, on the contrary, the situation deteriorated even further. Ukraine lost territory, not due to Russia’s actions, but due to the choice made by those who are live in Crimea. These people didn’t want to live under the banner of nationalists. A civil war erupted in the southeastern part of Ukraine, in the Donbass. After that, the country witnessed a terrible drop in the GDP. The largest industrial enterprises shut down. Unemployment soared. The real income of the population, their salaries, plunged, inflation hit 45 or 47 percent. And no one knew how to address these issues, or that this would be further exacerbated by an internal political crisis, by a fight between the Prime Minister and the President. In the end, it led to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk resigning. He had actively supported, and had been supported by, the American administration throughout the crises. And what happened next? The European Union opened its borders to Ukraine. It zeroed out the tariff for Ukrainian goods. But Ukraine’s trade with the European Union decreased by 23 percent, and with Russia it decreased by 50 percent. Ukrainian industrial output is not in high demand in European markets and now they have no access to the Russian market. The agricultural produce that used to be traded successfully in Western Europe is restricted by quotas. And these quotas were introduced by the Europeans. They were exhausted during the first two months after the signing of the agreement. Right now Ukraine is fighting to get a visa-free arrangement for its citizens. Do you know why they are doing that? So they could ensure free exit from the country to find new jobs outside of the country. But the people are once again being tricked, because even if a visa-free deal were granted to Ukraine, that would not enable them to work abroad.
STONE: Visa-free to Russia?
PUTIN: No, visa-free to the European Union. People heard that they would be able to relocate and work in another country in Europe. There’s something I’d like to tell you. Ukraine has always been an industrialized country as part of the Soviet Union. And right now, a Ukrainian’s dream is to work as a nurse or a gardener or a nanny in a European country amid the complete de-industrialization of the country. Why did they need all that? I simply cannot imagine.
STONE: Well, it seems to me what you’re saying is that Russia doesn’t need Ukraine.
PUTIN: Russia is a self-sufficient country. We do not need anyone, but with Ukraine we are connected by thousands of ties. On many occasions I’ve said that and I’d like to reiterate. I’m deeply convinced that the Ukrainian people and the Russian people are not simply close relatives. They are almost the same. As for the language, the culture, the history, each certainly has to be treated with respect. And even when we were one single country, we treated them with respect. Suffice it to say that the whole of the Soviet Union for decades, was managed by those who originated from Ukraine. I think that testifies to a lot.
STONE: Yes, but economically, as you say, you’re self-sufficient. They’re gone—let them have their problems. It’s not going to destroy your country.
PUTIN: No, certainly—not in the least.
STONE: One point you made in our last meeting. I asked, “What about the Russian submarine base in Crimea?” Sebastopol I think it was. And you said it was not important because you have another base across the water—somewhere around here. In other words, you weren’t threatened by the loss of the base. That’s what you told me at the time.
PUTIN: Losing the base in Sebastopol was a threat, but it was not too sensitive. Because by that time … right now we are commissioning a new military base—indeed not far from here in Novorossiysk. What was presenting certain difficulties to us was the severing of ties between the companies of the defense sector. Because the defense sectors of Ukraine and Russia during the Soviet period were one single system. And if these relations were severed, then that certainly would lead to a certain negative impact on our defense industry. But we have devised a whole system for input-substitution as we call it. And right now, we are actively surmounting all of these difficulties. We are establishing new enterprises from scratch, and these enterprises produce a new generation of military equipment. And that defense industry in Ukraine which used to provide support to Russia is now simply dying out—I’m talking about the missile industry, aircraft industry and also engine construction.
STONE: I understand. In other words, the US succeeded in starting the coup, and winning as they did many times over the years. And it was a loss, but not a fatal loss.
PUTIN: You could say that. Moreover, when I say that we started establishing new enterprises that help propel us to new technological levels, I often cite this example. All of our helicopters used to be equipped with engines produced in Ukraine—100% of our helicopters. Once the supplies from Ukraine stopped, we built a new plant, right now we are completing another one. All helicopters can fly—fully functional—and we have engines of a new generation. So as you can see, what our air force is doing in Syria testifies to the fact that we are doing quite well.
STONE: Even if NATO entered into an agreement with Ukraine, I still don’t see too much of a threat, with the new weaponry.
PUTIN: I see a threat. This threat consists of the fact that once NATO comes to this or that country, then as a whole the political leadership of that country, as well as the population there, cannot influence the decisions NATO makes—including the decisions related to stationing the military infrastructure. Even very sensitive weapons systems can be deployed. I’m talking also about the antiballistic missile systems. And that means that we would have to respond somehow to that.
STONE: Plus all the weapons we’ve put into the Baltic States?
PUTIN: I’m talking about this strategic anti-ballistic missile system (ABMs). There are only two facilities like that in Eastern Europe—in Romania and in Poland. And at sea in the Mediterranean, there are plans to deploy these systems on ships. Right now negotiations are under way to do the same in South Korea. All that certainly creates a threat to our nuclear deterrence system. Let me remind you that I myself proposed to our American partners that we should work on these systems together. What would that imply? That would imply that we would designate the missile threats together, and we would create a joint system for ABM management. Then we would exchange technological information. And all of that in my view would spell cardinal drastic changes in the world as far as national security is concerned. I’m not going into details right now. But our proposal was declined by our American counterparts, [as I’ve said many times].
STONE: Of course. Okay. But it seems to me that Russia adapts and you are adapting to these ABMs. Am I wrong?
PUTIN: We have these capabilities, we are improving them, and when we talked with our American counterparts, we told them that we deemed the construction of those systems as a threat, and they always responded that this was not against us. This was against the missile aspirations of Iran. As of now an agreement has been reached, fortunately, with Iran. But the deployment of this system still goes forward. What does it tell us? We were right. But back then when we were discussing that, we were saying we would have to take actions in response, and these actions were to partly consist in improving our offensive capabilities. Their response was as follows. The ABM system they told us was not established against us. And what we were going to do—that is, to improve our own offensive capability—would be considered by the United States as not aimed against the United States. And we agreed on that.
STONE: You know, the American Indians made treaties with the US government and they were the first to experience the treachery of the US government. You’re not the first.
PUTIN: We wouldn’t like to be the last. [laughter]
STONE: In that regard, I’d like to show you a piece of film from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” set in the war rooms of the United States. One scene we can see and then if you like we can see another one. But first, to just finish this Ukraine thing. My ultimate question is, in hindsight, looking back, did you make a mistake by annexing Crimea because it cost you tremendously—the sanctions, the whole EU turns on Russia, the US—it becomes big news because it’s regarded as illegal in the international post-war treaty world. Not to say that other people haven’t broken their treaties, but … Anyway, it did cost you big time and you perhaps miscalculated. Perhaps you thought it would be acceptable in some way. Have you ever thought about that decision in retrospect?
PUTIN: We did not force Crimea into Russia. Those who live in Crimea have decided to join Russia. And when following this path we were very cautious, and in full compliance with international law and the United Nations charter. The first thing that was done in Crimea itself was not by us, but by those who inhabit Crimea. The legitimate parliament of Crimea that was elected based on the Ukrainian legislation, announced a referendum. The Crimean parliament, by an overwhelming vote, decided, after the referendum, to join Russia.
I know of no other way that would be more democratic to address issues of this kind than the free will of the people. The expression of this free will, was that an overwhelming majority had voted for independence and for joining Russia. On the whole, during the referendum, it was 90 percent or even more. If there is a better or more democratic way to address this issue, please tell me about that. Today, I hear only the opinion that contains the attempt at justifying that our actions, with regard to Crimea, were not correct. That is, the central authorities of Ukraine did not agree to that. That’s what they argue. But let me remind you that when a decision on Kosovo’s independence was taken, the United Nations International Court of Justice decided that on issues related to independence and self-determination, no consent from the central authorities of this or that country were required. And please say for those who will see this film [or read this transcript], that the letter from the State Department of the United States addressed to the UN Security Council on this matter says the State Department supports Kosovo’s decision on independence wholeheartedly. Other European countries spoke in the same vein. And in this regard I do not quite understand why the Kosovars would have these rights, whereas Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars who live in Crimea in a similar situation would not enjoy the same rights. I think that is absolutely unacceptable.
That is what we call having double standards. And we do not regret anything. This is not just about the future of Soviet territories. We’re talking about the future of millions of people, and we didn’t have a choice, really. Only one decision was possible—to agree with this request from the Crimeans about the reunification with Russia. Just one more thing—our troops were there. But these troops didn’t take a single shot. The only thing they did was to create conditions for these elections to take place and for the referendum to take place. And I reiterate, even though I said that on many occasions, in the course of these events there was not a single victim.
STONE: Let me put it this way—did you expect to be excommunicated by the European community because of this?
PUTIN: Certainly I did expect this kind of reaction. But before making this decision, we had conducted a very deep social research in Russia, and the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens—around 80 percent or more—when responding to the question whether it was possible to re-unify Crimea with Russia, even though that would mean a deterioration of relations with the West and other countries of the world, they said yes they thought it was possible. So when making this decision, I was guided not by the preferences of my counterparts from other countries. I responded to the sentiment of the Russian people.
STONE: And the Crimeans as of this date, are they grateful? Or are they pissed off?
VP; There are many problems in Crimea, but on the whole, people support the decision which was taken. The best estimate of that support was the poll that was recently conducted in Crimea because the Kiev authorities tried to set up an energy blockade of the peninsula. The overwhelming majority—I’m talking about the same figures—the overwhelming majority re-affirmed the decision they had made earlier on joining Russia.
STONE: And Donbass? Well, this is a real problem, I guess, in terms of the thorn that doesn’t go away. How do you get out of this one?
PUTIN: Certainly, I think the Minsk Agreement has to be implemented.
STONE: But it doesn’t seem like Kiev has any intention of doing so.
PUTIN: I do have all the plans, and the Russian leadership as a whole, we have these plans. But the key components of the Minsk agreements are the political components, and the main political component is to make amendments to the Ukrainian constitution. It should have been done, not by us, but by the Kiev authorities, by the end of 2015. And a law on amnesty has to be adopted and it has to have force. It has been adopted, but it has not been promulgated by the president. A special status law in these territories has to be enforced. This law has also been adopted. It has been voted on by the Ukrainian parliament but it has not been enforced. We cannot do that for them. But I’m hopeful that in the end this is going to be done. And the conflict is going to end.
STONE: So we should maybe look at some film? We’ll adjust the lights and darken the room. You can sit there and we can talk about the scenes afterwards.