The following are excerpts from the full transcript of the meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club courtesy of the Kremlin Press Service.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends, ladies and gentlemen, I hope that the place for your discussions, for our meetings is well chosen and that the timing is good. We are in the centre of Russia – not a geographical centre, but a spiritual one. [Novgorod Region] is a cradle of Russian statehood. Our outstanding historians believe and have analysed how the elements of Russian statehood came together right here. This is in the light of the fact that two great rivers – the Volkhov and Neva – acted as natural means of communication, providing a natural linkage at the time. And it was here that Russian statehood gradually began to emerge.
As has already been pointed out, this year the [Valdai] club has brought together an unprecedented list of participants: more than 200 Russian and foreign politicians, public and spiritual leaders, philosophers and cultural figures, people with very different, original and sometimes opposing views.
You have already been conferring here for a few days now, and I’ll try not to bore you unduly. But nevertheless, I will allow myself to state my views on subjects that you have touched on during these discussions in one way or another. I am not only thinking about analysing Russian historical, cultural, and governance experiences. First and foremost, I am thinking of general debates, conversations about the future, strategies, and values, about the values underpinning our country’s development, how global processes will affect our national identity, what kind of twenty-first-century world we want to see, and what Russia, our country, can contribute to this world together with its partners.
Today we need new strategies to preserve our identity in a rapidly changing world, a world that has become more open, transparent and interdependent. This fact confronts virtually all countries and all peoples in one form or another: Russian, European, Chinese and American – the societies of virtually all countries. And naturally, including here in Valdai, we strive to better understand how our partners are attempting to meet this challenge, because we are meeting here with experts on Russia. But we proceed from the fact that our guests will state their views on the interaction and relationship between Russia and the countries that you represent.
For us (and I am talking about Russians and Russia), questions about who we are and who we want to be are increasingly prominent in our society. We have left behind Soviet ideology, and there will be no return. Proponents of fundamental conservatism who idealise pre-1917 Russia seem to be similarly far from reality, as are supporters of an extreme, western-style liberalism.
It is evident that it is impossible to move forward without spiritual, cultural and national self-determination. Without this we will not be able to withstand internal and external challenges, nor we will succeed in global competitions. And today we see a new round of such competitions. Today their main focuses are economic-technological and ideological-informational. Military-political problems and general conditions are worsening. The world is becoming more rigid, and sometimes forgoes not merely international law, but also basic decency.
[Every country] has to have military, technological and economic strength, but nevertheless the main thing that will determine success is the quality of citizens, the quality of society: their intellectual, spiritual and moral strength. After all, in the end economic growth, prosperity and geopolitical influence are all derived from societal conditions. They depend on whether the citizens of a given country consider themselves a nation, to what extent they identify with their own history, values and traditions, and whether they are united by common goals and responsibilities. In this sense, the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia.
Meanwhile, today Russia’s national identity is experiencing not only objective pressures stemming from globalisation, but also the consequences of the national catastrophes of the twentieth century, when we experienced the collapse of our state two different times. The result was a devastating blow to our nation’s cultural and spiritual codes; we were faced with the disruption of traditions and the consonance of history, with the demoralisation of society, with a deficit of trust and responsibility. These are the root causes of many pressing problems we face. After all, the question of responsibility for oneself, before society and the law, is something fundamental for both legal and everyday life.
After 1991 there was the illusion that a new national ideology, a development ideology, would simply appear by itself. The state, authorities, intellectual and political classes virtually rejected engaging in this work, all the more so since previous, semi-official ideology was hard to swallow. And in fact they were all simply afraid to even broach the subject. In addition, the lack of a national idea stemming from a national identity profited the quasi-colonial element of the elite – those determined to steal and remove capital, and who did not link their future to that of the country, the place where they earned their money.
Practice has shown that a new national idea does not simply appear, nor does it develop according to market rules. A spontaneously constructed state and society does not work, and neither does mechanically copying other countries’ experiences. Such primitive borrowing and attempts to civilize Russia from abroad were not accepted by an absolute majority of our people. This is because the desire for independence and sovereignty in spiritual, ideological and foreign policy spheres is an integral part of our national character. Incidentally, such approaches have often failed in other nations too. The time when ready-made lifestyle models could be installed in foreign states like computer programs has passed.
We also understand that identity and a national idea cannot be imposed from above, cannot be established on an ideological monopoly. Such a construction is very unstable and vulnerable; we know this from personal experience. It has no future in the modern world. We need historical creativity, a synthesis of the best national practices and ideas, an understanding of our cultural, spiritual and political traditions from different points of view, and to understand that [national identity] is not a rigid thing that will last forever, but rather a living organism. Only then will our identity be based on a solid foundation, be directed towards the future and not the past. This is the main argument demonstrating that a development ideology must be discussed by people who hold different views, and have different opinions about how and what to do to solve given problems.
All of us – so-called Neo-Slavophiles and Neo-Westernisers, statists and so-called liberals – all of society must work together to create common development goals. We need to break the habit of only listening to like-minded people, angrily – and even with hatred – rejecting any other point of view from the outset. You can’t flip or even kick the country’s future like a football, plunging into unbridled nihilism, consumerism, criticism of anything and everything, or gloomy pessimism.
This means that liberals have to learn to talk with representatives of the left-wing and, conversely, that nationalists must remember that Russia was formed specifically as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country from its very inception. Nationalists must remember that by calling into question our multi-ethnic character, and exploiting the issue of Russian, Tatar, Caucasian, Siberian or any other nationalism or separatism, means that we are starting to destroy our genetic code. In effect, we will begin to destroy ourselves.
Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are unconditional. These are red lines no one is allowed to cross. For all the differences in our views, debates about identity and about our national future are impossible unless their participants are patriotic. Of course I mean patriotism in the purest sense of the word.
Too often in our nation’s history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself. I have already mentioned this; Pushkin also talked about it. And we know how it ended, with the demolition of the [Russian] state as such. There is virtually no Russian family that completely escaped the troubles of the past century. Questions about how to assess certain historical events still divide our country and society.
We need to heal these wounds, and repair the tissues of our historic fabric. We can no longer engage in self-deception, striking out unsightly or ideologically uncomfortable pages of our history, breaking links between generations, rushing to extremes, creating or debunking idols. It’s time to stop only taking note of the bad in our history, and berating ourselves more than even our opponents would do. [Self-]criticism is necessary, but without a sense of self-worth, or love for our Fatherland, such criticism becomes humiliating and counterproductive.
We must be proud of our history, and we have things to be proud of. Our entire, uncensored history must be a part of Russian identity. Without recognising this it is impossible to establish mutual trust and allow society to move forward.
Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
What else but the loss of the ability to self-reproduce could act as the greatest testimony of the moral crisis facing a human society? Today almost all developed nations are no longer able to reproduce themselves, even with the help of migration. Without the values embedded in Christianity and other world religions, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend these values. One must respect every minority’s right to be different, but the rights of the majority must not be put into question.
At the same time we see attempts to somehow revive a standardized model of a unipolar world and to blur the institutions of international law and national sovereignty. Such a unipolar, standardized world does not require sovereign states; it requires vassals. In a historical sense this amounts to a rejection of one’s own identity, of the God-given diversity of the world.
Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply. And we believe that every country, every nation is not exceptional, but unique, original and benefits from equal rights, including the right to independently choose their own development path.
This is our conceptual outlook, and it follows from our own historical destiny and Russia’s role in global politics. Our present position has deep historical roots. Russia itself has evolved on the basis of diversity, harmony and balance, and brings such a balance to the international stage.
I want to remind you that the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the agreements made at Yalta in 1945, taken with Russia’s very active participation, secured a lasting peace. Russia’s strength, the strength of a winning nation at those critical junctures, manifested itself as generosity and justice. And let us remember [the Treaty of] Versailles, concluded without Russia’s participation. Many experts, and I absolutely agree with them, believe that Versailles laid the foundation for the Second World War because the Treaty of Versailles was unfair to the German people: it imposed restrictions with which they could not cope, and the course of the next century became clear.
There is one more fundamental aspect to which I want to draw your attention. In Europe and some other countries so-called multiculturalism is in many respects a transplanted, artificial model that is now being questioned, for understandable reasons. This is because it is based on paying for the colonial past. It is no accident that today European politicians and public figures are increasingly talking about the failures of multiculturalism, and that they are not able to integrate foreign languages or foreign cultural elements into their societies.
Over the past centuries in Russia, which some have tried to label as the “prison of nations”, not even the smallest ethnic group has disappeared. And they have retained not only their internal autonomy and cultural identity, but also their historical space. You know, I was interested to learn (I did not even know this) that in Soviet times [authorities] paid such careful attention to this that virtually every small ethnic group had its own print publication, support for its language, and for its national literature. We should bring back and take on board much of what has been done in this respect.
Along with this the different cultures in Russia have the unique experience of mutual influence, mutual enrichment and mutual respect. This multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity lives in our historical consciousness, in our spirit and in our historical makeup. Our state was built in the course of a millennium on this organic model.
Russia – as philosopher Konstantin Leontyev vividly put it – has always evolved in “blossoming complexity” as a state-civilization, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions. It is precisely the state-civilization model that has shaped our state polity. It has always sought to flexibly accommodate the ethnic and religious specificity of particular territories, ensuring diversity in unity.
Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are an integral part of Russia’s identity, its historical heritage and the present-day lives of its citizens. The main task of the state, as enshrined in the Constitution, is to ensure equal rights for members of traditional religions and atheists, and the right to freedom of conscience for all citizens.
However, it is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion in such a large nation with a multi-ethnic population. In order to maintain the nation’s unity, people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity, respect for the law, and a sense of responsibility for their homeland’s fate, without losing touch with their ethnic or religious roots.
There are broad discussions on how the ideology of national development will be structured politically and conceptually – including with your participation, colleagues. But I deeply believe that individuals’ personal, moral, intellectual and physical development must remain at the heart of our philosophy. Back at the start of the 1990s, Solzhenitsyn stated that the nation’s main goal should be to preserve the population after a very difficult 20th century. Today, we must admit that we have not yet fully overcome the negative demographic trends, although we have veered away from a dangerous decline in the national potential.
Unfortunately, throughout our nation’s history, little value was given at times to individual human lives. Too often, people were seen simply as a means, rather than a goal and a mission for development. We no longer have that right and we cannot throw millions of human lives into the fire for the sake of development. We must treasure every individual. Russia’s main strength in this and future centuries will lie in its educated, creative, physically and spiritually healthy people, rather than natural resources.
The role of education is all the more important because in order to educate an individual, a patriot, we must restore the role of great Russian culture and literature. They must serve as the foundation for people’s personal identity, the source of their uniqueness and their basis for understanding the national idea. Here, a great deal depends on the teaching community, which has been and remains a highly important guardian of nationwide values, ideas and philosophies. This community speaks the same language – the language of science, knowledge and education, despite the fact that it is spread out over an enormous territory, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. In this way, the community of teachers, the educational community overall, in the broad sense of the word, binds the nation together. Supporting this community is one of the most important steps on the path toward a strong, flourishing Russia.
I want to stress again that without focusing our efforts on people’s education and health, creating mutual responsibility between the authorities and each individual, and establishing trust within society, we will be losers in the competition of history. Russia’s citizens must feel that they are the responsible owners of their country, region, hometown, property, belongings and their lives. A citizen is someone who is capable of independently managing his or her own affairs, freely cooperating with equals.
Local governments and self-regulated citizens’ organizations serve as the best school for civic consciousness. Of course, I’m referring to non-profits. Incidentally, one of the best Russian political traditions, the country council tradition, was also built on the principles of local government. A true civil society and a true, nationally-focused political elite, including the opposition with its own ideology, values and standards for good and evil – their own, rather than those dictated by the media or from abroad – can only grow through effective self-governing mechanisms. The government is prepared to trust self-regulating and self-governing associations, but we must know whom we are trusting. This is absolutely normal global practice, which is precisely why we have passed new legislation to increase the transparency of nongovernmental organizations.
Speaking of any kind of reforms, it is important to bear in mind that there is more to our nation than just Moscow and St Petersburg. In developing Russian federalism, we must rely on our own historical experience, using flexible and diverse models. The Russian model of federalism has a great deal of potential built into it. It is imperative that we learn to use it competently, not forgetting its most important aspect: the development of the regions and their independence should create equal opportunities for all of our nation’s citizens, regardless of where they live, to eliminate inequalities in the economic and social development of Russia’s territory, thereby strengthening the nation’s unity. Ultimately, this is a huge challenge because these territories’ development has been very unbalanced over the course of decades and even centuries.
I would like to touch on another topic. The 21st century promises to become the century of major changes, the era of the formation of major geopolitical zones, as well as financial and economic, cultural, civilisational, and military and political areas. That is why integrating with our neighbors is our absolute priority. The future Eurasian Economic Union, which we have declared and which we have discussed extensively as of late, is not just a collection of mutually beneficial agreements. The Eurasian Union is a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space in a new century and in a new world. Eurasian integration is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.
I want to stress that Eurasian integration will also be built on the principle of diversity. This is a union where everyone maintains their identity, their distinctive character and their political independence. Together with our partners, we will gradually implement this project, step by step. We expect that it will become our common input into maintaining diversity and stable global development.
Colleagues, the years after 1991 are often referred to as the post-Soviet era. We have lived through and overcome that turbulent, dramatic period. Russia has passed through these trials and tribulations and is returning to itself, to its own history, just as it did at other points in its history. After consolidating our national identity, strengthening our roots, and remaining open and receptive to the best ideas and practices of the East and the West, we must and will move forward.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Member of the Valdai Discussion Club advisory board Piotr Dutkiewicz: Mr. President, this is the tenth year that we are meeting with you here.
This is a unique platform and a unique format – there is nothing like it in the world. Thank you for these ten years of warm support for our club.
I have a two-part question concerning your article in The New York Times. It was an excellent idea and a brilliant article. Indeed, you are personally responsible for stopping the expansion and deepening of the Syrian conflict, which is an enormous achievement.
Question: who came up with this idea? Was it Lavrov, Shoigu, Peskov or someone else? And when did you discuss it for the first time with President Obama?
The second part of the question: it seems to me that you put yourself in a rather awkward position with this brilliant idea, this brilliant article, because you became a kind of hostage. You and Russia have taken on the burden of responsibility for the success of this agreement. You already have many detractors because they do not want to see major global policy to develop as a Putin and Obama duet. What happens if it doesn’t work?
Vladimir Putin: Thank you for your kind words.
My colleagues and I have always been pleased that there are people in the world interested in Russia, its history and its culture. Ten years ago, when I was told that these people would like to come to Russia, talk with us, engage in debate, and want to learn about our point of view on key issues in the development of the nation itself and its place in the world, well, naturally, we supported it immediately; I supported it and my colleagues supported it. I am very happy that over the last ten years, this platform has become even more prestigious compared to the first steps taken a decade ago. The interest in our nation is not waning; on the contrary, it is increasing and growing.
I want to respond to your words of gratitude in kind. I would like to thank all the experts on Russia who remain faithful to their love of our nation and their interest in our nation.
Now, regarding the article. I had this idea completely by chance. I saw that President Obama took the discussion on the possibility of attacking Syria to the Congress and Senate. I followed the course of that discussion and I just wanted to convey our position, my own position, to the people who will be forming their opinions on this issue, and to clarify it. Because unfortunately, the media often present various problems very one-sidedly, or simply stay completely silent.
So this was my idea; I called one of my aides and said that I would like to publish an article in an American newspaper – it didn’t matter which one, but one of the leading ones – so that this information would reach the readers, and dictated what I wanted to see written. You may have noticed that it does not contain anything I have not stated earlier, in various places in public. I have already talked about all of it in one way or another. So I just dictated it, and then when my colleagues put it together, I took a look. I didn’t like everything, so I rewrote and added a few things, gave it back to them, they worked on it some more and brought it to me again. I made some more changes and felt it was ready for publishing. We arranged through our partners that it would be in The New York Times; we came to an agreement with this respected publication that the article would be published without any cuts. If they didn’t like it, we could give it to another newspaper.
But I must give credit to the New York Times editors: they completely abided by our agreements and published everything as I wrote it. They even waived their usual requirements on the number of characters and words in the article; it was a little bit over the limit. They were going to submit it, but then one of my aides said, “President Obama is going to address the nation tomorrow. What if he announces that there won’t be any strikes, that they changed their minds? It’s better to wait.” I said, “Very well.” We waited, and the next morning, I was getting ready for work and I was given President Obama’s speech. I began to read it and realized that nothing had changed fundamentally, so I laid it aside without finishing it. But then I thought, “No, I need to read it to the end.” And when I read all of it, it became clear that my article was incomplete. As you understand, the matter at hand was America’s exceptionalism. So I picked up the article, and right then and there, I hand-wrote the last paragraph. I gave it to my colleagues, they passed it on to The New York Times, and there it was.
Now, concerning responsibility. You know, you are all very experienced, smart and clever people. Here is what I will say about Russia’s special responsibility. We have equal rights and equal responsibilities with all our colleagues involved in the discussion on Syria. This is not the first time I hear that I now carry a special responsibility. We all carry a special responsibility; we all carry it equally. If the attempt to resolve the problem by peaceful means is unsuccessful, that will be a tragedy. But we must investigate before we do take any other steps. My good friend Francois Fillon – we have known each other for a long time and have become friends during our years of working together – talked about how after the report was released by UN experts, it became clear that chemical weapons had been used. But this was clear to us from the very beginning, and our experts agreed. The only thing that is unclear is who used it.
We are constantly talking about responsibility on the part of Assad’s government, whether he used chemical weapons or not. But what if they were used by the opposition? Nobody is saying what we would then do with the opposition – but this, too, is an important question. We have every reason to believe that this was a provocation. You know, it was clever and smart, but at the same time, the execution was primitive. They used an ancient, Soviet-made projectile, taken from the Syrian army’s armaments from a long time ago – it even had “Made in the USSR” printed on it. But this was not the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Why didn’t they investigate the previous instances?
This matter should be investigated as thoroughly as possible. If we finally get an answer, despite all obstacles, to the question of who did this, who committed this crime – and there is no question that it was a crime – then we will take the next step; we will then work with other UN Security Council colleagues to determine the culpability of those who committed this crime, together and in solidarity.
Moderator Svetlana Mironyuk: They say that Senator McCain followed your example and published an article of his own in Pravda newspaper. He probably remembers from the Soviet years that Pravda was a well-known publication and the most popular newspaper in the country. True, a lot of time has passed and things have changed a bit since then, so it’s no longer true. I don’t know if you heard about this or not, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: No, I didn’t know about it. I have met the senator before. He was in Munich when I made the speech there that went on to become so famous. Actually, there was nothing anti-American in that speech. I simply stated our position frankly and honestly, and there was nothing aggressive in what I said, if you only take a closer look. What I said then was that we were promised at one point that NATO would not expand beyond the former Federal Republic of Germany’s eastern border. That was a promise directly made to Gorbachev. True, it was not actually set out and written down. But where is NATO today, where is the border? We got cheated, to put it quite simply. That’s the whole story. But there’s nothing aggressive here. It’s more just a reluctance to admit to what I just said. But I didn’t say those words to offend anyone. I said them so that we would be able to lay everything before each other plain and clear and discuss the problems in an honest, open fashion. It’s easier to reach agreements this way. You shouldn’t keep things hidden.
The senator has his own views. I do think though that he is lacking information about our country. The fact that he chose to publish his article in Pravda – and he wanted after all to publish it in the most influential and widely read newspaper – suggests that he is lacking information. Pravda is a respected publication of the Communist Party, which is now in opposition, but it does not have very wide circulation around the country now. He wants to get his views across to as many people as possible, and so his choice simply suggests that he is not well-informed about our country.
Actually, I would have been happy to see him here at the Valdai Club say, taking part in the discussions. As far as I know, our big television channels, the national channels, proposed that he come and take part in an open and honest discussion. There you have it, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. He is welcome to share his point of view with the whole country and discuss things with his equals, with political analysts and politicians, members of the State Duma or the Federation Council.
In this respect, I can only express my regret that our American colleagues did not react to our parliamentarians’ proposal and refused to receive them in Washington for a discussion on Syria. Why did they do this? To be honest, I don’t see anything so bad about this proposal, which, on the contrary, seems to me of interest and the right thing to do. The more we actually discuss things directly with each other, the easier it will be to find solutions.
Svetlana Mironyuk: Thank you.
Are there more questions from the floor?
Let’s stick to the subjects if we can, so as not to jump from one topic to another.
Bridget Kendall, go ahead.
Diplomatic correspondent for the BBC Bridget Kendall: Thank you.
Again about Syria, Russia has been lauded for its achievement for bringing about a deal which looks as though it could lead to the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, all the more an achievement given that the Syrian government didn’t admit it had them until very recently. Would you have been able to persuade President Assad to do this if there hadn’t been a threat of American military strikes? In other words, did the threat of US military strikes actually play a rather useful role?
Vladimir Putin: Am I right in understanding that you are asking about whether it is the threat of military strikes that plays a part in Syria’s agreeing to have its weapons placed under control?
First, I’d like to ask you all to address your questions to everyone taking part in today’s discussion, so as not to turn this into a boring dialogue. If you permit, I will redirect your question to my colleagues and ask them to share their points of view on this issue.
The threat of the use of force and actual use of force are far from being a cure-all for international problems. Look at what we are actually talking about after all. We are forgetting the heart of the matter. We are talking about using force outside the framework of current international law. We’ve just been saying how the US Congress and Senate are discussing whether to use force or not. But it is not there that this matter should be discussed. It should be discussed in the UN Security Council. That is the heart of the issue. That is my first point.
Second, on whether we will manage to convince Assad or not, I don’t know. So far it looks as though Syria has fully agreed to our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that the international community is putting together, working through the UN. Russia and the USA, in the persons of Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have already practically drafted the outlines of this plan. There is a special organization that will work together with the UN on this matter of eliminating chemical weapons. Syria has declared that it will join and that it indeed already considers itself to have joined the International Chemical Weapons Convention. These are practical steps that the Syrian government has already taken. Will we succeed in taking the process through to completion? I cannot give a 100% guarantee. But what we have seen just lately, over these last few days, gives us hope that this is possible and will be done.
Let me just remind you about how these chemical weapons came about. Syria got itself chemical weapons as an alternative to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, as we know. What can be done about the various issues associated with proliferation and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a very relevant question today, perhaps the most important issue of our time. If this situation gets out of control, like it once happened with gunpowder, the consequences will be unimaginable. We therefore need to strive towards nuclear-free status in particular parts of the world, especially in such volatile regions as the Middle East.
We need to be very careful in our action so as to give unconditional security guarantees for all participants in this process. After all, there are people in Israel itself who categorically oppose nuclear weapons. You remember the well-known case when a nuclear physicist was sent to prison, served his sentence and still continues to think that his position was right. Why? There is nothing anti-Israeli in his position. He is a Jew himself and a citizen of his country, but he simply believes that Israel’s technological superiority is such that the country does not need nuclear weapons. Israel is already technologically and militarily a long way ahead of the region’s other countries. But nuclear weapons only turn the country into a target and create foreign policy problems. In this respect, there is sense in the position of this nuclear physicist, who disclosed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But to come back to your question about whether the plan will succeed or not, we hope that it will.
Svetlana Mironyuk: Mr. President, I suggest that since we have veered away from defense and security issues, we should give Mr. Rühe a chance to reply, ask a question, and express his opinion.
Mr. Rühe, you have the floor.
Former Defence Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany Volker Rühe: Well, I wanted to speak about the young generation in this country.
First, I would like to begin – because I’ve been here from the beginning – to also compliment our Russian friends on the format of Valdai, the architects – because it would not be enough to call them organizers. What we have seen here, I call the culture of inclusiveness and a love of pluralism. And I can tell you, Mr. President, we are quite fascinated by the pluralistic voices from Russia, including very powerful statements by people that are in opposition to your politics, and I think this shows the strength of the country, that it was organized in this way.
I’ve never looked at Russia with the somewhat narrow eyes of a defense minister, you know this. I was first here in 1971, and Sergei Karaganov is a friend of mine since the late 1970s. We don’t look it, but it’s a fact of life. We have lived through SS-20 and Pershing.
And what I would like to say is, I came here as Defense Minister in 1995 and I went to St Petersburg. And I said, I don’t want to see any tanks or artillery, or any generals. I want to see the Mayor, Sobchak. And I got to know you also, you were part of his team. Why? He was a lighthouse for me, as a young member of parliament in West Germany, still in the divided Germany, and I think what he was doing was much more important than tanks and artillery, and it has proved to be this way. So it’s a lifelong interest in a neighbor. And we all, I believe, on this continent, are interested in a successful, modern Russia.
Now, the young generation. What I’ve seen – and of course it was very interesting for me to listen to his daughter, who is a powerful voice for the young generation, two days ago.
So what I’ve seen here, what I’ve seen in Russia is you have really an asset to the country, your young generation. They are very intelligent. They want to have a good education. They want to be more internationally connected. And they want to have a bigger say in the politics of your country. They are knocking at the doors of the Kremlin.
The young generation in my country, they also want to build their private lives, they are very much internationally connected. The doors to our Kremlins, which is the parliament and the government, are very open, but they don’t knock at it. They leave it to politicians because they think things have been arranged very well. And we are very sad that some of the very best just want to have a successful private life, but don’t engage in public life.
So my message really is, Russia can be proud of a young generation, even if there are political opponents that want to engage in public life, which is not the case in many of the west European countries. And I’ve said earlier in Russia also, we should give up this visa regime in the West, because that would enable hundreds of thousands of young Russians to come and see our life and our political system. But I must say, it would also change Russia, because once they have studied in Rome or in London or in Washington, because they’ll be forces of change, the necessary change in this country. But I think it would make the country also more competitive.
Now what has that to do with security? I think this is the best way to ensure security and to develop common points of view. And I’m very glad that this culture of Valdai, I don’t think there’s anything – I have been to many conferences, and also to Munich, but Munich is very narrow security-wise, there’s no conference like this in the world.
And also when we listen for four hours to your people about ideas and politics – we very often just talk from Monday to Thursday about our politics. It was very fascinating to see that the Russian speakers are much more interested in fundamental questions of society than we are, which is very much on the surface, what we are debating. So I think this is something to start from, but the real message is, I think it would be a great project of your third term to integrate this young generation when they’re knocking at the door of the Kremlin, because don’t forget, we want more people to knock at the doors of political power in the West, and you can be proud of these people. That’s my message.
Svetlana Mironyuk: Thank you, Mr. Rühe.
Other questions, please.
President and founder of the Center on Global interests in Washington Nikolai Zlobin: Good afternoon.
Everyone seems to be expecting me to ask you about 2018 and whether you will run for a new term. But I’m not going to ask that question. Everyone else I have put this question to so far have all said no though, so you might have to run anyway in the end, or else there won’t be anyone at all.
But I want to come back to a question we have already discussed. Unlike you, I did read McCain’s article. It should be said that it is not exactly a reply to your article, because it is really quite a personal article and not related to Syria. I think it is not very politically correct really, but that is my personal view.
Actually, he says there that no criticism of Putin is allowed in Russia. I’m here as a living example of someone who is always criticizing you. Even here at Valdai I have often argued with you, but I’m still here as you can see, alive and well. To be honest, I do not entirely agree with the things you said today either. But McCain says that the government Russia has today does not adequately represent Russian society, and that Russia deserves a different government.
In this respect I have a question. I know that relations between the public and the authorities is indeed one of Russia’s big problems, an old, historical problem. Before last year’s election, I recall that you said that there is perhaps a need to change the Constitution, change the relations between government and society, change the mutual responsibility, develop local government and so on. There was the very good idea too of bringing more young people into government. Sometimes I hear voices among the opposition saying that this government should be swept aside and that a new government is needed. You are now serving your third term as President. How do you view today the relations between government and society in Russia? Are you happy with these relations? What should be changed? Is the Constitution really the issue, or is McCain perhaps right in a way? I do not think his argument is correct. But what is your vision now, in the twenty-first century, of the relations between Russia’s highest authorities and society?
Thank you, Mr. President.
Vladimir Putin: You recall the words of one of the world’s outstanding political leaders, a former British Prime Minister, who said of democracy that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Probably then – not probably, but for certain – Russia does deserve a better quality of government. Is there an ideal form of government in other countries, including the one that you and Mr. McCain represent? This is a big question, a very big question, if we are talking about democracy.
It has happened twice in US history that the President of the United States was chosen by a majority in the electoral colleges, but with a minority of the actual voters. This is an obvious flaw in the electoral procedure, that is to say, a flaw at the very heart of American democracy. In other words, everyone has their own problems.
We perhaps have no fewer problems than you, and maybe even more, though this would only be natural. Russia has gone through the experience of rule under the tsars, then communism, then the disintegration of the 1990s. This has been a period of very difficult and complicated rebuilding. But it is very clear that Russia is on the road to democracy and is looking for its own ways to strengthen these democratic foundations. There is this very fact that for ten years now we have been getting together, debating, openly discussing, even when we used to meet behind closed doors, it all became public anyway. And this is not to mention the other aspects of our life.
As for what kind of government Russia should have, this is something for our citizens to decide, and not for our colleagues from abroad. We held an election a year ago, not so long ago, and the majority of Russia’s citizens voted for me. I base myself on this decision. That does not mean we can now sit on our laurels. I have to work on myself, and our institutions need to improve too. This is just what we are all doing.
Note that we have returned to holding gubernatorial elections in the regions. This practice is not so widespread in the world. Such elections are the practice in the United States, but India say, has a completely different procedure. Many countries do things very much their own way. Germany has its system, France has its way of doing things, and in Russia we have decided to elect regional governors by direct secret ballot.
We have liberalized political parties’ activity. As a specialist on Russia, you know just how many new political parties took part in the regional elections. In many cases they achieved victory, and as far as I know, the winners of elections from these new political parties are here at Valdai too. The improvement process is therefore going ahead. I think it will never stop, because government organization, the political organization of society, and democratic procedures need to keep up more or less with a society’s current needs and demands, and society is developing and changing. The political system will change and develop with it.
Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya is used to getting into people’s heads.
She’s an expert on Russia’s elites and its political system. For 23 years she headed the Department of Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and now is director general of the research center “Kryshtanovskaya Laboratory.”
When Kryshtanovskaya looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin, she sees an “average Joe” – make that an “average Ivan.”
In his first term, she recalls, Putin said the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Every resident of Russia would subscribe to that,” she says.
It’s not that Russians want Communism back, although some do, but the whole structure of life and secure social programs fell apart along with the USSR. So, when people in the West reacted with horror to Putin’s statement, many Russians were surprised, Kryshtanovskaya says, “Everything Putin says is very understandable to us, but not very understandable to you – and vice versa,” she says. “What the American president does, when he starts a war, when he sends troops, when Vietnam begins, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., we can’t understand it.”
Russians who lived during the Soviet Union grew up with government-inspired anti-Americanism. “It’s one of the pillars of our country’s ideology,” she says. “It was formed a long time ago and was carefully instilled in people by the Soviet leaders. Why are there problems? ‘It’s those people, the evil Americans, who are at fault, who make things worse for us.’ It’s an ideological cliché.”
Now, Kryshtanovskaya says, “When Putin thinks of how he can justify his policies, it’s faster to recall this old enemy than to create a new one. This external enemy is a factor of the internal politics of Russia, as strange as that may seem.”
Not many Americans or Western Europeans really know Russian President Vladimir Putin, but friend or foe, it is in our interest to know him well. To know him, we must first shake off some of our cold war stereotypes of Russia and Russian leaders. The Russian Federation replaced the old Soviet Union in 1992, after the collapse of the Communist Party.
Boris Yeltsin was the first directly elected president of the new Russian Federation and served until his resignation on December 31, 1999. At that time, he named his recently appointed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to the office of President. Putin won the March 26, 2000 election running under the Unity Party banner with 53.4 percent of the vote against 11 other candidates. The Communist candidate came in a distant second with 29.5 percent of the vote. Putin served until March 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev was elected President, and Putin was named Prime Minister.
Putin was elected again to the presidency in March 2012 and appointed Medvedev to the office of Prime Minister. The Russian Federation is not the Communist dominated Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin are not Joe Stalins. Putin, however, is not an American. He is among the most Russian of Russians. Putin will be 61 on October 7 and has served 13 years as either President or Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, the ninth most populous country in the world with 144 million people, and the largest country in the world geographically.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad, now known by its original name of St. Petersburg. His parents were Vladimir Spirodonovich Putin (1911-1999) and Maria Ivanova Putina (1911-1998). His father was a Navy veteran and served in the NKVD (state security police) during World War II. He is said to have been a dedicated communist and militant atheist. He later held some minor offices in the Communist Party.
His mother, a factory worker, however, was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, who had the young Vladimir secretly christened in the Russian Orthodox Church. She regularly attended services and took her son with her despite the strong persecution of the Communist Soviet government. Her husband knew this but did not report it to Communist Party officials. Besides Putin’s paternal grandfather, Spirodon Putin, who was a cook in one of Lenin’s country residences, nothing is known of his ancestry…..
You Americans want to remove my ally, the Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. To borrow a phrase from your John F. Kennedy, Assad may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s my son-of-a-bitch.
So if you want to destroy him, what are you going to give me in return? If your answer is, “We will give you nothing,” well, why would I ever agree to that? That’s not negotiation, that’s dictation; it’s a return to the bad Yeltsin days, when Holy Mother Russia was pushed into the mud like a used whore.
Look, I’ll be the first to say that Obama’s “red line” comment was dumb. It’s obvious he hadn’t thought it through; one can see it in the words he used to express his policy. He said that the “red line” would be crossed if “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons were used. What kind of language is that? How does one quantify a “whole bunch”? This is the President of the High-and-Mighty United States, and he’s talking like a schoolboy? All for this silliness over sarin in Syria?
Do I think that Assad did it? Gassed those people? I don’t know; I’ve never asked him. He’s certainly capable of it, and yet only the Americans think that the case against Assad is a “slam dunk.” Everyone else agrees that the case is murky. Everyone else follows the first rule of intelligence-gathering: Consider the source–namely, the pro-rebel media. In this instance, the rebels were losing, and then they got “gassed”–and now Uncle Sam is rushing to their side. How convenient.
The Romans, who knew something about both imperialism and trickery, always asked, cui bono–who benefits? Well, the beneficiaries in this episode are the rebels–also known as Al Qaeda. Way to go, Americans!
Yet could this evidence against the rebels all be Russian disinformation? Hey, we’re good, but not that good.
Meanwhile, go ahead: Look for this information in your mainstream American media–your so-called “free press.” You can barely find it. Yankee lapdog reporters will cover everything that Obama says, and everything that John McCain says, but they won’t send reporters to warzones to go and actually figure out what happened.
Nor will American “presstitutes” remind their people of their own country’s history of helping the Iraqis use poison gas, all the time, in the 80s.
Yes, American reporters are sheep. They try to figure out what Obama wants them to write, and then they write it. Or if Obama doesn’t have a clear line on some topic–which is often–they look over the shoulder of the reporter next to them and copy that. Like I said, sheep.
The result is a herd mentality, showing no understanding of what true necessity truly looks like.
Here’s an example of a real “red line”: It’s June 24, 1812, and Napoleon Bonaparte, having conquered all of continental Europe, is now leading a half-million soldiers across the Neman River, invading Russia, heading straight for Moscow. Six months later, Napoleon retreats in disastrous defeat, but only after he burns our sacred capital and leaves 200,000 Russians dead in battle. Now that’s a red-line situation.
But even the Czars, those blockheads, weren’t dumb enough to send Russian forces halfway around the world because someone wasn’t being nice to someone else.
So in my time, I can hardly get worked up over Assad using poison gas–if he did. Dead is dead, I say. In any case, Assad is adhering to the first rule of a leader: Stay in power. And so you do what it takes.
In addition, there are another billion or more Muslims to the south of Russia–and a lot of them are trouble, too. Indeed, Russia has been fighting Muslims all across Central Asia for centuries. It’s not easy.
But the American leaders don’t seem to understand any of this. They are lost in their silly theories about liberation, human rights–all that nonsense. They don’t see that the struggle with radical Islam is a war, pure and simple. It’s a war that should unite all the civilized countries of the world. I didn’t say “democratic,” I said “civilized.”
One Western journalist who at least begins to understand where I’m coming from is The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers. In his report of August 28, Myers accurately describes the Putin view of what’s been going on in the Middle East:
That’s right. Over the last 15 years, from Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama, America has stirred up all the hornet-nests in the Middle East. For the most part, those angry hornets are far away from the US, but those insects are on Russia’s southern border–starting with those lousy Chechens.
And it’s not just the Americans stirring things up; it’s flunky-countries, too. It still kills me to think back to what British Prime Minister Tony Blair said just a few weeks after 9-11. In a speech that made the Americans swoon, Blair chose to regard all the coming wars as a great opportunity for international do-gooding.
After talking up the importance of “freedom,” Blair cited all needy peoples of the Muslim world and declared, “They, too, are our cause.” What kind of bull is that? Radical Muslims kill you, and so you want to go help them? Put them on welfare? America put its blacks on welfare, and were they grateful? Did they become less violent? Yet in Blair’s mind, these same Muslims were supposed to be grateful for all this “help.” That was the theory.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.