Excerpts from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference

December 14, 2017

Sergei Brilyov: Good afternoon, Mr President. Sergei Brilyov from Rossiya 1 television channel.
For obvious reasons, most issues deal with domestic policy today. Mr Peskov is holding the green folder that you used during your meetings with governors. And I, nevertheless, would like to ask some short questions about foreign affairs.
The foundation of what we had been accustomed to in international relations started crumbling long before the current aggravation of the geopolitical situation. The United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then we failed to reach agreement on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. To our dismay, the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles also started swaying from side to side. Speaking of long-term prospects, it is unclear whether the START III Treaty will survive. Supposing that it also becomes destabilised, will this lead to a new arms race, which will require Russia to increase its defence spending? Will this affect current customary social payments, which is a frequent subject of discussion today?
Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: We did not withdraw from fundamental treaties that formed and still form the cornerstone of international security. We did not withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the United States did that unilaterally. We are now hearing talk about problems with the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. It appears that conditions are being created, and the appropriate information is being promoted for a possible US withdrawal from this Treaty, as well, all the more so as Washington has already withdrawn from it de facto. The United States is trying to reproach and accuse us of something, but what exactly has it accomplished? It has deployed systems, allegedly ABM systems, in Romania.
And how did it deploy them? It has removed sea-launched Aegis launchers from warships and deployed them on the ground. But these ABM systems’ missiles can be easily replaced with ordinary medium-range missiles. In effect, this process is already de facto underway. Nothing good will come of this trend if it persists. We have no intention of withdrawing from any document.
The same is true of the START III Treaty. We can hear the United States say that it allegedly considers this treaty unprofitable and inappropriate. There is such talk. If this happens, and if the United States once again unilaterally withdraws from this treaty, then this would spell dire consequences in the context of preserving international stability and security.
And now, I would like to say a few words about our defence spending. We know about these processes, we can see them, and we realise the possible consequences of specific actions. We will ensure our security without getting involved in an arms race.
Dmitry Peskov: There was a second part.
Let him have the microphone, please.
Sergei Brilyov: Would not the growth of military spending lead to cuts in social funding?
Vladimir Putin: You know, our military spending is balanced by several substantive criteria.
First, we must ensure our security.
And, second, do this in a way that will not lead to an economic collapse. We take this approach.
Just look: next year, for example we plan to spend 1.4 trillion rubles on purchases and 1.4 trillion rubles on maintenance, which makes 2.8 trillion rubles. This is slightly over 2.8 percent of the GDP. I named the absolute figures – 2.8 trillion. At the current exchange rate, that is slightly over $46 billion.
The United States has signed into law a military spending bill for $700 billion. Compare $46 plus to $700 and feel the difference. Can our country afford that kind of spending? No, it cannot. But the $46 plus is enough for us. You could say that even this amount is too much.
I am sure you know this popular adage: those who do not want to feed their own army will feed someone else’s. It is an old one. But there are newer jokes. I occasionally tell you all sorts of jokes about this. I can tell you another one; it also has a beard, as we say, but it is more modern. A former military officer asks his son, “Son, I had a dagger here. Have you seen my dagger?” The boy replies, “Dad, don’t be mad. I swapped it for a watch with the kid next door.” The officer says, “Let me see the watch.” He looks at it and says, “A good watch, good for you. You know, gangsters and robbers will come to our house tomorrow. They will kill me and your mother and will rape your elder sister, but you will come out to them and say: ‘Good evening, Moscow time is 12.30.’” We do not want anything like that to happen, do we? So we will pay due attention to developing the army and the navy without getting involved in an arms race or ruining our budget.

Terry Moran: Thank you, Mr President. Terry Moran with ABC News.
First, in the United States investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the media have uncovered a very large number of contacts between Russian citizens associated with your government and high officials of the Trump campaign. And some of those officials are now being prosecuted for lying about those contacts. All this is not normal. And many Americans are saying where there is that much smoke there must be fire. How would you explain to Americans the sheer number of contact between the Trump campaign and your government?
And second, if I may. It has almost been a year since Donald Trump has been elected president. You praised Donald Trump during the campaign. What is your assessment of Donald Trump as president after one year? Spasibo.

Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the second part of your question. It is not for me to evaluate Donald Trump’s work. This should be done by his electorate, the American people. But we do see some major achievements, even over the short period he has been in office. Look at the markets, which have grown. This is evidence of investors’ trust in the US economy. This means they trust what President Trump is doing in this area. With all due respect to President Trump’s opposition in the United States, these are objective factors.
There are also things he would probably like to do but has not been able to do so far, such as a healthcare reform and several other areas. By the way, he said his intentions in foreign policy included improving relations with Russia. It is clear that he has been unable to do this because of the obvious constraints, even if he wanted to. In fact, I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people, and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world, including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc. There are many things we can do much more effectively together in the interests of our people than we are doing them now. Actually, we can do everything more effectively together.
Terry Moran: How would you explain the connection between the government, your government, and the Trump
campaign? How would you explain it to Americans?

Vladimir Putin: (In English.) I see, I see. (In Russian.) You know that all this was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate. It seems strange to me, and I mean it, that the people who are doing this do not seem to realise that they are damaging the internal political climate in the country, that they are decimating the possibilities of the elected head of state. This means that they do not respect the people who voted for him.
How do you see any election process worldwide? Do we need to ban any contacts at all? Our ambassador has been accused of meeting with someone. But this is standard international practice when a diplomatic representative and even Government members meet with all the candidates, their teams, when they discuss various issues and development prospects, when they want to understand what certain people will do after assuming power and how to respond to this. What kind of extraordinary things did anyone see in this? And why should all this take on the nature of spy mania?
You have watched the investigation on social media. The share of Russian corporate advertising makes up less than 0.01 percent, with that of American companies totaling 100, 200 and 300 percent. It is simply incomparable. But, for some reason, even this is seen as excessive. This is some kind of gibberish.
The same can be said about the situation with our media outlets, including RT and Sputnik. But their share in the overall information volume is negligible, as compared to the share of global US media outlets all over the world and in Russia. And this is seen as a threat. Then what about freedom of the media? This is actually a cornerstone, on which American democracy itself is based.
All of us should realise that someone succeeds and someone does not. We need to draw conclusions from this and move on, instead of pouncing on one another like animals. We need to think about this and draw conclusions.

Kate De Pury: Kate De Pury, Associated Press.
(In Russian): If I may, I will also ask my question in English.
(In English): The US wants Russia to do more to persuade North Korea to halt its missile programmes. Would Russia support tougher sanctions against North Korea? And do you think that cooperation on North Korea could warm up US-Russia relations? Or have you lost hope of mending them under Mr Trump? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: You are such interesting people. Have you noticed that members of US Congress and Senate are so nice-looking and beautifully dressed in fancy suits and shirts? They seem to be intelligent people. They have put us on the same level with North Korea and Iran, and at the same time, they continue to prod the President to talk us into addressing the issues of North Korea and the Iranian nuclear programme together with your country.
What is the matter with you? You must agree that this sounds strange, and that it somehow goes beyond common sense. However, unlike some countries, our policy mostly lacks political time-serving considerations.
We are trying to work constructively with everyone on the most topical issues in the area of international security. We are trying not to sulk and not to take offence with someone in response to decisions that we sometimes fail to understand.
Regarding North Korea, our position is well known: we do not recognise North Korea’s nuclear status. We believe that everything taking place there is counterproductive.
I have already said this, and I would like to tell you once again that in 2005 the concerned parties came to an agreement with North Korea that it would terminate its nuclear weapons programme. North Korea assumed certain obligations. Everyone agreed and signed these agreements.
Only several months later, the United States decided that these agreements were not enough. The US side promptly froze the accounts of North Korean banks and said that North Korea had to do something else outside the framework of these agreements.
But North Korea decided not to bother and withdrew from all those agreements, and started developing its nuclear programme once again. Why did you do that? Did you think this was not enough? Then why did you sign the agreements if you thought it was not enough? In reality, you provoked North Korea to withdraw. Later, the situation became aggravated even further with Libya and Iraq. I have spoken about this many times.
North Korea sees no other means of self-preservation but to develop weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. As you can see, their upgraded missiles are now capable of hitting the United States. Is there anything good in this situation?
We believe that both sides need to stop ramping up tensions. At one point, we heard from our American partners that they would stop military exercises. Well, they have conducted another exercise, and the North Koreans have launched their missiles yet again. This spiral has to end because it is an extremely dangerous thing.
We have talked with our American partners. Supposing that the United States launches some strikes with high-precision non-nuclear weapons, what targets will be attacked? Do the CIA or the Defence Intelligence Agency know exactly what targets, and where, must be hit with one single strike?
Of course, they do not because North Korea is a walled-in country. You know some things, and you have no idea about others. And even one North Korean missile launch would have disastrous consequences. I repeat, the consequences would be disastrous.
Yes, the United States has already used nuclear weapons against Japan. I do not believe it was justified. Now there is absolutely no need for this. It is important to be very careful.
Mr Tillerson has recently said that the United States is prepared to establish direct contacts. This is a very good message showing that some changes are taking place among US leaders and at the Department of State, and that they are coming to recognise certain facts, hopefully together with the US intelligence community and the Pentagon.
If we proceed on the basis of common sense, then we will, of course, cooperate with the United States on all such issues, including North Korea.

Yelena Glushakova: Lena Glushakova, RIA Novosti. I also wanted to ask a question about Ukraine, since we are asking questions in blocks.
The situation with implementing the Minsk agreements seems disastrous. Do you think they are still working to settle this conflict?
There is another related question. The United States constantly holds meetings with Russian representatives on Ukraine. However, it is not part of the Normandy Four. Is it perhaps time to make the US a formal participant of the Normandy format so that it becomes its fifth member?
If I may, one more question about the Ukrainian politician Saakashvili. What do you think about his future in Ukraine and what are the prospects of that country in general? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: As for the Minsk format, it has not been very effective, primarily because of the unconstructive position of representatives of the current Kiev authorities. There is no desire whatsoever to carry out the Minsk Agreements. There is no desire whatsoever to start a real political process that can secure the implementation of an agreement on the special status of Donbass, which has been established in a Ukrainian law passed by the Rada, but which has not become valid for different pretexts. The agreement on it exists and the parameters of this law are well known.
As for the United States, it is a fully-fledged participant of the settlement processes in its own right, regardless of whether it is in the Normandy framework or not. In any case, it is very deeply involved and is well aware of all the events there.
I do not know whether it should be formally included in the Normandy format. In any event, this does not depend on us. Believe me, I have never been against this.
Now I will answer the question of your colleague. In fact, he did not ask a question but rather stated his position. This is what I would like to say on this score.
First, about the location of Ukraine and Bashkiria. Judging by the lack of any accent in your Russian, I believe mentally Bashkiria is not as far from Ukraine as you think in terms of geography.
As for the tragedy that is taking place there today – and this is definitely a tragedy – I must agree. It is always necessary to look at the primary source of the tragedy. The primary source is a coup d’etat, the armed unconstitutional seizure of power. And, as is known, part of the people did not agree and started resisting. Despite Ukraine’s alleged desire to become part of European civilization, those who objected were fought against not by democratic methods but at first with the use of secret services and then with the full-scale use of the armed forces.
There is no Russian army on the territory of Donbass but there are certain militia formations that are self-sufficient and ready to repel any large-scale actions against Donbass.
We believe this meets the interests of the people who live on that territory because if they do not have such an opportunity, the massacre you mentioned, carried out by so-called nationalist battalions, will be even worse than in Srebrenica. And nothing will stop them, including appeals to international human rights organisations that I was advised to make by my Western colleagues if events take such a turn. We are fully aware of this.
Regarding the peacekeeping mission. It was Petro Poroshenko who spoke about the need to arm OSCE employees at first, and I agreed immediately. The OSCE turned down this idea right away saying that they have neither the experience nor the people and they do not want to give their employees weapons because they will immediately become targets for radicals on both sides.
Then Mr Poroshenko said that it is necessary to ensure security of the OSCE officers using UN forces. I agreed to that as well and, to dispel any doubts, we submitted a respective draft resolution, according to which UN forces would protect the OSCE employees.
After that, in a telephone conversation, Ms Merkel asked me, “Why only at the border, at the contact line? OSCE staff move all over Donbass. Please agree to them always traveling with security, wherever they go, including the border between Russia and Donbass, Russia and Ukraine.”
I thought about that and replied, “Yes, you are right. We will agree to that.” We immediately amended the resolution. But now it turns out that that was not enough. Basically, it all comes down to establishing international control over that territory.
We are not against that but Kiev would have to negotiate with Donbass. And, since we are talking about this, no other similar conflict in the world has ever been resolved only through mediators. Their resolution always required direct contacts between the parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, the current government in Kiev is evading direct contacts with Donbass.
Now, exchanges. I agree with you. Innocent people are suffering. Do you think it is the fault of Donbass? No. Yesterday there was another shelling by the Ukrainian army. Sometimes even we cannot tell if it is the army or the nationalist battalions.
As far as I know, the regular Ukrainian army and these nationalist battalions are not always on good terms. Honestly, I understand why. Because true soldiers are there to protect their people and the country from external aggression, not from domestic conflicts, even a tough and complicated conflict like the one in Donbass.
Now on exchanges. President Poroshenko instructed Viktor Medvedchuk to deal with this. Mr Medvedchuk was invited by the Russian Patriarchate to the New Jerusalem Monastery. As there had not been any exchanges for a long time, he asked us to use our influence with the leadership of the two unrecognised republics, the LPR and DPR, to get them to agree to this exchange.
We worked on that, as you probably know. In fact, it was the first time I had ever spoken to those leaders. They agreed. With the approval of Ukraine (it was their proposal, after all), Medvedchuk brought us the list of 67 people from one side in exchange for around 300 people from the other side. It was Ukraine’s list. It was approved.
I want you to understand that this is what actually happened. I am not distorting facts. Then, out of the blue, they said no, this is not right, we need to change the list. They stalled the process again. Look, can we do it already? Then we can move forward. We should really do this act of kindness since it is the holiday season.
Now about Saakashvili. I think that what Saakashvili is doing is a slap in the face to both the Georgian and Ukrainian people. How can you still tolerate this? Here is a man who was the president of the independent Georgian state, and now he is running from square to square yelling for the whole world to hear: I am a Ukrainian! Are there no genuine Ukrainians in Ukraine? And Ukraine puts up with all this. It is such a pity to see. My heart bleeds.
Now about us being far removed or close. I know that you will probably not agree with this but each person has his own position. The development of the Slavic world was complicated. Russia’s development was also difficult. It was formed by many Slavic tribes – 16 or 32. Eventually ancient Rus emerged, and Kiev became part of it and the centre of it. In this sense our historical, spiritual and other roots entitle me to say that basically we are one and the same people. But, of course, you may not agree with me.
One more thing is clear. Being close to Russia’s western border, Ukraine developed accordingly and has many wonderful unique features in its language and culture – in everything. They are all cherished in Russia and considered to be part of our own culture.
In the 19th century some people started saying that Ukraine ought to be independent and self-sufficient. Did they have the right to say this? Yes, they did, especially considering that they lived in an empire where there was probably some forced Russification. But for Ukraine this was the least important thing because after all it is an Orthodox country. This was important at that time. Let me recall that passports identified religion rather than ethnic origin. There was no difference at all between a Russian and a Ukrainian.
Ukraine became part of the Russian empire in 1645. Russia incorporated three of its regions. Speaking in today’s language this was around Kiev, Chernigov and today’s Zhitomir – the latter had a different name. As part of the Russian empire, Ukraine received more territory as a result of different events, such as Russian-Turkish wars and later on World War II.
But in 1922, 1923, and 1924 the Bolsheviks decided for some reason that all territories adjacent to Ukraine’s historical part should become a new republic – Ukraine. All Black Sea regions became part of it. After WWII it incorporated Western regions. This is how it all worked out.
But in 1954 Crimea was transferred there in violation of the Soviet Union law in force at the time, according to which such decision had to be approved by the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The decision was made by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.
I will not say anything further. The people of Crimea made their own decision, I am sure we will get over this. Some people believe that it is better for Ukraine to develop as an independent state. So be it. If people believe so, this should be done and supported. It is absolutely pointless and counterproductive to try and suppress this opinion.
But let me emphasise that the entire world is taking a different path. People of different ethnic origin and religion are increasingly drawing closer to each other. This is happening both in Europe and Asia and also in North America – everywhere in the world.
As I said once, we were divided and then set against each other. We must come to understand what benefits both Ukraine and Russia and what is counterproductive. Let us ponder this together.

Question: Not long ago, you had a telephone conversation with Donald Trump in the course of which you discussed the situation in Afghanistan, including the growing terrorist and drug-trafficking threats. In this context, I would like know how you assess the prospects for cooperation with the United States in meeting these challenges in Afghanistan. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: This is one area of work where we could really join efforts with the United States. If we could work together here, these efforts could really be more effective.
We see the growing threat in Afghanistan from international terrorists and we see that radical armed groups are taking control over more and more sections of the Afghan border in the north, bordering former Soviet republics. This applies to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Naturally, we are greatly concerned by this, considering, among other things, the presence of Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan and an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. We are closely watching these developments. We see that the central government in Kabul needs support from the international community and we are ready to provide this support, as we did in previous years, including training national law enforcement and military personnel and supplying essential weapon systems and military equipment.
Without economic aid, Afghanistan is unlikely to resolve all its problems, including combating drugs, drug production. As you know, unfortunately, it has to be said that Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of drugs, including hard drugs. Some of them get to the Russian market and this is definitely a cause for concern. Together with the Afghan government and the United States, as well as other governments concerned, we are ready to work to meet these challenges.