Official Policy Statements
CNN interview with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
August 28, 2008
On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan
Transcript: CNN interview with Vladimir Putin
(CNN) - CNN's Matthew Chance interviewed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
Excerpts from CNN interview. For full transcript:
Matthew Chance: Many people around the world, even though you're not the president of Russia anymore, see you as the main decision maker in this country. Wasn't it you that ordered Russian forces into Georgia and you who should take responsibility for the consequences?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, that's not the case. In accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the issues of foreign policy and defense are fully in the hands of the president. The president of the Russian Federation was acting within his powers.
As is known, yours truly was at that time at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. This alone made it impossible for me to take part in preparing that decision, although of course, President Medvedev was aware of my opinion on that issue. I'll be frank with you, and actually there is no secret about it, we had of course considered all the possible scenarios of events, including direct aggression by the Georgian leadership.
We had to think beforehand about how to provide for the security of our peace-keepers and of the citizens of the Russian Federation who are residents of South Ossetia. But, I repeat, such a decision could only be taken by the president of the Russian Federation, the commander in chief of the armed forces, Mr. Medvedev. It's his decision.
Matthew Chance: It is very interesting that you are talking about Russia's imperial history in this region because one of the effects of Russian intervention in Georgia is that other countries in the former Soviet Union are now deeply concerned that they could be next, that they could be part of a resurgent Russian empire ... particularly countries like Ukraine, that have a big ethnic Russian populations, but also Moldova, the central Asian states and even some of the Baltic states. Can you guarantee to us that Russia will never again use its militarily forces against a neighboring state?
Vladimir Putin: I strongly object to the way this question is formulated. It is not for us to guarantee that we will not attack someone. We have not attacked anyone. It is we who are demanding guarantees from others, to make sure that no one attacks us anymore and that no one kills our citizens. We are being portrayed as the aggressor.
Putin: Chronology of War in South Ossetia
I have here the chronology of the events that took place on August 7, 8 and 9. On the 7th, at 2:42 p.m., the Georgian officers who were at the headquarters of the joint peacekeeping forces left the headquarters, walked away from the headquarters - where there were our servicemen, as well as Georgian and Ossetian servicemen - saying that had been ordered to do so by their commanders. They left their place of service and left our servicemen there alone and never returned during the period preceding the beginning of hostilities. An hour later, heavy artillery shelling started.
At 10:35 p.m., a massive shelling of the city of Tskhinvali began. At 10:50 p.m., ground force units of the Georgian armed forces started to deploy to the combat zone. At the same time, Georgian military hospitals were deployed in the immediate vicinity. And at 11:30 p.m., Mr. Kruashvili, brigadier general and commander of the Georgian peacekeeping forces in the region, announced that Georgia had decided to declare war on South Ossetia. They announced it directly and publicly, looking right into the TV cameras.
At that time, we tried to contact the Georgian leadership, but they all refused to respond. At 0:45 a.m. on August 8, Kruashvili repeated it once again. At 5:20 a.m., tank columns of the Georgian forces launched an attack on Tskhinvali, preceded by massive fire from GRAD systems, and we began to sustain casualties among our personnel.
At that time, as you know, I was in Beijing, and I was able to talk briefly with the president of the United States. I said to him directly that we had not been able to contact the Georgian leadership but that one of the commanders of the Georgian armed forces had declared that they had started a war with South Ossetia.
George replied to me - and I have already mentioned it publicly - that no one wanted a war. We were hoping that the U.S. administration would intervene in the conflict and stop the aggressive actions of the Georgian leadership. Nothing of the kind happened.
What is more, already at 12 noon local time, the units of the Georgian armed forces seized the peacekeepers' camp in the south of Tskhinvali - it is called Yuzhni, or Southern - and our soldiers had to withdraw to the city center, being outnumbered by the Georgians one to six. Also, our peacekeepers did not have heavy weapons, and what weapons they had had been destroyed by the first artillery strikes. One of those strikes had killed 10 people at once.
Then the attack was launched on the peacekeeping forces' northern camp. Here, let me read you the report of the General Staff: "As of 12:30 p.m., the battalion of the Russian Federation peacekeeping forces deployed in the north of the city had beaten off five attacks and was continuing combat."
At that same time, Georgian aviation bombed the city of Dzhava, which was outside the zone of hostilities, in the central part of South Ossetia.
So who was the attacker, and who was attacked? We have no intention of attacking anyone, and we have no intention of going to war with anyone.
During my eight years as president, I often heard the same question: What place does Russia reserve for itself in the world; how does it see itself; what is its place? We are a peace-loving state and we want to cooperate with all of our neighbors and with all of our partners. But if anyone thinks that they can come and kill us, that our place is at the cemetery, they should think what consequences such a policy will have for them.
Putin: Personal Relationship with Bush is Damaged
Matthew Chance: You've always enjoyed over your period as president of Russia, and still now, a very close personal relationship with the U.S. President George W. Bush. Do you think that his failure to restrain the Georgian forces on this occasion has damaged that relationship?
Vladimir Putin: This has certainly done damage to our relations, above all government-to-government relations.
But it is not just a matter of the U.S. administration being unable to restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal action; the U.S. side had in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.
Why spend many years in difficult negotiations to find comprehensive compromise solutions to inter-ethnic conflicts? It is easier to arm one of the parties and push it to kill the other and have it done with. What an easy solution, apparently. In fact, however, that is not always the case.
I have some other thoughts, too. What I am going to say is hypothetical, just some suppositions, and will take time to properly sort out. But I think there is food for thought here.
Even during the years of the Cold War, the intense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we always avoided any direct clash between our civilians and, most certainly, between our military.
Putin: US Created the Conflict in Georgia for Political Purposes
We have serious reasons to believe that there were U.S. citizens right in the combat zone. If that is the case, if that is confirmed, it is very bad. It is very dangerous; it is misguided policy
But, if that is so, these events could also have a U.S. domestic politics dimension.
If my suppositions are confirmed, then there are grounds to suspect that some people in the United States created this conflict deliberately in order to aggravate the situation and create a competitive advantage for one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency. And if that is the case, this is nothing but the use of the called administrative resource in domestic politics, in the worst possible way, one that leads to bloodshed.
Matthew Chance: These are quite astounding claims, but just to be clear, Mr. Prime Minister, are you suggesting that there were U.S. operatives on the ground assisting Georgian forces, perhaps even provoking a conflict in order to give a presidential candidate in the United States some kind of talking point?
Vladimir Putin: Let me explain.
Matthew Chance: And if you are suggesting that, what evidence do you have?
Vladimir Putin: I have said to you that if the presence of U.S. citizens in the zone of hostilities is confirmed, it would mean only one thing: that they could be there only at the direct instruction of their leaders. And if that is so, it means that in the combat zone there are U.S. citizens who are fulfilling their duties there. They can only do that under orders from their superiors, not on their own initiative.
Ordinary specialists, even if they train military personnel, must do it in training centers or on training grounds rather than in a combat zone.
I repeat: This requires further confirmation. I am quoting to you the reports of our military. Of course, I will seek further evidence from them.
Putin: US has Foreign and Domestic Problems
Why are you surprised at my hypothesis, after all? There are problems in the Middle East; reconciliation there is elusive. In Afghanistan, things are not getting any better; what is more, the Taliban have launched a fall offensive, and dozens of NATO servicemen are being killed.
In Iraq, after the euphoria of the first victories, there are problems everywhere, and the number of those killed has reached 4,000.
There are problems in the economy, as we know only too well. There are financial problems, the mortgage crisis. Even we are concerned about it, and we want it to end soon, but it is there.
A little victorious war is needed. And if it doesn't work, then one can lay the blame on us, use us to create an enemy image, and against the backdrop of this kind of jingoism once again rally the country around certain political forces.
I am surprised that you are surprised at what I'm saying. It's as clear as day.
Putin: We Didn't Open Pandora's Box
Vladimir Putin: As for Russia's prestige: We don't like what's been happening, but we did not provoke this situation. Speaking of prestige, some countries' prestige has been severely damaged in recent years. In effect, in recent years our U.S. partners have been cultivating the rule of force instead of the rule of international law. When we tried to stop the decision on Kosovo; no one listened to us. We said, don't do it, wait; you are putting us in a terrible position in the Caucasus. What shall we say to the small nations of the Caucasus as to why independence can be gained in Kosovo but not here? You are putting us in a ridiculous position. At that time, no one was talking about international law; we alone did. Now, they have all remembered it. Now, for some reason, everyone is talking about international law.
But who opened Pandora's box? Did we do it? No, we didn't do it. It was not our decision, and it was not our policy.
There are both things in international law: the principle of territorial integrity and right to self-determination. What's needed is simply to reach agreement on the ground rules. I would think that the time has finally come to do it.
As for the public perception of the events that are taking place, of course this in large part depends not only on the politicians but also on how cleverly they manipulate the media, on how they influence world public opinion. Our U.S. colleagues are of course much better at it than we are. We have much to learn. But is it always done in a proper, democratic way, is the information always fair and objective?
Putin: US Provoked the War
Matthew Chance: Let's go back to the assertion that the U.S. provoked the war. Diplomats in the United States accuse Russia of provoking the war by supporting the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by arming them, by increasing forces in the territories and by recognizing their institutions ... basically giving them the green light to go ahead and operate de facto. Wasn't it Russia that really caused this conflict?
Vladimir Putin: I can easily reply to this question. Since the 1990s, as soon as this conflict started, and it started in recent history because of the decision of the Georgian side to deprive Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the rights of autonomy. In 1990 and 1991, the Georgian leadership deprived Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the autonomous rights that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union, as part of Soviet Georgia, and as soon as that decision was taken, ethnic strife and armed hostilities began. At that time, Russia signed a number of international agreements, and we complied with all those agreements. We had in the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only those peacekeeping forces that were stipulated in those agreements and never exceeded the quota.
The other side - I am referring to the Georgian side - with the support of the United States, violated all the agreements in the most brazen way.
Under the guise of units of the Ministry of the Interior, they secretly moved into the conflict zone their troops, regular army, special units and heavy equipment. In fact, they surrounded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, with that heavy equipment and tanks. They surrounded our peacekeepers with tanks and started shooting at them point blank.
It was only after that, after our first casualties and after their number considerably increased, after tens of them had been killed - I think 15 or 20 peacekeepers were killed, and there was heavy loss of life among the civilian population, with hundreds killed - it was only after all that that President Medvedev decided to introduce a military contingent to save the lives of our peacekeepers and innocent civilians.
What is more, when our troops began moving in the direction of Tskhinvali, they came across a fortified area that had been secretly prepared by the Georgian military. In effect, tanks and heavy artillery had been dug into ground there, and they started shelling our soldiers as they moved.
All of it was done in violation of previous international agreements.
It is, of course, conceivable that our U.S. partners were unaware of all that, but it's very unlikely.
A totally neutral person, the former Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms. Zurabishvili, who is I think a French citizen and is now in Paris, has said publicly, and it was broadcast, that there was an enormous number of U.S. advisers and that of course they knew everything.
And if our supposition that there were U.S. citizens in the combat zone is confirmed - and I repeat, we need further information from our military - then these suspicions are quite justified.
Those who pursue such a policy toward Russia, what do they think? Will they like us only when we die?
Matthew Chance: Thank you.