Russian President Vladimir Putin began his traditional live communication with the Russians on Thursday noon. According to official data, Russian citizens submitted over 2.5 million questions through the Internet and on the phone. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the main subjects of this year's call-in show would be about the Crimea and Ukraine. This televised communication with the nation is Putin's 12th.
A peculiar feature of this year's show is the expression of gratitude and support to the head of state, instead of questions. "I have not seen any sign of protest or dissent, - said Peskov. - People just say it: "Thank you for the Crimea!" Many also ask what they can do to help, some others express a wish to participate in fundraising for the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait. This enthusiasm is evident in the total volume of calls - this is a very positive factor," the official said.
As for the situation in Ukraine, Putin said that after the decision of President Viktor Yanukovych to postpone the signing of the agreement with the EU, an unconstitutional coup occurred. Putin considers it extremely important to start the dialogue between the current Ukrainian authorities and the regions of this country.
The President expressed a hope that Kiev "will be able to understand, which snake pit the current government is taking the country to." "Today's leaders in Kiev come to the east, but with whom do they meet there? They meet with their appointees. What's the point of going to Donetsk then, if it is enough to ask them to come to Kiev and hold a meeting there? One should talk to people's representatives, to those, whom people trust," said Putin.
As for today's four-party talks in Geneva, Putin said that he considers the start of such negotiations a very important event. "It's important to think together about how to resolve the situation," he added, noting that Russia believes that this dialogue should be conducted primarily with the people of Ukraine. Putin reminded that Russia had proposed to invite representatives of eastern regions of Ukraine, who advocate federalism, to the meeting in Geneva.
There are no Russian military units in eastern Ukraine, Putin said. "All this is nonsense," he said.
According to Putin, there are neither "special services, nor instructors there." "All of them are local citizens. And the best proof of this is the fact that the people literally took off their masks." Putin said that he told that to Western partners. "They (the people of eastern Ukraine) have nowhere to go, they are not going anywhere. This land belongs to them, they are the masters of this land, and one needs to talk to them."
The order from the current leaders of Ukraine to use tanks and aircraft in the east was a crime, Putin said. "Instead of realizing that there is something wrong happening in the Ukrainian state, instead of making attempts to conduct a dialogue, they began to threaten people with military force and reached the point, when they sent tanks and aircraft against civilians. This is another very serious crime of today's Kiev rulers," Putin said.
About reunification with the Crimea
Russia has never planned a military action in the Crimea. The country was ready to build a relationship in current geopolitical realities. Yet, Russia had to take action against the background of real threats to the Russian-speaking population, Putin said.
The President said that all members of the Security Council of the Russian Federation supported his position on the inclusion of the Crimea to Russia. "Everyone in the Security Council, with whom I discussed this problem, supported my position. No one objected," said Putin. "All that was described as a plan of action was strictly executed, very professionally, quickly and decisively."
"Russia was not planning annexations or military actions in the Crimea. Russia was ready to build relations based on geo-political realities. The threats against the Russian-speaking population were concrete and tangible. This prompted the people of the Crimea to think about the future of the Crimea and turn to Russia for help and that is what we were guided with," said the head of state.
"When the situation of threats and harassment appeared, when the people of the Crimea started saying that they were seeking self-determination, then we started thinking what we should do. And it was then, not 5, 10 or 20 years ago, when the decision was taken to support the Crimeans," concluded the president.
Putin admitted that he was expecting the results of the referendum to be announced. When he learned about the wish of the overwhelming majority of the population of the peninsula to join Russia, the President made the decision.
"Nothing had been prepared. Everything was done in a rush, as they say, on the basis of the current situation and actual requirements of the moment, but it was all executed highly professionally," Putin said. "Our task was not to use armed forces there. Our task was to ensure the safety of citizens and favorable conditions for expression of their will," said the president.
He is convinced that without the position of the Crimean residents, the reunification with the peninsula would have been impossible.
Responding to a question about young people with soldierly smartness in the Crimea, where they were politely referred to as "green men," the Russian president admitted that they were Russian military men.
He praised the professionalism of the Russian military men, who ensured security during the referendum in the Crimea.
"In conversations with my foreign counterparts, I was not trying to hide the fact that our task was to ensure conditions for free expression of will of local residents, so we had to take necessary measures not to let events develop the way they are developing now in the south-eastern part of Ukraine. There were measures taken to exclude the presence of combat nationalist units, individuals with extreme views and heavily armed with automatic weapons," Putin said.
"Behind the back of self-defense forces of the Crimea, there were our military men, and they were acting correctly, firmly and professionally," Putin said.
About Black Sea Navy
The president said that a significant part of the Black Sea Fleet would be redeployed from Novorossiysk to the city of Sevastopol. "We had certain agreements with Ukraine about the upgrade of the fleet, but, unfortunately, these arrangements were executed either very poorly or not executed at all, and we had big problems with the upgrade, - he said. - Today, there will be no such problems. And a significant part of modern ships and supply vessels will be redeployed from Novorossiysk to Sevastopol."
About Russians and Ukrainians
The Russian president is confident that it will be possible to find common grounds with Ukraine within the framework of interstate relations. "Even within the framework of international relations, I am sure we will find mutual understanding with Ukraine. And we're not going anywhere without each other," he said.
Putin said that if Russians and Ukrainians love and respect each other, they "must find a way to understand each other." "As part of one family, it is maybe even easier to do that than in the framework of the state," he added.
The President also expressed his hope that Ukraine would realize that "Russia could not do otherwise in the Crimea." "If we treat each other with respect, we have to recognize each other's right to choose. The people, who live in Ukraine, have to respect the choice of those, who live in the Crimea," said the head of state.
Putin said that Russia had always been near Ukraine and will always remain near.
The President reminded of the assistance that Russia was providing to Ukraine for many years. "This assistance is expressed, if you convert it into money, in hundreds of billions of dollars," said Putin.
He added that the two countries have a lot of common interests. "If we want to be successful, we certainly need to cooperate and be together. This understanding will necessarily come to us, despite all emotional difficulties of today," said the president.
Russia will be rapidly introducing the ruble in the Crimea, to open ruble accounts and create a network of Russian banks. This will take a month, the president of the Russian Federation said.
"We will try to negotiate with the Ukrainian partners, but for the time being it's not working well," Putin said.
This situation, according to the head of state, "leaves no other choice but to move more rapidly to turn to the ruble."
The Russian President assured that the Crimea and Sevastopol have a good potential for the development of not only tourism, but also industry, but this requires investment.
"The Crimea is tourism and recreation, but not only that. There is a good industrial and agricultural potential there, and we will be developing it," said the head of state.
He acknowledged that in comparison with 1990, agricultural production in the region fell by 60 percent. "Agriculture also needs more investment," concluded Putin.
In Kiev, an anti-state coup was committed, in a classical sense of the word, Putin said, answering the question, of how President Viktor Yanukovych could flee the country.
"I do not agree with those who say that he fled," said Putin. According to him, Yanukovych was forced to leave Kiev. "He did not just escape from Kiev - he went to regions, and as soon as he moved from Kiev to the region and took Interior Ministry troops out from the capital, they took the building of the presidential administration and the government and committed the coup in the classical sense of the word," the president said.
Yanukovych, Putin said, proceeded from the fact that the agreement with the opposition had been reached, when he signed the agreement of February 21, in which Foreign Ministers of Poland, France and Germany acted as guarantors.
"The agreement said that he was not going to use the army and military force. He was supposed to withdraw the troops of the Internal Affairs Ministry, including Berkut special unit, from the capital, and the opposition was supposed to free the seized government buildings, dismantle barricades and disarm its people," said Putin.
Yanukovych agreed to early parliamentary elections, he agreed to return to the constitution from 2004 and hold presidential elections in December of this year.
"If they had asked him, he, I think, would have agreed to hold the presidential vote in a month or so. But no - as soon as he withdraw the Internal Affairs troops from the capital, the coup took place."
"Why was this done, why was it necessary to act so unprofessionally, so stupid, to throw the country into a state in which it is today - I do not understand, and no one has the answer to that," said Putin.
According to him, Berkut fighters carried out their duty honestly and professionally. "They deserve unconditional respect. But ultimately, what happened to you, and what they do now to your colleagues in Kiev - all this will backfire for the Ukrainian state. One should never humiliate the fighters, who defend the interests of the state. One should never defame them, make them kneel, or deprive them of medical care when they are in hospital," said Putin.
The President noted that he was aware of the fact that the hospitalized Berkut employees were no longer provided with food. "We have appealed to the Kiev authorities several times saying that we are willing to accommodate all those fighters in Russian hospitals, but we do not get any response," said Putin.
About Russia and China
Answering the question of whether Russia was going to enter into any alliance with China, the Russian president said that the relationship of trust and cooperation between the two countries, including approaches to international issues, have been at an unprecedented level lately.
"As for our relations with the People's Republic of China, they are developing very successfully and remain on an unprecedentedly high level, in terms of both the level of trust and the level of cooperation. This touches upon the political sphere, our common approach to the assessment of the international situation and security in the world," the Russian leader said.
According to him, Russia and China will continue to show significant influence on the entire system of international relations. However, despite the unprecedented level of trust and cooperation, Russia has not raised the question of the establishment of a military-political alliance with PCR, because the bloc system has become obsolete, Putin said.
"The Russian-Chinese relations will remain a significant factor in world politics, and they will significantly influence the modern architecture of international relations. The two countries have never had such a trusting relationship in the military sphere," he said.
"We are natural neighbors, and in this sense and to a certain extent, we are natural allies. We did not raise the question of the formation of some kind of a military-political union," Putin said, answering the question about the possibility of creating such an alliance with China.
"Actually, I think that the bloc system of the world has long outlived itself," said the president of the Russian Federation.
"NATO was once created in opposition to the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led policy in Eastern Europe. In response, the Warsaw Pact was drawn up. Then the Soviet Union ceased to exist, but NATO remained. They keep telling us that NATO changes and becomes a more political organization. However, no one cancels Article 5 of the Washington treaty on NATO collective defense. This article is just about mutual military support."
About the possibility to deploy Russian troops in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin believes that one must proceed from the fact that the ethnic composition of the Crimea differs from the south-east of Ukraine. He expressed a hope that he would not have to use the right to use Russian armed forces in Ukraine.
"After all, let's face it, the national and ethnic composition of the Crimea differs from that in the south-east of Ukraine, and those territories were transferred to Ukraine in the mid 1920s , and then up to 1954, when, for some reason, the Crimea was given to Ukraine. The ethnic composition is approximately 50x50. And I have already said that the final decision on the return of the Crimea to the Russian Federation was adopted only on the results of the referendum," explained the president.
"I remind you that the Federation Council of Russia granted the president the right to use armed forces in Ukraine. I very much hope that I do not have to exercise this right, that political and diplomatic means will be able to solve all these problems of today's Ukraine," said Putin.
About Moldova and Transnistria
According to Putin, Moldova and Ukraine should immediately lift the blockade of Transnistria. Nationalist militias have already approached the territory of the region, he said.
"This is one of the most difficult problems we inherited after the collapse of the USSR. The population there counts over half a million people, and the people share pro-Russian views. The number of Russian citizens is large. People have their own idea of how they can build their future, their own destiny. And this is nothing but a manifestation of democracy, if we let them do what they want," said the Russian leader.
Revisiting the question of the Crimea, Putin stressed out that Russia did not take the territory by force.
"Russia did not annex the Crimea by force. Russia created conditions - with the use of, of course, special groups and armed forces - but we only created conditions for the people living in the Crimea and Sevastopol to express their will freely," he said.
Pensioner Faina Ivanovna asked the president whether Russia was going to return Alaska, which was sold to the United States.
"Faina Ivanovna, my dear, why do you need Alaska? - Putin said in response. - We are a northern country. Seventy percent of our territory refers to areas of the North and Far North. Alaska - it's not in the southern hemisphere, is it? It's cold there too, let's not overreact."
"By the way, Alaska was sold, in, I think, the 19th century. The French sold Louisiana to the United States around the same time. Thousands of square kilometers were sold for $7.2 million, although in gold. Now we can calculate the equivalent, of course, but it's inexpensive," Putin said.
Putin said he knows the Russian joke when Alaska is referred to as "Ice-Crimea."
About Ukraine's gas debt
Putin gave Ukraine a month to pay for gas, or else the Ukrainians will have to pay in advance.
"If over the next month no payment will come, in accordance with the contract, we will switch to prepayment," said Putin. "This means that Ukraine will have to pay us the money for one month ahead, and we will deliver them just as much as they pay us for," said the president.
"This is a very difficult method of settlement, and it can lead to disruptions in the transit of our gas to European consumers," said Putin. "That's why we display such negotiability and patience," he added. "We can do it today, but I said, we'll wait."
"We will wait for another month," the president repeated." We do not insist on immediate payment, we understand the difficulties of Ukraine, but we ask you to join us in this work, to participate in the rescue of the Ukrainian economy," he said.
Russia's decision to reunite with the Crimea is partly due to the threat of Ukraine's entry to NATO, the Russian president acknowledged.
"When military infrastructure is getting closer to our borders, we have to take retaliatory steps," he said. "The decision of the Crimea was partly connected with it," Putin said.
"If NATO troops entered the Crimea, they would put up attack systems there, and then Russia would be squeezed out of the Black Sea region," he explained. "This is really squeezing Russia out of this very important region of the world, for which so many Russian people have died over many centuries," the president added.
When Russian journalist Dmitry Kiselyov asked Putin about NATO's aggressive policy, which, as he said, gives him the feeling of being strangled, (the journalist demonstrated it by putting his hands to his throat), Putin called on the journalist to have a realistic view of things.
"You described the realities very vividly, gave us shudders. "We will strangle all ourselves, what are you so afraid of? We have no fear, I do not have any, and no one should have fear. But we must proceed from reality," Putin said.
The president said that NATO countries have repeatedly stated that they would not expand the bloc, but subsequently failed to keep promises.
"I used to ask them: "Why are you doing this? What's the point? To ensure the security of these countries? Do you think someone will attack these countries? Okay, but it would be enough to conclude a bilateral treaty of friendship and mutual assistance, including military assistance, and the security of these countries would be ensured," said the president of the Russian Federation.
In response, he said, he heard: "It doesn't concern you. Peoples and countries have the right to choose a way to ensure their safety. This is true. But it is also true that when infrastructure of a military bloc moves towards our borders, it raises concerns and questions with us. We must take some steps in response. It's also true, and no one can refuse us in this," Putin said.
There will be no "Iron Curtain" with the West, said Putin. "The Iron Curtain is a Soviet invention. This is an internal event. We are not going to close our country, people and society from anyone," said Putin.
He also answered "no" to the question whether he agreed to remain president for life.
During the conference, he personally handpicked a few questions that people had sent in advance. One of them said: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, do you agree to be president for life?" "No," Putin said laconically.
When asked about the possibility of the visit to the United States, Putin said: "Our American colleagues have decided to suspend these contacts, but I hope that in due time all will fall into place."
Putin pointed out that the United States is, of course, one of the world leaders, but at some point it seemed to Americans that they are the only leaders. "Today, it appears that they are not. Everything in the world is interdependent. And if one tries to punish someone, like mischievous kids, cutting them off at the knees, hurting them, then in the end they will shoot themselves in the foot. Someday, the understanding of this will come, of course," the Russian president said, commenting on the Western sanctions.
"We are partners with the United States. And I hope that we have good future for the development of relations," Putin said.
Putin also said that Russia does not intend to engage in self-imposed isolation, nor does it insist on the membership in international organizations. "We often face a lack of understanding of our position, and sometimes even reluctance to understand it. We will not insist on staying in some international organizations, especially if they are not able to show independence and formulate their own views on the key issues of international development," Putin said.
"We will not stage walkouts either. We will work quietly," he said answering a question from one of the guests in the room, who wondered whether it was time for Russia to pull out from several international organizations, in particular, from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, against the background of threats of exclusion and deprivation of the right to vote in connection with the events in Ukraine.
"With regard to PACE, we pay fees there, quite large fees. If they do not want to see us there, well, we do not lose anything from that. But, in general, we are not going to engage in self-isolation," said the head of state.
The import of liquefied natural gas from the United States will not grow, even if Germany exits the Nord Stream-2 project, German Minister of Economy and Energy Peter Altmeier said