MOSCOW, April 17 (RIA Novosti), Yekaterina Shilyaeva – Russian President Vladimir Putin held a live question-and-answer session on Thursday, answering 81 questions from the public, including 35 about the crisis in Ukraine and Russia's reunification with Crimea.
The show lasted 3 hours 55 minutes.
Questions began pouring in days before the start of the "Direct Line With Vladimir Putin" show with some texted to a special phone number, others recorded by operators at specially-designated call centers and even more submitted to government websites.
The organizers of the 2014 event kept to another well-established tradition of linking up Putin with at least one foreign region. This year, it came from Berlin, where international experts of the Valdai Discussion Club have gathered.
Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who made international headlines with his surveillance revelations last year was subsequently granted temporary asylum in Russia, has also sent his video question to the president.
This year’s Q&A session came as Moscow is facing accusations of fomenting unrest in Ukraine after the breakaway republic of Crimea voted by a landslide to leave Ukraine for Russia. The referendum prompted other southeastern Russian-speaking regions to demand more rights from the coup-imposed nationalist regime in Kiev.
The first two hours of Putin’s question-and-answer session have been almost completely devoted to issues of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia’s worsening relations with the West.
Out of 81 questions answered by Putin, 35 were about the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-government forces launched a crackdown on pro-federalization activists in eastern regions of the country Tuesday.
Commenting on the unrest, the Russian president reminded that he still has the right to order the deployment of Russia’s military forces in Ukraine, but expressed hope that it would not be necessary.
“I remind you that the Russian Federation Council has given the president the right to use the armed forces in Ukraine. I hope that I won’t have to use this right and that we will be able to solve all the pressing problems in Ukraine today by political and diplomatic means,” Putin said.
Putin called on the Ukrainian military to pull back from civilians in southeastern Ukraine following reports that at least four protesters were killed and two others wounded in clashes with the military.
“We are hearing calls for people in the southeast [of Ukraine] to lay down their arms. I tell our partners: That’s correct, it’s a great call. But then let’s call the army off of the civilians. Have they gone nuts? Tanks, armored vehicles, and guns are being brought in: against whom are these cannons for? Are they kidding?” Putin said.
"Instead of understanding what is going wrong in the Ukrainian state and seeking the dialogue, they [Kiev's authorities] began to threaten even more, by moving tanks and aircrafts against civilians. This is an another very serious crime committed by current authorities in Kiev," he continued.
Putin called the statement by the West and Kiev that there were apparently Russian troops and instructors in eastern Ukraine “nonsense.”
“It’s all nonsense. There are no Russian units in eastern Ukraine, there are no Special Forces, there are no instructors. These are all local residents, and the best proof of this is that the people have literally removed their masks,” he said.
“We are all under the oppression of certain emotions, but if we love one another and respect each other, then we must find a way to understand each other. I think that within a family it’s easier to do than between governments, but even within government relations, I’m sure, that we’ll find mutual understanding with Ukraine and that we will never part,” Putin said.
Solving the crisis in Ukraine depends on guarantees given to the residents of the southeastern regions of the country and not the order of when presidential elections and a referendum are to be held, the Russian leader said.
“This is not a question of what should happen first, a referendum on decentralization and a referendum, and then elections, or elections and then a change in the government structure. The question is in the guarantees for the people. We need to motivate them so that a solution to the issue is found: Where’s the guarantee?” Putin went on.
“The issue is on providing legal rights and interests of the Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of southeastern Ukraine,” he said.
The president added that the new head of state cannot be elected in Ukraine, which still has its legitimate president, without amending the constitution first.
“If they want a legitimate election, they should amend the constitution,” Putin said.
“If the constitution is not changed, new election cannot be held as President Viktor Yanukovych still remains the legitimate president,” Putin said adding that under the constitution, Ukraine cannot elect the next president while the current one is alive.
Moscow has described the Ukrainian crisis as an illegitimate coup and a military seizure of power, insisting that Yanukovych remains the elected president chosen by the people of Ukraine to lead their country.
“As for Viktor Yanukovych, he has fulfilled his duties as he considered possible and needed. I talked to him, of course, many times, during the crisis and after he left to Russia, and we talked about the use of force … He had thoughts to use force many times but, he told me, that he did not lift a finger to sign an order allowing the use of force against his people," Putin continued.
Putin also stressed that Moscow would not recognize the result of the May 25 presidential election if attacks on candidates continued in the country. The statement followed a brutal beating in Kiev of Oleh Tsarev, a presidential candidate and an active pro-federalization supporter.
“How can election be legitimate if candidates from the east are always being beaten, poured with some kind of ink and are not allowed to meet with the voters,” Putin said.
He reiterated that Russia does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities, but continues to keep contacts.
He also said a compromise on the situation in Ukraine needs to be found within the country and not between third players such as the United States and Russia.
“Can a compromise be found on the Ukrainian issue between the US and Russia? A compromise shouldn’t be found between third players, but between different political forces within Ukraine itself. This is extremely important and a key issue,” Putin said.
Russia insists on a deep and transparent constitutional reform in Ukraine involving all political and regional forces, especially in light of the pro-federalization rallies which have intensified in the eastern regions.
The Russian president expressed hope that the multilateral talks on Ukraine in Geneva, bringing together top diplomats from Russia, US, EU and Ukraine, will contribute to a solution of the protracted crisis.
The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier said that de-escalation of tensions, disarmament of illegal armed groups and constitutional reforms in the crisis-torn country will all be discussed.
“I very much hope that the efforts used today by the diplomats in Geneva will give a result and give a consensus to our Ukrainian colleagues, to our Ukrainian friends throughout the territory of Ukraine wherever they live, that will serve the interests of all the citizens of Ukraine, including, of course, the Russian-speaking and Russian population in the country’s southeast,” Putin told journalists.
“I hope that it will be possible to understand how today’s [Ukrainian] powers are moving and dragging the country with them into such a hole and over such a cliff. That’s why the beginning of today’s talks is very important, because it’s very important today to think together about how to get out of the situation and offer people a real, non-ostentatious dialogue.
The Kiev leaders come today to the East and who are they meeting with? They’re meeting with their appointees,” Putin said.
Four questions were asked by residents of Sevastopol, which together with Crimea joined Russia last month after a referendum in which almost 97 percent of voters supported reunification with Russia.
Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region, which was undemocratically gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leaders 60 years ago, rejected the legitimacy of the new self-proclaimed Western-backed government, and moved to rejoin Russia last month after the government in Kiev introduced measures aimed against Russian-speakers in the country.
During a live Q&A session, Putin said that Russian military personnel was behind the backs of Crimea’s self-defense during the open referendum and acted correctly and professionally.
Putin also said Russia’s task was to create conditions for the free will of Crimean residents and measures needed to be taken to avoid the development of events similar to what is occurring in southeastern Ukraine.
“Therefore, our military personnel was behind the backs of Crimea’s self-defense. They acted very correctly, decisively, and professionally. There was no other way for the referendum to be held openly, fairly and earnestly, and it was necessary to help the people express their opinion,” the president said.
Russia has many times stressed that its troops in Crimea were pre-agreed contingent that protected facilities of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It said the strength of 25,000 troops was stipulated in a deal with Ukraine for the Black Sea Fleet deployment in Crimea and was not exceeded.
“Russia never planned any annexation or any military activities in Crimea, never. At the contrary, we wanted to build our relations with Ukraine regarding the current geopolitical reality. But we always thought and hoped that our people, Russians, and Russian speaking Ukrainians will live in comfortable for them conditions together,” Putin said.
Although widely denounced by the West, the referendum in Crimea was fully compliant with international law and must be recognized as legitimate, according to the Russian Government.
The Russian president called on the Ukrainian people to respect the Crimea’s choice.
“If we treat each other with respect, we will have to recognize each other's right of choice. People who live in Ukraine, have to respect the choice of those who live in Crimea,” Putin said during a live Q&A session.
Crimea, which refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new authorities in Kiev, signed a re-unification deal with Russia on March 18, two days after an independence referendum in the Black Sea republic.
Putin said he believes that there is no need to be “euphoric” after the reunification of Crimea, taking into the account that the Crimean residents are different from those living in southeastern Ukraine.
“We should not be euphoric, over what is occurring in Crimea, we must always be realistic,” Putin said.
The Russian leader jokingly commented on a suggestion of unifying Alaska with Russia the same way as with Crimea.
Alaska was part of Russia until 1867 and was sold to the United States for $7.2 million in gold.
“We are a northern country, 70% or our territory belongs in the Northern and Extreme Northern regions. Is Alaska really in the Southern Hemisphere? It’s cold there, too. Let’s not get hot-headed,” Putin said during a live Q&A session with the public on Thursday.
He said he knows of the popular Russian nickname of Alaska after the Crimean reunification, which sounds like “ice-cream” (Crimea in Russian is pronounced like Cream).
In response to the posed question, Putin said: “Who needs Alaska?”
Over 42,000 people have signed a petition calling for the secession of Alaska from the US and the state's reunification with Russia. The petition, available on the White House website, opened on March 21. "Alaska Back to Russia" partition encourages a vote on secession, citing historic travels of Russian explorers to Alaska, as far back as the crossing of native Siberians across the Bering land bridge over 10 thousand years ago.
Similar petitions have been submitted by other US states, including Texas, Georgia, Florida etc. Obama administration turned Texas petition down saying that while "no one disputes that our country faces big challenges," Americans needed to work together "to find the best way to move forward."
NATURAL GAS ISSUE
Gas deliveries to Europe, under threat because of the political and economic crisis in Ukraine, became another issue that came into spotlight during Thursday’s question-and-answer session.
“There is only one problem [in the gas transit to Europe] and it consists in the transit countries, and the most dangerous element is the transit through Ukraine, with whom it is very difficult for us to find an agreement on energy issues. I hope that we will bring it all to the necessary level, I mean current existing and signed contracts,” Putin said.
Russia has a long history of diplomatic wrangling over gas payments and price with Ukraine, the main transit nation of Europe-bound Russian gas. Such conflicts have led to interruption of deliveries on several occasions in the past.
Putin expressed hope that all the issues related to the transit of gas through Ukraine will be successfully resolved on the basis of current existing contracts.
Putin said Moscow is ready to withstand the situation on Ukraine’s payment for Russian gas for another month, but then will switch to upfront payments for gas, amid Ukraine’s inability to pay its debts.
“We are ready to tolerate a bit more, we’ll put up with it another month. If over the next month there are no payments, then we will transfer over to the so-called prepayment plan in accordance with the contract,” Putin said.
“This is a very difficult way to pay, it could bring to failures in the delivery of gas to our European consumers,” he said.
US and EU officials held high-level talks in Brussels on April 2 to discuss ways in which Washington can help Europe diversify its energy sources to reduce its dependence on Moscow amid the current political standoff between Moscow and Kiev. Russian energy giant Gazprom supplied about one-third of the natural gas consumed in Europe last year.
Putin said Europe cannot refuse the delivery of Russian gas without harming its own economic interests.
“European countries take around 34%-35% of their gas balances from Russia. Can they stop purchasing Russian gas? In my view, it’s impossible,” Putin said.
Putin gave an example of Russia’s “friendly neighbor” Finland, which buys 90 percent of its gas from Russia, and some eastern European countries buy between 60 and 70 percent of their gas from Russia.
“Can we stop deliveries? In my opinion, this is completely unrealistic. Only by harming yourself, through blood is this possible, but I can’t even imagine this,” he said.
FOREIGN POLICY & INTERNATOPNAL RELATIONS
The crisis in Ukraine triggered the biggest geopolitical showdown between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Several countries and Western-led organizations condemned Moscow’s alleged role in the Ukrainian unrest and announced an array of measures – from individual sanctions to cooperation freezes – to punish Russia for its policies over Ukraine.
On April 10 PACE excluded Russian from the Assembly’s managerial bodies following Crimea’s reunification with Russia and suspended its right to vote and to participate in the election observance missions through the end of the year. In protest, the Russian delegation left the PACE spring session, which ended last Friday.
Putin said Moscow would not insist on its presence in various international organizations, and will not perform any demarches.
“We won’t insist on our presence in some international structures, especially if they are incapable of showing their independence and forming their own point of view on key issues in international development. But we will not hold any demarches, we’ll be calm and work rhythmically,” Putin said.
He said the trust between Russia and the United States had been lost to a great degree, but it was not Moscow’s fault.
"I agree that the trust has been undermined, to a great degree, but why is this happening? We believe that in this situation we are not at fault," the President added.
Restoring the trust between Russia and US requires the elimination of all approaches based on double standards, the president said.
Putin said that Russia is not attempting to undermine the relations with its European partners and hopes that Europe is sharing this stance.
"We are not trying to undermine the relations between Russia and Europe, and I hope that this is not a part of our European partners' plans," he said.
In response to the Ukrainian crisis, NATO member states earlier released separate announcements saying they were suspending military cooperation with Russia.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pledged on Wednesday to step up patrols and boost its military presence along the alliance’s eastern border in Europe, citing Russia’s alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. “We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land," Rasmussen said in Brussels.
This move has come as another sign that the alliance was tightening its grip on Eastern Europe where it is already running air-policing and surveillance missions over Poland, Romania and the Baltic trio.
Commenting on the possibility of NATO eastward expansion, Putin answered: “We will choke them all. What are you afraid of?”
SNOWDEN & MASS SURVEILLANCE
Former US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden sent his video-recorded question to Russian President Vladimir Putin after he found out that Putin would hold a live Q&A session with the public. He asked his question in English and the moderator translated it into Russian for the president.
The fugitive leaker, wanted by US authorities, now resides in Russia where he was granted asylum last year following his disclosure of classified information that unveiled massive digital surveillance programs on US citizens. The whistleblower asked Putin if the Russian government also intercepts data on its own citizens.
Putin answered that Russia has no such programs, as the country can neither financially nor technically afford to conduct such large-scale surveillance. He added the country likewise does not monitor telephone calls on a mass scale, as does the United States.
The use of specialized equipment, including listening devices for conversations, is strictly regulated on the legal level and not used for mass or selective surveillance, Putin said.
“Dear Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, and I’ve had relations with spying, so you and I will speak in a professional language. First of all, we have a very strict legal regulation on using special equipment by special services, including the use of listening in on conversations and surveillance in the Internet. This regulation is tied to the fact that it is necessary to receive a court order on a concrete citizen; therefore, we don’t have mass or selective [surveillance practices], and according to law, we can’t have them,” Putin told Snowden.
The comments by the Russian president echoed those of European leaders, who have loudly protested the US surveillance efforts, known to involve leading companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple.
The Washington Post and Guardian papers were awarded Pulitzer prizes earlier this week for their groundbreaking work cooperating with Snowden to bring the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programs into the public light.
Questions about the Russian leader’s private life and plans for the future have also become a tradition of question-and-answer sessions.
This year, Putin was asked whether Russia will get a new first lady as the president announced his divorce with Lyudmila Putin last year. The president replied he would first need to marry off his ex-wife first.
“First, I need to marry off my former wife Lyudmila Alexandrovna, and then think about myself,” Putin said.
Putin became the world's most eligible bachelor last June, having divorced his wife Lyudmila after 30 years of marriage.
Both said the reason for their split was the president’s work, which consumes most of his time and requires a very public lifestyle.
The announcement put an end to years of speculation about the strength of the Putins’ marriage, fueled by the first lady’s increasingly rare appearances in public in recent years.
Last September, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov categorically denied online rumors that the Russian president remarried in a church ceremony at a secluded monastery in central Russia.
When asked about his future political career, Putin said on Thursday he had no plans of remaining president for life.