Despite the existing problems in relations between Russia and the US, Moscow is always ready for dialogue, if Washington is ready to respond in kind, Putin said, speaking about relations with the US. "Dialogue is always good, it is always needed and, if the US side shows interest in this – and I have already spoken about this many times, we are ready for dialogue as far as our partners are prepared," he noted.
"We understand, we see what's happening in the US with its domestic politics. Even if the president wants to make some real steps, wants to talk about something, there is a host of restrictions connected to the activity of other state institutions, especially since he will now be looking at the demands of his reelection campaign, which he has already started," Putin added.
According to Putin, Russia is ready to talk with the US side about a range of issues, including the protection of strategic infrastructure from cyber intrusions. Commenting on the recent NYT piece alleging that the US has been waging a campaign of "digital incursions" against Russia's power grid, Putin said whether or not the story is true, Russia was taking action to defend itself.
On the flaring tensions in the Middle East, which escalated dramatically recently amid reported sabotage attacks against tankers and the deployment of a US carrier strike group in the region, Putin said any US actions against Iran would have 'catastrophic' consequences.
"The US is saying that they will not exclude the use of force. I would like to tell you that this would be a catastrophe for the region," Putin said. "It would lead to an upsurge of violence and, perhaps a subsequent increase in the number of refugees from the region."
Turning to Syria, where a shaky ceasefire guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey has generally held since 2018, and whether it was possible on reaching some sort of 'deal' with the US, Putin chose his words carefully.
"What do you mean by the word 'deal'? This [sounds like] some kind of commercial enterprise, shares in a company. We do not trade in allies, nor in our interests or our principles. But it is possible to negotiate with our partners on solving some pressing problems," Putin said.
According to Putin, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US and other countries must now work "in a consolidated manner" to resolve issues related to the political settlement in Syria.
On Ukraine, and the recent election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president of that country, Putin said it's time for the new leader to act on his election promises and bring the civil war in eastern Ukraine to an end.
"[Zelenskiy] is a talented person. I remember his performances in the KVN [comedy show] in Moscow in the 2000s. He is talented and funny, but what we are seeing [in Ukraine] now is not funny. This is not a comedy, this is a tragedy," Putin said. Commenting on Zelenskiy's statements that he would not negotiate with the 'separatists' in the Donbass, Putin noted that "in modern history, there are no cases of conflicts which are resolved without negotiations between the conflicting parties."
Finally, commenting on Russia's declining defence expenditures, Putin said it was interesting that Russia was the only major military power to reduce its arms spending. "Russia is only seventh in terms of spending in absolute terms - $48 billion, I think, in the dollar equivalent. And the most curious thing is that we are the only great military power that's reducing military spending," he said.
The five largest military spenders in 2018 were:— SIPRI (@SIPRIorg) 6 мая 2019 г.
3) Saudi Arabia🇸🇦
Together, they accounted for 60% of global military spending. New SIPRI military expenditure data available now: https://t.co/gY0BuUP01h#MILEX pic.twitter.com/6oL1p2JHMB
Answering a question about United Russia, the country's ruling party, which the asker called a "gang," Putin defended the party, and said sometimes it's necessary to carry out unpopular but necessary reforms.
"When people take responsibility for their actions, including for the implementation of decisions of which are not very popular, but very necessary for the country, it means that they are adults who have set a goal for themselves, for their life and political career, to strengthen the country and improve people's lives over the long run," Putin said.
By contrast, Putin noted, while he would not call the people who led the country in the 1990s a "gang," he could recall that "during this time, we faced the complete collapse of the social sphere, industry, the defence industry, the practical destruction of the armed forces, with the country brought to the state of civil war, to bloodshed in the Caucaus and put on the verge of losing its sovereignty and collapsing; this must be talked about in a frank way. Of course, not all the people who worked in government in the 90s are responsible for this, but surely, since it happened, that means there are those who are, and who must bear responsibility."
Regarding the cases of corruption by officials and civil servants which regularly make their way into the news cycle, Putin said that he felt personally responsible as head of state. "I feel responsible for this mess. If I didn't feel it, you wouldn't know anything about it, similarly to how things still happen in some countries. Each time an alternative arises – 'maybe we should cover this up, as there will be questions.' And my answer to this is always the same – no."
According to Putin, the "main question" with the issue of corruption is ensuring that punishment is inevitable. "If we are dealing with a crime, with corruption, with profit at the expense of citizens, then, first of all, we must always bring the case to its logical conclusion. Secondly, this must be done publically. And we will continue to do so."
Asked whether recent legislation aimed at defending the Russian segment of the internet would mean mass restrictions and limitations, Putin insisted that this was not the case.
"Listen, we are not talking about any restrictions on the internet at all. We've already talked about Huawei –with the US making a decision to limit its activities. Most internet servers are located abroad, and that means (and I hope of course that they do not do this because it will collapse their own system), but let's assume theoretically that these servers are shut down, or are somehow acted upon. Then we, in any event…must ensure the reliable functioning of the Russian segment of the internet This is what this law is aimed at. That's it," Putin said.
Economy and Sanctions
Thursday's question and answer session was heavily focused on the economy, touching on issues ranging from taxation and wages, to infrastructure, general living standards, national development priorities, trash reforms, and medicine.
Commenting on the sanctions against Russia which recently entered their fifth year, and what Russia might gain if it "made peace with everyone," Putin said that Russia "did not enter into a dispute with anyone, and had no desire to do so."
"According to expert data, as a result of all these restrictions starting sometime in 2014, Russia lost about $50 billion, while the European Union lost $240 billion and the US $17 billion (we have a small trade turnover with them), with Japan losing $27 billion," Putin said.
"As far as sanctions are concerned, this, in my opinion, is a big mistake by the US side. I hope they realize this one day and correct it," he added.
Putin also noted that if even if Russia "surrendered completely" and changed its policy at this stage, Western powers would not let up on their pressure, apart, perhaps, from a few "symbolic changes."