“There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
Charlie Rose: So you would like to join the United States in the fight against ISIS? That’s part of why you’re there. Others think that while that may be part of your goal, you’re trying to save the Assad administration because they’ve been losing ground and the war has not been going well for them. And you’re there to rescue them.
President Putin: Well, you’re right. We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.
Charlie Rose: As you know some of the coalition partners want to see President Assad go first before they will support.
President Putin: I’d like to recommend to them the following. They should send this message to the Syrian people. It’s only the Syrian people who are entitled to decide who should govern their country and how.
Charlie Rose: President Assad, you support him. Do you support what he is doing in Syria and what is happening to those Syrian people, those many millions of refugees and the hundreds of thousands of people that have been killed, many by his own force?
President Putin: Well, tell me, what do you think about those who support the opposition and mainly the terrorist organizations only in order to oust Assad without thinking about what will happen to the country after all the government institutions have been demolished? Today, you have repeatedly said that Assad is fighting against his own population. But look at those who are in control of 60 percent of the territory in Syria. It’s controlled by either ISIS or by others–
Charlie Rose: Al-Nusra?
President Putin: –such as al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations. They are recognized as terrorist organizations by the United States, by other states and by the United Nations.
Charlie Rose: Are you prepared to put Russian combat troops on the ground in Syria if it’s necessary to defeat ISIS?
President Putin: Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now. But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries.
Charlie Rose: I come back to the problem that many people look at. And they believe that Assad helps ISIS. That his reprehensible conduct against the Syrian people using barrel bombs and worse is a recruiting tool for ISIS and that if he was removed, transitioned, at some point, it would be better in the fight against ISIS, al-Nusra and others.
President Putin: Well, speaking in a professional language of intelligence services I can tell you that this kind of assessment is an “active measure” by enemies of Assad. It is anti-Syrian propaganda.
Charlie Rose: Much is being read into this including this, that this is a new effort for Russia to take a leadership role in the Middle East and that it represents a new strategy by you. Is it?
President Putin: Not really. No. More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and Ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory. So this is the most important thing which encourages us and pushes us to provide assistance to Assad. And, in general, we want the situation in the region to stabilize.
Charlie Rose: But your pride in Russia means that you would like to see Russia play a bigger role in the world and this is just one example.
President Putin: Well, it’s not the goal in itself. I’m proud of Russia, that’s true. And we have something to be proud of, but we do not have any obsession with being a superpower in the international arena.
Charlie Rose: But you are in part a major power because of the nuclear weapons you have. You are a force to be reckoned with.
President Putin: I hope so. I definitely hope so. Otherwise why do we have nuclear weapons at all?
Recent tension between the United States and Russia began after Ukraine’s president Yanukovych was overthrown and fled to Russia. Putin responded by annexing Crimea, leading the U.S. and Western allies to impose tough economic sanctions against Russia.
President Putin: Ukraine is a separate and major issue for us. It is our closest neighbor. We’ve always said that this is our sister country. It’s not only a Slavic people. We have common history, common culture, common religion, and many things in common. What I believe is absolutely unacceptable is the resolution of internal political issues in the former USSR Republics, through “color revolutions,” through coup d’états, through unconstitutional removal of power. That is totally unacceptable. Our partners in the United States have supported those who ousted Yanukovych.
Charlie Rose: You believe that the United States had something to do with the ousting of Yanukovych, and he had to flee to Russia.
President Putin: I know that for sure.
Charlie Rose: How do you know that for sure?
President Putin: I know those people who live in Ukraine. We have thousands of contacts with them. We know who and where, when, who exactly met with someone and worked with those who ousted Yanukovych, how they were supported, how much they were paid, how they were trained, where, in which countries, and who those instructors were. We know everything.
For the record, the U.S. government has denied any involvement in the removal of the Ukrainian leader.
Charlie Rose: You respect the sovereignty of Ukraine?
President Putin: Sure. But we want countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries and Ukraine in particular. Respect for sovereignty means to not allow unconstitutional action and coup d’états, the removal of legitimate power.
Charlie Rose: How will the renewal of legitimate power take place in your judgment? How will that come about? And what role will Russia play?
President Putin: Russia has not taken part and is not going to take part in any actions aimed at removing the legitimate government.
Charlie Rose: You have a military presence on the border of Ukraine. And some even argue that there have been Russian troops in Ukraine.
President Putin: Well, you do have a military presence in Europe?
Charlie Rose: Yes.
President Putin: American tactical nuclear weapons are in Europe. Let’s not forget that. What does this mean? Does it mean that you’ve occupied Germany or that you’ve transformed the occupation forces into NATO forces? And if we have our military forces on our territory, on the border with some state, you believe this is a crime?
Charlie Rose: You’re much talked about in America. There’s much conversation. More so than any–
President Putin: Maybe they have nothing else to do in America but to talk about me.
Charlie Rose: No, no, or maybe they’re curious people. Or maybe you’re an interesting character. Maybe that’s what it is. They know of a former KGB agent who came back and got into politics in St. Petersburg and became deputy mayor and then came to Moscow. And the interesting thing is they see these images of you bare-chested on a horse. And they say, “There is a man who carefully cultivates his image of strength.”
President Putin: You know, I’m convinced that a person in my position must provide a positive example to people. And those areas where he can do this, he must do this.
Charlie Rose: You enjoy the work, you enjoy representing Russia and you know– you’ve been an intelligence officer. Intelligence officers know how to read other people. That’s part of the job, yes? Yes?
President Putin: It used to be. Used to be. Now I have a different job and that’s been for quite a long time.
Charlie Rose: Somebody in Russia told me there is no such thing as a former KGB man. Once a KGB man, always a KGB man.