Pavel Zarubin: Mr President, tensions are escalating on the border between the EU and Belarus. The European Union has already deployed army troops. Moreover, they are building up the contingent. You spoke with Angela Merkel twice, and you also spoke with Alexander Lukashenko. Why they do not speak to each other directly is probably also a question I would like to ask you. In general, what do you think of the developments there?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: To begin with, why they do not speak with each other is not a question for me. We have nothing to do with that. But I inferred from my conversations with President Lukashenko and Chancellor Merkel that they are ready to speak with one another. I hope it will happen soon and some sort of direct contact will be established between the European Union, the EU leading nations, or at least between the Federal Republic of Germany and Belarus. This is crucial because the migrants’ goal is primarily to get into Germany.
In this connection, I would like to remind you what our Foreign Ministry has already stated. We should not forget the roots of these migration crises. Was it Belarus that unleashed these problems? No, the problems were caused by the West, by the European countries. These problems have political, military and economic dimensions. Military because everyone participated in the Iraq operations, and now there are many Kurds from Iraq [among the migrants]; they had also fought in Afghanistan for twenty years, thus there are more and more Afghans there. Belarus has nothing to do with that. The migrants were also moving via different routes. And it is not surprising that they are now going through Belarus because, as Mr Lukashenko told me, Belarus has visa-free arrangements with the countries of origin.
First come military and political causes, but there are also economic factors: there are very high social benefits for migrants in Europe, very high indeed. Say, given high unemployment, a good worker in the Middle East, including in oil producing countries, even if he is employed in the oil industry, earns a fraction of the social benefits that non-working migrants get, for example, in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is natural that people are heading there. Why should they work in turbulent conditions when basic safety rules are not observed when they can live idly with their families and get twice or three times as much? Because these benefits cover both adults and children, free education and, as a rule, free medical care. Let me reiterate, this is the policy of Europe’s leading nations.
On the other hand, however, we kept hearing that humanitarian issues must be given top priority. However, when Polish border guards and army troops on the Belarus-Poland border beat up potential migrants and fire combat weapons over their heads, blast sirens and spotlights onto their camps at night, where there are children and women in the final weeks of pregnancy, all that does not go well with the ideas of humanism which supposedly underlie all policies of our Western neighbours.
Nevertheless, I still proceed from the premise that a solution must be found to suit both Belarus and European countries, including Poland, the Federal Republic and other countries, because there is too much strain on their social systems. Conditions must be created for employing those people one way or another, and resolve problems between the parties since, as President Lukashenko told me, readmission problems have not been resolved, efforts were suspended on such issues as migrant accommodation, building camps for them, and so on.
I hope that direct contacts between the leaders of Belarus and the EU leading countries will help resolve these issues. This is number one.
Second. I would like to say the following. I want everyone to know this. We have absolutely nothing to do with any of this. They are trying to shift the responsibility to us at the slightest pretext or even without any pretext. Our airlines do not carry those people. Not a single one of our airlines is involved. By the way, President Lukashenko told me that Belavia Airlines does not carry migrants either. They take charter flights, and with a visa-free arrangement these people just buy their tickets and come over.
Indeed, there are certain groups that are shipping those people to the European countries, but those groups have been operating for a long time.
The key link is in the EU countries. Those who are located there organise all those chains. Let their law enforcement and security services deal with them if they are violating their laws. But I get the impression that it is rather hard to bring them to account there, because if we look at the national legislation of the European countries, they are not violating anything. Someone living in one country wants to move to another one due to their concerns – security concerns or even for economic reasons.
If a law is violated, then the law enforcement and security services of those countries must deal with those groups. And they should certainly collaborate with those countries that the migrants cross to get to Europe, including Belarus. Let me stress this again: Russia has absolutely nothing to do with that. We are not involved in any processes whatsoever.
Pavel Zarubin: An odd situation is emerging there now as they practically want to ban people from buying air tickets to fly out their countries. Why has the plight of those people been moved to the sidelines and nobody seems to care about them?
Vladimir Putin: That is exactly what I said. There are humanitarian issues, there are small children there. Honestly, when I watch that, I first of all feel empathy for the children. Look, the temperature drops below freezing at night while those people are sitting there without any resources, which are running out. When they arrive, they have some money with them, but money does not appear out of thin air, and they spend what they have there, on the border. Yes, the people arouse sympathy, of course. I am not talking about the causes or what is going on there. I certainly feel sorry for the people.
Pavel Zarubin: There is an issue that has to do with Russia. Recently President of Belarus Lukashenko threatened that he could cut off gas transit to Europe, and it is Russian gas. Moreover, Belarus addressed Russia with a request for the strategic aviation to patrol the skies over Belarus. What can you say about that?
Vladimir Putin: They did not exactly address us. The strategic aviation cannot do anything to resolve such crises. We have scheduled exercises with our Belarusian colleagues, as we do regularly. It is our Western partners who constantly hold regular and irregular drills of various kinds there.
We also do that, and our strategic aviation also regularly flies and marks the presence of our strategic aviation along its patrol routes.
Pavel Zarubin: What about Russian gas and its transit?
Vladimir Putin: To be honest, this is the first time I hear about it because I spoke with Mr Lukashenko twice recently and he never told me about that, not even a hint. But he can probably do that. Although there is nothing good about it and I will certainly talk to him about this issue, unless he just said it in the heat of the moment.
However, we already have experience with Ukraine doing similar things. In 2008, if my memory serves me right, there was a crisis when we were unable to agree on the basic contract parameters among incessant arguments over the price of gas and transit. It came to the point that Ukraine blocked our gas bound for European consumers. They simply, as specialists say, turned off the tap and closed off the transit of Russian gas to Europe. This did happen.
Of course, theoretically, Lukashenko, as president of a transit country, can issue an order to cut off our deliveries to Europe even though it will violate our transit contract. I hope it will not come to that. But on the other hand, sanctions are imposed on him and there is a threat of new sanctions. However, it would do more damage to Europe’s energy sector and would not contribute to the development of our relations with Belarus as a transit country.
Pavel Zarubin: You have already mentioned the US drills, and the atmosphere and the situation are generally very tense. In the past days and hours, we have seen multiple articles in the Western media claiming that Russia is plotting a military invasion in Ukraine, and supposedly the United Stated even warned their EU partners that Russia is preparing such an invasion. Notably, we can see concurrently that the United States and NATO are conducting an exercise right at our borders, in the Black Sea. How do you asses the entire situation?
Vladimir Putin: I have not seen such alarmist declarations, so far, at least. But I suppose it is as you say. Indeed, the United States and their NATO allies are presently conducting an unscheduled, and I want to stress that it is unscheduled, drill in the Black Sea. They deployed a powerful naval group and they are also using the air force in the drill, including strategic aviation.
Here is a part of the answer to your previous question about where and how our strategic missile carriers fly. They use the B 51, which are pretty old aircraft but it is not the carriers that matter. The point is that they have combat strategic weapons onboard, which is a grave challenge for us. I should say that our Defence Ministry also suggested holding an unscheduled drill in the area of the Black Sea but I do not think it is expedient and there is no need to aggravate the situation there even further. For that reason, the Russian Defence Ministry has limited its actions to escorting their aircraft and ships. This is number one.
Second, regarding Ukraine. We are being urged to implement the Minsk agreements and are often accused of not observing them. However, when we ask our partners, including in the Normandy format, exactly which part of the Minsk agreements Russia is not fulfilling and what, in their opinion, Russia is supposed to do under the Minsk agreements, we get no answer. This is exactly what they say: – We cannot put it into words. I am not kidding, this is the dialogue we are having. And what exactly have the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics failed to do regarding the Minsk agreements? There is no answer either; again they cannot put it into words. Meanwhile, they publicly demand that we implement them.
And now the second issue regarding who the party to the conflict is. The Minsk agreements do not state that Russia is a party to the conflict, we never agreed to this and never will; we are not a party to it.
Meanwhile, what are the Kiev authorities doing? Let me remind you of the most recent history. The acting president made a decision to engage armed forces to resolve the conflict in the southeast, in Donbass. It was the first attempt to resolve the issue by using military force. Then Mr Poroshenko, who by that time had become president, made the second attempt, despite efforts to convince him otherwise, of using the military to resolve the issue. We are well aware of how this attempt ended and what tragedies it brought. It was they who started it.
Now the current president merrily reports that they are using the Bayraktars, that is, unmanned combat aerial vehicles. This is aviation, even though it is unmanned it is still aviation, used in the conflict zone, which is strictly prohibited by the Minsk agreements and subsequent agreements. However, it elicits no response whatsoever. Europe said something inarticulate about it while the US in effect supported it. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials say outright: we used them and will continue to use them further.
Concurrently they arranged unscheduled drills in the Black Sea. There is an impression that they do not want to let us relax. Well, they should know that we do not relax anyway.
Pavel Zarubin: In this format, under such conditions, does it make any sense to have a Normandy format meeting which both the European partners and Ukraine insist on?
Vladimir Putin: I have not heard the latest insistent suggestions, although we are discussing it. I think we do not have any other mechanisms, and however hard the situation is today, however difficult solving this issue might be, these mechanisms should be used so as to at least approach the settlement of the problems we are talking about.