The Prime Minister spoke with Global Conversation presenter Isabelle Kumar on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, thank you for joining the Global Conversation. The Syrian issue is a priority; it dominates the international agenda. It is now believed that we are approaching a turning point, although it remains to be seen whether we will be able to actually get there. What is your take on this situation?
Dmitry Medvedev: It is true that Syria dominates the conference’s agenda. This is due to obvious reasons, since the country is engulfed in a civil war. You know, as I was heading to this conference, I had a feeling that the situation in this area is very complex and challenging because we have yet to come to an agreement with our colleagues and partners on key issues, including the creation of a possible coalition and military cooperation. All interactions in this respect have been episodic so far. That said, I note that here, in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Secretary of State John Kerry, and other colleagues acting in various capacities later joined them. They agreed on what should be done in the short run. For this reason, I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospects for cooperation on this issue. Let me emphasise that this cooperation is critical, because unless we come together on this issue, there will be no end to the war in Syria, people will keep dying, the massive influx of refugees to Europe will continue, and Europe will have to deal with major challenges. Most importantly, we will be unable to overcome terrorism, which is a threat to the entire modern civilisation.
Question: Mr Prime Minister, what could be the concrete military operations that Russia could be ready to undertake to keep the Syrian conflict from escalating?
Dmitry Medvedev: Let me remind you the reasons behind Russia’s involvement in Syria. The first reason that compelled Russia to take part in this campaign is the protection of national interests. There are many fighters in Syria who can go to Russia at any time and commit terrorist attacks there. There are thousands of them in Syria.
Second, there is a legal foundation in the form of the request by President al-Assad. We will therefore take these two factors into account in our military decisions, and, obviously, the developments in the situation. What matters most at this point is to agree on launching the talks between all the parties to the Syrian conflict. Another important thing is to coordinate a list of terrorist groups, since this issue has been a matter of endless debates on who’s good and who’s bad. I believe that everything is quite clear in this respect, and everything else is just a spanner in the works. This is the first point I wanted to make.
My second point is the following. Today, I learned that Secretary of State John Kerry said that if Russia and Iran do not help, the US will be ready to join other countries in carrying out a ground operation. These are futile words, he should not have said that for a simple reason: if all he wants is a protracted war, he can carry out ground operations and anything else. But don’t try to frighten anyone. Agreements should be reached along the same lines as Mr Kerry’s conversations with Mr Lavrov, instead of saying that if something goes wrong, other Arab countries and the US will carry out a ground operation.
I’ve answered this question only recently. But let me reiterate that no one is interested in a new war, and a ground operation is a full-fledged, long war. We must bear this in mind.
Question: The future of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is clearly a key issue here. Will Russia continue to support him at this crucial moment?
Dmitry Medvedev: Russia does not support President al-Assad personally, but maintains friendly relations with Syria as a country. These ties were built not under Bashar al-Assad, but back when his father, Hafez al-Assad, was president. This is my first point in this respect.
Second, we have never said that this is the main issue for us in this process. We simply believe that there is currently no other legitimate authority in Syria apart from Bashar al-Assad. He is the incumbent president, whether anyone likes it or not. Taking him out of this equation would lead to chaos. We have seen that on numerous occasions in the Middle East, when countries simply fell apart, as it happened with Libya, for example.
It is for that reason that he should take part in all the procedures and processes, and it should be up to the Syrian people to decide his destiny. He fully understands that. During his visit to Moscow, he said that if the people do not support him, he will naturally step down. However, he should remain in office until the future political order is agreed upon, as well as how the country is to be governed. This is Russia’s take on this issue.
Question: Taking into account what you have just said, does this mean that you are already working on a transition in Syria?
Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t think that we should go into too much detail on these issues. I’m talking about Russia, the European Union and the United States. We should focus on facilitating the launch of this process. We must make sure that everyone sits down at the negotiating table, in fact, make them talk to each other, so that maybe they close their eyes to the mutual grievances they might have and the outstanding issues. This is the way to national conciliation. Given that Syria is a multi-religious country, the need for everyone to hear the other parties is extremely important.
We all understand what this dialogue will look like. Let’s be honest and recognise that it will be anything but simple given the parties involved. On one side, you have President al-Assad, supported by a part of society and the military, and, on the other side, the other part of society, often representing different confessions, people who don’t like al-Assad but have to sit with him at the same negotiating table. Nevertheless, they need to come to an agreement for the sake of keeping Syria united. I see our mission as countries seeking to facilitate this process in making sure that these talks get underway, and helping the parties deal with sensitive issues.
Question: At the same time, we know about the ongoing offensive against Aleppo and all the suffering it is causing. Is Russia ready to stop the offensive so that a humanitarian corridor can be created and people can go back home?
Dmitry Medvedev: Russia will be guided in its actions by the existing agreements with President al-Assad, on the one hand, and the agreements that we are currently trying to reach with other countries, on the other hand, including with our negotiating partners, that is the United States and other countries. However, decisions on ending combat operations depend on whether the parties involved are willing to lay down arms and how fast. In fact, when one group stops fighting, while the other begins to build on its military success, this is the most dangerous situation. All it does is escalate the conflict. It is for that reason that there should be a common decision on when to stop military action. This should be our objective. Russia came forward with this initiative on 4 February. There was some hesitation among our US colleagues. They discussed this issue in many ways, they had to overcome the persistent disagreements between the Department of State and the Department of Defence, appealed to Barack Obama, and seem to have come to an agreement in the end. Let’s hope that there will be no delays from now on. This will be the starting point for Russia. That said, the final decision rests with the President of Russia, who is the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces.
Question: Let’s move on to another issue and look and the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. We have already mentioned the frozen conflict there. Military action has resumed in the east of the country. What can Russia do to end this conflict?
Dmitry Medvedev: Well, understandably, the answer here is somewhat easier than in Syria’s case. It is not just because this conflict is not as brutal, but because there is a clear understanding of how to move forward – by implementing the Minsk Agreements. They should be implemented fully and in their entirety by all the parties. In fact, Russia calls on all the parties to do so, both those in power in the southeast, and the Kiev authorities. It is not a matter of Russia having some disagreements with Kiev or mutual dislike. It would be fair to say that most of the provisions that were the responsibility of southeast Ukraine have been fulfilled. Most importantly, hostilities have ceased almost completely. Unfortunately, some action takes place from time to time, but not often. Finding political and legal solutions in keeping with the Minsk Agreements has now become vital. Whose responsibility is it? Of course, it is Ukraine’s responsibility. If Ukraine regards the southeast as part of its territory, it is within the jurisdiction, competence and authority of the President, Parliament and Government of Ukraine. As I’ve just said at the panel discussion, unfortunately, they seem to be in no hurry. They are talking about challenges, about failing to come to an agreement, that it would threaten the whole political framework. That may be so. It could be that it’s not easy for them. It is clear that they are going through a difficult period. However, this is what they should do for the sake of Ukraine’s future. This is the primary responsibility of the country’s leaders, i.e. President Poroshenko, the Ukrainian Government and the Parliament. They should find a compromise, obtain a constitutional majority, amend the constitution and start implementing legislation already in place – they have the authority to do it. Some laws have been adopted but have yet to be implemented. Some laws have not been passed yet. There are laws that have been adopted, but not signed. They need to address all those issues. As soon as all this is done, they can hold local elections. The elections should be held under the formula proposed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier: the self- government law is first applied on a provisional basis during the elections, and once their results are certified under OSCE procedures the law becomes permanent. We have been saying this for a long time. The Russian President has raised this issue with Angela Merkel only recently. Yesterday I talked to Mr Steinmeier. Of course, our colleagues are talking to each other as well. But we have to do something. That’s what we keep telling our Ukrainian colleagues. This is the path they should take.
Question: Crimea is of course one of the most complex issues for Ukraine and the international community. Are there any discussions on the future of Crimea?
Dmitry Medvedev: No, there is no such issue for Russia. This issue was settled once and for all. Crimea is part of Russia. A referendum was held there, we amended the Constitution. The Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol are part of the Russian Federation.
Question: If you meet President Poroshenko here, at the Munich conference, what will you tell him?
Dmitry Medvedev: I haven’t seen him and, to be honest, I haven’t missed him. President Poroshenko is in contact with President Putin. So far I haven’t seen him here. I have been told that he is here, that he came accompanied by the prime minister, but so far I haven’t seen either of them. But there is no doubt that the main thing my colleagues should undertake is to do everything it takes to implement the Minsk Agreements. It would benefit them, as well as the Ukrainian state, which, no matter what anyone says, is a close, neighbouring country for Russia.
Question: So the conflict in Syria, the situation in Ukraine has contributed to a real degradation of relations with Russia, with the EU and the US. Do you think a reset is possible?
Dmitry Medvedev: The question is how and for whose sake.
We have reset our relationship with the Americans once. I was personally involved in this; Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pressed a ‘button’ that said ‘Reset’ or something like that. And what do we have? Unfortunately, our relations have deteriorated again, they have been damaged, and they are worse than they had been before.
Therefore, if something is to be reset, it should be done on a fundamentally different basis. What kind of basis? Equitable, fair, solid basis for relations, considering that Russia is not the only nation that needs this – the European Union and the United States need it as well.
You know, certain moves on the part of the North Atlantic Alliance keep coming to mind. As soon as something happens in the global agenda with Russia’s participation, NATO immediately starts blowing smoke, pouting, and says, that’s it, we’re done, we’re not talking with you anymore, we’re suspending our relations. This happened after the events in Georgia, then after the events in Ukraine. We say, all right, that’s your business, if you prefer to have them suspended. Then after some time, someone whispers in our ear that they actually want to revive relations, so could we start cooperating on one issue or another?
What does this mean? First, that the initial decision to cease cooperation in a most difficult international situation, where we all need each other, was meaningless to begin with. Second, it becomes necessary to backtrack after some time.
The same applies to relations with the United States and the European Union. We are ready for this, we want sound, advanced relations with both of them. Europe is our most important trade partner, a group of countries located on the same continent as us, so we are bound by our shared European identity, history and values. These continuing tensions aren’t doing us any good. But if we are told that they no longer want us around, of course, the first steps towards reconciliation should be taken by those who initiated the alienation. As for us, we are ready to discuss any issues.
Question: Well, one of the repercussions of the souring of relations has been the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, which are hitting hard. How much of a priority is it for your Government to get those sanctions lifted?
Dmitry Medvedev: We usually say in such cases that we are not the ones who came up with these sanctions, so it is not our business to lift them. I have already answered this question in part when I was answering the previous one. They told us we were the bad guys and had to be punished. And then they made some calculations and began to weep: it turns out that for some reason it was hitting their own business.
We had a trade turnover with the European Union at 450 billion euros. It was 450 billion! Now it is down to 217. Why don’t they ask the people in the EU who are employed by the various companies that used to make products for Russia – how do they like all of this?
Again, we are not the ones who started this, so it is not up to us to undo it. They have always been trying to intimidate us with some sanctions, which were introduced even in the Soviet period, many times. It never brought them anything but lost profits. What is happening now is no different. They will have to have the courage to say, guys, we’ll just scrap all this from day X, and could you please reciprocate by lifting your response measures as well. That would be the right approach.
Question: So how are ordinary Russians feeling this economic crisis? Because the sanctions are contributing towards this, the falling oil prices are also contributing to this. What’s it like for ordinary Russians?
Dmitry Medvedev: Indeed, we aren’t in the best economic situation right now, with the dramatic fall in oil prices probably contributing the most to the overall state of the economy, to the decline in revenues. This is something we haven’t seen for 17 years. The current prices are comparable to those in 1998.
Unfortunately, our budget remains very dependent on oil prices. Although the structure of revenues has been improving, the share of oil and other sources, but yes, it remains commodity-dependent to a great extent. This could not but affect the incomes and the general standing of our people with their jobs and their real incomes.
The sanctions have had some effect as well. This is obvious, since some of our companies, for example, lost the financing they used to have from European banks, which means they cannot grow, some of them anyway. Therefore, in this sense, the economic situation is not the easiest. In the past year we had a fairly significant drop in gross domestic product, by more than 3.5 percent. Although to put it in perspective, the decline is still no more than half of what it was during the crisis of 2008, 2009 and 2010, despite the sanctions and despite the fact that oil prices were much higher then.
What I am saying is that, of course, this affects how people feel. But there is also a positive effect. The economy is healing, it is becoming less dependent on oil, and we have an opportunity to develop our own industry and agriculture.
Perhaps one of the advantages of these sanctions and our response measures is that we started concentrating harder on domestic agriculture, so, to a large extent, we are now satisfying our demand for food, while wheat, for example, is now exported in large quantities. In this sense, the sanctions have helped. But they probably didn’t help farmers in the European Union.
Question: I was asking about the ordinary Russians and how this was affecting them. And we hear of possible social unrest as their lives become more and more difficult in Russia. Is that something you are concerned about?
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course, the Government must first of all think about the social impact of economic changes and the economic situation. Frankly, we have been compelled to cut budget spending in many areas, but we never touched social spending, or the public sector wages and benefits. Moreover, we even indexed pensions last year, and this year, too, maybe not completely, but we did. We will try to continue doing this in the future. That is, the Government’s social spending is large, but it is inviolable. In this sense, we will try to do everything towards Russian citizens’ social wellbeing, to keep them as comfortable as possible under these conditions. It is truly a priority for the Government.
Question: If we take an international perspective once again, a black mark on Russia’s reputation is the issue of human rights and freedom of speech, which Russia seems to continually backslide on. Why is that?
Dmitry Medvedev: To be frank, we’ve always differed in our views on the situation with the freedom of expression and the media in Russia. We’ve often been criticised and we are still coming under criticism. We have our own position on the issue. Perhaps in Russia, the media are somewhat different, for example, from the European media. There are historical differences and there are growth issues. However, to get to the point, we have a lot of various media outlets that still provide a diverse picture, including online media. When I’m asked about this I always respond based on to the way I perceive the situation. I can tell you that I rarely watch TV or read newspapers in print and I receive virtually all of my information from the Internet. And over half of Russia’s population does the same. As you know, on the Internet, there is no regulation in this sense. All points of view are represented there, including, to put it bluntly, even extremist ones. So I believe it’s not serious to think that some people have no access to different kinds of information in today’s global world.
Regarding individual opposition figures… You see, I recall the Soviet days, when I was still at university. I can hardly imagine a situation where British Communist Party General Secretary Gordon McLennan or US Communist Party leader Gus Hall would be given an opportunity to state their position in some respectable magazine or newspaper or on television in the UK or the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Why? Not because they were banned there, but because they were not interesting to anybody. They were the political fringe, and part of our opposition, unfortunately, is also just that. When they say, “We are not allowed anywhere…” Just show that you’re interesting at least to somebody.
Question: Yes, but also it seems that dissidents are silenced. We are coming up to the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. Also in Britain, as you know, there has been – the results of the inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, which the inquiry said – it pointed the finger at President Vladimir Putin, saying that it was likely that he ordered that murder. As uncomfortable as it is for you to answer this question, will you be pursuing the British Government on this? There was talk of you suing the British Government over this inquiry.
Dmitry Medvedev: You see, generally, we’ve had an unusual kind of relationship with Britain for centuries. It is difficult for various reasons. Due to time constraints, I will not analyse all of them although you can read about it in history books. Unfortunately, this is still the case today. You’ve mentioned some report by some retired judge, in which (I just took a look out of interest) practically every paragraph and each section opens with the word “probably”. What is there to comment on? It is an unofficial report by a retired person who offers his personal judgment. We, too, can write a lot of such reports or ask our former judges or academics to prepare some papers. They have no value whatsoever and so there will be no reaction to this. What is regrettable about this whole story is that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary comment on a report that abounds in words like “probably”. This is reminiscent of a witch-hunt. When all is said and done, let it be on the conscience of the commentators.
As for any legal action, this is simply ridiculous. We don’t need this and the Russian Federation will never sue any country over some foolish fabrications or funny films.
Question: If we just go back to these questions, for example, these high-profile cases of Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko, you must agree that this does tarnish Russia’s reputation because they were very high-profile figures who were assassinated.
Dmitry Medvedev: I did not say anything about the tragedy of Nemtsov’s assassination. This is a different story, of course, absolutely different. This is a real tragedy and a crime that must be investigated, and all those who will be identified by the investigation as the organiser, accomplice or perpetrator of this crime must be brought to justice. There can be no doubt there. This is indeed an issue of reputation for the Russian justice system and the state. There are no two ways about it.
Question: I’d like to come back now, as we draw this interview to a close, to one of the main themes of this security conference, and that is the jihadist threat that many parts of the world are facing. Europe is struggling to come to terms with this new threat. Russia has more experience with terrorism, but there is no obvious answer, but what advice would you give to your European counterparts?
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, indeed, we have some very serious and dramatic experience in fighting terrorism in our country. For a long time, nobody heard what we had to say. Even the terrorists who were active the Caucasus were called not terrorists but insurgents, even though when those “insurgents” were captured or eliminated, they were found to be in possession of Turkish or Arab passports. But then we began to be heeded and at some point Europe and the entire world were overwhelmed, unfortunately. Today we are all in the same boat. We are all faced with the threat of terrorism. We are willing to share information and experience and we are willing to cooperate. This is very important. This is critically important. However, it is essential to take a broad perspective here – think about future generations, about the value of human life, not talk to the effect that Russia is an outsider, that it does not behave the way it should and this is why our special services do not collaborate with it. Well, don’t. I just addressed a panel and said: Daesh leaders will thank you. ISIS will thank you. They will say you are right not to cooperate with the Russians. We’ll only be the better off for that.
We are ready for this. The most important thing is that our partners take a responsible position.
Question: Finally, Mr Prime Minister, you’ve held the post of prime minister and also held the presidency, so you’ve got an overview, a full perspective of the issues we’ve been talking about, but if I were to ask you about one of the highlights of the your time in power, could you say what that’s been?
Dmitry Medvedev: Well, there’ve been plenty. Both these posts are very serious and challenging. These eight years of my life – and it has been almost eight years – you know, it’s this constant drive. As for events, there have been plenty, both in Russia – very good ones for me personally, notable, major, and sometime tragic events, like the ones we’ve been talking about now, and international events. After all, we have not only argued and quarrelled. We’ve also accomplished a thing or two. For example, at some point we agreed on a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That was not bad at all. The document was signed. It is in force. It is being implemented and therefore we can work together and agree on different things. Contacts with my colleagues, including here in Germany, as well as in other European countries. We have dealt with a lot of issues. All of this is remarkable and exciting. Maybe one day I’ll talk about this in detail. For the time being I continue working and this work is interesting.