Ahead of his upcoming visit to the State of Israel, the Prime Minister gave an interview to Yonit Levi, host of the Israeli Channel 2 News.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Prime Minister, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I have several questions for you. In your opinion, what could Russia and Israel achieve together?
Dmitry Medvedev: A great deal. Together, Russia and Israel can achieve many things, and that for a number of reasons. I am referring to the origin and development of the State of Israel, the fact that we have shared interests in international relations, and our bilateral relations, primarily economic and humanitarian ties. It is for this reason that I’m looking forward to visiting your country. I hope that during my meetings with Israeli President and Prime Minister we will be able to discuss the key issues on the bilateral agenda, taking into account that we have been active in our contacts. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Putin on a number of occasions within the last twelve months. This will be the first visit by the Prime Minister of Russia to Israel in many years, not to mention that in my previous capacity I did not get a chance to pay a friendly visit to Israel for a very simple reason: your Foreign Ministry went on strike and refused to arrange any visits. Of course, everyone has the right to strike, but this situation clearly did not help promote dialogue. With this in mind, I think that the upcoming visit will be beneficial.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): We are of course monitoring the situation with Western sanctions over Crimea. Are there any plans to enact additional retaliatory measures? Perhaps you could do so with Israel’s mediation. As you know, Israel has close ties with Europe.
Dmitry Medvedev: No, we do not intend to enact any additional retaliatory measures. We have taken all the necessary actions. At the end of the day, sanctions are always bad. Russia has always been opposed to imposing sanctions on any country. Let me remind you that back in the Soviet times the United States and a number of other countries imposed sanctions against the Soviet Union many times. But did it bring anything? Absolutely nothing. The Soviet Union continued to pursue its agenda.
For this reason, I do not believe that slapping each other with sanctions is the right way to go. As for Russia’s retaliatory measures against Europe and the United States, they are already in place. In fact, we have embargoed imports of food products and a number of products from the United States, the European Union and other countries that have joined them. The sanctions race is not a very good story.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Could you say a few more words about the development of relations between Israel and Russia? Also, when will Russia resume sustained economic growth, and what should be done for this purpose?
Dmitry Medvedev: First, I would like to discuss our relations because this is more important in the context of my visit. In the past few years, we did not expand our economic cooperation as actively as could have been expected. The current Russia-Israel trade turnover stands at about $2 billion. This is not very much. In the past, bilateral trade exceeded this amount by about 30 percent, but it decreased, including its imports part, due to the global economic crisis and the Russian rouble’s devaluation. As Prime Minister of Russia, it is my goal to expand trade, which will benefit both the Israeli and Russian business communities.
How could this be accomplished? We could spur cooperation by implementing a number of key projects, including pharmaceutical projects and agrarian technologies.
Agricultural produce account for about a third of Israeli exports to Russia. Israel has excellent agrarian technologies, and we have a lot to learn here. We maintain special relations between our agrarian centres and agrarian universities. As I see it, this aspect is also very important and interesting.
Another aspect is linked with cutting-edge technology, the development of startups and a new economy. Israel has achieved a lot in this area, and we also have some very good projects and inventions in this economic segment. If we incentivise this segment of our cooperation, I am confident that we will be able to achieve very impressive results in trade cooperation. In addition, there are ambitious projects being discussed in the energy and gas sector.
Our current situation remains mostly calm and stable. Unfortunately, we have failed to post any growth in the past two years, for various reasons. First of all, this situation was, of course, linked with the oil and gas prices. The economy is now beginning to grow slowly. We retain substantial reserves, including international gold and foreign currency reserves. We are predicting low inflation, which is very important for the Russian economy. Inflation is expected to hit an all-time low since the inception of the modern Russian state. Next year, we are forecasting 4 percent inflation, which is comparable with global indicators.
Overall, although most our macroeconomic indicators remain within the norm, we need to restructure the economy. So far, we still rely heavily on oil and gas exports. This is a huge challenge. In this sense, cooperation with the Israeli business community can invigorate such an important aspect as high-tech cooperation. This is a road into the future, and our task is to increase the share of new technologies, software manufacturing, IT businesses, etc., in the Russian economy. This technological revolution is absolutely essential.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): I would like to ask you about Syria. Clearly, the humanitarian situation remains terrible. May I ask honestly, what interests does Russia have in that country? Do you support Bashar al-Assad?
Dmitry Medvedev: I would like to go back a few years. Unlike many of my colleagues working in the United States and Europe, I have been to Syria, and I saw this state before this conflict began. This was probably the most tranquil and most civilised state in the Middle East. The Syrian state managed to more or less balance the interests of all ethnic groups and religious denominations. I am talking about Shia and Sunni Muslims, the Alawites, the Druze and Christians. This is very important for the state to function. We saw what happened later. It is very lamentable and has destabilised the entire Middle East.
Our approach is explained not only by the increased threat of destabilisation in the Middle East but primarily by the need to guarantee our national interests.
You probably know that thousands of Russian citizens and individuals from other post-Soviet republics are fighting in Syria. These completely brainwashed people return home as professional murderers and terrorists. And we don’t want them to stage something similar in Russia after their Syrian stint expires. We have already experienced this, including in the context of the Caucasus war in the 1990s. First of all, we want them to stay there. Second, the Syrian Government asked Russian leaders to help them reinstate law and order. Our two countries have signed a bilateral treaty on this subject, and the President of Russia, our Supreme Commander-in-Chief decided to provide limited military assistance to Syria, with due consideration for Russian national interests.
As for Bashar al-Assad, I know him personally. You can have different opinions of him. Some people like him, some don’t. But that is not the issue. The issue is that he represents the only legitimate government authority in Syria; he is a legitimate President.
If regime change is to take place there, it must be legitimate and accomplished through national reconciliation. The warring parties should sit down at the negotiating table, with the exception of die-hard terrorists. Dealing with them is pointless, and they must be eliminated. A new political system would emerge as a result. We don’t know whether this system would have any place for Bashar al-Assad or someone else, this is not our business, and it must be decided by the people of Syria. But we don’t want Syria to disintegrate into a number of enclaves and sectors (in line with a Libyan-style scenario), where each sector would be controlled by separate terrorist groups. This would prove very dangerous for everyone, Israel included.
I recall that during my meetings with Israeli leaders my colleagues told me subtly that they were not very well-disposed towards Bashar al-Assad. But they said it is better to have a person who is in control of the situation and the country, rather than face an unmanageable process of the country’s disintegration into various sections and the creation of terrorist-led enclaves. As far as I remember, this was the position of the Israeli leaders, and I believe this position is correct.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): I’m sure you know that the United States has denounced Russia’s bombing raids. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for investigating them. He said there were civilian casualties. What can you say to this?
Dmitry Medvedev: Each instance of the use of military force with certain consequences should be investigated. We have asked our American partners many questions about the use of US armed forces, when hospitals, funeral processions and schools were hit. Somehow, they are not concerned about this.
Each such case must be investigated, and then, criticism is often biased. The United States, which sometimes wages two or three campaigns simultaneously, refuses to see its problems, trying to lay the blame on someone else.
Mr Kerry can say whatever he likes as US Secretary of State. For our part, we will act in accordance with our national interests, doing what we consider to be expedient in a given situation. But, as President Putin has said more than once, we are open to dialogue with the United States, and we are maintaining our dialogue with Mr Kerry and other US officials, no matter how difficult it sometimes is.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Human rights groups claim that 4,000 civilians have been killed in Russian bombing raids. How do you plan to end the siege of Aleppo without heavy civilian casualties?
Dmitry Medvedev: The siege of Aleppo is an issue for the Syrian authorities, who should take the necessary decisions, because it is their territory. We are only helping them. Aircraft have not been used in that area for the past two weeks, as our Defence Ministry officials have said today. As for the general situation, the solution can only be found at the negotiating table, as I have said. Attempts should be made to ease existing tensions and to launch negotiations. We have been doing our best towards this end. Unfortunately, our partners have not done what they promised to do. We agreed with them several times that they would separate those who accept a peaceful settlement from the terrorists and organisations that are acting as the accomplices of the Islamic State. Our partners have not done this. We know that when these forces get together, they carry out the terrorists’ orders. I believe that this is the biggest problem in Aleppo and other parts of Syria where ISIS forces are deployed. Our American colleagues had better focus on other humanitarian problems, including the operation in Mosul in Iraq.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Russia’s Aerospace Forces can limit Israel’s freedom of action if Hezbollah gets hold of weapons. Can you assure us that Israel will be able to defend itself?
Dmitry Medvedev: What should I tell you to convince you that this is so? I do not understand your question.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Russia’s Aerospace Forces in Syria have a system that can limit Israel’s military capability if Hezbollah gets hold of precision weapons.
Dmitry Medvedev: First, law and order in Syria are the responsibility of the Syrian government and Syrian armed forces, rather than Russia’s Aerospace Forces. Second, I believe that relations between Syria and Israel are a separate issue that is outside Russian jurisdiction. And third, I hope that nobody will take any actions in this situation that could fuel tensions or provoke a conflict. I believe everyone understands this, at least, the Syrian authorities should. Our military, including the Aerospace Forces, are acting on this assumption. These issues are the authority of the Defence Ministry and, ultimately, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, that is, the President of the country. I hope everything will be fine, because in this sense no other scenario is possible.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): We are talking about Israel-Russia cooperation and relations between the two countries, but at the same time we are discussing the fact that Assad encourages Hezbollah and that Russia is sending S-300 systems to Iran. Isn’t this in conflict with warm relations between Russia and Israel?
Dmitry Medvedev: No, it is not. We have warm relations with Israel, good relations, and we hope to promote them even further. Properly speaking, it is for this reason that I am going to Israel. At the same time, we have relations with other countries, including Iran, with other countries in the region.
Speaking about Russian-Iranian relations, I will remind you how they have developed. In the period when sanctions against Iran were in effect, we joined them until an agreement was reached on the Iran’s nuclear programme. I even remember President Obama saying during my first meeting with him that the Iran’s nuclear programme was number one issue for him. It is a fact that this issue has been settled as a result of efforts undertaken by the international community, including the Russian Federation. As long as the sanctions were in effect in that period, we supplied no weapons [to Iran]. As President, I imposed a moratorium on the delivery of the well-known antiaircraft systems. I mean the S-300’s. But after all states reached an agreement on the Iran’s nuclear programme, all sanctions that had been imposed previously were abolished, and now we are acting within the framework of the currently existing realities. This is where we stand now.
But, of course, we are not interested in stoking tensions, although we do intend to promote an authentic relationship with Iran as well. These relations have grown considerably more intense lately both in the economic area and where supplies of weapons and military equipment are concerned.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): There is yet another aspect that seems controversial. I mean Russia-supported UNESCO vote ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. How does this tally with your decision?
Dmitry Medvedev: It seems to me that this theme is excessively exaggerated. It is the tenth instalment, I think, of UNESCO’s well-known decisions accepted in this reading and there is nothing new in them. This is first. Second, my country has never denied Israel’s and the Jewish people’s rights to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount or the Western Wall. All these rights are absolutely obvious and it would be absurd to deny them. It is another matter that Jerusalem is a special place on our planet. It is the birthplace of the three main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this sense, it is necessary to protect all the monuments that exist in Jerusalem – no more, no less. Therefore, it seems to me that there is no need to politicise this decision; certainly it is not aimed against Israel or the people of Israel.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): All of us are monitoring the US presidential campaign, and it seems to me as an outsider that you are trying to help Donald Trump somehow, that you are playing along with his efforts to get into the White House.
Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t believe it is possible to influence the election results in the United States, because the outcome depends on the American people. The United States is a big and very powerful country, a key player, as they say. No country in the world can influence the election race there. I think that President Putin said correctly a few days ago that America is not some banana republic that somebody else can pressure and tell whom to elect president. This is not so. Moreover, we understand very well that the next president, no matter who is elected, will steer a policy in the interests of the United States. The next president will proceed from the US national interests. These interests do not always coincide with our interests. They have their interests, and we have ours. This is what the next president will do, and it does not matter whether it is Clinton or Trump.
However, we are willing to maintain normal and productive relations with any US president, as we have said repeatedly. We are interested in this. It is another matter that our relations are now worse than ever before. Frankly speaking, when we established relations with the current US administration and the incumbent president, Barack Obama, I could not imagine that they would plunge to such an unprecedentedly low level. There were good periods in our relations, when we addressed and fulfilled common tasks such as the strategic offensive reductions treaty, the settlement of the Iran problem, and several other issues. Unfortunately, our relations have hit rock bottom, dropped below the ground lever because of President Obama’s decisions over the developments in Ukraine. We are not to blame for this; it was not our choice. We are interested in normalising our relations, but as I have said, ultimately we do not care who becomes the next US president. Not because the choice does not depend on us, but because whoever wins the race will serve above all national interests, and I cannot imagine any president acting differently. There is a certain mainstream of the US administration. No matter whether the Republicans or Democrats stand at the helm, they have similar views on the basic foreign policy priorities, which can change, of course.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Why hasn’t WikiLeaks published any leaks that are connected with Russia? Doesn’t the absence of a Russian connection look strange?
Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t think so, because I don’t know the goals of the people who publish this information. It can be one thing today and another tomorrow. The world has become so transparent that it is no longer possible to completely escape public attention. Everyone who uses electronic communications should know this. That’s it.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): You say it doesn’t matter to you who is elected president in the United States, yet President Putin has said several times that Trump is a vivid personality. Do you think he would say the same about Ms Clinton?
Dmitry Medvedev: This is for the President to say, while I can only say what I know. I have met Ms Clinton. She visited Russia when she was US Secretary of State and I was President of Russia. I have met and talked with her. I haven’t met Mr Trump. He is definitely a vivid personality, but Ms Clinton is a skilled professional. But, once again, no matter who becomes the next US president, we will be willing to develop normal and constructive relations with the new US administration based on international law, equal Russian-US relations, the multipolar structure of the world and the global responsibility of Russia and the United States as permanent UN Security Council members and the world’s largest nuclear powers. Second, everything will depend on what the new US administration offers. We are willing to defreeze our relations, as President Putin has said more than once.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): I am trying to figure out how you feel about US claims of Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential elections. Are you surprised, irritated or outraged? What is your attitude to this?
Dmitry Medvedev: We are taking it in our stride. It is another matter that this is strange, because – I must say this – the US political system is very powerful and the Americans have actively interfered in many political processes around the world. They view this as absolutely normal and appropriate. US NGOs and embassy staff are very active around the world, including in Russia. They probably think that gods may do what cattle may not, as an ancient saying goes, that they have a right to do many things, unlike other countries.
And second, we may be surprised at Americans giving so much attention to the foreign policy factor. They had better focus on their internal problems, the US economy, social obligations and healthcare, instead of looking for enemies in Russia or any other country. It is a primitive policy to try to achieve one’s goals by relying on conspiracy theories and external enemies, by telling the people that they need to fight this. The effect of this policy is usually short-lived.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): I would like to move on to the issue of Israel and Palestine. Do you want to replace the United States as a mediator in Middle East settlement and as a coordinator between Netanyahu and Abbas? Do you want to take up this role?
Dmitry Medvedev: We do not want to replace anyone. The existing quartet of mediators is a generally stable model. I think it is not a bad model. It is another thing is that recently there have not been any positive indicators in the Middle East settlement. Let’s be honest about what has been achieved lately, which is nothing. And this is quite disappointing. We are willing to take more action in order to resume the process, including direct contacts between Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in any location the leaders choose, including the Russian Federation. However, we are not trying to replace the United States. Although we have to admit that the United States has not done much in this direction lately. It is true. Perhaps their efforts should have been more vigorous.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): You are to visit Israel soon. There is a big Russian-speaking immigrant community. Do you want to send a certain signal to the Russians in Israel with your visit?
Dmitry Medvedev: Israel is indeed a special country for us. Our relations have always been special, since the very recognition of the Israeli state by the Soviet Union. Immigrants from the Russian Empire played a unique role in the establishment of Israel as a state. One and a half million people are one way or another historically connected with Russia and the Soviet Union – and it is a significant part of the Israeli society. We would like to maintain very warm and partner relations between our countries. And the reason is not just that many people in Israel speak Russian and understand the Russian mentality better, which gives us an opportunity for closer communication – and it is exceptionally important in the modern world. It is indeed highly valuable. This is what I count on and I hope it will bring its results. I believe the relationship between our countries may advance to an even higher level than now.
Yonit Levi (via interpreter): Thank you very much. We wish you a successful visit and thank you for this interview.