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Transcript: CNN interview with Vladimir Putin

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  • Russian military says U.S. citizens were in combat zone, Putin says
  • Prime minister suspects that U.S. created conflict to boost presidential race
  • Warnings to U.S. poultry plants were unrelated to Georgia issue, he says
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(CNN) -- CNN's Matthew Chance interviewed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

"We did not seek such conflicts," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told CNN's Matthew Chance.

"We did not seek such conflicts," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told CNN's Matthew Chance.

Matthew Chance: Many people around the world, even though you're not the president of Russia anymore, see you as the main decision maker in this country. Wasn't you that ordered Russian forces into Georgia and you who should take responsibility for the consequences?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, that's not the case. In accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the issues of foreign policy and defense are fully in the hands of the president. The president of the Russian Federation was acting within his powers.

As is known, yours truly was at that time at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. This alone made it impossible for me to take part in preparing that decision, although of course, President Medvedev was aware of my opinion on that issue. I'll be frank with you, and actually there is no secret about it, we had of course considered all the possible scenarios of events, including direct aggression by the Georgian leadership.

We had to think beforehand about how to provide for the security of our peace-keepers and of the citizens of the Russian Federation who are residents of South Ossetia. But, I repeat, such a decision could only be taken by the president of the Russian Federation, the commander in chief of the armed forces, Mr. Medvedev. It's his decision.

Matthew Chance: But it's been no secret either that for years you've been urging the West to take more seriously Russia's concerns about international issues. For instance, about NATO's expansion, about deployment of missile defense systems in eastern Europe. Wasn't this conflict a way of demonstrating that in this region, it's Russia that's the power, not NATO and certainly not the United States?

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Vladimir Putin: Of course not. What is more, we did not seek such conflicts and do not want them in the future.

That this conflict has taken place -- that it broke out nevertheless -- is only due to the fact that no one had heeded our concerns.

More generally, Matthew, I will say this: We must take a broader view of this conflict.

I think both you and your -- our -- viewers today will be interested to learn a little more about the history of relations between the peoples and ethnic groups in this regions of the world. Because people know little or nothing about it.

If you think that this is unimportant, you may cut it from the program. Don't hesitate, I wouldn't mind.

But I would like to recall that all these state entities, each in its own time, voluntarily integrated into the Russian Empire. Back in the mid-18th century, in 1745-1747, Ossetia was the first to become part of the Russian Empire. At that time, it was a united entity; North and South Ossetia were one state.

In 1801, if my memory serves me, Georgia itself, which was under some pressure from the Ottoman Empire, voluntarily became part of the Russian Empire.

It was only 12 years later, in 1812, that Abkhazia became part of the Russian Empire. Until that time, it had remained an independent state, an independent principality.

It was only in the mid-19th century that the decision was taken to incorporate South Ossetia into the Tiflis province. Within a common state, the matter was regarded as not very important. But I can assure you that subsequent years showed that the Ossetians did not much like it. However, de facto they were put by the tsar's central government under the jurisdiction of what is now Georgia.

When, after World War I, the Russian Empire broke up, Georgia declared its own state while Ossetia opted for staying within Russia; this happened right after the events of 1917.

In 1918, as a result of this, Georgia conducted a rather brutal punitive operation there, and in 1921, it repeated it.

When the Soviet Union was formed, these territories, by Stalin's decision, were definitively given to Georgia. As you know, Stalin was ethnically Georgian.

Therefore, those who insist that those territories must continue to belong to Georgia are Stalinists: They defend the decision of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.

Yet, whatever has been happening recently and whatever the motives of those involved in the conflict, there is no doubt that all that we are witnessing now is a tragedy.

For us, it is a special tragedy, because during the many years that we were living together the Georgian culture -- the Georgian people being a nation of ancient culture -- became, without a doubt, a part of the multinational culture of Russia.

There is even a tinge of civil war in this for us, though of course Georgia is an independent state, no doubt about it. We have never infringed on the sovereignty of Georgia and have no intention of doing so in the future. And yet, considering the fact that almost a million, even more than a million Georgians have moved here, we have special spiritual links with that country and its people. For us, this is a special tragedy.

And, I assure you, while mourning the Russian soldiers who died, and above all the innocent civilians, many here in Russia are also mourning the Georgians who died.

The responsibility for the loss of life rests squarely with the present Georgian leadership, which dared to take these criminal actions.

I apologize for the long monologue; I felt it would be of interest.

Matthew Chance: It is very interesting that you are talking about Russia's imperial history in this region because one of the effects of Russian intervention in Georgia is that other countries in the former Soviet Union are now deeply concerned that they could be next, that they could be part of a resurgent Russian empire ... particularly countries like Ukraine, that have a big ethnic Russian populations, but also Moldova, the central Asian states and even some of the Baltic states. Can you guarantee to us that Russia will never again use its militarily forces against a neighboring state?

Vladimir Putin: I strongly object to the way this question is formulated. It is not for us to guarantee that we will not attack someone. We have not attacked anyone. It is we who are demanding guarantees from others, to make sure that no one attacks us anymore and that no one kills our citizens. We are being portrayed as the aggressor.

I have here the chronology of the events that took place on August 7, 8 and 9. On the 7th, at 2:42 p.m., the Georgian officers who were at the headquarters of the joint peacekeeping forces left the headquarters, walked away from the headquarters -- where there were our servicemen, as well as Georgian and Ossetian servicemen -- saying that had been ordered to do so by their commanders. They left their place of service and left our servicemen there alone and never returned during the period preceding the beginning of hostilities. An hour later, heavy artillery shelling started.

At 10:35 p.m., a massive shelling of the city of Tskhinvali began. At 10:50 p.m., ground force units of the Georgian armed forces started to deploy to the combat zone. At the same time, Georgian military hospitals were deployed in the immediate vicinity. And at 11:30 p.m., Mr. Kruashvili, brigadier general and commander of the Georgian peacekeeping forces in the region, announced that Georgia had decided to declare war on South Ossetia. They announced it directly and publicly, looking right into the TV cameras.

At that time, we tried to contact the Georgian leadership, but they all refused to respond. At 0:45 a.m. on August 8, Kruashvili repeated it once again. At 5:20 a.m., tank columns of the Georgian forces launched an attack on Tskhinvali, preceded by massive fire from GRAD systems, and we began to sustain casualties among our personnel.

At that time, as you know, I was in Beijing, and I was able to talk briefly with the president of the United States. I said to him directly that we had not been able to contact the Georgian leadership but that one of the commanders of the Georgian armed forces had declared that they had started a war with South Ossetia.

George replied to me -- and I have already mentioned it publicly -- that no one wanted a war. We were hoping that the U.S. administration would intervene in the conflict and stop the aggressive actions of the Georgian leadership. Nothing of the kind happened.

What is more, already at 12 noon local time, the units of the Georgian armed forces seized the peacekeepers' camp in the south of Tskhinvali -- it is called Yuzhni, or Southern -- and our soldiers had to withdraw to the city center, being outnumbered by the Georgians one to six. Also, our peacekeepers did not have heavy weapons, and what weapons they had had been destroyed by the first artillery strikes. One of those strikes had killed 10 people at once.

Then the attack was launched on the peacekeeping forces' northern camp. Here, let me read you the report of the General Staff: "As of 12:30 p.m., the battalion of the Russian Federation peacekeeping forces deployed in the north of the city had beaten off five attacks and was continuing combat."

At that same time, Georgian aviation bombed the city of Dzhava, which was outside the zone of hostilities, in the central part of South Ossetia.

So who was the attacker, and who was attacked? We have no intention of attacking anyone, and we have no intention of going to war with anyone.

During my eight years as president, I often heard the same question: What place does Russia reserve for itself in the world; how does it see itself; what is its place? We are a peace-loving state and we want to cooperate with all of our neighbors and with all of our partners. But if anyone thinks that they can come and kill us, that our place is at the cemetery, they should think what consequences such a policy will have for them.

Matthew Chance: You've always enjoyed over your period as president of Russia, and still now, a very close personal relationship with the U.S. President George W. Bush. Do you think that his failure to restrain the Georgian forces on this occasion has damaged that relationship?

Vladimir Putin: This has certainly done damage to our relations, above all government-to-government relations.

But it is not just a matter of the U.S. administration being unable to restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal action; the U.S. side had in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.

Why spend many years in difficult negotiations to find comprehensive compromise solutions to inter-ethnic conflicts? It is easier to arm one of the parties and push it to kill the other and have it done with. What an easy solution, apparently. In fact, however, that is not always the case.

I have some other thoughts, too. What I am going to say is hypothetical, just some suppositions, and will take time to properly sort out. But I think there is food for thought here.

Even during the years of the Cold War, the intense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we always avoided any direct clash between our civilians and, most certainly, between our military.

We have serious reasons to believe that there were U.S. citizens right in the combat zone. If that is the case, if that is confirmed, it is very bad. It is very dangerous; it is misguided policy

But, if that is so, these events could also have a U.S. domestic politics dimension.

If my suppositions are confirmed, then there are grounds to suspect that some people in the United States created this conflict deliberately in order to aggravate the situation and create a competitive advantage for one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency. And if that is the case, this is nothing but the use of the called administrative resource in domestic politics, in the worst possible way, one that leads to bloodshed. Video Watch Putin describe possible U.S. role »

Matthew Chance: These are quite astounding claims, but just to be clear, Mr. Prime Minister, are you suggesting that there were U.S. operatives on the ground assisting Georgian forces, perhaps even provoking a conflict in order to give a presidential candidate in the United States some kind of talking point?

Vladimir Putin: Let me explain.

Matthew Chance: And if you are suggesting that, what evidence do you have?

Vladimir Putin: I have said to you that if the presence of U.S. citizens in the zone of hostilities is confirmed, it would mean only one thing: that they could be there only at the direct instruction of their leaders. And if that is so, it means that in the combat zone there are U.S. citizens who are fulfilling their duties there. They can only do that under orders from their superiors, not on their own initiative.

Ordinary specialists, even if they train military personnel, must do it in training centers or on training grounds rather than in a combat zone.

I repeat: This requires further confirmation. I am quoting to you the reports of our military. Of course, I will seek further evidence from them.

Why are you surprised at my hypothesis, after all? There are problems in the Middle East; reconciliation there is elusive. In Afghanistan, things are not getting any better; what is more, the Taliban have launched a fall offensive, and dozens of NATO servicemen are being killed.

In Iraq, after the euphoria of the first victories, there are problems everywhere, and the number of those killed has reached 4,000.

There are problems in the economy, as we know only too well. There are financial problems, the mortgage crisis. Even we are concerned about it, and we want it to end soon, but it is there.

A little victorious war is needed. And if it doesn't work, then one can lay the blame on us, use us to create an enemy image, and against the backdrop of this kind of jingoism once again rally the country around certain political forces.

I am surprised that you are surprised at what I'm saying. It's as clear as day.

Matthew Chance: It sounds a little farfetched, but I am interested because I was in Georgia in the time of the conflict, and the country was swirling with rumors. One of the rumors was that U.S. personnel had been captured in combat areas. Is there any truth to that rumor?

Vladimir Putin: I have no such information. I think it is not correct.

I repeat: I will ask our military to provide additional information to confirm the presence of U.S. citizens in the conflict zone during the hostilities.

Matthew Chance: Let's get back to the diplomatic fallout of this conflict, because one of the consequences is that action is being threatened at least against Russia by many countries in the world. It could be kicked out of the G-8 group of industrialized nations. There are threats it could have its contacts with the NATO militarily alliance suspended. What will Russia's response be if the country is diplomatically isolated as a result of this tension between Russia and the West?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, if my hypothesis about the U.S. domestic political dimension of this conflict is correct, then I don't see why United States allies should support one U.S. political party against the other in the election campaign. This is a position that is not honest vis-à-vis the American people as a whole. But we do not rule out the possibility that, as happened before, the administration will once again be able to subordinate its allies to its will.

So what's to be done? What choice do we have? On one hand, should we agree to being killed in order to remain, say, in the G-8? And who will remain in the G-8 if all of us are killed?

You have mentioned a possible threat from Russia. You and I are sitting here now, having a quiet conversation in the city of Sochi. Within a few hundred kilometers from here, U.S. Navy ships have approached, carrying missiles whose range is precisely several hundred kilometers. It is not our ships that have approached your shores; it's your ships that have approached ours. So what's our choice?

We don't want any complications; we don't want to quarrel with anyone; we don't want to fight anyone. We want normal cooperation and a respectful attitude toward us and our interests. Is that too much?

You have mentioned the G-8. But in its present form, the G-8 already doesn't carry enough weight. Without inviting the Chinese People's Republic or India, without consulting them, without influencing their decisions, normal development of the world economy is impossible.

Or take the fight against drugs, combating infectious disease, fighting terrorism, working on non-proliferation. OK, if someone wants to do it without any involvement of Russia, how effective will that work be?

That's not what we should be thinking about, and it's pointless to try to intimidate anyone. We are not afraid, not at all. What's needed is a realistic analysis of the situation, looking to the future so as to develop a normal relationship, with due regard for each other's interests.

Matthew Chance: The raw as you've mentioned areas of cooperation still between the United States and Russia, particularly for instance over the issue of Iran's very controversial nuclear program.

Are you suggesting that you may withdraw your cooperation with the United Nations in tackling that problem from the United States if the diplomatic pressure were to be ruptured up between Russian and the West?

Vladimir Putin: Russia has been working very consistently and in good faith with its partners on all problems, those that I've mentioned and those that you added. We do so not because someone asks us and we want to look good to them. We are doing it because this is consistent with our national interests, because in these areas, our national interests coincide with those of many European countries and of the United States. If no one wants to talk to us about these problems and cooperation with Russia becomes unnecessary, God bless, do this work yourself.

Matthew Chance: And what about the issue of energy supply, because obviously European countries in particular are increasingly dependent on Russian gas and on Russian oil. Would Russia ever use the supply of energy to western Europe as a leaver to apply pressure should the diplomatic tensions be ratcheted up?

Vladimir Putin: We have never done it. Construction of the first gas pipeline system was started during the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and for all those years, from the 1960s until this day, Russia has been fulfilling its contract obligations in a very consistent and reliable way, regardless of the political situation.

We never politicize economic relations, and we are quite astonished at the position of some U.S. administration officials who travel to European capitals trying to persuade the Europeans not to buy our products, natural gas for example, in a truly amazing effort to politicize the economic sphere. In fact, it's quite pernicious.

It's true that the Europeans depend on our supplies but we too depend on whoever buys our gas. That's interdependence; that's precisely the guarantee of stability.

And since we are already talking about economic matters, I would like to inform you about a decision that will be taken in the near future. Let me say right from the start that it is in no way related to any crisis, not to the situation in Abkhazia nor in South Ossetia; those are purely economic matters. Let me tell you what it's about.

For some time, we have had a debate about supplies of various products from different countries, including the United States. And of course the debate is particularly intense, as a rule, as regards agricultural products.

In July and August, our sanitation services conducted inspections of U.S. plants that supply poultry meat to our market. It was a spot-check inspection. It revealed that 19 of those plants ignored the concerns that our specialists had raised back in 2007. These plants will be removed from the list of poultry exporters to the Russian Federation.

Twenty-nine plants were given warnings that they must, in the near future, rectify the situation that our sanitation specialists find unacceptable. We hope the response will be rapid and that they will be able to continue supplying their products to the Russian market.

That information has just been reported to me by the minister of Agriculture.

Let me say once again that I would hate these things to be lumped together: the problems caused by conflict situations, politics, economics, meat. They all have their own dimension and are unrelated.

Matthew Chance: Prime Minister Putin, this appears or may be interpreted in the United States as tantamount to economic sanctions. Specifically, one of these 19 agricultural enterprises been importing to Russia that you've found to be flawed?

Vladimir Putin: Well, I am not an agricultural expert. This morning, the minister of agriculture gave me the following information.

I have already said it and want to repeat it. In July and August of this year, spot checks were made at U.S. plants that supply poultry to the Russian market. It was found that some of the concerns raised by our specialists earlier, in 2007, had been ignored and that the plants had done nothing to correct the deficiencies identified during the previous inspections. For that reason, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to remove them from the list of exporters.

At 29 other plants, certain problems have been found. They have been properly documented, with instructions as to what needs to be changed in order for the previous agreements on deliveries from those plants to Russia to remain in effect. We hope that they will quickly rectify the problems identified during those checks.

It has been found that their products contain excessive amounts of some substances that are subject to certain controls in our country. They contain excessive amounts of antibiotics and perhaps some other substances such as arsenic. I don't know; it's for the agricultural experts to consider. This has noting to do with politics. These are not some kind of sanctions. Such measures were taken here on several occasions in the past. There is nothing catastrophic here. It just means that we should work on this together.

What's more, when the minister called me, he said, "Frankly, we don't know what to do. It'll look like sanctions, but we need to take a decision. Of course, we could take a pause, too."

I think they said it's arsenic. But we have our rules. If you want to export to our market, you must adjust to our rules. They know all about it. They were told about it back in 2007.

Matthew Chance: The U.S. won't like it.

Vladimir Putin: We too do not like some of the things being done. They need to work closer together with our Ministry of Agriculture. Such things have happened before.

We closed it, and then we allowed them in again. It happened not only with regard to U.S. suppliers but Brazilian, too.

Matthew Chance: To conclude --

Vladimir Putin: We could go on. I am in no hurry.

Matthew Chance: Prime Minister Putin, perhaps more than anyone else, you're credited with restoring a degree of international prestige to this country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the chaos of 1990s, are you concerned that you're squandering that international prestige by your actions over Georgia, by actions like these banning of bird meat imports from the United States? Is that something the concerns you?

Vladimir Putin: Well, I have told you that there is no ban on U.S. poultry. It's a ban on some plants that did not respond to our concerns for a whole year.

We have to protect our domestic market and our consumers, as is done by all countries, including the United States.

As for Russia's prestige: We don't like what's been happening, but we did not provoke this situation. Speaking of prestige, some countries' prestige has been severely damaged in recent years. In effect, in recent years our U.S. partners have been cultivating the rule of force instead of the rule of international law. When we tried to stop the decision on Kosovo; no one listened to us. We said, don't do it, wait; you are putting us in a terrible position in the Caucasus. What shall we say to the small nations of the Caucasus as to why independence can be gained in Kosovo but not here? You are putting us in a ridiculous position. At that time, no one was talking about international law; we alone did. Now, they have all remembered it. Now, for some reason, everyone is talking about international law.

But who opened Pandora's box? Did we do it? No, we didn't do it. It was not our decision, and it was not our policy.

There are both things in international law: the principle of territorial integrity and right to self-determination. What's needed is simply to reach agreement on the ground rules. I would think that the time has finally come to do it.

As for the public perception of the events that are taking place, of course this in large part depends not only on the politicians but also on how cleverly they manipulate the media, on how they influence world public opinion. Our U.S. colleagues are of course much better at it than we are. We have much to learn. But is it always done in a proper, democratic way, is the information always fair and objective?

Let's recall, for example, the interview with that 12-year-old girl and her aunt, who, as I understand, live in the United States and who witnessed the events in South Ossetia. The interviewer at one of the leading channels, Fox News, was interrupting her all the time. All the time, he interrupted her. As soon as he didn't like what she was saying, he started to interrupt her, he coughed, wheezed and screeched. All that remained for him to do was to soil his pants, in such a graphic way as to stop them. That's the only thing he didn't do, but, figuratively speaking, he was in that kind of state. Well, is that an honest and objective way to give information? Is that the way to inform the people of your own country? No, that is disinformation.

We want to live in peace and agreement; we want normal trade; we want to work in all areas: to assure international security, to work on problems of disarmament, on fighting terrorism and drugs, on the Iranian nuclear problem, on the North Korean problem which is now showing a somewhat alarming tendency. We are ready for all that, but we want this work to be honest, open and done in partnership, rather than selfishly.

It is wrong to make anyone into an enemy; it is wrong to scare the people of one's own country with that enemy and try to rally some allies on that basis. What we need is to work openly and honestly on solutions to the problem. We want that and we are ready for that.

Matthew Chance: Let's go back to the assertion that the U.S. provoked the war. Diplomats in the United States accuse Russia of provoking the war by supporting the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by arming them, by increasing forces in the territories and by recognizing their institutions ... basically giving them the green light to go ahead and operate de facto. Wasn't it Russia that really caused this conflict?

Vladimir Putin: I can easily reply to this question. Since the 1990s, as soon as this conflict started, and it started in recent history because of the decision of the Georgian side to deprive Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the rights of autonomy. In 1990 and 1991, the Georgian leadership deprived Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the autonomous rights that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union, as part of Soviet Georgia, and as soon as that decision was taken, ethnic strife and armed hostilities began. At that time, Russia signed a number of international agreements, and we complied with all those agreements. We had in the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only those peacekeeping forces that were stipulated in those agreements and never exceeded the quota.

The other side -- I am referring to the Georgian side -- with the support of the United States, violated all the agreements in the most brazen way.

Under the guise of units of the Ministry of the Interior, they secretly moved into the conflict zone their troops, regular army, special units and heavy equipment. In fact, they surrounded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, with that heavy equipment and tanks. They surrounded our peacekeepers with tanks and started shooting at them point blank.

It was only after that, after our first casualties and after their number considerably increased, after tens of them had been killed -- I think 15 or 20 peacekeepers were killed, and there was heavy loss of life among the civilian population, with hundreds killed -- it was only after all that that President Medvedev decided to introduce a military contingent to save the lives of our peacekeepers and innocent civilians.

What is more, when our troops began moving in the direction of Tskhinvali, they came across a fortified area that had been secretly prepared by the Georgian military. In effect, tanks and heavy artillery had been dug into ground there, and they started shelling our soldiers as they moved.

All of it was done in violation of previous international agreements.

It is of course conceivable that our U.S. partners were unaware of all that, but it's very unlikely.

A totally neutral person, the former Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms. Zurabishvili, who is I think a French citizen and is now in Paris, has said publicly, and it was broadcast, that there was an enormous number of U.S. advisers and that of course they knew everything.

And if our supposition that there were U.S. citizens in the combat zone is confirmed -- and I repeat, we need further information from our military -- then these suspicions are quite justified.

Those who pursue such a policy toward Russia, what do they think? Will they like us only when we die?

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Matthew Chance: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.

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