Russia's Putin: Interview Transcript

In his first interview with an American journalist since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Barbara Walters about terrorism, Afghanistan and Russian-U.S. cooperation. Following are excerpts, with Putin's responses translated from Russian.

Mr. President, you were in your office, and saw on television, the attack on the World Trade Center. What did you think? What did you feel when you saw it?

I was working at the time. It was a usual working day. But I had very mixed feelings. Above all, first of all, it might seem a little bit strange, but I had the feeling of guilt for this tragedy. You certainly know that we have talked a lot and in very many places about this fact of international terrorism. We have talked about the possible threats to the United States and to other countries. But well, we're not able to face(?) who, where and how can strike. And this was the first feeling I have: the feeling of anger and to some extent the feeling of guilt.

I should say at the same time that I understood quite well that what the American people and the American leadership felt at that time. Because quite recently, in 1999, we were the victims of a terrorist attack. And I'm not just referring to the Chechnya and the Caucasus. I'm referring to the explosion of residential buildings in Moscow and other cities as a result of which hundreds of innocent people died. So I understood the feelings that the Americans were feeling at that time, so I feel bad.

Did you feel guilty because you did not warn us enough? I know that when you met with President Clinton, you warned them about the bin Laden problem. And you have said that you were ignored, and that surprised you. Did you feel guilty that you hadn't told us more so that we would have been better prepared?

I wouldn't want to go into any assessments of my colleagues or counterparts, including the former president of the United States, because he was in a very difficult situation as well. But even at that time we certainly were counting on a more active cooperation in combating international terrorism.

I don't know whether it would have been possible to prevent these strikes on the United States by the terrorists, but again, we were counting on a close cooperation. Again, it was a pity that our special services didn't get the information on time, and warn the American people and the American political leadership about the tragedy that came to pass.

President Bush said that you were the first world leader to telephone him. He was very grateful for that. What did you say to him when you telephoned him?

Well, first of all, I expressed our solidarity with the American people. I said that Russia itself suffered terrorist blows and explosions in the city of Moscow as well. And perhaps I understood better than many people what the American people and American president felt, so I wanted to express my solidarity to the American people, and not just on my personal behalf, but on behalf of the people of Russia. I knew that this was important and I did this not just out of emotional influences, but out of pragmatic considerations as well. Because at that time, and now, I understood, and do understand, that putting the efforts of the international community in fighting terrorism is very important to ... like it was very important to give American people to understand that in this dire moment in time, they are not alone.

Russia and the West

After the events of Sept. 11, you seem to have made a strategic and historic choice to become much closer to the West, to the United States. This could be a risk for you here at home, where not everybody wants you to be that close. Why did you do it?

Oh, you know, I may tell you right now something that may sound quite unexpected to you. This is a choice that Russia made for itself quite a long time ago. Unfortunately it was not noticed by everybody. But after Sept. 11, it was impossible not to notice it. More than that, there was a realization that Russia not just can, but should be a strategic ally of the entire civilized community including certainly the United States. And I believe that the tragic events of Sept. 11 opened our eyes to that. To this. And underscored the fact that if we want to be protected, we should be together.

President Bush

I would like to ask a little bit about your relationship with President Bush. When President Bush first met you, he said that he looks into your eyes and he saw your soul. Some people smiled when he said that. What do you think he saw in your soul?

Well, it's difficult for me to say what he saw in my soul. You should ask President Bush about that himself. But those who smiled in response to his words on hearing him say that, well there's one thing I can say about this. I believe it's not accidental that not them but he became the president of the United States. He sees better and deeper and understands the problems more accurately. I should tell you that to a great extent it is thanks to President Bush's position that the Russian-U.S. relations, Russia and United States, were not taken by surprise, by this event of September 11th.

And I recall his words, and the fact that I was the first to call him — but this happened to a great extent because of his position, and this was a credit that should go to him for that. And the fact that today the international coalition is successful is also thanks to President Bush and I believe that the first step towards that was our meeting in Ljubljana [Slovenia] when he said those good words — addressed me and my country.

And I should say even more from experience, my personal communication with President Bush. I'm convinced that he's a solid partner. We can argue about some problems, disagree about things, but I noticed that if he agrees with something, and if he says yes, he actually pushes the question down to resolution, to fruition, in terms of reaching agreement. Not only with me, but the entire Russian leadership have noticed this particular feature of the president's character. And we assess this quite positively, which is indicative of the fact that we can do business with this man, and he lives up to the agreements that he reaches. Perhaps after some very complex and difficult negotiations and exchanges.

If he says he will do something he does it.

Yes. Exactly.

I hear you do too.

I'm trying.

You have that reputation.

U.S. Missile Defense and the ABM Treaty

Let us speak focus some of the possible agreements. From reports, it looks as if there may be an agreement in the reduction of nuclear weapons when you and President Bush meet. But there is still the great disagreement over the ABM treaty. You want it to continue. President Bush wants to stop it, and build a missile defense system. How do you think these two conflicting points of view can be reconciled? What do you see as the compromise?

Well, it's somewhat difficult for me to talk about this with certainty, but I should say the compromise can only be found as a result of very intense negotiations.... We have a certain platform based on which we could reach agreements. Both in terms of reducing strategic offensive arms to certain levels, and I think in that context we could reach quite quickly mutual agreements. And in this context we could find common approaches to defensive systems. Anyway, our position in this is quite flexible. We believe that the ABM Treaty of 1972 is important, essential, effective and useful, but we have a negotiating platform starting from which we could reach agreements. AT least I hope so.

Can you give us any hints. I mean President Bush said "I'm going to build a missile defense system." You say "I want the ABM treaty." Where is the possibility of compromise? I don't want you to do all your negotiating here, but it would be nice.

Well, first of all the ABM treaty of 1972 already has a potential for developing defensive systems. We have developed this and it's around Moscow. The United States has a different option. There are other provisions in the treaty based on which we could find common approaches. And anyway, experts believe that based on those approaches we could quite be able to formulate terms and conditions on the basis of the existing treaty without violating its substance. That would be quite adequate to respond to the contemporary challenges and remove the concerns that the United States leadership has with respect to strategic defense.

War on Terrorism

Mr. President, you have been very supportive now of our war on terrorism, and you have said that you want nothing in return. But some advisers here in Russia say your country should get something: maybe a closer relationship with NATO, joining NATO, maybe helping with Russia's debt, maybe admission to the World Trade Organization. Would you hope to get any of this in return for U.S. support?

I don't know who said that. Churchill once put it very beautifully. He said politicians think about the next election, but statesmen think about succeeding generations. Oddly, these are very fitting words to the situation. Russia is not expecting any preferences or any payment for its position for the support of your country in combatting terrorism. This is all for our support of the opposition in fighting terrorism. We have a common enemy, international terrorism, and the work that we are pursuing together is in our best interests. But it is also in our best interests to integrate Russia in the contemporary international community in every sense of the word, in defense, political, security. And from our discussions of late, that we have had with the leaders of the European countries and the United States, everybody understands that. Where we'll be handy to each other, I think, on many occasions. And in that sense, if we talk about rapprochement, between Russia and the United States and the West, not only Russia, but the international community has an interest in that. This doesn't have anything to do with the payment. Russia's not bargaining. It's not trying to make a deal. It is just that we cooperate.

Searching for Bin Laden

Do you think we will find Osama bin Laden? Is it important that we do?

Oh, I think it is possible. But very difficult. And it is important yes. It is important. Because the main players in this should be brought to justice. But this will not resolve the overall terrorist problem. To be effective — globally effective — this fight should be fought not only by military force, but other means: political, economic, social. There has to be a range of efforts on the part of the international community to fight this evil.

No Russian Ground Troops

Are there any conditions under which Russia would send ground troops to Afghanistan?

To us this solution would be unacceptable. And I'll tell you why. To us, sending troops to Afghanistan is like for you, the U.S., returning your troops to Vietnam — even more difficult I should say because the Afghan war is a recent experience, much more recent than the Vietnam experience. But I should tell you something else. Even now, the Russian army is helping the United States, and not virtually, but actually. Through intelligence, through supplying intelligence, very good quality, top level intelligence. But also helping you because we know the realities of Afghanistan. And we are helping the Northern Alliance in the amount of dozens of millions of dollars. And we should also help the United States in rescue operations, including on the territory of Afghanistan.

Bombing Iraq

I'd like to talk about Iraq. There is evidence that Mohamed Atta, one of the World Trade Center bombing terrorists, met with Iraqi intelligence. If it proves that Iraq was involved in terrorist attacks, would you support the U.S. bombing of Iraq? Perhaps even participate in the attempts?

Well, as far as the Iraqi problem is concerned, this is a matter in which we have decided on that position a long time ago. And this position is to support the desire of the international community in finding out once and for all whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or are trying to develop such weapons. And in that context, I believe we should renew the international inspection of facilities in the territory of Iraq. And in that context we have a proposal to make, and we are discussing it with our colleagues, including our American colleagues. I should say that we are not able to convince the Iraqi leadership that our proposals are acceptable, so therefore the processes are quite difficult. I don't believe that this issue will be resolved by bombing. Bombings are still very young. And the American and British continue bombing. But we should understand the objective of our actions. If our objective is to be convinced of the absence of the weapons of mass destruction on the territory of Iraq, we should seek that objective. Iraq should allow international inspections on their territory. In return then certain sanctions then should be lifted vis-a-vis Iraq. If we do that, I think many issues will be resolved.

Will you help? Will you try?

Yes. Definitely. Not only try, but we are conducting these consultations very actively, with our European and American partners.

Iran and Nuclear Technology

Iran. Russia shared the nuclear technology, with Iran, ostensibly for civilian use. But the CIA says that Iran could use this to build nuclear weapons. If President Bush asked you to stop supplying Iran, would you?

Well, it is a legend which has nothing to do with reality. What we see here is the substitution of two notions: military, and technical cooperation with Iran. We are selling weapons, conventional weapons, to Iran. We have not ever, ever sold anything to Iran out of the range of technology or information that would help Iran develop missiles or weapons of mass destruction. We have some projects in atomic energy. The U.S. has the same projects in its relations with North Korea. It has nothing to do with developing nuclear weapons. We are categorically opposed to transferring any technologies to Iran that would help it develop nuclear weapons. There has been some information that allegedly Iran is drying to develop weapons of mass destruction. There's got to be a confirmation of that.

Anthrax and Bioterror

I want you to talk a bit about anthrax, because our country is very frightened. And the anthrax used in the United States mail attacks, was a very high-grade formula, that some experts said is available in the United States, Iraq, and possibly Russia. We've also heard that there are some stockpiles left over from Soviet times, of smallpox. Do you have any concern, that either the Anthrax, or your smallpox, could be stolen, or bought from your country?

No. I believe that it would be impossible. I believe it would be impossible, and then, the test of the materials that are available in the United States, are indicative of the fact that it could not have been produced in the Soviet Union, let alone Russia. First of all, those materials have been guarded, were guarded in the Soviet Union, and Russia, very securely. So I exclude that possibility.

Both anthrax and possibly smallpox.

Yes. I believe this is true of anthrax and smallpox, but more than that, in our contacts with the American partners, and, well, we have no argument about that. We exchange information on that. Any information that could be of interest to our American partners is available, it is discussed and analyzed.

You are have a vaccine for anthrax here in your country. If needed, and if asked, do you have enough to give to the United States? And would you?

... We believe that we should be partners, and perhaps even allies, with the United States, in very many areas. And, as to just helping the American people in combatting this evil, there can be no doubt about the fact that we will do everything possible. More than that. The U.S. has found out the possibility of such an operation. Our partners are working with our specialists, and this work will be pursued at a very practical level.

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