20 December / 2018
Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference

Anton Vernitsky (Chanel 1): Mr President, as Soviet-era children, all of us feared a nuclear war very much. As you remember, various songs dealt with this issue. One of them had the following lyrics: “Sunny world: Yes, yes, yes; nuclear explosion: No, no, no.”

Vladimir Putin: Are you not afraid today?

Anton Vernitsky: Forty years have passed, and major media outlets on both sides of the ocean are beginning to publish a scenario for a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. The word “war” is sounding more and more often at household level, in kitchens.

Mr President, how can you calm down my little son who, just like me, also fears a nuclear war today? What words and actions can calm us all down?

Vladimir Putin: You know, I think you are right.

I just thought that all this, including the danger of such developments in the world, is now being hushed up and played down to some extent. It seems impossible or something that is not so important. At the same time, if, God forbid, something like this happens, it might destroy the whole of civilisation or perhaps the entire planet.

These issues are therefore serious, and it is a great pity that there is such a tendency to underestimate the problem, and that this tendency is probably becoming more pronounced. What are the current distinguishing features and dangers?

First, all of us are now witnessing the disintegration of the international system for arms control and for deterring the arms race. This process is taking place after the United States withdrew fr om the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that, as I have already noted a thousand times, was the cornerstone in the sphere of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and deterring the arms race.

After that, we were forced to respond by developing new weapons systems that could breach these ABM systems. Now, we hear that Russia has gained an advantage. Yes, this is true. So far, the world has no such weapons systems. Leading powers will develop them, but, as yet they do not exist.

In this sense, there are certain advantages. But, speaking of the entire strategic balance, this is just an element of deterrence and for equalising parities. This is just the preservation of parity, and nothing more.

They are now about to take another step and withdraw fr om the INF Treaty. What will happen? It is very difficult to imagine how the situation will unfold. What if these missiles show up in Europe? What are we supposed to do then?

Of course, we will need to take some steps to ensure our safety. And they should not whine later that we are allegedly trying to gain certain advantages. We are not. We are simply trying to maintain the balance and ensure our security.

The same goes for the START III Treaty, which expires in 2021. There are no talks on this issue. Is it because no one is interested, or believes it is necessary? Fine, we can live with that.

We will ensure our security. We know how to do it. But in general, for humanity, this is very bad, because this takes us to a very dangerous line.

Finally, there is another circumstance I cannot ignore. There is a trend to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. There are plans to create low-impact nuclear charges, which translates to tactical rather than global use. Such ideas are coming fr om Western analysts who say it is okay to use such weapons. However, lowering the threshold can lead to a global nuclear disaster. This is one danger we are facing today.

The second is the use of non-nuclear ballistic missiles. True, our US partners seem to have dropped this idea, but it still exists. What does it mean?

Suppose, a ballistic missile is launched, nuclear or non-nuclear. The missile attack warning system identifies the launch and the launch site, and, seconds later, determines the flight path and the possible warhead landing area. This is all on the verge of a possible error. It is terrible, and we cannot take it that far. Nevertheless, such an idea of using non-nuclear ballistic missiles exists.

Suppose, a submarine fired a ballistic missile fr om the World Ocean, but who the hell knows if it is nuclear or not, go figure. This is very dangerous. All of that is being widely discussed, which is dangerous.

However, I believe humanity has enough common sense and enough of a sense of self-preservation not to take these things to the extreme.

Yegor Sozayev-Guryev (Izvestia): I have a question about the precedent in the Kerch Strait, I wonder about the future of the captured Ukrainian military. What will happen to them? Do you think this provocation was a success?

I cannot help asking about the citizens of Russia imprisoned in the United States. I mean Butina and Yaroshenko. How can Russia protect their rights? Perhaps, we should look at our Chinese partners? A Chinese citizen representing Huawei was detained in Canada. In response, they detained several Canadian citizens. Perhaps, we could learn fr om that experience?

Vladimir Putin: With regard to your first question, you said: “Do you think this provocation was a success?” First, let us state that it was a provocation, and you agree with that. This is already a good start.

Now, whether it was a success or not, I believe provocations are a bad thing whatever way you look at them. Provocations seek to aggravate things. Why do our Ukrainian partners need things to go that way? Clearly, they are in the middle of an election campaign right now, and they want to aggravate the situation in order to raise the ratings of one of the contenders, I mean the incumbent president and the current government. Well, this is bad, it is ultimately bad for the interests of the Ukrainian people and state. However, it is possible to move forward without any provocations and do so calmly, as before.

Whether it was a success or not, I mean in terms of improving popularity ratings, maybe it was, as Mr Poroshenko’s ratings seem to have increased a little and he has moved fr om the fifth position to the second or third, wh ere the figure fluctuates around 12 percent. Ms Tymoshenko, I believe, has 20 percent or even more, whereas Zelinsky, Boyko and Poroshenko have around 12 percent each. In this sense, yes, he probably achieved the goal. At the expense of the country’s interests, I believe. This is a bad way to boost ratings.

With regard to the future of the Ukrainian servicemen, they were sent on this mission and some of them were expected to die in the process. I can see that the leadership is very upset by the fact that no one died. They expected some of them to die. Thank God, this did not happen. An investigation is underway. Once it is over, we will know what to do with them.

Roman Tsymbalyuk (UNIAN, Ukraine): Mr President, I would like to ask you how much money you are spending on the occupied Donbass? Under your leadership, people there are living in poverty. Let us face it, they have become slaves to Russia. You are concerned about the threat of a nuclear war and at the same time, you are preparing for a war against NATO, and, in fact, you are shooting at Ukrainian citizens. It was you as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief who issued the order to open fire at seamen. My question is what are the terms of the exchange?

And a question about the elections, if I may. You say that you analyse the approval ratings.

Vladimir Putin: Just a second. Terms of exchange?

Roman Tsymbalyuk: The terms of exchange of Ukrainian political prisoners and Ukrainian servicemen. You do need your Russian citizens back, don’t you?

And about the elections, if I may. You constantly analyse the ratings and one gets the impression that…

Vladimir Putin: I do not analyse them, I look at them inasmuch as you print them.

Roman Tsymbalyuk: … in this way you are meddling in the electoral process like you did in the United States. Doesn’t it seem to you that a direct dialogue between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia will never take place until you change your job?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Regarding the suffering of the people who live in Donbass. You are a Ukrainian citizen, aren’t you? And you consider the people who live on this territory to be the citizens of your country. Can you tell me who established the blockade between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine? Did Russia do it? The Ukrainian authorities did it: they imposed a total economic blockade of the territory they consider to be their own. They shoot at the people they consider to be their own citizens. People are killed there almost every day, peaceful civilians, by the way.

We do render humanitarian and other assistance and support to the people who live on that territory. But we do it only to prevent them from being finally crushed, devoured and torn to pieces, and we will continue doing it. Because attempts to solve these political issues by force – and we have seen this being done by the current Kiev authorities for several years – are doomed to failure. This has to be kept in mind.

Now concerning how to settle these relations and who will and will not remain in power. It is not about personalities, it is about the attitude towards people. We want to see peace and prosperity on the entire territory of Ukraine, including Donbass. We are interested in it because Ukraine remains one of our biggest trade and economic partners.

Trade between Ukraine and Russia, in spite of all the efforts of the current Kiev authorities, is growing, it has grown in the outgoing year, it has grown during the current year. Is it strange? No, it is not strange because these are natural ties. These natural ties will sooner or later make themselves felt. But as long as the Kiev corridors of power are peopled by Russophobes who do not understand the interests of their own people this abnormal situation will persist. Regardless of who is in power at the Kremlin.

We have attended to the issue of exchange all along. Mr Medvedchuk, on instructions from Poroshenko, by the way, has been constantly engaged in this. He came to Moscow just recently and raised the issue of the release of Ukrainian servicemen detained in the Kerch Strait, in the Black Sea to be more precise. Yes, Medvedchuk raised this issue. However, as I have said, these issues could only be tackled after the criminal case is closed.

Hirofumi Sugizaki (Japan):  It is natural that my question is, unfortunately, about the peace treaty that, as I understand, our countries are seeking to sign. After your meeting with Mr Shinzo Abe in Singapore, wh ere you agreed to push the negotiating process forward on the basis of the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of 1956, our public’s only concern is about how many islands we are going to get: nil, two, three or four – we do not know. On the other hand, as I understand, the Russians are also puzzled, as they mainly ask questions like, “Why should we return them?” Some people even approach us with a threat: “We will not yield an inch of our land.” And so on. The question is about the delimitation that we must carry out. But if our new treaty – a peace treaty – is confined to the delimitation of borders, this will not be enough and will not be interesting to our nations, and people will not understand this. What new idea do you think should be embedded in a treaty to bring our relations to a new level?

There is another question that I cannot fail to ask in connection with the above. Russia – and you yourself – has brought up security issues recently, I mean the deployment of the US missile defence system in Japan and the possibility of deploying American troops and military infrastructure on the islands should they be transferred to Japan. We are holding negotiations at an expert level, but in military matters Japan almost fully depends on the US. Do you think these issues can be resolved on a bilateral basis, or will you have to deal directly with the US? Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Let us talk about the final part of your question so that we do not forget what you said. The issues of security are crucially important, including when signing a peace treaty. You spoke about the deployment of the US military infrastructure in Japan, but it is already there, the largest US base is in Okinawa, it has been there for decades, as we know.

Now, about Japan’s ability to take part in this decision-making. To us, this is an unclear, closed issue. We do not understand the level of Japan’s sovereignty in making such decisions. You know better than all other colleagues, and I know too that the Okinawa Governor is opposed to some decisions related to improving and expanding the base. He is against it, but he cannot do anything about it. People who live there are also against it.

There is a lot of evidence of that; there have been opinion polls and protests demanding the withdrawal of this base. And, in any case, they are opposed to strengthening the US Air Force part of the base that is there. There are plans to improve and expand it, and it is happening despite the fact that everybody is against it.

We do not know what will happen after the peace treaty is concluded, but without an answer to this question it will be very difficult to make any crucial decisions. And, of course, we are concerned about the plans to place ABM systems there. I told the United States this many times and I will repeat again that we do not consider this to be defensive weapons; this is part of the US strategic nuclear potential placed outside. And these systems, they are synchronised with the missile strike systems.

So there are no illusions and we understand everything. But nevertheless we are sincerely striving and will strive to sign a peace treaty with Japan. It is because I am confident, and Prime Minister Abe shares my confidence, that the current state of affairs is not normal. Both Japan and Russia are interested in a complete settlement of our relations, and it is not only because we need something from Japan in terms of the economy. Our economy is more or less developing.

Just this morning, Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin reported on his trip to Japan. There is some progress, including an agreement on deliveries, on opening the Japanese market to Russian meat and poultry products. There are other improvements as well. Therefore, we are moving forward, and will continue to move forward, as it will be necessary. But the normalisation is important to us, both for Russia and Japan. It is a difficult process, but we are ready to move forward together with our colleagues.

Ilya Petrenko (RT):  First, I would like to inquire about a recent decision to simplify procedures for the people of Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship. Our channel often dealt with this issue, as well as with bureaucracy. It goes without saying that this is an important step, but I would like to ask you to explain the logic of this from a purely political standpoint. If this is so essential, and if this is needed to help people in eastern Ukraine, why didn’t we do it earlier? Are you not afraid that bureaucracy will persist, and that papers will, from now on, be placed to the left, rather than the right?

I would also like to come back to the question from my Izvestia colleague. There is the Skripal scandal and the Western response to it. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, was murdered, and this incident caused an entirely different response. Kirill Vyshinsky and Maria Butina, as well as Huawei Chief Financial Officer were arrested. And Donald Trump is saying openly that sheis a bargaining chip in a trade war. My colleague wanted to know if we would ever see this happening in Russia, when foreign citizens would be arrested under far-fetched pretexts and exchanged for someone else. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Let us start with the last part of your question. I do not want to comment on US-Chinese relations, who arrested whom and for what actions, etc. This is a very sensitive area, and we will not act according to the laws of the Code of Hammurabi here. The law of retaliation states, “An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.” We need to act very cautiously here, and we need to be real. We will respond if certain people violate Russian legislation, regardless of their national and state affiliation. But we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.

As for the fate of Russian nationals, we do care about them, including the fact that Butina is being forced to admit something over there. I cannot understand what she could possibly have admitted, since she was not following any instructions from the Russian Government or its agencies. I am saying this because I mean it, no matter what she says under the threat of being sentenced to 12 or 15 years in prison. It is understandable that together with her lawyer she is fighting to get out of prison. I do not quite understand why they put her there in the first place. There were simply no grounds for it. But now this is a question of saving face for them and finding a way out. I am primarily referring to the US justice system. We will see how it plays out. We do care, and we will keep an eye on this case and provide our support accordingly.

As for the Skripals and Khashoggi, no comment is required. Khashoggi was obviously murdered, and everyone acknowledged it. Skripal is alive, thank Heaven. Nevertheless, Russia was slapped with a salvo of sanctions in this connection, with no end in sight, which contrasts with complete silence in the second case. This is a politically-driven, Rusophobic approach. It serves as a pretext for attacking Russia once more. Without the Skripal case, they would have come up with something else. This is quite obvious to me. Their only goal is to contain Russia and prevent it from emerging as a potential competitor. I do not see any other end to it.

Regarding red tape on citizenship matters. You said “red tape.” How so? Red tape is perennial. You cannot defeat it. At the same time, you cannot live without it either, and this has to be said as well. It is true that there must be rules for this bureaucracy and governance mechanisms, etc.

Regarding naturalisation, this does not have to do only with what is taking place in southeastern Ukraine. Our initiatives do not target exclusively people living in these territories. The Government is currently working on amendments to the relevant law on citizenship and naturalisation. What for? These efforts are designed to show that we do not seek and will not support policies of division or the ones designed to alienate the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. What are the current [Ukrainian] authorities doing? What is their mission? What are they trying to achieve on the back of Russophobia they are promoting? They are practically admitting that they are pursuing a historic task of separating the peoples of Russia and Ukraine. This is what they are up to. And for that, they can get away with anything.

Your colleague from the Ukrainian media talked about the challenges faced by people living in Donbass and the Lugansk Region, and their poor living standards. But is it any better in Ukraine? The situation is quite similar compared to Donbass, and it is getting worse all the time. Anything can be forgiven within the country, and even more so outside it against the backdrop of war, hostilities and tensions. And they are getting paid for this. They are about to receive another IMF tranche. We do understand what this is all about: just enough to pay out pensions and salaries to social sector employees, and the future generations will have to foot the bill. For this reason the overall situation is quite unfavourable. I believe this to be the case for the economy, society and domestic political processes. But our nations are very close and share the same history, so we will do everything to move in this direction.

The law on citizenship is currently being amended, and it will be adopted in early 2019.

Yelena Glushakova (RIA Novosti): I have also brought a picture, Masha and the Bear, that relates to the topic of my question. As my colleagues have said, Russia has been living under a huge amount of the most varied sanctions for the past few years. It can be hard to keep track at times, and, in some cases, they are vowing to introduce sanctions against cartoon characters.

But this is beside the point. My question is more serious. They are planning to introduce even more serious sanctions; for example, US lawmakers are preparing for this. And is Russia prepared for a new round of sanctions escalation? Does the Government have any plan for minimising their impact on the Russian economy? And what do you think the impact is, all the more so given the widely differing views expressed on it?

Vladimir Putin: Well, we have discussed sanctions many times. If you want to discuss this issue once again, that is okay with me.

Throughout virtually its entire history, Russia has faced various restrictions and sanctions. Really its entire history.

If you look at the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will see that the situation is always the same. You can read diplomatic correspondence dating to the 19th century and the early 20th century. Everything is the same. They urged Russian diplomats to quickly establish order in the Caucasus and to do many other things. Nothing changes.

How can this be explained? I have already discussed this, and I hope that an overwhelming majority of today’s audience also realises that it is related to Russia’s growing might and its greater competitiveness. A mighty and powerful player is emerging, one that has to be reckoned with, even if others would rather not.

Quite recently, they believed that a country like that no longer existed, but it turns out it does and it must be reckoned with. Our country has a population of 160 million. This is not just some wishful thinking on the part of its leaders, it represents the interests of the people that we are defending. By the way, we are carefully defending these interests with calm and restraint, nothing boorish. But we are going about our business, and we will continue to move in this direction.

Speaking of present-day sanctions, they have just mentioned the Skripals and Khashoggi incidents. So, is there any logic here? No, there is none. This is just a pretext for taking additional action to contain Russia.

Our economy, as it has been said many times, has adapted to these external restrictions. Look, in the beginning of this meeting I mentioned that after the 2008−2009 global crisis, our GDP dropped by 7.8 percent. There were no sanctions at the time. After the sanctions were imposed in 2014, the drop was 2.5 percent.

You asked how we assess this situation? We always assess it in our favour. But let us look at how our opponents see it – those who impose the sanctions. For example, the US Treasury Department believes that this 2.5-percent drop in 2015 was one-third due to the sanctions and two-thirds due to the collapsed prices on energy sources, mainly, oil. In fact, I think that one-third is too much. But all, right, they did affect our GDP.

The sanctions also affect those who introduced them. According to the European Parliament, the European economy lost around 500 billion euros due to the sanctions against Russia because they lost our market, they under-export and they under-import certain goods from us. The number of jobs has dropped.

It is significant for them because many EU countries suffer from a very high unemployment rate. In Spain, if I am not mistaken, it is still around 15 percent. We have 4.8 percent and they have 15 percent, you know. And the development of global trade, which lost over 400 billion, is also a result of such an unpredictable policy, including sanctions. This policy is harmful to everybody.

I will repeat once again, our economy has adapted to this. Yes, there are some adverse effects but look, there are also positive sides to these sanctions. What are they? The sanctions made us switch on our brains in many areas and Western experts also acknowledge this. The share of Russian transport machine building was 98 percent in 2017. Automobile production accounted for 85 percent. Several other industries, also key areas, accounted for around 80 percent.

This year, we spent 600 billion rubles on import substitution, including 125 to 128 billion from the federal budget. I will not even mention agriculture. We had to compensate for the imports in the market. Yes, unfortunately, this resulted in a short-term price increase in the domestic food market but right now, the prices have stabilised to a large extent in this sector of the economy and agriculture has made a breakthrough that we could not have ever imagined.

Since 2000, the amount of exports has increased 16-fold, which is just unbelievable except it is actually happening. There are negative and positive sides but in any case, we would like the world economy to develop without any shocks, unlawful measures or external restrictions, to develop naturally, for its own benefit.

Rachel Marsden (Chicago Tribune): President Putin, Rachel Marsden with the Tribune Publishing out of Chicago, United States.

Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria. He also announced that, in his opinion, the United States defeated ISIS in Syria, he made that very clear.

What is your position with respect to his statements, both on the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria and also with his statement regarding the defeat of ISIS by the United States?

And, secondly, do you have concern that the American troops will remain in some form? There has been much discussion, for example, around the presence, potentially, of contractors in other jurisdictions wh ere the United States is either out of militarily or might want to be out of militarily but in a more discreet way.

Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: As concerns the defeat of ISIS, overall I agree with the President of the United States. I already said that we achieved significant progress in the fight against terrorism in that territory and delivered major strikes on ISIS in Syria.

There is a risk of these and similar groups migrating to neighbouring regions and Afghanistan, to other countries, to their home countries, and they are partly returning.

It is a great danger for all of us, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Asian countries, including Central Asia. We know that, we understand the risk fully. Donald is right about that, and I agree with him.

As concerns the withdrawal of American troops, I do not know what that is. The United States have been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years, and every year they talk about withdrawing the troops. But they are still there. This is my second point.

Third. So far, we have not seen any evidence of their withdrawal but I suppose it is possible, the more so because we are progressing towards a political settlement. The current issue on the agenda is building a constitutional committee.

By the way, when we met in Istanbul – I mean Russia, Turkey, France and Germany – we agreed to make every possible effort to create this constitutional committee and Russia, for its part, has done everything in its power for this to happen.

As strange as it may seem, we fully agreed on the list of members with President al-Assad, who designated 50 people and was involved in selecting 50 more from civil society. Despite the fact that he is not happy with everything, he agreed with this.

Turkey, which represents the interests of the opposition, also agreed. Iran agreed. We submitted the list to the UN and, as Minister Lavrov reported to me just yesterday, unexpectedly, prompted by our partners – Germany, France and the United States – UN representatives (Mr de Mistura) decided to wait and see.

I do not understand what is going on there but at any rate, I want to believe that this work is in its final stage. Maybe not by the end of this year but in the beginning of the next the list will be agreed and this will open the next stage of the settlement, which will be political settlement.

Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is. However, let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your troops, is illegitimate as it was not approved by a UN Security Council resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian Government. Russian troops were invited by the Syrian Government. The United States did not get either of these so if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.

There is another very important component in this process. Despite all the disagreements, our specialists, our military personnel, security services and foreign ministries have established a rather constructive dialogue to address acute issues in combating terrorism in Syria. Overall, we are satisfied with our cooperation.

Question: On December 6, Russia refused to support a UN General Assembly resolution on Afghanistan because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries.

Vladimir Putin: Because of what?

Remark: Because of its disagreement with the position of some Western countries.

Vladimir Putin: What was that resolution about? Can you remind me, please?

Remark: Western countries.

They said the situation in Afghanistan was good, while Russia believed that…

Vladimir Putin: We believe that it is not good. What do you think about this?

Remark: I would like to know what you think.

Vladimir Putin: Do you want my opinion?

Question: At the same time, the US is conducting separate talks with the Taliban. In light of this, what will be the future of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan, which were attended by delegates from 11 countries?

Vladimir Putin: The Moscow format?

Remark: Yes.

Vladimir Putin: To be honest, I do not recall the details of that draft resolution. But I think you will agree with me, and I am sure that the majority of those who live in Afghanistan will agree with me.

I do not know what our Western partners wanted to achieve with that resolution. If they wanted to declare that everything is fine there, this has little to do with reality.

What part of the country does the Kabul government control officially? Not more than one third, to be perfectly frank; do you agree? When elections are held, it takes months to add up the results. Is this how it should be? So what is there to approve of?

Talks are underway with the Taliban. This is probably unavoidable. But we must understand the subject of these talks and their possible outcome. If there is a force that controls the bulk of Afghanistan’s territory, its opinion must be taken into account, but this should be done openly and publicly, so it is clear what we are talking about.

I believe that this is probably the essence of our Foreign Ministry’s position at the talks. We are not against a settlement. Overall, we believe that the problem can be settled exclusively through an agreement between all parties to the political process in Afghanistan.

Until then, we will need to reinforce our military base in Tajikistan. We believe that the people of Afghanistan will eventually reach an agreement, and that all political forces and ethnic groups will reach a consensus.

We will facilitate this process as much as we can, including by promoting economic cooperation with Afghanistan and by taking part in various international projects, such as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline [gas trunk line], TAPI.

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal(Tsargrad):  After the law on foreign agents was passed, there was an enormous uproar over human rights being violated and so on.

Vladimir Putin: One of my colleagues – I will not give his name – was asked during talks: “What is the situation with human rights in your country?” [Allusion to a Soviet-era joke.] He looked at his interlocutor and asked: “Who is the human being you are talking about?” I would like to ask you: who is the human being you are referring to?

Anna Vavilova-Dollezhal: In our country this primarily applies to legal entities, while Maria Butina was arrested in the United States as a private individual. This law [on foreign agents] has been in effect in the US since 1938. I would like to ask you if it makes sense to borrow from the experience of our Western partners here.

I have another question that is very important to us. I represent Tsargrad TV channel and we want to know what you think about the situation developing around Orthodoxy globally, given recent sectarian activities by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Kiev. Perhaps, everyone is now beginning to realise that the United States is the main player here. So it turns out that religion is heavily dominated by geopolitics. Is that the case?

Vladimir Putin: Regarding the first part of your question, we have relied on international experience when we passed the law on foreign agents. This is not about bans. This law requires that any entity receiving funding from abroad to carry out its public political activities must be registered as a foreign agent. That is it. Incidentally, this type of activity is banned in the United States and here you have the result: under this law Butina was arrested and taken into custody and might be sentenced to 12 years in prison. We do nothing of the sort here. Our law only requires registration for entities receiving funding from abroad. There is nothing here to fear. Frankly speaking, I do not see any problems here, as far as law enforcement is concerned. However, we, of course, need to look into the matter.

When I meet with human rights activists, they point out certain drawbacks in this law, aspects actually related to charity rather than politics. And I think they are right. We need to pay close attention to what is happening in life and make adjustments wh ere necessary. This must not interfere with our normal life and must not hinder the activity of honest and decent people who want to solve problems, including with the support of like-minded people abroad. There is nothing wrong with this. But political activity must, of course, be prohibited. Well, not prohibited but at least subject to law.

Second, the Orthodox church. The situation with the Orthodox church defies comprehension. This is direct interference of the state in religious life. This has not happened since the Soviet Union. But, unfortunately, it is happening in Ukraine now. They created this breakaway church of the Istanbul curacy. They did not like the Moscow curacy so let it be the Istanbul curacy.

Note that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy was completely independent. Perhaps few people know this but it was actually a completely independent church. They did everything independently, including the election of bishops. The only connection was spiritual as they mentioned the name of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia during sermons. That was all. Now look at how dependent they are becoming on Turkey, on the Turkish Patriarchy. Many appointments and, most importantly, a lot of money. I think this is Bartholomew’s main impelling motive, to bring this territory into subjection and make money on it. I believe this is the main underlying motive – except for a tip from Washington, of course. The fact that the State Secretary called Kiev about this matter and discussed it is an outrage. Absolutely unacceptable. However, it is happening.

Of course, this is another indication of the fact that the measure is also related to the election campaign and is meant to further widen the gap between Russian and Ukrainian people. The rationale behind it is, without doubt, political, and it is not good news for religious freedom in general. This is a clear and flagrant violation of the freedom of religion. I am mostly concerned about the likelihood that property redistribution will follow. This is already happening. This redistribution could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed, God forbid. I am sorry for the people who are defending their interests. They are usually helpless and unarmed. They are usually seniors and women. But there is, of course, the risk of property redistribution.

Ann Maria Simmons (Wall Street Journal):  In the West, many politicians, experts and even ordinary people see Russia as a great threat. They even think that you, as the President of Russia, want to rule the world.

Vladimir Putin: Well, of course.

Ann Maria Simmons: I want to know if you really want this. Also, please, what is the real goal of your foreign policy? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: With regard to ruling the world, we know wh ere the headquarters that is trying to do so is located, and it is not in Moscow. However, this is related to the leading role of the United States in the global economy and defence spending: the United States is spending over $700 billion on defence, while we spend only $46 billion.

Just think of it, we have 146 million people in Russia, whereas the NATO countries’ population is 600 million, and you think our goal is to rule the world? This is a cliché imposed on public opinion in Western countries in order to resolve intra-bloc and domestic political issues.

When I say intra-bloc, I mean that in order for NATO to rally countries around itself, it needs an external threat. It does not work otherwise. You have to have someone to rally against. As a major nuclear power, Russia fits the bill perfectly.

With regard to domestic political issues, unfortunately, Russophobia continues to flourish in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe. For what purpose? In order to use old historical fears to ensure their own domestic political well-being.

This is also harmful, because, ultimately, it is about exploiting the phobias of the past, which prevent us from moving forward. It is harmful for the countries and peoples whose leaders are trying to pursue such a policy.

In fact, the main goal of our foreign policy is to provide favourable conditions for the Russian Federation, its economy and social sphere, to ensure unfettered movement forward and to strengthen our country from the inside, above all, so that it can take its rightful place in the international arena as an equal among equals.

We are in favour of consolidating the system of international law, ensuring unconditional compliance with the UN Charter, and using this platform to develop equal relations with all the participants of international affairs.

Marina Kim (Channel One):  Our question is: The Great Game show is about Russia-US relations. We would like to know if a meeting with Mr Trump is possible after he cancelled it himself, for example, in the immediate future. Are you ready for one?

And to quote Kipling, the 19th century, who said the Great Game is finished when everyone is dead. And it was a standoff of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Vladimir Putin: That’s great! “Would you like to meet?” “Will there be a meeting?” “Everyone will die.”

Marina Kim: I will explain. There was a standoff between the Anglo-Saxon world and the Russian world in the 19th century. Have the rules changed now or is it the same game? Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Unfortunately, we see that many birthmarks of the past, as Karl Marx used to say, are still there, but I hope that some things will somehow be made right. Ultimately we will reach the bottom in our relations and will understand that we have to go up, to push off from that bottom, go up, take a lungful of fresh air and with a clear head start thinking how to proceed.

I do not know if we have a meeting or not, I said a number of times that we are ready. We believe there are issues that we have to discuss together. Work at the expert level on Syria, for example, is ongoing. We also have to speak about North Korea, and Afghanistan, a great many other situations in the world.

After all, we need to talk about bilateral relations; we are interested in this, as well as our American partners are, by the way. Of course, there is no super-global interest. Our mutual trade stands at a meagre 28 billion, or even lower now, less than 28, 25 to 27 billion maybe. This is nothing, zero. With China, we will reach 100 billion this year, and with the US, everything is in decline. Who is interested in this? No one, not even the President of the United States, who is promoting the idea of reviving the economy, as he says, in his quest to make America great again.

I certainly believe that working with Russia is important in itself, and this includes economic cooperation, at least bearing in mind that we play a key role in the global energy market; cooperation in the field of nonproliferation and global security also matters, among other things. We have a lot to talk about. But we see what is happening there. Now power will change in Congress. Almost certainly, 100 percent sure, there will be new attacks on the current President. Under these conditions, whether he will be able to achieve any kind of direct dialogue with Russia, I do not know; you will have to ask them.

What worries me though? You mentioned the Anglo-Saxon world, wh ere some deep-rooted, tectonic changes are occurring. After all, please note, Trump won – this is an obvious fact no one seems to be arguing with, but they do not want to recognise his victory either. This actually shows disrespect for the voters – refusing to recognise his victory, doing everything to delegitimise the incumbent President.

The same applies to Britain: Brexit got the majority vote – but no one wants to implement it. What are they refusing to recognise? The referendum results. Democratic procedures are being dropped out of the equation, and destroyed; their value is being destroyed. That is what is happening there. This is a serious process. I have pointed out that Western analysts are already discussing this matter, both in the States, by the way, and in Britain. We must keep this in mind. But whatever happens, we still need to build bilateral relations. We are willing to. As soon as possible. As soon as the other side is ready, we will do this.

Galina Polonskaya (Euronews): Hello, Mr President. Galina Polonskaya, Euronews TV channel. Thank you for the opportunity to ask you a question. I will put down the sign, I have already become one with it during these four hours.

The UN adopted a resolution about Russia’s militarisation of the Sea of ​​Azov, Crimea, and part of the Black Sea. After what happened with the Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, there were reports that Russia was sending military equipment to Crimea. Why should Russia reinforce its military presence in Crimea? Is Russia ready to declare the entire water area of ​​the Sea of ​​Azov its territory? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Look, in 2014, people living in Crimea came out for the referendum and ultimately voted for reunification with the Russian Federation. From that moment, after the relevant domestic procedures, Crimea became part of the Russian Federation, part of Russia. Therefore, we are entitled to and will continue to pursue our military policy on any part of our territory, as we see fit to ensure national security. Crimea is no exception. If the General Staff, if the border guards believe that we need to do something extra in some area, we will do it. Russia's security in this area will certainly be ensured. We are not going to overdo it there, but what needs to be done, will be done. This is the first point.

Now about the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. We almost immediately announced that we intended to build a bridge to link up with Crimea, which we did. First we built an energy bridge, then a gas pipe, and now we are building two power plants there, in Sevastopol and in Simferopol, with a total capacity of 940 megawatts. We are building the Tavrida road, to be completed by the end of 2020. Next year, I think, the two-lane road will open, and by the end of 2020, a four-lane road.

We will develop the local infrastructure. That is, it is not only about reinforcing the military component, but above all, the civilian, infrastructure component. All this will certainly be implemented. We have a federal targeted programme for the development of Crimea. For the next two years, we have allocated 300 billion rubles for the development of the peninsula. All this will progress. Along with that, the military component will be strengthened, as far as we need it.

As for the Kerch straits, the situation is difficult, in terms of nature. These straits are very narrow and rather shallow. Their depth is about 13 metres. Let me emphasise that pilotage has always been conducted there. The construction of the bridge does not interfere with anything. Pilots escort ships as they used to.

Freight turnover is growing, in particular, in the ports of the Sea of Azov, this is true. But work there is organised and all participants in these economic activities know how this is being done. There is a queue there. Sometimes it is bigger and sometimes it is smaller. Just look at the number of vessels in front of the entrance to the port of Novorossiysk. There are quite a few of them.

I will have to repeat this once again: On September 11 of the past year Ukrainian vessels, including warships, fulfilled all requirements of passage through these straits and under the bridge and were calmly led by our pilots into the Sea of Azov and further on to their destination in the Sea. Nobody interfered with them – just helped.

This time everything was different. This is a deliberate provocation in the course of Mr Poroshenko’s election campaign. We have already shown in the media the logbook that contains the order to “enter secretly.” What does “secretly” mean? Nobody can say what might happen there without pilotage, all the more so when some politicians say in public that they are ready to blow up the bridge. Naturally, we cannot allow this to happen. This would be simply absurd for us, period. As for routine activities, nobody restricts them.

Now a few words about the regime in the Sea of Azov. We have a treaty dating back to 2003, I think. What does it say? It reads that there is a coastal area of five kilometres, not the usual 12 sea miles in accordance with the international Law of the Sea, but five kilometres off the coast. These are the territorial waters of a state, in this case of Russia or Ukraine, and the rest is common sea. Incidentally, our fishermen were once captured although they did not enter the five km zone. Nonetheless, they were seized and their captain is still detained. And your Euronews channel does not even mention this as if this is how it should be. The same is true of other Russian seamen: there is a dry-cargo vessel with its crew out there somewhere, but nobody recalls anything. Therefore, we should observe these agreements and abstain from announcing any unilateral actions.

As for warships, they should be in constant contact with our border guards. The border guards conduct their border mission. In conditions of martial law, I can hardly imagine warships going to and fro, but in general we would like to normalise the situation. We do not create any obstacles to vessels, including warships. Let me repeat that last September vessels were led by our pilot and nobody interfered with them, on the contrary we only helped.

This is a complicated problem, which we will certainly keep working on. You are right about this, I agree.

As far as the amendments to the Constitution are concerned, this is a matter for broad public discussion.

Full text available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/59455