We have always enjoyed trust-based relations in the political sphere as well. The establishment of the Russia-NATO Council was Italy’s initiative – Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister at the time. This advisory working body no doubt became an important factor of security in Europe. In this regard, Italy has always contributed greatly to the development of the dialogue between Russia and Europe, and NATO as a whole. Not to mention our special cultural and humanitarian cooperation.
All this, of course, lays the foundation for a special relationship between our countries. And the incumbent Prime Minister’s visit to Russia sent a very important message showing that Italy is willing to develop these relations. It is only natural that this does not go unnoticed either by the Government of the Russian Federation or by the public.
We are, of course, ready to reciprocate and go further in expanding our cooperation as long as our Italian partners are willing to do the same. I hope that my upcoming visit to Milan will help in this respect.
Luciano Fontana: You have known several chairmen of the Italian Council of Ministers – Romano Prodi, Silvio Berlusconi, Massimo D’Alema, Giuliano Amato, Enrico Letta and now Matteo Renzi. With whom did you find that you understood each other best? And how much, in your opinion, does the existence of a personal relationship – like the one you had with Silvio Berlusconi – contribute to good relations between countries?
Vladimir Putin: No matter what posts we occupy or what our jobs are, we are still human, and personal trust is certainly a very important factor in our work, in building relations on the interstate level. One of the people you have just mentioned once told me, “You must be the only person (meaning I was the only person) – who has a friendly relationship with both Berlusconi and Prodi.” I can tell you that it was not difficult for me, I still don’t find it difficult, and I can tell you why. My Italian partners have always put the interests of Italy, of the Italian people, first and believed that in order to serve the interests of their country, including economic and political interests, they must maintain friendly relations with Russia. We have always understood and felt that.
This has been the key element underlying our good relations. I have always sensed a truly sincere interest in building interstate relations irrespective of the domestic political situation. I would like to say in this regard that the attitude people in Russia have developed towards Italy does not depend on which political party is in power.
Paolo Valentino: Mr President, you are coming to Milan for the celebration of the Russia Day at the Universal Exhibition EXPO 2015. The core theme of this year’s exhibition is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” What is Russia’s contribution to this cause? What does this effort mean for relations between states?
Vladimir Putin: This is one of the major challenges that humanity is facing today. So I can and must acknowledge that the Italian organisers chose one of the key themes for the exhibition.
The world’s population is growing. According to experts, it will reach 9 billion people by 2050. But even today, according to the same sources, to the UN, 850 million people all over the planet are under nourished or starving, and 100 million of them are children. So, there is no doubt that this is one of the key issues of our time. Many other issues, seemingly unrelated, will depend on how we deal with it. I am talking about instability among other things, that is political instability of entire regions, terrorism, and so on. All these problems are interrelated. The surge of illegal migration that has hit Italy and Europe today is among these resulting problems. I would like to repeat that, in my view, the organisers did the right thing pointing out the need to address this issue.
As for Russia’s contribution, we channel over $200 million into this through UN programmes. Many countries around the world receive necessary support and assistance under these programmes using Russian resources.
We pay significant attention to the development of agriculture in our country. Notwithstanding all the difficulties that the development of Russian economy faces today, our agricultural sector, the sector of agricultural production, has been growing steadily – last year the growth was around 3.4 3.5 percent. In the first quarter of the current year, the growth stayed at the same level, exceeding 3 percent, at 3.4 percent. Russia is now the third largest grain exporter in the world. Last year, we had a record harvest of grain crops, one of the largest in recent years – 105.3 million tonnes. Finally, Russia has an enormous potential in this sphere. I think that we have the largest area of arable land in the world and the biggest fresh water reserves, since Russia is the biggest country in the world in terms of territory.
Paolo Valentino: Mr. President, when we were talking about the shadow cast on our relations, you said that it was not your choice, and there is an opinion that Russia feels betrayed, abandoned by Europe, like a lover abandoned by his mistress. What are the problems in these relations today? Do you think that Europe has been too dependent on the United States in the Ukrainian crisis? What do you expect from Europe in relation to the sanctions? I may have asked too many questions at once.
Vladimir Putin: You have certainly asked a lot of questions, with an Italian flair. (Laughs)
First, about the mistress. In this kind of a relationship with a woman, that is, if you assume no obligations, you have no right to claim any obligations from your partner.
We have never viewed Europe as a mistress. I am quite serious now. We have always proposed a serious relationship. But now I have the impression that Europe has actually been trying to establish material based relations with us, and solely for its own gain. There is the notorious Third Energy Package and the denial of access for our nuclear energy products to the European market despite all the existing agreements. There is reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of our actions and reluctance to cooperate with integration associations in the territory of the former Soviet Union. I am referring to the Customs Union, which we created and which has now grown into the Eurasian Economic Union.
Because it is all right when integration takes place in Europe, but if we do the same in the territory of the former Soviet Union, they try to explain it by Russia’s desire to restore an empire. I don’t understand the reasons for such an approach.
You see, all of us, including me, have been talking for a long time about the need to establish a common economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. In fact, French President Charles de Gaulle said something similar a lot earlier than me. Today nobody objects to it, everybody says: yes, we should aspire to this.
But what is happening in practice? For example, the Baltic States have joined the European Union. Good, no problem. But today we are being told that these countries, which are part of the energy system of the former Soviet Union and Russia, they must join the European Union’s energy system. We ask: Are there any problems with energy supply or with something else? Why is it necessary? – No, there are no problems, but we have decided that it will be better this way.
What does this mean for us in practical terms? It means that we will be forced to build additional generating capacities in some western regions in Russia. Since electricity transmission lines went through the Baltic States to some Russian regions and vice versa, all of them will now be switched over to Europe, and we will have to build new transmission lines in our country to ensure electricity supply. This will cost us about 2 2.5 billion euro.
Now let’s look at the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. It does not require that Ukraine becomes part of the European energy system, but it is considered possible. If this happens, we will have to spend not 2 2.5 billion but, probably, about 8 10 billion euro for the same purpose. The question is: why is this necessary if we believe in building a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok? What is the objective of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership? Is it to integrate the whole former Soviet Union into a single space with Europe, I repeat for the third time, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, or to cut something off and establish a new border between modern Russia and the western territories including, say, Ukraine and Moldova?
Let me tell you something else now, and you can decide for yourselves what to publish and what to leave out.
What are the roots of the Ukrainian crisis? Its cause seems to be completely disproportionate to what has become an utter tragedy today claiming many lives in southeast Ukraine. What sparked the crisis? Former President Viktor Yanukovych said that he needed to think about signing Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, possibly make some changes and hold consultations with Russia, its major trade and economic partner. In this connection or under this pretext riots broke out in Kiev. They were actively supported both by our European and American partners. Then a coup d’état followed – a totally anti-constitutional act. The new authorities announced that they were going to sign the Association Agreement but would delay its implementation until January 1, 2016. The question is: what was the coup d’état for? Why did they need to escalate the situation to a civil war? The result is exactly the same.
What is more, at the end of 2013 we were ready to give Ukraine $15 billion as a state loan supported by a further $5 billion via commercial banks; plus we already gave it $3 billion during the year and promised to cut gas prices by half if they paid regularly. We were not at all against Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. But, of course, we wanted to participate in the final decisions, meaning that Ukraine was then and is still now, today, a member of the CIS free trade area, and we have mutual obligations as its members.