Full transcript of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s interview with Al Arabiya

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Below is the full transcript of Al Arabiya's interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2007. Al Arabiya's correspondent Mohammed al-Tomaihi, alongside journalists from Russia Today and Sky News, asked Putin questions on a range of subjects including Saudi-Russian relations, Russia's response to the September attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities, and the prospects of a political settlement to the war in Syria.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: Dear viewers, welcome to this interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Mr. President, welcome, and thank you for this opportunity [to speak to you] before your visit to the Middle East.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: It is my pleasure. I think it is a good tradition to meet with a country’s media before visiting it. As for the visit to Saudi Arabia, we attach great importance to it. It is, in a sense, a return visit after the visit by King of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to Russia. It was the first, historic visit. We consider it historic, and it really is. There is one more thing that I believe is important to note. In Soviet times, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were at a rather low level. In recent years, the quality of our relations has changed dramatically. We consider Saudi Arabia a friendly nation. I have very good relations with both the King and the Crown Prince. We have been making good headway practically in all fields. I will start with the economy. There is still a lot to be done, but we have set a good pace. Last year it was up 15 percent. In the first six months of 2019 growth was as high as 38 percent. We are considering some good joint projects. Our Direct Investment Fund and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia have jointly established a $10 billion platform. $2 billion have already been invested. Work is underway on other projects, and some promising and interesting projects have already been implemented. We also consider it possible to operate on the territory of Saudi Arabia. One of our companies is exploring the possibility of building a petrochemical facility with investments of more than $1 billion. It is SIBUR Holding, Russia’s largest company in this sector. We are fostering a partnership in the trust-based, sensitive area of military and defense cooperation. We have been negotiating for a long time. Equally important are our joint efforts to resolve the regional crises. In this regard, I would like to emphasize the positive role Saudi Arabia has played in resolving the Syrian crisis. We are working especially closely with Turkey and Iran, as you all know. But I believe that without Saudi Arabia’s contribution towards a Syrian settlement, it would have been impossible to achieve a positive trend. Therefore, I would like to express our gratitude to both the King and the Crown Prince for this constructive approach. I am confident that my visit will help to build up the momentum both in developing bilateral relations and enhancing cooperation in international organizations.

Question: Mr. President thank you very much for this opportunity. Of course, your visit to the region includes the UAE. You have a strategic partnership with the country, and there has been long-standing bilateral cooperation. I would like to know your vision of the role that the UAE could play in the framework of joint cooperation which was recently suggested by Russia. What role could a country like the UAE, and other countries in the region, play in this initiative that Russia suggested?

Vladimir Putin: You have just mentioned the strategic nature of our cooperation. Indeed, we signed a strategic partnership memorandum last year, and we see the United Arab Emirates as one of our very close and promising partners. The signing of this document was not a coincidence, it demonstrated the quality and nature of relations between the United Arab Emirates and the Russian Federation. I have to say that, as is the case with Saudi Arabia, our partnership is vigorously developing in all areas. Of all the Gulf countries, we have the highest level of trade, $1.7 billion, but of course, this is not enough, we are well aware of that. So currently, we are working with the UAE’s sovereign fund. The joint platform is worth approximately $7 billion. $2 billion have already been invested, work is underway on other projects. And of course, it is safe to say that the United Arab Emirates greatly contribute to resolving regional crises, and play a stabilizing role in the region. It is no great secret that we maintain regular contacts with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates. There is even an established tradition, a practice to compare notes regarding different topics. In my opinion, we are doing it for the benefit of both parties, and the region as a whole.

Question: Mr. President, in your presidency that has lasted for more than two decades, some harsh developments have taken place in the Arab world. Entire countries have fallen. Iraq and Libya fell, the situation in Yemen is on a cliff-edge, and last, but not least, what happened in Syria. Arabs who think that Russia has become a major power again in the region - and this is what we touch upon through our coverage on RT Arabic and our understanding of Russia’s foreign policy - they ask: Why haven’t you taken a harsh stance against rich countries like Libya and Iraq, when you have a harsher stance with the Syrians?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, during the crises in Iraq and Libya, I was not in office. But this is not the main reason. The thing is that, as is commonly known, in the case of Iraq, the United States circumvented the United Nations Security Council. The US had no mandate to use force against Iraq. Actually, I was President at that moment. Anyway, Russia did not support the invasion. Russia, France and Germany did not support the US plans regarding Iraq. What is more, we warned about the potential adverse implications, and that is exactly what happened. The initial euphoria of military victories soon gave way to despondency and pessimism about the consequences of the victory. Because all Iraqi government institutions were destroyed, but no new institutions were established, at least in the beginning. On the contrary, the radical forces got a boost, and terrorists groups became stronger. Many former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and security service agents resurfaced and joined the ranks of what later evolved into ISIS. So, those who led and supported this campaign had not considered the ramifications. We do expect that there will be some positive developments in Iraq, and despite some internal problems, the country will continue to move forward. Although there are still a lot of problems to deal with, we are perfectly aware of that. As for Libya, the chaos wrought by the military operations still prevails, but in this case, our Western partners played a trick on us, using the vernacular term (I do not know how this will be translated). Russia voted for the corresponding Security Council resolution. After all, what does this resolution say, if you read it carefully? The resolution prohibited Qaddafi to use aviation against the rebels. But there was nothing about allowing any air strikes on Libyan territory. But that was what actually happened. So, basically, what happened there was done circumventing the UN Security Council. And we are all aware of what happened next. There is still chaos and confusion; a flow of migrants went through Libya to Europe. Qaddafi had always warned about that, he said that he stopped African migrants from going to Europe. As soon as this ‘wall’ was gone, they started pouring into Europe. And now they have what they were warned about. But that is probably not even the main issue. Most importantly, it is destabilizing the entire Middle East region. As for Syria, we came to Syria to support the legitimate government, and I would like to emphasize the word ‘legitimate.’ It does not mean that they do not have internal problems; I am ready to talk about it in detail later. It does not mean that the current leadership is not responsible for what is going on there. They are, but it does not mean that we were to allow terrorist organizations to capture Syria and to establish a terrorist pseudo-state there. We could not allow militants to move to former Soviet republics. We do not have hard borders or a visa regime with them. We could not allow militants to infiltrate Russia from there. We already had such an experience and we know what this might lead to. We still remember what happened in Russia’s North Caucasus region not that long ago. This is why we made a decision to support the legitimate government. We have not just provided assistance to the legitimate government. We proceed from the premise that internal political contradictions must be and can be resolved by political methods only. That is why we were so adamant. I am glad to see it happening now as part of the political process, as a result of the establishment of the so-called Constitutional Committee. This idea was conceived right here, in Sochi, at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that brought together various political forces, including the opposition and the government. And here Syrians agreed among themselves to set up a constitutional committee that would work on changing the Syrian Constitution or drafting a new one. We have trodden a hard, arduous, and long path to form this committee. Now it has finally been formed, on behalf of the government, on behalf of President Assad, and on behalf of the opposition. I expect that in the coming days, it will take its first steps in Geneva under the auspices of the UN.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: Mr. President, you talk positively about the relationships that tie Saudi Arabia with Russia, but as you know, Saudi Arabia, which is a strategic partner for Russia in the energy sector, was subjected to a terrorist attack that targeted two facilities. While the world was discussing Iran’s involvement in the attacks, you were defending Tehran and asked for evidence to prove its involvement. What is Russia’s stance regarding this incident?

Vladimir Putin: Our official position is as follows: we condemn any such actions, end of story. This is the official position. We said this at the very beginning, and I have recently reiterated it at the Russian Energy Week forum in Moscow. There should be no room for doubt here. Such actions never yield any results for anyone, including those who plot and execute them. Why? If someone may have wanted to deal a blow to the oil market, they failed. There were indeed some fluctuations in prices, but I do not think it was anything too serious, even though the initial response was quite strong. The prices went back to normal in the very first week, because the fundamental factors that the market depends on will never allow the prices to either skyrocket or take a nosedive. Secondly, we – and I personally – maintain close contacts with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, including the Crown Prince. We discussed the incident, and I told him that I thought it necessary to collect evidence, to find the perpetrators behind that incident. Mohammed bin Salman agreed with me in principle, and asked me a question: “Could Russia take part in the investigation?” I said yes, we are ready to share anything that might be necessary, everything we have for a thorough investigation. Our position remains unchanged. It is counter-productive to put the blame on someone before finding out exactly who was behind the incident.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: But Mr. President, can we get confirmation that Moscow will not hesitate to punish Iran if investigations prove it was behind the attacks?

Vladimir Putin: I have just said it and I will repeat, regardless of who stood behind the incident, we condemn any such actions. That is exactly what I said before, and I really meant it. There is no other way to interpret this.

Question: Mr. President, regarding the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia, you undoubtedly know that countries in the region have concerns about Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, and you will undoubtedly hear about them when you visit the region. Iran today supports a number of militias in the region: in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and other [countries]. Does Russia feel concerned about Iran’s destabilizing role in the region? And how can Iran’s behavior change?

Vladimir Putin: As I said, we have an unprecedented level of partnership, I would even say friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Russia will never be friends with one country against another. We build bilateral relations that rely on positive trends generated by our contacts; we do not build alliances against anyone. This is my first point. Secondly, you and your audience understand, I believe, that Russia and Iran are neighbors; this is a factor we always bear in mind. Thirdly, Iran is a major regional power, an ancient country with a rich cultural legacy. If we want to build good relations with a country - and I believe every country in the region would want to have good relations with each other, no one seeks a standoff or, perish the thought, any conflict. No one does. I know that there is no one looking for a showdown and that is true for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If we want to set a positive agenda, we need to acknowledge that our partners have their own legitimate interests. I am not weighing in on what is legitimate and what is not. I just want to underscore that it is only natural that a big country like Iran, which has existed on its territory for thousands of years has its own interests. Persians and Iranians have lived here for centuries. And we should respect those interests. Of course, it is debatable what is legitimate and what is not, which interests are legitimate and which cross the line. However, you need to have dialogue to understand each other, to puzzle out all the nuances, intricacies and issues. Without dialogue, you cannot solve any problem. That is why I think I can share the concerns of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but in the case of bilateral issues, it is up to them to resolve them. As for Russia, we will do everything in our power to create the right conditions for positive change. Russia has cordial relations with Iran and is on very good terms with our Arab friends. Back in the Soviet times, we did not have any particularly deep relations with Saudi Arabia, but we were truly close with almost all the Arab countries. The Soviet Union was on very good terms with the entire Arab world. Today we are back to the same level of partnership. Therefore, if we put to good use the cordial relations that we have with Iran, the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, I think we can come up with something that would be of interest to everyone. Previously, I mentioned the positive role that we play in Syria. It is true that we – Turkey, Iran, and Russia – work hard, shoulder to shoulder, to achieve positive results. However, it would have been impossible without support from Saudi Arabia, and we all understand that. And, of course, without assistance from the UAE as well. It means that, despite acute contradictions, there is still something that brings us together towards a common goal. You just need to find such a goal and then apply concerted efforts to reach it. That can create the right setting for the normalization of relations between the countries in the region.

Question: If my colleague allows me to quickly comment on the subject of Iran, Mr. President, today there is talk about the need to renegotiate the P5+1 agreement, the nuclear deal with Iran, to include its destabilizing role, its missile programs, and all of these things. Is Russia in support of renegotiating the P5+1 deal to include these issues, which concern the countries in the region?

Vladimir Putin: There is the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal, which specifies certain limits and commitments for Iran, and Iran has accepted them. Let us be frank here, otherwise the conversation will be too dull: the countries of the region do have some contradictions, and you have just mentioned them. There is disagreement between Iran and Israel, Iran and the US. I believe that attempts must be made to settle those disagreements, to seek a way out of the complicated situations that we observe today. However, if we agree that there are contradictions between regional powers and Iran, then who can take up the role of an arbitrator and decide whether Iran complies with the JCPOA or not? First and foremost, an arbitrator should be impartial, right? Second, an arbitrator should be a professional. Third, it should be someone respected by the international community. We have such an arbitrator, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And the IAEA has publicly, without any hesitation, said that Iran fully complies with all of its obligations. What we are seeing is not quite productive. Not to mention that it is just unfair to blame Iran for failing to deliver on some commitments. It is counter-productive because when a person or a country is treated so unfairly, they start acting in a way different manner, not the way existing agreements require. When one party does not abide by its obligations, why would the other still honor them? Nevertheless, I believe that Iran should follow both the letter and spirit of the agreement. But that is a different question. As for the missile program, I suppose the issue can and should be part of the discussion too. In Russia, there is a saying, and I think Muslims would understand the meaning as well: “You should know the difference between God’s gift and fried eggs [dollars to doughnuts].” These are two different matters. The missile program is one thing, and the nuclear program is something different. It does not imply that the missile program should not be part of the conversation, especially since it raises certain concerns. There is a place for discussion, but let us not mix apples and oranges here; otherwise, all the progress that has been made could be totally lost.
Therefore, I think that such a discussion can take place, but it should not cancel out all the achievements on the principle track, that is putting a cap on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Question: If you allow me. Regarding the Gulf countries’ recent security concerns: Through your first-hand knowledge, there have also been incidents, including the mutual seizing of ships, attacks on ships, as well as attacks on Aramco facilities which resulted in material losses, and thank God there weren’t any human losses, according to Saudi Arabia. In your opinion, how will these serious incidents affect the OPEC countries’ cooperation? We haven’t heard a clear position from the concerned countries about your proposal to establish a joint security coalition in the Arabian Gulf region: Do you think this initiative will be implemented? Is it viable?

Vladimir Putin: Your questions seem to be linked, but still deal with separate issues. Our cooperation within OPEC+ is one thing, while regional security and stability and our proposals is a different one. First, if anyone thinks that seizing tankers and attacking oil infrastructure can in any way affect cooperation between Russia and our Arab friends, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that they can undermine or break down our cooperation with OPEC+, then they are profoundly wrong. On the contrary, we will forge ever closer ties because our main goal is to stabilize global energy markets. Technically, we need to cut global reserves to some sensible level, so that these reserves do not affect prices. We have made some good strides and whatever we have managed to achieve has served not only oil producers, but also consumers. Neither producers nor consumers want high prices, rather we all want stability in the global market. Let me be straight with you, all that has been done under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Overall, those were his initiatives, and we just backed them. Now we see that we did the right thing. We need to respond to any attempt to destabilize the market. Russia will certainly continue working with Saudi Arabia and other partners and friends in the Arab world to counter any attempts to wreak havoc in the market. Now let us turn to Russia’s initiative to stabilize the situation in the Gulf region. We put that initiative forward some time ago. We proposed to establish some sort of an organization that would bring together the countries of the region as well as several other stakeholders, the US and the EU, to name just a few. This organization would serve as a platform to discuss crises and all kinds of pressing problems. Some have already voiced their support; others say it is too early to launch such an initiative. And the reason for that, by the way, is the serious contradictions between regional powers. From my point of view, these deep contradictions call for such a platform, so that countries could at least sit at the negotiating table. As you may be aware, sometimes it is not the negotiations that matter, but a handshake. A handshake can mean a lot.

Question: Is it possible to count on Russia being a mediator between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries?

Vladimir Putin: The role of mediator is not a rewarding one. I believe that our partners in Iran and Saudi Arabia do not need any mediation. Since we maintain very friendly relations with all the countries in the region, including Iran and the Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, we could certainly help relay some messages between the parties, so they could hear each other’s position. But since I personally know the leaders of these countries, I am perfectly sure that they have no need for any advice or mediation. What you can do is maintain a friendly conversation with them and present some ideas from a friend’s perspective. I am convinced that as highly intelligent people they listen and analyze everything they hear. From this point of view, yes, we could play a positive role in the process, to some extent.

Mohammed al Tomaihi: Mr. President, I will be as direct as you have been. You said confidently that Iran was not involved in the attacks [on Saudi Aramco facilities], and once again we go back to the main story: You recently met with President Rouhani. Did Rouhani confirm to you that Tehran was not involved in these terrorist attacks? And if it wasn’t Iran, who could be behind these attacks, then?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, that is exactly what he said. He said that Iran had nothing to do with this. We met “on the sidelines” of an international summit. It was the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, an organization we created with a number of ex-Soviet states. A few months ago, the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran signed an interim agreement on a free trade area. We have a free trade area agreement with Singapore and Vietnam, and we are also working on one with Israel and Egypt. The Eurasian Economic Union has enjoyed successful cooperation with many states across the globe. Iran is about to join this process, and we discussed these prospects just recently, on the sidelines of the summit in Yerevan, Armenia.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: You didn’t answer the second part of my question, Mr. President. You certainly have a strong presence in the Arabian Gulf, you have high intelligence capabilities and high military capabilities. How can a country like Russia not know who is behind the Aramco facilities’ attacks?

Vladimir Putin: Believe it or not, we do not know. I asked the heads of the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Defense the very next day. We do not know. I will refrain from any further comments as to who should know in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I can say that we do not have any definitive information regarding the incident.

Question: Mr. President, let us return to the topic of Syria. You mentioned Syria a minute ago. You announced the end of military operations in Syria, and you have said that work must now be done to start a political settlement. I also heard what you said at the Valdai Discussion Club. You say that Syria can be considered an example of how conflicts in the region should be solved. Can we discuss today the possibility of political settlements in Syria before the complete withdrawal of all foreign presence from the country? Today there are countries that share power in Syria. There is, of course, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the US. The situation in the region is unstable. Can we talk about a political settlement before there is stability in the region?

Vladimir Putin: There is always hope. Do not ever give it up. I can only agree with you that all the forces deployed illegitimately inside any sovereign state – in this case Syria – must leave. This is true for everyone. If Syria’s new legitimate government chooses to say that they have no more need for Russia’s military presence, this will be just as true for Russia. Right now, we are discussing this openly with all our partners, including Iran and Turkey. We spoke about it with our American partners many times. And I will be as open with you as I have been with my counterparts: Syria must be free from other states’ military presence. And the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic must be completely restored.

Question: Do you have a plan for Syria’s political future? And what role does Russia play in it?

Vladimir Putin: It is a difficult question, and it is a question that only Syrians can answer. I hope that they do so not by taking up arms and fighting a war against their own people, but through negotiations, in this case, as I said, in Geneva. The very first step along this path is to work on the country’s Constitution, whether by amending the existing Constitution or drafting a new one. In either case, it must protect the interests of all the ethnic and religious groups. People need to know that they live in their own country and that it protects them by law. This must be equally true for Sunnis and Shia, for Alawites and Christians, because Syria has always been a state with many religions, and it could pride itself on this. Only insane people could have started a deranged, purging campaign, killing other people, as these terrorists did in Syria. Again, it will not be easy; it will be a difficult process, but I believe it can work. Do you know why I feel positive about it? People are returning home. We are talking thousands of people. They are returning from abroad and from other Syrian provinces. They are coming home. This is a sure sign of the trust they have in the situation we have today; they trust the government and its guarantees, and they trust the guarantor states. I am happy to say that Syrians welcome and trust Russian troops and Russia’s military police. The military police units deployed there are doing a good job. They are mostly Muslims from the North Caucasus. And the local residents trust them and feel free to ask them for help and protection. I have reports of such cases. I am happy to say all this, but in order to have long-term peace, people need to find a way to settle things between themselves. The worst peace is always better than the best of wars.

Question: Let us leave the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf region for now. You constantly stress the need for good and normalized US-Russia relations, because any imbalance in the relationship or tensions could destabilize the world. The current [US] administration may have had some stakes in the Kremlin about taking steps towards normalizing and improving relations. This is what it seems like so far, based on [US] President [Donald] Trump’s occasional tweets; you, of course, are not interested in social media, but I’m sure your press department briefs you with information -

Vladimir Putin: I must say that I do not have any Twitter account or anything, so I do not follow anyone there. Of course, I get reports from my staff from time to time. The opinion of the President of the United States always matters; it is always very important for many parties and for the world overall, but I do not follow him personally.

Question: Well, if President Trump wins a second term, do you think he will improve? Will he be more aggressive when making decisions towards Russia, which constantly states that it is ready for dialogue with the US administration?

Vladimir Putin: You work for Russia Today, don’t you? Well, it is because of people like you that Russia will be accused of meddling in the election, because you said just now that Trump could be re-elected. They will say, “Gotcha! This is Russia interfering with the election campaign.” Jokes aside, we all know what President Trump says about Russian-American relations and how he talks about them. We know that during his previous campaign, he called for relations to get back to normal, but unfortunately, nothing has been done. But we do not hold it against anyone because we can all see what is going on in the American domestic political scene these days. The domestic political agenda prevents the incumbent president from embarking on a drastic improvement of relations between our countries. In any case, we will work with any administration to the extent it is willing to work with us. However, we cannot help but feel concern over overall global security and strategic balance. This is obvious. In 2002 (and President Trump has nothing to do with it), the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty, which, I would like to reiterate, was the cornerstone of the entire global strategic security system, because it imposed limits on the missile defense systems of our countries. Do you see the point? The point was to make it clear that neither party can ever win a nuclear war, should it happen. That was the whole point. The United States withdrew from the treaty in order to secure some serious strategic advantage for themselves, thinking that they might shield themselves from a threat, unlike Russia. It would leave Russia in a very vulnerable position, while the US would be protected by an ABM system. Back then, I told our US partners that there is no way of knowing how well such a system would work and so we will not waste tens of billions on it. But strategic balance must be maintained, which means that we will develop offensive weapons that will defeat any ABM system. And we have developed them, and everyone knows it by now. The ABM systems are designed to intercept ballistic missiles, i.e. missiles that follow a ballistic trajectory whereas what we did was we enhanced and improved ballistic missiles significantly and developed a new weapon that has no rivals in the world. We have hypersonic missiles that follow a low trajectory rather than a ballistic one. No one has hypersonic missiles today, except us. Of course, the world’s leading powers will one day develop them, sooner or later. But we will be able to come up with something new by that time. I know what projects our scientists, researchers, designers and engineers are working on right now. Unfortunately, this has led to an arms race of sorts. But that is what has happened. It is a fact. Sadly, this is true. Now, recently, the US also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It think it was a mistake, too, and that they could have gone a different path. I do understand the US concerns. While other countries are free to enhance their defenses, Russia and the US have tied their own hands with this treaty. However, I still believe it was not worth ruining the deal; I believe there were other ways out of the situation. The New START Treaty is actually the only treaty that we have to prevent us from falling back into a full-scale arms race. It serves to further reduce and limit strategic offensive arms, that is to limit the entire range of strategic weapons, the entire strategic triad: land, sea and air-based combat inter-continental ballistic missile launchers. This treaty expires in 2021. To make sure it is extended, we need to be working on it right now. We have already submitted our proposals; they are on the table of the US Administration. There has been no answer so far. Our understanding is that they have not made up their minds yet as to whether they need to extend the treaty or not. But if this treaty is not extended, the world will have no means of limiting the number of offensive weapons, and this is bad news. The situation will change, globally. It will become more precarious, and the world will be less safe and a much less predictable place than today.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: Let us return once again to the arms race. Can we understand from your answer, President Putin, that there is an arms race back on again? Are we experiencing, or possibly about to be in, a Cold War?

Vladimir Putin: I wish it does not happen. In any case, Russia will be the least affected party because, as I said, we already have the next generation of weapons, and these are unprecedented, with unmatched capabilities. In that sense, we have done our homework. We do not need to rush now and can calmly think of what could be done next. Military spending also plays a role here. It may or may not come as a surprise to you but Russia ranks seventh in terms of defense spending. Saudi Arabia is third. The US military spending totals 716 billion, if I am not mistaken, and next year they asked for 750 billion. Next comes China with around 177 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia, with 59 billion, right? Trailing behind are the UK, France, Japan, with 48.1 billion, based on the data I have, and Russia is only seventh with 48 billion. However, we have unmatched military capabilities. What has made it possible? It comes as a result of focused research on priority areas, and the credit here goes to our specialists, their ability to identify those areas, mobilize resources. It has been made possible thanks to research institutions, production know how, fundamental knowledge and competences. Therefore, an arms race is a bad thing, and it will not be good for the world. However, we will not be dragged into exorbitant budget spending games.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: Despite that, NATO has become more extensive. Do you feel threatened? How will Russia respond?

Vladimir Putin: We do feel it, certainly. We have always felt it and voiced our concerns. We were told, “Don’t be afraid. You are not the target and there is nothing to fear. NATO is changing, it is no longer a military bloc, it does not have belligerent intentions”, and stuff like that. In the meantime, the North Atlantic Treaty remains in place, in particular Article 5, if I am not wrong, that guarantees military support to other members, etc. It is a military bloc. As its infrastructure is moving closer to our borders, we are not happy about it. There is another trick. I think it is clear to everyone that NATO is just a US foreign policy tool. Europe is aware of it. Take the French president. I do not need to make anything up. Another trick is that once countries join NATO, they have no say over the arms that are installed on their territory. This was the case in Romania with missile defense. Poland will soon get it, too. It will be really close to our border. It is certainly a threat to us. We see it as an attempt to neutralize our strategic nuclear capabilities. However, it is clear their efforts are doomed to failure. I believe experts now see this as well. Now that we have the cutting edge systems that I mentioned earlier, these moves are no longer a threat to us. I do not want to say what we really think about it. Still, there is nothing positive about it. So yes, we do see this as destructive activities that escalate tension. There is nothing good about it.

Question: Mr. President, there is another issue that used to be important to Russia, in the past at least: The Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Russia has been a major sponsor of this process since it was launched at the Madrid Conference [of 1991]. Today, Russia is absent or almost absent on this issue. The Americans have a monopoly on it, and are launching the “deal of the century” and similar initiatives. The Israeli government has proceeded to [occupy] more land and establish settlements. The peace process has changed. Where is Russia in all these developments? Why is Russia not involved in this issue?

Vladimir Putin: This does not depend on us or our actions. It is up to all the stakeholders whether they want to see someone in the process or not. Incidentally, we have very good relations with Israel as well. Almost 1.5 million Israelis come from the former Soviet Union. Israel is almost a Russian-speaking country. The Russian language is often heard in shops everywhere. We do care about what is happening in Israel. However, we have a principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian settlement: we are fully committed to all the UN decisions and believe that they must be executed. Now on the ‘deal of the century’. We will support any deal that will bring peace but we need to know what it is about. The US has been pretty vague about the details of the deal. Washington has kept in the dark the global and domestic public, the Middle East, and Palestine. We believe it is important to ensure a two-state solution and establish the State of Palestine. We suggested hosting direct talks in Moscow between the Israeli Prime Minister and the head of the Palestinian Authority, but the meeting never took place, unfortunately. We have been doing what we can: we have held several meetings between different Palestinian groups. Restoring Palestinian unity would be a major contribution to the process. Speaking with different voices undermines the united Palestinian stance. But we are working on it. It does not mean that we have quit the process altogether, and are no longer interested in it. We are deeply committed primarily because we believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to resolving many other regional issues. Unless it is resolved, it will continue to feed radicalism and terrorism, among other things. When people feel they have no legal ways to uphold their rights, they take up arms. In this sense, I feel the Israelis are also interested in a long-term, ultimate solution, not just the Palestinians.

Mohammed al-Tomaihi: Mr. President, it seems that we are running out of time. Maybe each colleague should ask one question. Mr. President, you have spoken positively more than once about the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During more than one conference, you seemed to have close and good personal ties with him. Can you count on the positive role he is playing in fostering the relations between the two countries, and in the Middle East in general?

Vladimir Putin: That is exactly his role today, and he has been quite successful. Indeed, we have very good personal ties. He has been behind many of our initiatives, and these projects are being put into practice. As I said, he came up with OPEC+, he endorsed the joint platforms of our investment funds. Two billion worth of investment has been made by now. He raised the need for broader defense cooperation, and we have a good plan of joint activities in that area. This is already happening. Hopefully, our collaboration will continue to expand going forward. As for Saudi Arabia’s role in the region, it is definitely one of the key countries there. It does have an impact based on its capabilities and its position in the energy market. Saudi Arabia can be safely called a global player since it has an impact on the world energy market, on world energy in general. This is why cooperation with Saudi Arabia, its King and Crown Prince bin Salman is very important, and we will develop our relations going forward.

Question: If you allow me … Before we came here, we published a survey on RT Arabic’s website, and we received hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions. We said, “If you have a chance to meet with the Russian president, what questions would you like to ask?” We have gathered a list of these questions, and of course there are a lot and we don’t have enough time, but the most common question was this: Arab viewers or speakers are worried about Russia’s relationship with the Arab world if you do not run for presidency again in the next elections. Are you certain that your successor will take the same approach in supporting the Arab world as you do?

Vladimir Putin: It is not about the name of the Russian president, it is about our national interests. It is in the interests of the Russian and other nations of the Russian Federation to nurture relations with the Arab world. It has always appealed to Russia with its enigma, culture, opportunities and potential. I have no doubt that Russia is set to boost the pace of its interaction with the Arab world in the years to come.

Question: Thank you very much.

Question: Very briefly, Mr. President: The Arab world has witnessed a lot of developments in the last decade, since 2011 - what is known as the Arab Spring - and now there are new developments in the region in Algeria, Sudan, and the elections in Tunisia … Do you see any positive signs that the region might be entering a new phase, in which it will be more stable than the previous stages we have witnessed?

Vladimir Putin: Clearly, the region is not in a state of stability. We all understand it; we can see it with our own eyes. But all things pass. I hope it will be over one day. It will not get better quickly on its own, if you just leave things as they are, without attempts to improve the situation. Russia will do all it can to make sure things get back to normal and as soon as possible. We do not think you can and should handle the situation ‘from above’. As I said, we have many friends in the Arab world. It is time to get Syria back into the Arab family, to re-instate it in the Arab League. We will work hard to bring it back to normal and to help our friends. However, the pace of improvements will ultimately depend on the people who are responsible for the situation in their countries. I am convinced stabilization is inevitable and I wish it happens as soon as possible.

Together: Thank you Mr. President for this interview.

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