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CNN Larry King Live

Interview With Russian Prime Minister Putin

Aired December 01, 2010 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. What did Wikileaks revealed about his country's real leader? Is there an internal power struggle? Has democracy disappeared? Will there be a new arms race? Plus, fallout from the spy scandal. What about those sleeper agents arrested in the U.S. and sent back to their homeland? Vladimir Putin for the hour. Next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Good evening. Vladimir Putin is the prime minister of Russia. He previously served as President of the Russian Federation. And it's a great pleasure to welcome him back to LARRY KING LIVE.

Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for joining us. We know -- let's start right off, we know that you're eligible to run again for the presidency in 2012. Are you thinking about doing that?

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through a translator): We've been working with President Medvedev in a very close contact and we decided long time ago, that we'll adopt a concerted decision as regards to year 2012 in the interest of the Russian people.

KING: So that is a maybe?

PUTIN: We'll see. There is still quite time before the elections take place. That should be in April, year 2012. Once again, we will be in consultations and we'll adopt that decision based on the economic, social and political situation in the country.

KING: OK. Let's get to current things. What do you make of the release of the United States diplomatic and military documents by the Wikileaks group?

PUTIN: Some experts believe that somebody is deceiving Wikileaks. Their reputation being undermined. To use them for their own political purposes later on. That's one of the possibilities there. And that's the opinion of the experts. And also you have such opinion expressed here. If it's not so, then it tells us that it's necessary for the diplomatic services to be more attentive to their cables. Such leaks occurred before in previous times. So this is no catastrophe. I don't see this as being a catastrophe.

KING: Well, how about documents that include a cable in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the United States is reported to have told his French counterpart that Russian democracy has disappeared and that the government is being run by security services? What's your response to the American Secretary of Defense saying that? PUTIN: I know Mr. Gates. I met him several times. I believe he's a very nice person. And he is not a bad expert too. But it is known also that Mr. Gates was one of the leaders of CIA of the United States of America before. And today he happens to be the Secretary of Defense. Now, if he's the best expert in democracy in the United States of America, then I congratulate you with that.

KING: So he is wrong in saying that your country is being run by Secret Security Services?

PUTIN: He's been deeply misled. Our country is led by the people of the Russian Federation through the legitimately elected government and the parliament authorities of the president and the prime minister of the Russian Federation. Now, as regards to democracy, this has been a long-term dispute with our American colleagues. I'd like to recall the fact that twice, twice, in the history of the United States of America, there were cases, the candidate to the presidency who subsequently became president of the United States, who was voted by majority of electorate, with the delegates presenting the lesser number of electorate as a whole. Is that democracy? When we're talking with our American friends and tell them there are systemic problems in this regard, we can hear from them, don't interfere with our affairs.

This is our tradition and it's going to continue like that. We are not interfering. But to our colleagues, I would also like to advise, you don't interfere either. That's the sovereign choice of the Russian people. The Russian people have unilaterally made their choice in direction of democracy in the early '90s. They will not be led astray. Nobody should be having any doubts. Russia has interest in that and will do that. Now, as regards to the questions posed by Mr. Gates in these diplomatic cables, that has to do with evidence desire to apply pressure to the allies in specific matters. Such matters arise in big numbers. I say yes, you need to apply pressure to Russian. They're not democratic. You should do this and that because they're not democratic. We've heard that thousands of times. We started to dismiss such allegations as yet they've been using it as a tool of the foreign policy of the U.S. And I think it's erroneous approach to dealing with the Russian Federation.

KING: What, Mr. Prime Minister, is the -- how would you describe the relationship between you and President Medvedev? There are some who say the statement goes that you're Batman and he's Robin.

PUTIN: Well, you know, when myself and Mr. Medvedev were deciding on how we will build on our cooperation in the future, now at present, how we'll build on our relationship, when we decided as to how we should build the electorate campaign, for the presidency in year 2008, we were fully aware of the fact that many people would try to introduce a splint in our joint approach to the construction of the Russian Federation, economy and otherwise. Truth of the matter is, this is about our interaction, which is an important factor of the domestic policies in this country. But to be honest with you, we didn't suspect that this would be done with such arrogance, with such a push and, you know, being so unethically done. Such assertions indeed are aimed to slander one of us to get under the skin, to provoke some steps which might disrupt, destroy the productive interaction in running this country. I have to tell you that we got used to it, and I will ask all of those who try such attempts to be quiet about it.

KING: We will be right back with the prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin. We'll ask about the situation on the Korean Peninsula right after this.


KING: We're back with Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Russia. Great place we had with him. I hope someday soon to visit his country and visit with him personally. Last time he was with us was in New York and we were together. Tonight, of course, we're by satellite. What, Mr. Prime minister, is your assessment of the Korean Peninsula? Your Foreign Minister last week said there's a colossal danger of an escalation there. Do you share that fear?

PUTIN: Yes, indeed. The situation is very worrisome and very acute. And we can't but be worried about that. Whatever happens there is happening in the very vicinity of our borders as it were. Having said that, we count a lot on the fact that the prudence will get upper hand there. Emotions will be shelved. And the dialogue will be started. Without a dialogue, it is not possible to come to an agreement. Jointly with the partners, including the United States of America, we've been working closely as regards to the settlement of the North Korean Peninsula having to do with the nuclear programs and settlement regarding the direction and relations between the two parties involved and at different stages of this effort. This work provided us with different outcomes. Sometimes very positive and impressive results. And I count a lot that we'll resume this positive trend of action.

KING: China has proposed sitting down now, six-party talks, the two Koreas, China, United States, Russia and Japan, sitting down now. Do you support that?

PUTIN: Well, the president is in charge of our foreign policies and this question should primarily be addressed to him. But generally speaking, Russia is interested in the continuation of that dialogue.

KING: Do you think China should do more? It has a lot of influence in North Korea, to rein in North Korea?

PUTIN: Well, you know, this position taken by the State Department of the United States. But basically speaking, we all need to do whatever it takes in order that the situation would be on the track of normalcy from now on. The Chinese have leverages of impact of economy in the first place. But most importantly, what we need to remember, we should respect the interests of the Korean people. Both in the north and in the south of that peninsula. We should be patient and we should choose the right mode of speech with them. And work out a united position there of all six states involved in this quite a complex negotiation process. The unity of approach is what really matters. It's a guarantee of our joint success there.

KING: Do you share the concern of many other nations that Iran is moving toward becoming a nuclear power? Is Russia OK with that?

PUTIN: The Iranian nuclear program is being implemented for over 20 years now. As of late, recently in recent years, Iran has demonstrated in various ways the readiness to engage in dialogue with international community, IAEA included. We know that the initial stages have witnessed some activities which raised questions and we supported IAEA to get exclusive answers to those questions. You certainly know that we're concerned with any expression of the proliferation or any possibility, theoretical possibility, of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This relates to absolutely all states, including Iran. Having said that, we don't have any grounds to suspect Iran, in the sense that they seek to possess nuclear arms.

But we've been cooperating with all our partners, including the U.S. of America, in the premise of the United Nations Organizations. And, as you know, up to now, we've been able to adopt concerted decisions. Our position is open. And Iran is aware of our position. And we'll continue to cooperate with all the participants of this process, up until the final settlement of that problem. And I count greatly on the fact that this settlement will occur and I believe that this is the interest of the neighbors of Iran. Israel is very much afraid of the Iranian programs, other participants and neighbors. But Iran also and the Iranian people as well. I don't see this in any way as being prejudice or undermining the interests of Iran. If they were to fully open all their programs and satisfy the legitimate interest of the international organization, IAEA, that is in their effort.

KING: We'll take a break...

PUTIN: I don't see that as being scary at the same time, I still maintain that Iran has a right to implement nuclear programs under the oversight of the international organizations.

KING: All right. When we come back, we'll ask about the possible ratification or non-ratification of the treaty between the United States and Russia. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with Prime Minister Putin. A great pleasure to welcome him to LARRY KING LIVE. Well, there's a lot of concern now about this new treaty your President Medvedev warned that there would be a new arms race if NATO and Moscow don't agree on a joint missile shield. And what happens to the relations between the two countries? Will there be another arms race if the United States doesn't ratify?

PUTIN: No. Talking today before the federal assembly, President Medvedev mentioned the fact that we just put forward a proposal as to how jointly working, all of us tackling joint problem of security, could share responsibility between ourselves. And this problem should be necessarily dealt with through this joint effort in the first place. But if our proposals will be met with negative answers only and on top of that, at the vicinity of our borders will be built additional threats as this new version of the third defense region there, Russia will have to ensure her own security through different means and ways. To put in place a new striking force against the threats which have been built there, against the new threats which will have been created along our borders, the new missile nuclear will be put in place. That's not our choice. We don't want that to happen. This is no threat on our part. We've been simply saying that this is what expects all of us to happen if we don't agree on joint effort there. That's it. Once again, we don't want this to happen at all.

KING: Well, you're saying it's not a threat but it does sound like a threat. "The Wall Street Journal" today reporting that the America believes you're moving short-range tactical nuclear warheads near NATO allies rather as recently as this spring. Was that true?

PUTIN: Larry, please listen to me now. I want you and all the American people know this. At least those spectators who will follow our program here. It's not us who are moving forward our missiles to your territory. It's you who are planning to mount missiles at the vicinity of our borders, of our territory. We've been told that you'll do it in order to secure against the, let's say, Iranian threat. But such a threat as of now does not exist. Now if the rudders (ph) and the counter missiles will be deployed in the year 2012 along our borders or 15, they will work against our nuclear potential there, our nuclear arsenal. And certainly that worries us. And we are obliged to take some actions in response. We're talking about action in response. Not about taking the first initiative there.

And in Lisbon, the President Medvedev was very specific in his proposals. Boiling down to the fact that part of responsibility for ensuring security in Europe should be taken upon by NATO. And part of responsibility, of joint responsibility, that is should be taken upon by Russia. And here to say, we could agree with NATO and that's to say with the United States too on the exchange of information, on joint control over those facilities. The military experts can agree upon all those things. If a good will is to be exercised there. But if in a very dumb nature people will tell, will ignore your interests, we'll do whatever we want to do there, and then we'll regard that as a threat to ourselves. Then we'll have to react somehow. I want the American public to hear this.

KING: And you've said it straight and we'll be right back with more of the Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, after this.


KING: We will touch some other bases with the Prime Minister of Vladimir Putin of Russia coming to us tonight from Moscow. What's your assessment of President Obama?

PUTIN: Such assessment is to be provided by the electorate. By the people who voted for him. Basically American citizens first. But looking from outside to provide an expert assessment there, generally speaking, I might as well say that President Obama has been confronted with a very serious challenges as a big world, especially in this year of economy. It's not up to me to judge whether he has taken right or wrong steps when he passed through the parliament, the law on health care for one. But I don't doubt the fact that in this particular case, very sensitive for Americans.

Two, Obama did whatever he could to respond to the aspirations of the American people. Who had been understood by him and formulated as his electorate campaign platform. He promised to do that. He did it, as his foreign activities. We are thankful to him for the fact that he has softened the rhetoric in the U.S./Russia relations. And in practical terms, he put further away this idea of the third Defense Region in Europe approach. Which provided us with the possibility for dialogue. We've want some time there to try and implement this very plan which was put forward by the President Medvedev in Lisbon.

KING: This is puzzling. Ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the United States earlier this year. Then sent back to Russia in a spy swap. You met with them after their deportation. What was your impression? I mean, you were very involved with the KGB. What was this all about? What did they tell you?

PUTIN Well, basically, as regards to strictly business, we had a word. But, yes, we talked to different topics with them.

What can I tell you now?

These are the people who naturally deserve respect.

As I said it before, I can repeat it again, with activities, they didn't cause any harm to the interests of the United States of America.

As you know, they belonged to a special service -- a clandestine service with their own tests to tackle. These tests, as a rule, become pertinent in the crisis periods, like when the diplomatic relations would have been suspended or cut. Thank god such a status of affairs we have not witnessed in the relations between Russia and the U.S. today. And I hope it will never occur in our relations in the future.

KING: So they do know what you would call spying under your direction?

PUTIN They had their own tasks to address. They are involved in the clandestine activities, the main purpose of which is to be actively involved during the crisis times and when the diplomatic ties are suspended, when other means of intelligence service are not efficient or sometimes are not possible.

These folks, once again, did not cause any harm to the interests of the United States of America.

Having said that, any country, including the United States of America, is engaged in intelligence gathering. Nobody doubts that. And incidentally, the activities of our services -- of secret services that our compared to the U.S. services, looking much better, thanks God. Neither these agents, or others, were seen as organizing clandestine prisons or hostage taking or torturing people.

KING: We will ask the prime minister about Afghanistan and other things; ask him about George Bush's new book; ask him, as well, about whether the World Cup might come to Moscow in 2018.

Lots more ahead.

Don't go away.


KING: We're back with Prime Minister Putin.

The former USSR spent nine years fighting in Afghanistan. In fact, I believe we discussed this the last time we were together, 10 years ago. They spent -- your country spent there without victory. Some called it the Soviet Union's Vietnam.

Do you think the United States will do any better in Afghanistan?

PUTIN First, I don't think it would be right to make such a comparison with regards to Afghanistan. Our troops withdrew from Afghanistan in an organized, quiet manner. And after the withdrawal of our troops, the regime, which had been supported by the Soviet Union, lasted for three years in a quiet mode originally. It was destroyed by Taliban, virtually after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was no longer any support to be provided by the former Soviet Union to them.

I believe that the Soviet Union made many mistakes there. The blunder was the fact that the Soviet troops were there in the first place. It was not the thing to do. That's evident.

Now, as regards the current presence of American troops and of the international coalition troops in Afghanistan, indeed, the situation has seriously changed there. Likewise, you cannot compare our presence in Afghanistan with Vietnam. In the same manner, you cannot compare the U.S. and international presence in Afghanistan today with the Soviet presence in the late '80s there.

Well, you know, I would think that the international coalition in Afghanistan today is carrying out an important and positive mission. We cannot and shall not be present there militarily ourselves. But we have been rendering assistance both to the American partners and other partners of the international coalition in Afghanistan in various ways and means.

We have agreed to ensure transit and we have been doing that, including not only by air, but also by surface. We've been relating important pertinent information, including we have started, through our special services, which you have mentioned a few minutes earlier. This could be related to an absolute positive side of our interaction.

There were instances when our helicopter fliers took out American and Dutch military staff from the battlefield being fired on by the enemy. And there are other means to support the international efforts in Afghanistan.

For example, assisting the government in office and the armed forces of Afghanistan. This is a whole set -- a big set of joint work there. We count on the fact that this effort will bear positive fruit.

KING: All right, let's discuss the former president, George Bush. In his new memoir, "Decision Points," he calls you -- he describes you as sometimes cocky, sometimes charming, always tough. He also calls you wily and cold-blooded. Earlier, though, he said when he had first met you, he looked into your eyes and he saw a vibrant soul there, I'm -- that's paraphrasing what he said.

What was your relationship with the former president?

PUTIN They were warm relations, good, kind, human relationship. He visited me in my house. I visited him in his house, including at his ranch house. We have different views on many issues involved, of course. But one thing is for sure, George Bush the junior is a very decent fellow. And he has a very nice partner, too.

KING: You -- so I'm gathering you liked him a lot?

PUTIN And he has a very good family. I was very pleased when I visited his father's house in human terms. Yes. But still, we had different approaches while dealing with the same questions at hand.

KING: Will you read his book?

PUTIN I know some of the aspects of this book already. I don't agree fully with what he has written there, of course. But I'm sure he has forgotten a few things. If we meet with him, I will remind you of certain things, too.


KING: We'll take a break and we'll be right back with Prime Minister Putin right after this.



KING: We're back with Prime Minister Putin.

I know that you're working on your English, Mr. Prime Minister. You -- you spoke in English at an International Olympic Committee meeting. You did an interview with Matthew Chance for CNN two years ago and spoke in English.

Are you ready to come out in English?

PUTIN: My English is very bad.


PUTIN While I'm talking with you, it's better to be accurate and not to admit any mistakes.

(LAUGHTER) PUTIN Now, with my teacher, we've been studying several English songs we are trying to sing. That's like a game. It's not even like doing any studies. That's revisiting some studies as a recreation on my part.

But, indeed, if we meet with you when you visit us here in Moscow, I will try to talk with you in English. And I can understand quite a lot, which allows me, sometimes without an interpreter, to deal with my colleagues, you know, in a semi business manner.

KING: OK. Later this week, FIFA will announce which country will host the 2018 World Cup.. Do you think you have a good chance to host it?

PUTIN Yes, I do think we have such chances and I proceed from the assumption that our contenders will make an emphasis on the fact that they are ready to go with the World Cup already.

But why do we need to hold the World Cup?

Well, they already have everything in place. The philosophy of FIFA is to expand world soccer space, to spread out the world football space. In Eastern Europe, there has never been a case of World Cup being staged there. Therefore, we are a very natural contender.

Our problem is, however, about the fact that as of late, during this competition race, I'm sure the FIFA members have been slandered, absolutely groundlessly. They want to compromise that organization. And this is exactly the organization who are involved in not only organizing a soccer features and soccer games, they're currently fulfilling a very important social program to really advertise a healthy mode of life, putting aside alcoholism among youngsters, but also building on the relationship between peoples and states.

It's a very important function they have.

KING: Who will -- who...

PUTIN And we count greatly on the fact that the members of FIFA will adopt the relevant decision in favor of Russia's choice.

KING: Who is slandering them?

PUTIN In a competitive straight, many people try to do that. We are aware of the fact that there has been a lot of information surfacing in the BBC, but the allegation is one thing. You have to prove the case.

I believe that this is not a right manner of competition for the right to hold this World Cup, as it were.

KING: Will you -- will -- will you go to Zurich to make a personal appeal?

PUTIN Well, I've been reflecting on that. But I believe that under the current circumstances, when these FIFA members are being attacked like that, when attempts are being manned to -- made to compromise them, we need to give these people a chance to develop an objective decision without any pressure from outside.

I've been enjoying --

KING: All right, we'll be right back...

PUTIN -- the sport through all my life. I love soccer.

KING: All right, let me get a break on time.

We'll be right back with more of the prime minister following this.


KING: Something, Mr. Prime Minister, I don't think you've ever been asked. We have quite a dispute about it in America.

What is the Russian policy toward gays and lesbians in your military?

PUTIN Well, I'd like to finalize my statement regarding whether I go to Zurich or not.


PUTIN I think it would be better for me not to be there prior to these elections --

KING: I've got --

PUTIN -- so that it would not appear as an element of pressurizing their decision on my part.

KING: I gathered that.

PUTIN Now, as regards to the attitude toward gays and lesbians, well, you know, I once tried to -- to answer similar questions before. We in Russia, like generally speaking in Europe, for that matter, the question is very acute with regards to demography. We've been undertaking very serious efforts to change the situation somehow. And we've been able to do that.

I believe that we probably have the best results with the speed of the change in demography. For the first time over 10 or 15 years, we have witnessed a very stable trend of growth of birth rates in our country and at the end of this year, we'll have some growth of population.

And one gender marriages will not give you offsprings. Therefore, we are very patient to the sexual minorities, but still we believe that the state should support the processes having to do with the birth rate, mother and child care, infancy and take care of the health of those people.

KING: But are gays permitted to actively serve in your military and be able to say they are gay?

PUTIN There are no prohibitions.

KING: Do we --

PUTIN In the Soviet Union, that was about criminal responsibility for same gender sex. Now, there are no prohibitions or bans on that score.

KING: And we'll be back with our remaining moments with the prime minister of Russia -- we thank him so much for granting us this time -- following these words.


KING: Some personal questions in our remaining moments, Mr. Prime Minister.

And, again, I hope next year to visit and spend some time with you in Moscow and bring the family, as well.

You seem to keep your family life private. Many of our viewers may not know that you have two daughters.

Why -- why do you tend to shield the family?

PUTIN Unfortunately, there are so many problems regarding terrorism. So we must think about security of the members of our family, and first and foremost, our children, my daughters. They live a normal usual life. But they are university students. They're happy. They have friends. So everything is OK.

But to put them through the public lighter is not what I think is right or not what they want.

KING: Mr. Prime Minister, I thank you so much.

I look forward to seeing you again soon on your soil.

PUTIN Larry, I invite you. I await you here in Moscow. You've never visited Moscow and I am positive you will like it.

KING: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

PUTIN Can I ask you one question?

KING: Sure.

PUTIN I don't know why, but the King leaves the scene at the U.S. stage. Now, --

KING: I sometimes don't know why myself.

PUTIN At the U.S. stage and the U.S. mass media, there are many talented and interesting people, but still there is just one King there. I don't ask why he is leaving. But, still, what do you think? When shall we have a right to cry out, long live the King, when there will be another man who is as popular in the whole word as you happen to be?

KING: Thank you. Thank you. I have no answer. Vladimir Putin, prime minister of Russia.

The U.S. again, sir.

Tomorrow night, the former heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson.

Anderson Cooper and "AC 360" is next.