President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to greet you here at this regular meeting of the Valdai International Club.

It is true that for over 10 years now this has been a platform to discuss the most pressing issues and consider the directions and prospects for the development of Russia and the whole world. The participants change, of course, but overall, this discussion platform retains its core, so to speak – we have turned into a kind of mutually understanding environment.

We have an open discussion here; this is an open intellectual platform for an exchange of views, assessments and forecasts that are very important for us here in Russia. I would like to thank all the Russian and foreign politicians, experts, public figures and journalists taking part in the work of this club.

This year the discussion focusses on issues of war and peace. This topic has clearly been the concern of humanity throughout its history. Back in ancient times, in antiquity people argued about the nature, the causes of conflicts, about the fair and unfair use of force, of whether wars would always accompany the development of civilisation, broken only by ceasefires, or would the time come when arguments and conflicts are resolved without war.

I’m sure you recalled our great writer Leo Tolstoy here. In his great novel War and Peace, he wrote that war contradicted human reason and human nature, while peace in his opinion was good for people.

True, peace, a peaceful life have always been humanity’s ideal. State figures, philosophers and lawyers have often come up with models for a peaceful interaction between nations. Various coalitions and alliances declared that their goal was to ensure strong, ‘lasting’ peace as they used to say. However, the problem was that they often turned to war as a way to resolve the accumulated contradictions, while war itself served as a means for establishing new post-war hierarchies in the world.

Meanwhile peace, as a state of world politics, has never been stable and did not come of itself. Periods of peace in both European and world history were always been based on securing and maintaining the existing balance of forces. This happened in the 17th century in the times of the so-called Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the Thirty Years’ War. Then in the 19th century, in the time of the Vienna Congress; and again 70 years ago in Yalta, when the victors over Nazism made the decision to set up the United Nations Organisation and lay down the principles of relations between states.

With the appearance of nuclear weapons, it became clear that there could be no winner in a global conflict. There can be only one end – guaranteed mutual destruction. It so happened that in its attempt to create ever more destructive weapons humanity has made any big war pointless.

Incidentally, the world leaders of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s did treat the use of armed force as an exceptional measure. In this sense, they behaved responsibly, weighing all the circumstances and possible consequences.

The end of the Cold War put an end to ideological opposition, but the basis for arguments and geopolitical conflicts remained. All states have always had and will continue to have their own diverse interests, while the course of world history has always been accompanied by competition between nations and their alliances. In my view, this is absolutely natural.

The main thing is to ensure that this competition develops within the framework of fixed political, legal and moral norms and rules. Otherwise, competition and conflicts of interest may lead to acute crises and dramatic outbursts.

We have seen this happen many times in the past. Today, unfortunately, we have again come across similar situations. Attempts to promote a model of unilateral domination, as I have said on numerous occasions, have led to an imbalance in the system of international law and global regulation, which means there is a threat, and political, economic or military competition may get out of control.

What, for instance, could such uncontrolled competition mean for international security? A growing number of regional conflicts, especially in ‘border’ areas, where the interests of major nations or blocs meet. This can also lead to the probable downfall of the system of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (which I also consider to be very dangerous), which, in turn, would result in a new spiral of the arms race.

We have already seen the appearance of the concept of the so-called disarming first strike, including one with the use of high-precision long-range non-nuclear weapons comparable in their effect to nuclear weapons.

The use of the threat of a nuclear missile attack from Iran as an excuse, as we know, has destroyed the fundamental basis of modern international security – the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The United States has unilaterally seceded from the treaty. Incidentally, today we have resolved the Iranian issue and there is no threat from Iran and never has been, just as we said.

The thing that seemed to have led our American partners to build an anti-missile defence system is gone. It would be reasonable to expect work to develop the US anti-missile defence system to come to an end as well. What is actually happening? Nothing of the kind, or actually the opposite – everything continues.

Recently the United States conducted the first test of the anti-missile defence system in Europe. What does this mean? It means we were right when we argued with our American partners. They were simply trying yet again to mislead us and the whole world. To put it plainly, they were lying. It was not about the hypothetical Iranian threat, which never existed. It was about an attempt to destroy the strategic balance, to change the balance of forces in their favour not only to dominate, but to have the opportunity to dictate their will to all: to their geopolitical competition and, I believe, to their allies as well. This is a very dangerous scenario, harmful to all, including, in my opinion, to the United States.

The nuclear deterrent lost its value. Some probably even had the illusion that victory of one party in a world conflict was again possible – without irreversible, unacceptable, as experts say, consequences for the winner, if there ever is one.

In the past 25 years, the threshold for the use of force has gone down noticeably. The anti-war immunity we have acquired after two world wars, which we had on a subconscious, psychological level, has become weaker. The very perception of war has changed: for TV viewers it was becoming and has now become an entertaining media picture, as if nobody dies in combat, as if people do not suffer and cities and entire states are not destroyed.

Unfortunately, military terminology is becoming part of everyday life. Thus, trade and sanctions wars have become today’s global economic reality – this has become a set phrase used by the media. The sanctions, meanwhile, are often used also as an instrument of unfair competition to put pressure on or completely ‘throw’ competition out of the market. As an example, I could take the outright epidemic of fines imposed on companies, including European ones, by the United States. Flimsy pretexts are being used, and all those who dare violate the unilateral American sanctions are severely punished.

You know, this may not be Russia’s business, but this is a discussion club, therefore I will ask: Is that the way one treats allies? No, this is how one treats vassals who dare act as they wish – they are punished for misbehaving.

Last year a fine was imposed on a French bank to a total of almost $9 billion – $8.9 billion, I believe. Toyota paid $1.2 billion, while the German Commerzbank signed an agreement to pay $1.7 billion into the American budget, and so forth.

We also see the development of the process to create non-transparent economic blocs, which is done following practically all the rules of conspiracy. The goal is obvious – to reformat the world economy in a way that would make it possible to extract a greater profit from domination and the spread of economic, trade and technological regulation standards.

The creation of economic blocs by imposing their terms on the strongest players would clearly not make the world safer, but would only create time bombs, conditions for future conflicts.

The World Trade Organisation was once set up. True, the discussion there is not proceeding smoothly, and the Doha round of talks ended in a deadlock, possibly, but we should continue looking for ways out and for compromise, because only compromise can lead to the creation of a long-term system of relations in any sphere, including the economy. Meanwhile, if we dismiss that the concerns of certain countries – participants in economic communication, if we pretend that they can be bypassed, the contradictions will not go away, they will not be resolved, they will remain, which means that one day they will make themselves known.

As you know, our approach is different. While creating the Eurasian Economic Union we tried to develop relations with our partners, including relations within the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. We are actively working on the basis of equality in BRICS, APEC and the G20.

The global information space is also shaken by wars today, in a manner of speaking. The ‘only correct’ viewpoint and interpretation of events is aggressively imposed on people, certain facts are either concealed or manipulated. We are all used to labelling and the creation of an enemy image.

The authorities in countries that seemed to have always appealed to such values as freedom of speech and the free dissemination of information – something we have heard about so often in the past – are now trying to prevent the spreading of objective information and any opinion that differs from their own; they declare it hostile propaganda that needs to be combatted, clearly using undemocratic means.

Unfortunately, we hear the words war and conflict ever more frequently when talking about relations between people of different cultures, religions and ethnicity. Today hundreds of thousands of migrants are trying to integrate into a different society without a profession and without any knowledge of the language, traditions and culture of the countries they are moving to. Meanwhile, the residents of those countries – and we should openly speak about this, without trying to polish things up – the residents are irritated by the dominance of strangers, rising crime rate, money spent on refugees from the budgets of their countries.

Many people sympathise with the refugees, of course, and would like to help them. The question is how to do it without infringing on the interests of the residents of the countries where the refugees are moving. Meanwhile, a massive uncontrolled shocking clash of different lifestyles can lead, and already is leading to growing nationalism and intolerance, to the emergence of a permanent conflict in society.

Colleagues, we must be realistic: military power is, of course, and will remain for a long time still an instrument of international politics. Good or bad, this is a fact of life. The question is, will it be used only when all other means have been exhausted? When we have to resist common threats, like, for instance, terrorism, and will it be used in compliance with the known rules laid down in international law. Or will we use force on any pretext, even just to remind the world who is boss here, without giving a thought about the legitimacy of the use of force and its consequences, without solving problems, but only multiplying them.

We see what is happening in the Middle East. For decades, maybe even centuries, inter-ethnic, religious and political conflicts and acute social issues have been accumulating here. In a word, a storm was brewing there, while attempts to forcefully rearrange the region became the match that lead to a real blast, to the destruction of statehood, an outbreak of terrorism and, finally, to growing global risks.

A terrorist organisation, the so-called Islamic State, took huge territories under control. Just think about it: if they occupied Damascus or Baghdad, the terrorist gangs could achieve the status of a practically official power, they would create a stronghold for global expansion. Is anyone considering this? It is time the entire international community realised what we are dealing with – it is, in fact, an enemy of civilisation and world culture that is bringing with it an ideology of hatred and barbarity, trampling upon morals and world religious values, including those of Islam, thereby compromising it.

We do not need wordplay here; we should not break down the terrorists into moderate and immoderate ones. It would be good to know the difference. Probably, in the opinion of certain experts, it is that the so-called moderate militants behead people in limited numbers or in some delicate fashion.

In actual fact, we now see a real mix of terrorist groups. True, at times militants from the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Al-Qaeda heirs and splinters fight each other, but they fight for money, for feeding grounds, this is what they are fighting for. They are not fighting for ideological reasons, while their essence and methods remain the same: terror, murder, turning people into a timid, frightened, obedient mass.

In the past years the situation has been deteriorating, the terrorists’ infrastructure has been growing, along with their numbers, while the weapons provided to the so-called moderate opposition eventually ended up in the hands of terrorist organisations. Moreover, sometimes entire bands would go over to their side, marching in with flying colours, as they say.

Why is it that the efforts of, say, our American partners and their allies in their struggle against the Islamic State has not produced any tangible results? Obviously, this is not about any lack of military equipment or potential. Clearly, the United States has a huge potential, the biggest military potential in the world, only double crossing is never easy. You declare war on terrorists and simultaneously try to use some of them to arrange the figures on the Middle East board in your own interests, as you may think.

It is impossible to combat terrorism in general if some terrorists are used as a battering ram to overthrow the regimes that are not to one’s liking. You cannot get rid of those terrorists, it is only an illusion to think you can get rid of them later, take power away from them or reach some agreement with them. The situation in Libya is the best example here.

Let us hope that the new government will manage to stabilise the situation, though this is not a fact yet. However, we need to assist in this stabilisation.

We understand quite well that the militants fighting in the Middle East represent a threat to everyone, including Russia. People in our nation know what terrorist aggression means and know what the bandits in the North Caucasus have done. We remember the bloody terrorist attacks in Budennovsk, Moscow, Beslan, Volgograd and other Russian cities. Russia has always fought terrorism in all its forms, consistently advocating for truly unifying the global community’s efforts to fight this evil. That is why we made our suggestion to create a broad anti-terror coalition, which I recently voiced in my speech at the United Nations.

After Syria’s official authorities reached out to us for support, we made the decision to launch a Russian military operation in that nation. I will stress again: it is fully legitimate and its only goal is to help restore peace. I am sure that the Russian service members’ actions will have the necessary positive effect on the situation, helping Syria’s official authorities create the conditions for subsequent actions in reaching a political settlement and stage pre-emptive strikes against terrorists that threaten our nation, Russia. Thus, we help all nations and peoples who are certainly in danger if these terrorists return home.

Here is what we believe we must do to support long-term settlement in the region, as well as its social, economic and political revival. First of all, free Syria and Iraq’s territories from terrorists and not let them move their activities to other regions. And to do that, we must join all forces – the Iraqi and Syrian regular armies, Kurdish militia, various opposition groups that have actually made a real contribution to fighting terrorists – and coordinate the actions of countries within and outside of the region against terrorism. At the same time, joint anti-terrorist action must certainly be based on international law.

Second, it is obvious that a military victory over the militants alone will not resolve all problems, but it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process with participation by all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society. It is the Syrians who must decide their fate with exclusively civil, respectful assistance from the international community, and not under external pressure through ultimatums, blackmail or threats.

The collapse of Syria’s official authorities, for example, will only mobilise terrorists. Right now, instead of undermining them, we must revive them, strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone.

I want to remind you that throughout its history, the Middle East has often been an arena for clashes between various empires and powers. They redrew boundaries and reshaped the region’s political structure to suit their tastes and interests. And the consequences were not always good or beneficial for the people living there. Actually, no one even asked their opinion. The last people to find out what was happening in their own nations were the people living in the Middle East.

Of course, this begs the question: isn’t it time for the international community to coordinate all its actions with the people who live in these territories? I think that it’s long overdue; these people – like any people – should be treated with respect.

The involvement in the process of political settlement of the Muslim clergy, leaders of Islam and heads of Muslim nations is crucial. We count on their consolidated position and assistance, as well as their moral authority. It is very important to protect people, especially youth, against the destructive effects of the ideology of the terrorists, who are trying to use them as cannon fodder, nothing more. We need to distinguish clearly between genuine Islam, whose values are peace, family, good deeds, helping others, respecting traditions, and the lies and hatred that the militants sow under the guise of Islam.

Fourth, we currently need to develop a roadmap for the region’s economic and social development, to restore basic infrastructure, housing, hospitals and schools. Only this kind of on-site creative work after eliminating terrorism and reaching a political settlement can stop the enormous flow of refugees to European nations and return those who left to their homelands.

It is clear that Syria will need massive financial, economic and humanitarian assistance in order to heal the wounds of war. We need to determine the format within which we could do this work, getting donor nations and international financial institutions involved. Right now, Syria’s problems are being discussed at the UN and other international organisations, and within the framework of interstate relations. It’s true that for now, we are not always able to reach an understanding and it is painfully difficult to abandon might-have-been expectations and unjustified calculations, but nevertheless, there is some progress.

We see that contacts are being gradually established between military departments within the anti-terrorist operation framework, although not as actively and quickly as we might like. Approval of the Russian-American document on safety guidelines for the two countries’ military aircraft flying missions over Syria is a serious step in the right direction.

We are also close to starting an exchange of information with our western colleagues on militants’ positions and movements. All these are certainly steps in the right direction. What’s most important is to treat one another as allies in a common fight, to be honest and open. Only then can we guarantee victory over the terrorists.

For all the drama of its current situation, Syria can become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone, and developing an effective risk management system. We already had this opportunity after the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, we did not take advantage of it. We also had the opportunity in the early 2000s, when Russia, the US and many other nations were faced with terrorist aggression and unfortunately, we were unable to establish a good dynamic for cooperating then, either. I will not return to that and the reasons for why we were unable to do this. I think everyone knows already. Now, what’s important is to draw the right lessons from what happened in the past and to move forward.

I am confident that the experience we acquired and today’s situation will allow us to finally make the right choice – the choice in favour of cooperation, mutual respect and trust, the choice in favour of peace.

Thank you very much for your attention.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world