On October 22, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin took part, via videoconference, in the final plenary session of the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. During the Q&As, Putin was asked about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and about Russia-Turkey relations.
Concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, Putin stated that Armenia and Azerbaijan are both equal partners for Russia, adding the Moscow would like to develop full-scale relations with both Yerevan and Baku.
Commenting on Russia-Turkey relations, Putin said that interaction between the two states is important for both Ankara and Moscow. When renowned Russian intellectual and moderator of the event, Fyodor Lukyanov, asked if Russia should fear what seems to be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's policy of expanding his zone of influence to the borders of the former Ottoman Empire, Putin stated: "Russia is not afraid of anything. Thank goodness, we are not in a position where we should be afraid of anything. I do not know about President Erdoğan's plans or his attitude towards the Ottoman legacy. You should ask him about it. But I know that our bilateral trade exceeds $20 billion."
Putin reminded listeners that Russia and Turkey are cooperating together in several fields. He stated that, despite foreign pressure, the TurkStream project was implemented rather quickly, and that Turkey had bought the Russia's S-400 missile system. "[Erdoğan] said he would do it, and he bought it. Working with such a partner is not only pleasant but also safe," Putin stressed.
Commenting on the Ukraine-Turkey joint statement, issued following the October 16 meeting in Ankara between Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and Erdoğan calling for the "de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as restoration of Ukraine's control over certain areas in Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine," Putin said: "As for aspirations, regarding Crimea or anything else, I know nothing about them, and I do not care about them because the interests of Russia are reliably protected, take my word for it."
Putin then stressed: "This is a consistent stand: he does not recognize Crimea, and he does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. What should we do? We must continue working with everyone and remain calm. This is exactly what we have been doing: trying to prove that our position is correct, and we will continue to uphold it, and when positions diverge, we look for compromise. For example, as far as I know, our views on the developments in the South Caucasus do not coincide, because we believe that conflicts should be settled diplomatically at the negotiating table rather than with the use of armed force. Of course, one could say that talks have been ongoing there for 30 years, but to no avail. Well, I do not see this as a reason to start shooting."
It is worth noting that on October 27, Putin had a telephone conversation with Erdoğan at the initiative of the Turkish side. The two presidents discussed in detail the political settlement in Syria, the Libyan agenda, and the developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. According to the Kremlin website, Putin expressed deep concern over the ongoing hostilities and the increasing involvement of Middle East terrorists in Nagorno-Karabakh. It was agreed that coordination between the Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministries as well as the two countries' special services would be maintained.
Russian President Vladimir Putin treated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to an ice cream at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2019. (Source: Kremlin.ru)
Following is Putin's answer at the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club:
"'Armenia And Azerbaijan Are Both Equal Partners For Us'"
Anatol Lieven: "... My question... relates to the new outbreak of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, like other members of the international community, has been trying very hard to bring about a peaceful solution to this conflict, but so far these efforts have failed. If they continue to fail, given Russia's old historic links and given Russia's military alliance with Armenia, will it be necessary in the end for Russia to take sides against Azerbaijan and Turkey?
"On the other hand, could this perhaps provide a positive opportunity for Russia, given the increasing confrontation which we see between France and Turkey over Turkey's claims in the Eastern Mediterranean? Could this perhaps be an opportunity for a rapprochement between Russia and France and other West European countries? Thank you."
Vladimir Putin: "I did not quite understand the last part of the question. What does the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict have to do with this?"
Fyodor Lukyanov: "Maybe he meant the possibility of rapprochement with France and Europe, since Turkey is now opposed to both them and, to a degree, to us?"
Vladimir Putin: "I see. Let us begin at the beginning, with Nagorno-Karabakh and who to support in this conflict. You said that Russia has always had special relations with Armenia. But we have also always had special ties with Azerbaijan as well. There are over 2 million Armenians and some 2 million Azerbaijanis living in Russia, both those who have come to Russia in search of jobs and those who live here permanently. They send billions of dollars to their families back home. All these people have stable and close ties with Russia at the humanitarian level, person-to-person, business, humanitarian and family ties. Therefore, Armenia and Azerbaijan are both equal partners for us. And it is a great tragedy for us when people die there. We would like to develop full-scale relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"Yes, there are some individual elements in each case, and some things in our relations with one partner differ from our relations with the other partner. In the case of Armenia, it is Christianity. But we also have very close ties with Azerbaijan in other spheres.
"Speaking about religion, I would like to point out that nearly 15 percent of Russian citizens are Muslims. Therefore, Azerbaijan is not an alien country to us in this sense either.
"But what we certainly cannot forget is what happened in the destiny of the Armenian people, the Armenian nation during World War I. This is an enormous tragedy for the Armenian people. This is the second part.
"The third part is based on the fact that this conflict broke out not just as an interstate conflict or struggle for territories. It started with ethnic confrontation. Regrettably, it is also a fact that violent crimes against the Armenian people were also committed in Sumgait and later in Nagorno-Karabakh. We must consider all this in a package.
"At the same time, we understand that a situation where Azerbaijan has lost a substantial part of its territory cannot continue. Over the years, we have suggested many diverse options for settling this crisis with a view to stabilizing the situation in the long-term historical perspective.
"I will not go into detail at this point but believe me, this was intensive work on bringing the positions of the parties closer. Sometimes it seemed like a bit more effort, another small step and we would find the solution. Regrettably, it did not happen, and today we are seeing the worst-case scenario in this conflict. The death of people is a tragedy. There are heavy losses on both sides. According to our information, there are over 2,000 dead on either side. The total number of victims is already approaching 5,000.
"Let me emphasize that the Soviet Union, the Soviet army lost 13,000 people during the ten years of war in Afghanistan. Now the toll is almost 5,000 in such a short span of time. And how many are wounded? How many people, how many children are suffering? This is why it is a special situation for us.
"Yes, the Minsk Group was established, I believe, in 1992. As its co-chairs, Russia, France and the US are responsible for organizing the negotiating process. It is clear, and I am 100 percent confident of this, that all participants in the process are sincerely striving to settle the situation. That said, nobody is interested in this as much as Russia is, because this is a very sensitive issue for us. This is not just happening before our eyes, but in a broad sense, it is happening with our people, our friends and our relatives. This is why we are in a position that allows us to be trusted by both sides and play a substantial role as a mediator on the rapprochement of positions in settling this conflict. I would very much like to find a compromise here.
"As you may be aware, I maintain close contacts with both President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan. I speak to them on the phone several times a day. Our respective foreign ministers, defense ministers and heads of special services are constantly in contact. Foreign ministers of both countries came to us again. Today, or rather on October 23, they will have a meeting in Washington. I strongly hope that our American partners will act in unison with us and promote a settlement. Let us hope for the best. This covers the first part.
"The second part concerns disputes within NATO between Turkey and France. We never take advantage of frictions between other states. We have good and stable relations with France. I would not say they are full-fledged, but they hold a lot of promise and, in any case, have a good track record.
"Our cooperation with Turkey is expanding. Turkey is our neighbor, and I can tell you in more detail how important interaction between our states is for both Turkey and Russia.
"I do not think anyone needs our mediation. Turkey and France are perfectly capable of regulating relations between themselves. No matter how tough President Erdoğan's stance may look, I know that he is a flexible person, and finding a common language with him is possible. Therefore, I hope the situation will get back to normal here as well."
"As for [Turkey's] Aspirations, Regarding Crimea Or Anything Else, I Know Nothing About Them, And I Do Not Care About Them Because The Interests Of Russia Are Reliably Protected, Take My Word For It"
Fyodor Lukyanov: "Mr President, a follow-up if I may, since it is a hot topic. Still, Turkey's much more active role than ever before is what makes the current crisis in the South Caucasus different. You said President Erdoğan is flexible. That may well be the case as you spent a lot of time with him. However, many experts believe that Erdoğan's policy is actually about expanding his zone of influence to the borders of the former Ottoman Empire. These borders stretched far and wide, as we know, and they enclosed a lot of territory, including Crimea, which was part of it at some point. It was a long time ago, but nonetheless. Should we not fear that if this becomes a consistent policy, we would have certain differences with Ankara?"
Vladimir Putin: "Russia is not afraid of anything. Thank goodness, we are not in a position where we should be afraid of anything. I do not know about President Erdoğan's plans or his attitude towards the Ottoman legacy. You should ask him about it. But I know that our bilateral trade exceeds $20 billion. I know that Turkey is really interested in continuing this cooperation. I know that President Erdoğan is pursuing an independent foreign policy. Despite a lot of pressure, we implemented the TurkStream project together rather quickly. We cannot do the same with Europe; we have been discussing this issue for years, but Europe seems unable to show enough basic independence or sovereignty to implement the Nord Stream 2 project, which would be advantageous to it in every respect.
"As for Turkey, we implemented our project quite quickly, despite any threats. Erdoğan, who was aware of his national interests, said that we would do it, and we did it. The same is true of our ties in other areas, for example, our military-technical cooperation. Turkey decided it needed a modern air defense system, and the world's best is the S-400, a triumph of Russian industry. He said he would do it, and he bought it. Working with such a partner is not only pleasant but also safe.
"As for aspirations, regarding Crimea or anything else, I know nothing about them, and I do not care about them because the interests of Russia are reliably protected, take my word for it. I am sure that our other partners are fully aware of this.
"Regarding Turkey's refusal to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, well, we do not see eye to eye on all subjects. For example, we are not always on the same page regarding the situation in the South Caucasus. But we also know about the positions of Europe and the United States. They claim to be true dyed-in-the-wool democrats, but they do not even want to hear about the people of Crimea voting for their future in a referendum, which is the highest form of direct democracy.
"As I said, they adopted sanctions against the Crimean people. If Crimea was annexed, then they are the victims. Why are sanctions adopted against the victims? But if they voted freely, it was democracy in action, so why are they being punished for democracy? This is all rubbish and nonsense, but it is also a fact of life. So why point the finger at Erdoğan? Just take a look at what is happening in other countries.
"This is a consistent stand: he does not recognize Crimea, and he does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. What should we do? We must continue working with everyone and remain calm. This is exactly what we have been doing: trying to prove that our position is correct, and we will continue to uphold it, and when positions diverge, we look for compromise.
"For example, as far as I know, our views on the developments in the South Caucasus do not coincide, because we believe that conflicts should be settled diplomatically at the negotiating table rather than with the use of armed force. Of course, one could say that talks have been ongoing there for 30 years, but to no avail. Well, I do not see this as a reason to start shooting.
Fyodor Lukyanov: "Thank you very much. Of course, Mr. Erdoğan has been consistent. For example, he recognises Northern Cyprus. But this is perhaps part of the flexibility that you were talking about."
Vladimir Putin: "Yes, you are right. I agree. I was supposed to say this but it slipped my mind. But you are correct. Northern Cyprus, yes. However, as far as I know, Turkey does not object to the country finally being unified. The principles of this unification are the problem. But, overall, you are right."
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8999 Russian Expert Mirzanyan: Ukraine Is Coming Under Turkey's Influence, But Shouldn't Trust It – In The 17th Century, The Turks Cooperated With The Cossacks And Robbed Them At The Same Time, October 29, 2020.
 See MEMRI Special No. 8986 Presence Of Fighters From Syria In Nagorno Karabakh Ramps Up The Pressure On Russia To Intervene, October 23, 2020; Special Dispatch No. 8951 Reports In Syria: Turkey Is Sending Syrian Rebel Fighters To Azerbaijan To Participate In Fight Against Armenia, October 1, 2020.
 Kremlin.ru, October 22, 2020.