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The US Plan C for Syria and Iraq: its reckless game with the Kurds

Following the failure of the regime changes wars in Syria and Iraq, and of the attempts to set up a ‘Sunnistan’ there, the US stirs up the Kurds

Alexander Mercouris

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As ISIS fades and as the Syrian conflict winds down, regional tensions in the Middle East are escalating, as the attention of the Great Powers switches to the growing crisis in Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurdish areas.

The latest stage in the seemingly endless geopolitical struggle in the Middle East is currently underway, with the Kurds of Syria and Iraq taking centre-stage.

Though it is important not to attribute more structure and coherence to US policy than it actually has, it appears that US policy over the course the Syrian conflict in particular has evolved through three overlapping stages.

Stage 1 – Plan A: Regime Change in Syria

First, there was an all-out attempt to achieve regime change in Syria, with the US supporting a proxy war intended to overthrow the Syrian government.

This stage lasted from 2011 up to the autumn of 2016, when the Syrian army’s successful defeat of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo made it non-viable.

This stage could be called the US’s Plan A.

Stage 2 – Plan B: Partition Syria by creating eastern ‘Sunnistan’

Secondly, as hopes of achieving regime change in Syria faded following the Russian intervention in 2015, plans for partitioning Syria by setting up a Sunni statelet in central and eastern Syria were gradually substituted in its place.

To that end the US established military bases on Syrian territory at Al-Tanf and elsewhere, and began arming and training various anti-government “Free Syrian Army” militia groups both in northern and southern Syria.

This is the classic US ‘third force’ strategy, applied by the US to many conflicts ever since it was first tested out in Vietnam in the 1950s.  It has always proved a failure whenever it has been attempted, but that never seems to prevent the US from turning to it whenever it finds itself in a losing position.

In Syrian terms this could be called the US’s Plan B.

Support for the ‘Free Syrian Army’ militia groups and by implication for Plan B was always controversial within the US intelligence and security establishment, with the Defense Intelligence Agency strongly opposed, a fact which in 2014 cost its chief General Michael Flynn his job.

In the event the doubts of the skeptics have proved right.  A project initiated in Spring 2015 costing $500 million to set up a Syrian Sunni ‘third force’ was recognised by spring 2016 to have been a total failure – just as the previously sacked General Flynn and his Defense Intelligence Agency had predicted.  This did not however prevent the US from trying to do the same thing all over again in 2016, however with the same result.

In recent months it has become finally clear that this strategy has failed.  The various ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters the US has trained and supported have invariably proved a disappointment, incapable of standing up to the Syrian army or Al-Qaeda or ISIS on the battlefield, and ideologically all but indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda and ISIS (which they frequently defect to) anyway.  It is common knowledge that most of the weapons the US has supplied to these fighters has ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The reason this strategy has failed is because its underlying assumptions are wrong.  It assumes Syria’s people are deeply divided on religious lines between Syrian Sunnis, who are assumed to oppose the government, and the Alawite/Christian/Shia/Druze communities, who are known to support it.

This religious division of Syria’s people has never really existed, at least in a political sense, or at least not to anything like the extent the US and many Western commentators imagine.  The vast majority of Arab Syrians identify themselves as Arabs and Syrians and with the Syrian state, whilst the religious differences which have existed in Syria for millennia have never caused the fracturing of what is in every other respect a single country and nation.  Though most Syrians are Muslims, the prevailing ideology of the Syrian people and state is first and foremost Arab nationalism.

The result is that the sort of Syrians who are attracted to the US’s ‘third force’ ‘Sunnistan’ project are unrepresentative of the great majority of Syrians, and come from Syria’s very small minority of religious extremists.  For those sort of people the real extremism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS will always be more attractive than the phoney sectarianism of whatever ‘Sunni’ “third force” the US tries to cobble together and not surprisingly, whenever they are given the choice, their preference is to join Al-Qaeda or ISIS rather than stick with whatever ‘third force’ the US has conjured up for them.

Plan B’s other problem is that it also ignored the enormous logistical and political challenges of sustaining indefinitely an unrecognised Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the poor and isolated desert regions of central and eastern Syria.

Such a statelet would be cut off from direct access to the sea and would be sandwiched between Syria’s wealthy western coastal regions firmly controlled by the Syrian government and Iraq whose Shia dominated pro-Iranian government would be bound to be implacably opposed to it. It could only therefore survive through US support, which would need to be both costly and indefinite.

Given the enormous cost and the certain opposition of much of the US public to such an expensive long term commitment to Syria, the sheer cost of sustaining a ‘Sunnistan’ in eastern Syria means that in practical terms Plan B was never a realistic strategy.

In the event the rapid advances of the Syrian army into central and eastern Syria since the spring, and the concurrent advances of the Iraqi army through Iraq’s western regions to the Syrian border over the same period, and the emerging Syrian-Iraqi alliance, have acted to kill whatever hopes for Plan B there ever were.

It is now clear that the setting up of a Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the central and eastern regions of Syria adjoining the Iraqi border is no longer possible, and Plan B – the partition of Syria along religious lines – has failed and has had to be abandoned.

Stage 3 – Plan C: Support the Kurds

Following the failure of Plans A and B, most governments would have accepted that there is no realistic way for the US to achieve its maximalist objectives in Syria, and would have cut their losses.  Unfortunately, as has become all too clear in the last few months, the US has no reverse gear, so that in place of Plans A and B we are now seeing the rolling out of Plan C.

This is to manipulate Kurdish national aspirations to undermine the Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian-Hezbollah “axis of resistance/Shia crescent”, which in my opinion had no real existence before the start of the Syrian conflict but which as a direct consequence of US and Israeli policy in Syria and Iraq is now emerging.

The results of this new strategy – which can be called Plan C – are now evident in the form of the escalating conflicts between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army in north east Syria – with Deir Ezzor province emerging as the key flashpoint – and with the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At this point a number of qualifiers are needed.

Policy instability in Washington

Firstly, though I have no doubt that Plan C exists and is both calculated and supported by some influential people in Washington – including within the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon – I doubt there is any consensus within the US government behind it.

There has never been any sign of any properly structured discussion within the US government about the sort of strategy the US should be following in Syria, whether conducted through the vehicle of the National Security Council or through any other format.  In my opinion the US government is now too disorganised and dysfunctional to be capable of carrying out such a discussion.  That was already the case under the Obama administration, and the current political chaos in Washington has made the situation worse.

The result is that many senior officials within the US – including I suspect President Trump himself, and quite possibly his ‘realist’ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – have not been consulted about the new strategy and may not even know about it.

My strong impression is that US policy in the Middle East has for some time been run by a small but powerful cabal of officials inside the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, who have strong links to various neoliberal/neoconservative groups working in US academia, various Washington think-tanks, and the media, and who also have strong personal and organisational links to the governments of the US’s two major allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Needless to say, since policy is made in this way with no proper discussion behind it, the new policy of supporting the Kurds (like the previous policies of seeking regime change in Syria and Iraq, and of partitioning Syria on religious lines) has not been properly thought through, and is not being executed in a consistent or organised way.

Kurds are manipulating the US

Secondly, the ‘new’ policy looks to have been ‘made’ by the Kurds as much as by US officials in Washington.

In both Syria and Iraq the Kurds have sought to leverage the conflicts there to their own advantage, using US hostility to the Syrian government and increasingly to the Iraqi government to advance their longstanding national aspiration for an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurds have sought to do this by presenting themselves to the US as the one ‘third force’ in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq which is both consistently reliable and militarily effective.

To a quite remarkable extent they have succeeded, carving out for themselves with US help large oil-rich and all-but independent zones in both Syria and Iraq.

US support for the Kurds in Iraq

Neither of these zones could have been created without US help.

The Kurdish zone in Iraq was created back in 1991 following the US war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The Kurds were never able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army by themselves, even in its weakened post-1991 form, and there is no possibility their zone in northern Iraq could have been created or maintained without US support.

Since then the Kurds in Iraq have used the US’s continued support to expand this zone.  It now includes large areas of Iraq of predominantly Arab population, including the important oil town of Kirkuk.

US support for the Kurds in Syria – a tidal wave of weapons supplies

In Syria the Kurds, especially since the defeat of the US’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies in 2016, have emerged by default as the US’s one remaining ally.  The result is US support on an astonishing scale.

A recent joint report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (“OCCRP”) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (“BIRN”) has revealed the gigantic flood of weapons the US has since September 2015 poured into Syria to support the Kurds there.

Apparently $700 million of weapons have already been sent to the Kurds in Syria, with the Pentagon planning to spend a further $584 million buying arms for the Kurds in eastern Europe up to the end of 2018.

Apparently a total of $2.2 billion in arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is planned, a figure which I suspect exceeds the price of the weapons supplied by the Russians to the Syrian army over the same period.  The OCCRP/BIRN report as it happens says that this figure is an underestimate, and that the true cost of the arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is much greater.

It is at this point that some of the problems arising from the US’s failure to hold a proper discussion of its new Syrian strategy become apparent.

Since the strategy of arming the Kurds in Syria is not backed by any formal consensus within the US government, and has not been formally agreed by the US with the US’s NATO allies, the whole programme to arm the Kurds has had to be conducted informally, without proper control or accountability, though its scale is such as to make it impossible to speak of a covert programme.

The result is that instead of the US supplying US weapons directly to the Kurds in Syria – something which the US government has not formally authorised itself to do – the US is buying former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in eastern Europe, faking documents and (no doubt) bribing officials there to do it.

It seems demand by the US for former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in Syria has become so great that the US’s east European suppliers are struggling to keep up with US demands, so that some of the weapons which have been supplied are past their sell-by date and are substandard and dangerous to those who use them.

A further result of the obfuscation which exists within the programme is the fiction – to a great extent maintained even by the OCCRP/BIRN report itself – that the weapons are going to something called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” even though everyone familiar with the Syrian conflict knows that the “Syrian Democratic Forces” is simply a fig-leaf term used from time to time by the Kurdish militia there.

It is this vast flood of weapons which together with US air support has enabled the Kurds in Syria to carve out and enlarge their zone in northern Syria.

Nominally this is done in order to fight and defeat ISIS, and the Kurdish militia has indeed fought some hard battles against ISIS in Syria, and is currently battling ISIS for control of ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.

However increasingly, as is now happening in Deir Ezzor province, the Kurdish militia is pitching itself against the Syrian army, using – with US encouragement – the Syrian army’s preoccupation with its fight against ISIS as cover to seize territory and oil wells in eastern Syrian in order to bring them under its control and to make them part of its Kurdish zone.

The result is that though the Kurds only account for around 8% of Syria’s population, their zone in north east Syria has expanded until it now covers roughly 20% of Syria’s territory, with Arabs now outnumbering Kurds inside it.

Differences between the Kurds in Syria and Iraq

There are profound similarities between the position of the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds of Iraq.   Both have carved out semi-independent zones in the north of their respective countries; both nominally oppose ISIS; both are increasingly at odds with the governments of their two countries; and both depend heavily on US support.  However there are also profound differences.

The Kurdish militia in Syria is controlled by the leftist YPG militia, which is associated with the PKK (“Kurdistan Workers’ Party”) in Turkey.  Its ideology is Marxist and it is bitterly opposed to Turkey, which it regards as the enemy of the Kurds.  Turkey in turn is strongly hostile to both the YPG and the PKK, which it considers terrorist movements.

The Kurdish militia in Iraq by contrast is controlled by Masoud Barzani, a conservative Kurdish tribal leader and head of the aristocratic Barzani family, who is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In contrast to the YPG Barzani has until recently enjoyed good relations with President Erdogan’s Turkish government in Ankara.  There are persistent rumours of close and and even corrupt business dealings between members of Erdogan’s and Barzani’s families, and Erdogan and Barzani treat each other as friends.

On the face of it that should preclude cooperation between the YPG led Kurds in Syria and the Barzani led Kurds in Iraq.

In practice it is likely that some limited cooperation between the two does take place, with arms and fighters probably moving freely between the two ‘Kurdistans’, and it is likely that there is some level of political coordination between them as well.

Consequences of the US’s Kurdish policy

What are the consequences of the US’s Plan C/’Kurdish’ strategy, and what are its prospects?   In summary there are five:

(1) it will prolong the conflicts in Syria and Iraq;

(2) it is delaying the final defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq;

(3) it will make the Iraqi government align itself still more closely to Iran and Syria;

(4) it will strengthen hostility within Turkey to the US, and may make Turkey more inclined to seek regional alignments with the US’s Middle East rivals and enemies: Russia and Iran;

(5) it risks making the Kurds even more isolated in their region, whilst uniting the region against them.

(1) Prolonging the conflicts in Syria and Iraq

This is of course part of the purpose of the policy, its intention being to weaken the Syrian and Iraqi governments by setting up powerful pro-US Kurdish statelets on their territories.

Presumably the US hopes to use these statelets to leverage influence for itself in Damascus and Baghdad.  Even if it is not successful in that, the calculation presumably is that the Syrian and Iraqi governments will have their hands full dealing with the Kurds, and that this will limit their ability to act in concert with each other in a way that is contrary to US wishes and interests.

This objective has to some extent already been achieved.  Just a few weeks ago the simultaneous and coordinated advances of the Syrian and Iraqi armies to their joint border appeared to be on the brink of establishing for the first time a genuine land bridge running through Syria and Iraq all the way to Iran.  Following the actions of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, those advances have significantly slowed, and the establishment of the threatened land bridge has been postponed, even if it has not been averted entirely.

In the longer term the Kurdish statelets which are emerging in Syria and Iraq possess a coherence and viability that a Sunni statelet in eastern Syria never would have done.  They do therefore provide a genuine possible route for the US to maintain a presence and even some influence within Syria and Iraq, even contrary to the wishes of the governments of those countries.

The emergence of these statelets also means that the Syrians and Iraqis to a great extent will at least in the foreseeable future be tied down dealing with their respective Kurds rather than coordinating with Tehran and with each other in a way that might be contrary to US wishes and interests, and in a way which might threaten the regional positions of the US’s two key Middle East allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

(2) Delaying defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS

This ‘achievement’ has however come at some cost, and the extra lease of life given to Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq is the most immediately obvious.

Until just two weeks ago ISIS in particular, both in Syria and Iraq, was visibly on the run.  After a prolonged siege it was driven out of Mosul by the Iraqi army, its position in central Syria appeared to be on the brink of total collapse, and following a whirlwind advance the Syrian army successfully broke its siege of Syria’s strategically important eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which ISIS had appeared to be close to capturing just a few months ago.

The tensions between the Kurdish militia in Syria and the Syrian army, and the political crisis caused by the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, have however forced the Syrian and Iraqi militaries to redeploy their forces to deal with the challenge of the Kurds.

The result is that ISIS in particular has been provided with a new lease of life.  The reduction in the number of Iraqi troops in western Iraq in particular has enabled ISIS to redeploy fighters from Iraq to Syria, enabling ISIS to launch fresh attacks on the Syrian army.

The result has been a succession of ISIS counter-offensives aimed at recapturing the strategic town of Al-Sukhnah – liberated from ISIS by the Syrian army in August – whose recapture by ISIS would place Syrian communications to Deir Ezzor in jeopardy.

Further west Al-Qaeda has used the Syrian army’s focus on its conflicts with ISIS and the Kurds to launch new offensives against the Syrian army in Syria’s Idlib province.  The Russians – some of whose troops were targeted by these offensives – have made it clear that they suspect a US role in them.

Elsewhere the Kurds’ own increasing focus within Syria on their escalating conflict with the Syrian government appears to have slowed the momentum of their advance against ISIS in ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.

Though the number of ISIS fighters still fighting in Raqqa is now put at no more than a few hundred, ISIS still controls around a quarter of the city, with the Kurds so far failing to inflict on ISIS a final knock-out blow despite the heavy air support they are getting from the US.

Though these renewed offensives by Al-Qaeda and ISIS show how these two terrorist organisations have been able to exploit the conflicts between the Syrian and Iraqi governments and the Kurds to their advantage, it should be stressed that their final defeat in Syria and Iraq has been delayed, not prevented.

Latest reports from eastern Syria suggest that the Syrian army has successfully contained ISIS’s counter-offensive against Al-Sukhnah and is continuing to score gains against ISIS in the remaining pockets of its resistance in central Syria.

It seems that units of the Syrian army may also be closer to capturing the important ISIS held town of Mayadin on the Euphrates river, which following the evacuation of ISIS’s ‘government’ from Raqqa has been made by ISIS its headquarters.

As for Al-Qaeda’s offensive in Idlib province, heavy Russian bombing and the intervention of Russian Special Forces has ensured that it too has been defeated with heavy losses.  Latest reports suggest that Al-Qaeda’s leader in Syria – Abu Muhammad al-Julani – has been injured in a Russian air strike and is in a coma though Al-Qaeda is denying this.

(3) Iraqi realignment with Syria and Iran

Iraq has been in the process of re-aligning with Syria and Iran for some time, its rapprochement with Iran having started following the election of a predominantly Shia government in Iraq as the US occupation of Iraq began to wind down.

More recently Iraq and Syria have also edged closer together as they have coordinated their forces to fight their common enemy: ISIS.

I have previously discussed this evolving Syrian-Iraqi alignment and have pointed out that it represents a break in the historic pattern of relations between these two countries, which were previously marked more by hostility than friendship

Since the Second World War Syria and Iraq have more often been in bitter conflict with each other than allied with each other.

In the 1960s the antagonism between the two countries sharpened when they each came to be led by rival branches of the Baath party.  There is nothing more calculated to intensify hostility than an ideological split as the history in the twentieth century of the world Communist movement can testify, and in the case of the hostility between the rival Baathists of Syria and Iraq the antagonism became murderous, with former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein loathing each other.

However this rapprochement, should it become permanent, has the potential to reshape fundamentally the geopolitical picture of the Middle East.  As I have written previously

There has been some lurid talk in recent years of a supposedly menacing ‘Shiite crescent’ stretching all the way from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran.

This is a wild fantasy.  The Syrian government is not Shiite but secular, and is supported by many and probably most of Syria’s Sunnis.  Though there are Shiite sectarians in Iraq, and though they are for the moment in the ascendant, opinion polls show that the majority of Iraqis – Sunnis and Shiites – reject religious sectarianism, and oppose attempts to divide them on religious grounds.

I would add that the supposed conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East is anyway largely misunderstood in the West, which wrongly interprets it through the prism of early modern Europe’s very different Protestant-Catholic conflict.  In reality non-Salafi/Wahhabi Sunnis – who are the great majority of Sunnis – have theologically far more in common with Shia Muslims than they do with the Salafi/Wahhabi Sunni Muslims who make up the various Jihadi movements.

Though it is wrong therefore to speak of a ‘Shiite crescent’, it does seem that an evolving geopolitical alignment pitting Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria against Israel and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia may be in the process of forming.

The long history of rivalry and even hostility between Syria and Iraq does however beg the question of how strong and lasting a rapprochement between Syria and Iraq can be?

Though this remains a question only the future can answer, it is difficult to think of anything more likely to solidify Iraq’s new alignment with Iran and Syria than the threat of secession by Iraq’s Kurds.

With both Iran and Syria implacably opposed to such a Kurdish move – not just because of the challenge it would pose for the relations of these two countries with their own Kurds, but also because of the threat of an independent Kurdistan aligning itself with the US and Israel – the threat of Kurdish secession has provided Syria, Iraq and Iran with a fresh challenge and enemy for them to face together once ISIS is defeated.

As such it is likely to bring them closer together, and to bind them together more firmly, than might otherwise have been the case.

(4) A Turkish realignment?

Even as Iran, Syria and Iraq have united to condemn the latest Kurdish independence moves in Iraq, they have found themselves joined in their expressions of concern by the US’s militarily most powerful regional ally, Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurdish problem is possibly the most intractable of all, with Turkey already fighting a low level guerrilla war on its own territory against the PKK, the Kurdish leftist group aligned with the YPG, which has become the de facto leader of the Kurds in Syria.

The close links between the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria must make Turkey extremely nervous not just about the YPG’s success in carving out a semi-independent zone for itself in northern Syria with US backing, but at the vast flood of weapons the YPG has been receiving from the US.

It is precisely this hitherto unreported flood of weapons to the YPG which is probably the single most important reason why over the last year Turkey has slowly shifted its policy in Syria away from seeking regime change there towards working with the Russians to try to bring an end to the war there.

For the Turks a Syrian government – any Syrian government, even one led by Bashar Al-Assad – in full control of Syria’s territory is preferable to the existence of a powerful heavily armed Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s southern border, which is ruled by the YPG.  Once it became clear to Turkey following the Jihadi defeat in Aleppo last year that the overthrow of President Assad’s Syrian government was not going to happen, preventing the emergence of a YPG led Kurdish statelet in northern Syria became for Turkey the priority.

That points to the need for Turkey to cooperate with Russia to settle the conflict in Syria, even if that means abandoning some of Turkey’s Jihadi allies there, and even if that results in President Assad continuing in power in Damascus.

However whilst Turkey is implacably hostile to the YPG in Syria, it has hitherto maintained cordial relations with the Barzani regime in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Masoud Barzani, the leader of this regime, has now acted to call that relationship with Turkey into question by holding the independence referendum.

This referendum appears to have been called for internal reasons: to shore up Barzani’s domestic support within Iraqi Kurdistan as Barzani has faced increasing criticism for corruption, authoritarianism and economic mismanagement.  However it has been deeply unwelcome in Turkey, which though tolerant of a Barzani led autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state being established there.

Latest reports suggest that Barzani – who depends heavily on Turkish support – is trying to patch things up with the Turks, sending a strong delegation to Ankara to try to reassure Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish government of his friendly intentions.

Whilst the cracks may be papered over for a while, the effect of Barzani’s referendum has however been to place the whole question of Kurdish independence from Iraq back on the international agenda.  Given the extent to which the Turks regard the Kurdish question as an existential issue for themselves, that is bound to cause alarm in Turkey.

The result is the hurried announcement of joint Iranian-Turkish military exercises along their common frontier, a step taken in direct response to Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish independence referendum, and the threats from Turkey of an economic blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan if the results of the referendum are not rescinded.

Those announcements were preceded by high levels talks in Moscow between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia over the course of which the two leaders spoke of each other as “friends”, Erdogan calling Putin his “dear friend”.  Significantly the talks were attended by General Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, with the final agreement for the sale by Russia of its sophisticated S-400 anti aircraft missile system to Turkey being agreed just before them.

I have previously made known my doubts that any deep realignment of Turkey’s relations with Russia is likely.  It has always seemed to me that Turkey is too anchored in the West and too closely tied to the US for that ever to happen.

If any single thing could however make such an otherwise improbable realignment happen, it would be US and Western support for Kurdish national aspirations that failed to take into account Turkey’s concerns and interests.  Given the importance of Turkey to the Western alliance, it is baffling that US and Western leaders seem unable to see this, and are drifting into a policy that is risking their alliance with Turkey, without it being properly thought through.

(5) Kurdish isolation

The Kurds both in Syria and Iraq have since the 1991 Iraq war been extremely successful in leveraging their usefulness to the US to promote their national aspirations.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, and in seeking their own state – or at least a secure homeland of their own – the Kurds are not aspiring to anything illegitimate.  However they are now in serious danger of overplaying their hand.

From a position of great influence in Iraq, which they successfully achieved following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurds now risk finding that they have made an enemy of the increasingly powerful Iraqi government in Baghdad.

From a situation of de facto alliance with the Syrian government in the war against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which might with Russian help have been leveraged to secure for the Kurds at the very least significant autonomy and influence within a future Syria, the Kurds now find themselves drifting into confrontation with the Syrian government at just the moment when the Syrian army is sweeping all before it and stands on the edge of victory.

More to the point, by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.

If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.

Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue.  On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.

Rather than risk all by making an outright bid for independence, which has the potential to end catastrophically, the Kurds would be far better advised to work with the regional powers so as to consolidate the already considerable gains they have made.  The Russians, who are becoming the major power brokers in the region, have historically been sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.  Were the Kurds to take this approach there would be a reasonable chance that with Russian help they could negotiate for themselves a position which would leave them in possession of most or all of their gains.

That would of course fall short of outright independence.  However realistically that may not be achievable at the present time.  Attempting to achieve it risks a catastrophic outcome which would put in jeopardy all the gains which since the 1991 Gulf War the Kurds have made.  That hardly seems a worthwhile risk.

Conclusion

Unlike the US’s previous projects of regime change in Syria (Plan A) and the partition of Syria along religious lines (Plan B), the latest US ploy to maintain US influence in Syria and Iraq – the creation of pro-US Kurdish statelets there (Plan C) – is grounded in a certain reality.  The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are a powerful and coherent force, and they do have longstanding national aspirations the US can exploit in its own interests.

Like all the US’s other Syrian and Iraqi projects this latest one involving the Kurds does not however appear to have been properly thought through.  Though it has succeeded in delaying the final victories of the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their respective conflicts, that delay is likely to be short, and the price of achieving it is already looking high.

Instead of drawing Syria and Iraq away from each other, and drawing both away from Iran, US meddling in Kurdish affairs in Syria and Iraq is instead bringing Syria, Iran and Iraq even closer together.

Worse still it is increasing Turkey’s disenchantment with the US, a fact which ought to be of major concern to the US given Turkey’s importance to the US as a key NATO ally, but which incomprehensibly it doesn’t appear to be.

Last but not least, the policy threatens to involve the US in a Kurdish conflict in a region where apart from the Kurds themselves it would be without friends.  At a time of growing popular disenchantment in the US with the interventionist war policy that the US has been following since the end of the Cold War (see Glenn Greenwald’s discussion of this here), that has obvious potential for disaster.

There are signs that some US officials understand this.  Though it is difficult to believe that Masoud Barzani would have gone ahead with his independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan without receiving at least an amber light from the US, Rex Tillerson, the US’s ‘realist’ Secretary of State, has condemned the move, calling the referendum illegitimate.  That suggests that there are at least some people in Washington who understand the risks, and who are concerned.

The problem is that though there are plenty of people in the US who can see the dangers and want to pull back, the initiative in the US always seems in the end to rest with the hardliners.  The consistent lesson of the last few decades is that these people have no reverse gear, so that the very fact that the US’s latest Kurdish ploy is for the moment achieving some ephemeral gains is likely to embolden them, causing them to press on, ignoring the risks which lie before them.

All the signs therefore point to a deepening of US involvement in Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurdish areas and of the prolongation of the wars there.

In other words the scene for the next US foreign policy disaster in the Middle East is now being set.

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Putin’s State of the Nation in review Part I – Military policy

“It seems that our partners fail to notice the depth and pace of change around the world and where it is headed.”

Seraphim Hanisch

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Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his yearly State of the Nation speech on February 20th, 2019. Last year’s speech, given March 1, was a real topic of amazement for both Russia and the West, as the president revealed the new hypersonic weaponry that the Russian Federation has been developing, as well as other extremely sophisticated means of defense for the nation. At first the West mocked these claims, but time proved Mr. Putin correct.

This year’s speech appears to be quite different in its focus, though of course the President had to discuss the matters of the defense of his nation and its response to pressure from the Western powers, most notably the United States and Great Britain. While the main focus of his speech, and indeed, this last presidential term, is on domestic issues within Russia, he had to still discuss military matters, which is what the Western media reacted to. Here is that section of the speech. We have reprinted it in full, but the emphases and comments that break the segment of the speech are ours:

Colleagues, Russia has been and always will be a sovereign and independent state. This is a given. It will either be that, or will simply cease to exist. We must clearly understand this. Without sovereignty, Russia cannot be a state. Some countries can do this, but not Russia.

Sound familiar, America?

Building relations with Russia means working together to find solutions to the most complex matters instead of trying to impose solutions. We make no secret of our foreign policy priorities. These include strengthening trust, countering global threats, promoting cooperation in the economy and trade, education, culture, science and technology, as well as facilitating people-to-people contact. These tenets underpin our work within the UN, the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as within the Group of 20, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

We believe in the importance of promoting closer cooperation within the Union State of Russia and Belarus, including close foreign policy and economic coordination. Together with our integration partners within the Eurasian Economic Union, we will continue creating common markets and outreach efforts. This includes implementing the decisions to coordinate the activities of the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative on the way to a greater Eurasian partnership.

Russia’s equal and mutually beneficial relations with China currently serve as an important factor of stability in international affairs and in terms of Eurasian security, offering a model of productive economic cooperation. Russia attaches importance to realising the potential of the special privileged strategic partnership with India. We will continue to promote political dialogue and economic cooperation with Japan. Russia stands ready to work with Japan on finding mutually acceptable terms for signing a peace treaty. We intend to promote deeper ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

(Russia and Japan never concluded a treaty to end World War II, and negotiations continue to this day, even as commerce has redeveloped between the two countries.)

We also hope that the European Union and the major European countries will finally take actual steps to put political and economic relations with Russia back on track. People in these countries are looking forward to cooperation with Russia, which includes corporations, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises, and European businesses in general. It goes without saying that this would serve our common interests.

This is significant and underreported in the United States news media, if not ignored outright. Americans usually get a strange “half” of the news, talking about the US trying to sell LNG to European allies at a high price when Russia, a huge producer of natural gas, is right next door (we will discuss this more in a companion piece).

And now we come to the heart of the matter, at least insofar as this issue makes the news in both countries.

The unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the INF Treaty is the most urgent and most discussed issue in Russian-American relations. This is why I am compelled to talk about it in more detail. Indeed, serious changes have taken place in the world since the Treaty was signed in 1987. Many countries have developed and continue to develop these weapons, but not Russia or the USA – we have limited ourselves in this respect, of our own free will. Understandably, this state of affairs raises questions. Our American partners should have just said so honestly rather than make far-fetched accusations against Russia to justify their unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty.

It would have been better if they had done what they did in 2002 when they walked away from the ABM Treaty and did so openly and honestly. Whether that was good or bad is another matter. I think it was bad, but they did it and that is that. They should have done the same thing this time, too. What are they doing in reality? First, they violate everything, then they look for excuses and appoint a guilty party. But they are also mobilising their satellites that are cautious but still make noises in support of the USA. At first, the Americans began developing and using medium-range missiles, calling them discretionary “target missiles” for missile defence. Then they began deploying Mk-41 universal launch systems that can make offensive combat use of Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles possible.

I am talking about this and using my time and yours because we have to respond to the accusations that are leveled at us. But having done everything I have just described, the Americans openly and blatantly ignored the provisions envisaged by articles 4 and 6 of the INF Treaty. According to Item 1, Article VI (I am quoting): “Each Party shall eliminate all intermediate-range missiles and the launchers of such missiles… so that… no such missiles, launchers… shall be possessed by either party.” Paragraph 1 of Article VI provides that (and I quote) “upon entry into force of the Treaty and thereafter, neither Party may produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missile, or produce any stages or launchers of such missiles.” End of quote.

Using medium-range target missiles and deploying launchers in Romania and Poland that are fit for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, the US has openly violated these clauses of the Treaty. They did this some time ago. These launchers are already stationed in Romania and nothing happens. It seems that nothing is happening. This is even strange. This is not at all strange for us, but people should be able to see and understand it.

And then comes the part that the Western media seized upon in their continuing campaign to malign and demonize both the Russian Federation and its president:

How are we evaluating the situation in this context? I have already said this and I want to repeat: Russia does not intend – this is very important, I am repeating this on purpose – Russia does not intend to deploy such missiles in Europe first. If they really are built and delivered to the European continent, and the United States has plans for this, at least we have not heard otherwise, it will dramatically exacerbate the international security situation, and create a serious threat to Russia, because some of these missiles can reach Moscow in just 10–12 minutes. This is a very serious threat to us. In this case, we will be forced, I would like to emphasise this, we will be forced to respond with mirror or asymmetric actions. What does this mean?

I am saying this directly and openly now, so that no one can blame us later, so that it will be clear to everyone in advance what is being said here. Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from, but also in areas that contain decision-making centres for the missile systems threatening us.

What is important in this regard? There is some new information. These weapons will fully correspond to the threats directed against Russia in their technical specifications, including flight times to these decision-making centres.

This was the source of “media-induced” outrage in the West, which is honestly, likely not that much outrage. However, the addition of context in this speech is invaluable, and while the counter from the Americans may or may not be able to stipulate chapter and verse the violations of the INF treaty from the Russian side (though there appear to be no such violations), the Americans’ actions are clearly set in context, though conveniently ignored by the propagandists of the Western media. President Putin continues, making the most important points of his speech in regard to this topic:

We know how to do this and will implement these plans immediately, as soon as the threats to us become real. I do not think we need any further, irresponsible exacerbation of the current international situation. We do not want this.

What would I like to add? Our American colleagues have already tried to gain absolute military superiority with their global missile defence project. They need to stop deluding themselves. Our response will always be efficient and effective.

The work on promising prototypes and weapon systems that I spoke about in my Address last year continues as scheduled and without disruptions. We have launched serial production of the Avangard system, which I have already mentioned today. As planned, this year, the first regiment of the Strategic Missile Troops will be equipped with Avangard. The Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental missile of unprecedented power is undergoing a series of tests. The Peresvet laser weapon and the aviation systems equipped with Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles proved their unique characteristics during test and combat alert missions while the personnel learned how to operate them. Next December, all the Peresvet missiles supplied to the Armed Forces will be put on standby alert. We will continue expanding the infrastructure for the MiG-31 interceptors carrying Kinzhal missiles. The Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile of unlimited range and the Poseidon nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle of unlimited range are successfully undergoing tests.

In this context, I would like to make an important statement. We did not announce it before, but today we can say that as soon as this spring the first nuclear-powered submarine carrying this unmanned vehicle will be launched. The work is going as planned.

Today I also think I can officially inform you about another promising innovation. As you may remember, last time I said we had more to show but it was a little early for that. So I will reveal little by little what else we have up our sleeves. Another promising innovation, which is successfully being developed according to plan, is Tsirkon, a hypersonic missile that can reach speeds of approximately Mach 9 and strike a target more than 1,000 km away both under water and on the ground. It can be launched from water, from surface vessels and from submarines, including those that were developed and built for carrying Kalibr high-precision missiles, which means it comes at no additional cost for us.

On a related note, I want to highlight that for the defence of Russia’s national interests, two or three years ahead of the schedule set by the state arms programme, the Russian Navy will receive seven new multipurpose submarines, and construction will begin on five surface vessels designed for the open ocean. Sixteen more vessels of this class will enter service in the Russian Navy by 2027.

To conclude, on the unilateral withdrawal by the USA from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, here is what I would like to say. The US policy toward Russia in recent years can hardly be called friendly. Russia’s legitimate interests are being ignored, there is constant anti-Russia campaigning, and more and more sanctions, which are illegal in terms of international law, are imposed without any reason whatsoever. Let me emphasise that we did nothing to provoke these sanctions. The international security architecture that took shape over the past decades is being completely and unilaterally dismantled, all while referring to Russia as almost the main threat to the USA.

Let me say outright that this is not true. Russia wants to have sound, equal and friendly relations with the USA. Russia is not threatening anyone, and all we do in terms of security is simply a response, which means that our actions are defensive. We are not interested in confrontation and we do not want it, especially with a global power like the United States of America. However, it seems that our partners fail to notice the depth and pace of change around the world and where it is headed. They continue with their destructive and clearly misguided policy. This hardly meets the interests of the USA itself. But this is not for us to decide.

We can see that we are dealing with proactive and talented people, but within the elite, there are also many people who have excessive faith in their exceptionalism and supremacy over the rest of the world. Of course, it is their right to think what they want. But can they count? Probably they can. So let them calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems. This is all we are asking: just do the maths first and take decisions that create additional serious threats to our country afterwards. It goes without saying that these decisions will prompt Russia to respond in order to ensure its security in a reliable and unconditional manner.

I have already said this, and I will repeat that we are ready to engage in disarmament talks, but we will not knock on a locked door anymore. We will wait until our partners are ready and become aware of the need for dialogue on this matter.

This is an appropriate and very honest stance. While it sounds forceful, it is not. It is actually the only thing one really can do. The US hawkish folks have not demonstrated the slightest interest in fixing this problem. In the US, they believe the exacerbation of tensions suits their ends.

This is a potentially tragic example of “my mind is made up; do not confuse me with the facts.” And sadly, the United States of America stands completely in the wrong on this matter.

We continue developing our Armed Forces and improving the intensity and quality of combat training, in part, using the experience we gained in the anti-terrorist operation in Syria. Much experience was gained by practically all the commanders of the Ground Forces, by covert operations forces and military police, warship crews, army, tactical, and strategic and military transport aviation.

I would like to emphasise again that we need peace for sustainable long-term development. Our efforts to enhance our defence capability are for only one purpose: to ensure the security of this country and our citizens so that nobody would even consider pressuring us, or launching an aggression against us.

While the rhetoric of “Defense” is always more palatable in our times than militarily offensive strategies, the difference between the defense rhetoric of the US and that of Russia is that the US creates threats out of thin air. Russia and China have the capability of taking over the world, but neither country is actually interested in doing such a thing. As noted by Russia’s own Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to be on top is not the best place, and the second and third great powers have shown unusual wisdom in understanding this.

 

 

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Putin’s speech focuses on domestic issues as media pushes missile warning (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 88.

Alex Christoforou

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RT CrossTalk host Peter Lavelle and The Duran’s Alex Christoforou take a quick look at Vladimir Putin’s annual address to Russian lawmakers, where the Russian President warned the United States not to deploy medium and short-range nuclear missiles in Europe, saying it would “dramatically exacerbate the international security situation” and create serious challenges to Russia.

Putin noted that “this is a very serious threat to us. In this case, we will be forced – I want to emphasize this – forced to take tit-for-tat steps.”

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You can watch the video in its entirety here. Full transcript of the speech here.

Meduza summarizes the 88-minute spectacle below…

Vladimir Putin has delivered yet another annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly (a speech similar to the U.S. president’s State of the Union Address). You can watch a video of the whole thing here and read a transcript of the speech here. Meduza summarizes the 88-minute spectacle below.

“National projects are built around people.” And you can’t fool people. People care what is done right now. Russia has colossal resources to grow and develop, and it owes these resources to its industrious citizenry.

“We have been doing and will continue to do everything possible to strengthen family values.” Russia’s birth rate is falling, thanks to losses in the Second World War and in the 1990s. The country needs to be growing its population again by 2023. Russia must establish the principle of “more children, lower taxes.” The state knows where to find the money for these goals.

“Poverty literally crushes people, depriving them of life prospects.” There used to be 40 million people in Russia living below the poverty line. Today, there are only 19 million. A social contract will help lower this number further, where the state allocates money so people can find work or receive training. Additional payments for pensions and other benefits shouldn’t depend on the subsistence minimum.

“People often have to wait days to see a needed specialist.”By late 2020, people in any town should have access to medical care, which isn’t true today. Russians need a new outpatient care standard and they need electronic document management, so people aren’t required to produce doctor’s certificates.

“Waste problems have been ignored for a century.” The country has too many over-capacity landfills. And why have officials issued permits for the construction of homes near these dumps? “Shady businesses are cashing in on this.”

“Roughly 200,000 kids are still going to schools where there is no heating, running water, or indoor plumbing.” This problem needs to be solved within two years. Russia needs a school-focused version of “Zemskaya Medicine” (the 19th-century initiative to provide free medical care in rural Russia). The state should pay educators to move to villages and small towns.

“Nothing pure remains abroad.” Thanks to Russian scientists, the country is completely self-sufficient when it comes to wheat seeds. Russia should create its own national brand of “green” products.

“[Investigators] lock up suspects and then go on vacation.”Russia still hasn’t found a way to relieve the state pressure exerted on the business community. For every one entrepreneur whose business collapses, 130 employees lose their jobs. Why does Russia treat ordinary corporate work like criminal collusion? Why are arrests prolonged unreasonably? State prosecutors and the Investigative Committee should review businesspeople’s complaints without delay. By 2021, Russia should eliminate all outdated regulations and guidelines completely and replace them with new ones.

“We will quietly tell them what we have in store.” Soon Russia will complete work on the latest “Zircon” hypersonic cruise missile, which can reach the speed of Mach 9, and could be deployed on the same ships currently outfitted with “Kalibr” cruise missiles.

“Russia doesn’t plan to be the first to deploy such missiles in Europe.” The global situation has changed since the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987, but now the United States is violating everything itself and then looking for excuses. Moscow will respond in kind and asymmetrically: Russia’s weapon systems will be capable of striking not only missile launchers, but also at decision-making centers. Russia will either survive as a sovereign state or it won’t exist at all. “Some countries can [exist as vassals], but Russia cannot.”

“Russia isn’t threatening anyone.” Russia is only responding and defending itself. The Americans are fond of pondering their own exceptionalism. “Let them count the range and speed of our advanced weapon systems.” In the end, Russians need peace to attain sustainable development.

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Vladimir Putin: 2019 State Of The Union Address To Russia’s Federal Assembly (Full Text)

In 2019 State of the Union Address Russian President Putin outlines massive investment programme to upgrade Russia’s heath and education services and its scientific and communications infrastructure.

The Duran

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This is the official translation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s State of the Union Address to Russia’s Federal Assembly as first published by the Kremlin’s website.

Members of the Federation Council, State Duma deputies, citizens of Russia,

Today’s Address is primarily devoted to matters of domestic social and economic development. I would like to focus on the objectives set forth in the May 2018 Executive Order and detailed in the national projects. Their content and the targets they set are a reflection of the demands and expectations of Russia’s citizens. People are at the core of the national projects, which are designed to bring about a new quality of life for all generations. This can only be achieved by generating momentum in Russia’s development.

These are long-term objectives that we have set for ourselves. However, work to achieve these strategic goals has to begin today. Time is always in short supply, as I have already said on numerous occasions, and you all know this all too well. There is simply no time for getting up to speed or making any adjustments. All in all, I believe that we have already completed the stage of articulating objectives and outlining tools for achieving our goals. Departing from the targets that were outlined would be unacceptable. It is true that these are challenging objectives. That being said, lowering the requirements for specific targets or watering them down is not an option. As I have already said, these are formidable challenges that require us to undertake major efforts. However, they are in step with the scale and pace of global change. It is our duty to keep pushing ahead and gaining momentum.

If someone prefers to work in the business as usual mode, without challenges, avoiding initiative or responsibility, they had better leave immediately. I already hear that some things are “impossible,” “too difficult,” “the standards are too high,” and “it will not work.” With such an attitude, you had better stay away.

Besides, you cannot fool the people. They are acutely aware of hypocrisy, lack of respect or any injustice. They have little interest in red tape and bureaucratic routine. It is important for people to see what is really being done and the impact it has on their lives and the lives of their families. And not sometime in the future, but now. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past decades and wait for communism to arrive. We have to change the situation for the better now.

Therefore, the work of the executive branch at all levels should be coordinated, meaningful and energetic. The Government of Russia must set the tone.

At the same time, I would like to emphasise and repeat: our development projects are not federal and even less so agency-based. They are national. Their results must be visible in each region of the Federation, in every municipality. It is here, on the ground, that the majority of specific tasks is implemented.

Allow me to underscore: thanks to years of common work and the results achieved, we can now direct and concentrate enormous financial resources – at least enormous for our country – on development goals. These resources have not come as a rainfall. We have not borrowed them. These funds have been earned by millions of our citizens – by the entire country. They need to be applied to increase the wealth of Russia and the wellbeing of Russian families.

Very soon, this year people should feel real changes for the better. It is on the basis of their opinion and assessments at the beginning of next year that we will evaluate the first results of our work on the national projects. And we will draw the appropriate conclusions about the work quality and performance at all levels of executive power.

Colleagues,

Let me now share some specifics on our objectives. I will begin with the key objective of preserving our nation, which means providing all-around support to families.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. Photo: TASS

Family, childbirth, procreation and respect for the elderly have always served as a powerful moral framework for Russia and its multi-ethnic people. We have been doing everything in our power to strengthen family values and are committed to doing so in the future. In fact, our future is at stake. This is a task shared by the state, civil society, religious organisations, political parties and the media.

Russia has entered an extremely challenging period in terms of demographics. As you know, the birth rate is declining. As I have already said, this is caused by purely objective reasons, which have to do with the immense human losses and birth dearth experienced by our country in the 20th century, during the Great Patriotic War and the dramatic years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This does not mean, however, that we must accept this situation or come to terms with it. Definitely, not.

We succeeded in overcoming the negative demographic trends in the early 2000s, when our country faced extreme challenges. This seemed to be an impossible challenge at the time. Nevertheless, we succeeded, and I strongly believe that we can do it again by returning to natural population growth by late 2023 – early 2024.

Today, I wanted to talk about a new package of measures that has already been prepared to support families.

First, it is important that having children and bringing them up do not put families at the risk of poverty or undermine their wellbeing. As you know, we have already provided for the payment of subsidies for the first two children until they reach 18 months. Benefits for the first child are paid from the federal budget, and families can use the maternity capital subsidy for obtaining benefits for their second child. The size of the subsidy depends on the regional subsistence level for a child. It may vary from 8,000 rubles in Belgorod Region, for example, to 22,000 rubles in Chukotka Autonomous Area, with the national average of over 11,000 rubles a month per child. Currently these allocations are reserved to families whose income does not exceed the subsistence wage multiplied by 1.5 per person. It is time that we make the next step.

Starting January 1, 2020, I propose raising the bar to two subsistence wages per family member. This is what people have requested and these requests come directly into the Executive Office. This measure will increase the number of families entitled to additional benefits by almost 50 percent. Some 70 percent of families with one or two children will be able to benefit from help from the Government.

Second. At present, carers looking after children with disabilities and people disabled since childhood receive an allowance of only 5,500 rubles. I suggest increasing this to 10,000 rubles, starting July 1. Of course, I understand that it is still a small amount. However, it will be an additional measure of support for families with a child who needs special care.

Third. The income of Russian families must, of course, increase. This is a serious task that requires a comprehensive solution. I will speak about this in greater detail later. But we need direct measures. First of all, the tax burden on families needs to be relieved. The approach should be very simple: the more children there are, the lower the tax. I propose increasing federal tax relief on real estate for families with many children. I also propose lifting taxes on 5 square metres in a flat and 7 square metres in a house per each child.

What does this mean? If, for example, right now, 20 square metres in a flat are not subject to tax, the new measure will mean that for a family with three children, an extra 15 square metres will not be subject to tax. Regarding plots of land that belong to families with many children, I propose that 600 square metres should be exempt from tax, and this means most plots of land will be free from taxation. Let me remind you that this benefit is already available to pensioners and people of pre-retirement age. Of course, in many Russian regions there are local tax benefits on land and property for large families. However, the benefit being imposed at the federal level guarantees that it will be available everywhere in the country. I want to ask regional officials to propose additional tax measures to support families with children.

Fourth, the Government and the Central Bank need to consistently maintain the policy to lower mortgage rates to 9 percent, and then to 8 percent or below, as stipulated in the May 2018 Executive Order. At the same time, special measures of support should be provided for families with children, of course. As a reminder, last year, a preferential mortgage programme was launched for families that have had their second or subsequent child. The rate for them is 6 percent. Anything higher is subsidised by the state. However, only 4,500 families have used the benefit.

The question is why. It means that people are somehow dissatisfied with the proposed conditions. But it is also clear why. A family making a decision to buy housing certainly makes plans for a long or at least medium term, a lasting investment. But with this programme, they take out a loan, start paying the instalments, and the grace period ends. The interest is actually subsidised only for the first 3 or 5 years. I propose extending the benefit for the entire term of the mortgage loan.

Yes, of course, it will require additional funding, and the cost will be rather high: 7.6 billion rubles in 2019, 21.7 billion rubles in 2020, and 30.6 billion rubles in 2021. But the programme is estimated to reach as many as 600,000 families. We certainly need to find the money. We know where to get it. We have it, and we just need to use it in the areas that are of major importance to us.

And one more direct action solution. Considering the sustainability and stability of the macroeconomic situation in the country and the growth of the state’s revenues, I consider it possible to introduce another measure of support for families having a third and subsequent children. I suggest paying 450,000 rubles directly from the federal budget to cover this sum from their mortgage. Importantly, I propose backdating this payment starting January 1, 2019, recalculating it and allocating relevant sums in this year’s budget.

Let us see what we have. If we add this sum to the maternity capital, which can also be used for mortgage payments, we will get over 900,000 rubles. In many regions, this is a substantial part of the cost of a flat. I would like to draw the attention of the Government and the State Duma to this issue. If need be, the budget will have to be adjusted accordingly. An additional 26.2 billion rubles will be required for this in 2019. The relevant figures for 2020 and 2021 are 28.6 billion rubles and 30.1 billion rubles, respectively. These are huge funds but they should be allocated and used in what I have already described as a very important area.

It is necessary to give families an opportunity not only to buy ready-made housing but also to build their own housing on their land. I would like to ask the Government to draft in cooperation with the Central Bank convenient and, most importantly, affordable financial instruments for supporting private housing construction because it is not covered by mortgage loans today.

And, last but not least, the tax on land must be fair. Obviously, the cadastral or market value of a land plot can change but tax rates must not go up and down unpredictably like roller coaster rides. We have already limited to 10 percent the annual growth of the tax rates for residential property. I suggest establishing the same limit for land plots.

Moving on, today, when construction companies build social facilities and transfer them to the state or municipalities, they have to pay profit tax and VAT. We need to relieve construction companies of this burden (including our innovations in the construction sector). This will serve as an impetus for the comprehensive development of cities and townships, ensuring that families have everything they need near their homes: clinics, schools and sports facilities. By doing this, we will enable parents to work, study, live happily and enjoy parenthood.

We have come close to guaranteeing universal access to kindergartens, but by the end of 2021, we will have to resolve the problem with nurseries by enabling them to accept 270,000 more children, including in the private sector, with 90,000 places to be created as early as this year. The federal and regional budgets should allocate 147 billion rubles for this purpose, over a three-year period. Let me add that enrolling in a nursery group, kindergarten, getting subsidies, benefits or the tax deductions that I have already mentioned and, I hope, that we will come up with, together with you, all this should happen without any additional applications, excessive paperwork or having to visit various social services. By the end of 2020, all the key government services must be provided in a proactive format where a person will only need to send in a request for a service that he or she needs, and the system will take care of all the rest independently and automatically.

I would like to emphasise that the package of measures to support families proposed today is not an exhaustive list of initiatives. It sets the priorities. Considering the challenges posed by the state of Russia’s demographics, we will continue to channel more and more resources into this area. I ask all of you, colleagues, including both the Government and the Federal Assembly, to think about it and suggest solutions.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Colleagues, solving our demographic problems, increasing life expectancy and reducing mortality rates are directly related to eradicating poverty. Allow me to remind you that in 2000, there were more than 40 million people living below the poverty line. Now there are about 19 million, but this is still too many, too many. However, there was a time when their number dropped to 15 million, and now it has grown a little again. We must certainly focus our attention on this — on combating poverty.

Furthermore, there are even more people facing serious financial problems than those officially living below the poverty line. They are forced to cut spending on such essentials as clothes, medicines and even food. Those most often faced with poverty are large or single parent families, families with members with disabilities, as well as single pensioners and people who cannot find a good job, a well-paid job because there are no openings or they lack qualifications.

There are many reasons for poverty, not only in our country, but also in the world, but it always literally crushes a person, dimming their life prospects. The state must help people, help them out of difficult life situations. The experience of some of our regions shows that it is possible to work effectively for this. I will name these regions: Kaluga, Ulyanovsk, Tomsk, Vologda, and Nizhny Novgorod Regions, and a number of other regions of Russia. Their experience shows that so-called social contracts can be a working mechanism of such support.

How does it work and what is this all about? The state helps people find jobs and improve their skills. The state provides financial resources to families to run a household farm or to start a small business, and by the way, these are substantial resources of tens of thousands of rubles. Let me emphasise that support programmes will be tailored to meet the needs of every specific applicant. The allocation of these resources creates some obligations for the recipients: they have to go through training, find a job in the given field and provide a steady income for their family and children. Mechanisms of this kind are in place around the world and are very effective. Social contracts can change the lives of those who really want to do it.

It is estimated that more than 9 million people will be able to benefit from these support measures over a five-year period. I instruct the Government to assist the regions that are proactive in introducing social contracts and work with them on co-financing mechanisms.

Moving on, there are currently many people and families taking out loans for various purposes, including consumer loans. Of course, borrowers have to be aware of their obligations and refrain from assuming an excessive burden. That being said, anything can happen: people can lose their job or become ill. In this case, the last thing is to force people into a corner, and it is also pointless in economic terms. Additional legal guarantees are needed to protect people. I propose introducing mortgage payment holidays, as we have recently discussed in Kazan, to enable people who lose their income to suspend mortgage payments. They must get a chance to keep their home, if it is the only property they own, and postpone loan payments. This is not an easy task, and we have to understand how this can be done so as not to harm financial institutions while supporting the people. This can be done, however.

I also ask the Bank of Russia and law enforcement agencies to put things right without delay in the microlending segment and protect people from fraud or extortion by dishonest lenders.

Let me emphasise that as we seek to overcome poverty and develop the social security net, we need to reach every family in need and understand the problems it faces. It should not be possible to refuse assistance simply because the life circumstances a person is facing are slightly inconsistent with the criteria set by a programme.

And, of course, it is necessary to be scrupulous and attentive to every detail. By way of example, and this is not a very good example for our work, I would like to say the following: pensions were adjusted for inflation under the pension reform this year. But if a pensioner’s income exceeded the subsistence rate, the social payments were no longer made at the same level. They were either cancelled altogether or reduced. As a result, the pensions were not increased at all, or the increases were much less than a pensioner expected. So many people feel cheated with good reason. Probably, many people in this hall understand what this is all about. We made payments from the regional or federal budget to achieve the subsistence level. We made adjustments for inflation and the cost of living either matched or exceeded it. So these payments were discontinued and that was it.

It was necessary to take into account all the nuances but this was left undone, and of course, this should not be allowed to happen. This injustice, and it is certainly an injustice, should be sorted immediately. Starting this year, adjustments of pensions and monthly payments should by all means be above the subsistence rate of pensioners that is established every year. In other words, the state should first bring pensions to the subsistence level and only after that make adjustments in pensions and monthly payments. Payments for the first months of this year must be recalculated and people should be paid the money due to them that they have not received.

I would like to emphasise that all those who work in the social sphere or join the government or municipal services in order to help people resolve their urgent problems, must meet the highest professional standards. I believe by and large this is the case. Of course, this is a very complicated job. We all understand that working with people every day, from morning until night, is indeed difficult. But if you have this job you should realise that it is no less important to understand people, to know what they feel, empathise, share their worries and concerns and never permit yourself arrogant attitudes or a lack of respect for people, either in word or deed. I would like you to always remember this.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. Photo: TASS

Colleagues,

The next important subject is healthcare. I know that, on the one hand, its current state seems to be improving, and medical treatment is becoming more accessible. Nevertheless, many people are not satisfied. It is easy to understand the reasons for this. As a rule, people judge the healthcare system by its primary component, that is, outpatient clinics and paramedic stations. People voice complaints with regard to their work. Quite often, they have to wait many days to see a specialist, and it is impossible to quickly undergo the required tests free of charge. People in remote communities are even having trouble getting appointments with medical personnel. Yes, the number of paramedic stations and mobile medical units continues to increase, but people in areas where there are no such facilities care nothing about the overall statistics.

I want to emphasise that medical treatment should become accessible for everyone by the end of 2020 in all populated areas across Russia without exception and for all citizens, regardless of their place of residence. For your information, an additional 1,590 outpatient clinics and paramedic stations are to be built or renovated in 2019–2020, and I hope that this will be accomplished.

Today, a number of regions are implementing the Thrifty Outpatient Clinic project. As a result, the waiting time to get an appointment and see a doctor is reduced three or four times over, on the average. I have visited such outpatient clinics, and they are operating very well. Much better conditions are created for people with disabilities and for parents with children. Unfortunately, there are very few such outpatient clinics so far; they are rather an exception than the rule all across the nation.

Considering the best regional practices , and, I repeat, there are such practices, I hereby instruct the Government to approve the high standards of thrifty outpatient clinics by the end of the year and their certification regulations. Next year, you have to team up with the regions to introduce mechanisms incentivising managers and medical personnel to improve the quality of their work. First of all, we have to completely convert all paediatric outpatient clinics to new standards already in 2021. Please note that the sign “Thrifty Outpatient Clinic” is not what counts. Most importantly, people should at long last perceive the state’s respectful and truly considerate attitude towards their health.

Improving IT penetration in healthcare will make it more accessible. Online links between medical institutions, pharmacies, doctors and patients must be streamlined over the next three years. Let me add that social security medical assessment boards must be finally included into this digital network in order to free elderly people, people with disabilities and families with children from waiting lists and the need to produce various certificates that are often useless.

Primary care is understaffed. To address this matter, comprehensive efforts to develop medical education should be accompanied by initiatives that produce immediate results. In this connection, I propose removing age restrictions for the Country Doctor programme so that professionals over the age of 50 can also receive a one-time payment when moving to a rural area or a small city: 1,000,000 rubles for doctors and 500,000 rubles for paramedics.

The most complex surgery is currently performed not only at federal, but also at regional clinics and centres using the most advanced equipment. At the same time, patient recovery is also critical. We have never had a system of this kind, but we have to start with something. A lot has to be done in this area. Let us begin by creating at least two world-class recovery facilities for children, just as we did with perinatal centres, and proceed from there.

In my last year’s Address, I proposed a programme for fighting cancer. At least 1 trillion roubles will be allocated to this effect over the next six years. This is about providing timely, effective and accessible treatment, using advanced technologies that are effective in most cases and enable people to overcome this dangerous disease. Today, the leukaemia recovery rate for children exceeds 80 percent, and for certain types of cancer, more than 90 percent of patients recover. Not that long ago, in the mid-1990s, this disease was almost untreatable and only 10–20 percent of children could be saved. Russia lacked both the technology and capabilities at the time. In many cases, the only option was to turn to foreign clinics. Those who could afford it did so.

We were aware of how tragic this situation was, which prompted us to focus on improving cancer treatment for children, developing oncohaematology, using the capabilities offered by our research institutions, the healthcare system, and worked proactively with our foreign partners (some doctors simply moved from Germany to Moscow, and spent a lot of time here, and probably still do), which yielded results.

We will continue working to overhaul the system of cancer care. Early detection is of crucial importance. In fact, we have revived the system of health screening and regular medical check-ups. These have to include cancer screening. It has to be made obligatory. People must have the opportunity to make appointments remotely, to choose a suitable time for visiting an outpatient clinic, including in the evening or at the weekend, so that the check-up can be carried out without any additional formalities.

Next, over the next few years we must create a number of new areas combining healthcare with social services. Thus, we must overhaul the system of assistance for people who need long-term help at medical facilities or at home, adjust this system to the needs of specific families and individuals, support people with their everyday needs by assigning district nurses or carers, or training relatives in medical or other necessary skills. The application of these recipient-oriented principles of assistance began last year in Volgograd, Kostroma, Novgorod, Pskov, Ryazan and Tula regions. We must introduce them throughout the country within a timeframe of four years.

Palliative care is a matter of not only medical but also of social, public and moral concern. According to the available information, some 800,000 people need this assistance, and volunteers have told me that the figure is around one million. As you know, in January I visited a children’s hospice in St Petersburg, where we discussed this matter. I know that yesterday the State Duma adopted in the second reading amendments to the legislation on palliative care. I would like work on this law to be completed as soon as possible. We will then monitor its application so we can promptly make amendments, taking into account the opinions of volunteers, whom I have mentioned, doctors, carers, members of the public and religious associations and benefactors, that is, everyone who have long been providing heartfelt palliative care.

Colleagues, people have increasingly high demands on environmental safety issues. Perhaps, the most painful topic is municipal waste. If you remember, it came up for the first time during one of my Direct Lines. Yes, we have probably neglected the waste disposal problems for maybe a hundred years, which means we have never paid attention to them. Many landfills are overfilled because waste has been accumulating there for decades. The landfills have turned into real mountains of garbage near residential areas.

By the way, I am also interested to know how you issued permits for the construction of residential neighbourhoods next to these dumps and landfills. Didn’t you think of that? You should have. I urge the representatives of the authorities at all levels: pretending that nothing is happening, turning away, brushing aside people’s needs is absolutely unacceptable. These issues are difficult, of course, but difficult issues must also be addressed.

Before the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Before the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

This year, the regions began adopting a new system of solid municipal waste management. However, if the only change is a rise in rubbish clearance prices – well, this is not real work; it is a sham. People need to see what they are paying for and what real changes are happening. It is necessary to restore order in this area, to get rid of shady businesses that do not bear any responsibility and only get super-profits dumping trash at random sites.

We need to build a civilised and safe system of waste treatment, recycling and disposal. Surprisingly, a year ago I personally had to interfere on some matters. I had to talk to the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office several times. You know, surprisingly, I would like to say it again, almost nothing moved forward until I gave an order to station a guard there and not to let anyone in. This is the only way it works, because these shady companies, the so-called fly-by-nights, they just make quick profits and shut down their so-called business.

I ask the Russian Popular Front to ensure effective public control here, including reliance on public environmental inspectors. Their signals regarding any violations must be considered by the authorities, who must adopt specific measures. In the next two years, 30 large problem landfills within city boundaries must be closed and rehabilitated, and in six years, all the rest. At the same time, it is necessary to increase the share of waste treatment from today’s 8–9 percent to 60, so as not to accumulate new millions of tonnes of trash.

It is necessary to introduce stricter environmental requirements when it comes to utility services and energy and transport enterprises. In part, I am urging businesses to play a more active role in natural gas motor fuel projects, and invest in the formation of a network of fuelling stations and fuel systems using liquefied natural gas. We have enough of it, more than any other country. Indeed, this is a complicated and costly project but it should be carried out because it will produce results not only for businesses but for the people as well.

A positive effect from the industry’s transfer to the best affordable technologies and strict environmental standards should be felt by residents of major industrial centres of the country, primarily the 12 cities I mentioned in the 2018 Address. These places should be finally removed from the zone of real environmental disaster. Over a period of the next six years, the amount of polluting emissions in the air should be reduced there by no less than 20 percent.

To prevent anyone from the temptation of dodging the implementation of this job, it is necessary to strictly monitor industrial and other companies responsible for this, to map out the specific steps they should take to minimise environmental damage, and to register all this in a law on emission quotas. I know all too well what this is all about. I know that fairly influential lobbyists are trying to impede this draft law as much as they can. I know their arguments very well too: the need to preserve jobs and a complicated economic situation.

But this cannot go on endlessly in this manner. It must not. Let me recall that in making such decisions we should be guided by the interests of the people of Russia rather than corporate interests or interests of some individuals. Colleagues, please pass this law during the spring session.

Finding solutions for environmental problems is the job of our researchers and people in industry. Each of us is responsible for this. I am urging young people, among others, to take a more active part in this work. We must hand over to the future generations an environmentally safe country and preserve Russia’s natural potential as well as its specially protected areas. This year new national parks will open in the republics of Daghestan, Komi and Sakha (Yakutia), Altai Territory and Chelyabinsk Region. However, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that many specially protected areas do not yet have precise borders and their regulations are not observed.

I have instructed the Ministry of Natural Resources to conduct a detailed audit. All sanctuaries must be registered in the cadastre. It is also necessary to adopt a law according to which only environmental tourism can take place in nature reserves, without any withdrawal of territories, wood cutting or major construction work. Naturally, it is necessary to take into account the interests of the locals but these issues should be resolved in a package.

Colleagues, the number of students from small towns and remote areas studying at the best Moscow and regional universities is increasing. According to international assessments, our elementary, middle and high school students demonstrate good results in the humanities and hard sciences. We can see it ourselves, based on the results of contests and various student competitions. All this is an indicator of qualitative changes in our school education.

However, despite all these achievements, we must not overlook the obvious problems in this crucial area. The share of schools with modern study conditions has increased from 12 percent in 2000 (only 12 percent) to 85 percent in 2018. But even today, some 200,000 children still go to schools where there is no proper heating, water supply and sewage system. Yes, it is less than 1.5 percent of all schoolchildren, but when their parents see these conditions, any words about justice and equal opportunities only irritate them. I want to draw the attention of the heads of the regions where poorly equipped schools still exist. This problem can be completely resolved within two years. We can do it. I know that the Government is thinking about it and making certain decisions. I am asking you to support the regions that lack their own resources.

When in 2006 we started providing internet connections to schools, the technology was completely different. You know, it seemed like a real breakthrough. And it was indeed a breakthrough at the time. Right now, this technology seems ancient, and we have new tasks to resolve. By the end of 2021, all Russian schools must have a high-speed internet connection rather than just a connection. Let me remind you that in 2006, when schools were being hooked up to the internet, the recommended speed was 128 kbps. Now we need 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps, which is at least 400 times higher. This will help our kids to gain access to lessons and lectures by prominent teachers, to contests and Olympiads; it will allow them to significantly expand their capabilities and get involved in online projects with their fellow students from other regions and countries. The content of educational programmes must also change. The national standards and programmes must reflect the priorities of the country’s science and technology development, while the federal lists of recommended textbooks must include the best of the best books.

Of course, human resources are the most important issue. I have already spoken today about expanding the Country Doctor programme. I propose starting a similar programme for education, the Country Teacher. Teachers who decide to move to smaller towns and villages will receive a one-time payment of one million rubles.

We must work consistently to strengthen the common environment of education and culture. The culture and education centres in Kaliningrad, Kemerovo, Vladivostok and Sevastopol will open no later than in 2023. Our leading museums and theatres will be represented there, and branches of art schools will start working there already next year. The demand for a rich cultural environment is very high, primarily in the regions, where a great number of talented and committed people are working.

I propose greatly expanding assistance to local cultural initiatives, that is, projects dealing with local history, crafts and the preservation of the historical heritage of our peoples. For example, additional allocations can be made towards this from the Presidential Grants Fund. In addition, we will allocate over 17 billion rubles within the Culture national project for the construction and renovation of rural culture clubs and over 6 billion rubles for supporting culture centres in Russia’s small towns.

I would like to remind you that medical and educational institutions are exempt from profit tax, but only until January 1, 2020. I propose making this incentive of unlimited duration and also extending it to the regional and municipal museums, theatres and libraries. By the way, this will allow them to save some 4 billion rubles, which they will invest in development or will use to raise salaries. And lastly, this measure will encourage private investment in local cultural establishments.

Colleagues, I would like the heads of regions to ensure that salaries in education, healthcare, culture and other public sectors are kept on a par with the average wage in the given region’s economy. Colleagues, this is very important. I keep talking about this at all my meetings. We must not lower this standard. At the same time, the average wage in the economy must grow. Over 40 million people who work in the public and defence sectors and are non-working pensioners receive fixed payments. These payments must grow together with the inflation at the least. I ask the Government to take this into account.

More than 70 million people work in manufacturing, agriculture or the services or are small business owners. The state of Russia’s economy has a direct bearing on their income, wellbeing and confidence in the future. The primary tool for achieving steady wage increases is to promote quality employment and free enterprise, qualified, well-paid jobs in all regions, including both traditional and new sectors. High economic growth rates are essential. This is the only way to overcome poverty and ensure steady and perceptible increases in income. This is the key to success. As soon as in 2021, Russia’s economic growth rate must exceed 3 percent and stay above the global average afterwards. This objective should not be discarded.

The Government and the Central Bank are once again tasked with complying with the target inflation rate. I have already said this, and we knew that this would happen when we put aside financial resources for the national projects. This was an expected outcome, and now we need to make sure that the situation gets back to normal. We can do this. As I said, the Government and the Central Bank must ensure that the inflation targets are met and create a favourable macroeconomic environment for facilitating growth in general. We have a strong financial safety cushion.

I have something positive to share with you. For the first time ever, our reserves fully cover not only the sovereign debt, which is quite small, but also private borrowings. These funds are at work, and investment of the National Welfare Fund generates budget revenue. Therefore, I would like to address those of our colleagues who constantly criticise the Government, its financial and economic ministries and ask where the money went and where we invested it. We set a target to reach a certain level, after which we can use these funds, although cautiously so as not to cause any macroeconomic disturbances. We are about to reach this level, and are beginning to do it. The proceeds from these investments go to the federal budget. In 2018, proceeds from investing the National Welfare Fund in the amount of 70.5 billion rubles were added to the budget.

To achieve high growth rates, it is also necessary to resolve systemic problems in the economy. I will highlight four priorities here.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

The first one is faster growth in labour productivity, primarily based on new technologies and digitalisation; the development of competitive industries and, as a result, an increase in non-primary exports by more than 50 percent in six years.

The second one is to improve the business climate and the quality of national jurisdiction, so that no one moves their operations to other jurisdictions, to ensure that everything is reliable and runs like clockwork. Growth in investment should increase by 6–7 percent in 2020. Achieving this level will be one of the key criteria for evaluating the Government’s work.

The third priority is removing infrastructural constraints for economic development and for unlocking the potential of our regions.

And the fourth thing is training modern personnel, of course, and creating powerful scientific and technological foundations.

Now I would like to expand on our specific tasks in these fields.

A colossal guaranteed demand for industrial and high-tech products is being formed in Russia, I can say this without any exaggeration. So the words I would like to use – we are faced with historical opportunities for a qualitative growth of Russian business, mechanical engineering and machine-tool making, microelectronics, IT-industry, and other industries. The national projects alone include – just think of it – 6 trillion rubles worth of procurement plans for medical and construction equipment, instruments, telecommunications systems, and systems for housing and public utilities. And these resources should work here in Russia.

So I am urging the Government, the regions, the representatives of state-owned companies I see here in this room – you certainly want to buy all the most modern equipment and as inexpensively as possible. Naturally, everyone wants to be and should be competitive, but wherever possible, you need to rely on our producers, on domestic ones. We must find them, and even work together with them. Of course, there must be a competitive environment, but we already have the tools to support Russian manufacturers. We must not forget about these tools, and use them.

I would like to emphasise that access to state contracts must be equal (at least for our own, for national companies), and the orders should go to those who prove their sustainability with hard work and results, with willingness to change, to introduce advanced technology and increase labour productivity, and offer the best competitive products.

As concerns the defence industry, we must use our current capacities for diversification, to expand civil production. Colleagues understand what I am talking about here. There are certain targets for each year. And they must be achieved, no matter what.

And of course, now is the time for more daring initiatives, for creating businesses and production companies, for promoting new products and services. This wave of technological development allows companies to grow and win markets very quickly. There are already examples of successful companies, innovative companies. We need many more of them, including in such fields as artificial intelligence, Big Data, the Internet of Things and robotics.

I am instructing the Government to create the most comfortable conditions for private investment in technological startups and to involve development institutions in their support. I am asking members of parliament to promptly pass the laws that are most crucial for creating the legal framework of the new digital economy, laws that will allow to close civil deals and raise funds using digital technology, to develop e-commerce and services. The entire Russian legislation must be geared up to reflect the new technological reality. These laws must not restrict the development of innovative and promising industries but push this development forward.

The most crucial indicator of a business’s efficiency and competitiveness lies in expanding export and entering external markets. The success of our agricultural industry is, of course, a good example of such development. Our agricultural export increased by 19.4 percent in 2018 reaching $25.8 billion. In 2024, we must reach $45 billion. Incidentally, we are not only one of the largest wheat exporters (last year we exported 44 million tonnes). We have at least one more significant achievement. Thanks to the developments of Russian researchers we are no longer dependent on other countries for wheat seeds. Experts will confirm how critically important this is. Russia must have the entire range of its own advanced agricultural technology, which must be available not only to large but also to small farms. This is literally a matter of national security and successful competition in the growing food markets.

Improving the quality of life for those who work in rural areas is a key long-term factor of the agricultural industry’s steady growth. I would like to point out to the Government that as soon as this year, they must approve a new development programme for rural territories that must be enforced as of January 1, 2020.

One more thing. I think everybody will agree that our massive natural resources constitute our natural advantage. They need to be used for increasing the production of organic produce. I am instructing the Government to create a protected brand for clean products, a brand that will guarantee safety of the technology used and win the reputation of high quality both on the domestic and foreign markets. Trust me, it will be extremely popular abroad. There is hardly anything clean left there.

Colleagues, to achieve the ambitious goals facing the country, we must rid the system of everything that restricts freedom of enterprise and business initiative. Honest businesses should not face the risk of criminal or administrative prosecution. I have already noted this matter in one of my Addresses, and I have cited the relevant figures. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved much.

Today, almost half of all cases (45 percent) opened against entrepreneurs do not get to trial. What does this mean? This means that they were opened in a slipshod manner or under some unclear pretext. And what does this mean in practice? As a result, 130 jobs are lost on average every time a business closes down as result of an investigation. Let us think about this figure; this is becoming a major economic problem.

The business community points to a number of legislative and law enforcement problems. I agree that we need to closely analyse the criteria under which all employees of a company can be considered to be part of a group that is guilty of collusion just through the fact of working for that company. To be honest, this is complete nonsense, but, unfortunately, it happens time and again. And this leads to a stricter detention during the investigation and a more substantial penalty later on. Additionally, we need to strictly limit the grounds for extending the term of detention during the investigation of so-called economic criminal cases. Today, this sometimes happens without any grounds, simply because the investigators had no time to conduct the required expert checks or as a result of delays in the investigation.

We have discussed this matter with the Prosecutor General and the President of the Supreme Court. This is what happens: a person is kept behind bars, and he has not been summoned for questioning for several months. The prosecutor wants to know why he had not been questioned, and they tell him that the investigator was on holiday. Of course, investigators, especially those at the Interior Ministry, handle a tidal wave of criminal cases, and we need to do something about that, we need to take a closer look at this matter. Perhaps we should set aside additional resources and increase the number of investigators. Nevertheless, how can this be explained? A person is kept behind bars while the investigator has left on holiday and has not questioned him for several months. This should not happen, we need to sort this out. I ask the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor General’s Office to analyse all these problems once again and to submit their proposals.

I suggest that our business associations and the Agency for Strategic Initiatives create a special digital platform – in fact, they themselves have advanced this initiative – which entrepreneurs will use to make public any instances of pressure on business and to demand a formal court hearing.

I urge the heads of law enforcement agencies not to be wary of this. This initiative will serve as an additional support, so that senior officials at these agencies will promptly receive the objective information they need to make decisions, at least at the departmental level. I ask the Government and the business community to discuss the technological solutions and the legal framework for implementing this initiative, and the law enforcement agencies – the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee – to coordinate regulations for working with the entrepreneurs’ complaints, including deadlines. This platform must start working, at least in pilot mode, by the end of the year.

Next, the Government has proposed overhauling the regulatory framework. This is good, and we must give all-round support to this. However, I believe that this is not enough. We must take even more radical steps. Indeed, let us draw the line and suspend all the existing regulatory laws and departmental regional orders, letters and instructions as of January 1, 2021. In the two years until then, we must update the regulatory laws together with the business community, retaining only those documents that satisfy current requirements and shelving the rest.

When we discussed this issue, many of our colleagues said honestly that they were terrified. Yes, this is scary, but the problem does exist. It will not be an easy job. The files are really thick in some areas and departments. They have been piling up for decades since the Soviet era, or even “as far back as Ochakov and the Crimean war.” [The quote is from Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit written in 1824.] I am not referring to the year 2014, of course. (Laughter) Some of these documents go back to the time of Alexander Griboyedov or even before him. So much has been written and regulated. But frankly, I doubt that even the personnel of these agencies know everything that is written in these documents. Hence, we must complete their analysis within two years. There is nothing to fear. We must roll up our sleeves and do it, keeping or updating only the documents we really need to properly organise our activities.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Colleagues, infrastructure upgrades need to be accelerated using state-of-the-art technology. This is essential for enhancing a country’s connectivity, and especially for Russia, the world’s largest country with its vast territory. This is essential for strengthening statehood, unleashing the country’s potential and driving national economic growth.

This year, the railway section of the Crimean Bridge will be launched, and will become a powerful impetus. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the construction and railway workers. We saw that a bypass railway was built near Krasnodar alongside an approach railway to this junction from the Caucasus coast. As I have said, trains will begin using the Crimean Bridge in 2019, creating a powerful development driver for Crimea and Sevastopol.

In addition to this, the expressway linking Moscow and St Petersburg is expected to be completed, creating new business opportunities and jobs for people living in Novgorod, Tver, Leningrad and Moscow regions.

More than 60 airports will benefit from upgrades over the next six years, including international airports in Khabarovsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

In 2025, the throughput capacity of the Baikal-Amur Mainline and Trans-Siberian Railway will grow 1.5 times, reaching 210 million tonnes, which is very important for the development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East.

Let me reiterate that key indicators related to social and economic development and quality of life in all Russia’s Far Eastern regions are expected to exceed the national average. This is a national cause, and a major priority of our efforts to promote Eastern Siberia and the Far East as strategic territories. All agencies have to constantly keep this in mind.

In September, we will have a meeting in Vladivostok to discuss what each of the federal agencies has done and intends to undertake for the Far East. All the plans for building and upgrading roads, railways, sea ports, air service and communications must prioritise regional development, including promoting these regions as travel destinations.

There is enormous interest in Russia, our culture, nature and historical monuments. Taking into consideration the success of the World Cup, I propose making greater use of e-visas and thinking more broadly about how to streamline visa processing for tourists coming to Russia.

Next. This year we must adopt a master plan for developing the infrastructure of a digital economy, including telecommunications networks, as well as data storage and processing capacities. Here we need to look ahead as well. The task for the next few years is to provide universal access to high-speed internet and start using 5G communications networks.

To achieve a revolution in communications, navigation and systems for remote sensing of the Earth, we must dramatically increase the capabilities of our satellite group. Russia has unique technology for this, but such tasks require a fundamental upgrade of the entire space industry. I am instructing Roscosmos and the Moscow Government to establish a National Space Centre. My colleagues came to me and told me about it. This is a good project is designed to unite relevant organisations, design bureaus and prototype production facilities, and to support scientific research and the training of personnel.

We are seeing that global competition is increasingly shifting to science, technology and education. Just recently, it seemed inconceivable that Russia could make not just a breakthrough but also a high-tech breakthrough in defence. This was difficult, complex work. Much had to be restored or started from scratch It was necessary to break new ground and find bold, unique solutions. Nevertheless, this was done. It was done by our engineers, workers and scientists, including very young people that grew up with these projects. Let me repeat that I know all the details of this large-scale effort and I am completely justified in saying, for instance, that the development of the Avangard strategic hypersonic glide vehicle is tantamount to the launching of the world’s first artificial satellite. And not just in terms of enhancing the country’s defence capability and security, although this is the primary goal, but in influencing the consolidation of our scientific potential and the development of unique technological assets.

At one time, the nuclear defence project gave the country nuclear power. The construction of a missile shield that started with the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite allowed the country to begin peaceful space exploration. Today, we need to use the personnel, knowledge, competences and materials we have acquired from developing the next generation of weapons to produce the same kind of results for civilian applications.

We have yet to implement new ambitious scientific and technological programmes. An Executive Order on genetic research has already been signed, and I propose launching a similar large-scale programme at the national level on artificial intelligence. In the middle of the next decade, we should be among the leaders in these science and technology areas, which, of course, will determine the future of the world and the future of Russia.

To implement such projects, we need to accelerate the development of an advanced scientific infrastructure. Incidentally, the reactor PIK, a mega-science class research unit was recently launched in Leningrad Region. Over the next 20 years, it will be one of the world’s most powerful sources for neutron research, enabling scientists to conduct unique research in physics, biology, and chemistry, and to develop new drugs, diagnostic tools, and new materials.

For the first time in decades, Russian shipyards will break ground for several modern research vessels capable of working in all strategic areas, including the Arctic seas and the Antarctic, exploring the shelf and the natural resources of the World Ocean.

To promote powerful technological development, we need to build a modern research and development model. This is why we are setting up research and education centres in the regions that will integrate all levels of education with the potential of research facilities and business. Within three years, centres like this should be established in 15 regions in the Russian Federation, the first five this year. Three of them – in Tyumen and Belgorod Regions and Perm Territory – are close to completion and are to open this year.

We need specialists capable of working at advanced production facilities, developing and applying breakthrough technology solutions. Therefore, we need to ensure a broad introduction of updated curricula at all levels of professional education, to organise personnel training for the industries that are still being formed.

At the end of August, Russia will host the WorldSkills world championships – so let us wish our team success. Their success is significant for increasing the prestige of the skilled labor occupation. Relying on the WorldSkills movement experience, we will accelerate the modernisation of secondary vocational education, which includes installing modern equipment at more than 2,000 shops in colleges and technical schools by 2022.

Passion for a future career and creativity is formed at a young age. In the next three years, thanks to the development of children’s technology parks, quantoriums and education centres for computer skills, natural sciences and the humanities, around one million new spots in extracurricular education programmes will be created. All children must have access.

The Sirius educational centre in Sochi is becoming a true constellation. The plan was for centres supporting gifted children, based on its model, to open in all regions by 2024. But our colleagues said they can finish this work early, within two years. Such proactive efforts deserve praise.

I think every national project has reserves for increasing the pace. I expect that our companies and the business community will get involved in such projects as Ticket to the Future that provides school pupils in their sixth year and above with the opportunity to discover their career interests and intern at actual companies, research centres and other places.

I want to speak directly to our young people. Your talents, energy and creative abilities are among Russia’s strongest competitive advantages. We understand and greatly value this. We have created an entire system of projects and personal growth competitions in which every young person, from school to university age, can show what they are made of. These include ProeKTOriYA, My First BusinessI Am A ProfessionalRussian Leaders and many others. I want to stress that all this is being created for young people to take advantage of these opportunities. I urge you to take a chance and use them, be bold, realise your dreams and plans, do something of value for yourself, your family and your country.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Colleagues, Russia has been and always will be a sovereign and independent state. This is a given. It will either be that, or will simply cease to exist. We must clearly understand this. Without sovereignty, Russia cannot be a state. Some countries can do this, but not Russia.

Building relations with Russia means working together to find solutions to the most complex matters instead of trying to impose solutions. We make no secret of our foreign policy priorities. These include strengthening trust, countering global threats, promoting cooperation in the economy and trade, education, culture, science and technology, as well as facilitating people-to-people contact. These tenets underpin our work within the UN, the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as within the Group of 20, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

We believe in the importance of promoting closer cooperation within the Union State of Russia and Belarus, including close foreign policy and economic coordination. Together with our integration partners within the Eurasian Economic Union, we will continue creating common markets and outreach efforts. This includes implementing the decisions to coordinate the activities of the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative on the way to a greater Eurasian partnership.

Russia’s equal and mutually beneficial relations with China currently serve as an important factor of stability in international affairs and in terms of Eurasian security, offering a model of productive economic cooperation. Russia attaches importance to realising the potential of the special privileged strategic partnership with India. We will continue to promote political dialogue and economic cooperation with Japan. Russia stands ready to work with Japan on finding mutually acceptable terms for signing a peace treaty. We intend to promote deeper ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

We also hope that the European Union and the major European countries will finally take actual steps to put political and economic relations with Russia back on track. People in these countries are looking forward to cooperation with Russia, which includes corporations, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises, and European businesses in general. It goes without saying that this would serve our common interests.

The unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the INF Treaty is the most urgent and most discussed issue in Russian-American relations. This is why I am compelled to talk about it in more detail. Indeed, serious changes have taken place in the world since the Treaty was signed in 1987. Many countries have developed and continue to develop these weapons, but not Russia or the USA – we have limited ourselves in this respect, of our own free will. Understandably, this state of affairs raises questions. Our American partners should have just said so honestly rather than make far-fetched accusations against Russia to justify their unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty.

It would have been better if they had done what they did in 2002 when they walked away from the ABM Treaty and did so openly and honestly. Whether that was good or bad is another matter. I think it was bad, but they did it and that is that. They should have done the same thing this time, too. What are they doing in reality? First, they violate everything, then they look for excuses and appoint a guilty party. But they are also mobilising their satellites that are cautious but still make noises in support of the USA. At first, the Americans began developing and using medium-range missiles, calling them discretionary “target missiles” for missile defence. Then they began deploying Mk-41 universal launch systems that can make offensive combat use of Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles possible.

I am talking about this and using my time and yours because we have to respond to the accusations that are leveled at us. But having done everything I have just described, the Americans openly and blatantly ignored the provisions envisaged by articles 4 and 6 of the INF Treaty. According to Item 1, Article VI (I am quoting): “Each Party shall eliminate all intermediate-range missiles and the launchers of such missiles… so that… no such missiles, launchers… shall be possessed by either party.” Paragraph 1 of Article VI provides that (and I quote) “upon entry into force of the Treaty and thereafter, neither Party may produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missile, or produce any stages or launchers of such missiles.” End of quote.

Using medium-range target missiles and deploying launchers in Romania and Poland that are fit for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, the US has openly violated these clauses of the Treaty. They did this some time ago. These launchers are already stationed in Romania and nothing happens. It seems that nothing is happening. This is even strange. This is not at all strange for us, but people should be able to see and understand it.

How are we evaluating the situation in this context? I have already said this and I want to repeat: Russia does not intend – this is very important, I am repeating this on purpose – Russia does not intend to deploy such missiles in Europe first. If they really are built and delivered to the European continent, and the United States has plans for this, at least we have not heard otherwise, it will dramatically exacerbate the international security situation, and create a serious threat to Russia, because some of these missiles can reach Moscow in just 10–12 minutes. This is a very serious threat to us. In this case, we will be forced, I would like to emphasise this, we will be forced to respond with mirror or asymmetric actions. What does this mean?

I am saying this directly and openly now, so that no one can blame us later, so that it will be clear to everyone in advance what is being said here. Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from, but also in areas that contain decision-making centres for the missile systems threatening us.

What is important in this regard? There is some new information. These weapons will fully correspond to the threats directed against Russia in their technical specifications, including flight times to these decision-making centres.

We know how to do this and will implement these plans immediately, as soon as the threats to us become real. I do not think we need any further, irresponsible exacerbation of the current international situation. We do not want this.

What would I like to add? Our American colleagues have already tried to gain absolute military superiority with their global missile defence project. They need to stop deluding themselves. Our response will always be efficient and effective.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.

The work on promising prototypes and weapon systems that I spoke about in my Address last year continues as scheduled and without disruptions. We have launched serial production of the Avangard system, which I have already mentioned today. As planned, this year, the first regiment of the Strategic Missile Troops will be equipped with Avangard. The Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental missile of unprecedented power is undergoing a series of tests. The Peresvet laser weapon and the aviation systems equipped with Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles proved their unique characteristics during test and combat alert missions while the personnel learned how to operate them. Next December, all the Peresvet missiles supplied to the Armed Forces will be put on standby alert. We will continue expanding the infrastructure for the MiG-31 interceptors carrying Kinzhal missiles. The Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile of unlimited range and the Poseidon nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle of unlimited range are successfully undergoing tests.

In this context, I would like to make an important statement. We did not announce it before, but today we can say that as soon as this spring the first nuclear-powered submarine carrying this unmanned vehicle will be launched. The work is going as planned.

Today I also think I can officially inform you about another promising innovation. As you may remember, last time I said we had more to show but it was a little early for that. So I will reveal little by little what else we have up our sleeves. Another promising innovation, which is successfully being developed according to plan, is Tsirkon, a hypersonic missile that can reach speeds of approximately Mach 9 and strike a target more than 1,000 km away both under water and on the ground. It can be launched from water, from surface vessels and from submarines, including those that were developed and built for carrying Kalibr high-precision missiles, which means it comes at no additional cost for us.

On a related note, I want to highlight that for the defence of Russia’s national interests, two or three years ahead of the schedule set by the state arms programme, the Russian Navy will receive seven new multipurpose submarines, and construction will begin on five surface vessels designed for the open ocean. Sixteen more vessels of this class will enter service in the Russian Navy by 2027.

To conclude, on the unilateral withdrawal by the USA from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, here is what I would like to say. The US policy toward Russia in recent years can hardly be called friendly. Russia’s legitimate interests are being ignored, there is constant anti-Russia campaigning, and more and more sanctions, which are illegal in terms of international law, are imposed without any reason whatsoever. Let me emphasise that we did nothing to provoke these sanctions. The international security architecture that took shape over the past decades is being completely and unilaterally dismantled, all while referring to Russia as almost the main threat to the USA.

Let me say outright that this is not true. Russia wants to have sound, equal and friendly relations with the USA. Russia is not threatening anyone, and all we do in terms of security is simply a response, which means that our actions are defensive. We are not interested in confrontation and we do not want it, especially with a global power like the United States of America. However, it seems that our partners fail to notice the depth and pace of change around the world and where it is headed. They continue with their destructive and clearly misguided policy. This hardly meets the interests of the USA itself. But this is not for us to decide.

We can see that we are dealing with proactive and talented people, but within the elite, there are also many people who have excessive faith in their exceptionalism and supremacy over the rest of the world. Of course, it is their right to think what they want. But can they count? Probably they can. So let them calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems. This is all we are asking: just do the maths first and take decisions that create additional serious threats to our country afterwards. It goes without saying that these decisions will prompt Russia to respond in order to ensure its security in a reliable and unconditional manner.

I have already said this, and I will repeat that we are ready to engage in disarmament talks, but we will not knock on a locked door anymore. We will wait until our partners are ready and become aware of the need for dialogue on this matter.

We continue developing our Armed Forces and improving the intensity and quality of combat training, in part, using the experience we gained in the anti-terrorist operation in Syria. Much experience was gained by practically all the commanders of the Ground Forces, by covert operations forces and military police, warship crews, army, tactical, and strategic and military transport aviation.

I would like to emphasise again that we need peace for sustainable long-term development. Our efforts to enhance our defence capability are for only one purpose: to ensure the security of this country and our citizens so that nobody would even consider pressuring us, or launching an aggression against us.

Colleagues, we are facing ambitious goals. We are approaching solutions in a systematic and consistent way, building a model of socio-economic development that will allow us to ensure the best conditions for the self-fulfillment of our people and, hence, provide befitting answers to the challenges of a rapidly changing world, and preserve Russia as a civilisation with its own identity, rooted in centuries-long traditions and the culture of our people, our values and customs. Naturally, we will only be able to achieve our goals by pooling our efforts, together in a united society, if all of us, all citizens of Russia, are willing to succeed in specific endeavours.

Such solidarity in striving for change is always the deliberate choice of the people themselves. They make this choice when they understand that national development depends on them, on the results of their labour, when a desire to be needed and useful enjoys support, when everyone finds a job by vocation one is happy with, and most importantly, when there is justice and a vast space for freedom and equal opportunity for work, study, initiative and innovation.

These parameters for development breakthroughs cannot be translated into figures or indicators, but it is these things – a unified society, people being involved in the affairs of their country, and a common confidence in our power – that play the main role in reaching success. And we will achieve this success by any means necessary.

Thank you for your attention.

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