Sunday 22 April 2018

Putin has no plans 'for now' of sending troops into Syria

Children sit on a Ferris wheel during Eid celebrations in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo, which has been bombed repeatedly by Assad regime warplanes
Children sit on a Ferris wheel during Eid celebrations in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo, which has been bombed repeatedly by Assad regime warplanes

Roland Oliphant in Moscow

Russian ground troops will not take part in battlefield operations in Syria "for now", but Russia will continue to provide close support to Bashar al-Assad in an effort to "save" the embattled Syrian regime, Vladimir Putin has said.

Speaking ahead of a speech to the UN General Assembly, Mr Putin said the recent Russian military build-up in Syria was prompted by domestic security concerns, and denied plans to expand Russia's role in the greater Middle East.

"Russia will not take part in any field operations on the territory of Syria or in other states; at least, we do not plan it for now," Mr Putin told CBS interviewer Charlie Rose.

"But we are thinking of how to intensify our work with President Assad and our partners in other countries.

"There are more than 2,000 militants in Syria from the former Soviet Union. So instead of waiting for them to return back home we should help President Assad fight them there, in Syria."

Barack Obama and other western leaders have ruled out cooperation with Mr Assad, saying his forces are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths and that most refugees arriving in Europe are fleeing government violence.

Mr Putin confirmed that one objective was to "save" Mr Assad's regime, which suffered a series of battlefield setbacks earlier this year.

His comments follow a flurry of Russian military and diplomatic activity across the Middle East. Western diplomats have described it as an attempt to overcome nearly two years of international isolation following Russia's annexation of Crimea and backing of a separatist uprising in east Ukraine.

Challenged on his government's policy on Ukraine, Mr Putin attacked the US for organising what he called a "coup" to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, in February 2014.

"We know the ways the assistance was provided, we know how much they paid them, we know which territories and countries hosted trainings and how it was done, we know who the instructors were. We know everything," he said.

Mr Putin denied using military force to attempt to restore what he sees as "legitimate power" in Ukraine. Western governments accuse him of sending troops and weaponry to support the separatist side in the 17-month war in Ukraine's Donbass region.

In other comments, Mr Putin said he still stands by his famous 2005 remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century" and said the Russian diaspora abroad remained a major issue.

"Do you think it is normal that 25 million people, Russian people, suddenly found themselves abroad? The Russians have turned out to be the largest divided nation in the world nowadays," he said.

"The Soviet Union has traditionally been called Russia, the Soviet Russia, and it was the great Russia. They used to live in one country and suddenly found themselves abroad. Can you imagine how many problems came out?"

Protecting the post-Soviet Russian diaspora was one justification the Kremlin gave for annexing Crimea in March 2014.

Asked about Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's characterisation of him as a gangster, saying his background as a spy precluded involvement in organised crime, he said: "How can I be a gangster, if I worked for the KGB? It is ridiculous."

Mr Rubio said last month that Mr Putin is "basically an organized crime figure who controls a government". (© Daily Telegraph London)

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