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All eyes on Putin

At a time of icy relations with the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a rare -- and surprising -- interview to 60 Minutes

The following is a script from "Putin" which aired on September 27, 2015. Charlie Rose is the correspondent. Andy Court, producer.

There aren't many world leaders who have generated as much interest as Russia's Vladimir Putin. All eyes will be on Putin when he speaks at the U.N. tomorrow and meets with President Obama, at a time when he has placed himself and his country in the middle of the most pressing issues of our times. He helped the U.S. and its Western allies broker the nuclear deal with Iran, and now, with a Russian buildup of aircraft, military equipment and personnel in Syria, he has put himself and his country at the center of that civil war and the fight against ISIS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
CBS News

Now, when his relations with the United States seem to be at a post-Cold War low, suffering under Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia, Putin may be looking for a way to restore his international influence and gain the respect he seeks for his homeland.

Just before his trip to the U.S., Putin invited us to meet him at his state residence outside Moscow where we found him characteristically confident and combative as he made the case that the focus in Syria should be on fighting ISIS rather than removing Syrian President Assad.

Charlie Rose: So you would like to join the United States in the fight against ISIS? That's part of why you're there. Others think that while that may be part of your goal, you're trying to save the Assad administration because they've been losing ground and the war has not been going well for them. And you're there to rescue them.

President Putin: Well, you're right. We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it's my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.

Charlie Rose: As you know some of the coalition partners want to see President Assad go first before they will support.

President Putin: I'd like to recommend to them the following. They should send this message to the Syrian people. It's only the Syrian people who are entitled to decide who should govern their country and how.

Charlie Rose: President Assad, you support him. Do you support what he is doing in Syria and what is happening to those Syrian people, those many millions of refugees and the hundreds of thousands of people that have been killed, many by his own force?

President Putin: Well, tell me, what do you think about those who support the opposition and mainly the terrorist organizations only in order to oust Assad without thinking about what will happen to the country after all the government institutions have been demolished? Today, you have repeatedly said that Assad is fighting against his own population. But look at those who are in control of 60 percent of the territory in Syria. It's controlled by either ISIS or by others--

Charlie Rose: Al-Nusra?

President Putin: --such as al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations. They are recognized as terrorist organizations by the United States, by other states and by the United Nations.

Charlie Rose: Are you prepared to put Russian combat troops on the ground in Syria if it's necessary to defeat ISIS?

President Putin: Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don't plan on it right now. But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries.

Charlie Rose: I come back to the problem that many people look at. And they believe that Assad helps ISIS. That his reprehensible conduct against the Syrian people using barrel bombs and worse is a recruiting tool for ISIS and that if he was removed, transitioned, at some point, it would be better in the fight against ISIS, al-Nusra and others.

President Putin: Well, speaking in a professional language of intelligence services I can tell you that this kind of assessment is an "active measure" by enemies of Assad. It is anti-Syrian propaganda.

Charlie Rose: Much is being read into this including this, that this is a new effort for Russia to take a leadership role in the Middle East and that it represents a new strategy by you. Is it?

President Putin: Not really. No. More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and Ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory. So this is the most important thing which encourages us and pushes us to provide assistance to Assad. And, in general, we want the situation in the region to stabilize.

Charlie Rose: But your pride in Russia means that you would like to see Russia play a bigger role in the world and this is just one example.

President Putin: Well, it's not the goal in itself. I'm proud of Russia, that's true. And we have something to be proud of, but we do not have any obsession with being a superpower in the international arena.

Charlie Rose: But you are in part a major power because of the nuclear weapons you have. You are a force to be reckoned with.

President Putin: I hope so. I definitely hope so. Otherwise why do we have nuclear weapons at all?

Recent tension between the United States and Russia began after Ukraine's president Yanukovych was overthrown and fled to Russia. Putin responded by annexing Crimea, leading the U.S. and Western allies to impose tough economic sanctions against Russia.

President Putin: Ukraine is a separate and major issue for us. It is our closest neighbor. We've always said that this is our sister country. It's not only a Slavic people. We have common history, common culture, common religion, and many things in common. What I believe is absolutely unacceptable is the resolution of internal political issues in the former USSR Republics, through "color revolutions," through coup d'états, through unconstitutional removal of power. That is totally unacceptable. Our partners in the United States have supported those who ousted Yanukovych.

Charlie Rose: You believe that the United States had something to do with the ousting of Yanukovych, and he had to flee to Russia.

President Putin: I know that for sure.

Charlie Rose: How do you know that for sure?

President Putin: I know those people who live in Ukraine. We have thousands of contacts with them. We know who and where, when, who exactly met with someone and worked with those who ousted Yanukovych, how they were supported, how much they were paid, how they were trained, where, in which countries, and who those instructors were. We know everything.

For the record, the U.S. government has denied any involvement in the removal of the Ukrainian leader.

Charlie Rose: You respect the sovereignty of Ukraine?

President Putin: Sure. But we want countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries and Ukraine in particular. Respect for sovereignty means to not allow unconstitutional action and coup d'états, the removal of legitimate power.

Charlie Rose: How will the renewal of legitimate power take place in your judgment? How will that come about? And what role will Russia play?

President Putin: Russia has not taken part and is not going to take part in any actions aimed at removing the legitimate government.

Charlie Rose: You have a military presence on the border of Ukraine. And some even argue that there have been Russian troops in Ukraine.

President Putin: Well, you do have a military presence in Europe?

Charlie Rose: Yes.

President Putin: American tactical nuclear weapons are in Europe. Let's not forget that. What does this mean? Does it mean that you've occupied Germany or that you've transformed the occupation forces into NATO forces? And if we have our military forces on our territory, on the border with some state, you believe this is a crime?

What Vladimir Putin thinks about America and about President Obama might surprise you. That, and some insights into his personality, when we come back.

President Putin, part two

Vladimir Putin has wielded power in Russia for more than 15 years, longer than many czars. He has not only reshaped his own country, but has begun to play a larger role in international affairs, as an occasional ally, but more often foe of U.S. policy.

Presidential candidates have portrayed him as a bully, a gangster or pragmatic opponent who can be bargained with.

One thing we found: a strong personality who will engage in a conversation with blunt talk, charm and wit.

Charlie Rose: You're much talked about in America. There's much conversation. More so than any--

President Putin: Maybe they have nothing else to do in America but to talk about me.

Charlie Rose: No, no, or maybe they're curious people. Or maybe you're an interesting character. Maybe that's what it is. They know of a former KGB agent who came back and got into politics in St. Petersburg and became deputy mayor and then came to Moscow. And the interesting thing is they see these images of you bare-chested on a horse. And they say, "There is a man who carefully cultivates his image of strength."

President Putin: You know, I'm convinced that a person in my position must provide a positive example to people. And those areas where he can do this, he must do this.

Charlie Rose: You enjoy the work, you enjoy representing Russia and you know-- you've been an intelligence officer. Intelligence officers know how to read other people. That's part of the job, yes? Yes?

President Putin: It used to be. Used to be. Now I have a different job and that's been for quite a long time.

Charlie Rose: Somebody in Russia told me there is no such thing as a former KGB man. Once a KGB man, always a KGB man.

President Putin: Well, you know, anything that we do, all this knowledge we acquire, all the experience, we'll have it forever and we'll keep that. And we'll use it somehow. So, in this sense, yes. They're right.

Charlie Rose: A CIA operative once said to me that one of the training you have is you learn the capacity to be liked as well because you have to charm people. You have to charm people, you have to, yes, seduce them. Let me--

President Putin: Well, if the CIA told you then that's the way it is because they are an expert on that.

Charlie Rose: You have a popularity rating in Russia that would make every politician in the world envious. Why are you so popular?

President Putin: There is something that I have in common with everycitizen of Russia, the love for our motherland.

Charlie Rose: Many of us were moved by an emotional moment at the time of the World War II memory because of the sacrifices Russia had made. And you were seen with a picture of your father with tears in your eyes.

President Putin: My family suffered very major losses during the Second World War, that's true. In my father's family, there were five brothers. I think four of them died. On my mother's side the picture was pretty much the same. Russia has suffered great losses. And of course we can't forget that. And we must not forget that. Not to put blame on somebody, but to prevent anything like this from happening in the future.

Charlie Rose: You also have said that the worst thing to happen in the last century was the collapse of the Soviet empire. There are those who look at Ukraine, especially Ukraine and Georgia, and they believe that you do not want to recreate the Soviet empire, but you do want to recreate a sphere of influence, which you think Russia deserves because of the relationship that has existed. Why are you smiling? Why?

President Putin: You're makingme happy, because we're always suspected of some ambitions. And they always try to distort something. I indeed said that I believe that the collapse of the USSR was a huge tragedy of the 20th century. You know why?

Charlie Rose: Why?

President Putin: Because, first of all, in an instant 25 million Russian people found themselves beyond the borders of the Russian state, although they were living within the borders of the Soviet Union. Then, all of a sudden, the USSR collapsed -- just overnight, in fact. And it's turned out that in the former Soviet Republics -- 25 million Russian people were living. They were living in a single country. And all of a sudden, they turned out to be outside the borders of the country. You see this is a huge problem. First of all, there were everyday problems, the separation of families, social problems, economic problems. You can't list them all. Do you think it's normal that 25 million Russian people were abroad all of a sudden? Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world. It's not a problem? Well, maybe not for you. But it's a problem for me.

Charlie Rose: There are many people who are critical of Russia, as you know. They say that it's more autocratic and less democratic. They say that political opponents and journalists have been killed and imprisoned in Russia. They say your power is unchallenged. And they say that power and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What do you say to those people who worry about the climate, the atmosphere in Russia?

President Putin: Well, there can be no democracy whatsoever without compliance with the law. Everyone must observe the laws. This is the most important thing which we must bear in mind. As for these tragic events, such as the death of people, including journalists, unfortunately they do occur in all countries of the world. But if they happen in our country, we do the utmost to find the criminals and to punish them. But the most important thing is that we will continue to improve our political system so that every citizen can feel that they do influence the life of the city, of the country and of the society and so that the authorities will feel responsible with regard to those people who trust them during election campaigns.

Charlie Rose: If you, as a leader of this country, insist that the rule of law be adhered to, if you insist that justice be done, if you because of your power, then it could go a long way to eliminating that perception.

President Putin: Well, a lot can be done. But not everyone succeeds with everything from the very start. How long did it take the democratic process to develop in the United States? Do you believe that everything is perfect now from the point of view of democracy in the United States? If everything was perfect there wouldn't be the problem of Ferguson. There would be no abuse by the police. But our task is to see all these problems and to respond properly.

Charlie Rose: So the people who killed Nemtsov will be prosecuted to the fullest?

President Putin: Yes. I said it right away that this is a shame for our history and criminals must be prosecuted and punished.

Charlie Rose: Are you curious about America? More than simply another nation that you have to deal with?

President Putin: Of course we are curious about what's going on. America exerts enormous influence on the situation in the world, as a whole.

Charlie Rose: What do you admire most about America?

President Putin: I like the creativity.

Charlie Rose: Creativity?

President Putin: Creativity when it comes to your tackling problems. Their openness, openness and open-mindedness. Because it allows them to unleash the inner potential of their people. And thanks to that, America has attained such amazing results in developing their country.

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    Charlie Rose is a co-host of "CBS This Morning" and "Person to Person." Rose began contributing to 60 Minutes in 2008.