Question: Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade. It seems that Russia finds it especially important to outline its foreign policy vision and to be heard. In you opinion, what should be highlighted and brought to the attention of the international community at this point in time?
Sergey Lavrov: The trip by President Putin to the UN General Assembly is above all attributable to the fact that this will not just be a regular session, but an anniversary session marking a number of significant dates — 70 years since the establishment of the UN, 70 years since the victory in the Second World War and Great Patriotic War. All of these anniversaries are celebrated in 2015. The creation of the UN resulted from the victory over Nazism. It is for this reason that a summit dedicated to this anniversary is held, and it is for this reason that an overwhelming majority of world leaders will be present at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. Being there is a matter of protocol, if you will.
Substance-wise, President Putin has always a great deal to say on international affairs. Russia is proactive in dealing with global challenges and takes part in many important associations working to resolve key crisis situations. That is to say that Russia is actively involved in all of these processes and discussions. This year, taking into account that the presence of Russia’s head of state is expected due to anniversary celebrations during the session, President Putin will use this opportunity to provide Russia’s principled assessment of the most burning issues in today’s world.
By burning issues I mean, primarily, systemic challenges related to attempts to put the brakes on the emergence of a new multipolar world order that would reflect the actual emergence of new economic, financial and political centres of power. This is where from most issues that have now become familiar to everyone stem, such as efforts to combat terrorism, which should be free from double standards. Terrorists shouldn’t be divided into good and bad. No one should think about working with some of those “bad” extremists to achieve specific momentary geopolitical gains. Naturally, the same goes for the issue of unilateral coercive measures, and not just against the Russian Federation.
Our Western partners are about to lose the culture of dialogue and the ability to reach diplomatic solutions, which is primarily due to the adoption of a US mindset. The deal on the Iranian nuclear programme should be viewed as a remarkable and extremely rare exception to this rule. In most cases, force is used during conflicts that continue to break out in the Middle East and North Africa, as was the case in Iraq and Libya, where resolutions of the UN Security Council were infringed upon. Imposing sanctions is the other option, whereby when a political process to settle domestic issues is launched, be it in Yemen or South Sudan, attempts are made to create external incentives and impose solutions. This has happened in both aforementioned cases and in similar situations. Had more importance been attached to the agreement of the parties, not advice and recipes from the outside, this framework would have been much more durable. As soon as this framework begins to stall (when hurried solutions are imposed this is inevitable), “sanctions sticks” are employed to punish those who do not want to cooperate under this scheme. This is a long story, a relapse of sorts mixed with an obsession with sanctions: when our Western partners fail in any undertaking implemented according to their standards, they immediately turn to sanctions.
In his speech, President Putin will cover this and other subjects, along with the issue of the fragmentation of the global economic space, as the WTO negotiations on a universal approach to new areas of economic and technological ties between countries are stalled. President Putin is also expected to touch on a number of specific issues, such as Syria and the Ukraine crisis. All of these and other crises result from systemic attempts to put the brakes on the emergence of a polycentric world order.
Question: The refugee crisis in Europe is the most recent example of a crisis stemming from existing problems. People are understandably fleeing from war, which means that they cannot be refused shelter. However, Europe appears to be split on the issue of whether or not to accept these refugees. Refugees are fleeing to the wealthiest countries and do not stop in Bulgaria, Serbia or Hungary. Russia has warned against this crisis and here it is. In your opinion, why is it happening at this exact point in time and how can this crisis be overcome?
Sergey Lavrov: It is hard to say why this crisis is unfolding at this exact point in time. This could have happened six months earlier or six months later. It may be that the crisis occurred when the violence that is rampant in the Middle East and North Africa reached its peak. This violence is above all attributable to the so-called Islamic State, which is a new phenomenon in terms of counter-terrorist efforts, as this group seizes vast territories, not just buildings or hostages.
Hundreds of thousands of square kilometres have already been seized in Iraq and Syria and a quasi-state was created there with atrocious, uncompromising rules of its own, exploiting natural resources to finance terrorism. The Islamic State has “taken root” not only in Syria and Iraq, but in Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya, publishing maps of its caliphate spanning from Portugal to Pakistan. The Islamic State thereby seeks to establish itself as a leader of the Islamic world, as well as to include parts of the world that do not fall within the Islamic world into the caliphate. This ominous phenomenon is new, and fighting it will take much time and effort. This is the only way to bring calm to the region. Otherwise, people will live there in fear and continue to flee in search of a better life.
The second element is to keep in mind that fighting terrorism is a multidimensional effort that should include an ideological dimension. As long as conflicts in the Middle East subsist, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must honestly acknowledge that radicals will continue educating the younger generation to resent the existing order and reject peace negotiations. It is well known that they preach in their Koran schools and other educational institutions that there was a promise to establish a Palestinian state in the late 1940s, right after the establishment of the UN, but it has not been created since, which means that talks to create a state led nowhere. They advocate the use of force, so that their rights will be respected. These ideas infiltrate the minds of boys and girls, helping recruit terrorists and suicide bombers. Essentially, teaching moderate, true Islam is becoming increasingly important. There is also the issue of terrorism financing, including through drug trafficking. This is a vibrant and flourishing industry, which above all is due to the connivance of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Russia has repeatedly called on them to pay more attention to eradicating drug trafficking, but they closed their eyes, unwilling to tackle this issue. Fighting terrorism has many dimensions. A normal socio-economic environment is vital to ensure that people stay in the Middle East, and that it remains a multiethnic, multicultural and multicivilisational community. There are many economic refugees among those now fleeing to Europe. They are simply seeking a calmer, more prosperous life, while some are fleeing because they are unable to earn a living. Of course, facilitating development and creating jobs is also important. What I mean is that security, the economy, social issues, education and ideology are all important dimensions. Russia is fulfilling its commitments under international conventions. The Russian Federation accepts everyone who qualifies as a refugee and will keep doing so. Sometimes, we accept refugees who do not meet all of the standard criteria. I’m talking about refugees from Ukraine. About 1 million such refugees came to Russia. Many of them, somewhere between one-third and 50 percent, want to become Russian citizens or have a permanent status of some other kind in Russia. Many refugees are provided housing, but there are also refugee camps in the Rostov Region and other territories. These camps were given the highest marks by the Office of the UNHCR. Of course, there are also refugees from the Middle East in Russia, including from Syria and Yemen. These individuals came to Russia early on in the conflict.
Our heart is with our European partners who are facing this issue. I believe they will overcome this challenge by finally agreeing on quotas (there are already reports to this effect). This is an internal issue for the EU. Taking into account differences in traditions and the quality of life and wellbeing among EU member states, it is not easy to give advice externally. That said, Russia is ready to make its contribution. EU countries have already asked the UN Security Council to help them draft a resolution enabling the navy of EU states to intercept illegal vessels in the Mediterranean carrying migrants who are transferred to Europe illegally. As for coercive measures, many in Europe are talking about not just arresting vessels in the open sea, but also want to operate in territorial waters and onshore (in Libya, for instance), using force if it turns out that a vessel is seized illegally and is not registered. Some even want a Security Council mandate to “get rid” of these vessels, as they say. Do they want to sink these vessels? This issue raises a lot of questions. As we have said time and again, knowing how our Western partners sometimes interpret UN Security Council resolutions, that Russia stands ready to approve coercive measures only if they are strictly regulated and set out in every detail in the resolution, leaving no space for any equivocal interpretation. First, the resolution could concern arresting suspicious vessels in the open sea. When a vessel is flying the flag of a country, its arrest should be coordinated with the country in question. If a vessel bears no identification marks, coordination is not required and it should be stopped and inspected to establish who owns it and what is on board. Second, on top of strictly regulating these actions, it has to be understood what will happen with refugees if they are on board the vessel. The EU has yet to answer these questions. It also does not have an idea of what to do with the criminals behind this business who are captured on board a vessel. This does not just concern those executing these activities, but also those who engineer the process in some other country. A comprehensive approach is needed, and hasty solutions should be avoided. Of course, in all of those debates, we want to make our partners learn the lesson of their earlier deeds. Everyone should understand from where these migrant waves are coming and why.
Today, we discussed the terrorist threat and conflict that have yet to be settled. It is not uncommon that attempts to settle political crises are fuelled by momentary political gain without thinking about the implications of an action or initiative on the situation in general. Libya, where the decision was taken to topple a dictator, provides a good example. This has overshadowed all other thoughts and assessments. I spoke with our US and European colleagues who took part in this effort, showing that their thoughtless and illegitimate actions in violation of the UN Security Council mandate turned Libya into a “blackhole” now used by terrorists of all kinds. The country has two parliaments and two governments with their own military. Apart from these structures, there are 35 armed groups that obey neither Tobruk, nor Tripoli. Illegal arms are flowing from Libya to many other countries. According to the UN, these weapons have travelled a long way and are used in a dozen African countries. Libya also serves as the primary transit hub in terms of human trafficking.
The response by my colleagues was telling. They acknowledge the facts and that they committed mistakes. They had the same arguments when Iraq was on the brink of dissolution. It was a mistake for the United States, but they proposed not to delve too much into the past. I strongly believe that unless we learn the lessons of history and do our homework, we will constantly face new crises, resulting in destructive, utterly negative and dangerous consequences, such as the current refugee flows. These issues will be subject to a detailed, substantive discussion in the UN Security Council.
Question: Syria is the most outstanding case in point. Its people are fleeing the Islamic State and the civil war. Russia’s position is that this war must be stopped. President Putin came up with a package of measures to combat terrorism. What do our partners have to say about his proposal? As someone who is not a diplomat, the situation is hard to understand. The Americans continue to insist on supporting the anti-Assad opposition. You receive calls from US Secretary of State John Kerry almost on a weekly basis accusing Russia of being in their way as they try to bomb Syria. Third countries are closing their airspace to us, which we use to deliver humanitarian aid. What's going on?
Sergey Lavrov: Our American partners have created a coalition without either putting much thought into it from the start, or the coalition is supposed to serve other goals by design. The coalition was created spontaneously. In a matter of just a few days, it was announced that it includes a number of countries, and they started delivering air strikes. If you look at what the coalition’s planes are doing, you can get strange ideas. Sometimes, a thought creeps in that there’s more to it than just the purported goal of fighting the Islamic State. I hope I’m not talking out of school if I say that some of our colleagues from the coalition say they occasionally get access to information about the exact location of ISIS units, but the coalition’s commander (of course, the United States) does not authorise an air strike. I can’t draw any conclusions here because you never know what kind of information and input a senior commander may have while others don’t, but there are some odd signals.
Our approach is absolutely transparent. We have been saying that we will provide help to the Syrian leaders, as we do with regard to Iraq and the leaders of other countries which have been facing the terrorist threat all these years since the beginning of the Arab Spring after it degraded into terrorist and extremist activities seeking to overthrow the regimes in various countries, and began to receive support, including from those who are at odds with their respective leaders. Our military and technical cooperation has precisely these objectives. Of course, the arms supplies will continue. They inevitably entail the involvement of Russian experts, who help to get the equipment up and running, and to train Syrian personnel to handle these weapons. There are no intrigues or secrets here.
I can’t agree with speculations that Russia has sharply and dramatically changed its approach to Syria. Indeed, purportedly, the coalition was supposed to fight the Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar ultra-radical terrorist groups. We’ve been saying that for a long time now, even before the US-led coalition was created. If the goal is to prevent the consolidation of the territory of Iraq and Syria as the core of the future caliphate planned by ISIS, then, primarily, it’s imperative to help those who are fighting these thugs on the ground, that is, the Iraqi army, the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian army and the Syrian Kurdish militia. We advocate coordinating the efforts of all those who are fighting on the ground. In addition to Syrian and Iraqi government troops, and to Kurds, other Syrian opposition units are also fighting ISIS on the ground. They are not a bunch of mercenaries, as opposed to the many externally sponsored armed units fighting there. Importantly, these military units should coordinate their actions as they fight the Islamic State. Ideally, the coalition could coordinate its useful air capabilities with the ground operations. Air strikes alone cannot solve the problem. If the coalition forces could establish contact not only with the Iraqi government, with which they already agreed, but also with the Syrian government, and harmonised their approaches with the approaches of the Syrian ground forces, the synergy effect would be much stronger than what we are seeing now.
Question: They don’t want to talk with President Bashar al-Assad at all?
Sergey Lavrov: They publicly state that they don’t. Moreover, they claim that they would welcome the contribution of Russia or any other country in fighting the Islamic State only if it doesn’t strengthen the position of the Syrian president. Excluding the Syrian army from fighting the Islamic State is an absurd concept. If you look at all the capabilities that I just mentioned, the Syrian armed forces will come out on top as the most effective military force on the ground.
We're being told that Australia has joined the coalition and will also deliver air strikes on Islamic State positions without taking any steps that would strengthen the position of the Syrian president. The British had bombed Syria and killed several jihadists saying that this was part of the United Kingdom’s sovereign right to self-defence. France is now bombing not only Iraq, to which Baghdad agreed, but also Syria, and no one is asking Damascus for permission. I do wonder sometimes: maybe everyone wants Russia to also state that it will strike the terrorist positions in Syria without asking its president’s opinion? What’s the point of playing this game of not recognising the legitimacy of the Syrian president?
When there was a need to liquidate Syrian chemical weapons, President Bashar al-Assad was absolutely the legitimate authority. His actions to accede to the relevant convention were welcomed in UN Security Council resolutions. A year later, he ceased to be the legitimate leader, because the threat is no longer that of chemical weapons and substances, but a terrorist threat. This is an ideology-driven approach. I don’t think it will bring the results which we are all looking for. Only an ideology-free and coordinated fight against terrorism without double standards, and a proper prioritising of the tasks will be genuinely effective. All of our Western partners, without exception, are telling us that they understand perfectly well the nature of the main threat in the Middle East and North Africa. It is not the Assad regime, but the Islamic State. If everyone agrees on this, even though some say it under their breaths, and states it openly, then we should be honest about it and do as we are saying.
Question: So, do you think they are ready to hear our proposals?
Sergey Lavrov: I think they hear what we are saying perfectly well. The fact is that too much ideology and too much bias go into changing the Syrian regime. It started several years ago, and they are now stuck in this position. Perhaps, they are afraid of losing face. Many politicians in the West run concepts through the voters, and try to gauge how they’ll react to their moves. They walked into a dead-end claiming that Bashar al-Assad has no place in the future of Syria, they will never sit down and discuss things with him, and will never have anything in common with him. This is a big mistake for politicians.