Question: Mr Lavrov, what prevents our Western partners from responding to Russia's proposal to establish a broad-based anti-terrorist coalition similar to the anti-Hitler coalition? Are they enraged, discouraged, perhaps, by the fact that a new centre of power has emerged, or stung by the fact that someone has encroached on their exceptionality?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, there are probably several factors and causes. Perhaps, they aren’t too pleased by the effective operations of our military, as they compare them to the year-plus operation by the coalition created by the United States, which carried out, I believe, about 60,000 sorties, half of which were supposed to be operational, without obtaining any positive results on the ground. On the contrary, the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, have only expanded their influence, as well as the territory in which they have proceeded to create a genuine caliphate, organising people's lives in accordance with their laws. This is a completely new kind of terrorism. Our colleagues are trying to tell us that ISIS became a reality only because of the drawn-out crisis in Syria, and that Syria is a magnet that attracts all the Sunnis, because, they say, Alawites use force against Sunnis, refusing to give up power. Such statements are dangerous. I told my colleagues – US Secretary of State John Kerry and our European partners – that trying to represent this conflict as a face-off within Islam is unacceptable. We all are fighting terrorism. This was stated by President Putin. Again, if our partners feel embarrassed because they haven’t achieved any meaningful results, they still need to make an effort and decide what is more important for them: a misguided sense of self-worth, or ridding the world of the most terrible threat of recent decades.
There’s another reason, which we need to look into. I regularly pose this question to my colleagues, foreign ministers of other countries. Perhaps the reason is that the purported goal is not entirely honest? Perhaps, the goal is to change the regime? They keep sticking to their position that a final settlement in Syria is only possible after Assad goes.
Question: Do they insist on this?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes. They keep saying that the coalition that has been operating in Syria and Iraq for more than a year now has only been fighting terrorism, primarily ISIS, and doesn’t bomb the positions of government troops. Perhaps there are objective ways to determine whether this is true. We are studying the situation. But if they are so apprehensive in fighting terrorism, perhaps they want, as they did before, to use extremist groups in order to degrade the government? This question remains unanswered.
We remember how Saddam Hussein was toppled. After that, Iraq fell into chaos. Things remain complicated there. We remember that in order to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, our Western partners and the countries of the region cooperated with the most notorious extremists, who then, like a genie from a bottle, spread across North Africa and even sub-Saharan Africa.
Question: The way I see it, the experts are also saying that if Assad goes, the Greater Middle East will descend into chaos.
Sergey Lavrov: The experts say so, and we say so. We don’t want a re-run of the events when, let me say it again, not only did they have no scruples about cooperating with the terrorists, but they actually bet on them directly and armed the extremists. Our French colleagues, who are now loudly talking about the need to respect international law, in the case of the Libyan crisis, despite a resolution banning arms supplies to anyone in Libya, which was adopted by consensus, did supply such arms to Gaddafi’s opponents and made no secret of this, even showed off saying that they are doing so in violation of the UN Security Council resolution. Then, the terrorists used these very weapons to shoot at the French troops in Africa, in Mali, where France was fighting those who it itself created and armed.
These double standards are obvious, and we all need to decide whether we want to, as a group of countries believes we should, destroy another regime and ruin another state. Ultimately, the problem of terrorism spreading in the Middle East is due to the fact that statehood in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria is being destroyed. Next thing you know, they’ll be taking up Lebanon. There’s a saying that history doesn’t teach anybody anything. Some time ago, we could accept in good faith things that happened a hundred years ago or so. However, over the past 10 to 15 years we’ve seen Iraq and Libya, and now it’s the Syrian crisis. It’s all the same everywhere. So, we must decide, and this is what President Putin calls for.
We suggested that our American colleagues and we should interact through the Pentagon and the Russian Defence Ministry not only in order to avoid incidents in the air, but also to coordinate our actions. They haven’t said anything to that yet. Since they are critical of our military operation and are saying that our air strikes are aimed not at weakening the terrorists, but at weakening the moderate Syrian opposition, we asked them to share their information about correct targets, destroying which will cause the most damage to the terrorists in Syria. They ducked our question. Then we said, "Well, if you think that we are weakening the people you are betting on in terms of strengthening the opposition, including fighting ISIS, tell us which targets we should avoid, and which troops on the ground we should spare. Still no answer.
In a recent interview to CBS, President Obama made several notable statements, including on the need to coordinate counter-terrorism efforts, including the Free Syrian Army. This is exactly what we are calling for. We’ve been doing so for more than one day and even more than one week. President Putin spoke in favour of establishing coordination with the US-led coalition, even though it is illegitimate in Syria. No one invited it there, and the UN Security Council didn’t adopt any resolutions to that effect. But if President Obama is calling for coordinating efforts with the Free Syrian Army, we are willing to do so as well. It was a long time ago that we asked the Americans, the countries of the region, including the Saudis, the representatives of Qatar and the Turks to point to someone from among those who represent and run the Free Syrian Army whom we can talk with. They promised to give us a list of names, but we are still waiting.
Speaking about coordination, which President Obama calls for, it is much broader than just the Free Syrian Army, because information about it is contradictory. It never stays in one place, periodically breaks up into smaller groups, which then join either Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS, which are both radical groups. Everyone agrees that the Free Syrian Army doesn’t have a single military command.
Question: It was announced yesterday that a new coalition, the Democratic Forces of Syria, had emerged.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, this structure seems to have been created to take over for the Free Syrian Army. You know, people should sit down at the [negotiating] table and talk honestly. The current information muddle with regard to who is doing what and why in Syria only plays into the hands of the terrorists, who always “fish in troubled waters.” Those who declare fighting terrorism as their main goal, if they are sincerely making these statements, should come together and address practical tasks. After establishing in Baghdad an information centre involving Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the Russian military, we invited the Americans, the Turks, and any other country that is able and willing to contribute to this fight to join it. If they don’t like Baghdad as a venue for this joint work, we are ready to work in any other country or regional capital with all participants in the US-led coalition and to coordinate our actions. The Russian military repeatedly told the Pentagon representatives this, including in the course of a video conference the day before yesterday.
Question: There are several fine points, as I see it. One respectable Western agency reported a few days ago, again with reference to unnamed sources, that a Saudi representative allegedly suggested during his visit to Russia that the latter join the US-led coalition. Is this true?
Sergey Lavrov: No, it is not true. I heard several other pronouncements that Reuters referred to. Allegedly, we were warned that there would be fatal consequences. This is absolutely untrue. The talk was precisely about what I am talking to you about right now. I mean the need to coordinate efforts. It was clearly reaffirmed that we were fighting terrorism, not the patriotic Syrian opposition. On the contrary, we are willing to coordinate our actions with the patriotic Syrian opposition and to help it recapture territories from the terrorists in the way we are helping the Syrian government army win back populated localities after we carry out air strikes on the positions held by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. We are also ready to help the patriotic opposition, but it should be introduced to us. We are absolutely ready for this. It seems important for me to say that we had an honest and frank conversation with the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Our Saudi colleagues’ concerns that we had some other aims and that by helping the Syrian army we were saving the regime rather than fighting terrorism were dispelled. We explained our true aims – we are not concealing them – and it seems to me that they understand of our position much better.
Question: Just a few hours ago, there was a report that the Pentagon delivered 50 tonnes of ammunition to the Syrian opposition. It was stressed in this context that the opposition had been checked for non-cooperation with ISIS. Allegedly, it was the right kind of opposition that was fighting the terrorists. Are you not worried that these weapons and ammunition might end up in the hands of terrorists?
Sergey Lavrov: I’ll tell you honestly that we don’t even doubt that a considerable part (as a minimum) of these weapons falls precisely into the hands of terrorists. This is a cause for concern, including in the US itself, where the public and Congress are beginning to ask questions about the previous attempts to support the moderate opposition. In particular, there is a scandal going on in connection with several hundred Toyota jeeps that the Americans let go down the drain by supplying them to the Free Syrian Army. All ISIS thugs are driving these jeeps. They’ve mounted heavy machineguns on them. They work from the vehicles, feeding their destructive ideas to the masses. It’s sad. I saw some TV reports earlier today, on Euronews, I think, which said that the Americans changed their tactics after Russia began its air operation in Syria. They renounced the programme under which they trained the opposition for the fight against terrorists and decided to air-drop weapons to untrained opposition fighters. It’s odd. The only thing I can’t understand is why they referred to the beginning of our air operation as a pretext for changing their tactics. It seems better to hand weapons over to trained people, and it’s very important to screen them.
You said they seemed to report that there was a screening after all. We expect them to respond to our request and say whom we can cooperate with from among the patriotic opposition. There was a report not so long ago that they had given up their training programmes because of the high costs and the impossibility to train everyone properly. They decided to train only company and platoon commanders. Thus, we can see very few concrete things explaining what in particular the Americans are doing in Syria and why so many combat sorties have yielded such insignificant results. With 25,000 combat sorties, they could have ripped the whole of Syria to matchwood.
Question: Some experts view the confrontation against ISIS as an opportunity for Moscow and Washington, and more broadly for Russia and the West, to improve their relations in a kind of a thaw. How probable is a scenario like this?
Sergey Lavrov: Russian President Vladimir Putin raised this issue in his remarks at the UN General Assembly. He made a comparison with the time when the anti-Hitler coalition was created. For the West, the USSR was evil, but when Nazism and Hitler came around and started pushing for the establishment of a new world order, there was no place left for ideological stand-offs between communism and capitalism, between socialist and market economies.
Question: It seems that this time around we didn’t have any ideological confrontments.
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, there are now no differences of this kind. If two opposing systems understood that they were facing mortal danger and were able to unite their efforts in combatting a common and very powerful enemy, today, given the extensive experience we have accumulated in working together on many issues, and the experience of the Cold War, we could probably come to the right conclusions and create a coalition despite disagreements on various issues because these disagreements are of a secondary nature.
Question: Is there a possibility of creating a broad counter-terrorist coalition, for example, under the aegis of the UN?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, completely. Moreover, Russia is now proposing to do so. In his remarks at the UN General Assembly, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will convene a special ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council, open not just to the 15 Security Council members, but also to all UN members willing to join the debate on the causes behind the recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa, and contribute to devising common approaches to fighting terrorism and resolving conflicts. All these issues are closely related.
It is generally acknowledged that the fact that there are lingering conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, plays in the hands of those who recruit extremists. We held this meeting on September 30 as part of Russia’s presidency in the Security Council. Over 80 delegations took part in this meeting, with most of them headed by foreign ministers. After the meeting Russia put forward a draft resolution that focuses on the very issues we are now discussing: creating a coalition under the aegis of the UN that would be guided in its operations by the UN Charter and resolutions of the UN Security Council, subject to consent from the countries where military action should take place, and that would regularly report to the UN Security Council on such coordinated efforts.
Even though it is difficult to argue against this approach, our Western colleagues have so far been avoiding any serious discussion on this issue, telling us behind the scenes that while they agree with the resolution, they cannot work with us on this issue for political reasons. And what are those political reasons? A legitimate coalition for fighting terrorists in Iraq has already been created, since the Iraqi government has asked for it. However, it has no right to operate in Syria for the same work. That’s all there is to it. They think that they do not need to take the issue to the UN Security Council. This way they can decide on their own, without having to talk to Russia, China, Venezuela and some other countries in the UN Security Council, who are not always eager to back their initiatives.
The UN General Assembly has been held. We have prepared and held a UN Security Council meeting on fighting terrorism in full compliance with the UN Charter, respecting the UN prerogatives and the authority of the UN Security Council as the main body responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Our American partners have also held a meeting on fighting terrorism at the UN headquarters, although it was not related in any way whatsoever to the UN Charter or the UN rules of procedure. They simply invited those who they wanted to see at the meeting. Russia was also invited to attend and was present at the meeting. A number of considerations arise in this respect. First, why should an event like this be held without regard for the UN General Assembly Rules of Procedure and not be related to the UN in any way except for the venue? My second point is about the invitation list. I’m unable to grasp why some were left off. For example, Kosovo representatives were invited, just like any other UN member state, and had their place at the table with a name plate for their country, which was a big let-down for the Secretary-General, who was invited to deliver opening remarks, and the United Nations in general.
Let me remind you that when we worked in 2008 on overcoming the consequences of Georgia’s aggression in South Ossetia, mechanisms were put in place in Geneva enabling Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia, assisted by Russia, the US, the EU, the UN and the OSCE, to discuss security and humanitarian issues, including refugees. It goes without saying that the discussion was quite complex and difficult, as it took place in the immediate aftermath of a bloody conflict. Suddenly, Georgia submitted a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly, demanding that all refugees return from Georgia to South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they used to live, i.e. those who fled from the conflict to Georgia from the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia responded by saying that “if you do not want to discuss this issue in the agreed upon place, let us come to New York and present our point of view during the discussion of this draft resolution.” It all depended on whether the United States would grant visas to the representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The US refused to do so. But now, seeking to enable an unrecognised structure called Kosovo to become a UN member, they have abused their status as the host country of the UN headquarters, granted Kosovo representatives visas and brought them to the UN headquarters without applying for a pass with the UN Secretariat. This is reflective of their attitude towards the Organisation.
I understand that it is probably easier to invite those who obey any orders and work with them on various solutions, while posturing as representing the will of the international community and an international coalition.
Of course, it is much more challenging to reach agreements in the UN with Russia, China and many other developing countries, who are independent in their foreign policy choices. Of course, this is much more complicated and requires more time. However, compromises and agreements with those who do not necessarily share your views last much longer and are more effective.
Question: Are you sure that you have correctly assessed all foreign policy risks and that in the new geopolitical reality that started on 30 September this year we have 100-per cent reliable, staunch allies, for example, in the post-Soviet space?
Sergey Lavrov: We have allies in the post-Soviet area, in the CSTO. They have an independent foreign policy outside their CSTO obligations. They have a multi-vector foreign policy, just as we do. We are not shutting ourselves off from anyone. The opposite is the case.
Now our partners are starting to understand that their policy in terms of sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia have reached a dead end. Isolation, huh? President Vladimir Putin has just been in New York City. There was not a sign of isolation there; everyone was eager to talk; over 10 meetings took place in a few hours. Even now that our partners are seeing the futility of their present policy, we are not turning away from them. You are not ready to address concrete issues concerning interaction between our agencies (they have frozen all contacts between military and law enforcement agencies; the EU has put on hold virtually all dialogues between Moscow and Brussels), let’s address issues that you are ready to address. For instance, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini, with whom we regularly meet on the sidelines of routine international events, has been unable to come to Moscow yet because somebody is holding her. The majority are ready to support her visit to Moscow, but certain countries are clutching at the principle of consensus, so-called solidarity…
Question: It has even been suggested that there is something like a Washington dictate – judging from remarks by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said recently that relations with Russia should be improved. “It is not sexy but that must be the case, we can't go on like this,” he said.
Sergey Lavrov: This morning I was amazed to read a quote from a speech by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who said that in the interests of the United States Bulgaria has abandoned energy projects with Russia, including South Stream, a nuclear power plant and the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project, and now the United States should help Bulgaria to get a visa-free regime and more. Amazing.
Question: And NATO should help Kiev to establish control over Bulgaria’s airspace.
Sergey Lavrov: Perhaps. It’s just amazing how people are not embarrassed to make such remarks. I personally would be ashamed before the electorate, my people.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to assess all of the risks. Foreign policy should of course be pragmatic and pursue goals that are not destructive but creative. This holds true for any country. However, for a country such as Russia, for any major country that has self-respect, foreign policy should also rely on the principle of dignity, respect for one’s people, one’s history, respect for one’s culture and convictions, as far as possible. We seek to combine pragmatism and a sense of existence as a power, as a country that has always upheld justice. This sense of justice in international affairs, as well as in life in general, is very important. I will say that it is not an impediment to pragmatic results. On the contrary, when people see that you look for some objective benefit, which is necessary for your country, while upholding the principles of equality and justice on the international arena, respect and support for such an approach grows in the world.
Question: Is the Russia hate plaguing our European, Baltic and other partners a curable disease?
Sergey Lavrov: It is. I think we should simply speak with one another more and not avoid the most contentious conversations. Talking with a person directly, letting him say all the negative things he wants to say, and then responding is always better than to hear Russophobic statements from a rostrum and then to respond through a megaphone from another rostrum. It’s always a bad option.
Question: So, it looks like we have two information fronts – the “Syrian” and the “Ukrainian” – open against us. The “Ukrainian front,” incidentally, keeps making the news from time to time. As for Syria, crude analogies are drawn between it and Afghanistan: Russia allegedly will get bogged down, quarrel with everyone, etc. A Ukrainian career diplomat, Andrei Melnik, if I am not mistaken, repeatedly hinted in recent time that “Donbass is on the verge of another conflagration.”
Sergey Lavrov: Perhaps personages like him are quite eager to see “another conflagration,” because in that case they can distract people from developments in the economy and the social sphere and from their inability to curb corruption. Then they won’t have to reply to questions about the billions of IMF dollars that disappeared, about the banks that manipulated this money, about the oligarchs who put it in their pockets, or the offshores where it was channeled. Thus, there are people with a vested interest in a “conflagration.” As for us, we want Kiev to meet its commitments and implement all that it agreed to in Minsk via a direct dialogue with Donbass. I am referring to the constitutional reform, a permanent special status for Donbass, amnesty and so on. I am also referring to the need to coordinate with Donbass issues related to holding local elections in the self-proclaimed republics. They should talk with each other directly. This is the key to the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, and as for that matter, to settling the crisis in Syria. There are two information fields but one and the same key to the settlements. The authorities and the opposition should negotiate. The difference between the two cases is that in Ukraine the authorities are seeking to evade direct dialogue and are attempting to force certain decisions, while some Western countries are playing up to them. In Syria, the West is playing up to the opposition, which doesn’t want to talk with Bashar al-Assad. However, any conflict is only settled via a direct dialogue.
In this connection, let me remind them – if they believe, as they say, that Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant with blood-stained hands, with whom they can’t sit down at the negotiating table – how the Americans have continued working with the Taliban. After the Taliban as an organisation and many of its leaders personally were put on the UN Security Council’s terrorist list, the Americans, without a moment’s hesitation, opened a direct dialogue channel with them – in Doha, I think. When US President Barack Obama was criticised for talking with terrorists, he said: You don’t negotiate with friends, you negotiate with the enemies. Thus, this principle is inapplicable to other situations, where the Americans have a different agenda. Here we have the same double standards.