Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia S.Lavrov for the CBS, Moscow, June 7, 2013
Question: Mr.Lavrov, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us. Let's talk a little bit about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. What do you see as the greatest challenges to that relationship currently?
S.Lavrov: Well, I don't see any challenges which are not insurmountable. I believe that after some pause and some irritators, which appeared rather officially in our relationship some time ago, both presidents are keen to move forward. And that was the message President Obama sent to President Putin earlier this year. The President of the Russian Federation reciprocated in the same way. We are prepared to go as far as the United States is, of course, on the basis of mutual interests searching for balance between the interest of the two countries and on the basis of equality and respect to each other's positions. Within these parameters anything is possible. And the two presidents pay special attention, which they agreed to do actually one year ago in Los Cabos, to improve radically the economic part of our cooperation. There are conditions for this.
There is interest on both sides - American and Russian business. We need much more investments. The two presidents agreed, and I think this should be materialized soon, to establish some kind of flexible, informal mechanism to monitor the conditions for doing business in Russia and in the United States. Because our businesses encounter, sometimes a treatment which we don't believe, is really conducive to promoting mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
The hi-tech area is certainly something that we should want to deepen. The outer space is a case in point. Last year we managed to enter into force the “123 agreement”, which is about peaceful uses of nuclear energy. This opens up the prospects for respective companies to cooperate with each other including on the markets of third countries.
Humanitarian area is very important to promote a mutual trust and people-to-people contacts. Last year we marked the 200th anniversary of the first Russian settlement in California - Fort Ross. There are now plans to use this premise to establish a permanent Russian-American center of cultural heritage. And we also signed and ratified an agreement to facilitate the visa regime for tourists and businessmen. President Putin suggested to consider doing away with business all together for a short-term travel of our citizens. This was again reiterated during his last contact with President Obama. So I think, of course, without closing eyes on what still irritates our relations - missile defense is a case in point, some absolutely, I would say, unprecedented arrogant steps like the Magnitsky law, whereby the Congress took upon itself to be the judge of the Russian system, basically. This doesn't help at all. And we would have to redirect. This is the rule of politics and diplomacy in the international arena. But all this is taken into account, the two presidents are keen to build upon the positive foundation which we have managed to establish.
Question: It's no secret that Russia and the U.S. do not see eye to eye on the conflict in Syria. Has that put a strain on the relationship?
S.Lavrov: I thought we saw eye to eye when J.Kerry was here. I don't think we have any difference in the strategic approach to the situation in Syria or the situation in any other country. We want all countries to be stable, prosperous, democratic with the systems which reflect modern requirements of international law, but also reflect the traditions of the society so that we promote cultural plurality in the world. So we don't differ on the goals of what all of us want to achieve in helping the people in any country to realize their dreams, if you wish.
Question: But the U.S. Government has repeatedly spoken out against what it perceives as being Russia's support of the Assad regime?
S.Lavrov: Well, that's misperception. And misperceptions are used in today's diplomacy to build the public opinion the right way for those who want to achieve some geopolitical goals.
Question: How is that a misperception?
S.Lavrov: Russia repeatedly stated that we do not support anyone in Syria. We are not weathered to any personalities. President Assad was best friend of the French, the British and other European capitals. And that's a fact of life.
Question: But you've supplied them with weapons?
S.Lavrov: We supply weapons to all those who contracted legally. And this is the universal rule.
Question: Even if those weapons may be used to perpetrate war crimes?
S.Lavrov: I don't think you can perpetrate war crimes with defensive weapons, with air defense systems. I hope you also know about the volume and kind of weaponry sold by the United States to the countries of the region. And in quite a number of cases, those equipment and weaponry include things which you can use against a popular demonstrators.
Question: May I just read you a few elements from this list? This is a request from a Syrian army general to a Russian arms supplier from March of this year.
Question: Twenty thousand AK-47s, 200 000 mortar rounds, grenade launchers, millions of rounds of ammunition. These are not defensive weapons.
S.Lavrov: Are we discussing Syrian army requests or the substance of the contracts which we honor? I think those are two different things. And you have to make a difference.
Question: Were these weapons supplied to the Syrian army?
S.Lavrov: I have not seen this request. And this is not a contract to which we are committed. Those are two very different things. As I said, the international law does not prohibit legal supplies, legitimate supply of arms to any sovereign state without violating any international norms. Take a look at the existing international legal basis, recently a conference concluded which was initiated years ago by Britain and some other Western countries to negotiate and international treaty on arms trade. We have been very disappointed that the eventual text does not contain very firm language on making sure that arms do not get into the hands of those who were not authorized by the state, in other words the non-state actors. This treaty clearly says that you can no longer sell arms to the international players like countries, governments and you cannot sell arms to non-state actors. While this treaty was negotiated, the arms will continue to flow into the region, including into Syria through hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of the uncontrolled borders. And the people who fight the Syrian army, they're very well armed. The situation in the city of Qusayr was created by the fact that both sides were fighting with heavy weapon. The opposition used artillery and air defense system.
This is a tragedy. What must be done and that's where the U.S. and Russia see eye to eye is to do everything to stop it. You know that alongside with the opposition which is called Free Syrian Army terrorist organizations fight. And one of them was declared the terrorist organization by the United States - Jabhat an-Nusra. Immediately the political leaders of the opposition said it was a mistake and betrayal because Jabhat an-Nusra cannot be listed as terrorist organization as long as it fights the regime.
I think that I don't even need to qualify this kind of attitude to what is going on. When J. Kerry was in Moscow on the 7th of May we were absolutely united that we all must concentrate on bringing the parties to a negotiating table to implement during those negotiations, what was agreed in Geneva on the 30th of June last year.
Question: The peace conference that was slated for June now looks it will take place in July. Why the delay?
S.Lavrov: I don't know. You have to interview J.Kerry and his officials, because we promised to make sure that the government participates in the conference and the government said so.
Question: So it's the opposition who are lagging?
S.Lavrov: Yes. Well, that's, I believe, all over the media. And the American officials recognize that the national coalition on which some outside sponsors want to put all the money is not ready not even to negotiate, but to decide who is in charge in this coalition. And this is very unfortunate because there are constructive groups including those who never left Syria and spent all these years together with the Syrian people, who are in harsher position to the Assad regime and who want to participate in this conference and who, unlike the coalition, have a constructive agenda. They have the vision as to what kind of Syria they would like to see.
I met with the former chief of the coalition M.Khatib in February in Munich in margine of the security conference. I liked the guy. I think he's the patriot and a very responsible politician. I suggested that instead of trying to get united only around regime change slogan, they should also present some positive agenda for their country.
Question: And you've been successful in that endeavor?
S.Lavrov: I don't think so. I never saw anything coming from the coalition which would say “this is Syria which we would like to build with all ethnic minorities, with all religious groups feeling comfortable, with all citizens being equal” and so on and so forth.
This never came from the coalition which is busy, as I said, by trying to decide who is in charge. And we certainly believe that the entire spectrum of the Syrian society must be present. The supreme Kurdish council of Syria absolutely insist that they must be there.
I believe that it is in the interest of all of us to make sure that this is the case. Because we want Syria to stay united, one piece, sovereign territorial integrity respected. And for this you need to have Kurds among other at the negotiating table.
Question: Do you believe that President Assad should step down?
S.Lavrov: This is not for me to decide, this is for the Syrian people to decide.
Question: Do you believe this regime has perpetrated war crimes?
S.Lavrov: I believe that there are signs that war crimes have been perpetrated by so many people in Syria and that this must be investigated. This is what we agreed in Geneva on the 30th of June last year. But we have to understand our priorities. If our priority is to punish people, then, of course, you can say that unless President Assad steps down, unless international criminal court considers this case we would not be ready for negotiation. That's what the coalition and some other opposition figures are saying. But then revenge and punishment is the priority number one. Our priority is to stop violence and to save more lives. And for this, you have to put everything else on the back burner. Everything can wait. The immediate task is to make sure that they sit down and start negotiations. The government said they are ready. They said that they have a delegation. The foreign minister would be the head of the delegation. We believe that the opposition must do the same as soon as possible. Those who sponsor the opposition must make all efforts to use their influence for good purposes. You know, because sometimes we hear statements like (actually some White House representative said the other day) that the U.S. will continue to support the political and armed opposition because what is needed is to restore the military balance on the ground. If this is the logic of moving things forward, then I'm not very optimistic.
Question: I've spent quite a bit of time on the ground inside rebel held parts of Syria. And I've seen fighter jets dropping bombs strapped to parachutes falling onto civilian areas, civilian casualties, women and children. And I wanted to ask you, have you ever even privately condemned the regime for bombarding its own people?
S.Lavrov: Not only privately, we did it publicly. We condemn all use of force which makes civilians to suffer. We do this irrespective of whether this is done by those whom we like or dislike politically. We were condemning what our Western friends call a “collateral damage” in Libya when civilians were dying.We were condemning the “collateral damage” in Iraq. And we were condemning the use of force by the regimes when the civilians suffered be it Libya, be it Syria, be it any other country. But you have really to be consistent and you have to understand that the opposition is not just peaceful civilians.
Question: But it started that way. I was there. I was at those protests.
S.Lavrov: It started the way it started. And if we now want to get onto the business of who is to blame and not being able to lift a finger to stop the violence before we decide who is to blame, then I'm afraid we would be in for a very, very difficult and long tragedy.
If we are willing to do everything to stop this and to save lives, then we have to really agree on our priorities. Justice must be done. But justice can wait until we stop this. You cannot really say we would not we would not help stop the bloodshed until we have this guy in the court.
Question: Do you ever worry that you've backed the wrong horse?
S.Lavrov: No, we are not cynical enough, you know, to use this type of analogy to describe a very tragic situation. We are not whether to President Assad and people know this. And when we discuss things privately with my colleagues including those who publicly make statements which are catching eye, you know, of the viewers and creating a very simplistic picture of what is going on, when we talk to them privately, they understand fully what is going on. But they say, "You must understand that very early in the conflict we said he must go. And now we cannot eat our hat." Okay, we have to choose. Either you think about your reputation because you made the wrong statement two years ago or you think about achieving real result, which would save lives. And then you can use any eye-catchers like backing the horse or something else.
Question: Wrong side of history?
S.Lavrov: Wrong side of history, yes, we've heard of this. And we were also told that we had lost the Arab world. Well, come to put mildly that this is wrong, because we work, probably, we're the only country who works with all spectrum of the Syrians, including all groups of the opposition, including the armed opposition. And we understand that those of them who think about their country would be really brought together and a compromise could be reached. So, that not just the opposition who says, "Well, negotiations are good, but the only purpose to go to Geneva is for the government to deliver the full authority and to give it to us”. This is not going to work because this not what we agreed. Last year in Geneva we said that government and the opposition must decide the composition of this transitional governing organ by mutual consent and because apart from this coalition there are people who, as I said, never left Syria and who suffered, they lived through all this difficulties together with their people. They have the right to express their view of what kind of future they want for their country.
Question: Some analysts have suggested that Russia's stance on Syria may be a knee jerk reaction to what it perceives as U.S. meddling in other nation's affairs. Do you think that's fair?
S.Lavrov: No, I think, this is again something which analysts invent to have something which would sell on TV, the newspapers and other media. We don't build our foreign policy on the basis of this kind of judgment. We try to be consistent. And as we were condemning the way NATO used the Security Council mandate in Libya by the same token we condemn those people who made a support to Libya when this people are trying to get to power in Mali now. And our French colleagues who were supplying the Libyan rebels with arms are now fighting them in Mali and countering the French equipment which is used against them.
Question: You see a hypocrisy in the West?
S.Lavrov: I see double standards, if you wish. You either deny terrorists any acceptance in the international life or you make your double standard policy work the way it has been working. "I don't like this guy in this country so we would be calling him a dictator and topple him. This guy in another country is also dictatorial. But he's our dictator". To put this a bit differently than one famous American said about bad guys who were “our bad guys”. We have to take a look at the comprehensive picture of what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa and down south the Sahel region. What is going on is radicalization of politics, extremists being harbored from Libya, arms and combatants are infiltrating into Mali and some other countries in the region. And you either make your picking on the basis of whom you like and whom you don't. Or you agree that there is a common enemy in the person of international terrorism. I think you must be consistent.
Question: Do you see President Assad in that sense as an ally of Russia's?
S.Lavrov: We see an ally in all those who want the Syrian war to stop.
Question: And do you believe President Assad wants that?
S.Lavrov: For this you have to make sure that the opposition expresses its readiness to go to this conference. Because he said his delegation is ready and to call him bluff, you need to see whether the opposition is coming or not.
Question: But what do you believe?
S.Lavrov: Well, I believe he would send a delegation.
Question: And do you believe that he wants peace in Syria?
S.Lavrov: I'm not in the business of believing. I'm in the business of verifying. We wouldn't know whether this conference has a chance until the time the delegation sit down at the table with the outside circle pushing them into their bets and not allowing them to leave this table until they agree.
Question: You're in a unique position, though. Russia has great influence on the Syrian regime. Do you feel the weight of that responsibility?
S.Lavrov: Yes. No doubt about it.
Question: And when you see the regime using ballistic missiles against its own people, killing hundreds, taking out entire city blocks…
S.Lavrov: We cannot have responsibility for what regime is doing. And as I've said, we condemn any abuse of international humanitarian law. We feel responsibility and bear this responsibility as the Russian Federation who is co-sponsoring an important international meeting together with the United States. We delivered what we promised. Namely, the government consent to send the delegation to his conference. For all other responsibilities, be it the regime, be it the opposition, be it the outside sponsors of the opposition, you have to talk to those who have influence on this on this groups of people.
Question: Let me just talk about another issue. I just wanted to talk to you quickly about the Boston bombings. Do you see this an opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate further on counter terrorism efforts?
S.Lavrov: Well, I think we have always been in favor of this cooperation to be deepened. We have a saying “You might not have luck but bad luck helped” (не было бы счастья, да несчастье помогло). I think when President Putin just immediately after 9/11tragedy called his American counterpart and expressed his condolences and readiness to help, I believe the two presidents have a very good conversation and agreed in the context of what we just discussed about what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa. They agreed that there should be no double standards in fighting terrorism.
Normally people don't draw lessons from past history. But I think 9/11 is still very fresh in the minds of the Americans and all others to forget the fact that when the U.S. back last century in the 1970s and 1980s was supporting Mujahideens in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. Then this Mujahideens gave rise to Al Queda, and then Al Queda struck back. We have to be consistent. And I hope that this terrorist attack in Boston would improve the cooperation of the coordination between our agencies. Immediately after the Boston terrorist attack we arranged for the FBI to visit Makhachkala to talk to the family of the Tzarnaev brothers. Director of FBI, Mr. Mueller, visited us last month and had useful discussions with his colleagues and other special services and intelligence communities, cooperated very closely on this particular case, but also trying to establish priorities for future cooperation in other cases.
Question: Some people have suggested the Boston bombers are an American issue. That they have no relation to Russian's own difficulties in the Caucuses. Do you see it as purely American incident or?
S.Lavrov: Well, some 15 years ago the Americans called those who were trying to establish a Sharia law in the Chechnya Republic just like they did Mujahideen in Afghanistan – “freedom fighters”. Quite a number of them were given political asylum in the United States including a gentleman called I.Ahmadov, a very close associate of Basaev, who was recognized as a terrorist by the U.S. and by the United Nations. But I.Ahmadov still lives there and enjoys the status of political refugee. By the way, he was given political asylum by a Boston court decision. He writes books and receives subsidies from national endowment for democracy in spite of the fact that all necessary material on this particular person is available with the United States respective agencies.
So I think this will be changing. And the less we attempt it to use terrorist situations, I would say, to achieve one or another geopolitical goal different from fighting terrorism wherever it pops up, I think we would be doing right thing.
Question: Mr. Lavrov, thank you so much for your time. Do you think that more could've been done on both sides (on the U.S. and the Russian side) to pin down these men before the attacks happened?
S.Lavrov: Well, this was discussed broadly in the U.S. media. And it was not us who raised this issue in the public domain. But there were contacts a couple of years ago. And there were some warnings. But I don't want to get into the substance of this. I am not a professional on counter-terrorism in practical terms. But the legal basis for counter-terrorism, the politics which we promote on the basis of this legal understandings and legal norms are very important.
Question: But you're looking very closely to see what lessons have been learned. And I'm assuming it's sort of refocused Russian security forces on looking at Dagestan and Ingushetia.
S.Lavrov: Well, the terrorist manifestations still take place but in much less numbers than it used to be. I can assure that we have understanding with intelligence and special agencies of other countries including the U.S. to make certain that this would not be treated in isolation. Because it's all related - Afghanistan, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, some no man’s land Vaziristan between these two countries, then Central Asia, the Caucuses - it's all part of what we call terrorist international. And the sooner we stop calling terrorist good and bad and call them just terrorists the better is for the world.