Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Amanpour program on CNN International, Moscow, 12. October 2016
Question: Foreign Minister Lavrov, welcome to the programme.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you.
Question: We are here at an extraordinarily difficult and painful time: what’s happening in Syria has got the world very, very upset.
In the United Kingdom people are saying that this is the worst bombardment of civilians since the Nazis bombed Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
John Kerry has said that Russia and the Syrian regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, women and children. Why are you doing that?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I think all these statements have to be verified. Just as in the case of accusations regarding hacker attacks against the Democratic Party, we never got any confirmation of the accusations against us. We have been asking for facts, we have insisted on the investigation into the attack on the humanitarian convoy in Aleppo on September 19. And what my friend and new colleague Boris Johnson was saying was absolutely politicking, not…
Question: Accusing Russia of having hit that convoy?
Sergey Lavrov: Yeas, in the usual arrogant way. Boris is a Jack of all trades, as you know. Having served as a mayor he was a very good friend of Russia, and he was very famous at the Russian festivals in London. Now, I think, he is getting ready for becoming some maybe internationally recognised Prosecutor General in the Hague, especially after our British colleagues decided that the slogan “Yes, we can” should be supplemented by “And you cannot”, when they decided to remove the military from the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights. So some kind of clarity must be introduced into all these discussions. We are open for these discussions, we never cut connections, we want to discuss things and to arrive at some truth instead of accusing each other without any justification.
Question: Well, with respect, most of the world believes, having seen what’s going on, having satellite imagery and knowing that there are only two forces with the kind of air power around Aleppo, that is you and the Syrians with the barrel bombs, believe that you are involved and, at the very least, you are not stopping the Syrian air force and the barrel bombs. So again, I need to ask you, on behalf of the international community, why is it that Russia is targeting civilian infrastructure, or allowing the Syrians to do the same? And as you know, you are basically now being accused of war crimes.
Sergey Lavrov: Well, war crimes is something we can discuss in the appropriate structures and there are internationally recognised procedures for this, and it’s better to use them rather than the media to make yourself more visible, which is the goal of quite a number of my colleagues, unfortunately. On the investigation of the humanitarian convoy attack, the United Nations Secretary General launched the investigation and I strongly insist those who have any information related to what happened should respect the investigation and submit the information to the Secretary General of the United Nations.
On the demands, you know, to stop the fighting in Aleppo, you know, when Nusra and the people who are next to it, in Eastern Aleppo, in August and September categorically blocked all humanitarian supplies via Castello Road, by the way which was bombed severely yesterday, but when they said that they would attack any humanitarian convoy coming via Castello Road in August and September, no one raised a finger, no one got worried. When I mentioned about this to John Kerry and others, they said, we don’t remember that this was the case. I do remember. It was actually this ultimatum from Nusra and it alike was made when we were meeting with Kerry in Geneva on August 26. But the key problem is the total inability of the United States and those who are also members of the coalition led by the Americans to separate the moderates from Nusra. This is the key priority registered in the Russian-American initiative. And the American colleagues including John Brennan as early as February this year promised to us that they need two weeks to separate the moderates who are cooperating with the Coalition from Nusra. They never did. And now we have an impression what the Americans and others really want is to spare Nusra and to keep it in case they decide to use plan B.
Question: Mr Lavrov, I want to show you this picture. This went viral in August. This is a little boy, he’s got a name, he’s called Omran Daqneesh, he’s five years old. This is not a terrorist, this is a boy who is surrounded and besieged and bombarded in Aleppo. What do you say to the civilians who are simply asking for the right to not be bombed? That is a war crime, sir!
Sergey Lavrov: Well, as I said, war crimes must be investigated…
Question: But what do you say to people like that?
Sergey Lavrov: It is a tragedy, it is really a tragedy. And they must insist that the moderates who want to protect them must separate themselves from Nusra.
Question: So, can I ask you about that because you talk about US-Russia ceasefire, which collapsed after barely a week. We understand from the reports of people who have actually seen the paperwork that that was meant to be at least a week of ceasefire, the two of you were meant to jointly separate. But the ceasefire collapsed before there was even a week to aloud that time.
Sergey Lavrov: You know we insisted when Putin and Obama met in China on the September 6 that before any ceasefire can be in place, they must deliver on their very old promise to separate the moderates from Nusra. Eventually we agreed to accept the American approach, and we agreed to launch the ceasefire for seven days, during which they had to finish the separation of moderates from Nusra …
Question: We understand that it has to be after. But how can you separate if there is no cease-fire? The question is…
Sergey Lavrov: One second, one second. And we launched the cease-fire only to see the American coalition attacking Deir ez-Zor, the positions of the Syrian army for three days in this seven-day period. They said it was a mistake. But I read a statement of the US Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas, who said that this mistake in strike was being prepared for two full days and was based on very good intelligence. I don’t think you can easily avoid this situation, because immediately after this mistaken strike ISIL launched an offensive in Deir ez-Zor.
Question: But you’re surely not suggesting that the United States of America has any interest in empowering Islamic terrorists?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know.
Question: Mister Foreign Minister!
Sergey Lavrov: Look, al-Qaeda was born from the American support of mujahideens in Afghanistan. By the way, Nusra is another manifestation of al-Qaeda, according to the American list, according to the analysts. And ISIL was born after the American invasion of Iraq, as you know.
Question: Right. So, you don’t really think that they encouraged that? But anyway, let’s not get into that. I need to ask you this.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t want to suspect them in encouraging terrorism, but what they do as regards Nusra makes me very, very suspicious.
Question: Well, let me ask you, clearly you both have an interest presumably in getting some kind of peace, some kind of ceasefire. Do you still believe that there is a political solution to the war in Syria? Because now most people think that the very clever diplomat Sergey Lavrov has strung along John Kerry in order to be able to actually solidify facts on the ground on behalf of your client Bashar Assad and try to get Aleppo, so that he has a whole load of populated areas.
Sergey Lavrov: Well, speaking of you know who is whose client or else, we want to have a meeting of the countries who have direct influence on what is going on on that ground either by way of being there on the invitation of the Syrian government and without being invited, or having influence through financing, supplying arms, supporting those who fight the government.
Question: So, you have a plan for another meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that we have to stop relying on, you know, some emigrants who present themselves as representatives of the opposition. And this capricious High Negotiating Committee I believe has proven that it is absolutely irresponsible. And I am amazed that our western friends who created the group called Friends of Syria keep insisting that this High Negotiating Committee is the only opposition group to talk to.
Question: So you don’t accept them anymore?
Sergey Lavrov: No, we accept them. We invited them, we want to meet with them. They, you know, try to be important or to look important and they refused to meet with us until and unless Assad is gone, which is absolutely against the resolutions of the Security Council. But countries will have direct influence on the ground. They include, well, Russia and the United States, no doubt about this, but also three or four regional countries. And we would like to have a meeting in this narrow format to have a businesslike discussion, not another General Assembly-like debate.
Question: When do you plan to have this?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, it is scheduled to be this coming Saturday.
Question: So this is news?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, this is news, which I hope will not just remain news for a day or two, but which will launch a serious dialogue on the basis of the principles contained in the Russian-American deal, which was broadly welcomed, but which, unfortunately, was not launched, and they come back to the reasons. The violation of the ceasefire happened by the American coalition, who attacked the Syrian government, which they were not supposed to do and which they said they would never plan. But the very interesting and very specific criteria, which was not respected by the United States, was the deal described in the greatest detail regarding pulling back from Castello Road. The government from one side of the road, the opposition from another side of the road. The distances for heavy weaponry, for the personnel were agreed – a kilometre, a kilometre and a half, three kilometres, and so on and so forth.
And when we tried to relaunch the ceasefire, there was a deal that this would be part of it. Three-day quiet, humanitarian deliveries via Castello Road. And the Americans said that they cannot make sure that the opposition pulls back, which made us believe that they’re not so influential on the ground. That’s why the participation of the regional powers is very important. I think this would be more instrumental than just talking to the United States.
Question: Who do you mean by regional powers?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, several of them you would know.
Question: Iran? Saudi Arabia? Turkey?
Sergey Lavrov: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, probably.
Question: Foreign Minister, welcome back. We’re going to continue our conversation. I want to ask you, before I move on to the US-Russia hacking scandal, which is a crisis. About Syria, finally. You said you want more talks. What, though, is your military plan? You’ve always said that there is no military solution, but Russia looks like it is after a military solution – at the very least to capture Aleppo. So that Assad has that in the waning days of the Obama Administration. That is what the Americans believe. Is that your plan?
Sergey Lavrov: No. If you speak about Aleppo, we strongly supported the initiative by Staffan de Mistura, who proposed that Nusra should be invited to leave Eastern Aleppo with the weapons, in dignity, as he put it, even, you know, with all the Security Council decisions regarding no deals with terrorists, we supported de Mistura’s initiative for Nusra to leave and those moderates who want to leave together with Nusra, and for the moderates who would stay in Aleppo to sign up to the cessation of hostilities written down. This was actually the crux of our draft resolution which we put to a vote in the Security Council immediately after we blocked very one-sided French paper, but this Russian draft containing the support of de Mistura’s proposal was not supported and was voted against by all Western representatives and some other members of the Security Council. We still believe and we are convinced that this plan of de Mistura must be given a chance and we are working on it now with the people on the ground, and I hope that very soon we can hear some news because without separating terrorists, without getting terrorists out, let them go to Idlib, which is the capital of Nusra and be there, because it would be easier for all of us, you know, to rejoin forces against these groups. But otherwise I don’t think we can really expect the army of Syria to stop fighting Nusra, who is trying to use civilians as the human shield. We take all the necessary precautions and we will continue to take all necessary precautions to advise the Syrian army to be very specific and very targeted, you know, in its actions against Nusra. But Nusra cannot be tolerated, and we do not want to think [this] but we have to, that our partners in the region and in the United States and in Europe are trying to spare Nusra.
Question: That’s maybe what you think. There are obviously only about 900 Nusra people in Aleppo, according to the United Nations, 275,000 civilians, including women and children. You know, the only question is: do you want to be on the wrong side of history on this? Do you want to be supporting the massacre of civilians in this kind of situation? And is that what will make Russia great again in the Middle East, to be building some kind of base, some kind of footprint there on the backs, as it has been said, of the broken bodies of children, women and non-combatants?
Sergey Lavrov: It is exactly 250,000 civilians about whom we think when they say that if it takes getting a couple of thousand terrorists out of the city to save a quarter million lives, then let’s do it. And that is why de Mistura’s plan is something which we must promote. By the way we just two days ago… Nusra signed a deal with Ahrar al-Sham, which is not included on the United Nations’ terrorist list and which we believe must be revisited, like a couple of dozen other organisations whom Americans list as moderates. It is not acceptable that they are joining forces with Nusra, not only in Aleppo but in many other parts of Syria.
So, you know, when the Security Council decided on how to handle the Syrian crisis, there were several directions in which the international community needed to act. One was counterterrorism, another was cessation of hostilities, humanitarian issues and political process. And each of these directions must be addressed on its merits. There must be no preconditions, according to the Security Council. And regarding, you know, being on the right or wrong side of history or regarding, you know, statements like whether Russia is a great country, or whether Russia is a rogue state – with all respect, our Anglo-Saxon friends have centuries of tradition to decide, you know, who is a decent country, who is a great country and who is a rogue state. And they understand that in the present situation in the world, when the world is really becoming multipolar, they have a feeling that they are losing this ability to decide for everyone. This is a philosophical issue, we take it with patience, but this is painful for them, unfortunately. That’s why, you know, we prefer in politics to be guided not by hysterical statements, not by hysterical Russophobic rhetoric, but by a business-like approach. If we want to save lives, we have to be very pragmatic and very specific.
Question: All right, let’s move on to intervention in a different way. As you know, the United States has formally said that they have absolute confidence that it is Russia which is hacking and has hacked into the party, the Democrat Party emails and interfered in the democratic process. Today the Unites States has said that they will respond proportionally. Does that worry you?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, it’s flattering or course to get this kind of attention for a “regional power” as President Obama called us some time ago. Now everybody in the United States is saying that it is Russia which is running the United States presidential debate. It’s flattering, as I said, but it has nothing to be explained by the facts. We have not seen a single fact, a single proof and we have not seen any answer to the proposal which, almost in November 2015 the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office conveyed to the Department of Justice to start professional consultations on cybercrime.
When I told John Kerry that this proposal was made in November last year and I told him about this, I think, last August or July, he was amazed, he was surprised. He said, “What did we answer?” I said: “Nothing.” There was no answer, but when we reminded the Department of Justice about this formal proposal from the Russian Prosecutor General, they orally told us “We are not interested.”
You remember, the Americans were not interested. Russia warned the United States that the Tsarnaev brothers are dangerous more than one year before this incident. The FBI said “They are our citizens, don’t worry.” Fine, but my point is that if you want to discuss cybercrime, if you want to reduce cybercrime, you have to be professional, not russophobic.
Question: Let’s get back to the facts. You denied this… You know, the international committee denies this…
Sergey Lavrov: No, we didn’t deny this, they didn’t prove it.
Question: So you are not denying it?
Sergey Lavrov: Presumption of innocence!
Question: So you are not denying it?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I am trying to put myself in the shoes of the American politicians…
Question: Okay, so let me now say what you…
Sergey Lavrov: …and president Obama of course is a lawyer, if he has been educated…
Question: Right. So here is an American politician, the Republican Congressman Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee saying: “Vladimir Putin’s regime has crossed the line and you should know that the United States will not allow our political process or our future will be dictated by foreign adversaries.” So that is what they are saying. And you deny it or you say they haven’t proved it but what about motive? President Putin himself, when asked by Bloomberg, said: “Does it even matter who hacked this data from the campaign headquarters of Mrs Clinton? Is that really important? The important thing is the content that was given to the public, that was a public service.” So he has spoken on this.
Sergey Lavrov: Now that it entered the public domain, of course it is a known fact.
Question: Well, he is saying that it was a public service that this hacked stuff from the Democratic campaign came out into the public. But here is the next question. It appears that Russia is intervening on the side of one particular presidential candidate. Your own UN ambassador went to the Secretary General last month – he said it, and other diplomats have said it – and basically called on the carpet the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who made a speech about the danger of demagogues and mentioned people like Trump, and Prime Minister Orban and Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer, all these demagogic rippling populists in Europe, Trump was mentioned.
Sergey Lavrov: You mean the High Commission was demagogic?
Question: He criticised demagogues…
Sergey Lavrov: Then I believe he was demagogic.
Question: Well, my question is: Mr Churkin says he was ordered by headquarters, in other words by you, his boss to make this demarche to the UN Secretary General. Did you, and if so, why?
Sergey Lavrov: You started your question by saying “it appears”, and I believe that this is the right way to describe what is going on.
Question: But why would you ask your Ambassador to criticise someone who criticised Trump?
Sergey Lavrov: I’ll explain. When the High Commissioner for Human Rights made an absolutely inappropriate statement, because his position is not about passing a ruling, or passing judgment on sovereign states. His position is to protect human rights and this does not involve intervention in domestic affairs, it does not involve giving characteristics to foreign leaders. And this was the …
Question: Most of them are parties who have been accused of violating human rights…
Sergey Lavrov: You’ve mentioned Prime Minister Orban, you’ve mentioned some other leaders…
Question: One prime minister.
Sergey Lavrov: And what we told Vitaly Churkin to convey to the Secretary General was exactly what I’m telling you now, that it was totally inappropriate for High Commissioner for Human Rights to go well beyond his mandate, which is not passing judgment without any investigation into one or another political personality, period.
Question: Do you see how it looks?
Sergey Lavrov: The name of Prime Minister, the name of Donald Trump, or any other name was never mentioned, and it wasn’t above…
Question: That’s not what the diplomats dare say. They said you specifically mentioned them. And it looks like Russia is following along on this journey intervening on behalf of one candidate.
Sergey Lavrov: Christiane, if you listen to what diplomats say, then you have to analyse what my good friend Jean-Marc Ayrault is saying, what Boris Johnson is saying. They are really agitated, they cannot stop and I can very formally and very responsibly tell you that Vitaly Churkin received the instructions to make a demarche regarding the unacceptable behavior of the Human Rights Commissioner vis-à-vis his mandate. Not about any person because his job is to look into violations of human rights and he cannot himself decide who is right and who is wrong.
Question: Do you agree with what Hillary Clinton said during the last debate that clearly Russia has made it very clear that it does not want her to win the presidency. What do you expect if Hillary Clinton wins and you are seeing the polls moving.
Sergey Lavrov: I am not paid to be in the expectations business. What Hillary Clinton’s…
Question: No, in terms of as a president…
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot argue with Hillary Clinton, I worked with her as a Secretary of State, we signed the deal by the way 2012 on visa liberalisation, visa facilitation between the Russian and the American citizens which I believe is still quite useful. I cannot comment on what is going on in the United States presidential campaign. And, of course, I watch from time to time what they show on TV but it is up to the American people and we, you know…
Question: Are you worried about this proportional response that the White House is suggested is very happen?
Sergey Lavrov: It is really… It is not worth speculating. If they decided to do something, let them do it. But to say that Russia in interfering in the United States domestic matters is ridiculous. May I remind you and your viewers that a couple of years ago after the Ukrainian crisis, after this unconstitutional coup in Kiev the US Congress passed a law, I think the Ukraine Support Act, which instructed directly the State Department to support democratic NGOs, democratic civil society in Russia in order to make Russia more democratic. This is the direct instruction to the State Department to interfere in domestic matters of the Russian Federation. We never do this and we will never do this. And by the way when the Soviet Union and the United States established diplomatic relations, our countries exchanged notes. In those notes on the insistence of the United States, there was a commitment, an obligation by each of us not to interfere in domestic affairs of each other. And a couple of years ago we suggested to Washington to reiterate this pledge. They refused.
Question: I wanted just to end by asking you a big picture question. Relations seem to be very, very bad. I mean really bad between you and the United States. You have moved, Russian has moved missiles capable of nuclear warheads into Kaliningrad, which is, as we know, next to a couple of NATO countries. Your Defence Department has threatened any US military action in Syria saying it would be taken as a direct threat to Russian servicemen there and warned them not to do it. And your president has just pulled out of several agreements which were to do with disposing of the nuclear material plutonium. Is it going to get worse? I mean people are kind of worried. Is this a Cold War moment? Could this degenerate into an actual war between the two sides?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I don’t think so, it is not our intention at all. We read, of course, statements of the American military that war is inevitable with Russia. I leave this on their conscience. As regards deployment of weapons on our territory, this is our territory.
Question: It’s pretty scary.
Sergey Lavrov: Well, it’s our territory. But the plans of the United States not only to… they quadrupled, I think, the money allocated to support military deployment in Eastern Europe. Then they moved NATO infrastructure next to our borders. Now the American, I think, F-35’s, the latest planes will be equipped with the modern version of nuclear bombs. And they will be deployed on the Russian borders. And this is not the United States territory.
So it was not our intention, you know, to drop out of various treaties, which used to serve as cornerstones for strategic stability. But when the ABM treaty was abrogated by the United States, George Bush told Vladimir Putin: “I understand that you don’t like it but we are not enemies any more. So if you want to take any precautions, any counter measures, you are free to do so.” Unfortunately, this missile defence project became quite disturbing for global stability and the plans to basically put the European segment and Asian segment makes us very much concerned, because there is a clear attempt to gain one-sided advantage. As regards the plutonium agreement, I hope you know that the United States didn’t implement its obligations, because they couldn’t, they actually changed the method of utilising plutonium which was described in the agreement, and the agreement became invalid because the United States failed to implement its obligations. We did implement our obligations, and we will continue to do this. A couple of other agreements were about cooperation between Russia and the United States on nuclear issues, nuclear energy. But I explained to John Kerry, two and a half years ago, soon after Ukrainian crisis, when the Department of Energy sent a formal note to the Russian Federation, saying that under the circumstances they suspend all cooperation under these agreements. So two years past, nothing happened, they still don’t want to cooperate in spite of the fact that Kerry assured me that this was stupid and he would make sure that this is not the case that our cooperation on nuclear energy, on nuclear safety must not suffer. But, probably, nobody actually did anything. So, take it as just registering the factual situation, not as us dropping from something, which is live and important.
So, I just want to ask you a quick question. Van Cliburn, the Texan musician. Van Cliburn was very, very well-loved. A new book has come out about him and it sort of raises nostalgia for even during the Cold War there was this cultural, you know, joy between Russia and the United States. He was very well loved here, he was very well loved there. Tell me about that. When you think about that moment, how does it make you feel?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I feel sorry for what is happening now in Russian-American relations. I believe we have a lot in common with the US people, and at the level of ordinary people we normally find very good understanding. Politicians have their own agenda, but I can only reaffirm that it was not us who started this very unhealthy kind of relationship. And this started long before Ukraine, long before Syria. I had a chance some time ago to address this issue and let’s remember about the Magnitsky law, about what reaction was received from Washington after Snowden found himself on the Russian soil. President Obama even cancelled his bilateral visit to Moscow, because we did not extradite Snowden. And they really believed that we played a role in attracting him to Russia, and our security recruiting him. You know, it’s a ridiculous situation, because the guy was flying not to Russia, he was flying to some Latin American country, and as he took off from Hong Kong, as he was airborne, they deprived him of his passport and he received the formal notification that his passport is invalid. And we could not legally allow him to board any plane, we couldn’t allow him even to disembark in the Russian Federation, and so he was kept in the terminal, and then he addressed a request to give him some kind of asylum, or refuge, and this was granted. But this case alone triggered such a nervous reaction that, as I said, President Obama cancelled his visit to Moscow. So, being offended in politics, and not being able to measure your response, I think, sometimes brings us to very unfortunate mistakes.
Question: Foreign Minister, thank you very much indeed.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you.
Question: Can I just file one last question? One last question, a bit cheeky but I’m going to ask you. Russia had its own Pussy Riot moment. What do you think of Donald Trump’s Pussy Riot moment?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I don’t know whether this would… English is not my mother tongue and I don’t know whether I would sound decent. There are so many pussies around your presidential campaign on all sides that I prefer not to comment.
Question: Oh, my goodness! I wasn’t expecting that! All right, thank you again.