Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Moscow, April 12, 2017
This has been a long day. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and I held talks, followed by a lengthy meeting with President of Russia Vladimir Putin, which lasted for more than two hours.
The talks were detailed and frank, covering the whole range of issues that are key to our bilateral relations and interaction on international matters.
It was stated that the current stage in our bilateral relations and in the international situation is quite unstable. There are many issues, including those left by Barack Obama’s administration as delayed action mines. We are realists and understand that serious efforts are needed to overcome these barriers. We are clearly committed to undertaking these efforts, while expecting our US colleagues to do the same. Today, President of Russia Vladimir Putin once again reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to moving in this direction.
We are seeing attempts to impede our cooperation and even exacerbate the confrontation. We view this approach as short-sighted, especially since it has been proven time and again over the course of history that when Moscow and Washington work together, not only our nations, but the whole world stands to win.
We confirmed our shared commitment to an uncompromising struggle against international terrorism, the topic our presidents discussed during the course of several telephone conversations, including a telephone conversation on the night of April 3-4, when Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin to express condolences in connection with the terrorist attack in the St Petersburg metro.
Of course, in the context of the fight against terrorism we discussed the situation in Syria. We touched upon the incident that occurred after April 4 in Idlib in Syria when chemical weapons were used, followed by a US missile strike on a military airfield on April 7. As you know, we have repeatedly stated our assessments on this issue. Today we said that it is vitally important to conduct a thorough investigation into the incident, which has already become the subject of numerous speculations.
The Russian Federation urged the need to draw the attention of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at The Hague to the fact that it has all the powers needed to initiate such an investigation. We drew attention to the official letter of the Syrian government to the UN and OPCW asking for an immediate dispatch of a group of inspectors to carry out an impartial and objective investigation at the sites of the incidents in Idlib Province and at the airfield which has been struck. We saw that our American colleagues are ready to support such an investigation. We expect that the powers of the UN and the OPCW will be exercised without delay. In this connection we believe it is counter-productive to try to get the UN SC to pass a resolution which would be devoted not so much to investigating the incident as to legitimising the accusations which a priori blame official Damascus for what happened. We have other facts. I repeat, we are not trying to impose them on anyone. We want to see an objective, unbiased and honest investigation.
We also discussed the actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the US-led coalition in the context of the existing Memorandum on the Prevention of Incidents and Ensuring Flight Safety in Syria. As you know, Russia has suspended the Memorandum. Today Russian President Putin reaffirmed our readiness to resume compliance with the Memorandum provided there is a clear understanding of the main aims pursued by the US-led coalition air forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces, namely, the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other associated terrorist groups.
We also assume that the publicly declared line of Russia and the US ruling out the intention to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria or other states remains in force. We hope that the examples of Iraq, Libya and some other countries will serve as a potent warning against a repeat of such attempts somewhere else, including in the Middle East and North Africa. I would like to reiterate that our shared determination to destroy and defeat ISIS and other terrorists remains in force, which was fully confirmed today.
In addition to fighting terrorism in Syria and in the region as a whole we have a common interest in achieving a political settlement of the extremely complicated Syrian crisis. Russia and the US have over the past years led international efforts to find compromises, to bring all the participants of the internal Syrian conflict and external players to the negotiating table under the UN auspices. Today we agreed to continue bilateral interaction in order to move forward the multilateral process. We appreciate the fact that in addition to the Geneva process, in which we are fully involved together with the American colleagues, we also have the Astana venue, at which the American partners are present as observers.
Russia and the United States can do a great deal to help the international community settle conflicts in Yemen and Libya and also find a way to break the impasse in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. I am confident that continued contacts on these issues can be useful.
There is also the issue of Afghanistan. As you know, over the past few years we have used different formats to rally international support for the intra-Afghan settlement. The next such attempt will be undertaken in Moscow on April 14, at the so-called Moscow format meeting of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, including from Central Asia, to which American representatives have been invited. We hope that they will take part in this meeting in some capacity.
We also talked about the Ukrainian crisis. We have agreed that the 2015 Minsk Agreements must be implemented. We also recalled that under the previous US administration we put in place a system of bilateral consultations between Moscow and Washington, in addition to the four-party Normandy format. We sensed that the new US administration wishes to continue these bilateral contacts to help find practical ways towards the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. We will welcome such efforts. We are ready for this.
We also discussed the situation in the Korean Peninsula, which is a common concern. Russia and the United States stand for strict compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on this issue. Today we also talked about finding a way to break out of spiralling confrontation and creating conditions for negotiations and for finding political and diplomatic methods to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.
We also pointed out that Russia and the United States are responsible for military and political security at the global and regional levels. We touched base on the implementation of strategic stability and arms reduction treaties between our countries. We have agreed to end the pause in these processes, which occurred due to objective reasons connected with the change of the US administration. We hope to resume our contacts on bilateral strategic stability and arms control and that they will take place in a business-like and pragmatic manner with a view to ensuring strict compliance with our agreements.
We also talked about our economic cooperation. We see that both sides are interested in strengthening interaction and overcoming the current negative trend in the volume of our trade and investment, which has both objective and subjective causes. For our part, we proposed supporting the initiatives of our countries business communities, which would like the Russian authorities and the US administration to support direct contacts between them.
There is yet another agreement. We have arranged to appoint special representatives from our ministries – the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State – to analyse in detail the irritants that have piled up in our relations over recent years, primarily during the Obama administration’s term, and do it without emotion or any artificial exacerbations. I think this could certainly yield results and afford an opportunity to make our relations healthier, if both parties use a pragmatic approach.
Generally, I think that we all understand what a difficult situation has taken shape in our relations and in the world: there are too many people willing to try their hand at using the specifics of advanced communication technologies, cybersphere and the virtual world as a whole; some people abuse the capabilities provided by modern technology in a bid to further their unscrupulous political agenda. I think both the United States and Russia have enough sensible people who are able to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and be guided by the cardinal, rather than time-serving, interests of our peoples, countries, and the world community.
This is my feeling after the talks we held. Despite the number of existing problems, both real and artificially created, there are quite a few prospects for cooperation. Russia is open not only to a dialogue with the United States in the most different areas but also to joint actions directed at achieving results in spheres that meet the interests of both countries. Of course, we will expect reciprocity from the United States. I am confident that today’s meeting and the many hours we spent with Rex Tillerson and with the President of Russia, were not in vain. We better understand each other after what we have done together today. I hope that these contacts will continue both directly between us and our staffs and between other US and Russian government agencies.
Question (addressed to Rex Tillerson): We have heard not just contradictory but also aggressive statements from Washington in the past few days. I am referring to President Donald Trump calling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad an animal, and statements by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who compared al-Assad to Hitler and said that Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons. How can statements like these help promote our diplomatic goals? When can we expect this rhetoric to change?
Sergey Lavrov (adding after Rex Tillerson): I would like to say a few words. This (investigation into chemical attacks in Syria) is indeed a subject on which we diverge, because Russia is insisting on an objective investigation. In 2013, Russia and the United States jointly initiated the liquidation of chemical weapons in Syria. Agreements to this effect were drafted in a record short time at the OPCW in The Hague and at the UN Security Council. The OPCW prepared reports that recorded the progress in eliminating all chemical stockpiles. But they also recorded a problem, pointing out that several places where chemical weapons were stockpiled were controlled by extremists. The process is underway between Damascus and The Hague, although not without difficulties. We are using our relations with the Syrian government to encourage full cooperation on this issue. We are committed to completing this work, and we will complete it.
As for investigations into the use of chemical weapons, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) is in Syria as is the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). We have questions for these bodies, because all of the accusations regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government are based on the so-called remote testimony of some NGOs. I will not talk again about the notorious White Helmets, which have fully discredited themselves with reports that have been exposed as fake many times.
As for testimony regarding the use of chemical weapons in the opposition controlled territory, the Syrian government and the Russian military in Syria have, several times, sent material evidence, including samples, for analysts at the OPCW. This was not remote testimony but material evidence. But the analysis of the evidence we sent to The Hague is taking too long.
As I said, I am not trying to accuse or protect anyone. We just insist on an objective investigation into the April 4 tragedy. As has happened before, the attack “chanced” to coincide with the Syria conference convened at the EU initiative in Brussels. When the alleged use of chemical weapons in Idlib was reported shortly before the conference, many participants demanded loudly and actively that the conference, which was called to discuss the entire range of settlement issues in Syria, be devoted to the chemical attack. Considering the ballyhoo and tensions in the media, on the political stage and in the international community as a whole, we believe that there should be a sober, objective and independent international investigation into the tragedy. An international group of unbiased and professional experts must be sent to the site where the chemical weapons were allegedly used and also to the airfield from which, to believe our American colleagues, aircraft with chemical bombs took off. We have not seen any evidence that this was so. At the same time, the TV footage and testimony by people who were at the airfield immediately after the planes took off and after the air strike was delivered at the airfield did not reveal any evidence of the presence of chemical weapons there.
I apologise for this long comment, but I just wanted to express our complete conviction that if our colleagues at the UN and in The Hague avoid launching an investigation, this will mean that they don’t want to establish the truth. We will continue to insist on this investigation.
Question (addressed to both ministers): How would you compel Assad to participate in a political transition? Your government and the United States government seem to be miles apart on the Syria issue and Ukraine. Did you feel that you have cleared up any of those issues during today’s discussions?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Rex Tillerson): For my part, I would like to say that I do not believe there is an insuperable distance between us and the US on many issues on the international agenda. This applies to Syria and Ukraine. In our opening remarks Secretary Tillerson and I mentioned the agreements that would not merely preserve, but intensify our communications channels on Syria and Ukraine.
As for the issue of Syria, including Bashar Assad, today we looked back at the history of the matter, and Rex Tillerson said that he is a new man and prefers not to delve into history, but to deal with today’s problems. However, the world is such a place that unless we draw lessons from the past we are unlikely to succeed in the present. I recalled the situations when a group of states, above all the Western countries, NATO members were absolutely fixated on liquidating this or that dictator, an authoritarian or totalitarian leader. In order to remove the President of the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, NATO unleashed a war in the centre of Europe in 1999 in flagrant violation of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE. They bombed, by the way, the TV centre, which is a war crime according to all the interpretations of the Geneva Conventions, and residential neighbourhoods. The Chinese Embassy was attacked, and bridges and passenger trains were bombed for almost three months. In the end, when they ran out of ammunition and targets that could, if only by a stretch, be described as dual-purpose targets, they went to the UN Security Council.
Another example, another dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was hanged after the invasion (of Iraq). We all know how the invasion was justified. Since then only Tony Blair, I think, has repented publicly admitting that all the pretexts for invading Iraq were fakes. You know as well as we do where Iraq is today.
Then there was Muammar Gaddafi. It was declared that the dictator had no place in his country and that democracy had to triumph. We also know what is happening in Libya today. Libya’s statehood is under a big question mark and the US and we and other partners (Russian President Putin and Italian President Mattarella discussed this yesterday) are trying to restore the Libyan state through national reconciliation, trying to put an end to the situation when the country has turned into a channel for illegal migration and slave trade, as your fellow media people reported today.
Turning to more recent examples, it is worth recalling Sudan whose President, Omar al-Bashir, was put on the wanted list by the International Criminal Court, and several years later the Obama administration decided that in order to settle the Sudan problem the country had to be divided into two parts. They created South Sudan and they begged us to help secure the consent of President al-Bashir, whom the US wants to see at the Criminal Court, not to object to the division of Sudan into two states. President al-Bashir kept his word and started cooperating with the international community. Sudan was divided into two parts according to the Obama administration’s plan only for Washington last year to start calling for sanctions against South Sudan, which it itself had created.
So, this kind of experiments based on the obsession with replacing a dictator, totalitarian or authoritarian leader – we’ve been there before. We know only too well what the outcome is. I cannot think of any positive examples of a dictator being toppled and things going smoothly afterwards. If there are such instances I would appreciate it if you tell me about them.
So in Syria, as President Putin has stressed repeatedly, we are not backing any particular person, be it President Assad or somebody else, like they are backing al-Sarraj or Haftar in Libya. We want to see them sit down and talk. The same is true of Syria. All the Syrians, as the UN Security Council resolution says, must sit down and come to an agreement. It should be an inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue. The fate of Syria, as the UNSC resolution says, should be determined by the Syrians themselves without any exceptions. The most important thing is not to remove this or that individual from the political scene, but to agree on the organisation of the Syrian state so that it is democratic and secular (which is opposed by the so-called High Negotiations Committee), so that all the ethnic and religious groups feel protected and fairly represented in the governing bodies. I assure you, as soon as such a consensus is reached, and this should be done by drafting a new constitution, the questions about the fate of individual personalities will be solved far more effectively and without any tragic consequences for the state, the country and the people.
Question: Did you discuss the alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections? How do Russia’s actions in cyberspace differ from those of the United States? We know from US media reports that the Iranian nuclear programme was derailed with the help of US-created Stuxnet virus. Right now, the United States is using the same methods and its cyberweapons in order to stop the North Korean missile programme.
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Rex Tillerson): We have a stake in close cooperation in fighting cybercrime. You may have heard us speaking about that on numerous occasions. In October 2015, one and a half year ago, given the Obama administration’s concern over the actions of so-called Russian hackers, whom they began to chase all over the world and illegally, without activating the legal procedures existing between Moscow and Washington, brought them to the United States, where they faced court prosecution, we proposed that [the Russian Government] and the Obama administration start cooperation, encourage competent authorities to hold special contacts, and create a bilateral mechanism that would exchange online information on who, how and when is trying to breach the existing international and national laws applicable in Russia or the United States. We said as early as then that we were not interested in our citizens committing cybercrimes. The Obama administration turned down our proposal by giving no response at all. But last November, before the very end of their cadence, they said a meeting could be held after all. As is natural, our colleagues in the relevant sphere agreed right away but at the eleventh hour the Obama administration changed its mind. In all evidence, they were busy doing as much damage to Russian-US relations as possible before the new administration took office.
Today we said that, in fact, our interest is not only alive but actually is as urgent as ever. We offered to resume contacts between special representatives of the Russian President and the US administration and between the relevant agencies. We could only welcome these contacts. We felt that this time these efforts would result in the creation of a certain channel.
Question (addressed to both ministers): You said a working group would be established or a special representative would be appointed to normalise relations. Will the bilateral Presidential Commission be revived?
Sergey Lavrov: We haven’t touched upon this subject. The Presidential Commission was buried by President Barack Obama. I hope it can still be resuscitated in one form or another. But we are planning to create channels to review problems in bilateral relations regardless of any umbrella structure. We will just assign people who will calmly sit down and analyse where we still have problems, where we have grievances against each other, and whether we are right to have them. They will see how we can overcome problems, primarily those that have been created artificially.
Question (addressed to Rex Tillerson): Secretary Tillerson, did you discuss today with President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov sanctions or other concessions that the United States might make in exchange for a change in behaviour from the Russian Government? And also, speaking about what you just answered previously, did you present to President Putin or the Foreign Minister specific evidence the Russian Government interfered in the US election?
And to Foreign Minister Lavrov, if an independent investigation finds the Assad government attacked his own people with chemical weapons, what will Russia do? President Putin says there’s an effort to blame Assad and plant evidence. Did you present that evidence to Secretary Tillerson today, and would Russia refuse to consider to agree to any circumstance that results in the ousting of Bashar al-Assad?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Rex Tillerson): Secretary Tillerson did not threaten us with sanctions today. In fact, he did not threaten us with anything. We had a frank discussion on the issues on our agenda, including those on which we diverge, which is the majority of issues.
As for what would happen if an investigation found that the Syrian government was involved in the chemical attacks, I consider this to be a hypothetical question. We don’t want to read tea leaves, as did those who went into hysterics on the need to bomb Syria to smithereens. The US Senate and House of Representatives have made such calls after the US air strike on the Syrian airfield. We don’t want to speculate on serious matters such as the use of chemical weapons, or the attempts to protect someone or to stage chemical attacks. We want to establish the truth in strict compliance with the US and Russian laws and the laws of any normal country. We must respect the principle of the presumption of innocence. As I said, if attempts are made to put the brakes on our official proposal for an objective and unbiased investigation, which we have forwarded to The Hague today, we will make proper conclusions with regard to those who use the brakes.
As for the allegation made here that the US administration has irrefutable proof of Russia’s interference in the US election, I have to say yet again that we have not yet seen a single fact or even a semblance of fact. I don’t know who has seen them. Nobody has shown us anything and nobody has told us anything, although we asked more than once to see the facts that allegedly prove these unsubstantiated accusations.
As I said today, we know that there are many people who would like to derail our relations in order to promote their domestic and possibly foreign policy ambitions. This is a game with defective goals and damnable results. Give us concrete evidence, and we will be ready to respond.
Question (addressed to both ministers): The United States has dispatched the Carl Vinson Strike Group to the Korean Peninsula. Did you discuss this at the talks? What risks could this pose for the region?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Rex Tillerson): I can only repeat that our discussions included the situation in the Korean Peninsula and around it. I have concluded that despite numerous nuances, which may be very important, there is a common desire to settle this problem by exclusively peaceful political methods and to denuclearise the peninsula through talks. The parties to what we used to describe as the six-party talks are taking certain efforts towards this. Our Chinese colleagues and we have formulated certain initiatives. We need to come together if we wish to settle this issue exclusively by peaceful means.
Question: President Trump has called Bashar al-Assad an animal. This is the leader your government continues to back. Can you tell us how long Russia will be willing to risk the lives of its soldiers and spend its money to protect him?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Rex Tillerson): I can only repeat that, just as in the case of the so-called Russian hackers, so in the case of the chemical attacks in Syria, we would like to see not just numerous claims but also some material evidence. We haven’t seen such evidence as yet. Once again, Russia is in Syria at the request of the legitimate government of a UN member state, against which the UN Security Council has not adopted any sanctions. We are there to fight terrorism. It is in our interest to prevent ISIS and al-Nusra from seizing power in Damascus. If you look at the facts, you will see that in the past 18 months the international coalition created by President Obama did nothing to attain its stated goal. It did not fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra actively, effectively, persistently and consistently until Russia’s Aerospace Forces were deployed in Syria. And even after that but still during President Obama’s term, the US-led coalition only delivered strikes on selected ISIS positions. Jabhat al-Nusra has always been spared. We strongly suspect, and nobody has dispelled this suspicion so far, that al-Nusra is being spared so as to enact Plan B to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. I have mentioned the potential consequences of such an action. We have seen this in Iraq and Libya. I hope that those who can draw lessons from history will prevail.
Of course, we need to know who committed crimes in Syria and what crimes these were. As one of my American colleagues has recently said, there is a time for everything. We need to determine our priorities. It was recently said in Washington that fighting ISIS is a number one priority. As White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said, you can defeat ISIS with al-Assad still in power. Former Secretary of State John Kerry told me the same. He said the Obama administration was sure that ISIS and terrorists in Syria are a much more serious threat and a more important task than Bashar al-Assad’s regime. We agree on that. We must recognise the obvious and common threats. If we can fight ISIS and defeat it without government change, we may fail to defeat ISIS if we change the government. Let’s use common sense and rely on pragmatism rather than emotions.