Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Rossiya Segondya International Information Agency, December 25, 2017
Question: President Trump said he planned to hold a meeting with President Putin on the DPRK, and the Russian President also expressed readiness for such a dialogue. When and where may such talks take place, and in what format? When it comes to improving relations between the two countries, we can count only on personal contacts between the two leaders or are there other options to prevent us from slipping into a new Iron Curtain situation?
Sergey Lavrov: Contacts between the presidents of Russia and the United States have intensified recently. Normally, they are not limited to anything in particular, but cover a wide range of bilateral and international matters.
The date of the next one-on-one meeting has not been discussed yet. As you may recall, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump spoke at the APEC summit in Danang, where they approved an important Joint Statement on Syria. Since then, the heads of state have already talked by phone three times, on November 21, December 14 and 17. Of course, they touched upon the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
In turn, Secretary of State Tillerson and I regularly discuss key items concerning the Russia-US agenda. Additional expert consultations at the working level are held on the most important of them.
The dialogue with the US administration is also maintained through other departments, including the special services. During a recent telephone conversation, the Russian President thanked President Trump for the intelligence provided by the CIA, which helped arrest the terrorists who were preparing explosions at the St Petersburg Kazan Cathedral and elsewhere in the city. This is an instance of actual interaction between Russia and the United States.
At the same time, we realise that there are many problems plaguing the relations between our two states, both old and new or, more precisely, artificially created ones. The main one is Russophobic hysteria which engulfed the Washington political establishment and took on a paranoid dimension, without exaggeration. It does not allow us to advance in the areas that are important for our countries, and creates additional tensions on the international arena.
In the summer, the United States approved a law aimed against us titled “Countering America's Opponents Through Sanctions.” Everyone is aware of the situation where our diplomatic property was seized in an illegal, in fact, raider takeover.
Our diplomats are under pressure from the FBI, and they run into obstacles as they try to do their work. Russian media, primarily, the Russia Today TV channel, are under pressure. This is only a portion of the extensive list of unmotivated anti-Russian actions. The lobby which is working against Russia is trying to make new unfriendly and even openly hostile steps.
I do not think, however, that the term Iron Curtain is applicable to Russia-US relations at their current stage. Rather, we can talk about another fit of McCarthyism, which the American society, it turns out, is still susceptible to. Personally, I am sure that similar to the witch hunt engineered by Senator McCarthy, with which everyone was fed up, in the current situation, everyone will see things for what they really are followed by recovery. However, it would be true to say that time was wasted.
For our part, we are acting in a pragmatic manner. We respond to aggressive attacks, but we are not going to spur the confrontation. We will continue to consistently and vigorously uphold our positions in an attempt to get our colleagues in Washington back to the fundamental principles which should form the basis for bilateral dialogue. Taking into account and respecting each other's interests are the main ones among them. Without this, it is simply impossible to improve our relations. By the same token, nor is it likely to work effectively when it comes to international affairs.
Question: Is there a chance of reaching a political settlement in Syria in 2018? Will Syria possibly adopt a new constitution and hold elections and when will this happen, if at all? Will Bashar al-Assad participate in the elections? Is Russia ready to guarantee security in Syria during the elections? Don’t you fear that the US-led coalition will start operations against the government forces or even attempt to topple Bashar al-Assad after Russia pulls out its forces?
Sergey Lavrov: We hope that the situation in Syria will continue heading towards stability and a long-term political settlement in the coming year. The prerequisites for this have been created. The Syrian Armed Forces have routed, with support from Russia’s Aerospace Forces, ISIS and stripped what was left of it of combat capabilities. Simultaneously we continue with our efforts to consolidate the positive trends on the ground in the interests of reconciliation and the country’s peaceful reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Since the start of the conflict, we have been calling for a broad-based intra-Syrian dialogue, within which the main matters on the national agenda should be resolved. Today, the Syrians, in fact, need to draft a new social contract that would become the basis for a new Syria in the future. No one has the right to dictate his will to them or to impose ready-made solutions. It is only the Syrian people in its ethnic and religious diversity that can and must decide how it will live in its state.
We continue promoting the initiative of convening the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which is due to put into practice the idea of an inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue and lend a hand to talks between the delegations of the Syrian Government and the opposition under UN aegis in Geneva. The Geneva format should finalise the agreements on the constitutional reform and UN-supervised elections, as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which have been reached by the Syrian sides on the basis of mutual consent.
As for Bashar al-Assad’s participation in the elections, this question should be addressed to the Syrian President. Generally, we proceed from the assumption that no one has the right to impose on a sovereign state any terms discriminatory of its individual citizens or population groups.
As I noted, the Russian and US presidents approved a Joint Statement on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Danang on November 11, which reaffirmed their shared commitment to the preservation of the unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and secular identity of the Syrian state. We have been regularly reminding our US partners about the original illegitimacy, from the point of view of international law, of their military activities on the Syrian territory. For some time, the Syrian Government could de facto “tolerate” the Americans there in the name of the vital tasks of fighting terrorism. But the attempts to find a justification for their continued presence in Syria after the rout of ISIS do not hold up against criticism. In practice, the illegal US military presence is putting obstacles in the way of a political settlement and calling into question the country’s unity.
We will continue to render the Syrians support in normalising the situation and restoring peace and order. In working with our regional and international partners, we will, as before, remind them of the need to respect the Syrian state’s sovereignty, independence as well as territorial integrity.
Question: Is Moscow trying to establish a permanent and regular top-level and high-level communications channel with Pyongyang? With whom is it trying to communicate, and why was this impossible until now? The West is criticising Russia for its “insufficiently resolute” position with regard to the DPRK. Will Russia act in a tougher manner, if Pyongyang crosses some red lines in its actions?
Sergey Lavrov: It goes without saying that we are seriously concerned with the DPRK’s striving to acquire a nuclear status. We will never accept and approve this. Pyongyang’s actions in this area might undermine the global non-proliferation regime. And they are simply dangerous in the context of the current tense situation on the Korean Peninsula.
As a permanent UN Security Council member, Russia was involved in drafting the relevant resolutions forbidding the DPRK to conduct nuclear tests as well as to launch ballistic missiles for many years. The current tough international sanctions and restrictions aim to prevent Pyongyang from developing its missile and nuclear programmes.
We are not guided by the logic of “red lines” and by the supposed need to punish North Korea after it has crossed such lines. We are guided by the need for consistent and painstaking work with Pyongyang in order to accomplish the main ultimate task, which is denuclearising the Korean Peninsula and formalising its non-nuclear status. Therefore we do not share the striving of some states to exert maximum possible pressure on the DPRK, which is often interpreted by them as establishing a complete economic and political blockade of that country by all available means. And they fail to realise that the implementation of this plan would cause a real humanitarian disaster.
We are urging our partners to focus on resolving specific issues concerning the Korean Peninsula on the basis of talks. Instead of severing contacts with Pyongyang, it is necessary to expand them for this purpose.
For our part, we strive to maintain them at the highest possible level. Naturally, we have streamlined a mechanism of consultations as regards the implementation of the Russian “road map” for a Korean peace settlement.
We are firmly convinced that the DPRK, the United States and its allies must refrain from any actions capable of provoking a crisis, and that they must, at long last, launch the negotiating process. Russia will facilitate this in every possible way.
Question: The military infrastructure of NATO and the United States, in particular, near the Russian borders is becoming increasingly massive. How can Russia respond? Why is it that Russian military bases abroad, for example, in Latin America, is an irrelevant matter?
Sergey Lavrov: I will be brief. Indeed, we are deeply concerned about the build-up of NATO military infrastructure near the Russian borders, and the deployment of US missile defence in Europe. Such destructive steps undermine the principle of indivisibility of security, lead to increased tension in the Euro-Atlantic area, and deepen the divides in Europe. In this context, we are taking reasonable additional measures to increase our defence capacity, and protect our national interests. As President of Russia Vladimir Putin noted during his Big News Conference on December 14, we will ensure our own security without getting involved in the arms race.
Unlike a number of states, we are not proponents of military expansion. Creating foreign bases in the name of projecting force, including in Latin America, is not an end in itself to us.