Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov’s interview with the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, September 30, 2016
Question: Recently the world marked the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Do you think a repeat of these attacks is no longer possible? What should be done to prevent it?
Oleg Syromolotov: Naturally, the 9/11 attacks are the same kind of tragedy as the acts of terror in Beslan, Buinaks, Volgodonsk and Moscow. On September 3 Russia mourns the victims of the tragic events in Beslan. These are horrible tragedies but, regrettably, it is difficult to say that the situation has improved dramatically. After September 11 there was only al-Qaeda, but since then terrorist organisations have undergone a major change. First, there appeared the “Islamic State” (ISIS) that aims to build a so-called caliphate. Its adherents are spreading all over the world. Many terrorist organisations are suddenly swearing allegiance to ISIS in different countries. And this is taking place in different parts of the world: Africa, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan.
Second, a new kind of threat has emerged. Those who went to fight in North Africa, Syria and Iraq are returning home. They are creating a direct threat to peace and tranquillity in various countries. Look at Europe where acts of terror were much rarer in the past. About 5,000 Europeans went to conflict zones and some of them – around 2,000 – have already come home. What can they do except stage terrorist attacks?
In addition, the migration situation in Europe is precarious. Over a million people came to Europe but the precise whereabouts of about 350,000 of them are unknown. Some migrants arrived with forged documents: ISIS seized tens of thousands of passports in Syria. Many perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe had such passports.
Major sleeper cells are being created in Europe. They can become active at any time. This is an unprecedented phenomenon: people who had not taken part in any terrorist attacks suddenly are making the choice, as individuals, to join a terrorist group.
Therefore, it is difficult to say that acts of terror like the 9/11 attacks in the United States will never happen again. Acts of terror are possible, and it is difficult to predict their scale. Now the entire world is working to prevent them.
Question: The number of terrorist attacks and attempted attacks has substantially increased in Europe in the past one or two years. Do our European partners understand the need for international cooperation in countering this threat? What countries have made specific proposals on cooperation with us?
Oleg Syromolotov: I have already mentioned how terrorist threats have grown in Europe against the background of the crises in the Middle East and North Africa: increased migration, the return of foreign terrorists and militants to their home countries from conflict zones and their direct role in radicalising the population.
I believe the majority of European countries are coming to realise that terrorist threats are growing. Practically every country is toughening its anti-terrorism legislation. Despite persisting tensions and uncertainties in relations with Russia, European capitals are growing increasingly aware of the need to enhance coordination of joint efforts against terrorism at the international level and, of course, in cooperation with Russia.
At the same time I would like to emphasise once again that Russia’s position, as expressed by our President Vladimir Putin at the 70th UN General Assembly, has not changed: any coalition should be based on the principles of international law and be endorsed by the United Nations.
As for bilateral contacts, they are gradually thawing after certain well-known events. We have held meetings of interdepartmental working groups on counterterrorism with Spain, and consultations with Hungary, the Netherlands, France, Germany and the European Union. We will hold relevant talks with Italy in two weeks. Talks with Serbia will take place before the end of this year. We are working to create a similar format with Turkey.
That said, a number of countries, for instance Great Britain, are taking a selective approach. We have been actively working with the Brits on aviation security in the context of the Kogalymavia plane tragedy for about a year. We reviewed aviation security measures in Egypt together, and there have been fairly active consultations between us. The Brits have not yet agreed to cooperate with us on other issues but we maintain contacts with them. They come to us, and I went to London recently to meet with them. I think we will reach an understanding with them eventually.
Russia has a fairly long history of fighting terrorism and its current antiterrorism policy is quite sound. Needless to say, different terrorist groups still emerge and will continue to in the future – there is no getting away from this – but the general level of Russia’s antiterrorist measures is high enough. Foreigners need such experience. It is always better to know all the circumstances and measures adopted by other countries in order to use them at home and erect barriers to terrorists.
Question: At what stage is our cooperation with Turkey in combating terrorism?
Oleg Syromolotov: I can only address counterterrorism cooperation between the foreign ministries. Our Turkish partners have made such a proposal. I have already mentioned this. We gave our consent in principle. Now we are determining the appropriate level of these contacts. I think we first need to meet at the expert level and then at the ministerial level.
Question: Can we expect these meetings to take place this year?
Oleg Syromolotov: Yes, we are preparing them.
Question: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently proposed creating a special court in France for terrorism cases. Would it be advisable to create such an organisation at the international level? Will Moscow put forward such initiatives?
Oleg Syromolotov: The main problem in the fight against terrorism is the absence of a common international legal definition of terrorism. How could the international court operate if there is no common definition? For example, in some countries terrorism includes verbal threats against the head of a state, while in Russia it means direct acts of violence for political purposes. When there is no common understanding, each country interprets the term in its own way. So how would an international court determine the nature of a crime? It is quite difficult.
We have the International Criminal Court. When the world comes to a common understanding, this role could be added to it, but I don’t think this will happen in the near future.
Question: How do you assess the current situation on the Syrian-Turkish border? Can we say there has been a change for the better? Is there any more evidence of Turkey’s cooperation with terrorists? Is Russia ready to participate in the international monitoring of the border?
Oleg Syromolotov: The closing of a section of the Syrian-Turkish border is one of the most fundamental issues in efforts to stabilise the situation in Syria. We do know that arms are transported across the border in one direction, and oil and artefacts are transported in the other direction. Smuggling is thriving. And most importantly, terrorists reach Syria mainly through Turkey. Both we and the Americans keep talking about it.
On September 3, Turkey launched the Euphrates Shield operation to create, as they say, a security zone along the border. It is too early to say whether it will really happen. We know that the Turkish side is pursuing certain goals against the Kurds. There are a lot of factors in the mix. Yes, they claim that the effort is directed against ISIS but simultaneously conduct operations against the Kurds.
So far, we cannot say that the border has been sealed.
Question: Is Russia ready to participate in the international monitoring of the border?
Oleg Syromolotov: A lot of preconditions have to be met before we can monitor the border. First of all, everyone should trust one another. We don’t see any evidence of that right now.
Question: On the Turkish side or both sides?
Oleg Syromolotov: On both sides, I think. After apologising for the incident with our plane, Turkey took a number of steps, but it is too early to say whether they will have an impact. It will take more time to see how things develop. But we see Turkey’s intention. It is on display at the highest level.
Question: The problem of cyberterrorism is becoming increasingly urgent. Do we work with our Western partners in countering this threat? For instance, has the United States asked Russia for assistance in investigating the hack of the Democratic Party’s servers?
Oleg Syromolotov: Politics abounds in slogans, especially in the media. Now everyone is accusing Russia of hacking the Democratic Party’s servers. However, the United States did not ask us officially to investigate this incident. This is simply not happening.
We realise that tensions in the information space are growing. IT is being increasingly used for terrorist and other criminal deeds. The world community is aware of this danger.
A clear-cut approach is required for countering it. Russia’s position is as follows: to ensure that the infosphere and the internet serve the cause of peace rather than spread terrorist ideas, states must elaborate a code of responsible conduct online. This is absolutely necessary.
In addition, the rights of citizens of all countries must be observed online. For instance, all states should establish sovereignty in their segments of the web and have the right to take part in governing the internet. Right now we are not taking part in this and so we get what we get.
These basic provisions are required to maintain relative order on the internet and prevent it from being used by terrorists. Information security is part of the effort to counter new challenges and threats on a par with combatting terrorism. Combating terrorism means not only fighting terrorists as such but also disrupting their funding and its sources – drug trafficking, fighting organised crime and enhancing information security.
As for cooperation with other countries, at one time we had a governmental commission with the United States on different issues, including information security. Talks on this problem were held in Geneva. I think there are positive developments in this area.
In addition, such international organisations as BRICS and the SCO, in which Russia is taking an active part, conduct annual consultations on international information security. We are also discussing this issue with many EU countries.
Question: When did the last meeting with US representatives on this issue take place?
Oleg Syromolotov: About two months ago, if I’m correct.
Question: Do you plan such meetings for the future?
Oleg Syromolotov: Absolutely. They are held regularly, usually twice a year – once in Russia and once in America.
Question: Sо, a similar meeting may take place before the end of the year?
Oleg Syromolotov: Probably, not before the end of this year but in the beginning of the new one. We have a tentative agreement on it.
Question: There are signs of rapprochement between some groups of the Taliban and ISIS units. What new problems and threats might this cause? If their ties develop further, won’t this prompt Russia to stop all contacts with the Taliban?
Oleg Syromolotov: It is essential to be absolutely clear on the Taliban movement. This is a terrorist group that is on the UN sanctions list. Therefore, we do not have any contacts with the Taliban. We only have a communication channel on humanitarian issues related to human rights and hostages. No more than that.
What is happening in Afghanistan? Indeed, ISIS is trying to establish a presence there but there are some specific circumstances. First, the Taliban does not need a caliphate. The Taliban needs Afghanistan. ISIS comes to Afghanistan and says that it is not really interested in it. ISIS has interests beyond the river, in Central Asia. Why? Because according to some sources, up to 50-60 percent of ISIS militants are citizens of Central Asian and North Caucasus countries and so they want to move further but don’t yet have the capability.
The Taliban and ISIS are very uneasy neighbours although both are terrorist groups. However, the Taliban lives in their own land whereas ISIS is a newcomer and has to get resources and money from somewhere. So they are fighting for the drug trafficking channels that are now controlled by the Taliban. There are not only tensions but armed clashes between them, although they coexist peacefully to some extent in some regions.
In the past, ISIS could recruit members of the Taliban but the financial flow is gradually petering out. So, let’s say it is not quite as attractive as it used to be.
Question: Does Russia consider it possible to hold talks with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra if they agree to lay down arms?
Oleg Syromolotov: These are terrorist groups and we will never agree to any contacts with them. There will be no discussions on the rights of terrorists or preconditions. Russia will never agree to any talks with them.