Statements and speeches by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s address at the 26th Assembly of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, Moscow, April 14, 2018
Thank you for another invitation to the traditional annual Assembly of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy (CFDP). This is a platform for an unbiased discussion, where the participants take part in a private capacity as they discuss the most pressing issues of our country’s foreign policy and security. The fact that those who gather here are like-minded individuals, many of whom are friends, does not exclude but rather presupposes sincere and at times contentious debates. Of course, I prepared a speech but as you understand it was prepared before the events mentioned just now by Mr Karaganov. So I would like to say a few words in an official capacity regarding this burning issue.
The point at issue is the explanations our Western partners are providing to justify their absolutely illegitimate and unacceptable actions. As you may have heard, US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and President of France Emmanuel Macron have been saying over the past few days that they have irrefutable evidence that, first, chemical weapons were used in the city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, and second, that it was unquestionably done by Bashar al-Assad who issued the order. In this connection I would like to remind you that we heard exactly the same words a year ago and even earlier, when those same White Helmets reported that sarin gas was used in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, and that this was absolutely beyond any doubt. Our Western partners grasped at that and began presenting very questionable videos, as they did in the case of Douma, as irrefutable evidence. We were insisting that OPCW inspectors should go to the incident site. We were told that security conditions did not allow for that. Then miraculously it appeared that the OPCW gained information from the British and the French that they had obtained samples from Khan Sheikhoun which were analysed in laboratories in France and Great Britain, and there was no doubt that they contained sarin. As sensible people, we contacted the French and the English and asked them how the samples had been obtained. If they had reached as far as Paris and London, it means that it was done by people who were able to function in the security conditions in Khan Sheikhoun at that moment. We asked why in that case we couldn’t use the services of those same people to ensure the safety of the OPCW inspectors who would go there and collect the samples in full compliance with the procedures under the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and analyse those samples according to their routine. Our partners evaded our questions and said there was no need to do that since the facts were irrefutable in any case. Then we asked them if they could share those facts with us so that we could be sure that everything was as it should be. We were told it was a secret. And you know the rest.
It is the same regarding Douma. There are irrefutable facts that we are being told about now to justify the strikes. Apart from citing the media and social networks, as well as the video that is quite amusing for specialists, no other evidence has been presented. However, French President Macron, who publicly announced that he had irrefutable evidence confirming the use of chemical weapons in Douma by the Assad regime, as they call it, had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, during which Mr Putin mentioned the public statement by the French leader concerning the availability of those facts and asked him to share them. Because if this were true, we would be the first to want to curb this illegal activity – the use of chemical weapons. The reply was the same: it’s a secret. They cannot present the evidence because it is not their secret. However, it was still used by those same people who do not want to share the source in order to launch strikes. Everybody realises, of course, that it happened a day before the OPCW inspectors, who had already arrived in Beirut, were to travel to the incident site to either confirm or refute the presence or absence of evidence proving the use of chemical weapons there. By the way, they have again confirmed their readiness to travel to that area in Douma to carry out their mission. We will come back to that later. I hope they will be allowed to do it this time.
Last year’s and this year’s episodes have another common feature, which is the following. When the White Helmets spread their news on April 4, 2017, Rex Tillerson called me and said that they know that the chemical weapons had been delivered by an air bomb, and that the aircraft took off from the Shayrat airfield. He asked us to secure the Syrian government’s agreement to allow inspectors, including US experts, to come to that airfield to verify the facts. We obtained such consent but before we were able to relate it to Washington, the US had already launched strikes. This time, three days ago, a US Embassy official visited our Ministry and among other things he set out the US position and spoke about their confidence that they were right. We replied to him that our military experts in chemical radiation defence studied very carefully the site in question shown in the video, the hospital and everything around it, and did not find anything there. Then he asked if US experts could go there, too. We said that it was a good idea and that we will make arrangements with Damascus. One day later, during the conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr Putin, as he replied to his French colleague’s claim that there was no doubt that the act had been committed by the Syrian government, suggested that French inspectors should be sent there so that they could study the situation on the ground together with Russian and US experts. It was agreed that the defence ministries would keep in contact so as to put this idea into practice. None of our French colleagues ever contacted either our Defence Ministry or Foreign Ministry. And again, as you see, the air strikes were launched a short while after that.
This is why we are so meticulous about establishing facts. We have been told far too often that there was evidence: regarding the US election meddling, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated publicly that they have irrefutable facts, and when we asked him to produce them he replied that they would not do that. Allegedly, our special services are perfectly aware how we interfered in their election. We want to focus on the facts in this and a number of other cases, including with regard to the so-called Skripal case.
As you are aware, our British colleagues are refusing to answer dozens of questions on that case, which were asked on different dates and even updated by us. They answer that we did not respond to any of the questions they posed to the Russian side. Let me remind you that London asked only a single question of us, and it was meant for Russia to confess how Novichok was delivered to London – either on the order from Russian President Putin or due to Russia’s negligence in losing control over its chemical stocks. This is all the question came down to. Whereas the questions we asked were utterly specific and based on the Convention’s provisions.
I have just been given a report that the Pentagon justified the US strike on Syria before the release of the OPCW report by the fact that Damascus had blocked access for experts trying to reach Eastern Ghouta. This is not true. We have been monitoring the situation virtually by the minute. The Syrian government was to immediately issue visas at the border without any additional formalities. The experts would have gone from Beirut, and upon reaching the Syrian border they would have received their visas. This has been officially confirmed. The OPCW knows about this, and if they know, the Americans cannot say that they do not.
Coming back to the Skripal case. As you know, in the Skripal case the British specially invited a group of OCSW experts. It was done exclusively in a bilateral manner, it was announced that the others would be informed about the conclusions reached by the group. The report of this group of experts was initially distributed as a summary for public consumption and following that, a detailed and fairly substantial confidential version was distributed to the OPCW members only. In that report, in accordance with the OPCW way of conduct, the chemical composition of the agent presented by the British was confirmed, and the analysis of samples, as the report states, was taken by the OPCW experts themselves. It contains no names, Novichok or any other. The report only gives the chemical formula, which, according to our experts, points to an agent that had been developed in many countries and does not present any particular secret.
Our colleagues tell us (I have already given examples as I described previous situations) that they have secret data that they cannot share. As you understand, we also have the capacity to obtain confidential information. Since this information concerns issues that are literally connected to death and life, we are not going to keep anything secret. We became aware of this from the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection in Spiez. The information was obtained on conditions of confidentiality. On March 27, experts of the Institute completed their study of the samples collected on the site of the incident in Salisbery, in line with OPCW, and sent to them by the OPCW. This laboratory in Spiez, where, I am sure, professional scientists who value their reputation are employed, came to the following conclusions. I will now be quoting what they sent to the OPCW in their report. You understand that this is a translation from a foreign language but I will read it in Russian, quote: “Following our analysis, the samples indicate traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursor which are second category chemical weapons. BZ is a nerve toxic agent, which temporarily disables a person. The psycho toxic effect is achieved within 30 to 60 minutes after its use and lasts for up to four days. This composition was in operational service in the armies of the US, the UK and other NATO countries. The Soviet Union and Russia neither designed nor stored such chemical agents. Also, the samples indicate the presence of type A-234 nerve agent in its virgin state and also products of its degradation.” End of quote. According to the specialists’ estimates, the significant concentration of A-234 discovered would have inevitably been lethal, and taking into account its high volatility, the fact that the specialists in the city of Spiez found it in its virgin state and also with high purity and in high concentration, appears to be utterly suspicious, because the period which elapsed between the poisoning and sampling was fairly long – I think, over two weeks.
Taking into account that Yulia Skripal and the policeman have already been released from hospital, whereas Sergei Skripal, as the British claim without letting us see either Yulia or Sergei, is still recovering, the clinical pattern corresponds more to the use of a BZ agent. Nothing is said whatsoever about a BZ agent in the final report that the OPCW experts presented to its Executive Council. In this connection we address the OPCW a question about why the information, that I have just read out loud and which reflects the findings of the specialists from the city of Spiez, was withheld altogether in the final document. If the OPCW would reject and deny the very fact that the Spiez laboratory was engaged, it will be very interesting to listen to their explanations.
I have finished speaking on this topic. Let me reiterate that I was preparing a totally different report. I hope we will be able to discuss more “eternal” matters rather than such grim episodes as today’s or last year’s. I would like to thank our colleagues – journalists for carrying these facts into the media space.