Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with NBC, Moscow, July 21, 2017
Question: Minister, thank you very much for your time. There is a lot to talk about. There is Syria, North Korea, China, Ukraine, and there is ISIS. But inevitably, I’d like to begin by talking to you about Russian-US relations. There are pictures of you with the Obama administration in which you do not look particularly happy. There are pictures of you with President Trump in which you look like you are having fun.
Sergey Lavrov: So what?
Question: Is that the way it is?
Sergey Lavrov: I haven’t seen any pictures of me that could be described as me being happy or unhappy. If I’m laughing, then the other person might have made a joke. If I am not laughing, the other person might be boring or he/she might be asking for some serious issue to be considered, and then I am not laughing.
But with John Kerry for example – we laughed a lot. He had… he still has, I hope, a good sense of humor. We enjoyed our private relations as much as we concentrated on business – on Syria, etc.
Question: If there is a warmer relationship now with the Trump administration than there has been with previous American administrations, there are also messages that Moscow is unhappy with things, particularly the Russian property that was seized by the Americans. What is the real feeling towards Washington as you would describe it right now? Are there particular people within the administration that you think are more constructive dealing with Russia than others? Do you, for example, think President Trump has a more positive attitude towards Russia than Secretary Tillerson?
Sergey Lavrov: Look, we can only judge by what people say and do. And it’s obvious that during the Obama administration an irritation started building up in Washington against us many years ago, for whatever reason, long before the Ukrainian crisis, long before anything else which is now cited as the problem in Russian-American relations. The first time I think it was publicly shown was when Edward Snowden made it to Russia in the expectation that he would be able to take a flight to Latin America, and Russia was just a stopover. As he was flying from China to Russia his passport was declared invalid, and this information was circulated to airports all over the world, including the Moscow airport he landed at, and he could not make a transfer because of the information about his passport. And then President Obama called President Putin, John Kerry called me, John Brennan called his counterpart in Moscow – they kept calling, saying, “You must extradite him, you must extradite him.” And according to our laws, we cannot extradite people who are being persecuted for something they did in order to protect and promote human rights. And then President Obama, I would say in a very unpresidential way, was frustrated to the point that he cancelled his visit to Moscow, which was scheduled on the eve of the St Petersburg G20 summit. He did attend the summit in St Petersburg, but he canceled the visit which was supposed to be considering an important agenda. I believe that those who occupy any position of influence and importance in today’s world cannot get offended like children by issues which are absolutely incomparable to the issues which had to be discussed, which were to be discussed at the Russian-American summit. And then of course the Magnitsky Law, which as we now see was very much orchestrated, but I hope the ongoing investigation, including in the United States, will get to the truth. All this was long before Ukraine. And all these irritants were building up by the Obama administration, to be used later under some personal agendas.
Maybe President Obama was personally offended by something he saw in Russia. And during the last days of his administration he seized the diplomatic property that is supposed to be protected by bilateral agreements between our countries and is supposed to have diplomatic immunity. I believe it was an act of desperation and a desire to leave something to his successor, which would be unrepairable as far as Russian-American relations are concerned. So it was not this administration’s act, it was an act designed, among other things to make the life of this administration difficult. And we have always known, of course, from the history of America, from the many wars that have been fought on that land that seizure of property, seizure of land was one of the ways America was actually created. But I never suspected that this would be done by a party which now represents quite a different philosophy. By the way, when people say that the property was seized and the diplomats were expelled to punish Russia for meddling with the American election, don’t believe this crap, because the official note that we received from the State Department said nothing about the reasons the property was seized. So it’s just straight robbery, and international law is entirely on our side, and we will act in accordance with international law to get it back.
Question: You’re threatening to expel US diplomats from Russia. What message should the US take from this? Do you see US President Trump as a friend? Could your public declarations that you might still expel US diplomats be considered posturing?
Sergey Lavrov: We consider what President Trump says publicly, expressing his position regarding Russia, saying that the two biggest nuclear powers must do everything in order to cooperate to resolve the matters that can only be resolved through cooperation. And this was confirmed not only during his campaign in his public statements, but also during three phone conversations and the direct meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on July 7. And we have no reason to doubt his desire to promote the interests of the United States and the interests of making the world safer together with Russia, based on cooperation, on the balancing of interests.
As for the situation in which he found himself, I don’t think he is being attacked because of what happened between him and Russia, how this is seen in the media. I believe it was a shock for the establishment in the United States after the results of the election were announced, and somebody who was not part of the system of government (he was part of the business system of the United States, but not part of the system of government) got elected unexpectedly. And this entire avalanche of attacks, of accusations, is absolutely groundless, at least as far as the Russian angle of this anti-Trump campaign is concerned. We haven’t seen any single fact during many, many months of accusations. Some facts are being hidden under the pretext that they are classified, but I cannot imagine that with the experience of the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI and many other intelligence agencies and special services in the United States, that there are no experts who can present to the public the facts in a way that would not compromise the sources. If this is the case, then there is not a single professional in all 17 of these organisations. I just cannot believe this. So the fight goes on. They want to make life for this administration miserable. People try to talk about impeachment, we read about it. But frankly, I read the news from the United States less and less.
Question: Does Trump has to fight against this, you think?
Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely it’s a fight, but as I said I…
Question: And Russia is on Trump’s side?
Sergey Lavrov: No, we are on the side of justice. Even regarding the two vacation facilities, we want international law to be respected. Be it the internal development of any country, including the United States, we want the constitution of that particular country to be respected, as well as the international obligations of that country.
Question: We know Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Trump met three times at the G20. They had, obviously, a bilateral meeting, they met at dinner, and then they met…
Sergey Lavrov: Who knows, maybe they went to the gents together, and that was the fourth time.
Question: They met also when they were photographed shaking hands. That’s my question. Did they meet other times in the hallways? Were there other occasions when they might have met?
Sergey Lavrov: I thought that by know adult people got it right, but I keep hearing from reputable media outlets that they met secretly. When? At a dinner that was attended by hundreds of people, not to mention waiters, assistants who could not sit at the table, but who were right there in the same room, as it always happens.
Question: So, it is possible that they had another meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: Why doesn’t anybody get suspicious when Mr Putin sits next to Ms Trump, the first lady? Because our German hosts arranged the table that way? And then after the dinner (I was not there) President Trump apparently went over to pick up his wife and spent a few minutes with President Putin. So what? And they shook hands, which was then listed as the third meeting, and I don’t know about the gents as I told you before.
Question: Did they meet in the corridors; did they have other conversations that you are aware of?
Sergey Lavrov: Look, foreign ministers are not invited to G20 sessions. We were only at the bilateral meetings which the President of Russia had with many of his colleagues – the leaders attending the G20 summit. When your parents first took you to kindergarten, did you mix with the other children before going into the classroom? I remember when I was there; I spent five to ten minutes with the other children before they took us into the classroom to start explaining how animals were different or whatever.
Question: This is the G20 summit though, not a kindergarten.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, but there is also a room where they gather before an event starts; they cannot all arrive at the same time in a bus. They arrive in their own motorcades, and then they are ushered into the room, a waiting room. So, technically, they might have met more than just those three times.
Question: It is an important point though, which is why I think it might be an important point for you, that is, when important leaders like President Trump and President Putin (the most important leaders in the world) meet, they reach agreements, which then must be implemented by their people. Let me give you an example. In terms of the working group on cybersecurity, Russia’s envoy on cybersecurity says that there are now discussions underway with President Trump who has tweeted that this actually can’t happen. This appears to have been something that was agreed to at the bilateral meeting; but it’s not clear, because we don’t seem to have any official transcript of what was said. So is the working group on cybersecurity happening? And I guess my wider question is – does it actually make it more difficult for you? Russia is said to have asked for a transcriber at that meeting, and the White House is said to have refused that. Is that not true?
Sergey Lavrov: There were two interpreters – one on each side.
Question: Ok, does it make it more difficult for you if there isn’t a clear formal agreement on what was agreed to at each meeting? And what about that cyber working group?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, it’s very simple, you know, the way you put this question, unfortunately. When leaders discuss, they don’t draft documents, they don’t draft papers. They discuss subjects they believe the two countries can cooperate on for the benefit of their own people, for the benefit of security in the region and in the world. And they did discuss cybersecurity. President Trump raised the issue; he said he clearly remembered what President Putin said publicly, answering the questions about whether Russia meddled in US elections and the answer was “no.” But he also reminded those present, like he did in Hamburg, that the Russian Federation many times, many years ago, still under the Obama administration, proposed establishing an effective mechanism that will allow us to concentrate on the apprehensions of any of us and maybe others, because that could have been open to other countries to join, any apprehensions that anyone might have had regarding any problem in cyberspace.
It was the Russian Federation along with China, with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization who several years ago proposed a draft document called Rules of Behavior in Cyberspace, and this is available in the United Nations. It was the Obama administration that was not very eager about starting to discuss it, and we just recalled all this when these accusations started being thrown at the Trump administration and at Russia that we were working behind the scenes, secretly, to defeat the Democrats. We reiterated our approach, we said that we wanted cyberspace to be an area where we could discuss our concerns, be it interference in domestic affairs of a sovereign state, or the use of cyberspace for terrorist purposes, or for the purposes of drug trafficking, pedophilia, or other violations of international law. And the President of the United States clearly showed interest in having these issues discussed.
Question: And those talks with the US on cybersecurity are underway now, aren’t they?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I cannot know each and every aspect of our experts’ contacts.
Question: Russia’s envoy on cybersecurity says there are talks underway between the US and Russia.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s what he said yesterday.
Question: Yes, is that correct?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, you are asking me to say whether I trust somebody who is an official in charge of cybersecurity? If you don’t trust him, double check with somebody else. He is my subordinate, I don’t have any reason not to trust him.
Question: Right. On those conversations, initially you said that President Trump mentioned the allegations that Russia interfered in the US elections, and then later President Putin said that President Trump asked him the question directly, and it wasn’t a single question, there were many questions, and that Trump had paid a lot of attention to the subject. Did Moscow change the wording from the way you characterised it in order to help President Trump? Did Moscow exaggerated when it said that they paid a lot of attention to the allegations of Russian intervention in the US elections?
Sergey Lavrov: I feel like I’m at a Senate hearing on an investigation into Trump betraying the interests of the United States of America, but no. President Trump actually answered the allegations himself, that he trusted Mr Putin, as President Putin said. He clearly reminded all those who have nothing better to do than engage in this dirty business, that what President Putin said about this part of their discussion at the press conference, that President Trump raised the issue, President Putin confirmed that we never did anything to interfere in the American elections, and that he, President Putin, got the impression that President Trump accepted this explanation. Mr Putin never said that Mr Trump was happy about anything related to this. I read President Trump’s tweet, and I believe the courage with which he withstands these unbelievable attacks really does deserve respect. Anything else on cybersecurity?
Question: I’ve got a broader question, actually, because you are a diplomat with many, many years of experience, one of the most experienced diplomats in the world, and yet in recent months, you have witnessed some historic events. What goes through your mind when you’re there, in the room, as President Putin meets with President Trump? What goes through your mind, when you are in the Oval Office with President Trump, and he talks about having great intelligence data and allegedly shares some of that with you or describes James Comey as a nut-job? These things are something that even you do not see every day.
Sergey Lavrov: You mean what I felt when I was in the Oval Office? Basically, the feeling was the same as when I was in the Oval Office with President Obama and President Bush before him: respect for a president who was legitimately elected, the leader of the United States based on the US constitution, and respect for anything they choose to tell me, to present the American position and to present their views on what they believe should be the substance of Russian-American relations.
Question: And at the G20, when the two presidents are meeting? Apparently, President Trump’s wife even came into the room to say “we need to wrap this up,” but it was going so well they wanted to continue.
Sergey Lavrov: Look, our political and human culture does not provide for somebody else’s family matters to be discussed in public.
Question: But my question is really more about...
Sergey Lavrov: I understand, you’re British, you’re too eager to get more details than Russians can provide you on this human rights subject.
Question: You don’t want to share more about what happened. It was a two-hour meeting, and we know very little about it, really.
Sergey Lavrov: You asked about the first lady coming in, and I answered you.
Question: Right, right.
Sergey Lavrov: And I think, the 30 minutes or so that we have been talking, we have been discussing mostly the meeting in Hamburg. What is your specific...?
Question: I’m just interested in your reflections on that meeting.
Sergey Lavrov: It was a meeting between the two leaders, and actually I did make a statement after that meeting, but before President Putin’s press conference. That was a meeting between two leaders who certainly defend the interests of their countries, who understand the interests of their countries from a long-term perspective, not just thinking of, you know, what comes in a year and a half, the mid-term elections they have to maneuver. No, they are clearly guided by the long-term interests of the United States and of the Russian Federation, and they were both very much aware that the best interests of our countries require – or rather, would be much, much better ensured − if we cooperate, and if we also cooperate on issues that are important to the entire world and that can be much more effectively resolved if Russia and the United States work together, as is happening in some parts of Syria now.
By the way, you said that President Trump revealed some information when I was in the Oval Office; I missed that part of your question. Did you say that?
Question: There is an allegation that he did, which you, I am sure, know about.
Sergey Lavrov: But he was accused of telling me something classified about something which was discovered by the special services and which related to the ability of terrorists to control some events with smartphones, notebooks, a way that would allow an explosive to be placed in those devices. He just mentioned that terrorists have become very inventive and creative. But this very information was made public, either by the FBI or the CIA, about a month before I was in the Oval Office. And it was not just announced publicly, it was the reason passengers from some Middle Eastern countries were officially prohibited from carrying these kinds of devices aboard planes, exactly because of that. So when this was cited as a secret, a top secret revealed to me by President Trump, I really could not believe that serious people could make this kind of allegation.
Question: On Syria. Do you view the reports that the CIA programme to back Syrian rebels in Russia has been stopped, that the programme will no longer go forward? Do you view that as a concession to what Russia is asking for in Syria from the Americans?
Sergey Lavrov: This decision was taken, as far as the American media is concerned (if you can still believe the American media, but I still try to): it was made a few weeks before the G20 meeting. I read, I think yesterday, that this was the result of a meeting between US President Trump, US National Security Adviser General McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis. I can only proceed from this news.
Question: Do you welcome it?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know, because we have to calculate everyone’s overall approach to resolving the Syrian crisis. We have certainly concentrated on the de-escalation zones that are established to stop the fighting between the government and the armed opposition, for them not to attack each other and hopefully for them to concentrate entirely on fighting ISIS. Therefore, we would support any agreement which lead to the opposition and the government signing a ceasefire and entering into a formal cessation of hostilities.
And I understand that the United States supports many more groups not just the ones that were announced as being left without American weapons and instructors. It was recently stated that some ten American bases had been created in Syria. At least, a Turkish newspaper wrote about this, and the Americans criticized Turkey for allowing this news to become public. Ten bases. I am only quoting what I read in the news.
Question: Do you object to the American bases in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I don’t object to American bases in Syria as long as the Americans recognises that their presence in the Syrian Arab Republic is illegal, because unlike us, they were not invited by the government...
Sergey Lavrov: Of course it is illegal. As long as this illegal presence in Syria is executed the way they say it is, that is with full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, with the sole purpose of fighting ISIS and other terrorist organizations. That means that after the country has been liberated, after a settlement has been reached to the satisfaction of all the Syrian ethnic, confessional and political groups, that the presence of foreign troops or foreign bases on Syrian soil will only be legitimate with the consent of the Syrians themselves.
But it was interesting to read, about their presence and the bases, to read the statement (I think this morning) of the CIA Director Mr Pompeo. He was asked what Russia was doing in Syria, and he said, “We don’t like what Russia is doing in Syria; we don’t share the goals of Russia’s presence in Syria. The main purpose of Russian presence there is to hold their two bases on the Mediterranean coast.” And that was presented in a way that we don’t deserve. So if a man who represents a country that has illegally created ten bases in Syria is really concerned about two bases which were established under an intergovernmental agreement, with a UN member, then something is wrong and there are double standards. Not to mention the fact that the hundreds and hundreds of US military bases that are all over the world and all around Russia seemingly do not cause any concern to Mr Pompeo or to anybody else.
Question: To be clear, the principle that the only forces that should be allowed to intervene in Syria are those that have been sanctioned by Syrian President Assad would suggest that only Russia, Iran and perhaps Hezbollah should be allowed to intervene in Syria.
Sergey Lavrov: Well, strictly speaking, yes, but in practical terms we have been trying to be flexible in order to remove the key barrier to a Syrian settlement – the terrorist threat in Syria. And through our dealings with Iran and Turkey, by the way, and through our dealings with Jordan and the United States and with the armed opposition, we have tried to achieve this goal through a cessation of hostilities between the government and the patriotic opposition, so that all forces can be free to fight the terrorists. And the processes that we are engaged in, have, of course, included talks with the Syrian government. And the Syrian government does not mind us moving in the direction we are moving in, in the context of the overall understanding that the number one priority is the fight against ISIS. And we hope very much that this de-escalation zone agreement will resolve the problem, which killed the deal between us and former US President Obama, namely the problem of Jabhat al-Nusra and all its incarnations, because from the very beginning the United States coalition, while fighting ISIS more or less actively (sometimes more, sometimes less), has been looking the other way with Jabhat al-Nusra. The facts point to this.
And by the way, this was the reason the deal between myself and US Secretary of State John Kerry, which was endorsed by President Obama and President Putin, failed in September last year, because the deal was that the Syrian air force would not fly at all, and that the Russian Aerospace Forces and the American coalition could fly and hit only those targets which would be mutually agreed to. It was an important agreement, but the deal should have entered into force on the seventh day, and by the seventh day the Obama administration had committed to separating the patriotic opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra. But they failed and they admitted it, which only confirmed our suspicion that they were protecting Jabhat al-Nusra all along.
Question: I don’t want to leave without asking you a question about North Korea. Just before the G20, Russia built an alliance, an agreement with the Chinese concerning your positions on North Korea. Why would you not consider North Korea a threat when they fired a missile which came close to Russian territory?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot say that we do not conside what is happening on the Korean Peninsula a threat, because what they are doing is a gross violation of Security Council resolutions. There are less than noble attempts to present us as appeasing North Korea, as acquiescing to what they are doing. I don’t know the purpose of this, maybe to score some political points. Our position is very straight-forward. We have consistently supported the resolutions of the Security Council which were designed to stop the prohibited nuclear and missile programmes of North Korea. And it was agreed from the very beginning that all these sanctions would be targeted to make it impossible to continue with these programmes. These UNSC sanctions must be directed against the people who have been engaged in these programmes and who provide financing for these programmes, and these links must be clearly identified.
The proposals that have been put on the table are basically designed to completely suppress the North Korean economy, prohibiting any imports to North Korea, any exports from North Korea, any transportation links with North Korea, prohibiting any contact with anybody of any importance in the leadership of North Korea – we cannot, obviously, support this kind of approach, because it contradicts the basic premise, the basic premise being that we have to stop their nuclear and missile programmes, but we cannot do this at the expense of hundreds of thousands of people in North Korea.
Question: And your basic premise excludes a regime change? Is this the position of Russia?.
Sergey Lavrov: We don’t believe in regime change anywhere. I hear very enthusiastic voices in the United States, including in some parts of this administration, that the time for patience is over, and that they must do something because the threat is growing, and an intercontinental ballistic missile has been launched.
By the way, on that very day when the presidents met in Hamburg, our military provided the Pentagon with objective data that we received from our radar units located just on the border with North Korea. And according to that data, it was not an intercontinental missile, but the Americans say that they have their own surveillance. We suggest sitting down without any politicising to professionally review and exchange information. But a month ago, I think, a month and a half maybe, Secretary of Defense Mattis, answering the question, bluntly stated that the use of force against the North Korean regime would mean disaster, a humanitarian disaster in the region. And our American colleagues accept, in private discussion, that this implies risking hundreds of thousands of people, not just in North Korea but in South Korea and the neighboring countries. And I believe that those who keep those scenarios in their minds are not responsible politicians.
Therefore, not in place of, but parallel to continuing pressure on North Korea, Russia and China have proposed a parallel political track. The idea is to ensure a double freeze – North Korea suspends all their launches and tests, and in response, the US and South Korea reduce the scale of their war maneuvers in the region, but not cancel completely, which we believe could help diffuse the situation and start a professional discussion to build confidence, starting with very simple things, such as adopting a statement that no one is going to attack the other side, that the security of each of the participants in this process will be mutually guaranteed, etc., and then build upon these universal principles, and try to agree on some details that will translate these guarantees into practical measures. It will take time, but we believe that it is the only way to save us from the disaster which is looming.
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