Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with BBC HardTalk
Question: The world was deeply alarmed last week by the prospect of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia. How close do you believe we came to that?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I don't think that was very close. I believe it was a situation created by very reckless behavior of our Western colleagues who accused the Syrian Government and us as allies of the Syrian Government in applying chemical weapons against civilians without waiting for OPCW to inspect the place. Actually, at the moment when OPCW was physically ready to move from Lebanon to Syria, they executed these strikes. As the representatives of our military explained, the deconflicting channel has been engaged all the time.
Question: So, to be clear about that, without using jargon, the US and ally forces gave you indications of how strikes would be carried out and you gave them some indication that you would not retaliate?
Sergey Lavrov: I prefer not to get into the nitty-gritty of these military communitory channels. There is a channel existing between the Russian and the United States military, both between the capitals and on the ground in Syria, and I believe the military discussed and continue to discuss this and other things very professionally. They understand each other and they understand, maybe better than anyone else, the danger of this kind of adventure.
Question: But Mr. Lavrov, this crisis is not over, is it?
Sergey Lavrov: It depends on those who invented the crisis.
Question: Well, it is quite clear from words used by your own diplomats. Your Ambassador to United States said there would be consequences for the strikes that we saw. Vladimir Putin called it an illegal act of aggression. So the world wants to know what Russia is going to do now.
Sergey Lavrov: That is a statement of fact. Certainly there would be consequences. We lose basically the last remnants of trust to our Western friends who prefer to operate on the basis of very weird logic. Proof is in the punishment – they've punished first – like they did in Salisbury – then they wait for Scotland Yard to finalize the investigation. They punished first in Douma in Syria and then they wait for the inspectors of OPCW to visit the place and to inspect. Proof by the punishment is what is being applied by the Troika of Western countries.
Question: I want to talk to you about the detail of the cases that you've mentioned – about the Douma and the Skripal cases. But before we get there I just want to continue the idea of diplomatic relationship today. Now, the US Ambassador to United Nations Nikki Haley said US forces remain "locked and loaded". When you hear that kind of language, how do you respond?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I think they have to put their own house together in Washington because we understand that this kind of statements could be made either by the Commander-in-Chief or by the military and, as I said, the military of the United States and of the Russian Federation maintain the deconflicting channel on Syria and this is some kind of confidential information.
Question: You say there is no trust. You mean zero trust now between Russia and the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: I said they are losing the last remnants of trust – which is not yet zero.
Question: Not yet zero. I just wonder: as Foreign Minister of Russia when you wake up in the morning and you read on Twitter the words of the United States President and the Commander-in-Chief saying in essence: Get ready Russia; our nice, new, smart missiles are coming – what do you make of that?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I make of that that the President of the United States writes his tweet.
Question: And your response to those tweets is?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as you know. So, we waited for these smart new – what else was there? – nice missiles to be used at the attack and we calculated that two thirds of them did not reach their target because they were intercepted.
Question: There is absolutely no evidence of that, isn't it?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, the military of the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, presented its assessment and it is available for the professional discussion.
Question: We'll get back to the credibility of the information provided by all the sides of this crisis later, but for now, continuing with the diplomatic thread: Theresa May, British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, President of France, both made it very clear that the intervention we saw was all about degrading and deterring the Syrian Government's chemical weapons threat. It was not about an intervention into the Syrian war and it was certainly not about regime change in Damascus.
Sergey Lavrov: So they said.
Question: Do you accept it?
Sergey Lavrov: We don't accept this. I mean you have hard talk, you know, we want hard facts. And "highly likely" is really ridiculous. And the policies of our Western friends…
Question: Sorry, when you say "highly likely", you mean the assessment that chemical weapons were used in Douma by the Assad government forces?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I said "highly likely" as a new invention of the British diplomacy to describe why they punish people – because these people are highly likely guilty, like in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - when he described a trial. And when they discovered that the jury could be engaged, then the King said "Let's ask the jury" and the Queen shouted "No jury! Sentence first – verdict afterwards." That's the logic of "highly likely".
Question: Well, that's what you say. But let's get into the detail of what happened in Douma. But let us do it by first asking a very basic question. Russia opposes the use of chemical weapons and it believes people who use those weapons should be punished. Yes?
Sergey Lavrov: Is it a question?
Question: Do you agree with that?
Sergey Lavrov: I thought you were much better informed about the Russian position to ask the obvious.
Question: It's obvious? You agree? Because you've signed the relevant treaties, you are part of the international commitment to ban and eliminate the use of chemical weapons.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, more than that – we did eliminate our chemical weapons in 2017 which was verified by the OPCW, which was welcomed by the entire OPCW Executive Committee and unfortunately the United States is still to deliver on its own obligations which they have been postponing again and again.
Question: But if I have just stated the obvious and it is quite clear what the Russian commitment is, then surely you must want the perpetrators of that chemical weapons attack in Douma for which there is overwhelming evidence to be punished…
Sergey Lavrov: Wait. You are jumping the facts again. There is no proof that on 7 th of April chemical weapons were used in Douma…
Question: Emmanuel Macron and the French have made it quite clear that they have intercepts which show helicopter movements, Syrian Government helicopter movements over Douma. They have pictures of gas canisters found at the site of the attack. They also have the record of the Syrian Government over the last several years using the chemical weapons. If you put all of that together…
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot be impolite with the heads of other states – and of course I cannot be impolite to the head of my state – but you quoted the leaders of France and UK and the United States and, frankly speaking, all the evidence which they quoted was based on the media reports and on social networks. The canisters – I saw this picture – a canister lying on a bed, and the bed is intact and the window glass is not broken… Look, you need to be a bit more serious. Can you explain to me why strike the day before OPCW is going to move there and to verify the fact which, they assert, was a fact?
Question: The American representative of the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says there is a deep concern that Russia has tampered with the evidence sites in Douma. Can you guarantee Russia has not tampered with it?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I can guarantee. It's absolutely the same as was the logic of Theresa May on Salisbury. When we asked dozens of questions, when we requested joint investigation, when we requested our presence at this samples-taking ceremony if you wish, she said no, we are not going to answer any question until Russia answers all our questions. The only question which was addressed to Russia – tell us how you did it. Was it ordered by Putin, the poisoning of this poor couple, or this was the result of you losing your control over chemical arsenals? I believe, for any intelligent person it's a situation which is absolutely odd…
Question: But listen…Back to Douma and back to credibility. You have claimed that the event in Douma, first of all, did not happen. Then the message seemed to change and you said there was some sort of event but it was stage-managed and fabricated by what you called a Russophobic country…
Sergey Lavrov: The event did not take place. What did take place was the staged thing. It did not involve any chemical weapons.
Question: And you believe Britain was behind the staging of a mock chemical weapons attack in Douma?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, the history knows some experience during previous decades… What we do believe and the special services, of course, can present information to their British colleagues…
Question: You say there is irrefutable proof that it was faked, it was staged. You claim the White Helmet humanitarian first-responders were involved. Where is this irrefutable proof?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, the irrefutable proof is in the visiting of the place…
Question: No, no, where is you irrefutable proof that the White Helmets backed by the British Government have faked the whole thing? It's about credibility. Where is your credibility?
Sergey Lavrov: What I did say was that the White Helmets are known to work only on the territories controlled by the opposition, including Jabhat an-Nusra, and that White Helmets are known to be ringing the bell one year ago in Khan Shaykhun which was a fake from the beginning to the end and the White Helmets are known to be financed, among other countries, by the United Kingdom.
Question: But Foreign Minister, that doesn't represent an irrefutable proof…
Sergey Lavrov: Wait a second, irrefutable proof of what?
Question: You said you have irrefutable proof that a Russophobic country by which you meant Britain had worked with these White Helmets…
Sergey Lavrov: Why did you say that I meant Britain? Don't put your words into my mouth. I did say "a country which is trying to lead the Russophobic campaign". Please, quote me correctly. Otherwise it would be not very journalistic, I would say. So, speaking of irrefutable facts. The Douma event was agreed to be investigated by OPCW inspectors. They moved to Lebanon, they were told by the Syrian Government that they would be immediately issued visas as they come to the border. Seven hours later the Douma and the Syrian territory was struck. What is the reason for going that way one day before the inspectors were about to arrive there?
Question: If the French, British and the American governments are right and you are wrong, and President Assad continues to use chemical weapons just as he did in Ghouta where he killed up to a thousand people in 2013, just as he did in Khan Shaykhun last year, just as the US-led forces say he did in Douma – if they are right and you are wrong, will you agree that President Assad must be punished?
Sergey Lavrov: Look, you don't hear me. You don't even listen to me. What I said that the aggressive action was taken less than 24 hours before the international inspectors, including, by the way, American citizens, as far as I understand, were to visit the place where the alleged chemical attack happened. The last year event in Khan Shaykhun happened on 4 th of April, next morning Rex Tillerson called me and said why don't you tell the Syrian Government they must allow inspectors to the airbase from which the plane allegedly carrying chemical bomb took off, and we told them next morning that the permission was granted. They said no, thank you, and they struck the next day. When we asked the OPCW to go there, they said it is not safe and that they don't need this in any case because the Brits and the French did have the samples. We asked the French and the Brits: Can you explain how you got the samples from the place which seems not to be very safe? Then you have contacts with the White Helmets who control the territory? And they said this is the secret information. We have much more facts to be clarified, and we have much more legitimate questions in response to the only one question which we hear from the Western leaders, from the Western media, the question being "why did you do this? Why did you use chemical weapons in Britain? Why do you cover Assad?" And so on and so forth. And then, on the basis of these assertions, you say: if you are not right, will you punish Assad? It is a very interesting…
Question: If – you are Russia's chief diplomat – if Assad is deemed by the United States, Britain, France and other countries to be using chemical weapons again, if it's quite clear there will be a military response and it will be a bigger one than we have just seen, what will that lead to?
Sergey Lavrov: Before you say "again" you have to prove that he did use the chemical weapons. Can I give you a brief history…
Question: The world wants to know. If the US, to quote Nikki Haley again, "is locked and loaded" and if they deem – never mind what you think – if they deem Assad to again be using chemical weapons, it is clear they will come up with a military response bigger than the one we've just seen, what would the Russian response to that be?
Sergey Lavrov: I'm not in the guessing business. What I know is that when some time ago the three Western countries, who are leading this crazy campaign, said: if Assad uses chemical weapons then we would use force. You know, I believe that was a signal to the bad guys, including "White helmets" to stage a provocation. Now after the strike on the 14th of April they say again: if you do this again we would use force again. This is another invitation to the opposition, to the extremists to resume fighting which they did already – they tried to attack Damascus immediately after the strike. But my point is that when people say Russia is responsible for the obligations of Assad under the Chemical weapons convention, it's a very outrageous statement. Everybody knows that we did it together with the United States.
Question: My final question that on the diplomacy before we move on to other matters: The US is pushing for a new UN security resolution today which they believe is needed to send the international signal that Assad cannot be allowed to do this again. Will you work with the United States at the UN, will you end vetoing any single resolution the US and its allies are putting forward?
Sergey Lavrov: Not every single resolution. If you mean that they want to resume an investigating mechanism which is not transparent, which is not independent and which takes you the decisions on a sentence itself without a verdict form the Security Council, then no – we cannot accept this.
Question: You won't?
Sergey Lavrov: The entire reason for this resolution is to make it look that if Russia and Syria agree to cooperate, which is impossible because of the substance, but what they want to do is to make it look that we and Syria were bombed into negotiations. That's why in that resolution they insist that Syrian government must start negotiating. They forget that the main opposition group which they all support, the so-called Riyadh group, Naser Hariri recently, the leader of this group stated that the United States must continue to use force not just in case of some chemical episodes, but against the Syrian government wherever and whenever the Syrian government opposes the opposition.
Question: Quick fire questions for you. First of them, do you believe that President Assad has won in this endless Syrian conflict?
Sergey Lavrov: It is not about winning. It is not about Assad or his opponents. It's about the Syrian people getting a break from this disastrous eight years.
Question: And what is Russia's endgame? I see you're sending more military material and men into the Syria conflict. Is it your commitment now to back Assad all the way till he controls every single inch of Syrian territory?
Sergey Lavrov: It's to protect the Syrian Arab Republic from aggression which was launched on the 14th of April and which the three countries say that they would continue.
Question: Are you going to send this latest sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile to President Assad in Syria? And if you are, the Israelis are going to be gravely concerned.
Sergey Lavrov: President Putin addressed this issue. And he clearly reminded that few years ago at the request of our partners we decided not supply S-300 to Syria. Now that this outrageous act of aggression was undertaken by the US, France and UK, we might think how to make sure that the Syrian state is protected.
Question: To be clear, you're saying that what has happened in the last few days makes you reconsider and feel positive about sending those very sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
Sergey Lavrov: It makes us convinced that whatever is required to help the Syrian army to deter aggression, we will be ready to consider.
Question: Five hundred thousand people at least killed in the seven years of Syria war. Twelve million people at least displaced. Five million of them at least now living outside Syria. Do you seriously think that President Assad can ever unify his country – heal the wounds, be the ruler of Syria in any meaningful sense?
Sergey Lavrov: We never said this. What we did say – Resolution 2254: it is for the Syrians to decide the future of Syria, new constitution, elections, let the Syrians decide. And mind you that the ongoing effort to split Syria is very much against what people say formally and publicly. And when we speak about disastrous effect of some civil wars, don't forget what will shape Iraq is in, what shape Libya is in, and those who did it they now want to have Syria joining the club.
Question: I want to briefly turn to the case of Sergei and Yulia Skripal who were poisoned in Salisbury in the South of England. In this interview you've told me that credibility is important, that trust is important. You are the Russian foreign minister. You claimed that the Skripal attack was mounted by British intelligence services who you, perhaps jokingly, I don't know, said are known for their "license to kill". Do you expect that claim to be taken seriously?
Sergey Lavrov: When we were told that there is no other credible explanation, but to assume that it was Russia which "highly likely" poisoned Skripals – we said that there are other credible explanations.
Question: But yours isn't credible.
Sergey Lavrov: Why? Why do you think so?
Question: Have you got one shred, shred of evidence to suggest British intelligence tried to kill Sergei Skripal?
Sergey Lavrov: There is an old Roman criteria "who is to benefit". The UK is grossly benefiting from the provocations both in Syria and in the United Kingdom itself.
Question: Hang on a minute.
Sergey Lavrov: And Britain is back on the stage of world politics, though in a very negative and a very aggressive, and a very weird way.
Question: There can be inconsistency in your position, if I may say so, foreign minister, in this interview you've been at pain to tell me that Russia is utterly committed to all the international commitments and conventions on chemical weapons, including supporting the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely!
Question: You know better than I that the OPCW has run tests in four different labs on the nerve agent used in Salisbury. All of them have concluded that that was a Novichok agent in a highly pure form as described by the British government.
Sergey Lavrov: That's a problem. First, the A-234 agent in highly pure form in high concentration is already raising suspicions.
Question: It came from Russia. In the former Soviet Union, you invented that.
Sergey Lavrov: Stephen, you are not factual. You may be hard talking, but you are not listening. This chemical substance indeed was invented in the Soviet Union, then one the inventors fled to the United States and made the formula public. And if you want to check before raising the issue, please do so, the United States patented this formula; and it was formally taken by United States special services or the army, I don't remember. But A-234 is a very light, I mean, it seriously damages a person, kills him of her, but it evaporates very fast; and the sample taken two weeks after the event cannot, according to our scientists, contain very high concentration.
Question: I guess it's all the question of credibility, and what you're telling me, it may be credible for Russia; it's certainly not credible around the world. See, you've had over a hundred diplomats expelled from over the twenty countries. It's clear where the consensus lies. Russia is seen as culpable.
Sergey Lavrov: If you want to finish the issue of the substance, on Saturday we presented a paper which contains, literally, the conclusion of the Swiss laboratory in the city of Spiez, which was one of the four laboratories, which did say that there were traces of A-234 of very high concentration, but they also said that there was…
Question: I will use: you trust the OPCW or you don't? It's quite simple. You seem as you're not saying you trust the OPCW.
Sergey Lavrov: For a Brit, you have very bad manners. The Swiss laboratory report also said that, and in the first place, they found BZ, which was I think invented in the United States in 1955 and was among the equipment of the US and UK army. And we asked OPCW, whom we trust, whether this is true or not that in addition to A-234 there was also BZ discovered. And we are waiting a reply of OPCW, whom, of course, we trust, but we want to trust and verify.
Question: We're almost out of time. I have to ask you about sanctions before we finish. The US Treasury Secretary is due to announce another raft of sanctions against Russian companies and individuals who are deemed to have contacts with the Syrian military. There are already over the past few weeks new sanctions from the United States on a whole bunch of different companies and individuals which have hit the Russian stock market very badly. Russia's being squeezed.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you for your sympathy, but don't worry, we will survive.
Question: Stock market down ten percent. Rouble down against the dollar.
Sergey Lavrov: You've seen the times which were very troubling in the past when George Soros undermined your stock market and dropped the pound sterling very lowly. It's not just these threats do punish those who keep contacts with the Syrian government; it's a threat which, as we see, to punish the entire Russian people for making the wrong choice during the elections. When they say that "we would never target the Russian men and women, we only target the oligarchs, the politicians, the military who disturb the world", they are lying because the desire, as I see, is to make thousands and dozens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Russians disturbed, those who have been employed…
Question: But that is Russia's vulnerability.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes.
Question: You may have lots of nuclear weapons that President Putin boasts about. In fact, he says that those weapons are the most potent and powerful in the world today, but you have an economy which is weak and vulnerable.
Sergey Lavrov: True, and we know this. But this economy has sustained quite a lot beginning from World War II. And I can assure you that the Government and the President are very much keen, you know, to make sure that the necessary reforms are taken through. And this was the essence of the first half of the Presidential message to the Parliament. And his second part when he informed his audience about the new weapons delivered in Russia. He ended by saying we always are ready to talk, provided the talk is respectful and based on the looking for balance of interests.
Question: And my final thought. The Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres said the other day: the Cold War is back with a vengeance, but also with a difference, because now the safeguards that managed the risk of escalation are no longer present. That is a truly frightening thought. You've been foreign minister 13 years. Is this the most scary time that you have been through?
Sergey Lavrov: One of the safeguards is having normal channels. The channels between us and UK have been closed by the British, with all agencies fighting against terrorism between the military dropped long ago by the initiative of London. NATO-Russia Council which was a very useful mechanism to promote confidence and transparency was closed for all practical purposes by NATO, who only wants to discuss Ukraine in that body. And the European Union closed all the avenues of cooperation with Russia except talking to us of Syria or some other things.
Question: Do you feel you are in a new Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it's worse.
Sergey Lavrov: Because during the Cold War there were channels of communication; and there was no obsession with Russophobia which looks like, you know, genocide by sanctions.
Question: You think the situation today is worse than the Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, because of the lack of channels of communication except very few.
Question: That makes it very dangerous.
Sergey Lavrov: I hope not only you but other compatriots of yours including the Government recognize this.
Question: And that's hard to imagine or remember time when Russia looked more like a pariah, looked more isolated. You have the World Cup coming in the summer which Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a rhetorical flourish said could be compared by some to Hitler's staging of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Sergey Lavrov: In 1938, the UK team was playing against Germany (in 1938 when 1936 was already past us). And if you go to Internet you will see a photo picture before the beginning of the game when both the German soccer players and the UK football players salute by the Hitler Nazi welcome.
Question: What's your point?
Sergey Lavrov: I'm not going to discuss Boris Johnson. We had a chat recently when he was in Moscow. Let him get fun.
Question: Sergey Lavrov, we are out time, but thank you very much for having hard talk.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you, Stephen.
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