Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Itogi Nedeli for the NTV network, Moscow, September 24, 2017
Question: It looked as if it was a difficult week for the UN General Assembly, what with some delegations walking out and others joining the debate and making statements. It was probably part of the diplomatic game. What is your assessment of these developments?
Sergey Lavrov: This is inevitable, because heads of state and ministers attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly and the General Debate. It is mostly a week of bilateral contact and, of course, remarks delivered at the General Assembly, where all countries present their approaches to current international issues. A huge number of side events are held parallel with the GA session, and this could be even more important. These include bilateral trust-based talks on delicate issues, during which the sides sometimes find something that they will be able to use in their work later. Also, a great many multilateral events are held. In my case, I have attended some 70 meetings, including with the foreign ministers of the CSTO, SCO, CELAC and many other countries, plus a meeting of the five permanent Security Council members with the UN Secretary-General.
It [the General Assembly] is a very important international event, because it allows you to meet with nearly all state leaders in one place within a matter of one week.
Question: The Americans announced before the GA session that US President Donald Trump would deliver a deeply philosophical speech about the world order and the need to reform the UN, but as I see it, in the end he called for making America great again, because the United States pays too much to the UN and gets too little in return, and that all countries must fend for themselves. He meant that if the United States pays so much, it has more rights to dictate its will to others. What is our opinion on this matter? It appears that we have our own view on what the UN should be like.
Sergey Lavrov: The UN should be what its member states decide it should be like following the talks that all of them attend. It should be reflected in the decisions that they take as the result of these talks.
As for the principles of the [Political] Declaration for UN Reform, which the American delegation has distributed and opened for signature by UN member states, the majority of them are indisputable: the UN should be more effective and efficient, it must deliver on its mandate, reduce mandate duplication and overlap, and strengthen its budget functions. But when Russia and some other UN member states proposed discussing some phrases, we were told that the declaration is not for discussion and that we must sign it as it is. Of course, Russia, China and France could not accept this approach.
Many countries have signed this declaration, but this has not made it a UN document. It is true that the event was held at the UN headquarters, but it is not connected in any way to the bodies that were created under the UN Charter. For the UN Secretariat to accept these recommendations and principles as the basis of its operation, as Washington wants it to do, the Secretariat must be mandated to do so by the Security Council or the General Assembly and ECOSOC. This is all regarding the status of such declarations. However, we are glad that the Trump administration has taken an interest in the UN. It would be much worse if it ignored the organisation.
That the UN is a bit overweight is old news, but any serious reform calls for caution, because the UN’s “corpulence” is due to the fact that it has 193 member states. Each member state, even if it only has a population of 10,000 or 15,000 people (there are such countries, in particular, in the South Pacific), wants to take part in the organisation’s work, in particular, to have its representative at the UN Secretariat. I believe that this is a perfectly understandable desire. Therefore, we must be very careful when cutting away the fat so that we do not damage the living UN organism.
Question: The Americans have shown more than once, as this is happening with regard to North Korea now, that there is the UN and there are US desires. They adopt unilateral sanctions and make threats, and in response the North Korean leader promises to blow up a huge hydrogen bomb, and this may not be a joke. The US President called Kim Jong-un a madman, and in this case it is more than just name-calling. What is to be done?
Sergey Lavrov: The majority of those I spoke with at the UN said one and the same thing, even if it was worded differently: the Americans attacked Iraq only because they knew for sure that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction left. The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspected Iraq rather intrusively, travelling all over its territory and visiting any facility they wanted. When UNSCOM concluded that Iraq did not fully comply with its requirements, those who planned the invasion of Iraq knew that it was not true. The commission’s leadership – who wants to know that one of the UNSCOM leaders represented Australia? – have committed a great sin.
Now the Americans are using the same scenario with regard to another country, North Korea. However, they will not attack North Korea because they know without a doubt that the country has a nuclear bomb. President of Russia Vladimir Putin said on this topic more than once that it is impossible to imagine the Americans or anyone else having fail-safe information about absolutely all secret facilities. I am not protecting North Korea. I am saying that virtually everyone accepts this analysis of the situation. The Americans need to think about this situation until they understand it thoroughly (I hope that analysts and those who will make recommendations regarding US decisions are already doing this), or else we will go into a very unpredictable nosedive, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens of South Korea, North Korea and Japan will suffer. Moreover, Russia and China are located a relatively short distance away, and although we do not have densely populated areas there, every life counts.
Question: In the 21st century, it is not quite normal for people to threaten to totally destroy a country. This sounds like a bad case of throwback. What can be done to stop this stream of threats?
Sergey Lavrov: Only kindness, counsel and persuasion will help.
Question: This reminds me: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with you as soon as you arrived. Is it true that he came to you for talks many times during that week?
Sergey Lavrov: No, he came to me only once. The other times we met on “his” territory or at the UN.
Question: Well, diversity never harmed anyone. However, you say that you do not want to militarise cyberspace, while the Americans launch the Facebook scandal and Vice President Mike Pence makes anti-Russia statements. The sum total looks huge to an outsider. What relationship do we have with the United States now, and what relationship will we have in the future?
Sergey Lavrov: The Russia haters who cracked up after President Trump’s victory are trying to drive his administration into a corner. Democrats are again playing the lead role, because they continue to explain the defeat of their candidate, Hillary Clinton, by Russia’s alleged interference in the elections. I have seen excerpts from Clinton’s book (I have not read the book to the end), in which she blames Russia and President Putin for her loss and claims that Vladimir Putin never liked her. Well, I can understand a disappointed woman.
Besides, Republicans are actively joining Democrats, at least on some issues. My explanation is that the voters elected a candidate who is not part of the system because he reached out to them. He [Donald Trump] came in first at the Republican primaries. The party bureaucrats who are part of the system probably wanted to see someone from their team in his place, someone who would listen more closely to what they say.
Question: Today US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley said that Russia interfered in the US election but that the United States will cooperate with it nonetheless. How should we interpret this?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, these people are new. They need time to get the feel of the UN, to understand how it works and how to conduct talks. I take a philosophical view on this.
Question: President of Russia Vladimir Putin instructed you to collect documents to file a suit in court apropos our real estate. How is it going?
Sergey Lavrov: We are working on this. We are talking to lawyers and collecting preliminary opinions from different law firms. This is neither a matter that we should procrastinate on, nor one that we should rush.
Question: You are meeting Americans on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Don’t you ask them why everything is going like it is even though they say to everyone that they want to be friends as we do?
Sergey Lavrov: We don’t say anything like this to anyone. If they suggest that we do something together, we then deal with this particular issue, but if they call us the main threat to the United States, why should we talk with them at all? How can we convince them otherwise?
Question: After meeting with US President Donald Trump, Ukrainian President Poroshenko said that they (Trump and he) will never support the introduction of the UN mission to protect OSCE observers (in line with Russia’s principle) in Donbass.
Sergey Lavrov: At least he said “Trump and I’ – so he has maintained some manners. After all, he could have said “I and Trump.”
Question: How should we react to this?
Sergey Lavrov: You should not bother to react at all. We submitted a proposal and justified it on all sides, including statements by President of Russia Vladimir Putin. We have not received from anyone any concrete proposal on paper as regards our initiative. If they don’t want to discuss it, what can we do? We will not compel them to, will we?
Question: After his meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko, US President Trump started talking about hurricanes. We thought it was indicative that he spoke about hurricanes in America.
Let’s talk about Syria. I believe now 87 percent of Syrian territory has been freed. ISIS will be soon ousted from Syria. One gets the impression that the Americans don’t like this and they are starting to provoke strikes. What can Russia do in this situation: make a tough statement in a “don’t you dare” manner or make a new attempt to come to terms with them in a diplomatic way?
Sergey Lavrov: We are working on this via the relevant channels and this work is producing results. In my opinion, the Americans understand everything fully well on the level of their military. They have professionals. As for differences in our goals, they certainly do exist.
When ISIS (as well as Jabhat al-Nusra) is destroyed, it will become clear what goals are to be pursued in Syria and by whom. Our US colleagues, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, swear to us that they have no other goal in Syria but to destroy the terrorists. When this happens, it will become clear if this is true or whether the United States is pursuing some political goals that we do not know about for the time being.