Inter-American problems and regional policy
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Washington, December 10, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to express my gratitude to Secretary of State of the United States Michael Pompeo for this opportunity to have a meeting here in Washington. We accepted the invitation to make a response visit to the United States after Michael Pompeo travelled to the Russian Federation and visited Sochi in May 2019, where he had a meeting with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, and the two of us had a rather in-depth discussion.
We have regular meetings and telephone conversations whenever necessary. Today’s meeting confirmed that talking to each other is useful. As challenging as the current period in our relations and in the world in general may be, it is always better to talk with one another rather than not to talk.
We discussed in detail the state of our bilateral ties, and also exchanged views on arms control and regional conflicts. This was a business-like and frank conversation when we sought not only to listen but to hear each other too.
It is an open secret that we hold different views on a number of subjects, and it would be naive to consider that we can instantly reach mutual understanding on key questions. However, this has probably always been more or less this way. Positions never fully coincide. This is what diplomacy is all about: searching for solutions enabling each party to avoid conflict without giving up on its fundamental principles, while promoting constructive cooperation.
We do agree with our American partners, as Mr Pompeo has just said, when differences accumulate between the two leading nuclear powers we can hardly regard this situation as acceptable. It does not benefit our two countries or the international community. Instead, it creates additional tension on the international stage and around the world. It is for this reason that we will continue this dialogue. We share the commitment to working together on finding opportunities to put bilateral relations back on track. We are aware of the fact that Washington has been literally overrun by a wave of suspicion towards Russia, which has been undermining joint efforts, as you can clearly see. Today, we emphasised once again the groundless nature of all speculation regarding Russia’s alleged meddling in the domestic affairs of the US. We have not seen any evidence to back these claims. No one showed it to us, probably because they simply do not exist.
Let me remind you that at the time of the first statements on this topic, which was on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, we used the communications channel that linked back then Moscow and the Obama administration in Washington to ask our US partners on numerous occasions whether these allegations that emerged in October 2016 and persisted until Donald Trump’s inauguration could be addressed. The reply never came. There was no response whatsoever to all our proposals when we said: look, if you suspect us, let’s sit down and talk, just put your facts on the table. All this continued after President Trump’s inauguration and the appointment of a new administration. We proposed releasing the correspondence through this closed communications channel for the period from October 2016 until January 2017 in order to dispel all this groundless suspicion. This would have clarified the situation for many. Unfortunately, this time it was the current administration that refused to do so. Let me reiterate that we are ready to disclose to the public the exchanges we had through this channel. I think that this would set many things straight. Nevertheless we expect the turbulence that appeared out of thin air to calm down little by little, just as McCarthyism waned in the 1950s, so that we can place our cooperation on a more constructive footing.
By the way we have proposed several times, and once again raised this subject today, to put on paper the mutual commitment to refrain from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs, just as in 1933 when restoration of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the United States was accompanied by an exchange of personal notes to this effect. The American side proposed and the Soviet Union agreed to have US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov exchange letters setting forth the commitment to refrain from any kind of interference in each other’s domestic affairs. This initiative was spearheaded by the US. We are ready to take a similar step today, at this important stage.
Anyway, we agreed that it would not be the right thing to do to put our relations on the backburner, suspend or postpone contacts on the key issues the world is facing today. We are ready to engage in practical efforts on all matters of mutual interest and act proactively as long as it suits our American partners.
One of the central themes of our conversations was strategic stability. We noted the negative consequences of the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. We underscored that in current conditions, after the Treaty’s termination, we are not going to neglect this sphere of strategic stability. In his messages to the heads of leading states, including the United States and other NATO members, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was announcing a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of these missiles and would not deploy them in specific regions until similar US-made systems appear there. We made this proposal to our Western partners, including the United States, so that this would become a mutual moratorium. This proposal remains on the table.
Today, we discussed the future of another treaty which is set to automatically expire in February 2021, unless extended. I am talking about the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Russia reaffirmed its proposal to make a decision on extending the Treaty already now. Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed this position in his recent public address.
We also reaffirm our proposal on issuing a statement at the level of presidents on the unacceptability of unleashing a nuclear war. This proposal also remains on the table.
Speaking of regional affairs, we discussed Ukraine today. I briefed in detail US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and members of his delegation on yesterday’s Normandy format talks in Paris, on decisions that were adopted at these talks, on matters that are yet to be resolved, so as to move towards fulfilling the Minsk Agreements. It is vitally important that the final document that was approved yesterday by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and France and by the Chancellor of Germany reaffirms the unshakeable nature of the Minsk Agreements and calls for fulfilling them in full. This is our absolutely clear position.
We also discussed the need to continue discussions on ways to overcome the crisis around the Iranian nuclear programme. You know our position. We believe that it is necessary to do everything possible to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is aimed at ensuring the peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear research projects. Of course, we are gravely concerned about the situation taking shape in the Persian Gulf and the Hormuz Strait. We suggest that all countries wishing to ensure safe shipping and navigation should review the Russian proposal. This proposal is aimed at launching dialogue on establishing a collective security system in the Persian Gulf region. In September 2019, we already held a special seminar with the participation of political analysts, experts and the academic community in Moscow. It involved many regional countries, including Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and a number of European experts. We also invited US representatives, and we hope that they will take part in the next event of this kind.
We discussed the developments around Venezuela. Russia invariably underscores that the people of Venezuela should determine their future themselves. We believe that the dialogue that initially took place within the so-called Oslo format, which, unfortunately, became deadlocked, and the current roundtable discussion between the government and the moderate opposition will yield the desired results and the crisis will be resolved by peaceful methods alone.
We discussed the developments on the Korean Peninsula. We advocate its denuclearisation. We believe the contacts between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are extremely important in this context. We hope that our position, which Mike Pompeo and I also discussed, namely, the position of Russia and China (we coordinate approaches towards these matters) will help Washington define its future policy in view of the current impasse in the negotiating process. We are convinced that it is necessary to move forward in line with reciprocal actions in order to resolve this impasse. We are ready to actively help overcome the current issues on this track.
We discussed Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 encompasses all the frameworks that should determine the efforts to achieve all aspects of the peace settlement. We underscored the need for further cooperation between Russia, the United States and other players in order to eradicate terrorism in Syria completely. We also stressed the need to resolve humanitarian problems and, of course, to conduct a sustainable constructive political process that was launched in Geneva within the framework of the Constitutional Committee. The Syrian parties should agree on the future of their country within the Committee’s framework.
We discussed other numerous hotbeds of tension in the Middle East and North Africa. As I see it, we are both interested in closer dialogue on the Libyan peace settlement. We also cooperate on the situation around Yemen. Of course, it is very important to keep an eye on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which is obviously stalling and remains in a critical state.
In addition, we talked about bilateral affairs. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump agreed on a number of specific steps during their 2018 summit in Helsinki and on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka this past June. In terms of the results this has had, Counterterrorism Dialogue resumed a year ago, and several rounds have already been held. This dialogue allows Russia, the United States and the entire international community to more effectively combat this evil. We hope that this format will remain intensive after the US co-chair steps down. As far as I know, John Sullivan will attend Senate hearings on appointing him US Ambassador to Russia tomorrow. We know him as a highly professional and experienced diplomat, and we will be happy to cooperate with him. Naturally, we expect that the Russian Ambassador to the United States will receive the same support.
Regarding the economy, despite the sanctions, which, as we know, harm everyone, bilateral trade has expanded confidently during the presidency of Donald Trump. While Barack Obama reduced bilateral trade to $20 billion, Donald Trump helped attain $27 billion by late 2019. This is an almost 33 percent increase; it helps create jobs in both countries and spells greater profits for producers. I believe that we can achieve even more mutually beneficial results if we create additional incentives for this cooperation.
We agreed to continue looking for ways to eliminate irritants in bilateral relations, including the situation with the arrest of Russian citizens abroad, failure to issue visas for members of Russian delegations taking part in international events in the United States, as well as for diplomats, and the situation with diplomatic properties. We agreed that our deputies will continue a detail-oriented discussion on all these matters, and we want to make this discussion constructive and, most importantly, fruitful.
In conclusion, I would like to say that on the whole, given all difficulties and disagreements, the potential of our economic cooperation and our ties in other areas remains impressive. It is in the interests of both countries to make full use of this potential and expand relations for the benefit of our two countries and the entire international community. We are ready for this. Today, we felt a similar shared intention of the US side. I am grateful to Mike Pompeo. We want to continue our dialogue. I invite him to visit Russia at any time convenient to him.
Question (to Michael Pompeo): On North Korea and your discussions with North Korea, are you satisfied with Russian and other countries’ sanctions enforcement? And then also within the past week, North Korea has warned of a “Christmas gift” for the United States. Is the administration prepared or do they expect North Korea to return to a more aggressive posture, perhaps want to terminate negotiations?
Sergey Lavrov (speaks after Michael Pompeo): We are talking about sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. Sanctions are an instrument used by the UN Security Council, but the resolutions we are talking about go beyond sanctions. Each of these resolutions states the need to step up the political process. This factor is often relegated to the background in the coverage of the ongoing developments.
We believe in the need to actively support this political process. Direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang can play a key role here. Our position is that this dialogue should resume, and we strongly believe that it can yield tangible results, but only if reciprocal steps are made. The DPRK should not be required to do everything and all at once, and only after that go back to the question of ensuring security, lifting sanctions, etc. In light of the humanitarian situation in the DPRK, urgent steps are needed to understand whether the international community is ready not only to demand that the resolutions be fulfilled, but also to respond to DPRK’s legitimate economic and humanitarian needs. Today, it is extremely challenging to deliver to the DPRK even the goods that are not covered by any sanctions imposed by the UN or the United States. In fact, manufacturers and transport operators are simply afraid of being punished once again for just mentioning that they traded with the DPRK even if their business was legitimate. This is how we got into the current deadlock. Of course, we call on the DPRK leadership to exercise restraint and hope that the right conditions for resuming dialogue will be created.
Question: In your discussions over Paul Whelan, are the US and Russia any closer to resolving that case? Is Paul Whelan any closer today to freedom?
Sergey Lavrov: The investigation was completed in September, and the defendant is currently studying the indictment papers. It is currently up to him and his lawyers when they are done with these papers. After that the court proceedings will take place in order to close this file, and it is only after the proceedings come to an end that we can make decisions based on the official bilateral documents on law enforcement.
I note that there is much talk about Paul Whelan’s health. We treat this issue with all seriousness. He gets regular check-ups with our doctors. He was complaining about an inguinal hernia, and he was offered the opportunity to have an operation, but he refused. I would like to note that Paul Whelan has adopted an arrogant posture. It may be that this was the tactic chosen by his lawyers. He threatens the staff of the Federal Penitentiary Service to make holes in their heads with a drill, and makes other arrogant statements. It may well be that he was advised to act this way by his lawyers. If his goal is to build an image of a martyr, this approach is probably wrong and unfair. Let me reiterate that we are acting in strictly keeping with the law and the applicable international norms.
Question: Do you believe that Ukraine meddled in the US election in 2016, and is that specifically something that you discussed with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo today?
Sergey Lavrov: We have nothing to do with this question. It applies to two sovereign countries. It can be said that indirectly it sheds light on the absurdity of the accusations Russia has been facing of meddling in the 2016 election. I have already said that we are ready to release correspondence we exchanged with the US administration regarding the allegations of interference. We are ready to disclose to the public the documents that are so important for the society, as soon as Washington gives its consent.
Question: Has today’s meeting helped clarify the future of the New START Treaty? Will it be renewed? What do you think about the idea of the US to bring China into the negotiations? Is there a sincere desire to involve China or is it just a “red herring,” as people say here, trying to find a pretext not to extend the treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: President Vladimir Putin has recently reaffirmed yet again Russia’s readiness to agree to an extension for the New START Treaty in order to ease international tension over the termination of the last arms control instrument between the Russian Federation and the United States. We are ready to do so even today. The ball is in the court of our US partners.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin has also commented on China’s involvement on numerous occasions. If the PRC is ready to join in, we will support this approach. Of course, in this case we will have to take other nuclear powers into consideration as well, including both acknowledged and unacknowledged nuclear weapons states. However, China has made it clear that it will not be part of these negotiations since it is far behind both Russia and the US in terms of the number of its nuclear weapons and the structure of its nuclear arsenal. Today we looked at the statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) regarding China’s nuclear arsenal. It is several times lower compared to Russia and the US.
That said, let me reiterate that if China is ready, we are open to considering transforming nuclear disarmament into a multilateral process. Nevertheless, as Vladimir Putin said to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Sochi in May 2019, this has to be negotiated. In fact, our US colleagues have yet to put their formal proposals down on paper. This will take some time. In the meantime, in order to avoid a vacuum Russia and the United States as the biggest nuclear powers could extend the New START Treaty in order to calm the international community. This would be a good thing to do.
Question (addressed to Michael Pompeo): If the attempt to enlist China in discussing the New START Treaty, given Beijing’s objectives outlined by Mr Lavrov, fails, will you be ready to extend the Treaty, albeit in a limited format without the PRC?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Michael Pompeo): Replying to this question, Mike Pompeo said that in suggesting to expand the number of participants in the strategic nuclear arms control talks, the US had in view, as he put it, a “set of conditions,” rather than the ceilings of each of the participants. This is the first such explanation coming from an official US representative. It is for this reason that I mentioned the fact that it would be easier for us and other intended recipients of this US idea to consider it if it were somehow formulated.
Question: You said that you would like to receive from the US some additional information on the Russian meddling in the US elections. Why not just read Special Counsel Mueller’s report where there are many details on US accusations against Moscow in what it concerns its interference in the 2016 elections?
Sergey Lavrov: We have read this report. It contains no confirmation of any collusion. Let me repeat for the fourth time our proposal to publish the data that would show how Russia responded, through a special channel created to review cyber threats, how Russia aimed to discuss this in a confidential manner, and how the Obama administration turned down all these proposals. I think the publication of all these data would harm neither the transparency of the process nor Special Counsel Mueller himself in that his report should reflect the entire picture, and the journalists too would probably find it interesting to read. I reaffirm our proposal.
Question: Is there any progress on establishing a Russian-American business council?
Sergey Lavrov: Today, we discussed our economic cooperation, including the possibility of making organisational improvements to it as a follow-up to the discussions that President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump had in Hamburg, in Helsinki, and recently in Osaka.
Question: Given the massive expulsions of Russian diplomats several years ago, it seems obvious that the consular services in both Russia and the United States find it more difficult to operate, including the issue of visas to official delegations. Was this matter discussed? Are you planning to resume consular operations?
Sergey Lavrov: We fully agree with the expediency of effective operations by the consular services. We were talking about the visas today. Let me give you the following figures: the US diplomatic missions in the Russian Federation have 155 more employees than Russian diplomatic offices operating on the bilateral track; 155 is the number of Russian representatives at the UN. When we decided to ensure parity in terms of diplomatic representation, we chose not to subtract from the overall quota those diplomats who do not oversee bilateral relations, nor have the right to do so. Therefore, we have 155 diplomats fewer here than the US has in Russia. Regrettably, Russian citizens have to wait for 300 days for a visa interview in Moscow, 40 in Vladivostok, and over 30 in Yekaterinburg. I mean, only in order to be interviewed. Our US colleagues explain this by the fact that all their consular employees left after the imposition of quotas. Probably each country has the right to determine the structure of its diplomatic mission. We also had to cut where it hurt and many consular employees left. But in our case, there was not a single instance of foot-dragging on the issue of visas. All the visas are issued within the same timeframes as before these nasty developments in our bilateral relations. We think that it is of fundamental importance to maintain precisely this approach, considering the significance of people-to-people contacts – sports, cultural, inter-parliamentary and others. The more Americans and Russians visit each other, the easier this travel will be, and the better in terms of strengthening our relations and partnership that, as I said, has enormous potential.