Inter-American problems and regional policy
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following his visit to the US, Washington, December 10, 2019
We are winding up our visit to the United States, [which took place] at the invitation of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. In addition to the talks with Mr Pompeo and his team, following which we held a news conference at the US Department of State, there was a meeting at the White House with US President Donald Trump that passed, as I believe, in an atmosphere of mutual understanding, primarily in what concerns the responsibility of Russia and the US for the state of affairs in the world.
We stated that there were a number of serious problems – [alas,] there is no escaping from them. We understand the specificity of the current situation, above all that of the domestic political environment in the United States, but both sides share an intention to do more and make more efforts to achieve concrete results in the spheres, where we can collaborate in a mutually beneficial and effective manner.
We paid special attention to strategic stability, global security, and the state of affairs in the field of arms control and non-proliferation. The situation is quite grave. There is just one Russian-US treaty remaining in force – I am referring to the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, or the so-called New START Treaty. We have proposed and reaffirmed that this treaty should be extended. Moreover, we think it essential to adopt a decision on this extension the earlier, the better – before the end of this year – as President of the Russian FederationVladimir Putin suggested recently.
Naturally, we take into consideration the situation around the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). We have reminded [the US] about President Putin’s proposal to impose a mutual moratorium on the development and deployment of the armaments banned under the INF Treaty. We will be prepared to discuss this with our US colleagues, if they are interested. If not, we can do nothing about it. As Vladimir Putin stressed, our security is reliably ensured. But we are conscious of our responsibility for preserving and consolidating at least some disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation instruments. A Russia-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution on preserving and consolidating these instruments was adopted by 174 votes, with no one voting against All Western countries, including the United States, voted for it. This at least gives us hope, small though it is, that Washington is still aware that a collapse of this entire system must not be allowed.
In a number of other spheres, we have an opportunity to cooperate usefully to benefit both our relations and international stability. I mean the dialogues that are being continued and the mechanisms on Syria, Afghanistan, and the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula that are still ongoing.
We talked today about the need to take some steps to prevent an aggravation of the Gulf crisis and to address problems originating from the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme.
In conclusion, we discussed prospects for economic collaboration. Our mutual trade will have grown by 25 percent at the yearend by comparison with 2016. We understand that this is not the limit of our potential, although this growth is taking place against the background of sanctions. Both business communities are interested in promoting mutually beneficial cooperation.
Question: Did you have another chance to invite US President Donald Trump to Moscow for the Victory Day events? Did you manage to get any answer out of him? Did you consider the possibility of an official meeting of the presidents of Russia and the US?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Russia Vladimir Putin invited US President Donald Trump to attend Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2020 in Moscow during their meeting in Japan on the sidelines of the G20 in June. I have reaffirmed this invitation today, on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump is contemplating this.
We hope that if such an opportunity arises, a full-fledged bilateral summit will certainly be possible.
Question: The day before, US Congress agreed on a draft military budget, which includes possible sanctions against Nord Stream-2 and Turkish Stream. Have you covered this topic? The Congress sounds very determined. How seriously will the new restrictions affect the completion of our projects?
Sergey Lavrov: In my opinion, Congress sounds rather obsessed with destroying our relations. It continues pursuing the policy started by the Obama administration. As I mentioned, we are used to this kind of attack. We know how to respond to them. I assure you that neither Nord Stream-2 nor Turkish Stream will be halted.
Question: Today you had the opportunity to talk to Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump. Did Donald Trump complain to you, in a private conversation maybe, about the Democrats launching the impeachment process? Do you think it was pure chance that Donald Trump received you at the White House today – the same day the Democrats began a new stage of impeachment?
Sergey Lavrov: Answering your first question, I have already mentioned the topics we discussed. I also said in my opening remarks that we have not discussed anything else. As for the schedule of US Congress meetings, frankly, I was never interested. Are you saying they scheduled a meeting when they found out that I was arriving today?
Question: In your discussion about Syria with President Trump and Mike Pompeo, have you noticed any new position that would facilitate the political solution in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: Mike Pompeo and I discussed the problems of the Syrian peace process. We have a shared position, which we reaffirmed today: there is no military solution, but an inclusive nationwide dialogue needs to be promoted, mainly in the framework of the political process at the Constitutional Committee launched in Geneva, and ways should be sought to involve Kurds in the political process, mainly through helping them to establish contact with the central government in Syria – this is something we are confident of. We are talking with them about this, showing that it is the only reliable way to ensure the interests of the Kurds as well as other ethnic and religious groups in Syria. Russia and the US have a dialogue channel on Syria, mainly between the military departments as part of the so-called deconfliction process. There are also contacts between the ministries of foreign affairs.
Question: And, if I may ask you about your assessment of the situation in Lebanon and Iraq – what’s the position of Russia regarding what’s happening in Lebanon and Iraq?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position is that the current crisis in these countries can be resolved exclusively through a national dialogue with the involvement of all political, ethnic and religious groups. In Lebanon, it should be based on respect for the principles underlying the Lebanese Constitution. We consider this to be fundamentally crucial. It is essential to prevent a situation where an ethnic group will be excluded from these processes, also under the pretext that some technical authorities need to be formed. Such a step would seriously deviate from the traditions that have allowed Lebanese society to maintain its integrity and ensure the country’s sovereignty.
We support the government of Iraq, now forced to fight the remaining terrorist groups while at the same time working to consolidate society, again on an interethnic and interreligious basis involving both the Shiites and Sunnis, and with respect for the role that Kurdistan plays in the Iraqi statehood. I have recently visited Iraq; I have been to Baghdad and Erbil. We have expressed solidarity with the Iraqi leaders’ efforts on this track.
I hope both Lebanon and Iraq will avoid a destructive intervention of external forces, but that all external players will encourage both Lebanese and Iraqis to reach an agreement at the national level. Only in this way can these countries become stable, as well as the region.
Question: At your joint news conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he said that despite all the differences, the United States is committed to expanding cooperation on fighting terrorism and drug trafficking. Could you share any details of this conversation? Did you agree on enabling the bilateral working group on counterterrorism or other forms of interaction between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries to resume full and regular work?
Sergey Lavrov: When President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and President of the United States Donald Trump met in Helsinki back in the summer of 2018, they supported our proposal to promote cooperation on counterterrorism. Under the Obama administration the working group offered a framework for these ties. In the midst of the decisions that were later taken against Russia by the United States this format was suspended at Washington’s initiative, alongside many other contacts we had. In 2019, at Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s initiative we resumed dialogue in the format, which consists of regular consultations at the level of deputy foreign ministers and deputy secretaries of state. Russia is represented in these consultations by Deputy Minister Oleg Syromolotov, and the US is represented by his counterpart, John Sullivan, who is about to complete his confirmation hearings to become ambassador to the Russian Federation. We hope that it will not take long before the US finds a new head for its delegation. By the way, both the Russian and the US delegations are formed out of people from various agencies, including diplomats, the military and other agencies in charge of dealing with the terrorist threat. This is a very useful mechanism that provides for a comprehensive approach to working together on this urgent matter.
Question: It looks like on the START Treaty you have not made a lot of progress with the US. You have floated the idea that maybe Moscow would be up for an extension of less than five years. Did you put this proposal forward to Secretary Pompeo and President Trump? Did you receive any sympathetic response to that?
Sergey Lavrov: Our proposal to Washington consisted of saying that all options are on the table for extending the New START Treaty. This will be my brief answer to this question. It reflects the gist of our discussion.
Question: My other question is on North Korea. What sanctions should be lifted so that the talks between Pyongyang and Washington can get going?
Sergey Lavrov: We believe that there were already enough sanctions against the DPRK, maybe even more than enough, considering the unilateral sanctions on top of those imposed by the UN Security Council. We believe that since each UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions also stipulates the need for a political process, this requires a flexible approach. Among other things, the current sanctions regime affects humanitarian affairs in one way or another.
There was a telling example that I brought to the attention of Secretary Pompeo today, and he promised to take a look into this situation. The Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had a project to openly deliver to the DPRK humanitarian aid that was totally legal. The items included in these humanitarian deliveries did not breach in any way any bans imposed by the UN Security Council, and was not related in any way to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US in addition to the UN sanctions. Still, the FAO’s attempts to find a supplier and, more importantly, an operator for delivering the aid to the DPRK were faced with a serious obstacle, since everyone is simply afraid to sign on to this operation, while nothing prevents it from being carried out. This “sword of Damocles” must be removed, and this should be formalised in one way or another. Our US colleagues understand this issue. I do hope that they also understand the need to stimulate DPRK’s interest in promoting cooperation by taking steps to meet Pyongyang halfway in response to what the DPRK has already done by imposing a lasting freeze on its tests. However Pyongyang never saw any positive action in response. We will promote a plan of action that Russia devised in cooperation with the PRC taking into consideration the comments from the US and the Republic of Korea. It is our hope that this plan of action will help the sides resume direct talks instead of presenting each other with ultimatums.
As I have already said, it would be unrealistic to expect the DPRK to do everything the US wants from it and complete the denuclearisation process, and only after that reap the benefits, improve its economic standing, have the sanctions lifted and get security guarantees. Our US colleagues use the terms “denuclearisation of the DPRK.” This notion is imprecise and inaccurate, since all the agreements are about denuclearising the Korean Peninsula. These are different things, as you can plainly see. We will continue to encourage the sides to resume a dialogue, but for that there must be reciprocal steps in response to the actions the DPRK has already taken.
Question: Today Mike Pompeo said that the White House would soon be ready to issue a big statement on economic cooperation with Russia. Do you know what he was talking about? Did you discuss this?
Sergey Lavrov: We discussed today the reviewing of the principal agreement between our countries’ presidents, reached in Helsinki last year and proposed by Vladimir Putin. I mean the establishment of a Consultative Business Council that would unite heads of private businesses - seven to ten people from each side - and that would enjoy the support of Moscow and Washington and develop pragmatic agreements on mutually beneficial projects in the economy and investment. Our colleagues said they supported the idea. In line with President Trump’s instruction, they are developing their response. Probably this is what Mr Pompeo meant.
Question: You’ve seen President Trump in action for three years now. Do you think that he is a reliable partner for Russia, someone that you can count on to do what you want him to do, what he promises to do?
Sergey Lavrov: It is primarily up to the American people to decide on President Trump’s actions. Speaking about relations with Russia, we have no reason to doubt that President Trump fully understands what the Americans, US businesses, the US in general and the global situation would gain from good relations between Russia and the US. That is, from relations that must not have any shade of concessions to one side or the other, that must be based on a balance of interests, on pragmatism and mutual benefit. This is our general impression of US President Donald Trump. We know that not everyone in the US shares his stance and some want to stall the normalisation of our relations by any means, including the introduction of new sanctions. I hear that a Democratic senator Robert Menendez is advocating sanctions because the Russians suffer from the oligarchs. This is an interesting legal story. Let me repeat: we have no doubt that President Trump is sincere and fully understands that the US would only benefit from normal relations with Russia.
Question: The strain that the impeachment process has put on the Ukraine-US relationship. What sort of leverage do you think that gives Russia in your discussions with Ukraine about ending your conflict with it?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not understand what we have to do with the relationship between the US and Ukraine and what leverage can be used here. These are relations between two sovereign states and this is how we see them.
Question: Do you leave here more hopeful or less hopeful that New START can be extended than when you came? Or is there a drop-dead date, after which it would be too late to extend the treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: February 5, 2021, is this date. Until then, everything is in our hands and the hands of the US. Our proposals are on the table. I know that they have heard us. It’s up to Washington to decide now.
Question: The White House has put out a statement about your meeting with President Trump saying that the President did warn you not to interfere in US elections and also urged you to try and settle your conflict or the situation with Ukraine. Did you discuss these two items and if so, could you tell us about the discussion?
Sergey Lavrov: We did not discuss elections at all. And speaking about Ukraine, I shared with Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo my opinion about the Normandy format summit held yesterday in Paris. This opinion is based on the summit’s final document, which was adopted and circulated, including in the media.
Question: What do you think of the United States, based on your discussions on Syria? Do you think the Trump administration is coming along, or maybe accepting the Assad regime’s rule in Syria? Or were they more critical of the Russian position, critical of the Russian bombing in Idlib? Maybe opening an embassy in Damascus? What’s your opinion of how the United States views the Assad regime?
Sergey Lavrov: As for how the United States views the legitimate government of Syria, you had better ask the American authorities. At least, the support that the United States provided, though not immediately, to the Constitutional Committee in Syria − which as you know, consists of three parts, one representing the interests of the government, another representing the opposition, and the third, civil society – indicates that the United States accepts the realities that exist in Syria. It is these realities that underlie the Constitutional Committee. Today I sensed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s interest in achieving a result in the work on constitutional reform, as stipulated by the UN Security Council resolution.
As for Idlib, I told Mike Pompeo that the city has become a hotbed of terrorism. Unfortunately, our Turkish colleagues have yet failed to fulfill their commitment to delineate between the armed opposition not tainted by any terrorist acts and Jabhat al-Nusra, now disguised as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – something they pledged to do in September 2018. We understand that this is difficult to accomplish. The Obama administration once assured us they would filter out the militants who were ready for a political dialogue from Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists. This promise was never made good on – the Obama administration proved unable to do so. We had doubts then about Washington’s attitude to Jabhat al-Nusra and suspicions that the terrorist group was being preserved to be later used against the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad. Be that as it may, unlike ISIS, which suffered heavy losses and was scattered into disparate groups, Jabhat al-Nusra has seized control of the Idlib de-escalation zone and is attacking the Syrian troops’ positions, civilian infrastructure and Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base. We naturally respond to each of these strikes. This situation definitely cannot be maintained forever. It should develop towards the end result – a complete liberation of this zone from terrorists and the restoration of the legitimate government’s control over the entire territory of Syria. It is also alarming that the terrorists who control this zone are spreading themselves throughout the region. A large group has been spotted in Libya, where they are adding fuel to the clashes that hamper the resumption of political dialogue.
We discussed in detail the Syria situation, as well as what is happening on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where the United States, at the head of its coalition, which came uninvited to Syria, is rigorously arranging the life of the local population, supported by Kurdish units and occasionally causing confrontations between the Kurds and Arab tribes when the Kurds come to their traditional lands and wish to stay there. We proposed that the United States resolve the issues of the east coast through promoting Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as stipulated in the UN Security Council resolution Washington supported.
Question: It’s not even a few hours since the end of your meeting with Donald Trump, and American journalists and politicians have already expressed a wave of criticism of its format – it was held behind closed doors and the media were not present. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, described the meeting as “the success of Russian propaganda.” Do you feel that you have been successful?
Sergey Lavrov: Firstly, the Russian media were not allowed to attend either, so it was not just about the US media. If Adam Schiff describes routine contacts between foreign ministers and the fact that a visiting foreign minister was received by the host country’s president as a “triumph of Russian diplomacy,” maybe the next thing we know is that our diplomats, like our athletes, are being accused of taking dope and are then prosecuted. The absurdity of Adam Schiff’s position is fully obvious to me, as I am sure, to any sane person.
Question: As you know, the President last time you were here disclosed some highly classified information during your meeting. I wanted to know if anything, to your knowledge, has been discussed today that would be considered highly classified?
Sergey Lavrov: I can only know the answer to your second question from what you are going to write. At our first meeting with President Trump, no one disclosed any classified or confidential information, as has been said many times. If anyone believes differently, we would like to know what specific information was being referred to in this story, which is already becoming surreal.
I don’t know what you will regard as classified information. We have spoken about things I have described to you honestly, almost word for word. Think about this. If you find any secret, you will have a scoop.
Question: A scandal is unfolding in Great Britain due to the publication of a dossier with details on talks about the national healthcare system between London and Washington. Some politicians, for example Jeremy Corbyn, have already accused Russia of interfering in the British election by publishing this dossier. Would you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard this, but I am not surprised. I have not heard about this exact aspect of our alleged interference in the relations between the US and Great Britain. I heard that my former counterpart, now Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson, said openly that Russia did not interfere in British affairs during Brexit nor does it interfere now. In this instance, I believe him.
Question: Your visit coincided with the discussion of several draft laws on sanctions in the Senate. Do you consider sanction risks when you execute foreign policy decisions? Do you warn the country’s leadership about such risks?
Sergey Lavrov: It is a coincidence that our delegation arrived in Washington on the day when new sanctions were being discussed. Before that, there was a question about our arrival coinciding with the discussion of the impeachment. It seems to me that no matter what day we chose to come to Washington, it would be a day of sanctions, impeachment or something like that.
Question: The White House issued a read-up that explicitly said that President Trump warned you against any Russian interference in US elections. Are you saying that this warning was not delivered?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not read the White House’s read-up about our conversation. We have issued our own: read it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the news conference at the State Department that the US warned Russia against interfering in the elections, and I responded. I told President Trump that Mr Pompeo had mentioned this in public. In response, I said in public that we had made an offer to the current administration that we disclose the correspondence between Moscow and Washington, between October 2016 and January 2017, via the special channel designed to counter any risks in cyberspace. This would make it clear that we were ready to cooperate on any issue related to the US’ suspicions about Russia’s interference in the elections. The Obama administration was bluntly refusing to establish such cooperation. What else can we offer, if direct confirmation of our readiness to discuss any US concern is rejected and if the current administration refuses to disclose this correspondence (I don’t know why)? This was discussed publicly at the news conference at the State Department.
Question: What is your impression of the personal conversation with President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky? Can it be that, apart from Kiev and Moscow, Washington can also help resolve the conflict in Donbass more quickly? Maybe, the United States should also join the Normandy format?
Sergey Lavrov: The atmosphere of the Normandy format talks and those between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky was constructive, mutually respectful and pragmatic. Unlike many Ukrainian politicians who openly ideologise the problems existing in Ukraine, the presidents did not do this during the talks. The parties openly displayed a business-like desire to conduct detailed and result-oriented talks rather than make a loud statement and make themselves heard in their respective “constituencies.”
Speaking of capitals where it is necessary to search for an additional resource to help resolve Ukrainian problems and fulfil the Minsk Agreements, after Kiev, I would rather mention Donetsk and Lugansk, than Moscow and Washington. This is the gist of the problem, the essence of the Minsk Agreements – direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. Today, Ukrainian nationalists, ultra-radicals and neo-Nazis are putting on a show and demanding that Vladimir Zelensky must not surrender the homeland, capitulate, commit high treason or launch any direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. It appears that Petr Poroshenko, who signed the Minsk Agreements, more or less heads this process. This is aimed at preventing any settlement and at continuing with efforts to abide by an adage that implies that most people suffer from war, while some profit from it. This is deplorable.
We hope that Vladimir Zelensky will unfailingly honour his election campaign promises, namely, ending the war, stopping the loss of human lives and ensuring peace throughout Ukraine. This can be accomplished by fulfilling the Minsk Agreements. This matter was discussed in Paris, first and foremost. The very first clause of the document, approved yesterday by the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and France and the Chancellor of Germany, says that there is no alternative to the Minsk Agreements. Any country, including the United States, as well as other Western and non-Western countries, could help by persuading the Ukrainian side which it influences (in case of the US, it is Kiev) to conscientiously fulfil the Minsk Agreements.
Nothing good would come of it, if the United States continued to adhere to the positions advocated by Kurt Volker, the former US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. It should be recalled that he suggested deploying occupation forces in Donbass under the UN flag, abolishing all agencies that now ensure the everyday activities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics, establishing an international administration there, deploying an international police force in the region and thereby resolving the crisis and holding elections after that. Understandably, the occupation administration would see elections as a “cosmetic” affair after the deployment of occupation forces. We hope that our work to explain the situation around the Minsk Agreements will not be in vain. Our foreign colleagues will help unfailingly honour UN Security Council Resolution 2202 that unanimously approved the Minsk Agreements.