Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with the Channel NewsAsia, Kuala Lumpur, August 5, 2015
Question: Mr.Lavrov, welcome to the program “Conversation With…” What do you have to say to the Malaysian families who lost loved ones on MH17?
S.Lavrov: We already expressed our deepest condolences on many occasions to those who lost their families, their relatives, their sons and daughters and parents. This is a terrible tragedy, and from the very first days if not hours of this incident we have been insisting on a very thorough investigation and we were among the initiators of the Security Council Resolution 2166, which was adopted a bit more than one year ago, on the 21st of July last year, and which called for a thorough comprehensive independent international investigation under the authority of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The Security Council pledged to keep this investigation under its permanent review. It’s also called upon the Secretary General to provide recommendations as to how the Security Council and the United Nations in general can help and assist in the investigation, and it also called upon all countries who might possess any information to submit it to the investigation procedures. Unfortunately, the investigation which was started, was not independent, was not comprehensive and was not truly international. Instead of acting under the authority of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is the rule under the Chicago Convention, Ukraine, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands signed bilateral agreements between themselves, the substance of which was never made fully known, and they organized a joint criminal investigation team August 2014. It’s really very strange the Malaysia was invited to join only in December 2014. Now this is a five-country criminal investigation group. Technical investigation team is broader: they invited several other countries to participate in this technical investigation, including the Russian Federation - a representative of the Russian civil aviation organization is participating in these procedures. But the information we receive through this representative is not complete. We are being given less than those who started the investigation, which is also subject to questions.
The Secretary General, unfortunately, in spite of our reminders did not provide his recommendations as to how the United Nations can facilitate the investigation, and the call of the Security Council upon all countries to submit information which might have any relevance to the incident was basically responded to only by Russia. We submitted the data from our radar station in the Rostov Region, which monitored the skies at that time. The Americans said that they did have images from the satellite, but never submitted them, never made them public. The same is true for the Ukrainians, who were asked to provide recordings of the air controllers and between the planes up in the air in the area of incident. All this, unfortunately, has been repeatedly brought to the attention of the United Nations, of the general public, by us. We suggested a couple of times that the Security Council should consider the implementation of that resolution and should call upon everyone to strictly abide by its provisions. Unfortunately, the proposals were blocked in the Security Council. The Secretary General also was asked by us to appoint a special envoy to monitor the investigation, and we also suggested to dispatch Security Council mission to the area. All this was blocked and, unfortunately, blocked by those very countries who now insist on creating the tribunal.
Question: Isn’t it a bit confusing now there? Because the Malaysians have, as a representative of a group, and that is of course Malaysia, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ukraine, they’ve all come together, though, to put forward the latest draft resolution for the tribunal and they seem to be in agreement that there appears to be sufficient evidence to pursue a criminal tribunal. Why is it that Russia decided to veto that draft resolution? Why are you so against a criminal tribunal?
S.Lavrov: No. We are very strongly demanding that the truth be established and that the culprits be brought to justice. The Security Council was involved from the very beginning, and I’ve just explained what measures the Security Council demanded to be taken one year ago. None of this was implemented, and the investigation is not transparent. It is not complete yet. The preliminary report which was circulated causes so many questions. It never answers such a very simple thing which air traffic and air service experts immediately brought to the attention of the public. They only said that the plane was hit by high-energy particles. The first thing professional investigators do is to conduct chemical analysis of those particles. With modern technologies it is possible to immediately identify what the metal is and what factory in what country produced this particular thing.
Another problem which I believe is very important is that from the very beginning they were finger-pointing, saying: “We know who did it: the rebels in Ukraine did it from the Russian-made air defense missile system”. They even identified the system, which is one of the options, one of the versions that we believe must be thoroughly investigated. Why do you think they never, ever approached the Russian company which produces those systems? The company itself conducted its own study and they presented the results in June this year. But the fact that the investigators didn’t ever approach the company which produced the system from which the investigators say the plane was hit is causing a lot of questions.
Answering your question my point is that the Security Council one year ago identified very specific steps to conduct the investigation. Most of the steps were not heeded, were not implemented, and people repeatedly blocked our proposals for the Security Council to pick up the matter during the year which passed after the tragedy, and they were saying that they are doing this among themselves.
By the way, the five countries you mentioned, apparently, agreed among themselves not to make any information public, unless all of them, including Ukraine, agree. And we also don’t understand why Malaysia was invited only six months after the investigation team was composed.
Question: But Malaysia obviously seems satisfied enough to actually be the proposer of the draft resolution for the criminal tribunal, and expressed great disappointment in fact that the resolution wasn’t passed. The blocking vote came from the Russian Federation. So if the countries involved, who suffered victims, seem to feel that the coming report, which will be out in October, has sufficient evidence in it to pursue a criminal tribunal, why is Russia still so adamant?
S.Lavrov: You say they were disappointed. We have been hugely disappointed that during the year which passed after the tragedy all our attempts to push the investigation, to make it transparent, to provide information, because the families did not receive enough information. All our attempts to get answers for the questions which we formulated through our professional civil aviation agency – all of this was just stonewalled, and it causes suspicions.
Question: What is your suspicion? When you say ‘causes suspicions’, what are the suspicions?
S.Lavrov: When people who say: “We would investigate”, instead of fulfilling the Security Council decision that the investigation must be under the authority of the International Civil Aviation Organization, they ignored this, and they created their own small team without even inviting immediately Malaysia, waiting six months to do this. Then, in previous disasters like this, including when in 1988 the United States shot down the Iranian civil airliner, when Ukraine shot down the Russian airliner in 2001, the Lockerbie case – all of these were considered as criminal offense. The Security Council never created any tribunal to investigate these incidents. Every time there was some special way out, and the specific proposal which was submitted – apart from the arguments which I already alluded to, like ignoring the previous resolution, but insisting that the Council should create a tribunal – apart from this, the specific proposal was very peculiar. It was proposed in the draft statute to establish a tribunal based mostly on the Ukrainian law, for the judges and prosecutor of the tribunal to be appointed by the Secretary General without consulting the Security Council, and the judges, as it was proposed in the draft statute, should have experience in exercising Ukrainian and Malaysian law. It does not look like an international investigation or prosecution mechanism.
Question: Do I understand correctly though that you are implying that the other countries, including Malaysia, are being manipulated by the Ukrainians?
S.Lavrov: I’m not saying that anyone is manipulated by Ukrainians, and least of all by Malaysians. We believe Malaysia is the most sincerely interested country in establishing the truth. It has experienced two disasters with its airliners, and I don’t see any political motivation in what Malaysia is trying to do. There should be no doubt about it. I cannot be so certain about some other colleagues, especially from the Western countries, who seem to be quite prejudiced. But still, the chief of the criminal investigation team said that he didn’t exclude that the plane might have been hit by an air-to-air missile, not just by surface-to-air missile.
Our experts have been looking into both options, and they believe that both of them must be investigated. But when we try to speak about this, it is very easy to be driven by emotions – “oh, Russia vetoed something which was supposed to establish the truth!” I never get an answer from my colleagues in this investigation team to a very simple question: if from the very first days it was stated that most probably the plane was hit by the “Buk” air defense missile made in Russia, why the producer of this system was never contacted and why this producer had himself to initiate some investigation and then the results of this investigation were made public.
And the very simple question about the American satellite images, about Ukrainian air traffic controllers recordings. By the way, those who insisted that it is the rebels who are responsible try not to mention a very simple and a very well-known fact: this happened on the 17th of July. One the 20th of July the black boxes were discovered, on the 21st of July there were given to Malaysian experts who then transmitted them to the Dutch investigators, immediately. There are so many politicized games around this tragedy that we cannot really pretend that we are satisfied with the way the original resolution was handled. It was bypassed by the investigators, the demands were not implemented, the information is not made public, and they were ignoring our proposals to engage the Security Council during the year saying that they are doing this on their own.
I don’t believe it’s crucial for them to have something under the Security Council. None of such cases has been subject to a tribunal by the Security Council. The representatives of the this criminal investigation group including Ukrainians said that they are thinking of creating some mechanism outside of the United Nations, maybe using a national jurisdiction. That’s how all similar disasters have been handled.
Question: So you would like it to be done under national jurisdictions and nor under the United Nations?
S.Lavrov: I would like the UN Security Council Resolution 2166 to be respected fully which was not the case by the criminal investigation team created by the five countries you mentioned.
Question: Transport Minister of Malaysia Liow Tiong Lai said that instead of conveying a message of support, of justice and accountability we are sending a dangerous message of impunity for the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Do you agree?
S.Lavrov: No, I don’t agree with this. I read an interview with the former ambassador of Malaysia to the Netherlands in “The Sun” yesterday who said different things. He said this is hugely politicized, and I agree with him.
Question: So you think that the Malaysian government, by implication, is being manipulated or has a political agenda? It’s not been obviously really revealed?
S.Lavrov: I don’t know whether the Malaysian government is manipulated. I said only one thing and I can repeat it again. I don’t have any suspicion that the Malaysian government sincerely wants to establish the truth. I am sure this is the case for the Dutch government, and for the Australian government. But there are also those in Europe and in the West who would like to use this tragedy to achieve also political purposes.
Question: Who are these in Europe and in the West who would try to achieve a political purpose – if you discount those who have suffered most?
S.Lavrov: Those who immediately, the next day after the disaster, pointed the finger to the rebels. Now these very people say that they want justice to prevail.
Question: Are you referring to the Ukraine?
S.Lavrov: They were many statements in Europe and in the United States. I don’t think Ukraine was making any straightforward statements. My point is people including those whose countries created this criminal investigation team have said that they knew who did it. If you know who did it, you say so. Present your report and then we will all see whether this report is persuasive.
But they also must answer why they ignored most of the demands of the Security Council of the original resolution. Doesn’t it look fishy?
Question: The countries that are involved seem to think that it doesn’t look fishy and that there is sufficient evidence to try and pursue a criminal tribunal…
S.Lavrov: If you were asked to present your opinion, do you think that the Security Council resolution on such an important issue should be strictly implemented or not?
Question: But that would imply that 2166 was somehow wrong fundamentally, and a new resolution should be put forward.
S.Lavrov: I am asking whether 2166 should be implemented strictly or not?
Question: The most important of this interview is definitely your opinion, not mine. Could we move on to look at Russia’s role in Asia.
S.Lavrov: Now that you’ve failed to answer my question, okay, let’s move on.
Question: Shall we look at Russia’s engagement here in Asia. Later this month, Russia will be holding joint military drills with China in the air and sea space of the Sea of Japan. The Chinese Defense Ministry at least has said that they see this as a way to further enhance the capabilities of jointly coping with maritime security threats. So what are these maritime security threats?
S.Lavrov: Oh, a lot. Piracy, for one. Smuggling, including smuggling of potentially dangerous materials, maybe materials related to weapons of mass destruction. So it’s about piracy, it’s about non-proliferation – just the same purposes as we are being engaged together with NATO, together with China, together with the European Union – in the Gulf of Guinea, in the Gulf of Aden, the Somali piracy coalition. This is not something unique. I don’t have the statistics but the number of exercises that we conduct on our eastern frontiers together with China or other countries is a very tiny percentage of the number of exercises our American neighbours conduct together with Japan, with South Korea and others in this area. We are very much concerned about the military buildup that is taking place in this region, the continued strengthening of the closed military blocs. Instead of going this way we proposed three years ago together with China, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia and other countries to discuss in the context of the East Asia Summits the formation of an open, comprehensive, non-bloc security and cooperation architecture. There have been four rounds of discussions, and we hope that at the forthcoming East Asia Summit this year the leaders will express themselves on the work being done.
Question: Given the situation in the South China Sea where there’s a certain amount of tension some political watchers would say that the joint military drills might indicate that Russia supports China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Does Russia support China’s claims in the South China Sea?
S.Lavrov: These political analysts should better study what our position is. It’s not a secret, it’s publicly presented. We are strongly in favour of any dispute in the South China Sea, in East China Sea, in any sea for that matter to be resolved on the basis of international law, including first of all the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, on the basis of the declarations signed between China and ASEAN. On this basis the countries directly involved in any dispute should find mutually acceptable solutions without any outside interference. We don’t believe that attempts to internationalize these disputes are really healthy. Such attempts normally are intended not to help the countries in question to move closer but rather to gain some political scores internationally. I don’t believe this is serious and I don’t believe this is fair.
Question: So what are Russia’s intentions in Asia?
S.Lavrov: You know that Russia is the biggest Asian country, if you take territory from the Ural Mountains where the Asian continent starts. We have legitimate interests on all borders of our big country. We are one of the biggest Pacific powers. We certainly have an interest, first of all, in developing our Far East and eastern Siberia. It is not populated as densely as the European part of Russia, and we want this part of our country to develop much faster than it does. And of course these days of interdependence and globalization offer a lot of opportunities to promote your national interest in cooperation with your neighbours, with other countries in the region, that’s why while developing our own programs for Russia’s Far East and eastern Siberia, we try to engage all the potentials existing in Asia-Pacific cooperative structures, including APEC, East Asia Summits, ASEAN and including our bilateral relations with the countries of the region. We are now number eight economic partner of ASEAN, our volume of trade doubled during last seven years. It is more than $20 billion a year now. We intend to continue, not only in trade but we also have joint economic projects in high technology, nuclear energy, outer space exploration, transport infrastructure. There are many plans between us and the countries of the region which I believe are mutually beneficial.
Question: You mentioned that there’s been a significant increase in trade between Russia and ASEAN to $20 billion. But does it concern you that trade between the US and ASEAN is almost ten times larger. It’s around $200 billion. Is that a cause of concern?
S.Lavrov: Why should it concern us? Trade between ASEAN and the US is their business. We are not doing something with our ASEAN friends to outmatch somebody. We are doing this for the benefit of ASEAN and the Russian Federation. And let trade between ASEAN and other countries boom up to the skies we would be concentrating on the abilities that we and ASEAN can use together.
Question: What do you think of the move by the current Japanese government, Prime Minister’s Abe government, to change their Constitution so that they could be more active militarily overseas?
S.Lavrov: It is the Japanese Constitution and it is the responsibility of the Japanese people. I have no doubt that the Japanese people understand the historic legacy which is not very bright and I am sure the Japanese government understands the importance of maintaining good relations with all its neighbours. Of course, I would hope that they keep in mind their international responsibility as regards the order created after World War Two.
Q. Do you feel, though, that the world is becoming a more dangerous place? Do you think that the relations, for example, between two big superpowers like Russia and the United States are more dangerous and more dangerous for us in Asia?
S.Lavrov: You know, no and yes. ‘No’ because I don’t even think that it is possible to imagine something like the repetition of WWII or something like Hiroshima, the 70th anniversary of which comes these days. This was a terrible event in world history, absolutely unnecessary. So dangers like this I don’t foresee.
There is no bipolar confrontation, when the whole globe was split into two parts. But at the same time, with the collapse of this bipolar confrontational structure, there appeared so many regional conflicts and, of course, the actions by some of our colleagues, including the United States, to promote their own view of the world and to promote their own vision how all countries must live, including through using military force, including through changing the legitimate governments – all this brought to life so many uncertainties and gave rise to people who want to use terrorist means to achieve their goals. If somebody is allowed to use force, they say, why don’t we follow the same example and promote our ideas? That’s how ISIL announced its goal to create a caliphate from Spain to Pakistan, across huge territories.
Question: Are you drawing parallels between ISIL and the United States?
S.Lavrov: No, ISIL to a large extent as we see it now is a product of the “revolutions” which took place in the Middle East and North Africa. But what I’m saying is, whenever you start expanding your ideology not by persuasion, but by force, you create so many risks and so many dangers, be it the promotion of communism, like the Soviet Union used to do, be it the promotion of democracy in spite of all the cultural differences and ignoring the traditions and values of the people whom you want to make happy, or be it terrorist ideals of the caliphate. You cannot impress and impose your will upon others by force.
Question: What should Russia be doing in all of this, if you feel that the world has got at least one superpower that is attempting to persuade people by force?
S.Lavrov: Russia is in favour – and we have been doing this for quite some time now – of making the United Nations Charter respected, making the Security Council be the central body as the Charter provides for, to coordinate efforts of the international community in addressing modern threats and challenges, including terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime.
Our initiative, which we presented last year, is to have under the United Nations Security Council a thorough analysis of all threats which are present in the Middle East and North Africa, mostly the threat of terrorism, and to elaborate a common standard to address such threats. I’ll explain what ‘common standard’ means. When Libya was attacked, those who wanted to overthrow Gaddafi, they were closing their eyes and even sometimes supplying arms to the groups on the ground, very extremist groups, only because they were fighting the Gaddafi army.
When Gaddafi was deposed, these very people started trouble in neighboring countries, including Mali, and the countries who armed them, like France, for example, to topple Gaddafi were fighting them in Mali and these people were fighting the French with the French weapons. This kind of double standards must be avoided. If we all want to eradicate terrorism, then we must not allow the situations to happen when we close our eyes on bad guys and call them not-so-bad terrorists because they fight your enemies, someone whom you hate, like Saddam Hussein, like Muammar Gaddafi, like other authoritarian leaders, as it were. Neither in Iraq, nor in Libya, nor in Syria where attempts to change regime by force from the outside are being made, people became happier. Don’t you agree with me?
Question: If I could bring you back to Asia, though. Do you think that the United States is a destabilizing force in its presence in Asia?
S.Lavrov: I didn’t say this. I said that the United States is making...
Question: Unfortunately, I believe that your colleague, the Defense Minister, has said that, that the United States is possibly one of the most destabilizing forces in Asia. Do you agree?
S.Lavrov: I said that the United States is engaged in a very huge military buildup in Asia, including under the pretext of countering the North Korean threat, but the scale of the buildup is way beyond the need to neutralize – disproportionately huge, let me put it this way. The United States is also building missile defense in cooperation with Japan and South Korea, which is not helpful at all, and the fact that the United States dropped from the ABM Treaty some time ago was a destabilizing factor of global importance, because it triggers the buildup and that brings us back to the mutually assured destruction logic as it relates to the strategic stability.
Question: But we are not there, at the mutually assured destruction logic anymore, are we?
S.Lavrov: I said that the withdrawal of the United States from the ABM Treaty brings temptation to bring this logic back, which would be very unfortunate.
Question: Russia would not want that?
S.Lavrov: Russia doesn’t want any arms race and Russia would not engage in the arms race. We have enough technological means to provide not very expensive answer to the efforts to build missile defense, especially when the Iranian nuclear issue has been resolved. President Obama in 2009 publicly said that if the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved, there would be no need for missile defense in Europe. It seems that he was not telling the truth.
Question: A fundamental and the last question: is Russia still a superpower?
S.Lavrov: We are modest people. It is up to objective analysts internationally to describe what Russia is.
Question: And you would not use the word ‘superpower’ on Russia?
S.Lavrov: We respect ourselves and we have our own dignity, but we would not brag about what we are. Let the objective analysts decide.