Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Russian and foreign media, Moscow, November 25, 2015
Sergey Lavrov: I’ve just spoken on the phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. He assumed office only yesterday, and today he has asked for an emergency telephone conversation. I agreed to do this, of course. We expected Turkey to provide explanations yesterday, possibly at a higher level, but better late than never.
Mr Çavuşoğlu began the conversation by expressing his sincere condolences, as he emphasised, over the death of Russian military personnel. He expressed regret over the incident but also justified the action of the Turkish Air Force by saying that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace despite repeated warnings and ultimately spent 17 seconds in it. He also said that Turkish air controllers and pilots didn’t know that it was a Russian plane because Syrian military aircraft also fly in the area – I can add that NATO aircraft do as well. But when you open fire at a plane that was in your airspace for 17 seconds, you risk hitting one of your own. Besides, a Russian-US document on ensuring the safety of combat aircraft flights in Syria, about which I reminded Mr Çavuşoğlu, includes the US commitment to ensure compliance with these rules by all members of the coalition. I asked my Turkish colleague if Turkey had coordinated its actions against Russian planes with the United States as the leading nation of the coalition. He had no answer. I reminded him about the hot line established between Russia’s National Defence Control Centre and the Turkish Defence Ministry at the beginning of the Russian Aerospace Force’s mission in Syria, and that this hot line had not been used yesterday or any day before. This invites some serious questions.
We strongly suspect that it was a premeditated action. It looks very much like a planned provocation, which stems from the reports made by you and your colleagues, which include prearranged footage, and other evidence. My colleague tried to convince me that this is not so, but I cited what President Putin had said at a meeting with King of Jordan Abdullah II yesterday and informed him of other evidence, which we are analysing. In particular, I said that according to latest reports, which President Putin mentioned yesterday, there may be hundreds if not thousands of Russian militants in the region where only Turkmen allegedly live, as our Turkish colleagues claim, and these militants directly threaten our security and the security of our people. Moreover, there is also terrorist infrastructure in that region, including weapons and ammunition depots and command and supply centres. I asked if Turkey’s attention to that region, including several proposals on creating a buffer zone there, can be interpreted as an attempt to protect this infrastructure from destruction. He couldn’t answer that question either.
I also said that the Turkish Air Force attack on the Russian plane yesterday has put a new face on the situation with illegal oil trade and the illegal oil industry, which ISIS has created in the occupied territory. Yesterday’s tragedy happened after we started delivering highly effective precision air strikes at the ISIS oil trucks and oil fields.
I also reminded my colleague that Turkey again raised the issue of a buffer no-flight zone during our presidents’ meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya. I expressed hope that these actions that are concerned with inroads into Syria, into the territory of a sovereign state, would not be continued, and that the attack at our plane yesterday and the situation in general would not be used to push through the idea of a buffer no-flight zone, one way or the other. I pointed out the highly questionable statements that were made at the Brussels meeting of the NATO Council members’ permanent representatives yesterday, which Turkey initiated, and that the speakers did not express sympathy or regret over the tragedy with the Russian plane, but rather made statements that were in effect intended to justify the Turkish Air Force’s action. The reaction of the European Union was strange too.
The Turkish Foreign Minister assured me of their intention to maintain friendly relations with Russia and again said that Turkey has the right to deliver strikes at any planes that violate its air space. He reminded me about similar Turkish calls made on Russia in early October, when a Russian plane entered the Turkish air space for several seconds, an incident which we have explicitly explained. But he also said that Turkey had warned us that next time the Turkish Air Force would be unable to stand back.
Yes, there were warnings of this sort, but Russian satellite monitoring data, as you may know, clearly show that the aircraft was in Syrian airspace, where it was shot down, and crashed to the ground four kilometres away from the Turkish border. But even if we take on faith what our NATO colleagues say and what Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed to me earlier today, namely, that the aircraft had been in the Turkish airspace for the whole of 17 seconds, I immediately recall an incident that happened three years ago, in 2012, when the Syrian tragedy was just getting under way. At that time, Ankara charged that Damascus was to blame for letting the Syrian Air Force shoot down a Turkish aircraft that had allegedly intruded into Syrian airspace. Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, if my memory serves me, told parliament that a brief airspace and border intrusion could not be a pretext for using force. I reminded my Turkish counterpart of this statement, and he couldn’t reply anything to this either; he simply repeated that they hadn’t known whose plane it was.
Our conversation lasted for nearly an hour. In reply to his appeals to preserve good relations and start a dialogue, I reiterated what President Vladimir Putin said yesterday. First, a dialogue should be promoted before the moment when you use force in a situation that gives rise to a lot of questions. Second, I am certain, incidentally, that friendly relations between the Russian and Turkish people are not contingent on actions committed by this or that politician. But, as President Putin said, we will seriously revalue and rethink our current relations and the agreements we signed with the present Ankara government from the perspective of this attack against our aircraft. Let me end my opening remarks at this point. I’ll be ready to answer any questions that you may have.
Question: Here is a question about reassessing our relations. Indeed, Turkey was a friendly country that did not support Western sanctions, and Russia appreciated this very much. And this friendly country has suddenly become unfriendly overnight. Currently, everyone wants to know how future relations will develop. Will we go to war with Turkey? Russia perceives Turkey primarily as a tourist destination. Add to this project Blue Stream and the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline, Turkish builders and Turkish imports. And, finally, one should not forget that Russian ships sail between the Black and Mediterranean seas via Turkish straits. How can this affect our future relations? Won’t we curtail our well-established partnership that has evolved over the years?
Sergey Lavrov: We are not planning to fight Turkey. Our attitude towards the people of Turkey has not changed. We are questioning the actions of incumbent Turkish leaders. I have listed a number of facts showing our goodwill and the fact that we have always strived to establish practical and pragmatic relations with our Turkish neighbours, including in the context of the Syrian crisis and especially when the Russian Aerospace Forces started operating in the Syrian Arab Republic at the request of the official powers in Damascus.
Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin emphasised that we have always strived to respect the regional interests of our neighbors, including the regional interests of Turkey. I’d like to say, all the more so now, as this is already common knowledge, that, of course, everyone has known for a long time about many facts now being mentioned by us (including the terrorists’ use of Turkish territory for preparing their operations in Syria and terrorist attacks in various countries, and the efforts or failure of official Turkish authorities to fight this). It is not that we tried to overlook these facts, but that we have always strived to heed the legitimate interests of our Turkish neighbors, and we have tried to explain our viewpoint during trustful and frank dialogue with them in order to convince them that they should conduct a more well thought-out policy. One that would not only aim to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at all costs, and one that stipulates allied relations with any extremist group, even the most outlying ones. We have never publicised this work at any level, we have never voiced any negative assessments of Turkish leaders’ actions;on the contrary, we have always advocated a search for joint constructive actions in a bilateral format and in the context of multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis and to fight terrorism. Unfortunately, Ankara did not reciprocate, and, as I see it, the leaders of the Republic of Turkey made some unbefitting official assessments of Russia’s policy in the Syrian crisis long before our Aerospace Forces swung into action.
Regarding your questions on specific aspects of our cooperation that are the subject of current or draft intergovernmental agreements, the Russian Government has now received a directive, and it calls for the review of the entire range of relations. Of course, we don’t want to create artificial problems for Turkish producers and exporters who, of course, are in no way responsible for the incident. Nor do we want to create any additional problems for our citizens and companies cooperating with the Turkish side. But we must respond to the incident, and not because we have no choice but to respond, this isn’t the issue. In reality, too many factors presenting a direct terrorist threat to our citizens, and not them alone, have accumulated in Turkey. No one really controls this improvised bridgehead, although we are receiving information that secret services are monitoring these processes, to put it mildly. We are facing a multifunctional and multi-component situation which needs to be assessed by various agencies. This assessment will be quickly made, and proposals for reporting to the Russian President drafted. I hope that all this will be accomplished quickly. We will not make any proposals that would artificially alienate the peoples of our countries.
We have already advised Russian citizens not to visit Turkey. This measure does not amount to some kind of vengeance, and this is not some kind of a rushed emotional outburst. We have assessed the existence of terrorist threats in Turkey rather objectively. This recommendation is based on an objective and comprehensive assessment of the situation.
Question: How do you assess the NATO reaction to the incident? After all, it’s the most serious incident in NATO-Russia relations since 1950.
Sergey Lavrov: I’ve just said that I listened to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement. It seemed to me that as a statement it was a little bit galvanic and, in a larger scheme of things, covering up for what had been done by Turkey. NATO has 28 members, after all, and how the discussion was proceeding in Brussels yesterday couldn’t be kept under wraps: some information does trickle down to us. The discussion was heated, very heated. There were quite hard-hitting remarks addressed to Turkey for having attacked the Russian aircraft. But the notorious allied solidarity and the consensus principle prevailed after all.
We understand, of course, that Turkey would have never allowed any critical comments to be reflected in the joint position as set out by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. But we also know that the secretary-general’s statement was not coordinated verbatim with all members. He as it were took upon himself this responsibility: possibly he looked at the leading NATO members, listened to them, and said what he said. I’d specially single out (and I said as much to Mr Mevlüt Çavoşoğlu earlier today) a phrase of his to the effect that yesterday’s occurrence emphasised once again the need for taking measures in the context of the danger presented when Russian military infrastructure moves closer to NATO borders. I hope that all people present here are competent enough and I don’t need to explain to them how intrinsically hypocritical this statement is. The EU representatives said approximately the same in their ornate style.
Ms Federica Mogherini will be addressing the European parliament later today; she also asked for a telephone conversation. Possibly we’ll have an opportunity after this meeting with you.
Question: You planned to fly over to Turkey and to discuss Russia and Turkey’s possible involvement in the fight against ISIS. Has this opportunity now been lost completely or is Russia ready to discuss this involvement in line with certain conditions, to say the least?
Sergey Lavrov: I wanted to go to Turkey for another reason. A well-established structure of bilateral interstate dialogue functioned quite well until yesterday. The Russian-Turkish High-Level Cooperation Council (Presidential Council) involving all the main ministers is at the top of this dialogue. The Russian-Turkish Joint Strategic Planning Group, headed by national foreign ministers, is an everyday coordinating agency. Istanbul was to have hosted its regular session (Turkey and Russia are taking turns hosting these sessions) today. Naturally, we cancelled the session after yesterday’s attack on our plane. We still have no plans for visiting the Republic of Turkey or receiving our Turkish colleagues here.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu realises that this could not be avoided. He told me straightforwardly about cancelling today’s meeting and expressed hope that we would be able to sit down and discuss everything calmly somewhere on the sidelines of international events. For example, he mentioned the upcoming meeting of the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers, scheduled for December 3-4, 2015 in Belgrade. I did not voice my consent because, first of all, it is necessary to comprehend all aspects and consequences of the incident, rather than discuss everything calmly. We are not shying away from contacts, as is evidenced by my telephone conversation with Minister Çavuşoğlu today.
You have asked a very good question about the anti-terrorist coalition. Technically speaking, Turkey is a member of the US-led coalition. A Russian-US memorandum on avoiding aerial incidents, signed by military representatives, stipulates various obligations and specific measures. The US side noted in this memorandum that it applies to all coalition members, including Turkey. But the Turkish side did not take any precautions, as stipulated by this Russian-US document. Apart from this document, the US-led coalition stipulates discipline for its members. Some coalition members, including those who have designated their warplanes for hitting Iraq and Syria, have told us off the record that, as their air forces operate US-made planes, the United States is demanding that these coalition members ask its consent prior to air strikes. As far as I understand, the Russian plane was downed by an F-16 fighter. It would be interesting to know whether this US demand that US-made warplanes only be used by coalition members with Washington’s consent applies to Turkey. If so, it would be interesting to know whether Turkey asked the United States for permission to launch its planes and to down an unidentified plane over Syria. All this raises a lot of questions.
President François Hollande of France, whom we expect in Moscow tomorrow, is now in Washington and held a joint news conference with President Barack Obama. The two leaders emphasised that ISIS targets alone should be attacked and that Russia would do “right” if it restricted its strikes to ISIS positions. First, all documents, including those of the Vienna Process, mention the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. I understand how difficult it is for our Western partners to retreat from this narrow interpretation of these antiterrorist objectives, because as soon as we enter a sphere of definitions – who is a terrorist? – the Western coalition is immediately split by serious contradictions. There are Kurdish detachments. The US regards them as allies, arms them, and assists them, at least with advice. But Turkey views them as terrorists. It’s hard to move on unless we introduce clarity in this matter. There are groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which have been repeatedly seen cooperating with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. There are other groups that have done absolutely gruesome things along with the terrorists. But they are being passed off as the “moderate opposition” and suggested as partners in any talks with the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The coalition’s two Vienna meetings (I am referring to the coalition that focuses on the political process, but it will inevitably focus on the antiterrorist aspects as well) have ended in our coming to terms on the following. First, the political process should be pursued by the Syrians themselves. It is only the Syrians who can decide the fate of their country, including the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Second, for the process to get under way, it is necessary to convene UN-sponsored talks between the opposition and the Syrian Government as soon as possible, and for that – to determine at last, who can represent the opposition in a combined joint delegation. Instructions related to this have been handed down to a UN representative who is generalising the proposals on what specific Syrian political groups (possibly even with the inclusion of representatives of the Syrian armed patriotic opposition) can sit down at the negotiating table with the Syrian Government. Third, we’ve come to terms on the need to develop a common vision with regard to terrorist organisations and to compile a general list of them. Jordan has been asked to coordinate this effort. This was discussed with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Sochi yesterday. They are engaged in preparatory work but this process will be a difficult one.
It is very difficult to go on with the Vienna Process as long as there is no single list of terrorist organisations to be exempt from ceasefire arrangements (at some stage a ceasefire will have to be negotiated) and a list of members of a joint opposition delegation. All implications to the effect that Russia has at last become active in the political process and that this process should continue are of the devil. Russia has never slowed its effort to promote the political process, starting with the approval of the Russian-sponsored Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012, which we immediately submitted to the UN Security Council for approval, while the US and the Europeans flatly refused to do this, declaring that they could only approve the Geneva Communique if it was amended with a clause saying that Bashar al-Assad should go. Eventually, the Security Council approved it, but only a year and half later, when a resolution on Syria’s chemical demilitarisation was being approved. After this, we continued to display initiative as well, including the hosting of several meetings with the Syrian opposition and representatives from the Syrian government in Moscow, approved documents, and called on others to cooperate. But the others, including members of the US coalition, staked their hopes on a military solution and the deposition of the Assad regime. It was not before they saw that this wouldn’t work that they finally modified their position.
We are true to our open and honest position. We don’t have to camouflage our position with some kind of incomprehensible verbal zigzags, as is done by certain partners of ours, including the Europeans, and we hope that the others will act in the same vein. For all the importance of the Vienna Process, it is highly doubtful that the meetings will continue in this format until a decision from the November 14 meeting on reaching an agreement regarding the composition of the opposition delegations at the talks with the Syrian government and on drawing up a single list of terrorist organisations is implemented. At least, we don’t expect any progress. I told this to our Western partners and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the other day and suggested that we meet as soon as possible. I replied that holding yet another meeting to engage in a senseless and hopeless tug-of-war over the fate of Bashar al-Assad was a waste of time. That it was necessary to come to terms on the terrorists and the delegation’s composition. Otherwise, the process won’t budge: the talks won’t begin, and it won’t be possible to discuss a ceasefire.
Question: What can Turkey do to have the recommendations for Russian citizens to not go to that country cancelled? Will flights to Turkey be suspended?
Sergey Lavrov: These issues are being reviewed. I won’t go over specific measures because our colleague asked questions about the specifics of our interaction. All of that is now being analysed in a comprehensive manner.
The question arises, what can Turkey do to normalise our relations? You know, perhaps, there must be the realisation that attacks like yesterday’s are absolutely unacceptable.
Today, I heard words of regret and condolences from Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, but everything else he said in our conversation was aimed at justifying the Turkish position. I referred to cases concerning violations of Syria’s airspace by Turkish planes, and also reminded him that Turkish planes enter the airspace of Greece in the Aegean Sea an average of 1,500 times a year. Greece regularly protests this, but to no avail.
Yesterday, I received a phone call from Foreign Minister of Greece Nikos Kodzias, who expressed solidarity with us in connection with this tragedy. He mentioned that the 1,500 violations of Greece’s airspace each year by Turkey have become commonplace. He does not accept the explanation whereby even if there was, as NATO claims, a violation of airspace that lasted 17 seconds, this is not reason enough for a NATO plane to attack a Russian warplane.
We won’t provide any prescriptions. Perhaps, the Turkish leaders ought to think about how they are going to live in their own country. Today, prior to opening a State Council presidium, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about recent trends in Turkey’s political life. This is a well-known fact. In any case, removing the causes and, of course, the consequences which have led to the fact that Turkish territory is being widely used (without mentioning by whom at this point) to train terrorist groups, provide supplies to militants and to finance their activities, is a serious factor in itself.
Returning to the news conference by President Francois Hollande of France and US President Barack Obama in Washington D.C., I noted the fact that the French president proposed taking actions towards closing the Turkish-Syrian border in order to stop the flow of militants and supplies. Importantly, the US president did not react to this. I think that this is a good proposal. I hope that tomorrow the French president will tell us more about it. We are willing to seriously consider any necessary steps. Many say that by closing the border, we will, in fact, remove the terrorist threat in Syria.
Question: What do you think Turkey’s real goal behind attacking the Russian plane is? How did international bodies respond to the incident? Will Russia demand an international investigation into the incident?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m not going to speculate on their real goals. We have enough information to corroborate the fact that this was a deliberate and planned act. Some of our partners, who contacted us yesterday, said it was an obvious ambush. They were keeping an eye out waiting for their chance. It's hard for me to say why they did it. There may be internal political considerations, even though the elections in Turkey just ended; there may also be considerations based on relations with their foreign partners, allies, and their “big brothers”. I'm not going to speculate on this either.
Assuming that NATO and the EU are such “international bodies”, their response was wishy-washy. The Turks circulated a letter in the Security Council describing their version whereby they had their airspace repeatedly violated, and issued warnings in this particular case. The plane flew in their air space for 17 seconds, and they had no choice.
This didn’t impress serious analysts and politicians. We haven’t written any letters, but have instead officially circulated a verbatim transcript of yesterday's remarks by President Putin in the UN Security Council that he made prior to his talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II. It is now an official UN Security Council document. We do have other materials, which we are willing to present to our partners, including objective monitoring data regarding the plane’s route, which the Russian Defence Ministry has already released.
Question: Will the situation surrounding the downed plane adversely affect Russia's efforts to establish a broad-based coalition to combat the Islamic State? What signals are coming from Washington and Paris? What are your expectations regarding tomorrow's meeting in Moscow between President Putin and President Hollande?
Sergey Lavrov: I have basically answered all of these questions. This situation cannot help but affect the efforts that we are making as part of the so-called Vienna process and the Syrian Support Group, which focuses, as I mentioned earlier, not just on the political aspects of preparations for the talks, but also on the critical issue of developing a common approach to terrorist organisations. Such an agreement has already been achieved. This list must be agreed upon. I think that now we’re going to insist that, in addition to the list, the members of this group must also agree on a common understanding of the channels that terrorists are using to receive their supplies and support. Perhaps, we’ll have to deal with specific countries and decide to stop such support. I think we can bring this issue up for discussion at the UN Security Council.
A series of resolutions prohibiting the purchase of petroleum and looted artefacts from the territory seized by these terrorists, as well as other types of trade, have been passed. According to certain reports, which we are now rechecking, in some areas of Turkey, where the terrorists feel at ease, there’s trafficking in human organs taken from the Syrians who are brought from Syria by the Islamic State or other terrorist groups’ members. The UN Security Council adopted several resolutions on this subject that focus on the need to cut short the smuggling of oil, and any financial or other relations with the terrorists.
It's been a year, but we haven’t seen any progress so far, even though these resolutions instruct the states to provide information on what they are doing to meet the corresponding UN Security Council requirements. I think this topic should be revived in New York. We will try today to submit for UNSC approval instructions to the Secretary-General to share with us everything (the Secretariat receives all the information) that is known about making supplies available to the Islamic State, its trading in oil and artefacts, as well as support to terrorist groups. Let them come up with a summary and present it to us. It doesn’t have to be an official report, just something that we can use as a starting point.
Question: There’s not much information in the media about the fate of the SU-24 pilots. According to some reports, one pilot survived and was taken prisoner. Will they try to bring him home? Will Turkey help with this?
Sergey Lavrov: He is already at the Hmeymim Russian airbase, which is part of our territory. Today, he was received by our Special Forces with the help of Syrian experts and troops. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced this two hours ago.