Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with RT, Moscow, December 25, 2017 (source):
Question: Let us begin with global matters. The first question will be about the multipolar world Russia has been talking about for more than ten years. Even as this multipolar world order is taking shape, there are no international rules to regulate this chaotic structure. In this connection the question will be two-sided. Is there a chance for these rules to be developed in the near future, and what is your view of Russia’s role in this new world? Should Russia proactively contribute to resolving issues beyond its borders?
Sergey Lavrov: I think that the concept of a multipolar world came into being not ten, but rather some 20 years ago. It was put forward by Yevgeny Primakov when he served as Russia’s Foreign Minister, in 1996−1998. He was also behind the initiative to set up the Russia-India-China (RIC) three-sided cooperation framework, which operates to this day. Meetings in this format have been quite useful, including at the level of foreign ministers, as well as for experts in agriculture, industry, finance, youth and humanitarian cooperation, and many other matters. The RIC framework paved the way to what we now call BRICS, when Brazil and later South Africa joined the Russia-India-China trio.
I believe that this is indicative of the trend towards the emergence of what we call a polycentric world order, since these five countries came together at a time when their economies experienced rapid growth, and were probably world leaders in terms of economic growth rates. The situation has changed since then. Economic growth in Russia, Brazil and South Africa decelerated, while India and China remain among the fastest growing economies.
Jointly, the BRICS countries have 14.7% of the IMF vote, which is just 0.15% less than the blocking stake. We are not seeking to have this blocking stake as an end in itself, but, given the multi-faceted nature of monetary and financial problems, the current status of the dollar as well as the strengthening of many other currencies, we are confident that changes within the IMF are long overdue, which will guarantee a more democratic mode of governance of this highly important institution.
One step in that direction was made 7 or 8 years ago, when G20 was established and held its first summit. It existed even before that time but few people knew about it. G20 had never assembled at a more or less serious political level, but all of a sudden it convened a summit, which reflected the fact that the leading Western countries had come to realise the impossibility of doing business without reaching agreements with the new centres of economic growth, financial might, and political influence.
Incidentally, BRICS is not alone within G20 that also symbolises the movement towards a multipolar world. BRICS has allies, including such countries as Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Mexico, and Indonesia. Therefore, I think that approximately half the G20 members are interested in not conserving the situation, where non-Western countries would, in fact, be barred from the process of decision-making.
This is a healthy process based on the principle of consensus which exists within G20. I think that our Western G20 partners are becoming increasingly aware of the need to reach agreements.
This said, I would like to answer the part of your question about developing rules for shaping a multipolar world. This does not seem to me to be necessary. I gave you the examples of how a group of the three countries, Russia, India and China, as well as BRICS have been established as well as how G20 was given a new lease of life and started to move very fast. All these are natural processes and nobody predetermines the course they will take. I would also like to mention something else that also reflects the aspiration of countries to incorporate the objective trends towards a multipolar world [into their policy] – I mean our approach to developing cooperation on the Eurasian continent. The Greater Eurasia Project, the idea for which was suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin, does not specify any indicators that must be achieved no matter what, nor does it put forward any preconditions. The Trans-Pacific Project (TPP), which Barak Obama was pushing forward, was from the very beginning designated to involve a group of 12 countries, who would develop the rules of the game while the rest would be able to join in if they were able to meet certain conditions formulated by these dozen countries. The project provided for specific targets that the countries had to meet.
We know what has become of this project at the current stage. The Trump administration decided to pull out of it, while the remaining 11 countries are contemplating two options: whether to continue without the United States or think up something else. It seems to me that having the project geared to achieving a specific result prior to evaluating the balance of interests of all who were invited, and not only them, has affected the fate of the project.
Our approach is much more democratic. We are against any restrictions on cooperation in Eurasia. President Putin has formulated an initiative that underlies our position of being in favour of relations between the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and ASEAN which start to be developed as soon as participants in these organisations grow aware of their mutual interest in cooperating in a specific area, be it logistics, infrastructure, energy or something else. We say in much the same manner that when the ideological considerations of our partners in the European Union have moved to the background, we will welcome their participation – we have already sent them invitations – in this pan-continental Greater Eurasia Project, which even extends beyond the land as far as South-East Asia, including the island-states.
I will cite a good example from everyday life. If I remember rightly, before creating a path across a lawn, people in Britain are allowed to walk on it, so it is clear which way would be most suitable for those that walk through this park every day. We are, perhaps, acting in the same way – we are not artificially creating a road that will be inconvenient to walk along.
Question: The outgoing year was fairly complex with regard to Russia-US relations, despite last year’s hopes for the better. Russia is compelled to respond to hostile US actions, including in the sphere of sanctions and diplomacy. The latest example is the attacks on the Russian media, in particular, the withdrawal of our channel’s accreditation with the US Senate. Do you believe the method of mirror responses is effective? Where can such an escalation of relations between Russia and the West, Russia and the United States take us?
Sergey Lavrov: You said your channel is one of the most hardest hit by this US policy, which is completely at odds with the norms and principles of journalism, freedom of speech, or freedom of opinion. By the way, as a leader of a group of Western countries in the OSCE, the United States has been pushing for the adoption of separate resolutions for several years now, which would highlight the need to protect journalists and ensure their rights. Russia is entirely for this. The only thing we are against is singling out a single social or professional group in the context of the need to ensure non-discrimination, respect for human rights, including, of course, professional rights. We are for respecting the rights of everyone in any line of work, if what they do it based on the law and international principles that provide the guidelines for everyone.
By the way, the United States is not the only country or government that discriminates against your channel. In France, problems remain, despite the opening of Russia Today France. As I understand it, you were “excommunicated” from the presidential pool alongside Sputnik. We cannot understand this. We keep reminding our French colleagues of this rather unseemly situation, but to no avail so far.
In Britain, politicians who speak on your station are accused of betraying the interests of the United Kingdom. I hope that I will not be included on some sanctions list for speaking with you now, and with your colleagues on other occasions.
I understand that reciprocity is one of the basic principles in diplomacy, and in life in general. If you want to be treated well, treat others well. When you are doing something with regard to your colleague or partner, always check if you would like them to do to you what you are about to do to them. That said, I will note that you are all aware of the law adopted by the State Duma, which does not name anyone as a taboo entity, but contains principles which make it possible to identify a particular media as a foreign agent. This does not mean that their accreditation will be revoked. Accreditation with the Foreign Ministry remains in full, and the reporters can attend all our events without any exception. With regard to the Federal Assembly, our colleagues who are parliamentarians will determine themselves if it’s appropriate to provide such access to the state media from the countries where our media receiving subsidies from the state cannot do so.
However, I would suggest that, while sticking to the principle of reciprocity, we should not be reckless and start mutual recriminations and punishments. No one will gain from this. I believe the right thing to do here would be to simply show the world how outdated as well as stupid this policy is which bans, in Ukraine for instance, all Russian media, including animation channels (if memory serves me correctly), and how important it is to oppose such developments. I would suggest not to tighten the screws any further, but rather go back a little and release existing tension through encouraging international discussions.
Question: I would like to ask you about one of the greatest challenges in this year’s political world, North Korea. It has been discussed at length. How likely, do you think, is the conflict on the Korean Peninsula? What do you think the United States is trying to achieve with its aggressive rhetoric on this subject? Many analysts are saying its goal is to raise the bets to the point where the capitulation will take place on the US terms. Do you agree with such an analysis?
Sergey Lavrov: First, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want a war on the Korean Peninsula. The consequences, including the colossal losses for the world, were laid out not only by us, but by US experts and officials as well. I don’t think anyone is consciously trying to take the matter to such an outcome. At least, I hope this is not true, although we can hear allusions to that. However, even if nobody wants a war, every time both sides of the confrontation start stocking up on advanced, high-tech, and destructive weapons, there’s a risk of human error or a technical failure. I hope those who constantly conduct provocative military exercises are aware of the fact that this must be kept in mind.
Second, having said that I do not believe, or at least hope that the United States does not plan a military solution, I cannot fail to note the pattern that has developed over the past several months. The situation has come to a point where it is necessary to lift the veil on how the United States approaches this matter. I will not go into details, but in September we received a signal from the Americans that they want to start a dialogue. They said no exercises were planned until the spring, so the North Korean government can feel at ease. They also said that this natural break can be used to open some kind of a dialogue in the run-up for the planned exercises next spring. We passed this signal along, and it was not rejected. However, with all the preparations underway, the Americans announced that they now have unscheduled exercises on their hands which would take place in October. So, in September we got a signal that we can have talks until spring, and in October things turned around and talk was already about unscheduled exercises, major ones at that. Surprisingly, Pyongyang took it in its stride. Then, as if they wanted to draw out a particular reaction from it, the unprecedented US-Japanese air force exercises were announced in late November. After that, Pyongyang did react.
This does not mean, though, that we justify what Kim Jong-un did having launched the missile on the most recent occasion, which appears to be intercontinental. However, this goes to show the sequence of steps that cannot be ignored, and the train of thought of the Americans. Our joint proposal with China about a double freeze suggested that Pyongyang does not launch or test anything, while the Americans, South Koreans and other allies at least dramatically scale down their exercises. The American line of thinking was that no one ever said that these exercises were illegal. They are absolutely legitimate in terms of international law. However, Pyongyang cannot launch missiles or test nuclear devices based on the UN Security Council resolution. That is true. This is the difference in the legal status between these two actions. However, in politics, you can, of course, pull the legalist strings and build your practical actions based on that, but in a situation where things have already reached a point where they can go into a nosedive, perhaps the stronger and the smarter one should step aside.
We hope there are people in the United States who understand the need to defuse this very tense situation and start looking for a political and diplomatic solution. China and us propose to freeze all actions that are mutually provocative, and to start a dialogue without any commitments. This has to happen in order for the United States and the DPRK, either one-on-one or in the presence of other states which both countries feel comfortable with, to sit down and exchange their concrete assessments of how this crisis can be overcome.
We are all aware of such a format as the six-party talks. Our Chinese colleagues and us see the third stage as a multilateral process to harmonise the principles of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula in general. Speaking of this, we cannot ignore the harmful signals that were sent by Pyongyang in the wake of Washington’s throes over the Iranian nuclear programme (INP) with regard to the agreement reached as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To question this fact only means that the agreement which led to the full closure of Iran’s military nuclear programme is being questioned. Even though the United States has not yet withdrawn from it, the noise has already been pretty loud. Everyone, including those who participated in these talks alongside the United States, are becoming nervous.
The signal sent to Kim Jong-un is pretty straightforward. Yes, we urge you to abandon the nuclear military programme, and we will lift sanctions if you comply, but who knows what will come to our minds when the next administration moves into the White House.
I discussed this topic longer than I should have, but I think it’s an important aspect. One should realise that one can’t endlessly strangle the economy and the social sphere or try to impose a total blockade. Only recently, a new resolution was adopted, from which we managed to remove absolutely unacceptable things. Economic and logistical projects that are of direct interest to Russia were left in place, but again we hear from Washington that we need right now, almost before the New Year, or immediately afterwards, to sit down and think about how to strangle North Korea even more. This is a bad position.
If this is what was meant when McMaster stated that American diplomacy will rely exclusively on the world’s most powerful military force, then it’s bad, and we are all facing serious trials. We will do everything, as President Putin said, to prevent this from happening and to promote unifying rather than divisive approaches to various international matters, so as not to isolate anyone, but to seek inclusiveness in each specific situation instead.
Question: The planned date for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi – January 29 and 30 – was recently made public at the eighth round of talks in Astana. Do you think we have come closer to a political settlement of the Syrian conflict? Have your talks with the representatives of the regional powers and international players shown that the international community is ready to end this war?
Sergey Lavrov: The main thing is that the overwhelming majority of those who were fighting on the ground, and some of those who continue fighting, are ready for this. The creation of four de-escalation zones has demonstrated the willingness of the opposition forces that controlled the situation in each of these zones to launch dialogue with the Syrian Government, to end the bloodshed and to resume peaceful life. This peaceful life is already returning to these regions. The local government agencies, which have survived the hostilities, have resumed operation. These are the officials who should be trusted by the local residents. They have been encouraged to launch reconciliation dialogue with the authorities of each of the four de-escalation zones, starting with simple steps such as meeting people’s needs, ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid and allowing people to cross the boundaries of de-escalation zones via observation points and checkpoints maintained by the guarantor countries, as well as by Russia, the United States and Jordan in the case of the southern zone. In other words, these are people who have opted for peace. In addition to the remaining terrorist groups, there are also the Jabhat al-Nusra units, against which our Western partners and members of the US-led coalition refuse to take resolute action despite our repeated urging, although al-Nusra is on the UN Security Council’s list of terrorist organisations. This means that there are plans to preserve al-Nusra for the eventuality that it will have to be used (some forces clearly want this) to attempt a regime change again.
The UN Security Council recently discussed a resolution on foreign terrorist fighters and measures to counter threats posed by returning FTFs, as well as several other aspects on the counterterrorism agenda. These resolutions have been adopted and will be used, although we wanted them to stipulate more resolute measures. However, the position of our American colleagues and some of their allies indicated their dual attitude to Jabhat al-Nusra. They said that this organisation need not be mentioned because it is already on the UNSC terrorist lists. Next they said that the “extradite or prosecute” principle should not be applied unconditionally, although this is a globally recognised principle for dealing with criminals. They argued that a jihadist who is apprehended before committing a terrorist attack or doing anything harmful could be regarded as other than a terrorist. They provided very interesting arguments, all of which were connected one way or another to the concept that was advanced by President Barack Obama. The current US administration, which usually does not like Obama’s initiatives, has taken this concept up and is promoting it, at least at the expert level. I do not know what President Donald Trump and his closest aides think about this, but US experts are advocating the Concept of Countering Violent Extremism, according to which violent extremism is caused by authoritarian governments that keep their people cold and hungry, restrict democracy, oppress their citizens and violate human rights. Therefore, the international community should go over the authoritarian government’s head to tell the people how they should spread democracy to improve their lives, which would supposedly help eradicate the causes of extremist sentiments.
Do you see what they are trying to achieve? I do not think I need to explain their motives. Therefore, we are seriously concerned about the attempts to speculate on counterterrorism goals, which should be common to all countries and without any double standards. These tasks and goals must not be used to promote self-seeking agendas, in particular, for replacing undesirable regimes.
To come back to the issue of Syria, I have mentioned the readiness of those who fought each other on the ground to return to peaceful life in de-escalation zones. As for the external players’ readiness, I can only speak for those with whom we are working directly. I think that Iran and Turkey are ready for this, although they have some concerns that do not necessarily coincide with our approach. These concerns include the Kurds for Turkey and the rights of the Shia brethren for Iran. In principle, these concerns are understandable, but it would be nevertheless better if these problems were settled through the reconciliation of Shias and Sunnis within the framework of common Islamic solidarity.
We have long been promoting the idea of a new Amman conference and a declaration that would declare the unity of all Muslims. This would benefit everyone and would also help build bridges between the main protagonists in the region. We believe that it is necessary to help Saudi Arabia and Iran launch dialogue. They should stop blaming each other and should sit down for talks to discuss concrete issues of their concern. As large regional powers, they are bound to have interests in adjacent regions. And they need to develop some common rules. We are ready to help them do this. We have long ago proposed a security concept for the Persian Gulf, and it is still on the table.
I am ambivalent about our Western partners’ attitude to the Syrian settlement. Our not always obvious or public dialogue with our American partners on de-escalation and some other military aspects in the areas where the US-led coalition comes into contact with the Syrian army, which we are helping, has shown that they are willing to act pragmatically and have confirmed that Syria should remain a united, multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country. At the same time, their initial assurances, about which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told me personally, that their only goal in Syria is to rout ISIS, have become rather vague. They say now that the defeat of ISIS will only be complete when an irreversible political process in launched in Syria, and some people add that this process should result in the removal of Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the agreements we have reached are being interpreted rather unscrupulously. It is just another example of lip service, the same as their promise not to expand NATO. The US archive materials, which have been made public recently, concern similar situations in terms of behaviour and diplomatic proprieties. I am not sure that the other Western countries would accept any settlement scenario or that they do not care about who will play the leading role in this process. Some of our West European colleagues clearly want to turn the tables, to assume leadership and to show that the issue cannot be settled without them.
We are not driven by such selfish considerations. We have advanced the Astana initiative, which has helped reach a settlement on the ground, separate the ordinary armed opposition from the bulk of terrorists and deliver a crushing blow at ISIS in Syria. By the way, the terrorists are trying to escape from Syria to other countries, but this is a separate issue.
We have now advanced the idea of a Syrian National Dialogue Congress. I would like to remind you that the Astana process was launched a year ago following a 10-month pause at the Geneva talks. As soon as the first Astana meeting was announced, UN officials said they would resume the Geneva process. We are glad if our practical example has encouraged this decision. However, nothing was done at the Geneva platform for a long time this year. Saudi Arabia was trying to unite the opposition, and we did our best to help it. But the process in Geneva came to a standstill again. When Saudi Arabia created a delegation comprising representatives from three groups – the Riyadh, Cairo and Moscow groups – we saw this as a big step forward, even though the individuals who were chosen to lead the joint delegation advanced unacceptable ultimatums in a bid to discredit our Saudi colleagues, who had assured us, just as UN Secretary-General’s Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, that the delegation would come to Geneva without any preconditions to hold direct talks with the Syrian Government. These opposition leaders deceived Staffan de Mistura and, regrettably, also our Saudi partners. I hope efforts will be taken now to change this situation.
UN Secretary-General’s Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura visited Russia. Together with Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, we tried to explain to him that this kind of behaviour by their protégés is unacceptable. I hope proper conclusions will be made from this. At the same time, we are working with the Syrian Government to encourage it to act constructively. I do not think it is right to blame the Syrian Government for refusing to talk with those who demanded government change, contrary to their obligations. What we need is to give a push to the opposition delegation. Several radicals were removed when the delegation was formed, but it appears that the format of the delegation should be revised to weed out any remaining radicals.
We advanced the idea of a Syrian National Dialogue Congress with due regard for the need to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It stipulates direct broad-based talks between the representatives of the Syrian Government and all opposition groups, during which the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. It is obvious that not all opposition groups are represented at the Geneva talks in the delegation of the Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo opposition groups. The overwhelming majority of these people are émigrés who do not live in Syria but in various European capitals. Seeking to implement the provision of UNSC Resolution 2254 on holding inclusive talks where the entire range of opposition groups are represented, we appealed to the opposition through our military personnel at the Hmeymim airbase and using the contacts they developed while ensuring the operation of the de-escalation zones and normalising life in Aleppo and other liberated towns. I believe these efforts to promote the political process involved over 1,700 Syrians, including sheikhs and tribal leaders, who probably did not take part in the hostilities but they live “on the ground” and so they are not indifferent to what kind of a constitution new Syria would have. They are not represented in the delegation that went to Geneva. We have compiled a long list, which we are coordinating with our partners, Turkey and Iran, which are the other guarantors of the Astana process.
A trilateral summit was held in Sochi on November 22, where the initiative was supported. We told Staffan de Mistura that we are not trying to snatch the palm from Geneva. Our goal is to help launch a constitutional process not in a restricted format, when mostly those who live beyond Syria would be represented, but in as large a format as possible in order to form a Syrian commission that will draft a new constitution. The establishment of this commission will give a new lease of life to the Geneva process. We will give our full support to drafting a new Syrian constitution in a UN-led process under the guidance of UN Secretary-General’s Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.
Question: I would like to clarify something. Do you think the US presence in northern Syria, with its 10 bases or so, is helping to organise the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, or is it hampering the political process?
Sergey Lavrov: I think this has little to do with the Congress. It is relatively clear how this process will develop. We see the support for the Congress initiative by the overwhelming majority of Syrians “on the ground.” We are certainly concerned about the American military bases in Syria and especially about the information that some of these bases are beginning to be used to train militants, including former members of terrorist groups. We spoke about this publicly more than once. This is a direct violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. The Syrian Government has been pragmatic in dealing with the Russian Aerospace Forces, which were invited to fight the terrorists absolutely legitimately. This was a pragmatic decision that reflected the priority of destroying the terrorists. We understood that the American coalition (especially if slightly prodded, because at first it was very passive) could help to eliminate terrorist seats. This happened. Although it was clear that the Americans were working half-heartedly there until the Russian Aerospace Forces joined them. Their policy was questionable, especially because they spared not only the Jabhat al-Nusra, but very often failed to strike ISIS units when it was necessary. But this is another question.
We are cooperating with the Americans for equally pragmatic reasons, as we also do with the Jordanians in the southern de-escalation zone. A joint tripartite monitoring centre was established in Amman. This is a beneficial initiative, given the proximity of the Golan Heights and Israel’s concerns. Many factors have to be taken into account. This is such a holy mess, influenced by much of what is happening “on the ground”, as well as by external players, some promoting their own interests, or those of their fellow tribesmen, clansmen, fellow believers, and others, on the contrary, wishing to prevent adversaries from strengthening their positions in Syria. Without a broad-based and inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue, which we want to start, without a dialogue with everyone represented and everyone guaranteed that their interests will be taken into account in the final state structure of Syria, the Geneva process is unlikely to succeed. I hope that the convocation of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress at the end of January will give a practical impetus to the Geneva talks, since a much wider range of Syrian parties need to be involved in the constitutional process than those represented in Geneva.
To be continued: