Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with «NBC», Moscow, July 21, 2017

Monday, 24 July 2017 11:09

Question: Minister, thank you very much for your time. There is a lot to talk about. There is Syria, there is North Korea, there is China, there is Ukraine, there is ISIS. But inevitably, I’d like to begin by talking to you about Russian-US relations. There are pictures of you with the B.Obama administration, in which you look unhappy. There are pictures of you with President D.Trump in which you look like you are having fun.

S. Lavrov: So what?

Question: Is that the way it is?

S. Lavrov: I haven’t seen any picture of me, which could be described as me being happy or unhappy. If I laugh, then the gentleman who talks to me might have cracked a joke. If I don’t laugh, the partner might be boring or the partner might be asking for some serious issue to be considered, and then I am not laughing.

But with John Kerry for example – we laughed a lot. He had… He has I hope, still, very good humor. And we enjoyed our private relations as much as we concentrated on our business – on Syria and elsewhere.

Question: If there is a warmer relationship now with the D.Trump administration than there have been with previous American administrations, there are also messages from Moscow that are unhappy with things, particularly the Russian compounds that were seized by the Americans. What is the real feeling towards Washington as you would describe it right now? Are there particular people within the administration that you think are more constructive to Russia than others? Do you for example think that President Trump has a more positive attitude towards Russia than Secretary R.Tillerson for example?

S. Lavrov: Look, we can only rely on what people say and what people do. And it’s obvious that during the B.Obama administration the irritation for whatever reason started building up in Washington against us many years ago – long before the Ukrainian crisis, long before anything else which is now cited as the problem in Russian-American relations. The first time I think it was publicly shown was when Edward Snowden made it to Russia in the expectation that he would be able to take a flight to Latin America, and Russia was just a stopover. As he was flying from China to Russia his passport was declared invalid, and this information was circulated to the airports all over the world, including to the Moscow airport where he landed and could not be let through because of the information received about his passport. And then President B.Obama called V.President Putin, John Kerry called me, John Brennan called his counterpart in Moscow – all many times, saying, “You must extradite him, you must extradite him.” And according to our legislation, we cannot extradite people who are being persecuted for something they did to protect and promote human rights. And then President B.Obama, I would say entirely unpresidentially, was frustrated so much that he cancelled his bilateral visit to Moscow, which was scheduled immediately on the eve of the Saint Petersburg G20 summit. He did attend the summit in Saint Petersburg, but he did cancel the visit which was supposed to consider quite important agenda. I believe it is not for the people who occupy any position of influence and importance in the current world to get offended like small kids on issues which are absolutely incomparable to the issues which had to be discussed, which were to be discussed at the Russian-American summit. And then of course the Magnitsky law, which as we now see was very much orchestrated, but I hope the investigation which is going on, including in the United States, would discover the truth. All this was long before Ukraine. And all this was accumulated by the B.Obama administration, building on I would say some personal agendas.

Maybe President B.Obama was personally offended by something he saw in Russia. And then at the last days of his administration he seized the diplomatic property protected by bilateral agreements between our countries and enjoying diplomatic immunity. I believe it was the act of desperation and a desire to leave something to his successor, which would be unrepairable as far as Russian-American relations are concerned. So it was not this administration’s act, it was an act designed, among other things which were promoted, to make the life of this administration absolutely unbearable. And we always knew of course from the history of the American state, from many wars which were fought on that land that seizure of property, seizure of land was one of the means how America was created actually. But I never suspected that this would be done by a party which now represents a quite different philosophy. By the way, when people say that the property was arrested and diplomats were expelled to punish Russia for meddling with the American election, don’t believe this crap, because the official note verbale which we received from the State Department said nothing about the reasons for which this property had been seized. So it’s just straight forward robbery, and international law is entirely on our side, and we would act on the basis of international law to get it back.

Question: You’re threatening to remove US diplomats from Russia. What message should the US take away? Do you see US President D.Trump as a friend or can your public declarations that you may still expel the US diplomats be considered as your posture towards the US?

S. Lavrov: We perceive US President D.Trump for what he is saying publicly, expressing his position vis-à-vis Russia, saying that the two biggest nuclear powers must do everything in order to cooperate to resolve the matters which only can be resolved through their cooperation. And this was confirmed not only during his campaign in his public statements, but also during three phone conversations and the direct meeting with Russian President V.Putin in Hamburg on the 7th of July. And we have no reasons to believe that his desire to promote the interests of the United States, the interest of making this world safer together with Russia on the basis of our cooperation, on the basis of the balance of interests. That this desire is sincere, I have no reason to doubt it.

As for the situation in which he found himself, I don’t think he is being attacked because of what happened between him and Russia, how this all was perceived in the media. I believe it was a shock for the establishment in the United States after the results of the election were announced, and somebody who was not part of the system of government (he was part of the business system of the United States, but not part of the system of government) got elected unexpectedly. And this entire avalanche of attacks, of accusations, absolutely groundless, at least as far as the Russian angle of this anti-Trump campaign is concerned. We haven’t seen any single fact during many, many months of accusations. Some facts are being hidden by public explanation that they are secret, but I cannot imagine that with the experience of the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI and many other intelligence and special services in the United States, there are no experts who can present to the public the facts the way which would not compromise the sources. If this is the case, then there is no single professional in all these 17 structures. I cannot just believe in it. So the fight goes on. They want to make the life of this Administration miserable. People try to speak about impeachment, we read about this. But frankly speaking, I read the news from the United States less and less.

Question: It’s a fight though you think? It’s a fight for US President D.Trump?

S. Lavrov: It’s absolutely a fight, but as I said I…

Question: And Russia is on US President D.Trump’s side?

S. Lavrov: No, we are on the side of justice. Be it the two dachas, we want international law to be respected. Be it the internal development of any country, including the United States, we want the constitution of that particular country to be respected, as well as international obligations of that country.

Question: We know about Russian President V.Putin and US President D.Trump meeting three times at the G20. They met obviously for the bilateral, at the dinner, and then they met…

S. Lavrov: Maybe they went to the toilet together, and that was the fourth time.

Question: They met also when they were photographed shaking hands. That’s my question. Did they meet other times in the hallways? Were there other occasions when they met?

S. Lavrov: I thought it was already understood by people who are mature and grown up, but I keep hearing from very solid media outlets – they met secretly. When? At a dinner, which was attended by some hundred persons, not to mention waiters, assistants who were not allowed to the table, but who were waiting in the margins of that room. And that was something which people do.

Question: So they may have met other times?

S. Lavrov: Why nobody got suspicious of the fact that actually the entire dinner Mr.Putin spent with Madam Trump, with the first lady, because the German hosts arranged the table that way? And then after the dinner was over (I was not there) US President D.Trump apparently went up to pick up his wife and spent some minutes with President V.Putin. So what? And they did shake hands, which was now listed as a third meeting. And I don’t know about the men’s room as I told you.

Question: Did they meet in the hallways, did they have other conversations? Are you aware?

S. Lavrov: Look, foreign ministers are not invited to the sessions of the G20 discussions. We only were present at the bilaterals which the President of Russia had with many of his colleagues – the leaders attending the G20 summit. But when you are brought by your parents to a kindergarten, do you mix with the people who are waiting in the same room to start going to a classroom? I remember when I was in that position, I did spend five-ten minutes in the kindergarten before they brought us to the classroom to start explaining to use how the animals differ.

Question: It’s the G20 though, not a kindergarten.

S. Lavrov: Well, but there is also a room where they get together before an event starts, they cannot arrive all at the same time in a bus. They arrive with their own motorcades, and then they are ushered in the room, which is a waiting room. So they might have met even much more than just three times.

Question: It’s an important point though, and this is why I would think that it would be an important point from your point of view, which is that when important leaders like President D.Trump and President V.Putin (the most important leaders in the world) meet, they make agreements, which then people who work for you have to implement. Let me give you an example. In terms of the working group on cybersecurity, Russia’s envoy on cybersecurity says that there are now discussions underway with the US. President D.Trump has tweeted that actually it can’t happen. That appears to have been something that was agreed at the bilateral meeting, but it’s not clear, because we don’t appear to have an objective readout of what was agreed. So is that working group on cybersecurity happening? And I guess my wider question is – does it actually make it more difficult for you? Russia is said to have asked for a note taker at that meeting and the White House is said to have refused that. Is that not true?

S. Lavrov: There were two interpreters – each on each side.

Question: Ok, does it make it more difficult for you if there isn’t a clear formal agreement on what was agreed at each meeting? And what about that cyber working group?

S. Lavrov: Well, it’s very schematic, you know, the way you presented this question, unfortunately. When the leaders discuss, they don’t draft documents, they don’t draft papers. They pick up subjects on which they believe the two countries can cooperate for the benefit of their own people, for the benefit of security in the region and in the world. And they did discuss cybersecurity. President D.Trump raised this issue, he said that he clearly remembered what President V.Putin publicly said answering the questions about whether Russia meddled with the US elections and the answer was “no”. But he also reminded, as he did during this meeting in Hamburg, that the Russian Federation many times many years ago, still under the B.Obama administration, proposed to establish a serious process which would concentrate on any apprehensions of any of us and maybe some others. Because that could have been open for other countries to join. Any apprehensions which anyone might have regarding any problem in cyberspace.

It was the Russian Federation together with China, with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization who several years ago proposed a draft document called Rules of Behavior in Cyberspace, and this is available in the United Nations. It was the B.Obama administration which was not very eager about starting to discuss it and we just recalled all this when all these accusations started being thrown at the D.Trump administration and at the Russian Federation that we intrigued behind the curtains, under the carpets to defeat democrats. We reiterated this approach that we want cyberspace to be the area where we discuss all concerns, be it interference in domestic affairs of any sovereign state, be it the use of cyberspace for terrorist purposes or for the purposes of drug business, pedophilia, other violations of the international legislation. And the President of the United States clearly showed interest in having these issues discussed.

Question: And those talks with the US on cybersecurity are underway now, are they?

S. Lavrov: Well, I cannot be in the picture on each and every aspect of our experts’ contacts.

Question: Russia’s envoy on cybersecurity says there are talks underway between the US and Russia.

S. Lavrov: That’s what he said yesterday.

Question: Yes, is that correct?

S. Lavrov: Well, you ask me to say whether I trust somebody who is an official in charge of cybersecurity? If you don’t trust him, double check with somebody else. He is my subordinate, I don’t have any reason not to trust him.

Question: Yeah. On those conversations, initially you said that President D.Trump mentioned the question of the allegation of Russian intervention in the US elections, and then later President V.Putin said that President D.Trump asked him the question directly, and it wasn’t a single question, there were many questions, and that President D.Trump gave much attention to that subject. Did Moscow change the description from the way that you characterized it in order to help President D.Trump? Did Moscow increase the amount of conversation that it said was there about the allegations of Russian intervention in the US elections?

S. Lavrov: I feel like I’m at the hearing in the Senate on the investigation of D.Trump betraying the interests of the United States of America, but no. President D.Trump actually himself answered the allegations that he trusted V.Putin, as V.Putin said. He clearly reminded all those who have nothing better to do than to engage in this dirty business, that what President V.Putin said about this part of their discussion at the press conference, that President D.Trump raised the issue, President V.Putin confirmed that we never did anything to interfere in the American elections, and that he, President V.Putin, got an impression that President D.Trump accepted this explanation. V.Putin never said that D.Trump was happy about something he said on this score. And I read the tweet of President D.Trump, and I believe the courage with which he withstands these unbelievable attacks really does deserve respect. Anything else about cybersecurity?

Question: I’ve got a broader question, actually, because you are a diplomat of many, many years’ experience, one of the most experienced diplomats in the world, and yet in recent months, you have been witness to some moments of history. What goes through your mind when you’re there, in the room, as President V.Putin meets President D.Trump? What goes through your mind, when you’re in the Oval Office with President D.Trump, and he talks about having great intel and allegedly shares some of that with you or describes James Comey as a nutjob? These things are not experiences that even you have every day.

S. Lavrov: You mean what I felt when I was in the Oval Office? Basically, the feeling was the same as when I was in the Oval Office with President B.Obama and President G.Bush before him: respect to the President, who was legitimately elected, the leader of the United States on the basis of the United States Constitution, and respect for anything they choose to tell me, to present the American position and to present their views on what they believe should be the substance of Russian-American relations.

Question: And at the G20, when the two presidents are meeting? Apparently, President Trump’s wife even came into the room to say “we need to wrap this up,” but it was going so well they wanted to carry on.

S. Lavrov: Look, our political and human culture does not provide for somebody else’s family matters to be discussed in public.

Question: But my question is really more about...

S. Lavrov: I understand, you’re British, you’re too eager to get more details than Russians can provide to you on this human rights subject.

Question: You don’t want to share more about what happened. It was a two-hour meeting, and we know very little about it, really.

S. Lavrov: You asked for the entry of the first lady, and I answered you.

Question: Right, right.

S. Lavrov: And I believe, the thirty minutes or so, which we are discussing, we have been discussing mostly that meeting in Hamburg. What is your specific...?

Question: I’m just interested in your reflections on that meeting.

S. Lavrov: It was a meeting of the two leaders, and actually I did make a statement after that meeting, but before the press conference of President V.Putin. That was a meeting of two leaders who certainly defend the interests of their countries, who understand the interests of their countries in a long-term perspective, not just thinking of, you know, what comes in a year and a half, mid-term elections, we have to maneuver. No, they have been clearly guided by long-term interests of the United States and of the Russian Federation, and they were clearly both very much aware that the best interests of our countries require – or rather, would be much, much better ensured if we cooperate, and if we also cooperate on issues which are important to the entire world and which could be much more effectively resolved if Russia and the United States are together, as it happens in some parts of Syria now.

By the way, you said that President D.Trump revealed some secret when I was in the Oval Office, I missed that part of your question. Did you?

Question: There is an allegation that he did, obviously, which you know about.

S. Lavrov: But he was accused of telling me a secret about something which was discovered by special services and which related to the ability of terrorists to manipulate with smartphones, notebooks, the way which would allow the explosive to be placed in those devices. He just mentioned that terrorists have become very inventive and creative. But this very statement was made publicly, either by the FBI or by CIA, about a month before I entered the Oval Office. And it was not only announced publicly, it was the reason why passengers from some countries in the Middle East were officially, legally prohibited to carry this kind of devices onboard the planes, exactly because of that reason. So when this was cited as a secret, top secret revealed to me by President D.Trump, I really did not believe that serious people could make this kind of allegation.

Question: On Syria. Do you view the reporting that the CIA program to back Syrian rebels in Russia has been stopped, that the program will no longer go forward? Do you view that as a concession to what Russia is asking for in Syria from the Americans?

S. Lavrov: This decision was taken, as far as American media write (if you still can believe the American media but I still try to) was made a few weeks before the meeting of G20. I read, I think yesterday, that this was the result of a meeting between US President D.Trump, the US National Security Adviser General G.McMaster and Secretary of Defense J.Mattis. I can only proceed from this news.

Question: Do you welcome it?

S. Lavrov: I don’t know, because we have to calculate the overall approach of all of us to resolving the Syrian crisis. We certainly concentrated on the de-escalation zones, de-escalation areas, which are designed to stop the fighting between the government and the armed opposition for them not to attack each other and hopefully for them to concentrate entirely on fighting ISIL. Therefore, the logic of the opposition and the government to sign a ceasefire, to enter into cessation of hostilities arrangement, is very much our logic. And I understand that the United States supports much more groups than just the ones which were announced as being left without the American weapons and instructors. Lately it was stated that some ten American bases have been created in Syria. At least, a Turkish newspaper wrote about this and Americans criticized Turkey for having allowed this news to be let out. Ten bases. I only trust what I see in the news and take it for the value of what it is.

Question: Do you object to the American bases in Syria?

S. Lavrov: No, I don’t object to American bases in Syria as long as the Americans reiterate their illegitimate presence in the Syrian Arab Republic, because unlike us, they were not invited by the government...

Question: Illegitimate?

S. Lavrov: Of course it is illegitimate. As long as this illegitimate presence in the Syrian Arab Republic is executed in the way which they say is the case, namely, with the full respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, with the sole purpose to fight ISIL and other terrorist organizations. That means that after the country has been liberated, after the settlement has been reached to the satisfaction of all the Syrian ethnic, confessional and political groups, the presence of the foreign troops or foreign bases on the soil of Syria would be only legitimate with the consent of the Syrians themselves.

But it was interesting for me to read, about the presence and the bases, to read the statement (I think this morning) of the CIA Director Mr. Pompeo. He was asked about what Russia was doing in Syria, and he said, “We don’t like what Russia is doing in Syria, we don’t share the purposes of Russian presence in Syria. The main purpose of Russian presence is to establish a couple of bases on the Mediterranean seashore.” And that was presented as something which we don’t deserve. So if a gentleman who represents a country illegitimately having created ten bases in Syria is concerned very much about two bases which have been established on the basis of our intergovernmental agreement with the government, which is a member of the United Nations, then something is wrong with double standards. Not to mention that hundreds and hundreds of military bases of the United States all over the world and all around Russia seemingly do not cause any concern to Mr.Pompeo or to anybody else.

Question: To be clear, the principle that the only forces that should be allowed to intervene in Syria are those that have been sanctioned by the Syrian President B.Assad would suggest that only Russia, Iran and perhaps Hezbollah should be allowed to intervene in Syria.

S. Lavrov: Well, strictly speaking, yes, but in practical terms we have been trying to be flexible in order to remove the key barrier to the Syrian settlement – the terrorist threat in Syria. And through our dealings with Iran and Turkey, by the way, and through our dealings with Jordan and the United States and with the armed opposition, we tried to achieve this goal by having a cessation of hostilities between the government and those who fight on the part of the patriotic opposition, so that all forces can be released free to fight terrorists. And the processes which we are engaged in, of course has been consulted with the Syrian government. And the Syrian government does not mind us to move in the direction we are moving in the context of the overall understanding that number one priority is to fight ISIL. And we hope very much that this de-escalation areas agreement would resolve the problem which killed the deal between us and former US President B.Obama, namely the problem of Jabhat an-Nusra and all its incarnations, because from the very beginning the United States coalition, while fighting ISIL more or less actively (sometimes more, sometimes less), have been sparing Jabhat an-Nusra. Obviously, all facts indicate in this direction.

And by the way, this was the reason why the deal between myself and US Secretary of State Mr.John Kerry, endorsed by the US President B.Obama and the Russian President V.Putin, failed in September last year, because the deal was that the Syrian air force does not fly at all, that the Russian air force and the American coalition fly and hit only those targets which would be mutually agreed. It was a huge deal, but the deal should enter into force on the 7th day, and by the seventh day the B.Obama administration committed itself to separate the opposition which is patriotic from Jabhat an-Nusra. And they failed and they said so, which only confirmed our suspicion that they were protecting Jabhat an-Nusra all along.

Question: I don’t want to leave without asking you a question about North Korea. Just before the G20, Russia built an alliance, an agreement with the Chinese over your position on North Korea. Why would you not consider North Korea a threat when they fired a missile which came close to Russian territory?

S. Lavrov: I cannot say that we are not considering a threat what is going on on the Korean Peninsula, because what North Korea is doing is a gross violation of the Security Council resolutions. These not so noble attempts to present us as appeasing North Koreans, as acquiescing with what they have been doing. I don’t know the purpose of those, maybe to get some political points, to score some political points. Our position is very straight-forward. We supported consistently all resolutions of the Security Council which were designed to stop the prohibited nuclear and missile programs of North Korea. And it was agreed from the very beginning that all these sanctions would be targeted to make it impossible to continue with these programs. The people who have been engaged in these programs, who are engaged in these programs, the people who provide finances for these programs, you know, the targets of these sanctions, must be related, must be linked to what has been prohibited by the Security Council.

When proposals have been put on the table, basically designed to completely suffocate North Korean economy, prohibiting any imports from North Korea, any exports into North Korea, any transport links with North Korea, prohibiting any contacts with anybody of any importance in the leadership of North Korea – we cannot, obviously, support this kind of approach, because it contradicts the basic premise. And the basic premise being is that we have to stop nuclear and missile programs, but we cannot do this at the expense of hundreds and thousands of lives of North Koreans.

Question: And your basic premise being that you don’t believe in regime change? Just a simple Russian policy.

S. Lavrov: We don’t believe in regime change anywhere. I hear very enthusiastic voices in the United States, including in some parts of this administration, that the patience has been over, and they must do something because the threat is growing and growing, and an intercontinental ballistic missile was launched.

By the way, on that very day when the presidents met in Hamburg our military provided to the Pentagon our objective data, that we received from our radars located just on the border with North Korea. And according to that data, it is not an intercontinental missile, but the Americans say that they have their own calculations. We suggest just to sit down without any politization to professionally look and exchange information. But a month ago, I think, a month and a half maybe, Secretary of Defense J.Mattis, answering the question, bluntly stated that the use of force against North Korean regime would mean a disaster, a humanitarian disaster in the region. And our American colleagues accept in private discussion that it speaks about hundreds of thousands probably, not just in North Korea but in South Korea and the neighboring countries. And I believe that those who keep those scenarios in their minds are not responsible as politicians.

Therefore, not instead, but parallel with the continued pressure on North Korea, Russia and China proposed a parallel political track. The idea is to ensure a double freeze – North Korea suspends all launches and all tests, and in response, the US and South Korea do not cancel but reduce the scale of their war games in that region, which we believe could help diffuse the situation and allow for some professional discussions to build up confidence, starting by very simple things, such as adopting a statement that no one is going to attack each other, that the security of each of the participants of this process would be mutually guaranteed, and so on and so forth. And then building upon these universal principles, trying to agree on some details which would translate these guarantees to all participants in practice. It will take time, but we believe that it’s the only way to save us from a disaster which is looming.

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