On June 29, 2018 Sergey Lavrov gave a wide-ranging interview to Channel 4’s Cathy Newman covering such diverse topics as trade, the unexpected beneficial effect sanctions has had on Russia, the Skripal poisoning case and the inevitable development of a multi-polar world.
Full transcript below:
Question: Foreign Minister, the summit is happening in Helsinki. Russian President V.Putin and US President D.Trump together. Is this the post-West world order that you have talked of in the past? Has it now arrived?
S.Lavrov: Well, I think that we are in the post-West world order, but this order is being shaped and it will take a long time. It is a historical epoch, if you want. Certainly, after five or so centuries of domination of the collective West, as it were, it is not very easy to adjust to new realities that there are other powerhouses economically, financially and politically, China, India, Brazil. African countries are going to be very much on the rise, as soon as they resolve at least some of the conflicts, which are there on the continent. Well, Russia certainly would like to be an independent world player. Independent in the sense that we do not want to violate and international law and norms, but the decisions, which we would be taking on the basis of international law, would not be influenced by pressure, money, sanctions, threats or anything else.
Question: Russia is shaping this world order that is clear.
S.Lavrov: It is not Russia is shaping this world order, it’s history. It’s the development itself. You cannot really hope to contain this new powerful, economically and financially, countries. You cannot really ignore their role in world trade and world economy. Attempts are being made to slow down this process by new tariffs, new sanctions for good or bad reasons in violation of the WTO principles and so on. But I think it is a logical reaction: trying to slow down something, which is objective and does not depend on any single administration in any country.
Question: But Europe has something to fear from that world order that you have just mapped out there.
S.Lavrov: What was that?
Question: Well the world order that you have mapped out involved all sorts of countries. You did not mention whether the EU fits into that. Do they need to worry about that new world order?
S.Lavrov: Well, the EU is of course part of the collective West with the addition of new members from Eastern Europe. But the European Union is certainly a very important pillar of any world order. As for the Russian Federation, it is our biggest trade partner in spite of the fact that after the unfortunate developments and the wrongly understood interpretation of what the coup d’état is. The volume of trade since 2014 between Russia and the European Union went down 50%, but it is still more than $250bn and it is our number one trading partner, as a collective, as a Union. But the European Union certainly is now fighting to make sure that it is not lost in this new world order that is being shaped. It is not easy, because the reliance on the United States is something, which quite a number of the EU members want to keep. There are some other EU members, who believe that they should be a bit more self-sufficient in military matters for example. The initiative of President F.Macron and Germany to consider some kind of European defence capabilities being beefed up is a manifestation of this case.
I am watching the EU summit, which is going on right now, and the discussion on migration brought an interesting thought to my head, namely it is about the relations between NATO and EU. NATO bombed Libya, turned Libya into a black hole through which waves of migrants, illegal migrants, rushed to Europe. Now EU is cleaning the broken china for NATO.
Question: You talk about NATO’s involvement in Libya, but then there is Russia’s involvement in Syria and that has also created millions of refugees.
S.Lavrov: Yes, but I would challenge you that the Russian involvement in Syria on the basis of legitimate request from the legitimate government, recognized by all as the representative of Syria in the United Nations, took place in September 2015, four years and a half into the Arab spring embracing Syria. The bulk of the refugees already was outside Syria by the time that we came to the rescue of the legitimate government.
Question: Well you talk of the legitimate government that is also the government responsible for killing of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, making millions homeless. “A gas killing animal”, as President D.Trump, your ally, puts it. Do you rest easy being allied with that kind of government?
S.Lavrov: Well, I would not go into the names, which President D.Trump used to describe some of the world leaders. It is not something done in concrete, it might change. What I want to say is: it is a war. It is the war, which was started by mistakes made on the part of everyone, including the Syrian government. I believe these disturbances could have been handled politically at an earlier stage. But we have now on our hands what is the result of outside forces having tried to use the situation in order to reshape the map of the Middle East and Northern Africa by trying to get into Syria without any invitation and trying to promote their own agenda there. So, the efforts, which we are now undertaking together with Turkey and Iran, and both of them are present on the ground, Turkey without invitation, Iran with the invitation from the government, but we managed pragmatically to create what we call Astana Process, Astana Format. The Syrian government, given the fact that Russia, Iran cooperate with Turkey on the basis of decisions, which lead to de-escalation, accepted Astana Process as such. It is part of the process together with the armed opposition, they regularly meet, and try to create conditions for the resolution of UN Security Council 2254 to be implemented.
Question: Let me ask again about Syrian President B.Assad. A lot of people would like to know what is there to like about President B.Assad?
S.Lavrov: We do not like anybody. The diplomacy and politics are not about liking or disliking, it is for human beings as individuals to use this terminology. President Assad is protecting the sovereignty of his country. He is protecting his country and in a broader sense the region from terrorism, which was really about a couple of weeks from taking over Damascus in September 2015.
We did not want the repetition of tragedies, which happened during last couple of decades through the “adventures”. Maybe even more than a couple of decades. It started closer to the end last century in Afghanistan, when the US decided to support militarily, financially and otherwise mujahedeen, who were fighting the Soviet troops. I would not dwell upon why the Soviet troops were there. By the way USSR was also invited legally by the government, which was recognized legitimate. The US decided to use the mujahedeen to fight the Soviet troops, hoping that after the job is done, they could handle those mujahedeen. That is how Al Qaeda appeared and the US lost total control of this beast, whom they had created basically. Then there was an adventure in Iraq on the very false pretence. Now everybody knows this, even Tony Blair admitted that this was a mistake. But the fact of the matter is just like Al Qaeda was born in Afghanistan, ISIL/Daesh was born after the intervention in Iraq. After Libya was invaded in gross violation of the Security Council Resolution, and Syria is now, there is another beast that was born – Jabhat al Nusra, which changes names, but is another terrorist organization. Whatever the civilized West is trying to bring to the Middle East and North Africa turns out to be in favour of terrorists.
Question: That is a very impressive whistle-stop tour of history, but I want to ask about the present though and about President Assad. You said that it is not about liking President Assad. Does that mean that Russia would be prepared to see him go? Do the job, finish the war and then he goes?
S.Lavrov: It is the position, which is not Russian position, it is the position of the Security Council, endorsed by each and every country on Earth, that the future of Syria must be decided by the Syrian people themselves. That there must be a new constitution. On the basis of the new constitution there must be elections. Elections should be free, fair, monitored by the UN and all Syrian citizens, wherever they are, should be eligible to vote.
Question: So, it is irrelevant to you whether he stays or goes, that is for the Syrian people?
S.Lavrov: Yes, that is for them to decide. I believe that this view, which was rejected for quite some time after the Syrian crisis began, is now shared by more and more countries.
Question: When Russia withdraws from Syria? President V.Putin first raised the prospect in March 2016, he said that Russia had largely achieved her objectives there. Again, December 2017. By the end of this year can we expect Russia to be out of Syria?
S.Lavrov: No. I do not think that this is something, which we can intelligently discuss. We do not like artificial deadlines, but we have been consistently reducing our military presence in Syria. The last reduction took place a few days ago. More than 1,000 troops have come back to Russia, some aircraft and other equipment as well. It depends on what is the actual situation on the ground. Yes, we managed together with our colleagues, with Syrian Army, with the help of opposition, which I would call “patriotic opposition” not to allow plans to create a caliphate by ISIL happen. But some remnants of ISIL are very much there. Jabhat al Nusra is still there. They are now preventing the deal on the southern Syrian de-escalation area to be implemented fully. So there are some leftovers. Besides, we do have, not actually full-fledged bases, but two places where our naval ships and our aircraft are located in Syria and they might be usefully kept for quite some time.
Question: Clearly, Syria will be on the agenda at the summit. Just want to talk about some other things that might be. For example, you have mentioned sanctions. Do you think that sanctions will be lifted, given that the EU has just talked about extending them? Do you think you can get President D.Trump to commit to that?
S.Lavrov: Actually, I have mentioned sanctions only in the context of the deterioration of relations. We are not pleading to remove them. It is not our business, it is for those, who introduced sanction, to decide whether they want to continue or whether common sense would prevail.
Question: Well, your President has very recently said that he would like them lifted.
S.Lavrov: Yes, absolutely. We would not mind them lifted, but we would not mind also using the spirit to build up our own capacity in key sectors of economy, security and other areas on which an independent state depends. In the recent years, we have learned a lot, including the fact that in these issues you cannot rely on the West. You cannot rely on Western technologies, because they can be abruptly stopped at any moment. You cannot rely on the items, which are essential for the day-to-day living of the population, coming from the West, because this could also be stopped. So we are certainly drawing lessons. But we certainly would not be against sanctions being lifted and we would reciprocate, because we do have some countermeasures in place.
Question: What are you prepared to give in this summit? For example, if D.Trump says he wants NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden back in the US, is that something that you would consider? Is this something that you can put on the table?
S.Lavrov: I have never discussed Edward Snowden with this Administration. President V.Putin addressed the issue some years ago. When he was asked the question, he said this is for Edward Snowden do decide. We respect his rights, as an individual. That is why we were not in the position to expel him against his will, because he found himself in Russia even without the US passport, which was discontinued as he was flying from Hong Kong.
Question: So that is not going to be up for discussion?
S.Lavrov: I do not know why people would start asking this particular question in relation to the Summit. Edward Snowden is the master of his own destiny.
Question: Given that the US intelligence believes that the presidential elections were meddled with, can Russian President V.Putin give D.Trump any assurances that the upcoming mid-term elections in a few months’ time would not be meddled with by Russia?
S.Lavrov: We would prefer some facts. We cannot intelligently discuss something, which is based on “highly likely”.
Question: Well, it is more than highly likely, is not it?
S.Lavrov: No. The investigation in the US has been going on for how long? A year and a half now?
Question: Well, Robert Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency, the Russian “troll factory”.
S.Lavrov: Indictment is something, which requires a trial and I understand that they have submitted their own case and they have challenged quite a number of things, which were used for the indictment. So let’s not jump the gun. I love Lewis Carroll, but I do not think that the logic of the queen, who said “sentence first, verdict later”, is going to prevail. So far, you take the presidential election in the US, take Brexit, take the Salisbury case, take the tragedy with the Malaysian Boeing MH17 flight, it is all based on “investigation continues, but you are guilty already”. It cannot work this way.
Question: But is Russia frightened of the truth? Because it just seems whenever the authority whether it is the UN or the chemical weapons watch dog OPCW, whenever they try to get to the facts, Russia objects.
S.Lavrov: No, I believe that the public and respected journalists like you have been misinformed. The OPCW must operate on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which says bluntly that there is only one procedure when you want to establish facts. First, experts of the OPCW must themselves without delegating this authority to anyone go to the place of the alleged incident. They must themselves with their own hands and with their own equipment take samples. They must continue holding the substances in their hands until they have reached a certified laboratory. In the recent cases, especially in the infamous case of Khan Shaykhun April last year, when the Syrian government was accused of using aerial bombs to deliver chemical weapons to Khan Shaykhun, the OPCW never visited the place, they never took samples themselves. When we asked where did they get samples they said: “the Brits and the French gave it to us”. We asked why do not you go there?
Question: Have you lost faith in the OPCW?
S.Lavrov: Wait a second, that is important information. Let’s not speak slogans, let’s speak facts. So they did not go there. But they said that “we got the samples”. We asked “where from?”. They said “well the British and the French got it for us”. “Why do not you go?”, we asked. “Why it is not very safe.” We told them if the Brits and the French made it there or rather they know people who can get there safely, why do not you ask Paris and London to ensure safety for your own inspectors to get there. We told the same to the French and to the British, they said: “no, it is something, which we cannot share with you, how we got hold of this”. So, no procedures, regarding the taking of the samples, and the chain of custody, meaning that the inspectors themselves cannot delegate to anyone the delivery of samples to laboratory. These procedures, embodied and enshrined in the Convention, were violated. The Report on this Khan Shaykhun case, submitted by this Joint Investigating Mechanism last fall was full of “highly likely”, “by all probability”, “we have good reasons to believe” and so on and so forth. We invited the authors of the Report to the Security Council, trying to get some credible information from them. Impossible, they were stonewalled, they refused to talk. We said: “guys, if you want to work on the basis of violation of the Convention’s procedures, this cannot continue”. We did not extend their mandate, but we suggested a new mechanism, insisting that this new mechanism must not violate the procedures embodied in the Convention.
Question: Do you still have faith in the OPCW?
S.Lavrov: Until recently we did. But the organization was grossly manipulated a couple of days ago, when the Brits and others convened the special sessions of the state parties to the Convention. They passed a decision by vote, which basically violates the Convention in all its provisions, giving the Technical Secretariat the right to establish guilt. I think that this is a step, which was not thought through very thoroughly, because it is very dangerous.
Question: Well, it is dangerous potentially for Russia, because now the chemical weapons watchdog can apportion blame to the likes of Russia. Are you fearful of the truth?
S.Lavrov: No, I am fearful of the future of the OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Question: Will you withdraw from the OPCW?
S.Lavrov: Well, if people prefer to violate the Convention, if they say that this is the “will of the majority”. When they convened this conference, all kinds of tricks were used, including mobilizing small countries, who do not have any representation in the Hague, paying for their travel expenses, paying for their hotel bills. We know all this and they know all this. So, when the Convention is grossly violated, I do not think that you can really avoid raising concern. We will try to repair the situation, because this decision will go to the regular conference of the state parties. But if this is not repaired, I believe that the days of the OPCW will be counted, at least it would not remain as a universal organization.
Question: The OPCW has also investigated the case of the Skripals. I wanted to ask you, do you think that using a nerve agent to poison a former spy and his child, a policeman on the streets of a cathedral city in Britain is an act of a rational state?
S.Lavrov: Rational state? Not at all. It is an act of crime. We from the very beginning suggested that we investigate this together, because it is our citizen. At least the daughter is our citizen. The father, I think, has a dual citizenship, he is a Russian citizen and a British subject. From the very beginning we suggested a joint investigation. We asked so many questions, including the questions related to the Chemical Weapons Convention’s procedures. In response, we were told that the British side does not want to listen, because we have to tell them only one thing. “Did V.Putin order this or did V.Putin lose control over the people who did?”. That’s all that the Brits wanted to discuss. The inconsistencies in the situation with the Skripals are very troubling. We never managed to get consular access to our citizen in violation of all international conventions on diplomatic and consular relations. We never got any credible explanation why the cousin of Yulia Skripal has not been given visa, she wants to visit the UK and see her cousin. And many other things related to the act itself.
Question: But why would Britain give consular access to the country suspected of being behind this attack?
S.Lavrov: You know that the investigation continues. The Scotland Yard said that it would take a few more months. UK Foreign Secretary B.Johnson recently mentioned that the place is being disinfected four months after the incident. The policeman became miraculously fine. The Skripals became miraculously fine. People now talk about levelling the house, where they lived, levelling the house of the policeman. It all looks like a consistent physical extermination of the evidence, like the benches of the park were removed immediately and, of course, the video images, when the policemen or special forces in special attire go to take a look at this bench, while people without any protection are moving around. It looks very weird.
S.Lavrov: Mr. Lavrov are accusing the British state of a cover-up of this whole incident?
S.Lavrov: I do not exclude this, as long as they do not give us information. You know that about 10 Russian citizens have died in London during the past years. All 10 cases have been investigated in the secret format. We do not understand why. One of the wise guys said: “who is to benefit?” Certainly, the UK benefited politically from what is going [on]. Come to think of it, it is an interesting situation, thereby the country, which is leaving the European Union, is determining the EU policy on Russia. When they were running through all capitals of the European Union, saying “you must expel the Russian diplomats, you must expel them”. So they did. Most of them, some did not. Then we privately asked those, who decided to join Britain in this action whether any proof was given in addition to what was said publicly. They said no. But they said that “we were promised that later, as investigation proceeds, we would be given more facts”. Do you think it is ok?
Question: But you ask who benefits and there are many in the West, who say that the chaos whether it is Brexit, whether it is the Skripals, whether it is D.Trump in the White House…
S.Lavrov: You forgot Catalonia and you forgot the forthcoming elections in Sweden, as the Prime Minister said. Macedonia, Montenegro…
Question: Ok, we will include that later. But answer me this: does the chaos benefit Russia, as some in the West say?
S.Lavrov: You have to be within the historical and chronological framework. You mean the chaos benefits Russia couple of weeks before the presidential elections and months before the World Cup. What do you think?
Question: I am asking you. Does chaos benefit Russia?
S.Lavrov: I want to clarify the issue. Does chaos benefit Russia couple of days before the presidential elections and couple of days before the World Cup? Is it the question?
Question: Well you talked about the new world order that you are hoping that Russia will help shape. Much easier to shape that world order if the EU is in chaos, you are holding the ring in the Middle East, if you are calling the shots in Syria. Russia potentially benefits.
S.Lavrov: No, this is absolutely wrong. It is misreading what I have said. I did not say that Russia wants to shape the new order. I said that Russia must be one of the players on the equal basis, discussing how the objective reality of multipolarity, being developed in front of our eyes, could be managed the way, which would be acceptable to all. That is what I have said. The interests of those, who determine the Russophobic policy in the West, are absolutely diametrically different. Their interest is to punish Russia, to downgrade Russia.
Question: Why, do you think?
S.Lavrov: Because it is very painful to lose half millennium of domination in the world affairs. In a nutshell this is the answer. This is not the criticism, this is a statement of fact. I understand when people used to call the shots in India, Africa, Asia, elsewhere and now they understand that this time has passed.
Question: Is Brexit good for Britain? Is it good for Russia?
S.Lavrov: This is for the UK subjects to discuss.
Question: Good for Russia, though?
S.Lavrov: I do not understand why we should be thinking in this way. It is something that the Brits decided. It is something, which they still discuss with the EU: the divorce, the problems inside the country. We also know, of course we follow the news, that the Parliament has one position, some public activists want rethinking.
Question: Does it look like chaos to you in Theresa May’s Britain?
S.Lavrov: Look, it is something, which happened by developments inside the UK. We only want clarity. What will be the basis on which we continue to work with the European Union. What will be the basis on which we might someday restore the relations with the UK, when they take some reasonable course and not overly ideologised, “highly likely” attitude. I believe that this must be must be very much understood by those in the West, especially by the liberals, who keep saying that the “rule of law must prevail”. In my view, rule of law means that unless proven guilty you cannot sentence people. That is what is happening with Skripal, MH17, with the OPCW being an instrument of those, who would like to make this “highly likely” the order of the day in Syria.
Question: Just returning to the Summit for a couple of final questions. Does it help Russia in her dealings with D.Trump that so many people think that you have compromising materials, so-called “kompromat”, on him?
S.Lavrov: Look, I hear this for the first time that we have the compromising material on D.Trump. That’s what the Special Counsel R.Mueller is trying to dig. Actually, I stopped reading the news from this investigation. You know that when R. Tillerson was Secretary of State, he once stated publicly that they have an “undeniable proof”. Then, during our contact, I said: “Rex, can you give this undeniable proof to us? Because we want to understand what is going on. Maybe this is something that we can explain”. He said: “well, we cannot give it to you, we cannot compromise our sources and besides, your special services, your security people know everything – ask them”. Is it the way to handle serious things? It is a matter, which is used to ruin the Russian-American relations. To answer the way, in which he did, I believe that it is not mature. It is very childish, I think. I think that the people, who are trying to dig something to prove that we have decided the future of the greatest country on Earth through some Internet agency, are ridiculous. I understand that the Democrats in the US are really quite nervous. I understand that the UK is nervous. There were leaks in the Times, saying that the Cabinet members are nervous that D.Trump and V.Putin might get along.
Question: So you do read the papers?
S.Lavrov: I read the extracts, which my people give me. I love reading papers with a cup of coffee, but do not always have time.
Question: Finally, on that point of kompromat. The ex-FBI Director J.Comey has said and I quote “it is possible that the current President of the United States was with prostitutes, peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013”. Do you think that this is possible?
S.Lavrov: Well, he said that this is possible, ask him.
Question: Do you think that this is possible? It has happened in Moscow allegedly.
S.Lavrov: I do not know what people can invent again. I think that I have read this story a couple of years ago, when all this started. Again, if people base the real policies vis-à-vis a country, state-to-state policies on the basis of “it is “possible”, on the basis of “highly likely”, this is shameful. I believe that what is being done in the context of the Russiagate in the US, as President V.Putin has repeatedly said, is the manifestation of deep domestic controversy, because the losers do not have the guts to accept that they have lost the elections.
Question: Foreign Minister, thank you very much.
S.Lavrov: Thank you.