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Sergey Lavrov

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Chairman of Board of Trustees of RIAC

<p><em>Paul Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, interviewed  Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, March 24, 2017, in  Moscow. Their wide-ranging and blunt conversation, which lasted over an  hour, covered topics from Ukraine and Syria to the 2016 U.S.  presidential election and the future of U.S.-Russia cooperation.</em></p>
<p><strong>Question:  I’d like to start by asking you about your forthcoming meeting with  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; we’ve read in the press that the  two of you may be meeting soon.</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong> So they say.</p>
<p><strong>Question: Could you perhaps tell us about your expectations and goals in dealing with Secretary Tillerson?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong>  Well, after the American election, soon after Election Day President  Putin and President-elect Trump talked over the phone. It was a good but  very general discussion touching upon the key issues in our relations,  and of course the key international issues. And they agreed that they  would continue being in touch, and after the inauguration they talked  again, and they reconfirmed the need to look for ways which would be  effective in handling international problems. And of course to see what  could be done to bring the bilateral relations to normalcy. They also  agreed that Mr. Rex Tillerson and I would look into the agenda in some  more details, and would also discuss the preparation for the  presidential meeting which should take place when both countries, both  leaders feel comfortable.</p>
<p>And we met with Rex in mid-February in  Bonn on the margins of the G-20 ministerial meeting, and covered quite a  lot of the bilateral agenda. I briefed him about the relationship on  bilateral issues with the Obama administration, the problems which  accumulated during that period. We did not go into the substance of  this, I just briefed him so that his team, which is still being  assembled, could take a look at these issues and determine what kind of  attitude they would have on them. And we discussed Syria, Iran, the  Korean Peninsula, the Middle East in general, relations between Russia  and the West. It was a very general, but rather substantive discussion,  obviously it was the first contact and Mr. Rex Tillerson is just getting  into the shoes of his new capacity. We discussed the possibility of  personal meeting and have been continuing these discussions. As soon as  we finalize them it will be announced.</p>
<p>But my feeling is that from  the point of view of personal relationship, we feel quite comfortable. I  feel quite comfortable, I believe Rex had the same feeling, and our  assistants should work closer, but of course this could only be done  when the team in the State Department is complete.</p>
<p><strong>Question:  Of course. If I could follow up on your answer there, you mentioned  bringing normalcy to the U.S.-Russia relationship. What do you think  “normal” is?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong> “Normal” is to treat  your partners with respect, not to try to impose some of your ideas on  others without taking into account their own views and their concerns,  always to try to listen and to hear, and hopefully not to rely on a  superiority complex, which was obviously the case with the Obama  administration. They were obsessed with their exceptionality, with their  leadership. Actually the founding fathers of the United States, they  also spoke of their leadership, and they believed that the American  nation was exceptional, but they wanted others just to take the American  experience as an example and to follow suit. They never suggested that  the United States should impose, including by force, its values on  others.</p>
<p>And the Obama administration was clearly different.  Actually, long before Ukraine, long before Crimea, in early December  2012, there was an OSCE ministerial meeting in Dublin. And Hillary  Clinton was secretary of state and was the head of the delegation, we  had a bilateral meeting with her, she was trying to persuade me on  something which was a difficult issue on the agenda, but I recall this  situation because in the margins of this ministerial meeting she  attended a meeting in the University of Dublin, and she delivered a  lecture in which she said something like: “We are trying to figure out  effective ways to slow down or prevent the move to re-Sovietize the  former Soviet space.” December 2012.</p>
<p>What kind of action she was  considering as the move to re-Sovietize the space, I really couldn’t  understand. Yes, there were discussions about Ukraine, about Kazakhstan,  Belarus and Russia, forming the Customs Union, and if this was the  reason, then of course it showed very obviously the real attitude of the  Obama administration to what was going on in the former Soviet space  and the area of the Commonwealth of Independent States, its obvious  desire to take over this geopolitical space around Russia without even  caring what Moscow might think.</p>
<p>This was the reason for the crisis  in Ukraine, when the U.S. and European Union bluntly told the  Ukrainians: either you are with us, or you are with Russia against us.  And the very fragile Ukrainian state couldn’t sustain this kind of  pressure, and what happened happened: the coup, and so on and so forth  (if you want I can discuss this in some detail later). But my point is  that they considered normal that the people in Obama’s team should call  the shots anywhere, including around such a big country as the Russian  Federation. And this is absolutely abnormal in my view.</p>
<p>At the  same time, when we visited Venezuela with our naval ships, they were  raising such hell, as if no one could even get closer to what they  believe should be their backyard. This mentality is not adequate for the  twenty-first century. And we of course notice that President Trump is  emphasizing the need to concentrate on U.S. interests. And foreign  policy for him is important as long as it serves the United States’  interests, not just some messiah projects doing something just for the  sake of showing that you can do it anywhere. It’s irrational, and in  this he certainly holds the same position as we do in Moscow, as  President Putin does, that we don’t want to meddle in other people’s  matters. When the Russian legitimate interests are not, you know,  involved.</p>
<p><strong>Question: You just mentioned at the end  of your statement that the United States shouldn’t meddle in others’  affairs, and obviously many Americans today feel that Russia has meddled  in American affairs, in the 2016 election. Your government has denied  that. But how do you explain what happened in the United States? Do you  feel that Russia had any involvement or any responsibility at all for  what transpired?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong> I believe that  these absolutely groundless accusations—at least I haven’t seen a single  fact that this was substantiated. I believe these accusations were used  as an instrument in the electoral campaign, which for some reasons  seemed to the Democratic Party to be an efficient way to raise support  among the American people, playing on their feelings that no one shall  meddle with American affairs. This is a Russophobic instrument. It was a  very sad situation because we never wanted to be unfriendly with the  American people, and apparently the Obama administration, the elite in  the Democratic Party, who made every effort during the last couple of  years to ruin the very foundation of our relationship, decided that the  American people should be brainwashed without any facts, without any  proof. We are still ready to discuss any concerns of the United States.</p>
<p>As  a matter of fact, in November 2015, long before this hacker thing  started, we drew the attention of the U.S. administration to the fact  that they kept hunting Russian citizens suspected in cybercrime in third  countries, and insisting on them being extradited to the United States,  ignoring the treaty on mutual legal assistance which exists between  Russia and the United States, and which should be invoked in cases when  any party to this treaty has suspicions regarding the citizen of another  one. And this was never done.</p>
<p>So what we suggested to them in  November 2015, that we also don’t want to see our citizens violating law  and using cyberspace for staging all kinds of crimes. So we would be  the last one to try to look aside from them. We want them to be  investigated and to be disciplined. But since the United States  continued to avoid invoking this treaty on legal assistance, we  suggested to have a meeting between the Justice Department and the  Russian prosecutor-general, specifically at the expert level, on  cybercrime. To establish confidential, expert, professional dialogue to  exchange information.</p>
<p>They never replied; when we reminded them  that there was a request, they orally told us that they were not  interested. But in December 2016, more than one year after our request  was tabled, they said, “Okay, why don’t we meet?” But this came from  Obama administration experts, when they already were on their way out.  Some technical meeting took place; it was not of any substance but at  least they responded to the need to do something about cyberspace.</p>
<p>And  of course on cybercrimes the discussions in the United Nations are very  telling. When we are leading the debate on negotiating an instrument  which would be universal and which would be mandatory for everybody, the  U.S. is not really very much eager, and is not very enthusiastic.</p>
<p>Speaking  of meddling with others’ matters, there is no proof that Russia was in  any way involved either in the United States, or in Germany, or in  France, or in the United Kingdom—by the way, I read yesterday that the  Swedish prime minister is becoming nervous that they also have elections  very soon and that Russia would 100 percent be involved in them.  Childish, frankly speaking. You either put some facts on the table or  you try to avoid any statements which embarrass you, even if you don’t  believe this is the case.</p>
<p>It’s embarrassing to see and to hear  what we see and hear in the West, but if you speak of meddling with  other countries’ matters, where facts are available—take a look at Iraq.  It was a very blunt, illegal intervention, which is now recognized even  by Tony Blair, and those who were pathetically saying that they cannot  tolerate a dictator in Iraq. Take a look at Libya, which is ruined, and I  hope still has a chance to become one piece. Take a look at Syria, take  a look at Yemen: this is the result and the examples of what takes  place when you intervene and interfere. Yes, I’m sure you can say about  Ukraine, you can say about Crimea, but for this you have to really get  into the substance of what transpired there.</p>
<p>When the European  Union was insisting that President Yanukovych sign an association  agreement, including a free-trade zone with zero tariffs on most of the  goods and services crossing the border between Ukraine and the European  Union, and at that point it was noted that Ukraine already had a  free-trade area with Russia, with some different kind of structure, but  also with zero tariffs. So if Russia has zero tariffs with Ukraine,  Ukraine would have the same with European Union but we have some  protection, under the WTO deal with the European Union, so the only  thing we said: guys, if you want to do this, we would have to protect  our market from the European goods which would certainly go through  Ukraine to Russia, trying to use the zero-tariff arrangement. And the  only thing suggested, and Yanukovych supported, is to sit down the  three—Ukraine, EU and Russia—and to see how this could be handled.  Absolutely pragmatic and practical thing. You know what the European  Union said? “None of your business.”</p>
<p>Then-President of the  European Commission Mr. Jose Manuel Barrosso (my favorite) stated  publicly that we don’t meddle with Russia’s trade with China, so don’t  meddle with our deal with Ukraine. While the situation is really very  different and the free-trade area argument was absolutely ignored. And  then Mr. Yanukovych asked for the signature of this deal to be  postponed, for him to understand better what will be the  consequences—for his industry, for his finances, for his agriculture—if  we would have to protect ourselves from potential flow of cheap goods  from Europe. That’s so, and then the coup was staged, in spite of the  fact that there was a deal between Yanukovych and the opposition,  witnessed by Germany, France and Poland.</p>
<p>Next morning, this deal  was torn apart under the pretext that Yanukovych disappeared, and  therefore all commitments were off. The problem is that he did not leave  the country, he was in another city of the country. But my main point  is that the deal which they signed with him was not about him; it was  about his agreement to go to early elections – and he would have lost  these elections – but the deal started by saying, “We agree to create a  government of national unity.”</p>
<p>And next morning, when they just  tore apart this deal, Mr. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then a leader in Ukraine’s  Batkivshchyna party, and others who signed the deal with the president,  they went to this Maidan, to the protestors, and said, “Congratulations,  we just created the government of the winners.” Feel the difference:  “government of national unity” and “government of the winners.” Two days  later, this parliament, which immediately changed their position,  announced that the Russian language is no longer welcome.</p>
<p>A few  days later, the so-called Right Sector, the group which was an  instrument in the violence in Maidan, they said that Russians have  nothing to do in Crimea, because Russians would never honor the heroes  of Ukraine, like Bandera and Shukhevych, who were collaborating with  Nazis. These kinds of statements led to the people in the east of  Ukraine just to say: “guys, you did something unconstitutional, and we  don’t believe this is good for us,” so leave us alone, let us understand  what is going on in Kiev, but we don’t want any of your new ideas to be  imposed on us. We want to use our language, we want to celebrate our  holidays, to honor our heroes: these eastern republics never attacked  anyone. The government announced the antiterrorist campaign in the east,  and they moved the regular army and the so-called voluntary battalions  in the east of Ukraine. This is not mentioned by anyone. They are called  terrorists—well, they never attacked a person.</p>
<p>And investigations  of what actually happened on that day of the coup is going nowhere; the  investigation of the murder in Odessa on the second of May, 2014, when  dozens of people were burned alive in a trade-union office building, is  moving nowhere. Investigation of political murders of journalists and  opposition politicians is not moving anywhere. And they basically passed  amnesty for all those who were on the part of the opposition during the  coup. And they prosecute all those who were on the part of the  government.</p>
<p>But even now they want to prosecute Yanukovych in  absentia, but one interesting thing maybe for your readers to compare:  there was a deal on the twenty-first of February, next morning they  said, Yanukovych is not in Kiev, so our conscience is clean and we do  what we please, in spite of the commitment to national unity. About the  same time there was a coup in Yemen. President Hadi fled to Saudi  Arabia. Not to some other city in Yemen, but he fled abroad.</p>
<p>More  than two years passed, and the entire progressive international  community, led by our Western friends, insists that he must be brought  back to Yemen and that the deal which he signed with the opposition must  be honored by the opposition. My question is why Ukraine’s situation is  treated differently from the situation in Yemen. Is Yemen a more  important country? Are the deals which you sign, and the need to respect  your word and your deals, more sacred in Yemen than in Ukraine? No  answer.</p>
<p>Sorry for getting into all these details, but people tend  to forget, because they’re being brainwashed every day with very simple  phrases like “Russia is aggressor in Ukraine,” “annexation of Crimea”  and so on and so forth, instead of laboring your tongues, people should  go there. Those who go to Crimea, see for themselves how the people live  there, and they understand that all these hysterical voices about  violation of human rights, about discrimination vis-à-vis Crimean  Tatars, is a lie.</p>
<p><strong>Question: Maybe coming back,  just for a moment, to the U.S. election, and setting aside the question  of evidence, because your government has its perspective, the U.S.  intelligence community has its perspective—I don’t think those  differences are likely to be reconciled. Setting that question aside,  many Americans believe that Russia did interfere in the election; it’s  contributed to a particular political climate in the United States. Do  you view that as an obstacle to the U.S.-Russia relationship, and do you  believe there is anything that Russia can or should do to try to  address these widespread concerns?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong>  You said a very interesting thing. You used the word “perspective.” You  said, “Russia has its own perspective; the American intelligence  community has its own perspective.” Perspective is something which many  people have. We speak about facts, about proofs. And with all these  perspectives, these hearings which sometimes are shown on CNN, on  Russian TV, I haven’t heard any, any proof. Except the confirmation that  the FBI and the NSA started watching what the Trump team is doing  sometime in July. I heard this recently.</p>
<p>And I take this as  acceptance by those who were doing this, for whatever reason, and they  clearly said that this was not because of the suspicion that he had  something to do with Russia but this was a routine process during which  they find a trace leading to the Trump headquarters. Fine, this is a  fact: they admitted that they started this. So what? If by admitting  this they make their perspective regarding Russia a fact, I cannot buy  this.</p>
<p>And then you said, they have their own perspective, and that  the American people believe Russia had something to do with the  American elections. Categories like perspective and belief are not very  specific. And we speak about some very serious accusations. I understand  that in the West, people who indeed profess Russophobic feelings, and  unfortunately they are—they used to be very powerful, they are still  very powerful even when they lost the elections, and Russophobic trends  are obviously seen even in the Republican camp. You know, it’s very easy  to find some external threat and then to put all the blame on this  particular external threat.</p>
<p>When in 2014 the Malaysian plane was  shot down over Ukraine, two days later I think, in the UN Security  Council, when we insisted on adopting a resolution demanding further  investigation, the American officials said yes, we believe investigation  must be held, but we already know the result.</p>
<p>What about the  presumption of innocence? The same happened with Litvinenko, the poor  guy who was poisoned in London, when from the very beginning they said,  we will have an investigation but we know who did it, and they never  made this trial public. And they never accepted the offer of assistance  which we were ready to provide. And so on and so forth.</p>
<p>Now,  yesterday, this terrible murder of the Russian and Ukrainian citizen,  who used to be an MP in Russia, and did not stay in the current  parliament, and President Poroshenko two hours after the guy was  murdered says that this was a terrorist attack from Russia—who also blew  up the munition depot near Kharkov. It was said a few hours later by  the president of a democratic country, whom our American and European  friends call a beacon of democracy. I thought democracy was about  establishing facts when you have suspicions.</p>
<p>And democracy is  about division of power, and if the chief executive takes upon himself  the functions of the legal system, of the judicial system, that does not  fit with my understanding of how Western democracy works. We’re ready  to discuss anything—any facts, I mean. We’re ready to assist in  investigations of whatever issues our partners anywhere might have.  Whether this is going to be an obstacle to normal relations, I don’t  think so. I believe the Russian people, at least if we are asked, I  would say no, if it depends on us. I understand that there are some  people in the United States who want this to become an obstacle, and who  want to tie up the team of President Trump on the Russian issue, and I  believe this is very mean policy, but we see that this is taking place.</p>
<p>What  can Russia do to help? Unfortunately, not much. We cannot accept the  situation, but some absolutely artificial hysterical situation was  created by those who severed all of the relationship—who dropped the  deal on the Bilateral Presidential Commission between Moscow and  Washington with some twenty-plus working groups, a very elaborate  mechanism of cooperation—and then after they have done this, after they  prevent the new administration from doing away with this absolute stupid  situation, to ask us to do something? I don’t think it’s fair.</p>
<p>We  said what we did, that we are ready to work with any administration,  any president who would be elected by the American people. This was our  line throughout the electoral campaign, unlike the acting leaders of  most European countries who were saying absolutely biased things,  supporting one candidate, unlike those who even bluntly warned against  the choice in favor of the Republican candidate, and this somehow is  considered normal. But I leave this on the conscience of those who said  this and then immediately chickened out and then started praising the  wisdom of the U.S. electorate.</p>
<p>We said that we would be ready to  come back to the relationship and to develop the relationship with the  United States to the extent, and to the depths, to which the  administration is ready to go. Whatever is comfortable for our partners,  we will support and provide it. We talk on the basis of mutual respect  and equality, trying to understand the legitimate interest of each other  and to see whether we can find the balance between those interests. We  will be ready to cover our part of the way, as President Putin said, but  we will not be making any unilateral steps. We offered cooperation on  very fair terms, and we will judge by the deeds of course.</p>
<p><strong>Question:  Perhaps we can pivot to international affairs. In the United States  there’s been discussion of a new Cold War; you, for your part, recently  talked about a post-West international order, which as you may imagine  is not something that many in the United States and other Western  countries would readily embrace. In fact, some may even be strongly  inclined to resist the emergence of a post-West order. What do you think  a post-West order is, and do you think that it makes confrontation  between Russia and the United States, or Russia and the West,  inevitable?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov</strong><strong>:</strong> Well  first, I don't believe that we are having another Cold War.  Ideologically, we’re not different, we’re not apart. Yes, there are  nuances in how the countries in the West and Russia and its neighbors  are run. But all in all the basis is democracy, which is elections,  basically, and organizing the system, the way you respect the opposition  and it’s also market economy. Again with “give and take”: you know in  some countries the state is much more involved in economy than in  others, but this happened in France some time ago, in the UK some time  ago, so this is all secondary details, I would say. There’s no  ideological differences as far as democratic principles and market  economy are concerned. Second, these days, unlike the days of the Cold  War, we have much clearer common threats, like terrorism, like chaos in  the Middle East, like the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass  destruction. This was never the case during the Cold War days, which  was a very negative balance with sporadic conflicts in periphery. This  time we have global universal threats, not sparing anyone, and this is  what we witness almost daily, with these terrorist attacks in the Middle  East and Europe, there was one in the United States, and so on and so  forth.</p>
<p>So this absolutely makes it necessary to reassess where we  are and what kind of cooperative structure we need. Post-West system,  post-West order: I mentioned this term in Munich at the Munich Security  Conference, and I was really surprised that people immediately made me  the author, the coiner of this term, because the title of the conference  contained “post-West order”—with a question mark, yes. I put the  question mark aside for one very simple reason: if we all agree that we  cannot defeat terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, climate  change without a universal coalition, if we all agree that this is the  case, and I believe we do, then it would certainly be necessary to  recognize that the world is different, compared to the many centuries  when the West was leading with culture, philosophy, military might,  economic systems, and so on and so forth.</p>
<p>We all have, China, the  whole Asia-Pacific region, which President Obama, by the way, said is  the place where the U.S. would be shifting, which in itself means that  he was not thinking of the West order but post-West order. And, of  course, Latin America; Africa, which is hugely underdeveloped but has  the potential with resources and labor, young and vigorous, still  untapped. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just a few days ago in  Washington convened a coalition to fight terrorism—sixty-eight  countries, if I am not wrong, double the number of the countries in the  West. This meeting was post-West order, or a manifestation of post-West  order. So I don’t believe the Western countries should be really  offended or should feel that their contribution to the world  civilization has been underestimated—not at all. It’s just the time when  no one can do it alone, and that’s how we feel. It’s a polycentric  world. Call it multipolar, call it polycentric, call it more  democratic—but this is happening. And economic might, financial might  and the political influence associated with all this, they’re much more  evenly spread.</p>
<p><strong>Question: Let’s zero in on Syria.  You mentioned the terrorism issue and certainly the struggle with ISIS  is an important focus for the U.S., for Russia. There has been, as I’m  sure you’re aware, some skepticism in the United States about Russia’s  role in Syria. President Donald Trump, when he was a presidential  candidate, certainly referred many times to a desire to work with Russia  in Syria. How do you envision the opportunities and constraints on the  U.S. and Russia in working together in Syria, and do you have any  specific new ideas about how to do that?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong>  First, when this coalition was created by the Barack Obama  administration (the coalition which was convened in Washington just a  few days ago) it was understood that out of sixty-some countries, only a  few would be actually flying air force and hitting the ground. Others  were mostly political and moral support, if you wish, a solidarity  show—which is fine, it’s important these days as well to mobilize public  opinion in as many countries as you can. We were not invited. The  Iranians were not invited. Some others were not invited, who I believe  should be important partners in this endeavor. But this was motivated by  some ideological considerations on the part of the Barack Obama  administration. I just don’t want to go into the reason for why they  assembled this particular bunch of people.</p>
<p>But what I can attest  to is that one year into the creation of this coalition, it was very  sporadically using the air force to hit some ISIL positions. They never  touched the caravans who were smuggling oil from Syria to Turkey and, in  general, they were not really very active. This changed after we  responded to the request of President Assad, who represents, by the way,  a legitimate government member of the United Nations. After we joined,  President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama spoke in New York in  September 2015, and President Putin clearly told him that we would be  doing this and we were ready to coordinate, and they agreed to have  these deconfliction discussions, which did not start soon actually, not  through our fault. But when we started working there the U.S.-led  coalition became much more active. I don’t want to analyze the reason  for this. I’m just saying before we moved there with our air force, the  U.S. coalition was very rarely hitting ISIL positions and almost never  hitting the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra, which many people believe has  been spared just in case at some point they might be needed to topple  the regime. And this feeling, this suspicion, is still very much alive  these days, when Jabhat al-Nusra already twice changed its name, but it  never changed its sponsors who continue to pump money and whatever is  necessary for fighting into this structure. And people know this. So  when we moved there, at the request of the government, we suggested to  the U.S. to coordinate our efforts. They said, “No, we can only go for  deconfliction,” and deconfliction procedures were developed and are  being applied quite well, but we believed it was a shame that we  couldn’t go further, and coordinate targets and what have you. And then  my friend, John Kerry, who was very sincere in his desire to overcome  the ideological—not ideological, but to overcome some artificial  barriers, and to indeed start military coordination—we spent almost from  February 2016 to September 2016 when, eventually, we had a deal to  separate the armed groups, with whom the U.S. and the allies cooperate,  from ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, and then to coordinate the targets and  basically to strike only those targets which would be acceptable to both  Russians and the Americans. Quite a few people really understood the  quality of this deal.</p>
<p>I put myself in the shoes of those who were  criticizing us for hitting wrong targets. You remember, there was so  much criticism. So the deal we reached with Kerry, when none of us could  strike unless the other supports, was solving this problem. And the  fact that the Pentagon just disavowed what Kerry did, and Obama could  not overrule the Pentagon, meant for me only one thing: that he, the  president of the United States, Barack Obama, was motivated by the  desire to have some revenge on Russia, for whatever reason and for  whatever situation, rather than to capitalize over the deal reached  between John Kerry and us, to make the war against terror much more  efficient in Syria. But let God judge him.</p>
<p>Now, whether we have an  opportunity to resume the cooperation: yes we do. Yes, President Donald  Trump said that fighting terrorism is his number one international  goal, and I believe this is absolutely natural. We will be sharing this  approach, I am sure, and it’s also, in this sense, coming back to our  first question which we discussed, about intervention in other parts of  the world, terrorism is a universal threat. So when you interfere to  fight terrorist manifestations, it’s in the interest of your country.  It’s another matter that you have to be faithful to international law.  And the coalition, of course, led by the United States, was never  invited to Syria. We were, Iran was, Hezbollah was. Still, the Syrian  government, while complaining that the coalition were there uninvited,  they said, “If and since you’re going to coordinate with Russians, with  those who fight ISIL and Nusra, we take it as this is what you want, to  defeat terrorism, not to do anything else in Syria.” So deconfliction  procedures continue to be applied.</p>
<p>You might have heard that the chief of general staff of the Russian Army, General Gerasimov, met with General Dunford.</p>
<p><strong>Question: Twice, I understand.</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong>  Twice, at least, and they talked over the phone. And this is something  the military discussed. I assume that if their discussions go beyond  deconfliction, I don’t want to speculate, this would be a welcome sign  that we can really do what is necessary to bring about the situation  when everyone who confronts ISIL and Nusra on the ground acts in  coordination. If not under the united command—this, I think is  unachievable—but in a coordinated manner.</p>
<p>The Turks have troops on  the ground. Iran, Hezbollah are invited by the government. Russian air  force with some ground special military police helping keep law and  order in the Sunni quarters of Aleppo and Damascus, the military police  from Russia is largely composed of Russian Sunnis from the northern  Caucasus—Chechens, Ingush and others.</p>
<p>The U.S. Air Force and the  coalition air force; U.S. special forces on the ground. Apparently there  are French and UK special forces on the ground. The military groups who  are part of the so-called Free Syrian Army, the military armed groups  who are part of the Kurdish detachments—there are so many players: I  listed all those who declare that ISIL and Nusra are their enemies. So  some harmonization is certainly in order, and we are very much open to  it.</p>
<p>When the United States dropped from the deal, which we  negotiated with John Kerry, we shifted to look for some other  opportunities and we had the deal with Turkey later—which was later  supported by Iran—which brought about some kind of cessation of  hostilities between the government and a group of armed opposition. And  we created, in Astana, a parallel track supportive of the Geneva  negotiations concentrating on mechanisms to monitor the cessation of  hostilities, to respond to violations, also to build up confidence by  exchanging prisoners, and so on and so forth.</p>
<p>It is not welcome by  quite a number of external players who try to provoke and encourage the  radicals, radical armed groups in Syria, to make trouble and to stage  some terrorist attacks. They launched a huge offensive now in the  northern part of Hama Province, and they basically coordinate with  Jabhat al-Nusra, under its new name. So it’s also a game for influence  in Syria, unfortunately, which prevails in the minds of the people who  promote such an approach, rather than the need to get united to fight  terrorism, and then to have a political deal. It’s a fight for influence  on the battleground, and this is unfortunate. We don’t need this now.  What we need is to strengthen the cessation of hostilities and to  support strongly the political process in Geneva, concentrated on the  new constitution, which would be accompanied by a division of power  between the government, the opposition, all ethnic groups, then  elections and so on and so forth. But all this would be absolutely  meaningless if people sacrifice the fight against terror for the sake of  their goal, their obsession, with regime change.</p>
<p><strong>Question:  In Iran, the Trump administration seems to have signaled an intent to  try to enforce the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, more strictly, perhaps  to be more assertive in challenging Iran’s regional role. And I’d be  curious about your reaction to that and the degree to which Russia could  work with, or not work with, the United States on either of those  things. Then there is Ukraine. Clearly a very complex problem, the Minsk  Process I think to many outside observers really seems to have stalled.  Is that process dead? Is there any way to move forward?</strong></p>
<p><strong>Sergey Lavrov:</strong>  On Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a product of  collective work—it’s a compromise. But the key things were never  compromised. It’s a compromise which allows for all of us, with the help  of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to be sure that Iran’s  nuclear program is going to be peaceful, that all the elements which  cause suspicion would be removed, and handled in a way which gives us  all certainty and gives us control over the implementation of those  arrangements.</p>
<p>I don’t think that the Trump administration is  thinking in the same terms as the slogans during the campaign, that Iran  is the number one terrorist state; we don’t have a single fact to  substantiate this claim. At least when we were facing a huge terrorist  threat, when we were under terrorist attack in the 1990s in the northern  Caucasus, we detected and discovered dozens and hundreds of foreign  terrorist fighters from very close neighborship to Iran, but not from  Iran at all. And we know that the political circles in quite a number of  countries were really encouraging these terrorist groups to go into the  northern Caucasus. Iran had never challenged the sovereignty of the  Russian Federation, never used its own links with Muslim groups to  provoke radicalism and to create trouble. What we do now with Iran and  those that cooperate with us and the Syrian army is fighting terrorists  in Syria. Iran is a powerful player on the ground, legitimately invited  by the government. Iran has influence over Lebanese Hezbollah, which is  also legitimately on the ground. And if we all want, you know, to  topple, to defeat terrorists in Syria, there should be some  coordination. I have already touched upon this.</p>
<p>The IAEA regularly  reports on this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action implementation. The  latest report once again confirmed that there are no violations of the  part of Iran, and that the deal is being implemented in line with the  commitments of Tehran and all others. It’s another matter that the steps  which were promised in return to the implementation, namely sanctions  relief, are not being undertaken by all Western participants as fast and  as fully as was promised. But that’s another matter.</p>
<p>On the Minsk  agreements, I believe that the Ukrainian government and President  Poroshenko personally want them dead. They want them dead in a way which  would allow them to blame Russia and the people in the east of Ukraine.  They certainly encountered huge opposition from the radicals, and the  radicals believe that this government is weak enough just to wait it out  and to have either early elections or to have another Maidan. The  biggest mistake of President Poroshenko, I am convinced, was that after  he signed this agreement in February 2015 in Minsk, and he came back  with the success, with the support of Germany, France, then the Security  Council in New York endorsed this deal, and he should have used this  moment to impress upon his parliament, upon the opposition, that this  was a good deal supported by the European Union, where he wanted to  join.</p>
<p>Instead, he started apologizing in front of his opposition  when he got back to Kiev saying, you should not think this is serious, I  did not commit myself to anything in the legal way—in the legally  binding way—this is not what you read. And so on and so forth. He  cornered himself in the situation of an absolutely irresponsible  politician who signed one thing and who was saying that this is not what  he signed one week later when he came back. The opposition felt that  this was his weakness and they started carving out of his position  anything which was still reasonable. The fact is that every day he is in  contact with President Vladimir Putin, they talk over the phone  sometimes, they talk on the margins of the meetings of the Normandy  Format when the leaders have their meetings; the last one was in October  in Berlin last year. But my impression is that he tries to be  constructive, to find ways to come back to the Minsk implementation. But  the next day he comes back to Kiev or goes abroad, and goes public  saying things which are absolutely aggressive and are absolutely unfair.</p>
<p>One  very simple example: in the Minsk agreement, they provide for  preparation for elections on the special status of these territories.  The status itself is listed in the deal, and the law on this special  status is already adopted by the Rada, but it is not in force. Then  amnesty, because you don’t want to have a “witch hunt,” and the  constitutional confirmation that this special status is permanent. That  was all. And after this is done, the Ukrainian government restores full  control over the entire Russian-Ukrainian border. They are saying now:  no elections, no special status, no constitutional change, no amnesty,  until we first take control of the border. But everyone can read the  Minsk agreement—it’s only three pages. And it says absolutely clearly  that the border transfer is the last step, and everyone understood why  when this was negotiated. Because if you just under these circumstances,  with all these animosities, with all these so-called voluntary  battalions, Azov, Donbass and all the radicals, not reigned in by the  government—when you just say, okay, take the border and we trust you  that will do everything else, these people would just be victims. They  will be suffocated and burned alive like the people in Odessa. So the  political guarantees are crucial, and Germany, France and others  understood this very well, just like the Americans understood this very  well, because we did have parallel track—parallel to the Normandy  Format—with the U.S., and we are ready to revive it again.</p>
<p>But one  very simple example. October 2015, Paris: the Normandy leaders meet.  And there is very specific discussion regarding the law on special  status. The logic and sequence of the Minsk agreement is that you first  have the special status, and then you have elections. Because people  would normally want to know what kind of authority those for whom they  are going to vote would have. Poroshenko said, no, we first have to have  elections. Then I, Poroshenko, would see whether the people elected are  to my liking. And if they are, then, we will give them the special  status.</p>
<p>Which is rather weird. But still, we decided just to move  forward; we would be ready to have some compromise on this thing, in  spite of the fact that it was absolutely clearly spelled out in the  Minsk agreement. And then the former foreign minister of Germany, who  was participating in the meeting, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now  president of Germany, he said, why don’t we have a compromise formula  which would mean that the law on the special status is adopted, but it  enters into force on the day of elections temporarily, and it would  enter into force, full fledged, on the day when the OSCE reports that  elections were free and fair, and in line with democratic OSCE  standards?</p>
<p>Everyone says okay. Poroshenko says okay. One year  later, in October 2016 in Berlin, the same group of people, the leaders  with the ministers. And President Putin is saying the formula of  Steinmeier is still not embodied in any papers, in the Contact group  process, because the Ukrainian government refuses to put in on paper.  Poroshenko said, well, but it is not what we agreed, and so on and so  forth. And then Putin said, well this is Mr. Steinmeier, ask him about  his formula, and he reiterated this formula: temporary entry into force  on the day of elections, full entry into force on the day the OSCE  confirms they were free and fair. Merkel said the same, Hollande said  the same, that this was absolutely what we agreed.</p>
<p>And then  Poroshenko said, okay, let’s do it. October 2016 is almost half a year  ago. And we are still not able, because of the Ukrainian government  opposition in the Contact group, to fix this deal on paper. So I can go  for a long time on this one, but I am sure that those people who are  interested can go and who follow the developments in Ukraine, they  understand why we are not at the point of Minsk implementation.</p>
<p>The  Ukrainian government wants to provoke the other side to blink first and  to say, enough is enough, we drop from the Minsk deal. That’s why the  economic blockade, that’s why the prohibition for the banks to serve the  population in the east. By the way, in the Minsk agreements, two years  ago we discussed the difficulties in banking services for this part of  Ukraine and Germany and France committed themselves to organizing mobile  banking, and they failed because they could never get cooperation from  the Ukrainian authorities.</p>
<p>Well, I leave it to your readers to study what is going on, what is happening in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.</p>
<p><em>Source: <a href="http://nationalinterest.org/feature/sergey-lavrov-the-interview-19940?page=show" target="_blank">The National Interest</a></em></p>

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