Interview by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to The Washington Post, published September 25, 2013
Question: What was your reaction to President Obama’s speech this week at the United Nations?
Sergey Lavrov: It addressed important issues, and we hope that the stated willingness to cooperate on resolving the problems in the Middle East would help us to find common approaches, which is the key for today’s functioning of the international community. Only common action can resolve issues. No one country can solve problems which are becoming transborder, transnational, common threat and challenges for all of us.
Question: President Obama spoke about enforcement, about Syria and on the chemical weapons agreement you and Secretary Kerry came up with. Where do you think the Security Council resolution on Syria will end? Do you see some enforcement mechanism being built into the Security Council resolution or not?
Sergey Lavrov: The chemical weapon problem in Syria is, first of all, the issue for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The President of Syria addressed the Secretary General of the United Nations and the Director General of the OPCW with a formal request to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Question: You’re speaking of President Bashar al-Assad?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, President Assad. He asked formally to accede to the Convention, and now Syria is under a legal obligation derived from this Convention. So this is already a binding arrangement, and the steps of the Syrian government indicated clearly that they were fulfilling their obligations under that Convention. The OPCW developed a draft decision – that was agreed by John Kerry and myself in Geneva on September 14, and the draft decision will be submitted soon for the Executive Council of the OPCW and this would be the main instrument to resolve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria as a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. We also agreed in Geneva with John Kerry that we will initiate a Security Council resolution which will support and reinforce the decision of the Chemical Weapons Convention. And we set in that framework which we agreed in Geneva that we would be very serious about any violation of the obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, we would be very serious about any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria and that those issues would be brought to the Security Council under Chapter VII. This is the framework in which we were working both in The Hague, in the OPCW headquarters and in the UN Security Council.
Question: Secretary Kerry claims that an enforcement mechanism under Chapter VII should be part of the UN resolution and you apparently disagree.
Sergey Lavrov: The Geneva framework is available and anyone can read what’s in it. We agreed today with John Kerry that we would follow that understanding in drafting the Security Council resolution.
Question: So there’s no difference between the American and the Russian position?
Sergey Lavrov: As these positions are reflected in the Geneva framework of September 14, no.
Question: In President Obama’s speech today, he spoke of consequences if the Syrians fail to comply.
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot speak about individual position of any UN member. I can only speak about arrangements to which Russia is a party, and we are a party to the Geneva framework of September 14, and are committed to implementing this fully.
Question: So if there were violations you would go back to the Security Council and get another resolution to do something about it?
Sergey Lavrov: Exactly.
Question: How did this chemical weapons agreement come about? The White House said President Vladimir Putin and President Obama discussed chemical weapons several times, starting at the G20 summit in Mexico last year. Then there’s the story that Secretary Kerry just threw out this remark that if President Assad were to agree give up chemical weapons, then the U.S. wouldn’t use force. Then, Russia quickly produced this chemical weapons proposal.
Sergey Lavrov: We are not looking for any credit. Indeed, the presidents of Russia and the United States discussed this threat of chemical weapons in Syria in Los Cabos in June last year in the margins of the G20 summit in Mexico, and they agreed that the biggest threat to peace and security was an eventuality when chemical weapons might get into the hands of terrorists. When they met again at the G8 summit in Lough Erne in June this year, the reports about the use of chemical weapons were already available. Russian experts even investigated one such report of the incident March 19 in the vicinity of Aleppo. There were other reports, and it was obvious that this threat is not just a probability but already with us. Therefore, they agreed to think how we can make sure that all these reports are investigated and the results brought to the Security Council. And this was reflected in the Lough Erne communique of the G8 leaders that all this investigation should be done professionally, by the Chemical Weapons Organisation and the results should be brought to the Security Council. And by the time they met in the margins of the G20 summit in St Petersburg on September 5, they had a talk about some practical steps which could be taken to resolve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria once and for all. And we initiated, through John Kerry’s statement and my support of that statement, the process which is now underway, and we are gratified that the Syrian government responded very efficiently and promptly, by officially sending the documents on accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and later producing a declaration on the chemical weapons sites. And that declaration was found quite good, though additional clarifications would be necessary. So that’s how it all happened. This also involved our meeting with John Kerry in Geneva on September 12-14, and the framework which was agreed at that time which I referred to.
Question: So it’s unlike press stories that there have been a prior preparation and a thought given by Russia and the US to come up with some kind of an accord in the chemical weapons field?
Sergey Lavrov: Until the meeting in St Petersburg on September 5, as I said, this was discussed on the margins of G20 Summit in Los Cabos last year, as well as on the margins of G8 Summit in Lough Erne this year. And the Lough Erne G8 Summit Communique even had a special language, adopted by the leaders, regarding the need to investigate all cases of the use of chemical weapons and to bring the results of investigation to the Security Council.Q: So after the September 5 meeting you started working on the framework agreement?A: As I said, we agreed with John Kerry, after his statement in London and my support for that statement, to meet. We met in Geneva, and the results are embodied in the framework which I referred to a couple of times already.
Question: Did John Kerry throw out the statement on purpose or was it an accident?
Sergey Lavrov: Ask him. We took it as a statement which reflected the need of the day.
Question: Did Russia put a lot of pressure on President Assad to cooperate?
Sergey Lavrov: We certainly conveyed to the Syrian government our conviction that the chemical weapons problem must be resolved on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention and we are satisfied that the President of the Syrian Arab Republic responded promptly and positively.
Question: How will the U.S. verify that Syria is being forthcoming about its stock of chemical weapons?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know. But I know that the American ambassador to the OPCW looked into the declaration submitted by the Syrians and found it quite good.
Question: Russia is still saying that it was the rebels that fired the chemical weapons on August 21st – not the Assad regime?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we believe that there is very good evidence to substantiate this.
Question: Are you willing to present this evidence?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I just presented a compilation of evidence to John Kerry when we met a couple of hours ago. This evidence is not something revolutionary, it’s available throughout the Internet – the reports by the journalists who visited the sites, who talked to the combatants, combatants telling the journalists that they were given some unusual rockets and munition by some foreign country and they didn’t know how to use them. You have also the evidence from the nuns serving in a monastery nearby who visited the site. You can read the evidence and the assessments by the chemical weapons experts who say that the images shown do not correspond to a real situation if chemical weapons were used. And we also know about an open letter sent to President Obama by former operatives of the CIA and the Pentagon saying that the assertion that (Syrian) the government that used the chemical weapons was a fake. So you don’t need to have any spy reports to make your own conclusions. You only need to carefully watch what is available in public. And analyze it, of course.
Question: So you don’t have any intelligence reports you haven’t shared with the world?
Sergey Lavrov: No, on the occasion of the incident in the vicinity of Aleppo on March 19, 2013 when the United Nations, under the pressure of some Security Council members, didn’t respond to the request of the Syrian government to send inspectors to investigate, Russia, at the request of the Syrian government, investigated that case, and this report, i.e. the results of this investigation are broadly available to the Security Council and the public. The main conclusion is that the type of sarin used in that incident was homemade. We also have evidence to assert that the type of sarin used on August 21 was the same, only of higher concentration.
Sergey Lavrov: Homemade.
Question: Do you think that our intelligence and our experts underestimated the situation and Russia had a better assessment of the situation?
Sergey Lavrov: It’s not about ‘assessment of the situation’ if you mean how long the President of Syria would hold on power. We were not guided by a desire to guess how long but we were guided by the need to avoid violence and to bring the situation into a political process. And that has been our position throughout the crisis. We were convinced that the activities by some neighboring and some other countries in Syria, supporting the armed opposition, including the extremist opposition, were only aggravating the crisis, and, unfortunately, it’s only now that people start recognizing that the biggest threat for international peace and security in Syria is probably Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda taking hold of the country.
Question: I understand that fighters from the Caucasus have gone through Turkey into Syria. Do you fear the possibility of violence spilling over from Syria into the Caucuses?
Sergey Lavrov: This should not be addressed to Russia only. The jihadists from many European countries, Russia included, and some even from the United States, hundreds of them, if you take Europe, Russia and the US, are fighting in the ranks of extremist groups. I am sure that they are gaining the experience which they will try to use after the Syrian crisis is over elsewhere, first and foremost in their home countries. This is our common threat. That is what we must be discussing and not just engaging in the rhetoric of who should go and who should stay, which authoritarian leader is unacceptable and which authoritarian leader could stay for some time as long as he plays the right game. We must be united by common threats and challenges, including the one which you mentioned, the proliferation of extremism following the Syrian crisis, like it happened in Libya when combatants are now present in dozen of countries, in Africa first of all, and Libyan arms are being shipped to those countries to support the extremist movement.
Question: Are you saying all over Africa or everywhere?
Sergey Lavrov: Statistics say that those are in dozen of countries – Mali, of course, Chad, the Central African Republic, some others. In Mali, the government, with the support of the French troops, has been fighting those whom France had openly armed and supported in Libya. So we must be consistent – either we agree that any terrorism is unacceptable or we will be playing a double-standard game when some son of a bitch is okay because he’s our son of a bitch.
Question: Do you think the U.S. administration came to understand the threat of extremism and that is the basis on which the Russians and Americans are now able to work together?
Sergey Lavrov: It’s not only the United States but by now everyone understands this threat. It motivates people to convene Geneva II. To do this, we need to stick to the Geneva communique of last year, which provides for a political process, describing suggestions to the Syrians on how this political process should be built, since only Syrians themselves can solve the problems of their country and determine its destiny. One of the provisions of the Geneva communique of June last year calls upon the Syrian government and the opposition groups to agree on a composition of a transitional governing body which will have full executive authority. And this should be done on the basis of mutual consent. That’s the key because you cannot impose on one side or another a solution. This would not be a sustainable way out. It’s only the agreement among Syrians, and Syrians should be represented by all groups of the society.
Question: You have the Alawite Assad regime, you have the opponents, some extreme, some secular, I suppose, that are fighting the regime, then you have the Kurds, too, they are also, probably, a fighting party. Does Russia and yourself believe that these groups can come together and come to some kind of political solution?
Sergey Lavrov: They must. They must think about the future of their country and not about who will get control over the country. If they are all responsible, this should not be outside our reach. It is good that the National Coalition which some countries consider the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people, which is a misnomer I think - but it’s good that this Coalition, eventually, a few days ago, said something about its readiness to come to Geneva II. It has been refusing to say so for a very long time. It didn’t support the Geneva communique of last year and it, by the way, didn’t support the Russian-American initiative on chemical weapons. They were disappointed that this deal cancelled, at least for the time being, the threat of the American strikes on Syria. If people are motivated by the desire to change the regime, then I’m afraid we are in for a very long civil war, and a war of mercenaries who come to Syria with the slogan to establish an Islamic Caliphate in that region, and this war will continue for quite a long time. But those who represent themselves as the National Coalition they have support from outside players. These outside players, both in the region and elsewhere, must recognize their responsibility for making sure that the Coalition is supportive of the political process and doesn’t put preconditions which are absolutely unachievable and unrealistic.
Question: I assume you are referring to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others?
Sergey Lavrov: I mean those who support the Coalition and some fighting groups on the ground – several countries of the region, but not only in the region, in Europe as well.
Question: In the region, they have been supported partly by Turkey which denies it and by Saudi Arabia and Qatar...
Sergey Lavrov: All those who have influence on these people must also recognize their responsibility for the situation in Syria and their responsibility for avoiding a disaster which is very close, unfortunately.
Question: Do you think a disaster in Syria is close?
Sergey Lavrov: Humanitarian disaster is very much with us, with more than two and a half million refugees and even more internally displaced persons, about four million internally displaced persons. And when we speak about humanitarian assistance to Syrians, of course, refugees need this assistance, and in addition to what we already provided, Russia will be contributing through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees some $10 million for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. But in addition, the international community must take care of the internally displaced persons who’s number are much larger than refugees from Syria.
Question: Do you see the U.S. and Russia working together on other issues, such as Afghanistan?
Sergey Lavrov: We work together on Afghanistan. We provide transit facilities, we cooperate in equipping the Afghan army and security forces with arms and helicopters, we cooperate in training officers for law enforcement agencies. We would like to do much more in fighting drugs that are coming from Afghanistan. Drug production during the presence of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) increased more than ten times, and unfortunately, our colleagues in NATO are not very eager to cooperate with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on fighting the drug threat because it would be very logical for ISAF based on NATO participation inside Afghanistan and the CSTO acting alone the outside perimeter of the Afghan borders in Central Asia, to cooperate in real time to intercept drug caravans going from Afghanistan to Central Asia and further to Russia, Europe and some even reach the United States. We also cooperate on many other issues. Nuclear energy, for example. We ratified the 1-2-3 Agreement. It’s very useful and interesting for Russian and American energy companies. We agreed on visa facilitation. Now American and Russian tourists and businessmen can ask for three-year multiple visas, and the waiting time should not exceed 14 days. It’s an improvement on what we used to have, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested to President Obama: “Why don’t we move to a visa-free regime?”
We have these discussions with the European Union. We have already introduced visa-free arrangements with Israel and dozens of other countries.
So I believe this would be a huge step forward in the interests of our peoples, civil societies, businesses and cultural exchanges. The meeting of the two presidents which was scheduled in Moscow before the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg was supposed to endorse several important documents, including a presidential statement on the strategic prospects of Russian-American relations - a document I think we all need to have in the context of where we are going. There were at least a couple of intergovernmental agreements to be signed. One regarding scientific cooperation on issues of nuclear security and nuclear safety - it wasn’t signed in Moscow, because the visit was, unfortunately, postponed, but it was signed a few days ago in Vienna. The other agreement which was ready for signature in Moscow was about the continuation of the work of the nuclear threat reduction centers, which we believe we can sign on opportune occasion soon. But both of these agreements, as well as the strategic statement of the presidents, were ready for signature in Moscow.
We don’t overdramatize the fact that the summit was postponed. We believe that the Russian-American relations are broader and larger than emotions and mutual grudges, including the situation with the US fugitive Edward Snowden.
I am sure that American partners understand this. By the way, when the presidents met in Lough Erne this June, President Obama called the Russian-American relations the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Maybe this is true on certain things, and the Syrian initiative which we just discussed is a case in point, and the fact that the agreement on Syrian chemical issue, on Syrian chemical program was reached in no time at all, basically, in two days in Geneva. This is an agreed basis which indicates that when we face a common threat we can really put our strength together and do things right. I remember our partnership, our alliance during World War II, when in the UK, in the US there were circulated posters depicting a Russian soldier with the words “This is your friend, he fights for freedom.”
Sometimes when I see the Cold war spirit revived now and then I am wondering if we need another catastrophe like World War II to become allies again. I am sure that majority of Russians and Americans do not think so, they believe that these days without any special common threat we can use our strength on many things – international relations, regional conflicts, economic cooperation. When presidents Obama and Putin met in Los Cabos in June last June, they agreed that economy and mutual investments must be given much more priority. President Putin suggested that we should create a mechanism to analyze the investment climate both in Russia and in the United States, for Russian and American companies respectively, and to make an early warning if any problem arises. I still hope that this mechanism could be established. Within the postponed Moscow summit we planned a high-level business meeting with leaders of industry and business from the two countries. I think this is the most important task at the moment.
We also cooperate on cyber security. The Presidential Commission which has been functioning quite successfully, now consists of 21 working groups, including the one on cyber security, established by the decision of the two presidents in June last year in Lough Erne. There is also a special mechanism between National Security Advisor staff and the Russian Security Council to communicate on these issues in real time.
So, there are plenty of things which we can do together. Of course, there are issues on which we disagree but still try to find some common approaches - missile defense is the case in point. This issue has been broadly discussed. I can only say one thing: if my colleague, John Kerry, recalled in Geneva when we discussed the issue of Syrian chemical disarmament, the phrase which Ronald Reagan loved – trust but verify (“doveryai no proveryai”), we apply the same principle to the missile defense. We are told that “this is not against you” but our military gave the American counterparts the analysis which says that it does create risks for the Russian nuclear forces and we would like to trust that this is not against us but we would like to verify this by dialogue between professional military people. Another annoying factor, of course, is the situation with the Russian adopted by American families. Much was written about it. The Reuters agency has recently discovered the fact that there is an Internet sale group, advertising and selling kids adopted from many countries, like 400 kids have been advertised, including 26 from Russia. We raised the issue in the context of our ongoing discussion with the Americans on the situation with the Russian adopted kids and we’ll continue to do so.
Question: How do you see the recent developments in U.S.-Iran relations? What’s your assessment of the new President of Iran?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m not inclined to give any personal characteristics. We are interested in political positions of our partners and so far what we hear from Tehran is encouraging. The Iranians confirmed the need to continue negotiations, they expressed their desire and willingness to be more transparent and more concentrated on reaching the result provided, of course, that reciprocity is there.
Question: What do you mean by ‘reciprocity’? You mean the lifting of sanctions?
Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely. The sanctions were imposed because of the lack of results in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. If the progress is achieved, this must be followed and reciprocated by softening and eventually lifting all sanctions, when all the issues which Iran is to close with the International Atomic Energy Agency have been resolved.
Question: Didn’t you have a proposal a few years ago for a stage-by-stage plan: Iran would do certain things and in exchange, certain sanctions would be lifted?
Sergey Lavrov: It was endorsed, and this is the principle on which the Group 3+3 works.
Question: As I understand, Iran would do certain things and then certain sanctions would be lifted?
Sergey Lavrov: That’s right. It’s the only workable version. Russia proposed it, and it was accepted by all. The main thing now is to make it operational.
Question: Was it in 2006 that you proposed taking enriched uranium and putting it in Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t remember when it was.
Question: But you had a Russian plan a while ago?
Sergey Lavrov: Let’s call it a Russian plan and you just alluded to this.
Question: I saw President Obama’s remarks today saying that he assigned Kerry to meet with the Iranian leadership…
Sergey Lavrov: I heard this as well.
Question: Would you be optimistic about it?
Sergey Lavrov: We welcome any move by any country to resolve problems they have.
Question: What will Russia’s role be in the Iranian situation?
Sergey Lavrov: We are part of the Group 3+3. We negotiate with Iranians and encourage an approach which would be fair and would persuade them that we all want to resolve their problems, remove risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons and that we are not after the regime change in Iran. That’s, in a nutshell, our position and our role in the 3+3 negotiations.
Question: Is Russia wedded to President Assad? Or could there be another leader of Syria who could help solve this crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: We have repeatedly stated that we are not wedded to anyone in Syria. We are not concerned about any personality. We are not after removing or supporting anyone. We are concerned about keeping Syria one piece, territorially integral, sovereign, independent, secular, where the rights of all groups – ethnic, confessional and others – are fully respected. And that’s the goal which, I believe, the United States also has. The more we try to find common approaches to get there, the more efficient our cooperation will be.