Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

BBC World News Channel, Moscow, September 30, 2016
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Question: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for joining me on BBC World News. I think I have to start this interview by discussing with you the situation in Aleppo. We’ve seen the ferocious bombardment, your warplanes working alongside those of the Syrian military. Four hundred and more people have been killed, including many children. The UN Special Envoy says that there is evidence that war crimes may have been committed. Why are you doing this?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, I think to understand what is going on, you have to get a bit back into the history of how it all started. Today is exactly one year since President Putin, at the request of President Assad, agreed to send our air force to help fight terrorists in Syria. And from the very beginning, we proposed to the American-led coalition to start coordination of these operations and to separate the opposition which was cooperating with the coalition led by the United States from Nusra, ISIL and other terrorist groups. The Americans were only ready for deconfliction, as you know, and it took them, I think, several months, a couple of months at least, until in December we created the International Syria Support Group, where they pledged solemnly to take as a priority an obligation to separate the opposition from Nusra. In spite of many repeated promises and commitments, they still are not able – or not willing – to do this. And we have more and more reasons to believe that from the very beginning the plan was to spare Nusra and to keep it, you know, just in case for Plan B or for Stage 2 when it would be time to change the regime. I can only recall, speaking of Aleppo, that in August this year the opposition, where more than 50 percent were Nusra, as confirmed by the United Nations, has taken the southwestern suburb of Aleppo, cutting off 1.5 million people and basically organizing siege, preventing them from getting any supplies by the easiest and most available route. And there was no noise, no hysterical statements. The Western people who, as far as I understand, run the show, thought that this would be a prelude to Aleppo being taken by the opposition. Now the situation is different, and we hear all these noises.

Question: If I may, I understand what you are saying, Foreign Minister. But I need to ask you about the situation on the ground. We have seen, seen it on video, the evidence of civilians being killed in their own basements, their bunkers, by your, Russian-made, bunker-busting bombs. The doctors have told us of the scale of casualties. Why is Russia continuing with this bombardment when you know what you are doing to the civilian population?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, I am coming to it, actually, I am getting to it. We take all necessary precautions not to hit civilians. The term “collateral damage” was invented not by us – you know by whom. And we are taking, as I said, most strict precautions to make sure that we don’t hit civilians by any chance. If this happens, well, we are very sorry, but we need to investigate each and every accusation. So far, we have not been given any meaningful proof of what is being said about the convoy which was bombed or attacked on Sep. 19 and which we have good reasons to believe was a provocation.

Question:  We can talk about the convoy in a minute, but if you want evidence of what your forces are doing on the ground in Aleppo, then I can provide some. We have seen one of your unexploded Betab bunker-busting bombs actually filmed on the ground in Aleppo. So we know you are deploying those weapons. We also have seen clear evidence of incendiary phosphorus munitions being used, which again come from Russia; cluster bombs as well. These are Russian munitions which violate the international laws of warfare.

Sergey Lavrov: Well, we are not using any munitions which is prohibited by the United Nations, I can assure you. So about the situation in Aleppo: the entire problem derives from the fact the United States and the coalition led by the United States cannot and refuses, basically, to separate the opposition from Nusra and the terrorist groups who joined Nusra. Instead of separation, we see more and more groups coming into alliance with Nusra, and whenever we hit Nusra we are told, Look, you should not do this, because there are good people next to it or in the middle of Nusra’s positions. Then this is a vicious circle: we cannot fight terrorists unless we all agree that those who want to be part of the solution, part of the cessation of hostilities, get out from the positions occupied by them. This is as simple as that. But from the beginning of the US operation in Syria, they started by very reluctantly hitting ISIL, and they only went after ISIL in a real way after we started our operation. As for Nusra, they never touched Nusra anywhere in Syria. I raise this problem with John Kerry every time we talk, and we talk basically every day, and today there will be another one, as I understand, the request from Washington. He keeps promising that as soon as we stop flying, as soon as Assad stops flying, they would start separating – or start thinking about separation. By the way, we had many pauses, many humanitarian pauses during this year – 48 hours, 72 hours – at the request of the United Nations. Every time these pauses have been used by Nusra to get from abroad more fighters, more munitions and more weapons. There must be some first step, and we have to get our priorities right. Humanitarian things are very important, and we are doing everything now together with the Syrian government (we made sure they agree to it) to help the United Nations to get weekly pauses in Aleppo to deliver humanitarian goods. It is Nusra-controlled people in eastern Aleppo who refuse to do this until there is total quiet they ran short of munitions and weapons and they need resupply. That’s as simple as it is.

Question: Minister Lavrov, you talk about your contacts with the Americans. You will know better than me that over the last 12 or so hours the message from Washington has been simple: unless you stop the bombing in Aleppo now, then, the Americans say, they will end all diplomatic contact with you, they will end all talk of military coordination, and they will look «at all other options». So, are you prepared to end the bombing or not?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, they also said that Russia would be losing aeroplanes, soldiers and Russian cities would be attacked. It was an unacceptable threat, and maybe this was a signal that those who want to do this can start. It’s absolutely unacceptable and deplorable, I would say. As for cooperation, there was never cooperation between the two militaries of Russia and the United States except for deconfliction. What we did have was discussions and negotiations on documents which we started issuing sometime in March but which the Americans did not want to make public. And every time they said, «Well we will make this public after we negotiate another part of it», then another part, etc. Then John Kerry came to Moscow in July, and we finalised a very good document. By the way, the document started with pledge to separate the opposition, the healthy opposition so to say, moderates, from Nusra. And it was never done, and they were always shy to make these documents public. Eventually, when we finalised the package of five documents on Sep. 9, we decided that this was the time, you know, to start implementing them. The D-Day was announced on Sep. 12. The cessation of hostilities held for a couple of days. The Syrian government did start pulling back its forces from Castello Road, and the opposition was supposed to do the same – they never did. Instead, they started firing at the Syrian forces pulling back from Castello Road. The Syrian government, as provided by the Russian-American agreements, established its checkpoint on Castello Road. The opposition was supposed to establish its own – they never did. Now Castello Road cannot be used because the opposition threatens to fire at any humanitarian convoy using Castello Road. This is the fact.

Question: You said that the Americans struck at that Syrian military post, and you are right: the evidence is clear and the Americans have said it was a mistake and they’ve apologised for the loss of life in that particular incident. They accuse you, as do many international observers and indeed UN officials, of being responsible for the airstrike on an aid convoy. Now you have never admitted you did it, despite the clear evidence that it did involve the Russian military. So now is your opportunity to apologise for that.

Sergey Lavrov:  Well, if, as you say, there is clear evidence that this was the job of the Russian military I would like to see this evidence. I know that the United Nations, in particular on our insistence, announced that they start an investigation and we would be very thoroughly watching how this investigation goes. I can tell you only one thing, and this is the fact known by the United Nations. When the convoy was agreed, the opposition in control of eastern Aleppo told the United Nations that the convoy should not be launched because, they said, they had information the government would attack it. The United Nations in spite of this serious warning said, «It doesn’t matter whether anybody plans to attack us or not – we are sending the convoy». To understand what might have happened, we have to go back to Aug. 26 when there was another meeting between John Kerry and myself in Geneva. And on that very day Staffan de Mistura said that the humanitarian convoy was ready to leave from Turkey to eastern Aleppo via Castello Road. And he said, «Why don’t we announce it? It would be so symbolic at the moment when Russia and the United States meet». On that very day, before the convoy left, the Aleppo opposition said that they would hit this convoy, that they would not allow this to get into Aleppo via Castello Road. Then the United Nations basically blinked. They said, «OK, maybe we’ll talk to them, maybe we’ll try to persuade them to change their mind. Let’s wait for a couple of days». We waited for a couple of days, we waited for two weeks, then it was mid-September. The opposition in control of eastern Aleppo never allowed this convoy in. So now, when the Sep. 19 convoy was about to be launched, the same opposition said that they had information that the government might attack it. Don’t you think that this looks fishy?

Question: Well, I’ll tell you what looks fishy – the fact that your aerial surveillance drones were monitoring that convoy and you had two Russian Su-24 warplanes in the air above it. But let us not spend too long discussing that incident. As you say, an investigation is ongoing. Let us look at the bigger picture. We’ve talked in this interview about your relationship with John Kerry and the Americans. Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, recently said: «What Russia is doing is not counterterrorism. It is barbarism». How toxic would you say relations between Washington and Moscow are today?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, I think she is a bit aggressive, even for a representative of the United States. We believe it is absolutely unacceptable to use this language. We’ve said what we think about this already. I don’t want to come back to this, and I don’t want to discuss the manners of our American colleagues. I believe everyone who is aware of how they work knows about those manners, and I prefer to concentrate on the facts, not on some hysterical statements when people lose control of events and of themselves.

Question: You think the Americans have lost control of both themselves and events?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, I think that if they do not present any evidence to the contrary, they either are driven by Nusra or they tacitly support this terrorist organization. You know, if you take the history – during the Reagan administration al-Qaeda was born because the United States were supporting the Mujahedeen movement in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. During George Bush Jr. ISIL was born after they invaded Iraq and after in May 2003 they dismantled every structure with Sunni population – be it army, be it security, be it police. And I’m afraid that this particular administration of the United States might make history by being the administration which gave rise and support to Nusra.

Question: Is all talk of cessation of hostilities, a meaningful ceasefire in Syria, over? Is that prospect at an end?

Sergey Lavrov: No, it is not over, and when we met in New York, we said that we are ready to implement the document which we agreed in full, provided this time we don’t get any pretext to delay the separation. Let’s sit down, let’s have the map, and let the American and Russian officers exchange information and clearly indicate on that map where Nusra is. Then everything can start because we don’t want to be cheated again and again.

Question: Right. A bigger strategic thought now. In March of this year, President Putin announced that there was going to be a pull-back of Russian forces from Syria which would begin in the spring. Here we are at the end of September – one year into your military operations, and far from a pull-back. You are being drawn ever more deeply into the Syria conflict. You strategy hasn’t worked, has it?

Sergey Lavrov: I believe that you are making it a bit wrong, because what he did say was that we would be partially withdrawing our air force from there, and he made a caveat that if the situation requires, we would always be able to build back the force in Syria.

Question: The bottom line is: it looks to many people – and this is what the Americans are saying, but others too – that you can’t actually rein in President Assad and that you particularly in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow are unhappy about some of the things that are happening, particularly in Aleppo, but actually Bashar al-Assad isn’t listening to you.

Sergey Lavrov: You know, my job is not about being happy or unhappy. I can only give you facts. Starting with the first document on Syria, the Geneva communique of June 2012, we made all necessary efforts to make sure that the government cooperates. They endorsed this document a couple of days after it was adopted. The opposition never did. We proposed to have it endorsed in the Security Council – and they refused. And only one year and a couple of months later the opposition reluctantly said that they are ready to accept this document provided Assad goes, which was not a precondition contained in that paper. Then, each and every time Russia and the United States or the International Syria Support Group produced some decisions, the opposition was always saying they are only going to cooperate if Assad goes first. The latest arrangements between us and the United States were rejected by the so-called High Negotiating Committee and its leader Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister who defected in 2011, I think, in summer. He publicly stated in an interview to Al-Hayat, if I’m not wrong, that he – and this Riyadh Committee, as it is called – cannot accept the statement that Nusra is a terrorist organization. He said, Nusra cut some of its links with Al-Qaeda and that Nusra must be made a respectable participant of the political process. I asked John Kerry yesterday whether he accepts this. He said no. I said, «Why don’t you say this publicly?». And I’m still waiting.

Question: Right, you’ve told me a great deal about your concerns about the Nusra Front in all of its guises. I want to ask you a simple question. Bashar al-Assad says he will continue his military operations until he has recovered every inch of Syrian territory. Are you going to offer him full military support until he’s recovered every inch of Syrian territory?

Sergey Lavrov: You know, the cessation of hostilities never ever provided for ceasing any activities about Nusra and ISIL. And this is what we are guided by.

Question: Yes, but you haven’t answered my question. Do you believe Assad can recover every inch of Syrian territory? And will you be providing military support until he does so?

Sergey Lavrov: No. We believe that the Russian-American deal must be put into effect. For this, the only thing which is necessary is to separate the opposition from Nusra – if it is supported by the United States not on paper but in real life. And then we will insist on immediate cessation of hostilities. Except Nusra, of course.

Question: I wanted to address a couple of other issues. On sanctions: because of your response to the downing of MH17, the recent prosecutor’s report which made it quite plain all the evidence points to a Russian missile that was brought from Russia into eastern Ukraine shooting down that Malaysian airliner and then missile launcher returning to Russia, because of your response to that it is quite plain that international sanctions on your country are not going to be lifted any time soon. How is Russia going to continue to live with these sanctions?

Sergey Lavrov:  Well, we already explained what we think about this report of the Dutch [Safety Board]. By the way, the investigation group, which was created in July 2014, did not invite Malaysia until the end of that year. It was very strange, and nobody explained to us why this was the case. Another strange thing in addition to what was said by our aviation authorities and by the producer of this rocket launcher, the Security Council adopted a resolution in July 2014 which, among other things, requested regular reports to the Security Council about the course of this investigation. There was no single report to the Security Council, and I wonder why. As for the technical details and the evidence which you referred to, the evidence is based on video images and photo images from social networks and the evidence received from unnamed witnesses, and the report itself and the presenter of the report said that they need to continue investigation. We submitted [a] huge [amount of] material to them, and we would be very much hopeful that they would look eventually into this material.

Question: So, you are not contemplating any kind of apology?

Sergey Lavrov:  Any kind of apology for what?

Question: For the fact that the evidence points clearly to a Russian-made missile coming from Russia and going back to Russia being used to kill 298 people onboard that plane?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, first, even from the point of view of the logic of the investigating committee, the investigation is not over. They said that there are [several] hundred names, but none of them is a suspect, none of them is a witness even. So even from this point of view, let’s not jump to conclusions. But what I can tell you is that the information we amassed, including the results of the tests conducted by the producer of this rocket launcher, was given to the investigators. Ukrainian data, American data was never given and made public.