Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Sochi, May 14, 2019)
It is clear that our relations with the United States are going through a rough patch, and the potential for mutually beneficial cooperation remains largely untapped. This is due in no small part to the anti-Russia sanctions policy inherited by the current US administration fr om its predecessors.
Since Russia and the United States are the two biggest nuclear powers, tension between them inevitably affects the overall state of global affairs. It is for this reason that Mike Pompeo and I agreed on the need to come up with practical steps to get the current situation back on the right track.
Russia is interested in normalising our dialogue. We strongly believe in the possibility and reality of achieving this by working in the spirit of mutual respect and taking into consideration each other’s interests.
We agreed on the importance of restoring communications channels that have been suspended lately, which was due in no small part to the groundless accusations against Russia of trying to meddle in the US election. These allegations went as far as to suggest that we colluded in some way with high-ranking officials fr om the current US administration. It is clear that allegations of this kind are completely false. I do hope that with the release of Special Counsel Robert Muller’s report the dust will settle on the other side of the Atlantic so that Russia and the United States can finally make progress in establishing constructive ties and promoting professional dialogue. I think that there is a fundamental understanding on this matter as discussed by our presidents during their meeting last year in Helsinki, as well as during a number of telephone conversations. So far these understandings have not been fully implemented.
On the positive note, we mentioned that our bilateral dialogue at the level of deputy foreign ministers on countering terrorism resumed in December 2018. This is a positive step, but of course, more has to be done.
We hope that we will also be able to deliver on other ideas discussed in Helsinki by our presidents, during our meeting in Rovaniemi and today in Sochi.
First of all, I believe that it would be advisable to establish a non-governmental expert council consisting of prominent political analysts, former military officers, diplomats and experts in bilateral relations. This could offer an outside perspective on how we can overcome mutual distrust that has accumulated in our relations with the primary objective of being able to understand each other’s moves in the defence sector and prevent an arms race, which could pave the way to promoting normal and sustainable cooperation in other spheres.
We believe that setting up a bilateral business council would also be beneficial. By bringing together business representatives fr om both sides, this council could come up with recommendations for our governments on creating an enabling environment for mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
We discussed steps that can create positive momentum in the development of Russia-US relations. We transmitted a position paper to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I hope Washington takes note of our ideas.
As far as the international agenda is concerned, we talked openly about many issues, including the events in Venezuela. Russia believes that it is the people of that country alone who should determine their future. In this regard, it is extremely important that all patriotic, responsible political forces in that country start a dialogue between themselves, as they are urged, among others, by a number of member countries of the so-called Montevideo mechanism. According to President Nicolas Maduro, the government is ready for this dialogue.
Concerning Syria, we were talking about the need to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254, whose key tenet is respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. We agreed to continue consultations based on the contacts we have. We compared notes on a number of concrete aspects, including those related to eradicating all vestiges of terrorism on Syrian soil, creating conditions for the return of refugees, solving humanitarian problems, and launching a political process in the context of efforts to form the Constitutional Committee. We hope that this body will be able to start its work shortly in Geneva under the UN aegis.
We discussed the Middle East and the situation that took shape in connection with the JCPOA. We have quite a few differences in this regard, but the fact that we are talking about it and continue to discuss the situation gives us hope that certain agreements could be reached after all with support from Russia and the United States.
As far as the situation in Ukraine is concerned, there is also a UN Security Council resolution that approved the Minsk Agreements. We hope the new Ukrainian leadership will be able to define their position on these agreements based on the fact that there is no alternative to a political settlement of the internal crisis in Ukraine.
Among other issues, let me single out the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which our presidents discussed in detail during their telephone conversation on May 3. President of Russia Vladimir Putin told US President Donald Trump about the Russian-North Korean summit that took place in Vladivostok on April 25. We are in favour of Washington and Pyongyang promoting a dialogue. We are ready to support it. I am confident that we should ultimately seek to form a peace and stability mechanism in Northeast Asia. We noted that the DPRK leaders expect to receive relevant security guarantees for their country in response to denuclearisation steps on their part. It is clear that security should apply to the entire Korean Peninsula.
We noted productive cooperation on Afghanistan which is already underway, including as part of the Russia-United States-China format.
We focused particularly on strategic stability and reviewed the situation with the INF Treaty. We discussed the prospects of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) as its first term expires in February 2021. We are interested in resuming a professional and concrete dialogue on all aspects of arms control. I hope that our two nations and the entire international community will take a positive view of this agreement.
Overall, we had a candid, extensive and meaningful dialogue. I hope that the visit by Secretary Pompeo will not only improve Russia-US relations, but will also make it possible to move forward, albeit with small, but realistic steps in order to resolve practical regional and international issues.
Question: You mentioned the START-3 Treaty, which expires in 2021. It is still unclear whether it will be renewed. If the United States fails to resolve Russia’s concerns, will Moscow continue to insist on renewing that treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, we have concerns regarding the US-declared “retrofitting” of its Trident submarine and heavy bomber launchers and making them non-nuclear. The treaty provides for specific procedures allowing the other party to make sure that this conversion is carried out in a way that precludes going back to the nuclear potential of the corresponding launchers and bombers. These matters are discussed at the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the New START Treaty, which oversees compliance. We hope that this discussion will eventually lead to a positive result.
I prefer not to answer the question about what Russia is going to do if these concerns remain, because we are now operating on the premise that we will be able to reach an agreement at the above-mentioned bilateral commission. Guessing what will or will not happen is not the diplomats’ job. Our goal is to achieve results. We will do just that.
Question: Why is it that the Russian government persists in supporting Mr Maduro when virtually every democracy in Latin America has recognised Mr Guaido as the legitimate interim leader of that country?
Sergey Lavrov: With regard to why Russia has adopted precisely this position and supports the dialogue and the consideration of all issues by the Venezuelans themselves without ultimatums or preconditions, we believe that democracy cannot be instituted by force. The threats addressed to the government led by Mr Maduro from the US Administration and from Mr Guaido, who constantly mentions his right to invite an armed intervention from outside, have nothing to do with democracy.
We remember how in May 2003, speaking from the aircraft carrier, President George W. Bush announced the establishment of democracy in Iraq. We remember how in 2011 it was announced that the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrown and democracy came to that country. I don’t think I should say more about the current status of democracy in Iraq, Libya and a number of other places wh ere such attempts to topple regimes took place, but did not result in anything good.
Question: There’s inconsistent information out there about a possible face-to-face meeting between President Putin and President Trump. For example, Osaka is cited as a venue. Could you clarify whether such a meeting will take place? If so, when and wh ere?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course, we heard President Trump saying that he expects to meet with President Putin, including during the G20 summit in Osaka. If we receive an official proposal, we will, of course, respond positively to it. Mr Pompeo and I discussed this today.
Question: You mentioned that despite the disagreements with Iran, there is a possibility of certain agreements on Iran going forward. Could you explain what you see in common with the US on Iran, and wh ere it can go?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the developments around Iran and the JCPOA, I hope that reason prevails and the rumours of the United States sending 120,000 troops to the region turn out to be unfounded. We discussed this today, and Mike Pompeo said that this falls within the military domain. After all, there is already too much tension in the region due to various conflict situations. By the way, we also discussed the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
When I say that we hope a political solution to the Iranian issue is found, this means that we are actually ready to facilitate this process in order to prevent the situation from sliding into a military scenario. It is up to the diplomats to decide how this can be done.
I felt that the US side is also committed to finding a political solution. This is a challenging situation. As you know, Russia did not support the decision by the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA and believes this to be a mistake. The US government has taken new measures against Iran by imposing sanctions that make it impossible to conduct any business with Iran, such as buying oil from or trading with Iran. I hope that we will try to find a way out of this crisis together with our European colleagues and Chinese partners, who are part of the JCPOA, as well as in our contacts with Washington. For now, we are just being pushed deeper into this downward spiral.
As for the question that you asked US Secretary of State on the allegations regarding Russia meddling in the US election, I would like to say that today I transmitted to Mike Pompeo a copy of an article published in the United States in 1987 claiming that the Soviet Union would try to meddle in the 1988 US presidential election. By the way, the same article mentioned, for the first time, that Donald Trump, who was then a successful businessman, might have political ambitions.
This topic can be discussed indefinitely, but until we have concrete facts on the table, we will not be able to have a serious conversation on this issue. The facts show that those who are behind these allegations have no evidence to back their claims. We have repeatedly proposed resuming professional contacts on cybersecurity as a framework for discussing any concerns between the two sides. A lion’s share of attacks against Russia’s online resources originates on US territory. So there are things to discuss in this area.
Speaking about the most recent US presidential campaign in particular, we have had in place an information exchange channel about potential unintended risks arising in cyberspace since 2013. From October 2016 (when the US Democratic Administration first raised this issue) until January 2017 (before Donald Trump's inauguration), this channel was used to handle requests and responses. Not so long ago, when the attacks on Russia in connection with the alleged interference in the elections reached their high point, we proposed publishing this exchange of messages between these two entities, which engage in staving off cyberspace incidents. I reminded Mr Pompeo about this today. The administration, now led by President Trump, refused to do so. I’m not sure who was behind this decision, but the idea to publish this data was blocked by the United States. However, we believe that publishing it would remove many currently circulating fabrications. Of course, we will not unilaterally make these exchanges public, but I would still like to make this fact known.
I reiterate that we are willing to join efforts with our US partners in order to deal with the cyberspace issues professionally and unemotionally, without making things overly political or ideological, or without trying to make it the most critical issue in the political infighting in the United States.
By the way, I handed over to Mr Pompeo an unofficial memorandum, a non-paper, as it is known in English, which sets forth some evidence, actual rather than fictional evidence of US intervention in Russia’s domestic policy, including the notorious law On Supporting Freedom in Ukraine adopted by Congress, which states that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to promote democracy in Russia directly and through Russian NGOs. To this end, $20 million are allocated annually. This is not something imaginary, but a document in the form a US Act. So, we are ready to discuss this issue.
In principle, we are in favour of resolving these issues and clearing the piles of mutual negative actions started by the United States, to which we had to respond – and also in favour of the diplomats to be able to work openly in accordance with the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations and not to create a sensation with the other side that someone is trying to exert influence on internal political processes.
Today, we once again cited an example, when in 1933, at the initiative of the United States, President Roosevelt and People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov exchanged notes in which they pledged not to interfere in each other’s internal political processes. To reiterate, the United States initiated this exchange of notes. For several years now, starting with the Obama Administration, we have been encouraging our US partners to reconfirm this agreement. They are not ready to do so, so draw your own conclusions.