FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter)
Mr Secretary of State,
We met in Bonn on February 16, where I told you about Moscow’s basic views on Russian-US relations and international affairs.
In the few months since then, many statements have been made in Washington regarding bilateral relations and their prospects, as well as key international issues. Frankly, they have provoked many questions, considering Washington’s confusing and sometimes openly contradictory ideas on the entire range of bilateral and international issues. Moreover, these statements have been issued alongside some alarming actions, notably the illegal attack against Syria. Mr Tillerson, we discussed this in a telephone conversation. President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have expressed their principled position on this issue. We consider it crucially important to prevent a repetition of such actions in the future.
I believe that you have come at the right time. Your visit provides an indispensable opportunity to frankly and honestly discuss the outlook for cooperation on these issues, primarily the creation of a broad counterterrorism coalition, as President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump have agreed to do. This is especially important at a time when, as far as we know, not all key positions in the US Department of State have been filled and hence it is not easy to quickly receive clarification on current and future issues. More than once, we have reaffirmed our readiness for a constructive and equal dialogue and cooperation based on respect for the legitimate interests of the other. This has been our consistent policy that is fully in keeping with international law and does not depend on current trends or a false choice, such as “you are either with us or against us.”
We have always stood for collective action. We consider it counterproductive to stand behind the closed doors of alliances and “misalliances”. Of course, we have put forth this position to our American colleagues before, and this is well known in Washington and to you, Mr Tillerson. For our part, we need to understand the position of the United States and the practical intentions of the US administration. We hope to move forward on these issues today.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Good evening. We just came from a productive meeting, as you heard Foreign Minister Lavrov mention, of about two hours with President Putin. We frankly discussed the current state of U.S.-Russia relations. I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point and there is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship. We further discussed approaches to improving our channels of communication. We had a lengthy exchange of views regarding the situation in Syria and shared perspectives on possible ways forward.
Earlier today, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I had a lengthy conversation about issues that require immediate attention and issues that require longer-term attention. We understand that improvement in the long-term relationship will be required if we are to make progress on issues where we have different views.
We spoke extensively about Syria, and in some areas we share a common view. Specifically, we both believe in a unified and stable Syria, and we agree we want to deny a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack both of our countries. We agree that North Korea has to be de-nuclearized. We agreed there needs to be more senior-level communication between our two countries, both at a diplomatic and military level.
But there is a broad range of other issues in which we have differences. Some have global implications with long-term requirements, and others are understood to be bilateral. Over the course of the past two years, a number of reciprocal actions have been taken to demonstrate the dissatisfaction each country has with the other. We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us.
We have agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship, so that we can then address the more serious problems. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed we would consider further proposals made about the way forward in Syria, including consulting with our allies and coalition members. And we will continue discussions about how to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.
We also discussed current threats posed by the North Korea’s regime – the regime’s ongoing development of their nuclear program, and the constructive role Russia can play in encouraging the regime in North Korea to change its course, so that we can create the conditions for talks regarding the future.
On Minsk, we considered the importance of the accord. Russia can make progress in implementation by de-escalating violence and taking steps to withdraw separatist armed forces and heavy weapons so that OSCE observers can fulfill their role. Until full progress is made under the Minsk Accords, the situation in Ukraine will remain an obstacle to improvement in relations between the U.S. and Russia.
I thank the foreign minister for a productive round of discussions and I look forward to future conversations. Thank you.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Colleagues, now we will go over to questions on channel Rossiya 24.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Rossiya 24. My first question is to Mr. Tillerson. We have heard from Washington not only contradictory but also aggressive statements. I mean Mr. Trump, who has called Assad an animal, and from the White House, Sean Spicer, who said that Hitler hadn’t used chemical weapons. How does that actually fit in with American diplomacy and when will the rhetoric change?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the perspective from the United States, supported by the facts that we have, are conclusive that the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned and it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces, and we’re quite confident of that. This is just the latest in a series of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, notwithstanding their use on more than 50 occasions of chlorine bombs, and cluster bombs, and other types of weapons that are intended to maim and kill in the most horrific ways. So I think the characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself.
MODERATOR: Josh Lederman —
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Well, I’d just like to add two words there. It is perfectly obvious that the subject – this subject is one we diverge on, inasmuch as Russia is insisting on an objective investigation. Together with the United States in 2014 were the initiators of the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, and the record deadlines were enshrined in conventions which belong to the OPCW and the United Nations, and there are reports about chemical weapons here which record progress in eliminating all the stockpiles of chemical weapons and which also record facts to the effect that some of these stockpiles are being controlled by extremists. This process has not stopped in Damascus, and we are putting as much pressure as possible on the Syrian cabinet to cooperate in this respect, and we are committed to completing this work. And we will go to the end. We will finish it off.
There is a mission to establish the facts by the OPCW, a joint mechanism between the (inaudible) and the UN, and we have a number of questions with regard to those two bodies, because some of the communications which are going to the Syrian Government are all pivoting on distance information. And I don’t want to completely discredit the White Helmets, but this is a problem, and also the quality of testimony which exists with regard to the use of chemicals in the territory which is controlled by the opposition. On numerous occasions, the Syrian Government and the Syrian servicemen have given us absolutely incontrovertible evidence about the use of chemical weapons. This was not some kind of distance information, but information from the site.
I’d just like to say also – and I don’t want to accuse anybody here or protect anyone – we insist on an objective investigation of what happened on the 4th of April. Incidentally, this actually coincided with the convocation of a meeting in Brussels on the Syrian situation, and many participants at that meeting in the afternoon, after the Idlib crisis, started very actively and loudly proclaiming that the entire conference should be devoted only to this question, which should have been about the overall settlement of the – of Syria.
So the media hysteria which was unleashed as a result of this incident – we have to make sure that we are impartial now in investigating this whole business by sending international expert groups to the site and to that particular place where the chemicals were used, and, of course, the airfield which was used for sending out aircraft with chemical substances. We have seen no confirmation that that was the case, all the more so because the TV images showed that there were people on the airfield immediately after the strike and there were absolutely no evidence of – which would allow us to talk about the use of some kind of poisonous substances. I do apologize for such a long commentary, but I’d just like to stress here that we are absolutely 100 percent convinced that if our colleagues in the United Nations and in The Hague shirk from this investigation, then this will mean that they simply don’t want to establish the truth. And we will insist on it.
MODERATOR: Josh Lederman with the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Tillerson, I want to ask you about your conversations with President Putin about Syria. You’ve predicted that Assad will leave power through a political transition. How will you compel Assad to participate in a political transition that leads to his own ouster? Are war crimes charges on the table? And how long will the United States wait for Russia to come around?
And Foreign Minister Lavrov, if I may. Your government and the United States Government seem to be miles apart on the Syria issue, on Ukraine, and other issues. Did you feel that you cleared up any of those issues that you mentioned earlier today since you’ve had those discussions with Secretary Tillerson?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way – an orderly way – so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad – for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.
QUESTION: What about the war crimes charges?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We discussed the issue that as time goes by and more and more evidence continues to be gathered, it is possible that the threshold necessary to charge individuals, including Bashar al-Assad, may be achieved. As you know, this is a very high legal hurdle in order to bring such charges against an individual. So I would not suggest to you that all of that evidence is in place, but I think the longer time goes by, it’s possible that the case will be made. And there are certain individuals who are working to make that case.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’d just like to say that we do not consider that we are miles apart on many questions on the agenda. Syria and Ukraine – in our introduction, we talked about the accords and the opening of channels of communication, particularly about Ukraine. As far as Syria is concerned and Bashar al-Assad, we talked today about the history, and Rex said that he was a new man and is not interested so much in history; he wants to deal with today’s problems. But the world is so constructed that unless we look at what’s happened in the past, we won’t be able to deal with the present. Particularly in a situation where a group of countries – Western countries, the NATO countries – were absolutely obsessed with eliminated – eliminating a particular dictator or totalitarian leader.
When it was a question of ousting Slobodan Milosevic, NATO unfurled a huge campaign. It was a very coarse, blatant violation of international law. They even bombed the place, which is certainly a war crime whichever way you interpret the Geneva Convention, and they bombed the headquarters. And there were also attacks on trains, the Chinese embassy, bridges, and so on and so forth. This lasted some two months, and after all this, which was very near to dual purpose – weapons of dual purpose, then they ousted him.
Then there was the question of Saddam Hussein. We know after the invasion – we know what it was based on, and then Tony Blair afterwards repented publicly that all this was a fake. And you all know about that, know worse than we do.
And then there was Qaddafi. It was declared that this dictator had no place in his own country and this was against democracy. We know what happened in Libya. The Libyan Government is now under a huge question mark. We spoke about this, or President Putin did speak about it yesterday with the Italian president, and we are both trying to stop the situation of the country slipping into full illegal immigration, gun running, and so on.
So, incidentally speaking, we have some quite recent – even more recent examples. Sudan – President Bashir was declared to be under prosecution by the International Court of Justice, and President Obama decided that in order to settle this problem, you had to divide the country up into two. And the southern part very actively asked for our assistance in dealing with President Bashir, that the Americans want to see – (inaudible) that he should be the head of the – both states. He kept his word. He divided the country into two parts according to the American project of the administration of President Obama, and with that – with the effect that sanctions were introduced against their own child, on Southern Sudan.
So this insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader – we have already been through it. We very well know, only too well, what happens when you do that. I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly, without violence. So in Syria – and I have stressed this on many times – we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad, as is being done in Libya at the moment. We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement. As has been enshrined in the Security Council resolution, we want to install dialogue with all the players concerned, and we want the Syrians themselves, without any kind of exclusion, to be represented in this process.
And removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda. We are talking about the whole of the Syrian Government. We want it to be democratic and we want it to be secular as well. We want to see all the ethnic confessional groups in the country to feel protected, justly represented in all the branches of government and power. And, obviously, for that you need a new constitution. We think that then the question of the fate of individuals could be dealt with and without any kind of tragic consequences for the state as a whole.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much. I have a question to Mr. Tillerson. Did you discuss in today’s negotiations the intervention of Russia in the U.S. elections, and could you tell us about how the presence of Russian cybernauts differs from the question of American cybernauts in virtual space?
There is also the whole question about the Korean issue. Have you actually thought about setting up a group which would actually look at that kind of thing together?
MODERATOR: Is that a question to both ministers or what?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We touched only briefly on the issue of cyber security, and in particular on the challenges that it is placing on everyone in terms of a new threat, an emerging threat. But I think I do make a distinction when cyber tools are used to interfere with the internal decisions among countries as to how their elections are conducted. That is one use of cyber tools. Cyber tools to disrupt weapons programs – that’s another use of the tools, and I make a distinction between those two. Clearly, this is an issue that has emerged in our time for which we have yet as an international community come to some conclusion around how we want to respond to that. And so there will be further discussions, and it is on the agenda and it is in the agenda that Foreign Minister Lavrov passed to me for us to have further discussions in the future.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: I can only confirm that we are very interested in bilateral cooperation to combat crime in the cyberspace. We have heard about that. Eighteen months ago, we actually proposed to Obama’s administration that we should do something about it. We voiced our concern about Russian hackers hacking into the entire world and the illegitimate use of these tools and the possibility for prosecuting these people, and we said there – then that we too are very interested in our citizens not being victims of cyber crimes, and we proposed that we should have a special system of contacts, a special mechanism which would exchange information in real time, looking into how people are trying to subvert international norms and national norms in both countries. The president spoke about it but really didn’t react at all. And then in November last year, it was suggested that we should meet about that, and obviously our colleagues in the relative spheres agreed, but then at the last moment Obama’s administration decided not to go ahead with it and to subvert U.S.-Russian relations before the new administration.
I just want to confirm the fact that we are particularly interested in that. We still have that project on the table. We want to renew it; we want to resume contacts with special representatives in the administration of the U.S. and the Russian Federation president’s office and engage and commit all the various authorities concerned. There may be a result from all these efforts, and we hope that we will be able to close this matter.
We haven’t actually broached this whole idea of a presidential commission. It was put on ice by Obama, but when we looked at the problems dogging the bilateral relations, we thought of looking at the independence of the organization and looked at the specific people who could help us to overcome the difficulties. And we are looking at how we can overcome these problems, above all the problems which were created artificially.
MODERATOR: Rich Edson of Fox News Channel.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Tillerson, did you discuss today with President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov sanctions or other concessions that the United States might make in exchange for a change in behavior from the Russian Government? And also, speaking about what you just answered previously, did you present to President Putin or the foreign minister specific evidence the Russian Government interfered in the U.S. election?
And to Foreign Minister Lavrov, if an independent investigation finds the Assad government attacked his own people with chemical weapons, what will Russia do? President Putin says there’s an effort to blame Assad and plant evidence. Did you present that evidence to Secretary Tillerson today, and would Russia refuse to consider to agree to any circumstance that results in the ousting of Bashar al-Assad?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We discussed no change in the status of sanctions that have been in place with Russia as a result of certain actions taken in Ukraine, as you know. I think as to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well-established in the United States and I think that has been spoken to on the Hill as well with the Congress. And it is a serious issue. It’s one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions. And so we are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our elections, and I’m sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Well, the State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda, including – including where there are problems. And in fact, on the majority of them there are problems.
And what will happen if the investigation will demonstrate the involvement of the Syrian leadership in the chemical attacks? I believe that question is hypothetical. We don’t want to try and guess the coffee (inaudible) because there has been a lot of historical looking at the tea leaves and coming to the conclusion that bombing should take place. And after the U.S. missile strike, there was a lot of talk of that.
We do not wish to speculate about these very serious matters, the use of chemical weapons, the use of – or the attempts to inculpate people or to orchestrate things. We want to establish the truth, the full truth in line with the principles of U.S. and Russian laws, the laws of any normal civilized country. The presumption of innocence must reign supreme. And I have just told you that our instructions to the Hague, to the OPCW in the Hague about the investigation, if this is – if people put the brakes on, we shall protest.
As far as the argument that the U.S. has incontrovertible evidence of the fact that we intervened in the U.S. presidential campaign, then I have to say once again that not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw those facts, we don’t know. Nobody has shown us anything. And we have said to them, show us the evidence for these very slanderous attacks. I know that there are numerous cohorts of people who want to subvert our relations in order to hike up their political or extra-political ambitions. That is not the issue. Let us look at that, give us evidence, and we will respond.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Ria Novosti.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Good evening. I’d like to ask a question to both ministers. The Korean Peninsula – the Americans have sent a whole naval company. Did you talk about that in your negotiations and the dangers to the particular region? And does it mean that America has some kind of plans for a military campaign around the Korean Peninsula?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: The Carl Vinson Strike Group is routinely in the Pacific Ocean. It’s in the Pacific theater. And its movements in the Pacific are made in a way that’s planned by the military planners. There is no particular objective in its current course. The Vinson sails up and down the Pacific routinely, and so I would not read anything into the Carl Vinson’s current locations.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: I can only repeat that we, amongst other many questions, discussed the situation in and around the Korean Peninsula, and as far as I remember, we covered all the most substantive issues connected with it, and we insisted that this situation would only be settled by peaceful means and the denuclearization of the peninsula through negotiations. There are many efforts being deployed at the moment by the participants in what used to be called the six-sided process. We have a couple of ideas about that, our Chinese colleagues too, and I think that what we have to do is to unite together and apply exclusively peaceful means.
And last question to the American side.
MODERATOR: The final question goes to Margaret Brennan with CBS News.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Secretary, before these meetings you said you believed Russia was either incompetent or complicit in these chemical weapons attacks. After your extensive meeting with both Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, do you know which one that is and what concrete thing can be done to rebuild that lack of trust?
And Minister Lavrov, if I could indulge you to answer in English if you would, sir. President Trump has called Bashar al-Assad an animal. This is the leader your government continues to back. Can you tell us how long Russia will be willing to risk the lives of its soldiers and spend its money to protect him?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know – and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion – is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.
FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: I can only repeat once again that as with the Russian hackers, so-called, and the instance in Syria, we should very much like through some kind of proper arguments to receive evidence of facts. So far, we have none. And once again, I’d just like to say that in Syria, we are working at the request of the legitimate government of a member country of the United Nations, and we are against any kind of sanctions initiated by the Security Council of the United Nations, and we are combatting terrorism. We want to make sure that ISIL and the Nusrah forces do not get hold of Damascus. And the coalition which President Obama cobbled together did not actually deal with the mission, and that was before the appearance of the Russian air force in the country. The American coalition struck only certain positions of ISIL, but Jabhat al-Nusrah was always spared, and we have a very persistent suspicion that Nusrah is still being spared so as to trigger Plan B and to try and overturn the regime of Assad. I have already mentioned that we’ve already noticed that in Iraq and Libya; this is due to the prevalence of people who simply want to do that.
And as far as crimes committed in Syria, certainly we will be eager to sort that out, and I think that there have to be priorities. And the priorities which you have heard from Washington to the effect that the destruction of ISIL is priority number one and the – John Kerry and Spicer have already said that it is possible to get rid of ISIL without regime change, and Kerry has said that it is much more important to deal with ISIL than Assad’s regime.
So I think we think in very like manner here. The common threat is absolutely obvious. If it is possible to overcome ISIL without reversing the regime, then, having reversed or upturned the regime, it may well be that we will lose the fight against ISIL. So I think that what we need to do is to use common sense and fewer emotions.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) On that, we complete this press conference. Thank you very much.