Interview with Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, by RT «SophieCo»
Interview with Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, by Sophie Shevardnadze on “RT”
Sophie Shevardnadze: Hello and welcome to Sophie and Co, I’m Sophie Shevardnadze.
The 71st session of the United Nations’ General Assembly is in under way in New York. And amid the changing nature of global threats and international tensions, how do you ensure that the UN continues to be pivotal to world peace and security? To discuss the most pressing issued up for debate at the UN General Assembly, I’m joined by the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin.
Vitaly Churkin, Russian Ambassador to the UN, welcome to the show. Ambassador, I don't get to talk to you very often so I've got a lot I want to cover, hopefully we'll have time to do all of that. Let's start with the latest news. President Obama has compared the Russian President Putin to Saddam Hussein in a speech at an election fund-raiser and then scolded Trump for giving an interview to RT - shocker. Now, surely, that won't help your diplomatic work with the American colleagues. Is it really worth trying to grab election points for your candidate at home at the expense of the working relationship with Russia on the international scene?
Vitaly Churkin: No, I don't think so. And frankly, I wouldn’t exaggerate this unfortunate statement by President Obama. I'm sure he's a person who is educated enough to know this kind of comparison is absolutely absurd. Sometimes politicians say things which they come to regret later, and unfortunately in the past few months we've lived and worked in an environment where in the United States they were throwing around all sorts of statements about Russia. I think we need to keep our focus on the problem at hand, and let's hope that we will be able to continue to do that despite some ripple effects which some statements can make from time to time.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Yes, but why bring up a foreign leader like Putin when he's giving an internal election speech?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, President Putin is an extremely popular leader in the United States, and there is a lot of argument of course about his role in the world and in Russia, so it shouldn't be surprising. And generally speaking, of course, we have a very strange situation in this cycle of the US presidential elections - unparalleled in history - when Russia is a very active talking point for all the candidates and all those who are participating in this process for a variety of reasons. But as far as our foreign policy establishment is concerned, I think we need to keep trying to do things with the United States, which we have been doing in the past few months and years despite all the difficulties. And our focus, for instance, here in New York, and the focus I'm sure of our Foreign Ministry, is now on Syria where Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry were able to reach a potentially extremely important agreement on the situation there on proceeding further towards peace and political settlement in Syria. So this needs to be our focus.
Sophie Shevardnadze: We're going to get to Syria in just a minute, but you tell me, I mean a you're in the midst of all of it, right in the heart - do you feel that this kind of statements stand in the way of pragmatic cooperation or is it business as usual when you actually go into a negotiation room? Are the countries really as close to being foes as the rhetoric suggests?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, it's not... Such statements are not helpful. But I think we are on both sides… our top leaders are pragmatic enough to understand that very high stakes are involved and ultimately we're guided by the interests of our country, we are guided by what we believe our country needs to do in order to deal with the various international problems. I think that this is the attitude which has been there for a long time, and we need to stay focused on the problems. And sometimes politicians made statements, sometimes very unfortunate as the one you have referred to, but we need to deal with the problems at hand.
Sophie Shevardnadze: So you've brought up the Russian-American diplomatic cooperation on the Syria cease-fire deal. Syria is said to be the focus of a high-level meeting of the Security Council later this month. Now, this is the second time Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry present a cease-fire agreement. However, the previous truce agreed at this level only held for so long. What will make this one last?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, I think the dynamics of the situation may be changing. The problem with the initial cessation of hostilities announcement made in February was that after it Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the major terrorist organizations fighting in Syria, was able to intensify its activity, with thousands of fighters pouring across the Turkish border and weapons, etc., etc. Since that time Jabhat al-Nusra has been dealt a serious blow by the Syrian armed forces supported by the Russian air force, and idea or one of the key elements of the plan which was agreed upon between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry in Geneva several days ago is that we both, Russia and the United States, are going to intensify the fight against Nusra, coordinating our activity against Nusra. So if that plan were to be implemented that will offer a serious promise of a better period for reaching a political settlement and cessation of hostilities, humanitarian situation in Syria. So let's hope the plan is going to be implemented. And for that, of course, they agreed to put together a joint implementation center signifying a higher level of cooperation between Russia and the United States.
Sophie Shevardnadze: So president Putin speaking at the UN General Assembly called for creating a global coalition against the Islamic State. The new truce agreed by Lavrov and Kerry proposes a Joint implementation center, collaboration between U.S. and Russian air forces in the fight against ISIS and Al-Nusra, information-sharing - are we finally seeing the first signs of this global coalition forming?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, I think so. Actually, if it works, if the latest Geneva agreements work, then we come very close to what was proposed by President Putin. Of course, some elements of that proposal will not be there yet, because we believe that the Syrian government should also be seen as a partner in this joint fight against terrorism, because after all, with all the air activity by the Russian forces, and the Americans, and their coalition, the main ground force fighting the terrorists in Syria is the Syrian Government. And we would like to see more respect for international law, we would like to see the American-led coalition asking for permission by the Syrian Government to operate on the Syrian territory. So what will be happening is higher level of cooperation, getting closer to truly global coalition fighting against terrorism, but not in the entire form and shape which was envisaged by President Putin in his statement in the General Assembly on September 29th of last year.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Now, Secretary Kerry has said that this cease-fire deal isn't built on trust but is built on mutual interest. How can military cooperation be effective without trust? Does Moscow trust Washington on this?
Vitaly Churkin: This question needs to be dealt with on several levels. First of all, I'm absolutely sure that Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry negotiate in good faith, and they trust each other. But what we've seen in the past is that sometimes the Americans are not able to carry out their promises. For instance, last February, a senior American official came to Moscow and promised us that the United States will be able to put some distance between the so-called moderate opposition that the United States is supporting and Jabhat al-Nusra. And he said that it will take two to three weeks to do that. It never happened. Incidentally, this is one of the important elements of the latest agreement that the Unites States after all those months of procrastination will be able to make sure that the moderate opposition which will be joining the cessation-of-hostilities regime will be separated from Jabhat al-Nusra. So, the trust which may exist between two main negotiators needs of course to be reconfirmed in actual actions, and sometimes we saw that the United States has not been able to do what they were promising us to do. So I think on both sides... of course we expect our promises and commitments to be tested on the ground.
Sophie Shevardnadze: That actually leads me to my next question. Efforts made by Russian diplomats have led to the Syrian government agreeing to the truce. Moscow has some leverage with Damascus and can put pressure on Assad to comply. But how will the US keep up its side of the deal with numerous rebel groups? Can Washington really control them?
Vitaly Churkin: They say they have influence on many of those groups. I think that that influence may be limited because there are other players, other regional players who have been supporting, supplying weapons and money to various opposition groups. Some of those regional actors do not seem to be very pleased with the agreement in Geneva of September 9. So this is a very complicated situation but we hope that the United States will exercise its influence. And we think that the influence of the United States is a predominant influence. And if they say they can make those opposition groups do certain things then we need to assume that the United States has the leverage to do that. Of course they have been training them, they have been organizing them, they have been maintaining all sorts of contacts with them. So the assumption is that they will exercise this leverage in order for those groups to be distanced from Jabhat al-Nusra and also to be faithful to the cessation of hostilities.
Sophie Shevardnadze: In August, the UN released a report that claims chemical weapons were used fairly recently by the Syrian army. Moscow brokered a UN deal with Damascus in 2013 that ensured the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. Has that agreement not been implemented fully?
Vitaly Churkin: No, that agreement has been implemented. In fact some time ago the Syrian chemical arsenal was taken out of the country and was destroyed. However some disturbing reports kept coming from Syria and we were discussing that in the Security Council and other venues. The fact was that we thought that some terrorist groups had the capability to produce and use chemical weapons. At the same time there were allegations that the Syrian armed forces, their air force was using chlorine as a chemical weapon. Not exactly a chemical weapon, but chlorine which can be readily acquired on the market in Syria in huge quantities. And a certain system was created. First fact finding mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, then the so called JIM (Joint Investigation Mechanism) which was created by the US Security Council which looked into those allegations. And the JIM has produced a number of reports, is going to produce shortly their final fourth report, and they did come up with the conclusion that ISIL used mustard gas, a chemical weapon, at least on one occasion, in Northern Syria. And they made an allegation about two situations where they say the Syrian government or the Syrian air force used a barrel bomb with chlorine. But we read those reports, they are extremely technical, it was an extremely difficult task that was given to JIM, to investigate those uses two years after the fact, and we are seeing that the evidence is not there. Most likely, chlorine was used in those situations, but there is no ground really to conclude – many question marks there in the report that, indeed, the Syrian air force was behind it. And, of course, in order to make any serious accusations and point fingers one must have solid evidence. But this work is still continuing, I expect that it will end within a few weeks.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Ambassador, I want to move to the topic on North Korea. You’ve called the UNSC to condemn North Korea’s most recent nuclear tests. Do you feel the Security Council has enough power to actually stop those tests? Previous measures haven’t stopped North Korea... How can the UNSC approach this problem?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, the UN Security Council can play its role. And so far we have adopted several sanctions resolutions against the DPRK, we have condemned their nuclear tests. We are going to work on another sanctions resolution against DPRK. This is a very complicated process because we want to make sure that it does not cause a humanitarian disaster, whatever restrictive measures will be contained in that resolution would not cause a humanitarian disaster in DPRK, and that room will be left open for diplomacy. Because the main forum for dealing with those matters for years has been the so-called Six Party Talks. So, we are saying that a way must be found to resume those negotiations. But, of course, the DPRK makes it extremely difficult, because they insist that they want to talk only in the context of their continued nuclear and ballistic missile program, which is unacceptable to the Security Council and the other participants in those six-party discussions. So, unfortunately, there is no ready recipe, but everybody must do its part. The Security Council will do its part. But the best hope is that the leaders in DPRK will realize that their course is extremely destructive, is leading nowhere and that the context in which they need to talk to the world is the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Sophie Shevardnadze: And then there is, of course, the refugee crisis. The summit on refugees will take place on the sidelines of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly. It is already hailed as a game-changer. This comes as millions flee their countries in the Middle East, in Africa. And the EU struggles to cope with its migrant crisis. What kind of drastic changes might we see from this summit?
Vitaly Churkin: It will start a process, actually. It will adopt a declaration which will call on the states, on the members of the United Nations to do certain things and, in cooperation with each other or individually to assume certain obligations, which will intensify our work to mitigate the problems of refugees and migrants, but also a goal will be set to develop, to produce, to work out two international treaties, Global Compacts – one on refugees and another on migrants. And the goals of those documents is, as I said, to make sure that more resources are provided to refugees and migrants, that people take better care about their rights, that we deal more with the sources of the problem of refugees and migrants. So, the work of the international community in that area is going to be intensified in the next two years.
Sophie Shevardnadze: “Financially broke” – that’s how Antonio Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, actually described UN agencies last year. How did it come to this - are wealthy states neglecting their high-profile promises to fund aid for refugees abroad?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, the way it works, Sophico, is that there are so-called assessed contributions in the United Nations – membership dues, which everybody is paying quite well. But then, most of the humanitarian work is done by voluntary contributions, and the amount of resources which are necessary is so staggering – many, many billions of dollars – that sometimes the international community falls short in producing sufficient funds for the UN humanitarian agencies to operate. We believe that, first of all, it should be the responsibility of those countries who actually caused those problems. We know what countries caused destabilization in the Middle East, starting with the invasion of Iraq, we know who caused destabilization in Northern Africa with the invasion of Libya, basically, or a kind of an intervention in Libya’s internal affairs. So, we believe that mostly those countries will have to pick up the tab for this humanitarian work.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Right. So, some of these flows of refugees were sparked by foreign military interventions. That’s no secret to anybody. The migrants arriving in Europe are coming mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. Should the countries that choose to intervene militarily help deal with the consequences of their actions? Can any country really be held responsible for causing the refugee crises?
Vitaly Churkin: Absolutely! Responsible in the way that they should pay more and they should understand and accept and admit that it is their responsibility mostly that these things are happening. But, of course, bringing them to some kind of legal accountability is something which the current legal and political system cannot cope with.
Sophie Shevardnadze: But can any country be held responsible for causing the refugee crisis we’re seeing today?
Vitaly Churkin: We are holding them responsible, but the fact is that they are not admitting their responsibility. In most of the cases they keep silent. Even though now it’s something which basically everybody agrees with – in the United States – that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake – but you would not hear an American politician say “we know that this is our national responsibility to make sure that Iraq is taken out of the crisis”. Of course, they are there. They are trying to make sure that there is no collapse in Iraq, that there is no collapse in Afghanistan, they are trying to do something in Libya. But also, actually, we are also sharing the importance of dealing with those situations. This is a kind of a complex relationship. Since the problem is there and the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have already paid a heavy price, we cannot simply look from the sidelines and say “well, let the United States and NATO deal with those problems”. As a responsible member of the international community, as a country, for which the plight of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is an important factor we need to play our political role, and sometimes we also help them financially, militarily and in whatever form, which is more efficient from our perspective. But you are absolutely right – everybody needs to understand what caused the problems, and those countries who did that must carry their heavier share of the burden, including the financial burden.
Sophie Shevardnadze: So, another priority of Russia’s agenda during the UN General Assembly is preventing the space arms race. Why? I mean what makes that a danger? Is someone already trying to put weapons in space?
Vitaly Churkin: The thing is that the United States is refusing to ban the deployment of weapons in outer space. And despite all the efforts led by Russia and China – our two countries have been advocating an international treaty banning weapons is outer space. But the fact that the US is reluctant to ban that activity, of course, is destabilizing in the long term. If you imagine that the arms race, weapons spread into outer space, than it creates all sorts of problems. For example, in terms of the possibility of continued reduction of nuclear weapons. From time to time Washington says that they want to see further negotiations with Russia on the reduction of nuclear weapons, but it’s hard to talk about that without keeping in mind the possibility of weapons appearing in outer space. If that were to happen, that would create a completely different strategic situation, much more difficult to regulate. So, we will keep pushing an international ban on the deployment of weapons into outer space.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Why doesn’t the United States want a treaty like that?
Vitaly Churkin: I suppose because they want to keep their options open. They want to basically have American military domination. They are not comfortable enough in the world of checks and balances. They don't want much to share power and influence with others. They believe that they - I suppose, this is my interpretation of their position - that they're secure only if they are relying entirely on their own force, without giving much credence to the possibility of international security on the basis of broad international cooperation. Of course, if this is their logic, then this is one of the reasons that it's very difficult to create a world of greater harmony, if you believe that the only way for you to protect your interests is to rely on your selfish interests without really taking into account the interests of others. If you rely only on your military force to defend your interests, of course, that creates threats to others and makes it much more difficult to cooperate internationally. This is one of the fundamental problems of the current international system.
Sophie Shevardnadze: All right, Ambassador, let's talk about the proposals for the reform of the UN Security Council. They have been around forever and the main issue is permanent membership in the Security Council. Russia has supported expanding the council, which countries do you see as potential new members?
Vitaly Churkin: If there are to be new permanent members - and that is a big "if" because there is a large group of countries in the United Nations who are arguing against this formula for the enlargement of the Security Council - but if there are to be new permanent members I would love to see our BRICS partners, for instance, as permanent members: India, Brazil, South Africa. They would be wonderful permanent members. A few years ago, it so happened that all three of them were on the Security Council as non-permanent members at that time, and it was a completely different Security Council. They did not always agree with Russia or China 100 percent, but the dynamics of the Security Council was quite different from what we see now, when they are away. So, for me personally, I would love to see those three countries on the Council.
Sophie Shevardnadze: And there have been proposals to get rid of the veto power altogether - what do you think of that? Is that a good idea?
Vitaly Churkin: It's not a good idea at all. It's not just about raising your hand without synchronizing your move with other members of the Council. It's making sure that there is a genuine effort in the Council to look for compromise proposals. And then the fundamental reality of the international system of today - this is the conclusion I arrived at personally, having been observing the Security Council from close quarters for a long time now - is that the United States and its allies almost always get nine votes in the Security Council. So, without the veto, they would simply be putting draft resolutions on the table and forcing them through the Council, because there would be no way for Russia and China to block those resolutions even though they may be completely unacceptable. Without the veto, the Security Council will simply lose its relevance as the body of the international community, of the United Nations which does enjoy very high prestige and very high level of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
Sophie Shevardnadze: And last question to wrap this up. Ban Ki Moon is going to be leaving his post as his term expires at the end of this year. You’re presiding over the ‘informal’ straw polls that determine member-countries’ preferred candidates for the job. Do you have your prediction for the outcome?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, I do, but unfortunately I cannot share that with you because in the Security Council we agreed to keep the whole process confidential. There are now nine candidates…
Sophie Shevardnadze: Can you give us a hint?
Vitaly Churkin: ... all of them are strong candidates.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Can we talk codes, can you give us a hint?
Vitaly Churkin: No, I can't, no, I can't. Not on camera, no. There are some leaders now in the race after the straw polls we have conducted. The expectation is that it might be possible to wrap this process up with an official recommendation from the Security Council to the General Assembly on the candidate to be appointed Secretary General. It may be possible to wrap it up in October when Russia will be presiding in the Security Council. So it will add to our workload as president of the Security Council in October.
Sophie Shevardnadze: All right, Ambassador, thank you for this interview, and good luck with everything. We were speaking to Vitaly Churkin, Russian Ambassador to the UN, discussing the challenges that lay before the 71st United Nations General Assembly.
Vitaly Churkin: Thank you.