Interview with Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, by RT
Ambassador, thank you so much for having us. The 10th of February is Diplomat's Day in Russia. How has this profession changed over the years? How stressful it is to be a diplomat these days?
It’s become much more hectic than it used to be. It is stressful. Unfortunately, the world has not become more stable. There are quite a few hotspots where diplomats are posted. Increasing political tensions and challenges are coupled with a lack of stability. Quite a few of my colleagues find themselves working in rather stressful and difficult circumstances.
How do diplomats cope with all this stress?
They just go about their jobs, trying to do their best. I think we are very privileged in our Foreign Ministry to have good, dedicated professionals, so by and large we are doing well, speaking about our diplomatic service.
You are a seasoned diplomat with a career spanning decades. Now we have a new U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who has never been a diplomat, she was a governor. So how do you think this will affect her job in such a high position?
We’ll see. She’s coming to the UN with a lot of political experience. She’s clearly a very capable and gifted person. I had a very good meeting with her a couple of days ago. She is self-confident, she knows what she is trying to achieve. There are political appointees in every system. Maybe there are more political appointees in the US than we have or in some other countries but some of them are doing very good jobs. What will help her work at the UN is that she is also going to be a member of President Trump’s cabinet, she is going to be a member of the National Security Council, the Principals Committee, etc. On the other hand, it’s going to add more stresses to what she is supposed to do. Incidentally, the same was the case with her two predecessors, both Ambassador Power and Ambassador Rice, who combined their jobs in New York with their positions in Washington. Definitely she is going to be well-informed and well-positioned but it will also distract some of her attention from what is going to happen in New York.
I know it’s too early to talk about the depth of experience but with Ambassador Power and Ambassador Rice who you mentioned you had quite intense exchanges over the years. What about Nikki Haley, is she different?
It’s too early to tell. As I said, we had a very nice conversation with her bilaterally. We talked about all sorts of things. She seems to be open-minded and friendly. Without revealing any particular secrets, she agreed with me when I said that confidence and trust among diplomats are very important. I intend to behave in a very open and frank way with her, and I expect the same from her, and she agreed that this is the attitude which we need to apply as two diplomats who by fate are entrusted with those very important jobs in the Security Council. She understands that. The Security Council is a collective body which has very heavy responsibilities in terms of international peace and security. Without our intensive cooperation it will simply be not able to function.
In addition to those things which we need to do as representatives of our countries, pursuing both our national agendas in the Security Council, the agendas of the US and the Russian Federation, I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to make sure that the Security Council continues to be an effective body dealing with various international issues.
During President Trump’s campaign we have seen his willingness to reset ties with Russia. Now that he’s sworn in as President we see somewhat different statements – not from him, he’s been consistent – from members of the National Security Council, from General Mattis, from Nikki Haley herself. Her first speech at the UN was rather critical of Russia. Do you think there will be some kind of resistance between Trump and his people?
First of all, a number of our senior officials, including Sergey Lavrov, made it clear that we are not expecting miracles. We understand that we have a very complicated agenda on our hands, in our bilateral relations, in the role our countries are playing in the world. Their team needs to take shape. Our meeting with Nikki Haley was a very small step in establishing contacts among our teams.
I understand that in February Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is going to meet with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – that would really be the first significant contact between our countries and will shed more light on what the Trump administration is prepared for right now. You always have to remember that we have a long stretch ahead of us. So the first contact will be important but maybe will not reveal much in terms of how far we will be prepared to go on both sides in dealing with various international subjects.
So we need to have some patience. We need to work professionally on those matters. This is what our intention is.
Speaking of Rex Tillerson, he’s not a professional diplomat, either. He’s a businessman, first and foremost. You’ve seen a lot of changes in diplomatic structures in Washington and New York over the years, do you think that the fact that the Secretary of State is not a diplomat could be an interesting fact for you as a diplomat.
The US has a very good system – top businessmen show interest in international affairs as well. My understanding is that Rex Tillerson has been involved in some of those institutions in the US which follow international relations, and of course he has travelled the world extensively, so he has carried a lot of experience with him – perhaps not purely in terms of international relations but certainly he is a person who is not new to the world.
If you look at the track record of the history of the US, there have been a number of businessmen who have been propelled to the position of Secretary of State and they did quite well. For instance, I was in Washington in the 1980s when George Shulz was Secretary of State during the Reagan administration, and I think he did quite well. He was a very serious and solid presence in diplomatic life.
So we all wish Rex Tillerson well. Like is the case with Nikki Haley in the Security Council in the United Nations, it's very important that the Secretary of State of the United States is an effective presence in international diplomatic life and I have no doubt that this is going to be the case.
Rex Tillerson was actually scolded a lot by the media before he was appointed for receiving an order from President Putin. When he made his speech at the appointment session in the Congress I thought personally that his stance towards Russia was the most coherent. Did you have that feeling as well – that he knows what he is talking about?
I watched some of the sessions but not all of it. I did not follow every word which was said during those hearings. After all, I have a different job here at the UN. Some things which he said showed that he had a solid personality, understanding the responsibilities of the US Secretary of State, avoiding big flashy statements which were probably expected of him by some of his interlocutors in the Senate, so I think, if I may say so, he presented himself well and he got confirmed by the Senate so now it's time to get down to work which has done already. Hopefully he is preparing thoroughly for his first meeting with Sergey Lavrov. So we will see what’s going to happen. I am encouraged – it’s very good that he is a person who is familiar with Russia. He met President Putin. This is only an asset. He's very well positioned to do a good job as Secretary of State of the United States.
You mentioned flashy statements. Nikki Haley’s first speech at the UN could not be probably considered as flashy but was it something that you expected?
Yes, I did not expect her to depart from the standard position. There is a standard position of the US on certain issues. Definitely, the tone of her remarks was very different from what we heard before, from her predecessor. She actually started out by saying that she did not want to spoil her relations with Russia (this is not a direct quote) which I thought was a very good signal. But of course I did not expect her in her first speech at the Security Council presided over by Ukraine to depart from the standard American position. She said, we’ll continue to do so and so. But we know the Anglo-Saxon history, culture and psyche. Remember: never say never. This is one of the things which we need to keep in mind. Things are evolving, so I would not be too concerned over the reiteration of the previous position.
Speaking of Ukraine, there’s a lot of speculation right now in the media from every side of the border over the escalation of violence. Do you think that this may be a bad start from US-UN relations?
This may be one of the goals of those who are provoking those manifestations of violence in eastern Ukraine. They don’t want relations between Russia and the US to improve. So they are trying to make sure that there are additional obstacles for that improvement to happen. Of course, the Ukraine crisis is one of the things which needs to be overcome for the potential of Russia-US cooperation to be really fully utilized. This may be one of those situations to make sure that it is more difficult for the US to establish better relations with Russia.
Now Ukraine also presides over the Security Council until the end of the month. Is it an important matter which plays into Kiev’s hands?
It is a factor, it makes it a little bit easier for the Ukrainians to pursue their agenda in the Security Council. It’s very interesting to note that even though the Ukrainian delegation convened that meeting on February 2, actually, they did not get that much support. The only support they received was from the UK and from the US, but from the US came a very standard language coming from the previous administration. All the other participants in the discussion, and there were 11 of them – Russia of course had its own position – they were basically saying that the Minsk agreements need to be implemented and there needs to be a political settlement. That was exactly our line of argument in the Security Council.
So they did not reap much benefit from convening that meeting and making rather provocative statements about Russia and about the situation in Donetsk. This is another factor which may be conducive to finding progress in settling the Ukraine conflict.
And recently we had a Ukrainian resolution at the General Assembly on human rights in Crimea. But people were not voting for human rights in Crimea. Many of those who voted did not even read that resolution. This was another test: “Are you sympathising with Ukraine or are you sympathising with Russia under the current circumstances?” To me it was extremely significant that only 70 countries voted in support of Ukraine. If you compare it to the original vote on the Crimea when the Crimea was reunified with Russia it was 100 countries who voted basically in support of Ukraine for a number of reasons. So now the support of Ukraine has clearly declined in the UN and this is a very encouraging trend in terms of the pressure which needs to be put on Kiev to make them do the things that need to be done in order to have the Minsk agreements implemented.
All the media coverage about what’s going on in Ukraine these days has focused on Avdeevka, on people killed there, but they are not mentioning at all the situation in Donetsk where people are also dying and bombs are falling. What is the conversation in the UN about that? Are people actually paying attention to what’s going on?
Of course, here at the Security Council people are more professional, they understand the complexities. But in terms of propaganda you are absolutely right. One has the impression that only Avdeevka is being shelled, and the fact is that it comes after their tanks moved into Avdeevka. The weapons are not supposed to be there. Now their heavy weapons are there and they are shelling Donetsk. They have been shelling residential areas of Donetsk and Lugansk throughout the conflict, on a daily basis, and not much attention is being paid to that. This is one of the problems we have in terms of propaganda, in terms of lack of objectivity by a lot of international media in treating the situation in Ukraine. We have to live with that. Fortunately, if you read carefully, as we professionals do, the report of the OSCE monitoring mission(even though we believe sometimes they could have been clearer in presenting the facts) which is working in Ukraine, it is clear that it is the fault of the Ukrainians. Sometimes there are violations on the part of people from Donetsk and Lugansk, but it’s clear that the recent spike of military activity was initiated by the Ukrainian armed forces and those voluntary battalions which are fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Let’s move on from Ukraine to other issues. Professor of Russian Studies at New York University Steven Cohen recently wrote a huge article about a new wave of détente. Do you think we are actually getting there? Something that started in 1969 and died in the 1980s and came back in the Gorbachev–Reagan era… Is it another détente?
I hope it might be. It’s very difficult to use those words like détente or reset. I think it’s going to be something new and different. Of course I hope we are going to advance far enough to make a difference in improving our relations but how exactly it’s going to happen, are circumstances going to intervene which is going to make it more difficult? Or maybe circumstances would force us into closer cooperation? Like this challenge of ISIL or other terrorist organizations, so generally the challenge of terrorism is definitely one of the circumstances which is driving the need for us to cooperate.
So there are too many question marks. One might have hopes but how exactly they are going to play out, it remains to be seen.
Speaking of terrorism, President Trump has a peculiar vision of terrorism. This week, he called Iran the terrorist state number one in the world. Russia is a very close partner with Iran. Do you think this may be some kind of a stumbling block on the way to rebuild ties?
We have differences in a number of areas including the understanding of the role of Iran. Sergey Lavrov recently spelled out our attitude to this particular problem pointing out that Iran is playing an active role in fighting ISIL. Complaints about Iran mostly come out of their support of Hezbollah, or the differences they have with Saudi Arabia, this Sunni-Shia controversy which is one of the most fundamental and difficult problems we have in international relations. So it’s a situation which has to be viewed objectively. This outcry about Iran’s ballistic missile launches. I was surprised to hear even American experts speaking on CNN and calling it a violation of bans by the UN Security Council. Those bans were there before. All those bans were lifted when the arrangements on the Iranian nuclear problem were reached. The current UNSC resolution which is on the books says: We call upon Iran not to test ballistic missiles designed to be capable to deliver nuclear weapons. So it’s just a call, not a prohibition. Technically or legally you cannot argue that they are violating any kind of a prohibition. But actually it has to be proved that his particular missile was designed to be capable to carry a nuclear weapon. So it’s not as simple as that.
In international life you have to differentiate between your emotions, what you want to see and what you have the right to expect from another country. As I said, there are so many complexities, so many issues which can create additional problems, including problems which might affect our relations with the US. That’s why it’s very hard to make straight predictions on the course of developments.
Could China be one of them? Trump is also not friendly towards that country.
Not really… First of all, nobody – us included - would like to see a deterioration of relations between China and the US. It would affect international life, it might affect the atmosphere in the Security Council. Their argument, as far as I can tell, is mostly in the economic field. It is not an area where we are having most of our relationship with the US. Generally speaking, any deterioration in the relations between major powers is not a good thing and we would not like to see that happening.
Speaking of Iran again. Considering the intensity of the statements, particularly by Gen Flynn and Mattis, and Trump on Twitter, do you think there’s some potential for something serious there? Even if we are not talking about the Russia-Iran-US relations, just US-Iran relations?
I hope not. The statement by the national security advisor, Mr Flynn, was caused not just by the ballistic missile launch but also by the situation in Yemen where they suspect Iran of supporting the Houthis and being one of the drivers of this two-year, extremely bitter and bloody conflict. So that also has to be looked at. This is one of the areas where we need to cooperate more closely with the US and internationally as in the UNSC to settle this very complicated and very devastating conflict in Yemen. Of course, there are additional sources of concern but in a perverse diplomatic way this is an additional venue for our cooperation.
Why doesn’t Yemen make as much noise as Syria?
It’s a forgotten conflict. It’s been overshadowed by Syria and also quite simply the Saudis are not allowing international journalists to travel to Yemen. There are no flights to Yemen, they ban flights to capital Sanaa. Until recently journalists were allowed to take UN flights but then the Saudis said no. So there is very little media presence in Yemen, and this extremely tragic conflict is being overlooked. The humanitarian situation is a disaster. It’s a country of over 20 million people, almost all of them depend on humanitarian supplies. No medical supplies, very little food, they are almost entirely dependent on import of food because of the effort by the Saudis to block the flow of weapons which the Saudis suspect are coming from Iran to support the Houthis. These efforts create many problems for regular food and other humanitarian supplies. It’s very bitter and bloody fighting. Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is becoming more and more active there. So in terms of its fabric, it may be even more complicated than the conflict in Syria, maybe not in terms of the number of people killed but in terms of human suffering and humanitarian problems it may be even more dramatic that the situation in Syria.
Why are there no UNSC resolutions?
There was a UNSC resolution which is not being implemented. We have regular meeting with Ismail Ahmed, special representative of the Secretary-General, we follow the developments, our embassy is still there in Sanaa, our ambassador is in Riyadh but he is actively participating in the international diplomatic process in an effort to settle the conflict. But the two sides in the conflict come from very different positions and it’s not obvious how those positions can be reconciled. They want things which are very different, and the more they fight the more difficult it is becoming to find common ground. This is one of the simple conclusions I personally have drawn watching the conflict in Syria and the conflict in Yemen. The international community must stop those things as quickly as possible. If we allow such conflicts to drag on, then with blood, emotions, casualties, it is becoming more difficult to settle them. So as soon as is politically and humanly possible those things need to be arrested and brought to normalcy. Unfortunately, both in Syria and in Yemen we have allowed the conflicts to continue and that has created those dramatic humanitarian, economic, political and other consequences.
On Syria, we have at least seen some determination and willingness from your Western counterparts to do something. Do you hear the same kind of conversation on Yemen within the UNSC?
We do. We talk about it all the time. It doesn’t find its way to the front page very often. Recently we had Ismail Ahmed at the UNSC consultations. Unfortunately, the compromise between the parties is not obvious. At some point, several years ago it seemed that they were very close to finding some kind of common ground. Just recently, incidentally, one of the last things John Kerry did was coming up with a proposal of a formula to settle the conflict. It was rejected by President Hadi, supported by the Saudi-led coalition.
As I said, the two parties want things which are very different. Unfortunately, there is also a situation where the Saudis and the coalition they lead see Iran everywhere. So they feel they are not just dealing with the Houthis, they are concerned that if they give concessions to the Houthis, that would mean giving greater presence for Iran in Yemen, and they don’t want to see that.
Actually, one of the greatest challenges for the international community – and I hope that Russia and the US together can do that – is to find a way to bring together the Saudis and Iran, the Shia and the Sunnis, this is one of the most dramatic and difficult controversies which goes back a millennium but we have to make them see each other not as enemies but as Muslims which must live together in this world. But so far the key to unlocking that door has not been found.
What do you think the US and Russia can do in this regard?
I think the US shares the same perception of the problem but it’s extremely difficult. I remember I was at some international gathering in the region, and one European foreign minister asked the panelists – and there were some Sunnis and an Iranian – about what can be done and what actually the problem is, and they simply laughed him off. They said you need to go a millennium back to understand our enmity. So it’s psychological, it’s political. It’s very difficult for them to find a balance between the ambitions of Iran, the protector of the Shias, and the safety of the monarchies in the Middle East, the Sunni monarchies. That balance has not been found.
Russia has been trying to initiate discussion on the security in the Persian Gulf, so we have tried from time to time but we have not been successful so far. Unfortunately, it is revealed in a number of conflicts. The origins of the Syrian conflict are to a large extent due to the competition between the Sunnis and the Shias in the area.
And Iraq as well… Do you think it is possible at all to reconcile them?
It should be possible. Without that reconciliation we will not find tranquility in that part of the world. What we need in the world is more tranquility. The world has been upended, and a number of corks have been taken out of the bottles. One of the corks was taken out of the Libya bottle and all the problems in Africa were exacerbated by the toppling of Gaddafi, which ruined the Libyan state, and then all those problems starting flowing out of Africa - North Africa, the Sahel region, and so on. Another bottle was uncorked in Syria when one of the most successful countries in that part of the world was destabilized, creating another flow of problems that started coming from Syria.
So one of the most serious challenges is to find a way to bring back some degree of stability and then we will be able to work on the socio-economic and other problems.
When she was leaving her UN post, Ambassador Power spoke about the UNSC. Do you think that the UN still has a lot of power, still has the power to prevent conflicts, reconcile sides?
I think the UN continues to be an indispensable mechanism. Without the UN we would be acting all on our own, without much coordination and then we will be even less successful than we have been so far. At least there is a platform to bring our views together: for matters of international security it’s the UNSC, we have the Secretary-General, we have his special representatives working on various issues. This is the tool and the mechanism we have. For example, later today I am seeing Martin Kobler, who is the UN special envoy on Libya, so we will be discussing Libya in the UNSC. There is a certain system through which we can pull our forces together. And it’s not just here. We have peacekeeping missions, special political missions like missions deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, speaking about political missions, a lot of work is being done. Have we been successful so far? The answer is no. The problem is that the place was blown up politically in 2011. The Arab Spring, the dramatic developments in Libya and Syria, came unexpectedly. And Syria to a large extent also triggered Yemen because it’s not just the Houthis which are a problem, but the former president who first agreed to leave and then decided to come back to power. Now he is together with the Houthis fighting against the current president which used to be his subordinate in the party he is leading.
We have this explosion of instability in the world and the UN like everybody else was caught by surprise but the mechanism is there. Without this mechanism, it would be much more difficult to deal with those situations and those problems.
And, finally, if there is anything you would like to share with us in terms of what Russia’s next steps will be at the UN?
We are working on a number of things. In the UNSC we keep pursuing a draft resolution that we introduced on fighting the ideology of terrorism but we are encountering some reluctance from our American and Western colleagues. Now with the new administration we will restart this effort and we’ll see if we can move along. Their concern was that it is an intrusion on the freedom of speech the way it is interpreted in the US Constitution. Ambassador Power told me that under their Constitution only direct calls to commit acts of terrorism is something which is prohibited. You might say that ISIL is great, - and it is OK, it’s freedom of speech, which I find questionable. As you know, the US is a politically correct country, somebody may say a wrong word, everybody would be against him or her and that person might suffer badly in terms of reputation. But here in the area of terrorism, according to their explanations, anything can be said and that would be OK because it’s freedom of speech.
This is one of the areas where we are continuing to work. We have the whole agenda on our hands so it’s going to be another busy year, for the Russian delegation in the UN.
Thank you so much for your time.