Europe and Eurasia: Press Availability With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Press Availability

Michael R. Pompeo

Secretary of State

Rus Hotel
Sochi, Russia
May 14, 2019

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning a joint press conference. Secretary of State, and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, please.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. First of all, I would like to once again welcome Mike Pompeo on Russian soil. This is his first visit to Russia in his capacity of Secretary of State of the U.S., though he used to come here in his other capacities before. Today we have had negotiations as a follow-up to a meaningful one-hour-and-a-half telephone conversation between our presidents which took play on the 3rd of May. And following up on that conversation, heads of state instructed us to intensify our dialogue.

We have started to tackle this task several days ago in Rovaniemi in Finland on the margins of the ministerial council of the Arctic Council. That was a very useful meeting. And today in the wake of that dialogue we have verily discussed the situation in our bilateral affairs, as well as exchanged opinions on the most relevant issues of international and regional issues – first and foremost Venezuela, Korean Peninsula, Syria, Middle East on the whole, and North Africa as well, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and the situation around Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on settling the Iranian nuclear deal.

And as a result of our negotiations, we’ll report to President Putin in a few hours. But overall, I would like to say that this was a frank and a useful conversation. It is clear that our relations have seen better times and there is a potential for mutually beneficial cooperation, and it largely remains untapped. And a certain role is played in that by the legacy from the predecessors that was inherited by this administration, and I mean anti-Russian sanction policy.

Since we are talking about major nuclear powers, the tension between Russia and the United States unavoidably has a negative impact on global affairs. Therefore we, together with the Secretary, have agreed that we need to take practical steps to amend the current situation. Russia is interested in normalizing our dialogue, and we are convinced that it is quite possible and real if we hold this dialogue based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests.

We have agreed that it’s important to rebuild the channels of communications. Lately, these channels were frozen, largely due to a wake of baseless accusations against us in attempts to influence American elections and certain collusion of high-ranking officials of the incumbent administration, and it is clear that such insinuations are absolutely fake.

The report was published recently by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and we hope that this tumultuous situation will die down and we can finally move on to building more professional, constructive dialogue between Russia and the U.S. I believe that we have all the basic understandings that were discussed by our presidents at their meeting last year in Helsinki at the summit and several times over the phone. Right now, all these understandings are not fully being implemented.

As for tangible results, we can say that December last year saw rebuilding of the working group on counterterrorism at the level of deputy secretary of state and deputy foreign minister. That’s a good step, but it’s not enough. We expect that it’ll be possible to implement other ideas that were reviewed in Helsinki and recently by us in Finland as well as today here in Sochi.

First and foremost, I’d like to highlight that it is – it would be useful to create a nongovernmental expert council of famous political analysts, ex-military and diplomats, specialists for bilateral relations, and they could have a fresh take, and they would – could help us decide how to overcome the accumulated mistrust in order to have the right interpretation of each other’s actions in military sphere and to prevent arms race, and in the future to create sustainable and normal cooperation in other spheres as well.

We believe it is also useful to create a business advisory council that could unite representatives of larger – of major businesses from both countries, and they could draft recommendations how the governments could create conditions for a conducive environment for economic cooperation. We have also discussed what could give a positive impetus to Russian-American relations. We have given a memo to the Secretary of State, and we hope that Washington will carefully review that.

As for international agenda, we had a frank conversation on many issues, including the situation around Venezuela. Russia is for the nation of Venezuela to define its own future. And in this regard, it is extremely important that all patriotic and responsible political stakeholders in this country to start a dialogue between themselves. And a number of countries in the region call for the same thing within the mechanism of Montevideo. The government, as Nicolas Maduro has said, is prepared for such a dialogue.

We spoke about Syria and the need to fully implement the Resolution 2254. The key clause there is the respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. We have agreed to continue consultations based on the context that we have, and we have compared notes on a number of specific aspects, including those that have to do with the final eradication of terrorism on the Syrian soil, ensuring the return of refugees, solving humanitarian issues, as well as launching of political process in establishing a constitutional committee. And we hope that this committee in the nearest future will be able to start its work in Geneva under the aegis of the UN.

We spoke about Middle East, about the situation that is taking place around JCPOA on ensuring the peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear program. We have many differences here, but the fact that we talk on this topic and will continue to discuss this situation, that gives us hope that certain agreements could be reached with the support of the U.S. and Russia.

As for the situation in the Ukraine, there is also a UN Security Council resolution that endorsed Minsk agreements, and we expect that the new administration in Ukraine will be able to define their position on Minsk agreements basing their actions on the fact there is no alternative to political settlement of this inner Ukrainian crisis.

As for other issues, I would like to highlight the situation around Korean Peninsula. Our presidents discussed that thoroughly in their conversation on the 3rd of May. President Putin told President Trump about the summit which took place in Vladivostok on the 25th of April. We are promoting dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. We are prepared to support such a dialogue, and we are positive that in the end we should strive to create a strong mechanism of peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Naturally, we highlighted that the leadership of DPRK expects certain guarantees of security of their country reciprocated by denuclearization, and that denuclearization should be expanded over the whole of the Korean Peninsula.

We highlighted very useful cooperation that’s happening on Afghanistan, including the trio format – Russia, United States, and China.

We paid special attention to the issues of strategic stability. We have reviewed the situation that’s taking place around intermediate-range force – nuclear forces treaty. We spoke about the promise of the New START Treaty, considering that it is going to expire in February 2021. We are interested in renewing a professional and specific dialogue on all aspects of arms control. I hope that such an agreement will be positively received by our two nations and the global community on the whole.

Overall, I’d like to say once again that this conversation was a frank one, meaningful, detailed. And I hope that the visit of Mike Pompeo would not only help improve the atmosphere of Russian-American relations, but it would also allow to move on maybe through small steps, but with specific, concrete steps, in solving practical issues that require to be settled both in bilateral sphere and in regional and international agenda.

I would like to thank my counterpart for good negotiations, and please, you have the floor.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Sergey, thank you. Good afternoon. I want to first of all say that I appreciate President Putin and Prime[i] Minister Lavrov for hosting me today. Thank you, sir. We had a frank discussion about many issues, including many places where we disagree. The United States stands ready to find common ground with Russia, as long as the two of us can engage seriously on those issues.

We discussed, as Foreign Minister Lavrov said, many important topics. We talked about terrorism. We talked about Afghanistan. President Trump has made clear that his expectation is that we will have an improved relationship between our two countries. This will benefit each of our peoples, and I think that our talks here today were a good step in that direction.

A few subjects that we talked about. Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned that we spoke about Syria. We both want to move forward on the political track to bring the suffering of the Syrian people to an end, and we want to do so in a way that ensures that Syria will never again be a haven for Islamist terrorist groups. I also raised our concern about the escalation of the situation around Idlib in the northwest of Syria.

We also discussed North Korea and its nuclear program. The United States and Russia agree on the goal of the denuclearization, and we’ll continue to discuss it. I underscored that we must maintain full implementation of the UN sanctions until the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea is achieved. And our two teams have been working very closely together on this in a very productive fashion.

On Venezuela, we have disagreement. I urged my Russian colleagues to support the Venezuelan people as they return democracy to their country. The United States and more than 50 other nations agree that the time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go. He has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people, and we hope that the Russians’ support for Maduro will end. But despite our disagreements, we’ll keep talking. I hope we can find a way forward that ends with the humanitarian and political crisis that is happening. On this we both agree.

We also discussed the situation in Ukraine. The Trump administration has been clear that we do not recognize Russia’s attempted annexation in Crimea, and we hope that we can continue to move forward. Our sanctions have remained in place. I urged Russia to reach out to Ukraine’s new president to demonstrate leadership by taking a step towards breaking the stalemate. We would, in particular, welcome the release of the Ukrainian crewmen detained near the Kerch Strait last year, and we talked about implementation and how we might move forward in obtaining a ceasefire in the Donbas region.

We spoke a bit about the activities that are taking place in the Middle East today, with particular focus on the actions that Iran is taking. I made clear that the United States will continue to apply pressure to the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbors or spread instability or terror.

As Foreign Minister Lavrov alluded to, very much on President Trump’s mind is arms control. Our actions on the INF Treaty have demonstrated that we’re committed to effective arms control that advances U.S. allied and partner security that is verifiable and enforceable. The President has charged his national security team to think more broadly about arms control, to include countries beyond our traditional U.S.-Russia framework and a broader range of weapon systems. The President wants serious arms control that delivers real security to the American people. And we know – and I think we agree on this – to achieve these goals, we’ll have to work together, and that it would be important that, if it’s possible, we get China involved as well. We’ll have a more extensive set of conversations, both about arms control and a opportunity to discuss all broad strategic security issues between our two countries in the weeks ahead.

I also raised the issue of U.S. citizens who have been detained in Russia, making sure that our citizens are not unjustly held abroad. It is one of President Trump’s highest priorities.

And we spoke, too, about the question of interference in our domestic affairs. I conveyed that there are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that these types of activities are a thing of the past and I hope that Russia will take advantage of those opportunities.

Finally, I wanted to emphasize the American friendship with the Russian people. Our two nations share proud histories and respect for one another’s cultures. We seek a better relationship with Russia and we urge that it work alongside us to change the trajectory of the relationship, which will benefit each of our peoples. Thank you, Sergey.

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Dear colleagues, we are moving on to Q&A. Kommersant newspaper, please. You have the floor.

QUESTION: (Via interepreter) Vladimir Solovyov, Kommersant newspaper. You mentioned the New START Treaty, which is expiring in 2021, but it is still unclear whether it will be surely prolonged. Therefore, the question to Secretary Pompeo: Is Washington prepared to extend New START Treaty for five years, as Moscow is proposing? Whether U.S. is prepared to discuss concerns of Russia of that conversion of launchers and heavy bombers as well?

And a question to Mr. Lavrov: If the U.S. did not alleviate concerns of Russia, will Moscow continue to want to prolong the treaty? Thank you.

SECRETARY POMPEO: So Foreign Minister Lavrov raised the issue of concerns about compliance with New START today. We’ll continue to work to allow that treaty to be verified exactly as the verification regime exists. As for its extension, what we’ve agreed that we will do is we will gather together teams that will begin to work not only on New START and its potential extension, but on a broader range of arms control issues that each of our two nations have, I think, in our shared best interest achieving an agreement on.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Now, as for our position, indeed we have concerns that have to do with the claimed refitting of the U.S. launchers of Trident SLBMs as well as heavy bombers – of converting them to non-nuclear forces. The START – the treaty foresees certain procedures that allow for the second party – should allow for the second party to verify that this conversion, refitting of equipment, is done in such a way that it is impossible to return the nuclear warheads to the launchers on the bombers. We are discussing that at Bilateral Consultative Commission, which oversees the implementation of the treaty, and we expect that this discussion will yield positive result in the end.

As for the question of what Russia will do if these concerns remain in place, I’d prefer not to respond to that, because right now we proceed from the assumption that we can agree within the Bilateral Consultative Commission, and guessing – doing the guesswork what will happen, what will not, that’s possibly not the diplomatic task. Our task is to achieve a result, and that’s what we will do.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. We’re going to go to Guy Benson from Fox News.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I want to follow up on Venezuela. Mr. Secretary, what was the message from the Trump administration specifically in regards to the Russian Government and their continued support of Nicolas Maduro and their active involvement in the Western Hemisphere?

And Mr. Foreign Minister, why is it that the Russian Government persists in supporting Mr. Maduro when virtually every democracy in Latin America has recognized Mr. Guaido as the legitimate interim leader of that country? Thank you.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Guy, we talked about this for some time. We made clear the U.S. position. We want every country that’s interfering in Venezuela to cease doing that. We want the Venezuelan people to get their democracy back. We want them to have a fair, free election, elect their own leadership, not in the way that the sham election took place with Mr. Maduro. So whether it’s Iranian forces or Chinese or Cubans, the Trump administration’s position is that they all need to cease having an impact in supporting Maduro and allow the Venezuelan people not only to get their democracy back but give them an opportunity to rebuild this country that has tremendous wealth. There are Russian companies operating there that are successful businesses as well. We want those countries – we want that country to get a chance to rebuild its economy, too, so that it isn’t dependent on humanitarian assistance from anywhere in the world, but rather they can begin to deliver economic outcomes for themselves. And to do that, the central point is that we need free and fair elections there, not interfered by any other nation.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) As for our position, and in response to your question why Russia is taking such a stance in support of dialogue, of viewing all the issues by Venezuelans themselves with no ultimatums and no preconditions – well, this position stems from the fact that democracy cannot be done by force. The threats that we hear against Maduro government, threats that come from the mouths of official representatives of the U.S. administration and from Mr. Guaido, who always mentions his right to invite military intervention from outside – this has nothing in common with democracy.

We remember back in 2003 – I think that was May – the President of the United States, George W. Bush, on the board of aircraft carrier declared the democracy in Iraq. We remember 2011. It was declared that the leader of Libya Muammar Qadhafi was ousted and now Libya is a democracy. I don’t think I should go into more detail on how the democracy fuels itself in Iraq and Libya and other places where such attempts of coup d’etat took place and it brought nothing good about.

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Russia 24 Channel, please.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Thank you. Natalia Litovko, Russia 24 Channel. Question to both ministers about possible personal meeting between President Putin and President Trump. We see contradictory information there. Could you please clarify whether such a meeting will take place? We hear about Osaka, but is it planned and when and where?

A second question to Secretary Pompeo. You just came back from Brussels, where you discussed with your European colleagues the nuclear deal with Iran. Well, the latest news about possible relocation of troops to the Middle East – that sounds concerning. Does it mean that Washington chose a strategy of force against Iran? Are European leaders on board with you on that?

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Well, naturally, we heard statements by President Trump that he expects to hold a meeting with President Putin, including during the G20 summit in Osaka. We heard a proposal. Well, if we receive such an official invitation, we’ll respond positively, and we talked about that today with Michael Pompeo.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Let me talk about my conversations in Brussels and then more broadly about the United States policy with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran. So I went to Brussels to share with our European friends the threats and concerns we have about actions that the Iranians are taking or are potentially taking, and we wanted to make sure they understood the risks as we saw them, and I shared that with them in some detail.

As for our policy, it’s been consistent now for the entire Trump administration. And the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, now just over a year ago, made clear what our objectives are. We laid them out in May of last year. We’re looking for Iran to behave like a normal country, and that’s our ask. And we have applied pressure to the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran to achieve that.

We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran. We’re looking for the regime to simply stop conducting assassination campaigns throughout Europe, to cease their support of Hizballah that threatens interests all across the Middle East, their support for the Houthis that are launching missiles into areas where there are Russians and Americans traveling. These missiles could easily kill a Russian or an American. We laid them out in some detail. Our position hasn’t changed.

And the movement of troops that you described I’ll leave to the Department of Defense, but we’ve also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.

MS ORTAGUS: Shaun Tandon, AFP.

QUESTION: Great. Thank you. Thanks for you time. I wanted to follow up on a couple of statements that you’ve said. First, for Foreign Minister Lavrov, you mentioned that despite the disagreements with Iran that there’s a possibility of certain agreements on Iran going forward. Could you explain what you see in common with the U.S. on Iran, where you can go?

Secretary Pompeo, if I could ask you about the mysterious incidents in the UAE, regarding the oil tankers, have you pinpointed responsibility for that? And if I could follow up on your statement about the election, you said that there are things that Russia could do to show that election interference is a thing of the past. What are those things? What do – what would you like Russia to do? Thank you very much.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) As for situation in Iran, Iran and JCPOA, on the settlement of Iranian nuclear issue, I hope that reason will gain the upper hand and that rumors about the ostensibly planned of 120,000 strong army of the U.S., what we spoke about today, is just a rumor. And Mike said that it’s a ministry of defense thing, and these are just rumors which are baseless, because this region is so tense with different conflicts and difficult situations. And on the margin, I say that we spoke about the future of Palestinian-Israeli settlement as well. I said that we hope to find a political solution to the situation around Iran. Indeed, we’ll try to facilitate for the situation not to tip over to the military scenario. And how we do it, that’s the task for diplomats. And I felt that the U.S. side has a commitment to finding a political solution.

The situation is a complex one. As you know, we did not support and we believe that it is a mistake that the U.S. decided to withdraw from JCPOA. And those measures that the U.S. Government is undertaking right now by introducing sanctions which prohibit to have any deals with Iran – you cannot buy oil; you cannot trade with Iran at all – I hope that we together, with our European colleagues, with our Chinese colleagues, who are also a party to the agreement on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will keep in touch with our American colleagues and try to find ways out of this crisis. Because right now we have only entered this spiral and we’re getting sucked into it.

I’d like to use this opportunity that I have the floor – I wanted to talk about the topic that you – the question that you addressed to Secretary Pompeo about the interference of the Russian Federation in the election process in the U.S. I gave Mike today a copy of an article that was published in the United States in 1987 with a warning that the Soviet Union is going to influence the elections, the presidential elections which were planned for 1988. The article actually mentioned for the first time about the political ambition of then successful businessman Donald Trump. So we can discuss this topic forever, but until we have cold, hard facts on the table, we cannot have a grown-up discussion about it. The facts tell us that there is no proof of those who are trying to hype up this topic. We have mentioned several times that we could have renewed professional contact in cybersecurity, and within this context we could discuss any concerns that one party has to another. Attacks against our internet resources, they – the lion’s share of those attacks come from the United States soil.

And when we talk about the latest presidential campaign in the U.S., since 2013, we used to have, and we still have, a channel of exchange on information about possible indeliberate risks in cyberspace. And since October 2016, when the Democratic administration of the United States raised this issue for the first time, till January 2017, till Donald Trump inauguration, we used to have a traffic of response and requests of information, and we have offered recently – when the verbal attacks against Russian Federations that had to do with alleged interference in elections reached their ceiling, we suggested that we could use this traffic between these two special centers that deal with cyberspace threats. We suggested to publish that, and I mentioned that to Mike. Administration refused to do so. I don’t know who made this decision. However, the publication of this data was blocked by the American side, but we believe that making them public would alleviate a lot of those deliberations that have been spread right now.

Naturally, we will not act unilaterally, we will not publish them, we will not make them public. But I’d like to just – to flag this fact: Once again, I’m saying we are prepared. We are ready. We want to deal with our American colleagues with the issues that appear in the cyberspace through professional dialogue with no emotions, no political jaundice, with no ideology, with no attempts to make this topic the main one in the domestic policy in the U.S.

And I’m sorry, by the way, I gave Mike an unofficial – a non-paper, a non-official memo, and it lays out the relevant – the actual information of U.S. interference in the domestic policy of the Russian Federation, including the notorious law on support of freedom in the Ukraine – it was adopted by the Congress – where the Secretary of State is instructed, he’s obligated to promote democracy in Russia directly through working with Russian NGOs, and $20 million have been earmarked for that annually. That’s not contemplations or a deliberation. This is a real law. We are prepared to talk on this topic.

And His Excellency much respected by me, Mr. Huntsman, knows how hard it is to work in Russia sometimes, and our ambassador in the U.S. also knows that about the issues that arise, and we want to alleviate those issues for – all that accumulation of mutual negative actions, which was initiated by the United States that we had to reciprocate, to alleviate that all, for the diplomats to work transparently, openly, according to the Viennese Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, without equating perception from the other side that someone is trying to influence a domestic political process.

By the way, once again, we gave an example of 1933, when the United States spearheaded through – President Roosevelt and People’s Commissioner Mr. Litvinov exchanged notes where they committed to non-interference in each other’s processes. I’d like to highlight once again, this action was initiated by the U.S. for several years now, starting with the Obama administration. We suggested to our partners to reconfirm that commitment. Right now, they are not prepared for that, so draw your own conclusions.

SECRETARY POMPEO: You can see we have some disagreements on this issue. I promise not to go back to history from the early ’30s, but I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, as we’ve made clear for the past months, that interference in American elections is unacceptable. If the Russians were to engage in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been, and encourage them not to do that, that we would not tolerate that. We’ve said this not only about the Russians but about other countries as well. Our elections are important and sacred, and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering in those elections.

Your first question was about what we know about the attacks that took place off of the United Arab Emirates. I don’t have any information that I can share with you yet about the nature of what took place there. We’re working diligently to get answers to what caused those ships to have the problems that they have today.

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our press conference. Thank you for taking part in it.

[i] Foreign Minister Lavrov