Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov’s interview with Bloomberg News Agency

June 14, 2016

Question: At what stage is currently the coordination with the coalition in Syria? When will joint operations with the coalition against ISIS and other terrorist groups become possible?

Oleg Syromolotov: In Syria, we have worked hard in recent months to establish effective coordination between Russia and the United States as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Among other things, this effort includes intensive military contacts within both the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force and numerous bilateral formats. The landmarks on this path are the joint Russia-US statement of February 22, 2016 imposing cessation of hostilities in Syria, and the joint statement of May 9, 2016, which made it possible to coordinate steps for its consolidation.

We also cooperate in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, specifically Jabhat al-Nusra. But there is no question of coordinating our moves with the US-led so-called International Counter-ISIS Coalition. Our views on the methods of its creation and its operations have not changed. These run counter to international law and its basis, the UN Charter.

We are in favour of forming a broad antiterrorist front in Syria and the Middle East, which, however, should be built on a solid foundation of international law, with the UN Security Council playing the key role, as stated by President Vladimir Putin at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2015.

Question: Do you think that Raqqa should be liberated jointly with the Coalition, or Bashar al-Assad’s forces can do that on their own with Russia’s and Iran’s support? How soon can this operation begin?

Oleg Syromolotov: We proceed from the assumption that Syria should be liberated and put in order by Syrians themselves. No one will or can do that for them. As for outside forces, they should help in this regard without infringing on Syria’s sovereignty.

Question: You coordinated the security effort during the Sochi Olympics and were in contact with your US colleagues. How does this experience help you in your current work?

Oleg Syromolotov: The unprecedentedly close cooperation of secret services during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was a good example of interstate antiterrorist collaboration. This was done by 89 secret services, including from the United States. We managed to prevent a number of terrorist attacks. Personally for me, that was a huge experience. The established contacts are certainly helping me in my present position. At that time we reached a definite level of trust in joint work with the US. I wouldn’t like it to be lost.

Question: In your view, how high are tensions over NATO’s growing presence in Europe? Do you think that the registered air incidents are potentially dangerous and could provoke a Russia-NATO conflict?

Oleg Syromolotov: Unlike our Western colleagues, we do not like to encourage alarmist sentiments. At the same time, we certainly cannot disregard the negative trends in European security that are being spurred at the instigation of NATO. We have to necessarily take additional measures to build up our defences due to the unprecedented scale of NATO’s military preparations on the Russian border, with heavy US weapons rolling across neighbouring countries, old military infrastructure is being rapidly modernised and new one built, and numerous military exercises are held to repel the alleged “threats from the east.”

NATO regularly tells us that its actions are properly calibrated and proportionate. It even claims that the ongoing construction of the US/NATO ballistic missile defence (BMD) system in Europe is not spearheaded against Russia.

(Washington’s and Brussels’ open unwillingness to adjust their BMD plans in light of the progress reached in the case of Iran’s nuclear programme can be interpreted as fresh proof of our concerns over the BMD system’s real targets.)

Overall, NATO’s actions, which are presented to the Western public as exclusively defensive, are rapidly changing the military and political landscape in Europe. These actions are undermining the existing balance of forces and ultimately weakening, rather than strengthening, the security of the NATO member states.

Some of our European partners are fully aware of the absurdity and destructive consequences of the deadlock created by the alliance in its relations with Russia. But, guided by notorious allied solidarity, they continue to follow the policies of the NATO countries that border Russia and their overseas sponsors, who are trying to make the bloc’s policy of containing Russia irreversible.

We hope that NATO will eventually display political will and discard the obsolete schemes and methods of the bloc confrontation era.

As for the second part of your question, it will soon become impossible to fly near Russia due to the huge number of NATO aircraft. This is indeed increasing the risks of unpremeditated military incidents. The main thing in this situation is to act responsibly and not to yield to provocations by some bloc members who are trying to play the NATO card in their opportunistic regional projects.

Although the situation is inevitably becoming more complicated, because NATO has unilaterally stopped any practical military interaction and systematic dialogue with us, there remain a few effective instruments for minimising risks. For example, we have bilateral agreements with over a dozen NATO member states on the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas.

Regular media reports about the allegedly dangerous manoeuvres of Russian combat planes have only one goal – to spur anti-Russian sentiments before the adoption of “seminal” NATO decisions.

At the same time, information about the irresponsible and unprofessional actions of NATO pilots in the West is openly suppressed. A recent example is the May 22 incident near the Russian border over the Sea of Japan. A US RC-135 reconnaissance plane, flying with its transponder switched off and without notifying regional air traffic dispatcher centres of its flight, crossed international airways, thereby creating a real threat of collision for the Dutch KLM and Swiss passenger airliners.

Question: Will you tell us about the April information security meeting with the Americans?

Oleg Syromolotov: A high-level Russian-American meeting on IIS was held in Geneva on April 21-22. The parties acknowledged that by virtue of objective factors no country in the world today could ensure its absolute information security single-handedly. In this connection, they pointed to the need to organise such an international collaboration system as would obviate states’ premeditated use of information and communications hardware and technologies for malicious purposes to damage national security. Russia and the United States came to an understanding that the international community’s efforts should be primarily directed at preventing conflicts in the information space.

The meeting focused on discussing the prospects for the UN Group of Government Experts on Information Security in 2016 and 2017. The Americans confirmed their readiness for constructive work within the Group for the Development of Rules, Principles and Norms of the Responsible Behaviour of States in the Cyber-Sphere.

The parties signalled their profound interest in continuing the IIC dialogue regardless of the political situation, because the vulnerability factor amid the growth of threats in the international information space was extremely high.

In this context, Russia and the United States have a stake in both consolidating bilateral confidence-building measures and creating a mechanism to prevent incidents involving the use of information and communications technologies.

Question: Are there any improvements in coordination on Syria with colleagues from Saudi Arabia?

Oleg Syromolotov: The situation in Syria affects the interests of many states. An influential country of the Arab Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is no exception in this regard since it has long-standing and firm ties with Syria. Our estimates and approaches to how to stop the bloodshed and normalise life in Syria may differ in some respects. But what Russia and Saudi Arabia have in common is their profound awareness that this should be done as soon as possible. Based on this, we have engaged in an earnest dialogue with our Saudi partners within the ISSG and in a bilateral format. In so doing, we rely on collective decisions, such as the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, ISSG statements, and the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.

Question: Are you discussing with the Americans the possibility of joint operations against ISIS in Libya? Is full-scale military cooperation feasible there?

Oleg Syromolotov: This question is rather in the competence of the Russian Defence Ministry and is not on the agenda so far. For my part, I can tell you that in our contacts with the Americans we regularly point out that any counterterrorist operations in Libya can only be implemented at the official request of the legitimate authorities or with a UN Security Council mandate.

We believe that at this point the focus should be on the all-round support for the UN-backed political process underway in Libya. We see our main objective in helping Libyans overcome the existing differences over the creation of government bodies and ensure a normal operation of the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarradj, the bodies that were created in keeping with a political agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on December 17, 2015. This will allow the authorities to start restoring law and order in the country, including by suppressing the activities of the underground terrorist groups of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the allied local jihadist groups.

Guided by the interests of maintaining the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya, Russia supported UN Security Council Resolution 2259 of December 23, 2015, which formalised the Skhirat agreements as the main instrument for settling the internal crisis in Libya. Russia attended two ministerial conferences on Libya, in Rome on December 13, 2015 and in Vienna on May 16, 2016, which registered the willingness of the international community to take coordinated efforts to strengthen Libyan statehood and ensure stability and security in that country.

We are wary of reports from various sources about plans to carry out military operations on Libyan territory with the participation of foreign contingents.
We agree that negative trends in Libya must be reversed as soon as possible. However, as I said, we firmly believe that any actions of force in this country require the agreement of the legitimate Libyan leadership and UN approval. A mandate for such actions must be absolutely unambiguous so as to preclude any twisted or loose interpretations.

Another relevant issue concerns the partial or full lifting of the arms embargo, which was introduced against Libya in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 2174 in 2014.

These decisions must be only taken when there are absolute guarantees that the special equipment supplied to Libya will be safe and used appropriately. We must not allow weapons to end up in the wrong hands, as it happened with Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals.