World leaders and top diplomats gather in New York for the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly. Ending the war in Syria, easing the plight of refugees and migrants across the globe, tackling the threat of terrorism and nuclear proliferation – those are just some of the issues on the agenda of the world’s biggest international body. Can the gathering of nations agree on how to act on these problems? Why is the veto right so important for maintaining a balance in UN decision-making? Should new permanent members be admitted to the UNSC? We ask Russia’s top diplomat in New York, Ambassador to the United Nations – Vitaly Churkin.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, welcome to the show. Ambassador, I don’t get to talk to you very often, so I got a lot I want to cover, hopefully we’ll have time to do that. Let’s start from the latest news. President Obama has compared the Russian President Putin to Saddam Hussein in a speech at an election fundraiser and then scolded Donald Trump for giving an interview to RT – shocker! Surely that won’t help your diplomatic work with your 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. Frankly, I wouldn’t exaggerate this unfortunate statement by President Obama. I’m sure he is a person who is educated enough to know that this kind of comparison is absolutely absurd. Sometimes politicians say things they come to regret later. Unfortunately in the past few months we have lived and worked in an environment where in the United States they were throwing about all kinds of statements about Russia. I think we need to keep our focus at the problems at hand and let’s hope that we’ll be able to do that despite some ripple effects which some statements can provoke from time to time.
SS: Yeah, but why bring up a foreign leader like Putin when he’s giving an internal election speech?
VC: 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. Generally speaking we have a very strange situation in this cycle of U.S. Presidential elections and unparalleled I think 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 potentially extremely important agreements on the situation there, on proceeding towards peace and a political settlement in Syria. So this needs to be our focus.
SS: We’re going to get to Syria in just a moment. You tell me, I mean you’re in the midst of all this, right in the heart. Do you feel that these kind of statements stand in the way of pragmatic cooperation or is it business as usual when you actually go into the negotiation room? Are the countries really as close to being foes as the rhetoric suggests?
VC: Such statements are not helpful, but I think 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 countries, guided by what we believe our country needs to do to deal with various international problems. You know 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 make statements, sometimes very unfortunate ones, as the one you have referred to, but we need to deal with the problems at hand.
SS: You brought up Russian-American diplomatic cooperation on the Syrian ceasefire deal. Syria is set 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 ceasefire agreement, however, the previous truce agreed at this level only held for so long – what will make this one last?
VC: Well I think the dynamic 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 two major terrorist organisations fighting in Syria – was able to intensify its activities, with thousands of fighters pouring across the Turkish border and weapons, 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 the idea, 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 would offer a serious promise of a better period for reaching a political settlement and cessation of hostilities, a better humanitarian situation in Syria. So let’s hope the plan is going to be implemented. And for that they agreed of course to put together a Joint Implementation Centre, signifying a high level of cooperation between Russia and the United States.
SS: Right, 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 Centre, 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?
VC: Yeah, I think so. I think that 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, 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 basis on international law, we would like to see the American-led coalition asking for permission from the Syrian government to operate on their territories. So what will be happening is a high level of cooperation getting closer to a truly global coalition fighting against terrorism but not entirely in the form and shape that was envisaged by President Putin in his statement at the General Assembly on September 29th of last year.
SS: Now, Secretary Kerry has said that the 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?
VC: Well I think this question needs to be dealt with on several levels. First of all I am absolutely sure that Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry negotiate in good faith and that they trust each other, but what we have 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, which the United States is supporting, and Jabhat Al-Nusra, and he said that it would take two to three weeks to do that. It never happened. This is one of the important elements of the latest agreement – that the United States after all those months of procrastination is able to make sure that the moderate opposition which will be joining the cessation of hostilities regime is separated from Jabhat Al-Nusra. So the trust that may exist between two main negotiators needs to be of course 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.
SS: This actually leads me to my next question. Efforts from Russian diplomats have led to the Syrian government agreeing to the truce. Now Moscow has leverage with Damascus and can put pressure on Assad to comply – but how will the U.S. keep up its side of the deal with numerous rebel groups? Can Washington really control them?
VC: They say that they have influence on many of those groups. I think that influence may be limited because there are players, other regional players that have been supporting, supplying weapons and money to various opposition groups and some of those regional actors do not seem to be very pleased with the agreement in Geneva on September 9th. 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 that 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 organising them, they have been maintaining all sorts of contact 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.
SS: So, in August, the UN released a report that claims that 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?
VC: 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, the Air Force was using chlorine as a chemical weapon – not exactly sort of 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, a fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, then the so-called JIM – Joint Investigation Mechanism, which was created by the Security Council, which looked into those allegations. And the JIM produced a number of reports and is going to produce shortly their final fourth report. They did come up with the conclusion that Nusra used mustard gas – a chemical weapon used on one occasion in Northern Syria and they made allegations about two situations where they say the Syrian government or the Syrian Air Force used a barrel bomb with chlorine. We read those reports they’re extremely technical, it was an extremely difficult task that was given to JIM to investigate those uses two years after the fact and we think the evidence is not there. Most likely chlorine was used in those situations but there is no ground really to conclude that indeed the Syrian Air Force was behind it. Many question marks in the report. To make any serious accusations and point fingers at the Security Council one must have solid evidence and the work is still continuing, I expect that it will end within a few weeks.
SS: I want to move to the topic of North Korea. You’ve called the UNSC to condemn the most recent nuclear tests by North Korea. 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?
VC: Well, the UN Security Council can play its role and so far we have adopted several sanctions resolutions against 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 is does not cause a humanitarian disaster, whatever restrictive measures are in that resolution. And we want to make sure that there is room left 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 DPRK makes it extremely difficult because they insist that they want to talk only in the context of their continued nuclear and ballistic missile programme, which is unacceptable to the Security Council and the other participants in those six-party discussions. So unfortunately there is no ready recipe, but everyone must do their part. The Security Council will do its part, but the best hope is that the leaders of DPRK realise that their course is extremely destructive, that its leading nowhere and that the context in which they need to talk to the world is the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
SS: And then there is of course the refugee crisis – a summit on refugees and migrants will take place on the sidelines of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, it’s already hailed as a “game-changer”. This comes as millions flee their countries in the Middle East and Africa and the EU struggles to cope with its migrant crisis. What kind of drastic changes might we see from this summit?
VC: Well, it will start a process actually. It will adopt a declaration which will call on the states, the members of the United Nations to do certain things 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 – one on refugees, another – on migrants. And the goals of those documents as I say will be to make sure that more resources are provided for refugees and migrants, that people take better care of 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.
SS: “Financially broke” is how Antonio Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 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?
VC: Well the way it works, Sophie, is that there are so-called assessed contributions in the United Nations, membership dues which everybody is paying quite well. But most of humanitarian work is done by voluntary contributions and the amount of resources which is necessary is so staggering – many-many billions of dollars – that sometimes the international community falls short in producing sufficient funds for the humanitarian agencies to operate. We believe that first of all it should be the responsibility of those countries that actually cause those problems. We know which countries caused destabilisation in the Middle East starting with the invasion of Iraq, we know who caused the destabilisation in Northern Africa with the invasion of Libya – basically an intervention in Libyan internal affairs. So we believe that mostly those countries need to pick up the tab for this humanitarian work.
SS: Can any country be held responsible for causing the refugee crisis we’re seeing today?
VC: Well we are holding them responsible, but the fact is that they are not admitting their responsibility. In most cases they keep silent. You would not have the United States, even though now it is something that 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 it is our responsibility, so this is our national responsibility to make sure that Iraq is taken out of 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 we’re sharing the importance of dealing with those situations, so this is a kind of complex relationship. Since the problem is there and the people of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya have already paid a heavy price, we cannot simply look from the sidelines and say: “Let the United States, NATO deal with those problems”. As a responsible member of the international community, as a country for which the plight of the people in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya is an important factor, we need to play our political role and sometimes also help them financially, militarily and whatever form 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 heavy share, their burden, including the financial burden.
SS: Another priority of Russia’s agenda during the UN General Assembly is preventing the space arms race. Why? What makes that a danger is someone already trying to put weapons in space?
VC: The thing is, 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 in outer space. But the fact is that the United States is reluctant to ban this kind of activity. Of course this is destabilising in the long term. If you imagine the arms race, weapons spread into outer space then 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 for an international ban on the deployment of weapons in outer space.
SS: Why doesn’t the United States want a treaty like that?
VC: Well, I suppose because they want to keep their options open. They want to basically have American military domination. They’re not comfortable enough in a world of checks and balances. They don’t want to share power and influence with others. I suppose, this is my interpretation of the situation, that they’re secure only when they’re 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 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, to rely on your selfish interests, without taking into account the interests of others, if you rely only on your sort of 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.
SS: Alright, Ambassador, let’s talk about the proposals for the reform of the UN Security Council. They’ve 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?
VC: Well, if there are to be new permanent members – and there 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 one hundred 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.
SS: There have been proposals to get rid of the veto power altogether – what do you think about these proposals?
VC: It’s not a good idea at all. It’s not just about raising your hand without synchronising 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 the fundamental reality of the international system of today, this is the conclusion I arrived at personally, having been observing the Security Council 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 resolutions, 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. So 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 a very high level of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
SS: And the last question to wrap this up – the UN Secretary General 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?
VC: Well I do, but I cannot share them with you, because in the Security Council we agreed to keep the whole process confidential…
SS: Can you give us a hint?
VC: We have nine candidates, all of them are strong candidates…
SS: Can we talk in codes? Can you give us a hint?
VC: No, I can’t, not on camera, no. There are of course 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 at the Security Council, so it will add to our workload as President of the Security Council in October.
SS: 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.