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Tillerson/Lavrov Press Conference; U.S./Russia Relations. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 14:00   ET


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): -- only to this question, which should have been about the overall settlement of Syria.

[14:00:00] So the media hysteria was unleashed as a result of this incident. We have to make sure that we are impartial now in investigating this whole business by sending international expert groups to the site and to that particular place where the chemicals were used and, of course, the airfield which was used for sending out aircraft with chemical substances.

We have seen no confirmation that that was the case, all the more so because the TV images showed that there were people on the airfield immediately after the strike, and there were absolutely no evidence which would allow us to talk about the use of some kind of poisonous substances.

I'm sorry for taking so long to comment, but I would like to underline that we are 100 percent sure that (inaudible) the U.N. as well as (inaudible) tried to avoid this investigation. This will signify their reluctance to find out the truth. But we will insist that the truth should be found.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: (inaudible) with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thank you.

Secretary Tillerson, I want to ask you about your conversations with President Putin about Syria. You've predicted Assad will leave power through a political transition. How will you compel Assad to participate in a political transition that leads to his own ouster? Are war crimes charges on the table? And how long will the United States wait for Russia to come around?

And Foreign Minister Lavrov, if I may, your government and the United States government seem to be miles apart on the Syria issue, on Ukraine and other issues. Did you feel that you cleared up any of those issues you mentioned earlier today, since you've had those discussions with Secretary Tillerson?

TILLERSON: We did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. And they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war in these past few years.

We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it's important that Assad's departure is done in an orderly way -- an orderly way -- so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.

How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad -- for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.


TILLERSON: We discussed the issue that as time goes by, and more and more evidence continues to be gathered, it is possible that the threshold necessary to charge individuals, including Bashar al-Assad, may be achieved. As you know, this is a very high legal hurdle in order to bring such charges against an individual. So I would not suggest to you that all of that evidence is in place, but I think the longer time goes by, it's possible that the case will be made. And there are certain individuals who are working to make that case.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I, for one, would like to say that I do not think that Russia and the U.S. have so great a distance that it cannot be bridged on many issues of the international agenda, both with regard to Syria and Ukraine. It's not impossible.

In our introductory remarks with Rex Tillerson, we mentioned the agreement that related not just to preserve, but also to intensifying the communication channels with regard to Syria and Ukraine. As for Syria and Bashar al-Assad, we have had sort of a historical background. Rex says that he's a new (ph) guy, and (inaudible) looking into history (inaudible) to deal with the matters of today.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): But the thing is, the world is built in such a fashion that if we do not take lessons from the past, we will hardly (ph) be able to achieve success in the present.

And I recall certain situations when groups of countries, primarily Western countries, NATO countries, were sort of fixated on eliminating this or that dictator or totalitarian leader.

When it was a question of ousting Slobodan Milosevic, NATO and furled a huge campaign. It was a very, of course, blatant violation of international law. They even bombed the place, which is certainly a war crime whichever way you interpret the Geneva convention. And they bombed the headquarters. And there were also attacks on trains, the Chinese embassy, bridges, and so on and so forth. This lasted some two months.

And after all this, which was very near to weapons of dual purpose, then they ousted him.

Then there was a question of Saddam Hussein. We know after the invasion, we know what it was based on. And then Tony Blair afterwards repented publicly that all this was a fake. And you all know about that no worse than we do.

And then there was Gadhafi. It was declared that this dictator had no place in his own country and this was against democracy. We know what happened in Libya. The Libyan government is now under a huge question mark.

We spoke about this -- or President Putin did speak about it yesterday with the Italian president. And we are both trying to stop the situation of the country slipping into full illegal immigration, gun running, and so on.

So, incidentally speaking, we have some quite recent -- even more recent examples.

Sudan. President Bashir was declared to be under prosecution by the International Court of Justice, and President Obama decided that in order to settle this problem, you had to divide the country up into two. And the southern part very actively asked for our assistance in dealing with President Bashir that the Americans (inaudible) should be the head of both states.

He kept his word. He divided the country into two parts, according to the American project of the administration of President Obama, with the effect that sanctions were introduced against their own child (ph), on South Sudan.

So, this insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader, we have already been through it. We very well know only too well what happens when you do that. I don't remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly without violence.

So, in Syria -- and I have traced (ph) this on many times -- we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad, as is being done in Libya at the moment.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement. As has been enshrined in the Security Council Resolution, we want to instill dialogue with all the players concerned. And we want the Syrians themselves, without any kind of exclusion, to be represented in this process.

And removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda. We are talking about the whole of the Syrian government. We want it to be democratic and we want it to be secular as well. And we want to see all the ethnic confessional groups in the country to feel protected, justly represented in all the branches of government and power.

And obviously for that you need a new constitution. We think that then the question of the fate of individuals could be dealt with and without any kind of tragic consequences for the state as a whole.



I have a question to Mr. Tillerson.

Did you discuss in today's negotiations the intervention of Russia in the U.S. elections? And could you tell us about how the presence of Russian cybernauts (ph) differs from the question of American cybernauts (ph) in virtual space?

There is also the whole question about the Korean issue. Have you actually thought about setting up a group which would actually look at that kind of thing together?

(UNKNOWN) (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Is that a question for both ministers or what?

TILLERSON: We touched only briefly on the issue of cyber- security and in particular on the challenges that it is placing on everyone in terms of a new threat, an emerging threat.

But I think I do make a distinction when cyber tools are used to interfere with the internal decisions among countries as to how their elections are conducted. That is one use of cyber tools.

Cyber tools to disrupt weapons programs, that's another use of the tools. And I make a distinction between those two. Clearly this is an issue that has emerged in our time for which we have yet, as an international community, come to some conclusion around how we want to respond to that. And so there will be further discussions and it is on the agenda and it is in the agenda that Foreign Minister Lavrov passed to me for us to have further discussions in the future.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I can only confirm that we are very interested in bilateral cooperation to combat crime in cyberspace.

We have heard about that 18 months ago. We actually proposed to Obama's administration that we should do something about it. We voiced our concerns about Russian hackers hacking through the entire world and the illegitimate use of these tools and the possibility of prosecuting these people, and we said then that we too are very interested in our citizens not being victims of cyber crimes.

And we proposed that we should have a special system of contact, a special mechanism which would exchange information in real time, looking into how people are trying to subvert international norms and national norms in both countries.

The president spoke about it but really didn't react at all. And then in November last year it was suggested that we should meet about that. And obviously our colleagues in the relative spheres agreed, but then at the last moment, Obama's administration decided not to go ahead with it and to subvert U.S.-Russian relations before the new administration. LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I just want to confirm that fact that we

are particularly interested in that. We still have that project on the table. We want to renew it. We want to resume contacts with special representatives in the administration of the U.S. and the Russian Federation president's office. And engage and commit all the various (ph) (inaudible) concerned.

There may be a result from all these efforts, and we hope that we will be able to close this matter.

We haven't actually broached this whole idea of a presidential commission. It was put on ice by Obama, but when we looked at the problems dogging the bilateral relations, we thought of looking at the independence of the -- of the organization and looked at the specific people who could help us to overcome the difficulties.

And we are looking at how we can overcome these problems, above all the problems which were created artificially.


QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, did you discuss today with President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov sanctions or other concessions that the United States might make in exchange for a change in behavior from the Russian government?

And also, speaking about what you just answered previously, did you present to President Putin or the foreign minister specific evidence that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election?

And to Foreign Minister Lavrov, if an independent investigation finds the Assad government attacked his own people with chemical weapons, what will Russia do? President Putin says there's an effort to blame Assad and plant evidence. Did you present that evidence to Secretary Tillerson today?

And would Russia refuse to consider to agree to any circumstance that results in the ousting of Bashar al-Assad?

TILLERSON: We discussed no change in the status of sanctions that have been in place with Russia as a result of certain actions taken in Ukraine, as you know. I think as to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well established in the United States. And I think that has been spoken to on the Hill as well, with the Congress. And it a serious issue. It's one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions. And so we are -- we are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our elections. And I'm sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, the state secretary did not threaten me with sanctions; didn't threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda, including where there are problems. And in fact, on the majority of them, there are problems.

And what will happen if the investigation will demonstrate the involvement of the Syrian leadership in the chemical attacks, I believe that question is hypothetical. We don't want to try and guess the (inaudible) because there has been a lot of historical looking at the tea leaves and coming to the conclusion that bombing should take place.

And after the U.S. missile strike, there was a lot of talk of that. We do not wish to speculate about these very serious matters of the use of chemical weapons, the use of -- or the attempts to inculcate people or to orchestrate things. We want to establish the truth, the full truth in line with the principles of U.S. and Russian laws, the laws of any normal, civilized country.

The presumption of innocence must reign supreme. And I have just told you that our instructions to The Hague, to the OPCW in The Hague about the investigation, if this is -- if people put the brakes (ph) on, we shall protest.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As far as the argument that the U.S. has incontrovertible evidence of the fact that we intervened in the U.S, presidential campaign, I have to say, once again, that we have not seen any facts -- even hints at facts. We have not seen any evidence. No one has shown to us any evidence, even though we have requested on many occasions that this evidence be produced to us to support the accusations we hear.

We do understand that there are many people who want to undermine our relations to pursue their internal or external political interests, but these are just games with evil ends. We want to hear complete proof and then we'll respond accordingly.

Thank you.


QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Good evening. RIA Novosti Agency.

I'd like to ask a question to both the ministers.

The Korean Peninsula: The Americans have sent a whole naval company. Did you talk about that in your negotiations and the danger to the particular region? And does mean that the U.S. has some plans for a military campaign around the Korean Peninsula?

Thank you.

TILLERSON: The Carl Vinson Strike Group is routinely in the Pacific Ocean -- it's in the Pacific theater. And its movements in the Pacific are made in a way that's planned by the military planners. There is no particular objective in its current course.

The Vinson sails up and down the Pacific routinely and so I would not read anything into the Carl Vinson's current locations.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The only thing I can say is, among other issues, we have discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula, as well as around there. As far as I understand, given all the new answers, we still have a common determination to resolve this issue through peaceful means, to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic talks. There are certain efforts undertaken by the participants of what used to be called the six-party talks. We also have ideas of our own, just as our Chinese counterparts do.

We believe that we've got to rally around the cause of finding peaceful solutions to this issue.

MODERATOR (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): And the last question on the American side.

MODERATOR: Final question goes to Margaret Brennan with CBS News.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

Mr. Secretary, before these meetings you said you believed Russia was either incompetent or complicit in these chemical weapons attacks. After your extensive meeting with both Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, do you know which one that is and what concrete thing can be done to rebuild that lack of trust?

And, Minister Lavrov, if I could indulge you to answer in English, if you could, sir. President Trump has called Bashar al- Assad an animal. This is the leader your government continues to back. Can you tell us how long Russia will be willing to risk the lives of its soldiers and spend its money to protect him?

TILLERSON: With respect to Russia's complicity or knowledge of chemical weapon attacks, we have no firm information to indicate there was any involvement by Russian -- Russian forces into this attack.

What we do know, and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusions, that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.

LAVROV (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I can only say once again, that just as in the case for the so-called Russian hackers and the chemical incidents in Syria, we would very much like to get some increased evidence, not just words. So far we have not seen any facts.

And, once again, I'd just like to say that in Syria we are working at the request of the legitimate government of a member country of the United Nations, and we are against any kind of sanctions initiated by the Security Council of the United Nations.

And we are combating terrorism. We want to make sure that ISIL and the Nusra forces do not get hold of Damascus. And the coalition which President Obama cobbled together did not actually deal with the mission, and that was before the appearance of the Russian Air Force in the country.

The American coalition struck only certain positions of ISIL, but Jabhat al-Nusra was always spared. And we have a very persistent suspicion that Nusra is still being sparred so as to trigger plan B and to try and overturn the regime of Assad.

I have already mentioned that we've already noticed that in Iraq and Libya. This is due to the prevalence of people who simply want to do that.

And as far as crimes committed in Syria, certainly we will be eager to sort that out. And I think that there have to be priorities. And the priorities which you've heard from Washington to the effect that the destruction of ISIL is priority number one and John Kerry and Spicer (ph) have already said that it is possible to get rid of ISIL without regime change. And Kerry used to say that it is much more important to deal with ISIL than Assad's regime.

So I think we think in very like manner here. The common threat is absolutely obvious. If it is possible to overcome ISIL without reversing the regime, then having reversed or upturned the regime, it may well be that we will lose the fight against ISIL.

So I think what we need to do is to use common sense and fewer emotions.

MODERATOR (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): On that, we complete this press conference. Thank you very much.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, wrapping up their joint statements and their news conference, underscoring the very, very serious differences (INAUDIBLE) saying the U.S./Russia relationship is at a low point, his words, at a low point. He adds, there is a low level of trust between our two countries. He says, this kind of situation should not continue given the fact these are the two major nuclear powers in the world. The U.S. cannot have this kind of relationship.

Lots to assess. Many issues came up. The differences, very, very serious.

I want to first bring in our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour.

They were diplomatic, but they were both forceful in making their positions.

CHRISTINE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It was a very, very long, very far-ranging - wide-ranging press conference. But the (INAUDIBLE) in response to what you just said, that Tillerson started by talking about the distrust and the low point in our relations. The good news, if you want to look at it like that, is that Lavrov confirmed that President Putin said that they would re-establish their de-confliction lines of communication, that de-confliction memorandum, which (INAUDIBLE) in and over the skies of Syria without running into each other, deliberately or provocatively or in any way such as that. So that seems to have been taken care of.

[14:30:03] Lavrov then says that we have instructed both state department channels and ministry of foreign affairs channels to have people who can talk to each other he said without emotion, to try to