One day ahead of the“Supporting the future of Syria and the region” conference in Brussels, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov gave EURACTIV a wide-ranging interview on his country’s ever more complicated relations with the West.
Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed Ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Chizhov spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.
We are talking for the first time since the Western strikes on Syria, and just a day before the Syria donor conference in Brussels. You will represent Russia at the conference, is this correct?
Yes, that’s true.
Can you disclose the main thrust of your message?
Since you mentioned the missile strikes of three Western countries against Syria, I think it’s obvious for everyone that this act of aggression has not improved the chances for progress in the settlement of the Syrian crisis. The EU nevertheless thought it worthwhile to hold this second Brussels conference, but strangely enough the conference will take place without any representatives of Syria.
Maybe the guarantor states are important in this respect [Russia, Iran and Turkey]?
Of course the guarantor states are important. Also important will be representatives of the United Nations (the UN is co-hosting the conference with the EU) and other international organisations. The main idea is to have a broad look at what is required and what is feasible in terms of assisting the settlement of the Syrian crisis.
Some people try to oversimplify the situation, trying to calculate the possible contributions, how much money will every country or the EU give.
What I think is more important is to have a clearer picture of the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is something we actually share with others, it’s to preserve or, more accurately, to rebuild Syria as a single democratic united country, rejecting the option of splitting the country, as some people may want.
There have been efforts to provide humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian situation in Syria is quite well-known, but the situation overall is gradually improving. Refugees and IDPs are returning to a number of cities and other areas already liberated, while other places still remain destroyed and practically uninhabitable.
I will compare two big cities in Syria, one is Aleppo and the other Raqqa. You will remember the outcry that surrounded the liberation of Eastern Aleppo, some time ago. Today Aleppo has electricity, running water, schools have reopened, hospitals are working…
Last time we spoke you said that in contrast, in Raqqa dead bodies were still rotting in the open.
And they still are. Only after considerable pressure from a number of countries, including my own, did the US-led coalition allow humanitarian organisations to enter Raqqa and they witnessed an apalling situation. The UN Security Council, at Russia’s request, discussed the situation in Raqqa and stressed the urgency of immediate humanitarian assistance.
The EU, as a major humanitarian contributor, has been doing a lot, but not directly. It has been delivering aid via various intermediaries, including UN-affiliated organisations, NGOs and the Red Crescent. But the issue remains of reconstructing Syria.
You cannot do this with NGOs.
Returning to the absence of the Syrian government at the Brussels conference, it’s getting more and more difficult for the Western community to have contacts with the Syrian government. Would Russia help?
I really don’t believe why someone would think this has become increasingly difficult…
Well, they suffered strikes.
Of course the strikes have not made dialogue any easier, but still, the Syrian government is prepared to talk. So we need the peace process to go forward, in Geneva and the other venues, the Astana track…
And the Sochi track…
And the Sochi track, indeed.
Did the Sochi track replace the Astana track?
No, the three are complementary. Let me describe how it all unfolded. When UNSC Resolution 2254 was adopted and talks in Geneva got started, the Syrian opposition was represented by people from various parts of the world, except Syria itself – from Istanbul, from Riyadh, from Geneva proper, and everybody claimed that they represented Syria. This was leading to procrastination of the effort.
We then invited to Astana, with the generous help of our Kazakh colleagues, those people who were doing the fighting – of course, except the well-recognised terrorists. And that worked. They sat at the table and started talking.
Sochi, that was a different constellation of people, representatives of various parts of the Syrian society, of the Syrian nation in the broader sense.
Yes, but the Syrian opposition was not represented.
I wouldn’t say so, because there is no such thing as the Syrian opposition. It is as fragmented as it was a year or two ago.
The Russia-friendly opposition was in Sochi.
[Laughs.] We believe that everyone in Syria should be Russia-friendly, because Russia is the only country capable of talking to everybody. Except the terrorists of course.
But you don’t talk to the EU very much these days. There is a G7 ministerial meeting today, but Russia is not there, the G8 with Russia doesn’t exist, there are no more EU-Russia summits…
I will make a bold statement saying that in the absence of the G8 the G7 is increasingly irrelevant. Major global issues are now handled by the G20. So even if the G7 today decides to re-instate the G8 and re-invite Russia, we’ll think twice about whether to join.
How does the 5-point strategy of Federica Mogherini work?
You should ask her, it’s her plan, not ours. We haven’t closed any channel of communication with the EU. And we are open to discussing everything. We do have a number of practical issues currently under discussion – this week: tomorrow [24 April] we will have a joint meeting on visa liberalisation, on Thursday we will have consultations on aviation safety, there will be a number of seminars with the participation of Russian scientists, including one organised by the Egmont Institute, we have two big delegations at the famous Seafood exhibition, one from the Federal Agency for Fisheries, headed by its head Mr. Shestakov, he is meeting Commissioner Vella tomorrow morning. In other words, the week is full.
There is the so-called selective engagement, one of the 5 guiding principles, under which the EU and Russia are quite close on the Iran nuclear issues for example…
We have common ground with everyone on Iran, except the Americans. We are open for discussion on issues such as Korean de-nuclearisation.
Do you have any messages on this? Can North Korea be trusted?
Let me reverse the question. If the Iranian nuclear deal collapses as a result of decision of the US President, it’s the North Korean leader who may raise the issue of whether the US can be trusted. And that would be a legitimate question…
What is lacking in our dialogue with the EU is what we used to call architecture of sectoral dialogues, they are now frozen, which is bad and goes against the interests of both sides. The political dialogue – well, it is more alive than dead, and we hope to pursue that.
The EU is an animal with many heads. We have Mr. Juncker, who seems to be much more open to Russia, Mr. Tusk who is frowning, Mrs. Mogherini perhaps in the middle, and with the member states, even more confusion…
I know what you are going to ask me. Whether Russia wants to drive a wedge between the various parts of the EU.
I have already asked you and you said no.
I can repeat that.
But it’s hard to believe.
Divide and rule. It’s not even a Russian invention.
Divide and rule was the guiding principle of the British empire. Splitting India and Pakistan, other parts of the world, including Cyprus.
It’s not the British who did that.
There was a Greek coup and a Turkish invasion.
Long before that, in 1958, Cyprus was still a colony, the Colonial office devised a memorandum which later was imposed as the unworkable constitution of Cyprus, creating rigid proportions of the two communities. I can give you a lecture on that.
You served as Ambassador to Cyprus?
No, I was a middle-ranking diplomat, a long time ago. You know, I believe these days the British government has been more successful in dividing the EU than we would have ever been, had we ever wanted to.
You say it because of the Salisbury case.
Yes. The Salisbury case – we have a saying in Russia, killing several rabbits with one shot.
So you say the Brits used that poison?
I don’t know. I will not make any claims, because I don’t have any hard evidence. The Brits have effectively prevented any evidence from becoming public. Can somebody say if the Skripals are alive today? We only have statements from the British side. Do we really know if they have actually been poisoned?
Russia denies being behind the case…
Russia denies any involvement in the case.
But in theory, there is also the deep state…
In the United States, in Russia, everywhere.
In Bulgaria too?
Certainly. In Bulgaria we call it the mafia. In any country there are influential people who are not in office, but have their own goals, including making life more difficult for the current Russian leadership…
Well, that’s a very long shot. And so they waited for eight years, since Skripal fled to Britain, to do anything? He went to Britain in 2010, having been pardoned by Presidential Decree. So the Russian state, not the deep state, had nothing against him.
That’s what I’m saying. Maybe it’s the deep state.
Maybe the British state, I don’t know, maybe the American state. But the inconsistencies in the few details that have been made public are so obvious. Where is the second cat? Skripal had two cats. One was murdered, because ostensibly it was suffering from depression.
The police came to the house, had a thorough search, and didn’t see the pets, and they left them, the two Guinea pigs that died from dehydration and were cremated, the cat that was assassinated, whereas the second cat managed to escape. And nobody is looking after it. It’s a piece of evidence on the run.
And now they are demolishing the pizzeria, the bar, and so on. To say nothing of the door handle. One day they say it was the flowers at the cemetery, the second day it was the door handle of the car, then it was the air conditioner of the car, then the daughter’s suitcase, then something else: the food, the table. They scratched the table at the pizzeria two weeks later to find evidence. Nobody in two weeks cleaned the table?
But this is according to press clips.
This is according to what was reported in Britain. But the focus on the door handle is official, it has been mentioned by British representatives at the UN, at OPCW.
In the beginning they were saying – it was a gas. So Novichok is a gas. Well, gas doesn’t really stick to a door handle, does it? Then it was a gel. Now they say it was a liquid. And the area is one of the rainiest in Britain.
So, before the door handle was taken off with the door, it was exposed to rain, and dozens of people walked through the door, using the handle, no gloves, and now the technical team of OPCW went to Britain and they were asked by the British authorities to inspect the hot points that the British authorities indicated to them, not an all-around search. And to look for one particular substance.
I wouldn’t call that a very thorough investigation. Then they found traces of this A234 which they call Novichok. Although it’s a Russian-sounding name, it was invented in the United States and patented as a chemical weapon. In the US Patent Register office you can find it, actually several dozens of patents were issued.
You have a fugitive in the US who was involved with Novichok.
Precisely. He was one of the creators and he was the one who first published the formula. That was 10 years ago. But that guy actually says: the main problem with Novichok is that it is very unstable. It changes its structure.
So three weeks after the incident a blood sample was taken from Yulia Skripal which showed, according to official statement by the OCPW team, traces of Novichok of high purity unchanged.
I’m not a chemistry specialist, neither are you, but I know that every substance that enters the human body undergoes certain metabolisms. It cannot remain the way it was after three weeks.
I’m not a specialist in chemistry, but as a journalist I know that one can make any collage with bits and pieces from the tabloid press, and somebody else could do another collage showing the opposite.
I will show you some pictures from another part of the world. [Takes from a folder a sheet of paper with photos of people from the alleged chemical gas attack in Douma including a 11-year old boy identified as Hassan Diab who said on TV the chemical attack video spread by the White Helmets was staged.]
Russia wants this boy to be officially interrogated, is that right?
Not interrogated, but to appear as a witness, in the Hague, in New York, wherever. Actually, the boy told the whole story.
Basically your take is that those are fake videos produced by the White Helmets.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned the White Helmets. You don’t like them.
It’s not a matter of liking or not liking. They have been created and they exist on donations from Western countries.
They are providing humanitarian assistance.
They are providing fake videos. If you take a careful look how their videos are shown on Euronews and other channels, they never show their faces. They are always filmed from the back.
But that’s understandable. They don’t want to be recognised.
Perhaps. But they are filmed sometimes in the company of well-known terrorists. That’s a fact. And in Eastern Aleppo by the way, their headquarters shared a building with the headquarters of Al-Nusra.
So everything in Syria is fake, Salisbury is also fake…
Not everything in Syria was fake, the missiles were not fake, even though from a military point of view the attack didn’t produce much.
But the entire European Union, 28 member states, accepted that first, that they should give their full support to Britain in the Skripal case, and also that missile attacks were perfectly justified after the chemical attack in Douma by the Syrian regime. Is the EU stupid or what?
They have been misinformed, unfortunately.
Some of them have good intelligence services.
Yes, I believe so.
Can those services be bad, actually?
Well, they are not perfect, in my view.
But if the Russian services are good, why they don’t find a smoking gun proving that the Syria attack was perpetrated by Al-Nusra or something like that?
If this (the photo of the boy) is not a smoking gun, what is it?
You mean the photo you are showing me? This is an assumption.
There are also grown-ups who were playing the role of victims, they recognised themselves on the TV screen. They are perfectly alive and are giving evidence. They are not hiding their names and their appearance. That’s evidence I would say. If the UN Security Council or the OPCW want to have a full picture, they are prepared to provide it at their headquarters.
But the OPCW inspectors were prevented from reaching Douma…
Probably by the Syrian regime, which has friendly relations with Russia.
By the Syrian government, you mean. No. This fake video was aired on 7 April. On 8 April both Russia and Syria requested OPCW to send an expert team to Douma. The whole of Douma was liberated on the 9th and both Russia and Syria offered guarantees of safety for those experts to go.
Actually my colleague, the Russian Ambassador in the Hague was pushing the OPCW director general, Ambassador Üzümcü, to create a group of experts as soon as possible. That was done faster than usual and they flew to Beirut and then travelled to Damascus. A few hours after their arrival in Damascus the missiles came flying, which of course changed the situation in terms of safety. Nevertheless both Russia and the Syrian government provided all assistance for them to go.
The OPCW relies on the UN department of security, to give them the green light. So there was a small advance team from that UN department that drove to Douma, and as could be expected, someone starting shooting in the air. And they immediately went back and said no, it’s not safe.
Then there were lengthy discussions whether the Russian military police should be able to escort them. At first they said no, this would make the whole thing not look impartial enough. Then they accepted that the only way to guarantee safety was to have the Russian military police along. And so they went, and were there on Saturday.
Doesn’t this chemical weapon evaporate? Like in Salisbury?
Chlorine doesn’t evaporate that quickly. There were actually canisters of chlorine found, and certain chemicals used for the production of sarin found in storage bunkers of the opposition that fled from Douma, including by the way, smoke grenades made in Salisbury, UK. And canisters of chlorine made in Germany.
Now if you read Le Soir, there are three Belgian firms under investigation, for providing elements of chemical weapons to Syria, for the opposition.
Good for Belgium, because they investigate. Others don’t.