Sarah Montague speaks to Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU. Can Russia and the west mend their relationship before it's too late?
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Now on BBC News: HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk, with me, Sarah Montague.
Just a few months ago, Russia was congratulating
Donald Trump on becoming president, and expressing the hope that
both countries would take their relationship
to a whole new level.
Now, Moscow's relations with the US and the West are so bad
that the Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev talks
of them as "ruined".
That was after America's response to the recent
chemical attack in Syria.
But even before that, there was the stand-off in Ukraine,
and accusations of Russian interference in American elections.
Now there are fears the Russians could meddle in the French elections
and other European votes this year.
My guest is Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU.
Will Russia promise not to pervert democracy in Europe?
Vladimir Chizhov, welcome to HARDtalk.
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has
accused Russia of meddling in French democratic life.
Is that true?
Of course it's not.
Well, I'm afraid that this wave of anti-Russian rhetoric
has become contagious, and has spread across
the Atlantic Ocean.
That's very bad for our relations with our countries involved,
but I think it's bad for those countries themselves,
including their democratic procedures and processes.
But the accusation is being levelled against Russia for a reason.
If we look at some of the things that are being said...
Richard Ferrand, who is Secretary General
of Emmanuel Macron's En Marche, Onwards Party, said that
their campaign was being hit by hundreds, if not thousands,
of attacks probing their computer systems, and that was coming
from locations inside Russia.
Well, in the modern world, you can never be sure where hacking
attacks are coming from.
There is no technical possibility of tracing anything.
So, this is not a piece of hard evidence, by any means.
But you can follow, you can, via the technology, follow
where attacks are coming from.
Emmanuel Macron's campaign say these attacks are coming from Russia.
Well, that's an allegation that I wouldn't accept
without any hard evidence.
OK, what about the accusation of fake news that is
being spread by Russia?
Again, Richard Ferrand says two of the big media outlets belonging
to the Russian state, Russia Today and Sputnik,
spread fake news on a daily basis, they are picked up, quoted
and they influence democracy.
Well, I believe that those news outlets have been so successful,
to the chagrin of their competitors among the Western media.
That has been the case, because they have been providing
alternative angles of the same events, and giving the floor
to people, including many Westerners, who were willing to put
forward their own views, which would, in some cases,
contradict the so-called mainstream.
But it's, in some cases...
It's things that are wrong, they are saying things that
are factually incorrect.
Take a headline, they had to be picked up on it
by France's polling commission, suggesting Francois Fillon,
somebody who has in the past spoken very positively about Russia...
Sputnik said he was at the head of the polls, and the polling
commission said that's not true, that actually a poll
is defined by law in France.
They were improperly calling it a poll when it wasn't,
and they shouldn't be saying things like that.
Well, it's an expression of free press.
Isn't that one of the main European values?
If you compare the amount of fake news that are addressed
to Russia from the West, that's incomparably more.
And I would say to that, that anybody has a right to have
one's own view on what the outcome of a future election would be.
But this is something different, isn't it?
You seem to be saying, and let's be clear, these
are organisations that are owned by the Russian state,
"it's fine if they say things that are wrong",
is that your situation?
Well, I'm not saying...
First of all, what makes you so sure that they are wrong?
Secondly, they have a right to say that.
If you want to challenge that...
This is a matter of fact, Francois Fillon was not
at the head of the polls, he was way behind.
So why, if they say something that's wrong and they are picked up on it
by the polling commission?
If they were wrong on that one, well, perhaps they might wish
to apologise, or present some facts that would support
the point of view.
But the Russian government has nothing to do with that.
The difficulty is that both these two organisations,
the information they are releasing appears to be things that either
support the conservative candidate, or the far-right candidate,
the Front National of Marine Le Pen, and damage Emmanuel Macron.
For example, it was down to Sputnik that there were stories that came
out suggesting that he had a gay relationship outside his marriage.
He actually had to come out and say: "that's not true".
Well, what would you say if, in the view of the upcoming British
election, those two outlets support Theresa May and the Conservatives?
On the candidates in the French election, who is it that you want?
Would you like Marine Le Pen to win the French election?
We would like France to come out of this election
without undue politicisation of the French society.
Which means what?
Would you like Marine Le Pen to win?
Well, I am not a French voter, so I wouldn't
want to speculate who is best.
Sure, but we know that Marine Le Pen, the Front National,
has been given a 9 million euro loan by a Russian private bank.
Something that presumably is only possible when it's
authorised by the Kremlin.
Is that because Russia supports Marine Le Pen?
That story is fake, it was not a Russian bank,
it was a Czech bank, actually, with some
And since the 9 million loan was given to the Front National,
the bank actually went bankrupt.
And those people who have undertaken their affairs,
they are now demanding the money back.
And so those who said, for example, Mikhail Kasyanov,
who was Prime Minister under President Vladimir Putin before
he joined the opposition, said: "For me, there is no doubt
the loan was authorised by the Kremlin".
Is he wrong?
I am sure he is wrong.
He was Prime Minister very long ago.
OK, let's move on to Germany.
You say all these things are inconsequential,
what about the fact that the German Chancellor Angela
Merkel refers to Russia "sowing false information in Germany",
and her warning that it could play a role in
the coming election campaign?
Well, I respect her views as a German politician,
and as a candidate in the upcoming Bundestag election,
and of course, as Chancellor of the Federal Republic.
But, whether there is hard evidence, I don't know if there is.
Maybe she would like to present it.
The head of the German domestic security service,
Hans-Georg Maassen, says: "We see aggressive and increased cyber
spying and cyber operations that could potentially endanger German
government officials, MPs, employees of democratic parties".
And he says, and he said after the Bundestag computer
system was shut down, that in addition to spying:
"Lately Russian intelligence agencies have shown a willingness
to conduct sabotage".
Is he wrong?
Well, I think, as I said in the beginning, this
anti-Russian hysteria is really becoming contagious.
Look at what was happening a few months ago in the United States.
It has now evidently spread on to France and onwards to Germany.
I wonder if the United Kingdom will come clean in this situation
in view of the upcoming election?
I hope it does.
But as far as that is concerned, you're right that even the current
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was of course appointed
by President Trump, who, the accusations go, benefited
from Russian involvement in the American elections,
even he says: "It's pretty evident that Russia is taking similar
tactics into the electoral processes throughout Europe,
and so they are really undermining any hope for improved relations
with many European countries".
Well, I think you should perceive these words as indication
that there was no Russian involvement in the US election.
So you would say categorically, this is just Russia...
Clearly this was a man, part of President Trump's team,
who didn't believe there was, but has now become convinced.
He says it's becoming that Russians are getting involved in European
countries' elections, they are all saying Russia
is, and you're saying they are all hysterical?
MR CHIZHOV CHUCKLES.
Well, I would say that...
It all starts with people who lose elections, then it spreads
all across the political spectrum.
And I would say that it is a sign of degradation of the intellectual
and ethical level of electoral campaigns in the West, in general.
I am not blaming any particular country.
But it seems to be a contagious disease.
Except in this case it's the winning team in the United States.
And it's also not just politicians, it's the American intelligence
agencies, who said: "We assess with high confidence that
President Putin ordered an influence campaign
in the presidential elections.
The consistent goal was to undermine public faith".
Well, I leave it to the current US administration to judge the degree
of confidence in the information they get from the
They are known in recent history to have misled
OK, so you're saying they are wrong on this.
The effect of all this has left us in a situation
where your Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, talks
of "completely ruined" relations between the United States
and the West, and Russia.
And he said that after there was the American response
to the chemical attack in Syria.
But he talks about Moscow and Washington.
He talked then of Moscow and Washington being on the verge
of a military clash.
Is that still the case, do you think?
Well, of course Russian-American relations are at a low
level today, definitely.
And the lower the level is for two nuclear powers,
the greater is the risk of a military clash.
Well, I hope it won't come to that, of course.
And I think Secretary Tillerson's visit to Moscow has proved to be
a small step in promoting the mutual understanding that is
so necessary, particularly in a situation like this.
President Trump has said: "We're not getting along with Russia at all,
we may be at an all-time low".
Is he right?
Well, "an all-time low" might be right or wrong,
but we've known other periods when relations were quite low.
But, in recent history, yes, I think he's right.
If we compare this within the period of the last 10-15 years, yes,
we are at a very low point.
Your views on President Trump, because of course Russia was very
hopeful that there might be a new relationship with this
new American president.
And then we have a situation where, after recent events,
not just what's happened in Syria, but also the warnings
in North Korea, where the anchor of your main weekly television news
show, who is a very pro-Kremlin, Dmitry Kiselyov, says:
"The world is a hair's breadth from nuclear war".
He talks about the confrontation between Donald Trump
and Kim Jong-Un: "Both are dangerous, but who
is more dangerous?
Trump is, Trump is more impulsive and unpredictable".
Do you think he's right?
I can refer to you the commentary made by the spokesman
for President Putin, Mr Peskov.
He said that: "That view of Mr Kiselyov was his own,
and was not the official position of the Russian government".
So what is the official position of the Russian government
now on President Trump?
Well, that's an interesting question, in view of some,
I would say, evolutions of the US president's approach to various
I think the position of the new administration
will settle in a matter of weeks or months, because I think
it's too early to say.
It's too early to say?
On that, what appears to have damaged, what Dmitri Medvedev talks
of ruining the relationships, was when there was the United States
air strike on an airbase in Syria in response to a chemical attack.
Now, Russia had it within its powers to activate air defence systems,
and prevent some of that attack on the Syrian airbase.
Why did it not do so?
Well, first of all, I would ask you not to cut corners
in describing the sequence of events that happened.
If you referred to a "chemical attack", then you would perhaps
wish to at least say an "alleged chemical attack".
Because there is no confirmation of that attack having happened.
Of course, there could have been a direct counter-hit,
but that might have led to much more serious consequences
in Russia-US relations.
I'm not talking about a retaliatory strike, I'm talking
about something that neutralised.
You can just say: "Look, we didn't have the military capability".
Is that what you're saying?
So there was the military capability to neutralise?
I'm not a military expert, but I will tell you what I think of it.
I think that particular situation required consideration
of all the different aspects.
So it was a political decision not to do that and use
the air defence systems?
Perhaps, but my guess would be as good as yours.
You picked me up on my question, because you said there isn't
even evidence that there was a chemical attack.
Are you really going to hold to that position?
Well, until proven otherwise.
Did you see the images?
The staged images.
You know, let me tell you, I am not a chemical expert either.
But you're a human being, and I imagine you saw those images
coming out of Syria.
Of course. Yes.
You know, sarin is a very toxic substance, so if you
have an agonising child, you cannot hold it close
to your chest without dying in a few minutes afterwards.
The infamous White Helmets, that are known to have staged
artificial scenes on video, they were there without any
protective garments, without even gas masks.
So the whole thing was fabricated, do you seriously suggest that?
I suggest that, but I'm not saying that that was the case,
because there was no...
You know, two weeks have passed, but still there has
been no investigation.
The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the French Foreign
Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described that story as: "A shameless
production of lies".
They say that British scientists and others have analysed samples
which have tested positive for sarin, or a
You are not implying that British scientists were there on the ground
collecting the samples.
Nobody, either from Britain, the United States, or France,
went there and had any inspection on the ground.
Let me finish.
That is why my country has been consistently demanding that
international investigators, experienced specialists
from the Organisation for the Prohibition
of Chemical Weapons, should go down there...
So why did you veto the UN resolution calling
for an investigation?
Because the resolution, the draft resolution blamed
the Syrian government for that.
If it had been only a call for investigation, we would have
supported that, wholeheartedly.
Do you think Russia...
Actually, we tabled an alternative draft,
which unfortunately was not supported.
You were isolated.
Is there a danger that Russia has become almost dangerously isolated
as a result of this issue?
I do not accept the claim that Russia was isolated,
even in this particular case.
As you know, the Western draft resolution was not supported by five
of the 15 members of the Security Council.
Abstained rather than vetoed.
Well, there is only the need for one permanent member
to veto a resolution.
And on the question of what happened with...
Whether there was a chemical attack, you call for
an investigation by the OPCW.
They are going to carry out an investigation.
Will you accept whatever their finding is?
I wonder why they are not there yet, because two weeks have passed.
The Syrian government has invited them to inspect the airfield
which was the object of the US air attack, and certain prominent
figures of the opposition that controlled the area
where the alleged chemical attack happened, they said
that they would ensure safety of the inspectors.
So I don't see any real obstacle preventing those
inspectors from going.
The former director of the CIA, John Brennan, who was in post
until this year, said this month: "The Russians feign sincerity
better than anyone I know.
They would promise they would work with us, try to restrain the Syrian
government and military from carrying out these atrocious
attacks, and they wouldn't, so I lost faith in their willingness
and interest to do the right thing".
Is that Russia's problem here, that you are losing the trust
of people around the world?
I don't have that impression.
Actually, this in my view isn't the case at all.
You don't fear that that might happen?
I don't think so, because Russian foreign policy has been
clear and transparent, and of course, our goals
are quite obvious, be it in Syria or elsewhere.
Vladimir Chizhov, thank you for coming on HARDtalk.
After several days of fairly quiet weather taking us through much
Sarah Montague speaks to Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU. Just months ago, Russia was congratulating President Trump on his inauguration and expressing hope that both countries would take their interaction 'to a whole new level'. Now, Moscow's relations with the US and the west are so bad that the Russian prime minister Medvedev talks of them as 'ruined'. Can Russia and the west mend their relationship before it's too late?