By Akmaral Batalova -:
An exclusive interview with H.E. Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation.
AB: Thank you very much, Minister, for this interview. I know how busy you are, so I’ll try to be very brief.
My first question is about the relations between Russia and the United States. In its military and national strategies Washington has for the first time designated specific countries as geopolitical or regional adversaries. The first group includes Russia and China, the second – Iran and North Korea. With the election of the new president, it seems that some kind of softening in relation to China is planned. It also seems like the Biden administration might be going back to the Iranian deal. And what about Russia? What should Russia, as well as Kazakhstan, expect in the near future?
SS: In principle, even in different periods, American priorities have not been changed much. Geopolitically, the United States administration used to put international terrorism as a primary threat. After that, Russia and China switched places, and Iran periodically came out on top.
Also, we must remember that in Syria, international terrorism has reached its peak. A large international coalition, led by the United States, was formed to fight it. It was joined by a coalition created by Saudi Arabia.
Of course, when Russia seriously began the fight against international terrorism there, its success in this fight was perceived as a surprise. And gradually, some people started saying that Russia seems to be doing something wrong in Syria – despite the fact that we established peace there, had a major impact on the situation in this country, defeated terrorism, launching the operation when only 18% of the territories were under the control of Damascus, and today, in fact, the state controls more than 90%.
I would also like to remind of the times when, despite all the difficulties, we had a fairly efficient and very effective dialogue, work and cooperation (with the United States).
In 2015, President Putin asked, “Why would you want to strike Syria?”. This question was prompted by the presence of chemical weapons in this country. “Why attack? After all, it is possible to agree that the technologies, equipment, these chemical weapons and its remnants could be transferred and destroyed peacefully. This can be done by those who possess the technology of peaceful destruction.”
There were big doubts then. I myself witnessed when President Obama said: “It is unlikely that Assad will agree to this. However, if he agrees, it could be done.” Then there was a complex, I would even say, a beautiful operation aimed to collect, transport and destroy, by joint efforts, the Syrian chemical weapons.
This was an important decision for the region, and for the world as a whole. Because if Syria had not given up these weapons, it would have been struck. And the blows would have been applied precisely to the places where the chemical weapons were stored. The consequences for the entire region can be envisaged.
So, it was a joint effort – a large, well-done project.
I will not hide the fact that today in Syria, at the operational and tactical level, we have very close contacts with our American colleagues. Maybe if it’s a secret for someone, I’ll tell that secret. I will explain this in a civil way: at the level of our managers in the airspace in the fight against terrorists we have contacts several times a day.
What can change in relation to Russia? Well, you know, the first steps are encouraging, because there was a rapid return of the United States to extend the treaty on strategic offensive arms. Of course, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Now, we see that they have moved from unacceptable demands and proposals to a normal and constructive dialogue.
I hope that in the future, the steps that not only the United States and Russia, but also other countries are interested in, can be taken. However, at the same time, they say: “Yes, we need to cooperate with Russia, but only in those areas where it is profitable for us”. This is the kind of rhetoric we have today.
I hope, that one day, a complete, full-fledged, I emphasize – full-fledged, and equal dialogue, as well as the work of the Russia-NATO Council, will be restored. We have to negotiate, there is an urgent need for everyone to do that. We, for our part, made all the steps, all the statements; and we waited. The agreement for medium-range and shorter-range missiles was, in my opinion, very acceptable. But, as we think, and not without grounds, special reasons were found, and sometimes invented, in order to withdraw from this agreement.
Of course, we said, ” Well, if you want to go, go. What can we do?” For our part, we have committed ourselves not to deploy such weapons unless they are deployed in Europe. We won’t do that. But, if it is prepared to be used, we will naturally respond accordingly. This also applies to the east of our country. I mean the possible deployment of weapons on the territory of Japan and South Korea. Unfortunately, we have not received any reaction to our position.
AB: For myself, I conclude that political rhetoric can vary, but in serious situations, decisions are made not by politicians, but by the military leaders.
SS: First of all, this is our Supreme Commander-in-Chief, who determines the main strategic line on such important issues as the treaty on strategic offensive weapons, on intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, the treaty on open skies and many other issues.
AB: How can you assess the current threats to Russia and the Central Asia from the Afghan direction?
SS: What we are seeing today are periodic statements such as “we’re leaving – no, we’re staying, we’re staying – no, we’re leaving.” Moreover, these statements are made by different countries. They seem to be a coalition, each member of which is responsible for their own zone, but with the change of presidents, opinions change, today they are going to leave, then tomorrow they are going to stay.
I have repeatedly told my colleagues from the United States and Great Britain that you can only leave when you are absolutely sure that peaceful life has improved in the country (Afghanistan). When the local population have the opportunity to make money in something other than drug trade. We need to help them so that they could produce something else and be able to sell it, so that they can have a normal life.
But that’s not what we’re talking about right now. Naturally, there are complex processes going on, it is not easy.
What’s bothering us? And not just us, the whole region.
Large groups of terrorists are moving to different countries, including Afghanistan. ISIS has already appeared there. We are seeing the return of those locals who once left Afghanistan to fight in the ranks of ISIS, and those who arrived there from Syria as foreigners.
And, of course, what is very, very serious is drug trafficking and drug production. We all live in this region, on this common territory, and we understand that this is a threat not only for us, but also to our neighbours. These neighbours are our closest friends, our brothers, we have lived together for centuries and, God willing, we will continue to live together in peace. Of course, I mean Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
AB: Everyone knows about the recent partnership between Russia and Turkey, and it is quite productive. But, at the same time, there are some politicians in Turkey and people among the nationalist circles in Kazakhstan who have an idea of recreating the Great Turan and formation the army of Turan – a united army of Muslim countries. What do you think about this?
SS: I don’t know if you can call these people as politicians? I would like to ask them first: Well, here you are dreaming about it, you are trying to make some steps towards it. But what is it for and who is it against? Exactly the same Turkic-speaking people live on the territory of Russia, we have quite a lot of them. Our country is multi-ethnic and multi-confessional.
As for relations with Turkey, we are doing very difficult, but very productive work here. It is a collaborative effort. It is difficult because, of course, it is hindered by the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO.
However, this is, I would say, a unique experience. One country is a member of NATO; the other country is not in NATO and they find a common language. We conduct joint work, joint operations, we find compromises where it seems impossible. We find solutions.
For example, the Idlib de-escalation zone. In general, the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria, in our opinion, is a new page and a new mechanism for resolving such conflicts. We created de-escalation zones, so, people started to talk to each other, and some kind of separation process began. Now, some are ready to live without fighting, and others are not ready, so there are such zones to understand that.
And now we (with Turkey) are conducting joint patrols in the north-east of Syria.
We are engaged in the fight against terrorists together. We do joint work, quite often, in a joint airspace. We regulate and control many crossing points, we deal with refugees together.
This is not an easy job, a difficult one.I will not talk about the sanctions against Turkey that their NATO partners are trying to impose.
I will tell you about our joint work in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a very difficult operation. That’s exactly what I’d like to call it, and nothing else. Because it involved a huge number of reasoning, elements, and motives. After all, you will agree that when two fraternal peoples, two close neighbours of ours, are at war with each other, those with whom we lived, and I repeat once again, we will continue to live in peace, harmony, and friendship… This is not easy…
On the other hand, there was Turkey’s participation in this, so we had to talk to our Turkish colleagues. Our president, believe me, made colossal efforts to make all this happen. And everyone had to be persuaded. There was no one who would say: “I agree, but convince others.” No, we had to convince everyone, of course. And we had to talk at our level of defence ministers, and with our Turkish military colleagues. And what has been done today is important. First, people stopped killing each other. Secondly, I hope that now is the time for them to move on to bilateral contacts and start talking to each other, start talking. I mean Armenia and Azerbaijan.
And here, of course, much depends on the relations that Russia and Turkey have. There are also new players, but old neighbours, with their own proposals. I mean Iran. Iran offers the development of infrastructure, including railways, hydropower, and transport links. There are a lot of questions to answer.
AB: You are now talking about those who are really trying to solve the problem in a positive way. But if we talk about those who are trying to divide our countries and show Russia in a negative light. There are some people who are confused. We even have some people who believe that Russia wants to annex Kazakhstan to itself.
SS: You know, I listen patiently to such things only because I know that you are a deeply educated, very intelligent person, who knows and understands history well. But, let’s get down to earth from all these fantasies!
I could now discuss about Ablai the Great (Kazakh Khan) – a historical figure that I have studied, read about his path and his exploits and merits. However, even when we have a discussion, we remember that we have a long-established fraternal relationship. We have no reason to divide anything between us, no reason, absolutely. Because we did a full border demarcation back in 1998.
Moreover, we signed a border agreement, I think back in 2005. We have a great relationship, why should someone spoil it?
And, in general, everything that concerns intervention, it often resembles a situation when two friends begin to argue about something, another person neither of them knows, suddenly appears and tries to contribute to their discussion and affect their relationship.
In this case, I am talking about Ukraine and the United States. Those people who sat down at the same table one fine evening, signed under guarantees that everything will be within the framework of the Constitution, that the president will leave, elections will be held within a year, and that he will not go to these elections, and everything will be fine. And then, after 4 hours, everyone was searching for him everywhere. After that, those people got on a plane and flew away, leaving everything there, in that state. And, after that, someone says that Russia is to blame for all this? Is Russia to blame for what happened there next?
Is Russia to blame for the fact that multiple rocket launchers started firing at peaceful cities? Is it Russia’s fault that military helicopters and planes have started flying over peaceful cities and firing at them? Well, you, guys, sat down, you guaranteed everything, and you signed up for this. Well, then go on with it all! Go on!
Therefore, I have always assessed everything based on my personal experience. On April 17, it will be 30 years from me becoming a member of the Russian Government. And it so happened that I had to deal with the conflicts of South Ossetia-Georgia, and Abkhazia-Georgia, and Transnistria Moldova, the Tajik civilian conflict. Well, many other things happened – for example, tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees from many republics of the former Soviet Union were coming to Russia, from Karabakh, from Baku, from Armenia. It was such a difficult time, but even at that time, I never lost the confidence that everything would be fine and we would always live together in peace.
AB: Thank you very much for the interview!
SS: Thank you!
(Kazakh journalist Akmaral Batalova had an exclusive interview with the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation Sergei Shoigu specially for Tengrinews.kz . Answering questions for our portal, he shared his opinion on relations between Russia and Kazakhstan, the idea of creating a “Turanian army” and the actions of the United States.)