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West must engage with Russia, but can’t be ‘business as usual,’ says U.K. defense secretary

July 7, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump plans to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20 summit, where they'll likely discuss the fight against the Islamic State, the role of NATO and more. U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Russian election meddling, the promise of a Syrian cease-fire and how to counter the threat of North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As part of the G20 summit this weekend, President Trump will meet with the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Theresa May. They will have much to discuss, from the fight against ISIS, to the role of NATO, and how their broader agendas differ from those of European allies.

A short time ago, I spoke with the U.K.’s defense secretary, Sir Michael Fallon.

I began by asking him about the differing accounts of what Mr. Trump said to President Putin about Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election.

MICHAEL FALLON, U.K. Defense Secretary: It was an important meeting. It was right that they should meet reasonably early on. It’s right that they should get along, because there’s quite a bit to talk to Russia about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You had said earlier that the U.S. should go into that meeting warily. Does it sound to you as if that’s what happened?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, we have to engage with Russia.

That can’t be business as usual with Russia while the Crimea remains annexed, while Ukraine is being interfered with. It can’t be business as usual. But we think it important to have a dialogue with Russia to try and de-escalate any tensions that there are and to ensure that where Russia does have influence in the world — and Syria is one example — that we can bring Russia’s influence to bear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you work very closely obviously with the intelligence community. We know that President Trump has challenged the intelligence community — the U.S. intelligence community’s reporting on Russian interference in the election.

What effect might that have on Russia and its continuing efforts to interfere here in the U.S. and in Europe?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, we know Russia intervened in some elections in Europe. That, we do know, in the Dutch referendum, in the French elections. There’s been an attempted coup in Montenegro that Russia was suspected of being involved in.

So, we know there’s been this pattern of behavior by Russia in recent years. But I’m not able to comment on what happened here in your election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to the extent President Trump is challenging the work of the U.S. community, does that have an effect on intelligence work abroad, internationally, cooperation between the U.S. and allies like the U.K.?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, there’s no closer cooperation on intelligence than between us and the United States. Our services work extremely closely together, both in monitoring what Russia is doing, but also against terrorism. So it’s a very close relationship to us.

It’s very important to us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to Syria. We’re told the two presidents did discuss Syria. And, in fact, after their meeting, it was reported that they have agreed on a cease-fire for a section of southwestern Syria. What do you know about that?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well any cease-fire has got to be good news in the civil war that’s gone on are for so long now.

But there’s been many cease-fires before that have turned out not to be cease-fires at all. And we have seen up in Aleppo in the north of Syria, we have seen Russia allowing Syria to go on bombing its own civilians, bombing hospitals after a cease-fire has been declared.

Now, this one is welcome, but it has got to be enforced, it’s got to be an actual cease-fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you look for? What’s the evidence of that? You want to see when it takes effect and what the ground rules are?

MICHAEL FALLON: Yes. We want to see it applied to those on the ground, so that we can get humanitarian aid into those towns and villages that have been cut off in the fighting. We can get aid through.

And we need to be absolutely sure that it really is a cease-fire. But let’s hope this one sticks and brings some peace to that part of Syria down in the southwestern corner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can a cease-fire make a difference, though, when the two sides disagree about whether President Assad should stay in power? The U.S. has said that it wants him removed. The Russians are still saying they want him to stay.

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, we don’t see any long-term future for Assad in Syria.

This is a man who has attacked his own people, who has barrel-bombed his own people. He’s used chemical weapons against his own people. We don’t think he can be part of the long-term future of Syria.

But what we do want to see happening is the — is all those parties that are prepared to work to a more democratic Syria working together now to bring about a new settlement. And we’re encouraging the Russia-sponsored process in Astana and the other negotiations that are going in Geneva to bring those together and see if everybody can get around the table now and plot a different future for Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But can there be progress of any kind, whether it’s a cease-fire or some other sort of step forward together, when the two sides still disagree over Mr. Assad and his future?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, there is disagreement, yes.

We don’t think he can be part of the long-term future of Syria. But we do want to see the political process get under way that will lead Syria to a more plural kind of government that is genuinely representative of all the different groupings in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about another troubled part of the world, and that is North Korea.

We know that you and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis discussed that. What can you tell us?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, it’s a problem not just for the United States. Obviously, the United States is coming within range of these missiles.

But what the North Koreans have done is something illegal. It’s something provocative. And it’s unacceptable. And we have now got to respond as an international community, not just the United States. It’s not right the United States has to bear this problem on its own.

We have got to work much harder now through the United Nations to see whether the sanctions that have already been applied are working properly, to consider additional sanctions, and, thirdly, to bring more pressure to bear on China to get the kind of changes that we need in that regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as you know, President Trump has been tweeting a lot about this. He said the other day words to the effect it looks like that what the Chinese did hasn’t had any effect, they’re still trading with North Korea. Are these kinds of comments helpful?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, we all have to, I think, step back now and see and look very carefully at what has worked and what has not worked.

We have had seven United Nations resolution. Clearly, a nuclear program of this kind can’t have been put together without access to the raw materials, the components involved, and indeed to the finance that you need to construct them, to put it all together.

So, clearly, the sanctions may have been breached, and we need to look at them, see where those gaps are in the sanctions, and whether a new resolution can impose a tougher regime on North Korea or indeed on any other companies and individuals, Chinese or otherwise, who may have been helping them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there agreement between the U.S., U.K. and other nations with the same interests on what should come next with regard to North Korea?

MICHAEL FALLON: Well, there is agreement that, first of all, we have to work this diplomatically and economically through sanctions, that we have to raise the price of what the North Koreans are doing to deter them from carrying out further tests in future.

There’s agreement amongst us on that. And we’re all working hard on that at the United Nations in New York to move that agreement forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With all due respect, though, there have been sanctions in place.

MICHAEL FALLON: There has been sanctions, and some clearly have not been enforced. And we need to look at that. And then we need to look and see whether a new, tougher resolution is required. And we will be looking at that in the European Union framework as well over in Europe to see who may have been trading with North Korea and so on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Russians and the Chinese have proposed that the North Koreans freeze their missile program, their nuclear program, in exchange for which the South Koreans and the United States would stop or pull back on these joint military exercises and remove the THAAD missile defense system.

Is that any sort of a realistic proposal?

MICHAEL FALLON: No, because it’s a false comparison.

Military exercises or missile defense, these are legitimate things for nations to have and to do. What North Korea is doing is illegal. It’s completely illegal under the treaties, under international law. It’s a breach of United Nations resolutions. And you can’t compare it with military exercises in the South.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I do want to ask you about, that is, President Trump’s theme yesterday. He spoke to the Polish people in Warsaw.

And he spoke about the threat to Western civilization. He talked about it being at a risk of decline. And he asked if the West has the will to survive. Is this the sort of language that you think is going to bring the Western allies together in their fight against extremism?

MICHAEL FALLON: We do have values in common in the West. And we do need to speak up for those values and to remember them.

We’re being attacked in the West, not because those values have failed, but because we have been successful and we have spread some of those values around the world.

So, that was an important message yesterday. And it was coupled, of course, with a reminder that the United States stands behind Article 5 of the NATO treaty that believes in the collective defense of NATO. If one of us is attacked, then the others must come to its help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sir Michael Fallon, Britain’s defense secretary, thank you very much.