Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, Moscow, January 18, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
The talks with my colleague, Austria’s Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, have been constructive. We discussed a wide range of issues.
We agreed that Russian-Austrian dialogue has been developing progressively, based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual benefit despite a difficult situation in Europe. We discussed our bilateral relations, including in light of a meeting between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Austria Heinz Fischer in April 2016.
We reaffirmed our resolve to carry on our bilateral relations and our mutual interest in strengthening them in all spheres. In particular, we intend to restore the positive dynamics of bilateral trade. A special role here will be played by the Joint Russian-Austrian Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation and the Russian-Austrian Business Council, which worked actively last year. We hope that they will continue working equally effectively this year.
We are convinced that the cross-tourism year, to be held in 2017, will not only strengthen friendship and mutual understanding between our citizens, but will also help increase the tourist flow, taking into account the positive experience of the Russian-Austrian cultural seasons in 2013−2015.
We have high assessments of our interdepartmental, inter-parliamentary and interregional ties, as well as contacts between our civil societies. We will continue working to promote these ties, including through the efforts of the foreign ministries of Russia and Austria.
Austria holds the rotating OSCE Chairmanship this year, and we had a detailed discussion of our interaction at the OSCE. Russia and Austria believe that the OSCE must remain a vital platform for coordinating approaches to the key issues on the European agenda. Both Austria and Russia stand for the fullest possible use of the OSCE potential in the interests of settling the crisis in Ukraine.
We underscored that there is no alternative to the full and step-by-step implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including the provision of a special status to Donbass, which must be sealed in the constitution, as well as regional elections and amnesty. These issues must be decided in a direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk with the mediation of the OSCE and the Normandy format countries.
We also exchanged views concerning Russian-EU relations. We know that awareness is growing in many EU countries, including Austria, on the need to resume full dialogue based on pragmatism and respect for the national interests of every country.
Russia and Austria also maintain dialogue on other international issues, such as the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the fight against terrorism and extremism. We hope that this dialogue helps Russians and Austrians to better understand each other.
Question: Of late, Western media have been abuzz with stories about “kompromat” (compromising materials), leaks, spy scares and planted stories. Russia is mentioned and accused not only of hacking attacks but of almost everything. Could you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly, we have already started to grow weary of discussing the issue of Russian interference in US internal affairs, in particular the election campaign that ended with the election of Donald Trump as president. Because these baseless, unsubstantiated, slanderous accusations continue to surface, I would like to say that the cynicism of the situation is that we are being accused by those who in fact actively interfered in the election campaign themselves. Through the president and other representatives, Russia has repeatedly stated that we are ready to work with any president the American people vote for in accordance with US law. With any president, whoever the winner is. However, unlike us, a number of leaders of US allied countries openly campaigned for Hillary Clinton. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and leaders of other European states were actively involved in that. What’s more, in addition to direct campaigning for Hillary Clinton, official representatives of European countries had no qualms about demonising Donald Trump. For example, my German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier called him, if I remember correctly, a “preacher of hatred.” UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even said that Donald Trump is inadequate, while then-French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that the Republican candidate was rejected by the entire world. And all of that was said not in a whisper in a narrow circle but loudly and to the whole world.
Perhaps it is time to admit that it was not Russia but US allies who grossly interfered in US internal affairs, in the election campaign. By the way, many of them are still unable to control themselves and calm down. We do not interfere in these squabbles. We, as a matter of principle, stay out of what is currently going on in the US between the outgoing administration and Donald Trump’s team. However, the attacks by representatives of Barack Obama’s team against the president-elect at times simply appear hypocritical. Just a few days ago, on January 15, when, in an interview with The Times and Bild, Donald Trump expressed his opinion on German migration policy, my counterpart John Kerry said that it was unethical and added up to interference in German internal affairs. And this is said by people who tried to preach to other countries, including Europe (for example, Barack Obama personally campaigned against Brexit) not only in word, but who interfere in other countries’ internal affairs in a way that is far from harmless, with the use of military force aiming for regime change. Therefore this is probably not double but triple standards. We believe that those who make such accusations against us, trying to shift the blame onto someone else's shoulders, should be blushing at the very least.
Question (to Sergey Lavrov): Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said he supports a gradual softening of the sanctions on Russia, if Russia takes appropriate steps to comply with the Minsk Agreements and to settle the Ukraine conflict. How exactly can Russia make a compromise? Can it, for example, agree to an armed OSCE mission or hand over control over the Ukrainian border?
Sergey Lavrov: As we work to implement the Minsk Agreements and encourage all those who signed the Minsk Agreements to do their part, we are not thinking about how long the sanctions will last and do not seek to please anyone to get them to repeal their decisions. We did not introduce these sanctions, and it’s not up to us to lift them.
With all due respect to my friend and colleague Sebastian Kurz, the fact that the European Union has come up with a convenient, but sly formula – that they will lift the sanctions if Russia fulfils the Minsk Agreements – doesn’t make the EU look good at all. This formula is a place to hide behind for those who understand that accusing Russia of what’s happening in Ukraine is pointless, who clearly see the games played by the Kiev authorities who don’t want and are unable to comply with the Minsk Agreements, those who gave their guarantees for the Minsk Agreements, but who for purely geopolitical and ideological reasons are unwilling to force the Kiev authorities to honour their obligations. This is a major geopolitical game related, among other things, to the attempts to confront our neighbours with a false choice: to choose either Europe or Russia, because being friends with both is not an option. In a nutshell, this is what we see and have been seeing for a long time now.
This can also be seen in the continuation of the Eastern Partnership policy. Despite all its rhetoric, the European Union uses this partnership to win over the focus states. Again, it’s not about just being friends with someone, but being friends with someone in order to oppose someone else. In this case, Russia.
We have left the sanctions out of the equation. We are interested in implementing the Minsk Agreements in full and in the order specified, and we are doing so only because the Ukrainian people are our brothers. We want peace for Ukraine. We want the Ukrainians to stop fighting each other, the government to stop declaring its citizens terrorists and separatists. On top of it, they denounce as separatists precisely those people who signed the Minsk Agreements, providing for preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. This is absurd.
Continuing the so-called anti-terrorist operation doesn’t look good anymore either, even though we are aware of the information coming from different sources (we shared it with our Austrian colleagues today) that the armed forces of Ukraine at the line of contact do not control different volunteer militias, including the Right Sector, which, along with other so-called volunteers, are much better equipped and are much more disciplined than the armed forces of Ukraine, and act independently of the orders issued by the Ukrainian army. There’s information that the Right Sector has moved and warehoused much of its weapons in western Ukraine.
Today, we drew the attention of our Austrian colleagues, whose country is the current OSCE chairman, to the fact that the OSCE mission in Ukraine should deal with the situation throughout the country, including in the regions, which I mentioned. It should track not only the state of affairs on the contact line in Donbass, but also the situation with ethnic minorities, the discrimination against Russian-language media and more. I hope that the mission’s report will fully comply with the mandates that are spelled out in the decision on creating it.
With regard to Russia's willingness to reach solutions based on compromise, everyone agreed on a compromise in Minsk on February 12, 2015. The Minsk Agreements are a package which could not be supported without compromises by the Ukrainian government, Donetsk, Lugansk, Russia, Germany and France. They represent a compromise, and it must be implemented. We are now witnessing an attempt to water it down and to act according to the principle of what’s mine is mine, and let's split between us what’s yours, or at least discuss it. We are familiar with this behaviour. We saw it in the negotiating tactics of a number of our Western colleagues. The Ukrainians seem to be good students.
With regard to specific matters you mentioned, in particular, the armed OSCE mission, and speaking of the need to improve and enforce the 24-hour monitoring of the contact line and heavy weapon warehouses, where all the heavy weapons must go in accordance with the Minsk Agreements, we are willing to increase the number of observers on the line of contact and at the warehouses, and to have them be present there round-the-clock, as well as to allow them to carry personal firearms.
I think it will help calm the situation on the line of contact and stop the regular withdrawal of heavy weapons from the warehouses, in violation of the Minsk Agreements. The armed forces of Ukraine are primarily known to have committed such violations. Since early January, over 600 units of weapons, which were supposed to remain at the Ukrainian forces’ warehouses, were not found there. To compare, the number of missing equipment in the self-defence forces’ warehouses was six or seven such units. Six hundred and six – this is the ratio.
If you mentioned the armed OSCE mission having in mind the idea now being promoted by Kiev to the effect that an armed police mission to ensure the rule of law needs to be deployed in Donbass, this is absolutely at odds with the Minsk Agreements, which provide for Ukraine’s obligation to legally recognise the special status of Donbass and enshrine it in the constitution, including its right to have law enforcement forces. So, no armed foreign missions to maintain law and order in Donbass are required under these circumstances. When security during the election is discussed, we are, of course, ready to have unarmed OSCE observers work alongside the local law enforcers, so that they can see for themselves that security is ensured during the election.
With regard to controlling the borders, I have to refer to the Minsk Agreements again. The rhetoric constantly coming from Kiev to the effect that Kiev has to restore full control over the border with Russia before it can talk about anything else, has, probably, left journalists with the impression that this is what the deal was all about. However, we agreed on exactly the opposite: amnesty comes first, followed by adopting a law on the special status and enshrining it permanently in the Constitution of Ukraine, and holding local elections. All of that must be done upon an agreement with Donbass. Ukraine regaining control of the entire border with Russia is the last step in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
So, I reiterate that the Minsk Agreements are a package, a balance of interests and a compromise. There’s certainly no need to encourage those who are trying to revise our previous agreements, since they are unwilling to honour their obligations.
Question: You said at a news conference yesterday that it would be appropriate to invite the new US administration to attend the Syria talks in Astana. Your Turkish colleague spoke in the same vein before that. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran, said yesterday that Iran has not invited the Americans and is against their presence at the talks. Can you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I can assure you that the form of the invitation allows for ensuring the participation of everyone who has been mentioned publicly, including representatives of the US administration. The format of participants in the Astana talks will be announced as soon as these invitations are received (we are sending them now) and the recipients make their reaction public.
Question: How does Moscow view the speculations by various media sources about Mohammed Alloush leading the Syrian opposition delegation at the talks in Astana, considering that he is a leader of Jaish al-Islam, a group Moscow proposed putting on the international list of terrorist organisations?
Sergey Lavrov: As I said, we are inviting to Astana representatives of the Syrian Government and the armed opposition groups that have signed the ceasefire agreements on December 29. We have a list of them, and as far as I know, the opposition forces are discussing their delegates for the talks. The participating groups will not be necessarily represented by one person, but the delegation as a whole must represent all groups that signed the ceasefire agreements on December 29.
Jaish al-Islam signed such an agreement on December 29. Whatever many countries may think about it, it is not on the UN Security Council’s list of terrorist organisations. Like the other armed opposition groups, Jaish al-Islam has agreed to sign the ceasefire agreements and to hold talks with the Syrian Government. We support this position. Everyone who is not connected to ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra can join the December 29 agreements, and we are urging them to do so.
Question: There is hope that after the inauguration of the new US president, relations with Russia will improve. What are your expectations in the context of Donald Trump’s friendly remarks addressed to Russia and the less-than-complimentary comments in Congress by the outgoing secretary of state? What can be done in the near future to accelerate the improvement process?
Sergey Lavrov: Because of the translation, I did not quite get the point regarding the comments by the outgoing secretary of state.
Question: I said that speaking in Congress, the future secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, portrayed Russia as a threat, unlike Donald Trump, whose recent evaluations were positive.
Sergey Lavrov: First, you said there is hope that relations between Russia and the United States will improve. If you harbour such hope, I welcome it. I believe many people hope for normal relations, as befits relations between any two states, and that nobody will interfere in each other’s internal affairs, as has been the case with regard to the US administration recently. We have not seen a shred of evidence to substantiate the accusations against us, as I have already said.
We are following what is going on in the United States, the way Donald Trump’s administration is defining its priorities and the directions of its activity. What I have primarily read into remarks made by the president-elect is the aspiration to focus his team on more effective efforts to uphold US national interests. This is his starting point. We absolutely agree on this, because it is also the principal goal of Russia’s foreign policy. Donald Trump also says that if there is an opportunity to cooperate with Russia to promote US national interests, it would be absurd not to do so. Our approach is exactly the same: In areas where [our] interests align – and there are quite a few such areas – we should and will cooperate with the US, the EU, NATO and any country.
Regarding Rex Tillerson’s remarks, I had an opportunity to respond to this question at a news conference yesterday. You provided an abridged version of his remark. He said that Russia today poses a danger but it is not unpredictable [in advancing its own interests. I would suggest that the approach taken by the candidate for secretary of state be considered in a broad context. Again, he stresses that by focusing on US own interests, the new administration will be ready to try to fully understand the interests of its partners, including Russia. I believe this is the most important thing that was said during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.