State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin’s interview with the newspaper Kommersant, published on December 27, 2017
Question: Last week, the UN General Assembly approved the Ukrainian proposed resolution on the human rights situation in Crimea. The post-Soviet countries (with the exception of the Baltic states) can be divided into three camps as to how they voted: Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova co-sponsored the document, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan abstained from voting, while the rest voted against it. Can this line-up serve as the basis for a judgment on who are allies, opponents or neutrals with regard to Russia?
Grigory Karasin: This vote is certainly an indicator of sorts, but I wouldn’t judge these line-ups only on this basis.
As far as the resolution itself is concerned, Ukraine should better sort out the situation in its own southeast rather than in Crimea. For us, the Crimea issue has been closed; we have solved it once and for all. And, of course, we will oppose resolutions of this sort, while simultaneously inviting unbiased people, including representatives of international organisations, to visit Crimea. For example, a Council of Europe delegation led by Gerard Studman visited Crimea not so long ago. They had contacts with all groups – Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, and prison inmates. This resulted in a very balanced report, which, however, did not get anywhere because it was immediately blocked by those unwilling to recognise the new realities around Crimea. This is a road leading nowhere, and we will always fight this.
Question: What is the fate of the Russian resolution on deploying UN peacekeepers in Donbass? Can we expect the Blue Helmets to turn up there in 2018?
Grigory Karasin: I hope we will manage to take steps in this direction next year, but this progress should not be at the expense of the political interests of Donetsk and Lugansk.
As is evident from the Russian-proposed resolution, the main mission to be performed by the peacekeepers is to ensure safety of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. We see artificial attempts to change this concept in favour of introducing an external administration in southeastern Ukraine involving the closure of the border between Donbass and Russia. This is out of the question. Russia will never allow this. We want the UN peacekeepers to protect the OSCE monitors and this is what our proposal is all about. A lot of diplomatic and political work is upcoming in this connection.
Question: Given that Russia has withdrawn its military personnel from the Joint Center for Control and Coordination of the ceasefire regime (JCCC), the prospects for reaching a compromise seem even vaguer.
Grigory Karasin: This decision was not spontaneous. We sent four notes to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, urging them to stop violating the rights of Russian officers in Ukraine. It will be recalled that the JCCC itself was established at Kiev’s initiative in 2014. It was implied that representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk would join it as well, but Kiev rejected them in 2015. Somewhat later, it started humiliating our officers. This concerns everyday problems, border checks (up to the point of undressing), and human contacts in general. This could not be tolerated, but we got no reply to our notes and so a well-justified decision was taken to recall our officers.
Question: Can they return under certain conditions?
Grigory Karasin: There is nothing impossible in our life, but Kiev should change its position for this and guarantee the conditions that must not depend on some or other Ukrainian politician’s will. An internationally approved code of conduct towards Russian officers should be adopted. I think this is possible, in theory.
Question: I don’t understand Russian officials’ reasoning to the effect that a “second Srebrenica” will occur, if the border is blocked. There is the example of the formerly separatist-controlled city of Slavyansk. Everyone is alive and kicking now that it is under Kiev’s control.
Grigory Karasin: You should better listen to what the Ukrainian politicians say, from Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to Deputy Minister Georgy Tuka, who is in charge of the “temporarily occupied territories.” You will also hear the same from Verkhovna Rada deputies, including Speaker Andrey Parubiy, and representatives of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry. I can send you a selection of quotes.
They treat the population of Donbass as though they are inferior people who do not deserve to be called Ukrainians; they compare them with vermin that should be chemically exterminated. I can imagine what will happen, if Donbass residents are cut off from the border of support, moral and humanitarian, which is now the stretch of Russian border with the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. We can’t take this risk and we will not put at risk thousands of lives of our Ukrainian neighbours.
Question: The Minsk Agreements say that the border should ultimately come under Kiev’s control anyway.
Grigory Karasin: This is the final clause of the Minsk Agreements. Before arriving at it, it is necessary to implement the law on the special status of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the election law, and the law on amnesty. But this is forgotten and nobody mentions this at all. The political subgroup of the Contact Group in Minsk is, in effect, marking time. Its chairman, Pierre Morel, is a seasoned diplomat. He is trying to move the process off the dead centre, but in vain.
Kiev still wants “magic solutions” and primarily would like to solve its problems by proxy. This idea is stuck in Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko’s mind. He seems to believe that all Donbass-related problems will be solved of its own accord, if he calls Russia “aggressor country” as often as he can. This reasoning makes no sense.
Question: When asked why they don’t apply pressure on Kiev in order for it to stop sabotaging the political portion of the Minsk Agreements, Western diplomats usually have the following to say: “Let Russia first force its clients in Donbass to fully comply with at least the first two paragraphs of the agreements on a ceasefire and withdrawal of weapons, and then we will begin to put the heat on Kiev.”
Grigory Karasin: This conversation needs to start otherwise. First, it is imperative to understand whether Kiev considers Donbass a part of Ukraine. Apparently, it does, although I'm not entirely sure about this, because the radical party that has entrenched itself in Kiev believes that Donbass should be cut off.
Second, if you consider this region to be part of Ukraine, then why do you refuse to talk with your fellow citizens? Indeed, they have a different perspective on things: they did not accept the coup in Kiev, they fear for their lives and the lives of their families, plus they do not want to live under the dictate of the government, which deprives people of the right to speak Russian, etc. Their position is known. If Kiev wants to achieve a settlement, it should open a dialogue with the people of Donbass. There are ways to do this. There is, for example, a contact group in Minsk. Go ahead and agree on some forms of interaction, and create additional bodies for bilateral interaction. However, they have never come up with a single idea about this. All they are talking about is an “aggressor country.” Donbass and its people don’t seem to exist. This road leads nowhere, so I'm fairly pessimistic about the near future.
Question: The relations between Moscow and Kiev over the past year do not inspire much optimism, either. Some experts say that Russia has lost Ukraine forever in the sense that Moscow's actions in Crimea and Donbass have caused irreparable damage to bilateral relations. What do you think?
Grigory Karasin: Russian-Ukrainian relations continue to deteriorate. I’m saying this with pain and regret. However, the blame for this lies entirely with Kiev, which consistently pursues a policy aimed at complete destruction of bilateral ties, even if it runs counter to the interests of the Ukrainian people. The Kiev authorities are consciously following the path of curtailing cooperation with us in the sphere of industry, energy, transport, trade, and scientific and technical cooperation. They introduced a ban on imports of Russian literature to Ukraine, imposed stringent restrictions on Russian artists’ tours, showing Russian films, as well as our television channels and electronic media. Forced de-Russification of all spheres of public life is going at full speed. A discriminatory law On Education has been adopted, which infringes upon the rights of millions of Russian-speaking citizens as well as other ethnic minorities. They stick to the policy of glorifying Nazi minions, rewriting history, plus forgetting our common historical past. The initiative seeking to break off diplomatic relations with Moscow, which re-surfaced in the Rada, has become the high point of the anti-Russian sentiment. This discussion is periodically reignited by the Kiev hawks.
However, there is good news, too. Despite all this artificial negative background, the anti-Russian “vaccination” which the Kiev authorities have administered to their citizens seems to be wearing off. Real ties between Russia and Ukraine at the people's level are gradually resuming. The mutual flow of passengers is on the rise. In the first half of 2017, the number of Ukrainian citizens visiting Russia increased by 56.1 percent compared to the same period back in 2016. Positive dynamics can be seen in mutual trade. According to preliminary estimates, trade between Russia and Ukraine grew by 24.7 percent in 10 months of 2017 compared to 2016.
Question: Let's take a less complicated region, Belarus. Previously, Moscow said that the Russian-Belarusian intergovernmental agreement designed to create a legal basis for crossing the land border between the two countries by foreign nationals will be signed before the end of this year. When should we expect this to happen?
Grigory Karasin: We are working hard on this document. We share an understanding of the importance of creating a single visa space, but there are some technical difficulties. Our experts will soon meet to discuss this matter, and I hope that we will be able to resolve this early on in 2018.
Question: That is, you will be able to have it done before the World Cup?
Grigory Karasin: This is our number one priority. I believe we will have it done by spring, way before the World Cup. Both sides are willing to have it done, and we are fine tuning the details. I am not going to discuss the details of the talks right now. I will only say that both sides are interested in creating, as soon as possible, an international legal basis for resolving visa issues and regulating the procedure for the transit of foreign nationals from Russia to Belarus and back.
As you may be aware, the procedure for crossing by foreign nationals of a section of the state border between Russia and Belarus by air was introduced in April. The corresponding flights were transferred to international terminals. This system is working well, and there has not been a single complaint.
Question: The situation in Moldova is paradoxical: the president is pro-Russian, while the government is pro-Western, and they keep throwing stones at each other. What is Moscow’s strategy in relations with Chisinau?
Grigory Karasin: Our relations with Moldova, which is a friendly country, were paradoxical in 2017. On the one hand, there were many positive things. Bilateral dialogue at the top level was more regular than ever before: Since his election as President of Moldova, Igor Dodon has held talks with Vladimir Putin six times.
When Igor Dodon applied for the observer status at the Eurasian Economic Union, those in Moldova who advocated the revival of traditional multifaceted Russian-Moldovan ties that have been seriously damaged in the past few years due to Chisinau’s lop-sided policy of integration with the EU welcomed the decision as a signal event. The formalisation of this decision, which will open new vistas for Moldova’s integration into the Eurasian economic space, has entered the final stage.
On the other hand, growing confrontation between the two branches of power in Moldova continues to have a negative impact on Russian-Moldovan relations. We are concerned about the recent decrease in cooperation at the interdepartmental level. The Moldovan government and parliament are making anti-Russia statements. Actually, our relations have been thrown far back in some areas because of Chisinau’s misinterpreted “loyalty for European integration.” Moldovan Ambassador to Russia Andrei Neguta has been recently called back for consultations. I am sure that this situation does not suit the national interests of Moldova or the aspirations of the Moldovan citizens.
Nevertheless, we are resolved to carry on a constructive dialogue with Chisinau and to work together to implement the agreements achieved.
Question: How would you describe your achievements on the subject of Transnistria?
Grigory Karasin: We have achieved some results here in 2017, despite problems and a very specific, rather passive approach of the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship to organising talks in the 5+2 format, which is the main instrument of the Transnistrian settlement process. The Moldovan-Transnistrian working groups did the bulk of work thanks to a boost that they received from two meetings between Moldovan President Igor Dodon and Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky in January and March of this year. In late November, four agreements on the practical aspects of Chisinau-Tiraspol interaction were signed with active support from Russia and the other international intermediaries within the 5+2 format. These include agreements on the authentication/apostille of Transnistrian university diplomas, on cooperation in telecommunications, on access to agricultural lands in the Dubasari District, as well as on the use of the Latin script in Moldovan schools in Transnistria. The parties have also settled the problem of opening the Gura Bicului-Bychok Bridge to transport.
The majority of the agreements signed only provide a general framework. We need to see how they are implemented and whether any artificial obstacles to this would be created.
Question: The Moldovan authorities have recently presented a plan for settling the Transnistrian crisis, the so-called re-integration vision, which provides for offering Transnistria a special status within the limits of the Moldovan Constitution. Is Russia ready to hold talks on the basis of this document?
Grigory Karasin: There are two main parties to this conflict, Chisinau and Tiraspol, which must discuss their visions of the situation. Moscow will not take part in any serious talks on the Transnistrian settlement process without Tiraspol. This is why we tell the Moldovan representatives that they need to discuss their vision with their Tiraspol colleagues. You can invite Russia to these talks; we have nothing against this, but we insist that the main negotiating parties be Tiraspol and Chisinau. We believe that this is possible.
Question: In May, we talked in detail about the prospects for a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Back then, you said that the document was within arm's reach. Did you manage to reach out and get it signed?
Grigory Karasin: I think progress in this endeavour is one of the most significant achievements of the past year. The draft convention was agreed upon, as a whole, by foreign ministers of the Caspian Five at a meeting held in Moscow recently. Experts worked on it laboriously for more than 20 years. A multinational team of diplomats, and specialists from other departments of the five countries, has formed over the years and, by way of a trust-based dialogue and search for compromises, eventually managed to create a balanced project that takes into account the interests of all sides.
Question: So, is it safe to say that the convention will be signed in 2018?
Grigory Karasin: As someone who’s been around, I won’t say “yes” right away. The 5th Caspian Summit in Kazakhstan is looming on the horizon. I predict that the agenda of this meeting of the presidents will be very busy. However, as the summit approaches, some nuances might appear which could require additional coordination. So, I would not rule out the possibility of foreign ministers or working groups getting together for a preparatory meeting in order to tie up a few loose ends.
In general, the relations between the Caspian countries are developing positively. In contrast to the 1990s, when the focus was on disintegration and attempts to unilaterally “divide” the sea, we are now at a completely different stage. At this point, everyone realises that the Caspian Sea is not only about oil and gas. Life forces us to take collective responsibility for everything that happens in this unique body of water.
Sturgeon is the first thing that comes to mind. Complaints about its disastrously low stocks have become commonplace. Indeed, the situation is far from perfect. However, we seem to have managed to reverse the negative trend through joint efforts. Since 2013, our countries have voluntarily observed a moratorium on the commercial catch of this fish, that is, it is being caught for research purposes only. The first session of the intergovernmental Commission on Caspian Bioresources was recently held in Baku. Its participants reiterated the determination of the Big Five to abstain from sturgeon fishing. In addition, a document on the joint fight against poaching in the Caspian is almost ready.
Potential accidents or disasters are another important matter. We pay close attention to this, including by way of improving and specifying the mechanism for protecting the Caspian Sea environment. A most important agreement on assessing the cross-border environmental impact, which must be signed in conjunction with the convention, is about to be approved.
Question: Speaking of the convention once again, have all contentious issues been resolved?
Grigory Karasin: We have agreed on ways for resolving them. It should be noted here that the convention will not resolve all issues arising, but it will create the required framework for agreements between the respective Caspian littoral states.
Question: Has the principle for demarcating the Caspian Sea been coordinated?
Grigory Karasin: Yes, but I would rather not go into details at this stage.
Question: In November, Armenia and the European Union signed an agreement on comprehensive and expanded partnership. What does Russia think about this?
Grigory Karasin: We always perceive our neighbours and allies as people who have their own opinions on life and foreign policy. Our neighbours are sovereign states, and the same is true of our allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. Understandably, they are expanding multi-vector contacts in the modern era, and this is quite natural in the 21st century. We have never presented our neighbours and allies with the following choice: Are you siding with us or them? But we have the right to expect that allied relations will be prioritised. Moreover, agreements being signed in other formats, including the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, should not violate obligations on which we have already agreed.
Question: Should we worry about the situation in Central Asia now that ISIS militants have been expelled from Syria and Iraq to neighbouring countries?
Grigory Karasin: Indeed, emissaries of international terrorist organisations are becoming more and more active along all approaches to the region, near and far. Militants are gradually redeploying from Syria and Iraq to northern Afghanistan. This increases the risk of their activity transferring to neighbouring countries, including Central Asia. At the same time, drug trafficking in drug trafficking in Afghanistan, which provides funding for terrorist groups, continues to expand.
In this connection, we attach special significance to cooperation in strengthening Central Asian countries’ security and defence capability through measures such as the provision of gratis assistance to law enforcement agencies of a number of regional countries, including personnel training. The 201st Russian Military Base in Tajikistan and the Joint Russian Military Base in Kyrgyzstan play a major stabilising role.
Question: Several months ago, the Kyrgyzstan authorities suggested that Russia deploy one more military base in the country. At that time, Moscow indicated that this was not necessary. Since then, a new president has been elected in Kyrgyzstan. Does Moscow’s position remain the same?
Grigory Karasin: Sooronbay Jeenbekov has scored a landslide victory during the latest presidential elections, an important domestic political event in Kyrgyzstan. The new President has reaffirmed the continuity of the republic’s foreign policy, prioritising allied relations with Russia, active involvement in integration processes, as well as more profound neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperation with all regional countries.
Regarding the question of the base, Kyrgyzstan is our CSTO and EEU ally and a good friend. Therefore we always pay attention to the initiatives of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders. But, at this stage, we believe that our military base in Kant is quite enough for neutralising possible external threats.