Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands Stef Blok, Moscow, April 13, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have held constructive talks. This is the first visit to Moscow by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands since 2015. So, many issues had to be discussed.
First, we conducted a rather detailed review of our bilateral relations whose current status is not cause for complete satisfaction. Over the past few decades, we have created a substantial potential for cooperation, which is not used in full measure today.
We expressed our mutual willingness to look for ways out of the current situation. Obviously, the resumption of sustained development in all areas of our relations meets the interests of our countries and peoples.
We reaffirmed Russia’s interest in expanding exchanges between ministries and agencies, civil societies, in the legal, cultural and humanitarian areas. Today, we also noted that it was necessary to resume a full-fledged inter-parliamentary dialogue. These communication channels are becoming particularly topical today when relations between countries are being tested.
We discussed our trade and economic relations. In 2017, bilateral trade grew by over 20 percent to reach $40 billion. Understandably, these statistics are a far cry from pre-crisis indicators. We would like to continue the 2017 trend. The Russian side believes that a regular session of the Mixed Commission on Economic Cooperation that has not been convened since 2013 could help facilitate this process. As a first step, we suggested studying the opportunity of organising meetings between its co-chairs, which have not been held since 2014. We realise that the new government of the Netherlands is now in the process of selecting the commission’s Dutch co-chairs. We hope that this will help resume the work of this important body as soon as that process ends.
As always, we praise the effective work of Dutch companies on the Russian market. They are successfully implementing their development strategies in Russia, while cooperating with their Russian partners. We will be happy to welcome a large Dutch delegation, as always, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
We also talked about cultural and humanitarian cooperation. We touched on a situation linked with Russian involvement in a project to renovate a museum at a former Nazi concentration camp in Sobibor, Poland. We confirmed our interest in obtaining support from the Netherlands, as a member of the museum’s International Steering Committee, for our application to join this organisation as a full member under an invitation we received several years ago.
We talked a lot about the international agenda, especially in light of the fact that the Netherlands is a non-permanent UN Security Council member this year.
We also talked about Syria, of course, and the immediate goals in the Middle East. We would like this dialogue to be regular, so that we can discuss all the crises in our common region and beyond in a business-like spirit to find a peaceful solution that prioritises the interests of those nations in difficult situations, without foreign influences trying to force formulas on them that run counter their interests.
It is with this goal in mind that Russia wants to carry on its dialogue with the EU. We have common interests in the fight against terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking. We told our European colleagues, again, that we are ready for this work inasmuch as they are ready for it.
We have agreed to discuss these crises with our Dutch colleagues in greater detail at the regular and quite intensive consultations held between our ministries. We have decided to streamline them and to hold them according to a plan, so the preparations for such events are more efficient.
We talked at length about the ongoing investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down over Donbass in the summer of 2014. We enumerated the steps taken by the Russian Government and the Almaz-Antey Concern to share all the information at our disposal to ensure an objective and nonpartisan investigation. We also pointed out the need to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2166, which requests that the Security Council be regularly updated on relevant developments. We have agreed to carry on this dialogue with due respect for what our Dutch colleagues told us regarding the independence of the agency that is conducting the investigation. We respect independence, provided that it does not amount to disregard for the facts at the investigators’ disposal or any facts the investigation has not taken into account so far.
Overall, I believe these talks have been very instructive. We have not discussed everything, but I hope we will have an opportunity to carry on this dialogue.
Question: The probe into the Malaysian Boeing crash is a stumbling block in Russian-Dutch relations. Russia criticizes the Netherlands for the way the investigation is being conducted. The Netherlands is sensitive to criticism and, in turn, accuses Russia of trying to muddle the investigation and of inadequate cooperation. On the other hand, this is a subject for dialogue. It has probably been discussed in all bilateral contacts. Was the investigation discussed today? Has it improved mutual understanding?
Sergey Lavrov (responds after the Netherlands Foreign Minister Stef Blok): In my opening remarks, I already said that we discussed this matter and outlined the general parameters of how it was discussed. Given the keen interest of Dutch and Russian journalists and the mention of UN Security Council Resolution 2166, I would like to recall that we were one of the initiators of drafting and adopting that resolution, which required a thorough objective international investigation of the MN-17 tragedy and regular reports to the UN Security Council on the investigation progress. However, all we received from the Dutch Government was one letter of most general contents, without any specific facts. That was in the summer of 2015; the Security Council has received no information since. Contrary to the resolution, the UN Secretary-General has never reported on the progress, although required to do so. We have repeatedly expressed concern about the way the investigation was organised. Even while setting up the local investigation group, we had questions about the reasons for not inviting Malaysia. There was no answer. Malaysia was not invited to the group until six months after its creation. Well, it's good they finally did it. As we say, it's better late than never.
We have indeed provided assistance during technical investigation and continue doing so during the criminal investigation. We have responded to all inquiries of the Dutch prosecutor’s office without exception as part of legal assistance. We shared a considerable amount of information, including primary raw radar surveillance data at the time of the accident. These data clearly indicate from which side the missile could have flown and from which it could not. Still, our evidence and comments have not fully been taken into account by the Joint Investigation Team, and the materials we supplied have been studied superficially or selectively, or simply ignored.
I mentioned the radar surveillance data. Those could not have been faked or modified. They clearly showed no trace of a missile in the direction it was allegedly launched from, according to the investigation team. In response, which came after a very long period, we were told it was a different missile, and that two independent experts (who were not named), after reviewing our radar data, claimed the missile was not detected by the radar and could not be because it was moving too fast. The absurdity of this statement is obvious to any professional. Naturally, when we send scientifically verified objective monitoring data and the independent prosecutor conducting the investigation sends back this kind of anonymous refutations, we say we have questions – especially amid the never-ending accusations that we are trying to throw the investigation off track. At the same time, the Joint Investigation Team does not seem to have any questions, for example, to Ukraine and its contribution to the investigation. Although so far none of the Ukrainian air traffic controllers, who were on duty that day, have been interrogated. The investigators have not received Ukrainian radar data. And the fact that the Dutch authorities have formally stated that Ukraine’s reasons for not closing its airspace to flights – a question many people asked – were not the subject of the JIT investigation, is also puzzling.
I’m not saying this to call for any diplomatic moves in regard to Ukraine, which does not cooperate with the investigation, in response to the very first question at the news conference – I just mentioned it as a fact. Therefore, once again I would like to urge the investigators not to rule out any versions, and not to try to fit all available data into the version already proliferated by the media even before the investigation is completed. As my colleague said, we need to find the truth. This holds true not only for the Malaysian Boeing tragedy, but for all the issues we discussed today, primarily involving the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria or Salisbury.
Question: The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, said yesterday that there will be “understanding” in his country if the USA launches a strike on Syria. How do you assess the Dutch Government’s position?
Sergey Lavrov: It depends on what you mean by understanding. If it is about the need to do it simply to replace the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that is one thing. If it is an understanding that chemical weapons had after all been used, I would recommend waiting for the findings of the OPCW mission, which has left for Syria – not very promptly, without much enthusiasm under our pressure and that of the Syrian Government – and is due to arrive in Damascus tomorrow morning. We expect that it will go without delay to the city of Douma, where our experts, who have examined the place, found no evidence of the use of chemical weapons, chlorine or any other agents. Moreover, we have irrefutable evidence that this was another put-up job and that the special services of the state which is eager to be in the front ranks of the anti-Russia campaign have had a hand in it.
Question: How do you assess the level of Moscow-Washington contacts through the existing channels on defusing tensions in Syria in the light of the current developments? Is the full potential of these channels being used? How would you comment on the words of Mike Pompeo picked to be the next US Secretary of State to the effect that US soft policy towards Russia “is now over?”
Sergey Lavrov: As for channels, those that have remained (occasional conversations between the presidents and fairly regular contacts between defence agencies) they are being used in this format, in this framework. President Putin and President Trump recently spoke by telephone. We are always open to such contacts. They enable us to understand each other better. The militaries are also in contact. What has remained, what has not been frozen, is being used. Other channels, even those agreed upon, are sometimes not used because the Americans refuse to meet at the last moment without giving any reason. This was the case in February, when they refused, at the very last moment, to hold an agreed meeting on cybersecurity. This was the case most recently, when they refused to hold a meeting on cultural and humanitarian cooperation. No explanations are given us, so it is hard for me to say whether these channels will match the need. And the need is undoubtedly there considering the extremely alarming situation, which is building up above all over Syria and the region as a whole, and the threats coming from the three capitals of Western countries that are permanent UN Security Council members. God forbid that another adventure similar to what happened in Libya and Iraq should be launched. I hope no one will dare launch such an adventure now. And yet even minor upheavals may trigger new waves of migrants to Europe and lead to many other unwelcome consequences for us and our European neighbours. They may be welcomed only by those who are protected by the ocean and hope to sit it out in the process of continuing efforts to stir up the whole region in order to further their geopolitical projects there.
These are matters that need to be discussed, including between foreign ministries. I very much hope that when the US State Department puts itself in working order such contacts at the level of the top officials, their deputies and experts will continue. These, of course, should be contacts between diplomats, which means that diplomatic methods should be used, and not ultimatums and threats.
Question: You said that the “Skripal case” was discussed. The OPCW yesterday published a summary of the report on the incident. It says that the OPCW confirms London’s findings, but that the full information on the substance, including its name, is in the classified version, which has been sent to countries. Have you read it? And what is your comment?
Sergey Lavrov: It says that OPCW experts confirm London’s conclusions regarding the chemical composition of the substance. Such politicians as Boris Johnson again tried to distort the truth and claim that the OPCW statement supports all the British conclusions, including the “highly likely” expression. That is another of this politician’s antics, which everybody has got used to.
Let me stress that the OPCW has confirmed only the composition of the chemical substance. The classified part of the report gives a detailed, long chemical formula. It gives no literary names. It says merely that the substance is not on the list approved by the Chemical Weapons Convention and on which the member countries have to report. We are currently studying the report closely. There are some interesting points that suggest themselves after reading it. We will try to make them public as soon as possible when our experts and those from specialised agencies get through this fairly voluminous document.