Acting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, Moscow, May 10, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to once again welcome to Moscow my colleague, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany, Heiko Maas, who is on his first visit to our country as foreign minister. We are pleased to be able to renew our contacts at this level at this early stage of the new German government’s activity. The talks, which have already begun, will continue during the working breakfast, and have been quite productive so far.
We have substantively discussed the entire range of bilateral and international matters. As far as I understand, we share an interest in maintaining regular dialogue between Russia and Germany. We believe this is important, especially given the current situation in Europe and the world in general. For its part, Russia is willing to work together with Berlin on a wide range of issues of mutual interest relying on the solid foundation build over the years, which we would like to preserve.
We noted with satisfaction that there has been steady growth in trade since the beginning of 2017, and the dynamics of investment are improving. We see in this, among other things, the results of the Russian-German Working Group on Strategic Cooperation in the Economy and Finance. There are other mechanisms for bilateral practical cooperation, including the Russian-Bavarian Working Group on Promoting Economic Cooperation.
Energy is one of the most important components of our interaction. We note that the new German government continues to support the construction of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline as a commercial project that meets the interests of the European countries, contributing to the diversification of natural gas supply routes to Europe, mitigating transit risks and improving common European energy security.
We expressed mutual satisfaction with the way events are being held as part of the Year of Regional and Municipal Partnerships, which will end in Germany in September. We agreed on how to best celebrate this event. We welcomed the interest shown by municipalities of our respective countries during the current Year in establishing partnership relations. Overall, we consider it important to keep up the momentum to further expand interregional exchanges, which is especially important in order to maintain mutual trust, to develop people-to-people contacts, and to strengthen the historically close ties between our peoples.
After the Year of Regional and Municipal Partnerships, we agreed to discuss another initiative and think about holding a cross-year of scientific and educational partnerships. I think this will be useful for promoting bilateral relations.
We are also interested in developing contacts between civil society organisations. In this regard, we believe the Petersburg Dialogue forum and the Potsdam Meetings dialogue platform are particularly important.
We agreed to promote cultural ties. Next year, we plan to hold the Russian Seasons festival in Germany, which took place in Japan in 2017, and is being held in Italy this year. I’m confident that German public will enjoy it.
With regard to foreign policy, we noted that the working mechanisms of the Interdepartmental High-Level Working Group on Security Policy became more active in late 2017. The meetings of the working subgroups held last year made it possible to prepare a plenary meeting of this Working Group, which will take place this year.
We touched upon the state of relations between Russia and the European Union. Russia has an interest in seeing a strong European Union that can act as a constructive and predictable partner and pursue a foreign policy based on European interests. We also touched upon the state of affairs in Russia-NATO relations. You are aware of our position and our assessment of NATO actions, which violate the previously agreed principle of equal and indivisible security whereby none of the Euro-Atlantic countries should improve their security at the expense of the security of others.
As for specific regional topics, we focused particularly on the situation following US announcing its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme. We believe it’s important for all the other participants of this plan to be able to quickly assess the situation, hold the necessary consultations and develop steps that would preserve this crucial document for regional stability and maintain the non-proliferation regime for weapons of mass destruction. We agreed to hold corresponding meetings with our German colleagues.
Just like Germany, we stand for full implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures. Even if we have certain differences with regard to the implementation of this package, we focused on the need to at least fulfill the agreement reached by the leaders of Russia, Germany, Ukraine and France in Berlin in October 2016 regarding the Steinmeier Formula, which needs to be set down on paper. This concerns the special status of Donbass, the holding of elections and disengaging forces and materiel at specific sectors of the contact line, in particular, in Stanitsa Luganskaya.
We drew attention to the fact that the so-called law on the reintegration of Donbass, which was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada and signed by Ukrainian President Poroshenko without any mention of or any connection to the Minsk Agreements, is fraught with very dangerous consequences.
We also took a look at the situation with the Syrian settlement process. Here our positions align on the inviolability of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which says that it is up to the Syrians themselves, all ethnic and religious groups, to agree upon their country’s future with the assistance of the international community under the aegis of the UN. We drew attention to the fact that the missile strikes, carried out by the United States, Britain and France against Syria under an invented pretext and prior to an inspection by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of the scene of the alleged chemical attack, are absolutely illegitimate. Without doubt, those strikes dealt a heavy blow to efforts to revitalise the political process. Nevertheless, the Russian side will push for the soonest possible resumption of the Geneva talks on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the decisions of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. On top of everything else, this stipulates unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. We agreed to conduct closer consultations on the issue within the work of the Interdepartmental High-Level Working Group on Security Policy.
This is the agenda that we have managed to cover today. I think that this is a useful start in our personal contacts. We will try to make them regular. I hope that our teams will also closely interact with each other on all these and other matters of mutual concern.
Question: After the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme, Tehran announced that the deal will remain in force if its goals can be achieved through cooperation with other participants. Did you talk about that? Is such cooperation already being worked on? What steps can be taken to protect Iran from US sanctions and prevent Tehran’s withdrawal from this agreement?
Sergey Lavrov: We are seriously concerned about the decision by the US President’s Administration to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in what is a major violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 which approved that plan and made it part of international law.
We appreciate the Iranian government’s balanced reaction to this decision because it is necessary to assess all the consequences of Washington’s move. Haste would have certainly been counterproductive here. Russia, Germany, France, Britain, China and Iran are yet to conduct such an assessment. We are already working on it. Quite soon, we will compare opinions.
I would single out several points worth noting. You asked what steps can be taken to protect Iran from American sanctions. This is perhaps a slightly oversimplified approach because the point at issue here is more than just not resuming the anti-Iranian sanctions (as regards unilateral US sanctions, we can do nothing about that). The point is that this may not concern the lifting of the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. The lifting of the sanctions is not subject to revision. Unilateral American sanctions against Iran, if Washington tries again to apply this portion of restrictions extraterritorially, will, of course, undermine in the most serious manner the general situation in the region and in relations between the US and Europe, the US and Russia. We will assess this, including from the point of view of WTO norms and principles. Let me repeat, however, that this deal, as they call it, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is not just about lifting the sanctions, but also about the need to stabilise the region and, most importantly, to strengthen the WMD non-proliferation regime. The harm that is being caused to these achievements is yet to be fully assessed, but it is very substantial.
Question: What does Russia think about the escalation between Iran and Israel? Can this be linked with the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
Sergey Lavrov: We believe that this trend is rather alarming. It is our opinion that all issues need to be resolved through dialogue. In our contacts with Iranian and Israeli leaders, including at the May 9 meeting between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, we have repeatedly noted the need for both sides to avoid any actions that would provoke the other.
Iran and Israel assure us that they have no such intentions, but, as you know, incidents, nevertheless, happen. It is particularly alarming that they occur despite the fact that all of us have underscored our commitment to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. Russian military experts are now analysing the incident on Syria’s Golan Heights that took place in the early hours of May 10 in great detail. They observed the incident. I believe that the relevant conclusions will be made public.
Question (retranslated from German, addressed to Heiko Maas): Today, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, President of France Emmanuel Macron and President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko will meet in Germany to discuss the conflict in Ukraine without Russia’s involvement. Is this Berlin admitting that Russia does not have such significant sway with the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Heiko Maas): Our colleague has mentioned a proposal to meet at the level of foreign ministers in the Normandy format. We are ready to examine this proposal. Today, we have even discussed specific matters to be addressed in this hypothetical meeting. Our German colleagues have their own ideas. We have said that, if they meet, the ministers must at the very least fulfill the instructions issued by the three presidents and the chancellor in Berlin 18 months ago. They must secure an agreement to disengage forces and materiel in Stanitsa Luganskaya. Today, the Ukrainian side is hampering this process, contrary to the OSCE’s repeated confirmations that it is possible to accomplish this task and to formalise the so-called Steinmeier Formula on vesting Donbass with a special status and on enacting the law on the “special status” in the context of holding elections. It appears that the ministers will be unable to report to their leaders that they are conscientiously performing their functions, unless they achieve this minimal goal.
Question: Could you comment on the allegation voiced by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas that Russian foreign policy is increasingly hostile? Did you feel during today’s talks that German foreign policy has become tougher towards Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I did not feel any hostility during today’s meeting and did not hear any accusations of Russia’s hostile actions in the international arena. We did not discuss it today. What we discussed was practical issues and we tried to focus on facts, not on emotional generalisations based on personal perceptions of what’s going on. We agreed, and this has been said a number of times, to rely on facts in our further contacts. I will give some examples because I did not talk about them in the introductory remarks whereas my colleague was referring to them now.
We explained down to the minutest detail that we consider the absence of any consistent response from the UK on the so-called Skripal affair as unproductive, at least regarding access to Russian citizen Yulia Skripal. This is an objective fact, and we are not out of bounds demanding that British leaders allow us to exercise our right. Mr Maas said that the British had briefed the German side in detail on the events in Salisbury, and it all looked convincing. We asked him to share this information since the British will not give us anything, since we want to operate on the basis of facts and not comments about how we should trust those who claim it is “highly likely” that Russia is to blame. I hope that now London will show more leeway on this issue and be more fact-based.
Talking about facts, I completely agree with what has been said about how the OPCW must not be compromised. We were worried when we found out that London had invited OPCW experts with the only purpose of confirming that the substance sampled for tests was exactly the one identified by the British. This does not correspond to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is also a fact that the British were not entirely appropriate in their treatment of the OPCW.
We spoke today about the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria on April 7. We are confident that German experts, even though Germany did not attend the briefing by our delegation at the OPCW headquarters with witnesses of the April 7 incident in Douma, have access to the briefing materials (they were widely distributed). They contain facts. We will be ready to speak in detail on the basis of these facts and those that our partners can offer us.
My colleague just referred to a hacking attack, including on the German Foreign Ministry. In our talks it was noted that there are grounds, or a high probability that a group of hackers called Snake may be implicated in those attacks, a group whose roots allegedly trace back to Russian soil. This is the first time I have heard of it. But we confirmed that we are ready to discuss any concerns that emerge in this or other areas. However, we have not been contacted by the German side regarding that particular case in the framework of a legal assistance request.
We also expressed our regret that special bilateral consultations on cyber security scheduled for last March were cancelled by the German side without explanation, as I understand, due precisely to that hacking attack. But under those conditions there was even more reason to meet.
We would like to have frank discussions regardless of any problems or differences, in the same spirit as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and I spoke today.
Question: Are there any specific plans to protect foreign firms, including German and Russian ones, against US sanctions on Iran?
Sergey Lavrov: There’s a UN Security Council decision with regard to unlawful unilateral sanctions, which the United States had lifted. We cannot do anything to reverse this process. Once Washington decides on something, it sees it to completion. That’s clear now. President Trump said so. However, we will, first, ensure that this does not destroy the JCPOA. This is our common goal, and we confirmed it today. Second, we must preclude an extraterritorial impact on other partners of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this regard, there are WTO rules, and out-of-court reconciliation measures may also apply. As I understand it, this is precisely why our European partners want to join the Americans in this out-of-court arrangement. They think they may drive some kind of a bargain. I’m not sure if this will work out. I just want to note that this applies not only to Germany, France and Britain, but all other parties to the agreement as well. Probably, it would be incorrect if one, two or three members of this group push for an exemption for themselves and ignore the fact that other countries participated in the deal as well. Moreover, not only the P5+1, but most other countries in the world trade with Iran. It would be nice to think about them, too.
Question: When will the Normandy format meeting take place?
Sergey Lavrov: We supported this initiative and spoke in favour of doing our best in preparing this meeting. We need to negotiate the time of the meeting. I hope that it will not be put off for too long, but we need to come up with dates that everyone is comfortable with. This proposal was submitted just a couple of days ago. We must agree on a date and time that is convenient for the four ministers.
Question: You have held the post of foreign minister for 14 years now and have seen many German foreign ministers. After today's talks, did you get the impression that there is continuity in Germany's policy towards Russia? Will you be able to continue to maintain with Mr Maas the same level of good cooperation you had with Mr Gabriel?
Sergey Lavrov: We both spoke in favour of continuity. We have never seen eye to eye on everything. There’s an entire range of major issues of international politics on which our responses are divergent. We did not hide this today, either. Just like with Mr Gabriel and Mr Steinmeier, we are focused (as I understand, this is a shared approach) on candidly discussing all these issues and taking every opportunity to bridge the gaps in our positions wherever possible.
Question: There are doubts in Ukraine about the Nord Stream-2 project. Is Russia prepared to provide guarantees that Ukraine will remain an important transit state?
Sergey Lavrov: President Putin, senior officials of the Ministry of Energy of Russia and Gazprom have already stated that we do not mind keeping a certain amount of transit through Ukraine. Most importantly, it should be economically justified rather than politically imposed. We are ready for such consultations with Ukraine. We shared this with our German colleagues today.
There’s no doubt that Nord Stream-2 is a necessity. The project makes perfect economic sense and is lucrative for Europe. Suffice it to say that the length of the pipeline will be half the length of the pipeline that goes to Germany via Ukraine now, and transit costs will be about 33 percent lower than the current ones. So, the benefits for the European consumers are absolutely clear.