Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at Bolshaya Igra (Great Game) talk show on Channel One, Moscow, September 4, 2018
Question: Today we have a special guest in our studio, one of the main participants in the “great game”, someone the future of the world really depends on in many ways: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We are happy to welcome you in the Great Game studio.
Sergey Lavrov: Thanks for inviting me.
Question: There was one episode all our viewers certainly remember, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked you to press the reset button, which actually said “overload.” What happened? Was that really a mistake? Did they know what would happen in Russian-American relations? Or was it a so-called Freudian slip, and they did have some idea what was about to begin? What is happening with diplomacy with regard to the US now?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it was a mistake. In English, the word was written correctly – reset, but in Russian, two letters were missing, turning the Russian word for “reset” into “overload.” When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed me that button on camera, I immediately noticed the error and told her, and they immediately asked, even begged me to give it back, so that they could write the Russian word correctly. But our diplomatic intuition certainly worked, and we simply could not dismiss such an event as if it never happened, so now that button is in our foreign policy museum at the Foreign Ministry. But I think that was a sincere proposal on their part. US President Barack Obama’s administration said from the start they wanted to build new relations with Russia, hence the term “reset.”
Our first contacts with Ms Clinton were very specific and substantive. The agenda was largely the same anyway – the Middle East, and Syria a short while later. That agenda dominated for some time before Ms Clinton's resignation, along with relations within the Russia-NATO Council and strategic stability problems.
The agreement on further limitation of strategic offensive weapons (the so-called START3) was certainly an achievement of that period, signed by the presidents of Russia and the United States. Now it is one of the few fundamental documents that underlie our relations with the US alongside the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF). Both treaties are the subject of regular meetings and monitoring of their implementation. There are problems with both documents. We are ready to discuss the concerns that the US side has. Only we would kindly ask them to specify what they mean by accusing us of violating the INF. We in turn have very specific concerns about the same treaty regarding the installation of systems in Europe (in Romania and in Poland soon) that can launch Tomahawks (impact cruise missiles) as well as interceptor missiles. There are also questions about the Americans’ compliance with certain conditions of the START. But, I would like to stress once again that it is much better to have such a document than not to have one. At least, there is a mechanism – the Bilateral Consultative Commission, which regularly meets to discuss questions that each of the parties would like to clarify.
Having said that, I went a little deeper into the history of the first achievements of the reset/overload, but that quickly transformed into something else, long before Ukraine, long before we were blamed for the Syrian crisis. From 2011, the Obama Administration began imposing sanctions against us. I think they have already introduced over 100 series of various sanctions against us. The Donald Trump administration took over from there: in the last couple of months alone, they passed eight decisions on new sanctions against Russia. What is it if not a reset/overload? I cannot be the judge. But the first blunder the Obama administration made on an issue that I would not have even put on the big policy agenda: Edward Snowden.
When he asked us for asylum, the Americans called us at all official levels (the president, the foreign minister, the FBI) and urged us to extradite Snowden. We could not do that because the man did not have any documents (his passport was annulled while he was en route from Hong Kong to Moscow, where he was going to change flights and travel to Latin America, which promised him shelter). But after we refused to extradite a person under threat of the death penalty in America, US President Barack Obama cancelled his visit to Moscow in 2012 and limited himself to attending the G20 summit in St Petersburg.
Things quickly went south from there – the Magnitsky Act, then other sanctions. In 2014, the people of Crimea expressed their free will to reunite with the Russian Federation, and you know that a series of sanctions followed. I apologise for giving such a broad answer instead of saying simply if the “overload” button offered to me was a Freudian slip or a premeditated plan. It seems to me that the intentions were sincere, but they shattered against the need to talk and cooperate with us on an equal footing. And when the Americans realised they did not actually want an equal relationship with us, preferring to impose their will and arrangements, then problems began and gradually accumulated, so now we have our hands full with that heap of problems.
With your permission, I would like to finish my introductory remarks with a commentary on your programme slogan: Big Game: Russia and the US shape the future of the world. That is not quite true.
Russia and the United States do participate in the processes on which the future of the world depends. We try to do so not only through dialogue with the US (although I recognise its great importance in the world). But the future of the world cannot be shaped without China, India, Africa, Latin America and Europe. We are open to discussion about the future of the world with all the key international players. As for the US, judging by their moves, they prefer to shape the future of the world alone by dictating to others and making everyone act as Washington sees fit. This is not a new quality of the Americans. Yesterday I watched the first issue of your talk show, where Dimitry Simes and Vyacheslav Nikonov mentioned that to some extent all US administrations believe that America is on top of world affairs, and its mission is to spread democracy, joy and prosperity. However, in recent years (not only Donald Trump, but also the Obama administration) they began to let it slip, so it probably was a Freudian slip after all. When Obama said the US is an exceptional nation, when Trump said America first and they will act the way the American people need them to, it just became naked truth – the US foreign policy doctrine in a few words.
Question: You worked with six US Secretaries of State and, perhaps, you found it more pleasant to work with some and less pleasant with others. Prior to this, you were Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN in New York. You have a vast diplomatic experience. You faced a challenging period when you were in New York in the late 1990s during the wars in the Balkans and the events in Serbia. These were surely not easy times, were they?
I remember your speeches at the UN, often, if I may put it this way, with constructive sarcasm about US positions. Now, I have a feeling, maybe it’s inaccurate, that this is a completely different stage in Russia-US relations, when it's not about sarcasm, but some global crisis of total distrust. Our countries don’t trust each other. Diplomacy has taken a place on the back burner. Both sides are forced to rely on unilateral measures and blame one another. Is this situation dangerous? Do you think that diplomacy has temporarily receded into the background, or are we at a stage in Russia-US relations that could lead to an actual confrontation, not excluding an unnecessary but possible escalation?
Sergey Lavrov: I think diplomacy is still alive. It is going through hard times, because, in general , when the case in point is about important international political and economic matters, the United States understands diplomacy and realises it very specifically. As a rule, they put forward their position in the form of a demand and do not normally engage in a diplomatic dialogue with anyone. Those who disagree get sanctions as an answer. Those who are not willing to do as they are told have their markets shut down with higher tariffs or other measures. Americans are notorious for their unilateral actions.
I would not, although it is, perhaps, immodest, say that in our foreign policy we are not trying to reciprocate to unilateral instincts of the United States. If we take an objective look, for example, at Syria or Ukraine, we always tried to come up with multilateral formats.
With regard to economic integration, the United States abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It remains unknown what will happen to the Transatlantic Partnership, because the Trump administration prefers not to talk with the EU, but with its individual member countries. The US says that the WTO is now outdated and no longer needed, as it was created in order to plunder America.
Also, it is worth mentioning the unilateral withdrawal from a number of international agreements, such as the Iranian nuclear programme, UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council. They took the course on breaking up the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in order to make the OPCW Secretariat, which is called technical, an obedient anti-Syrian as well as anti-Russian tool. These are unilateral actions.
In the sphere of economic matters of interaction with the outside world, we are promoting Eurasian integration through the Eurasian Economic Union, which we created with our closest allies and partners and in close coordination with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. We have suggested that ASEAN member countries join these processes. We are not doing it in the form of ultimatums, where we tell our prospective partners that such are the rules and whoever agrees with them may join us. No, we take a look at real-life situations and seek such forms of interaction in the economy, investment, trade in goods and services and matters regulating the labour and capital movement, which are acceptable as well as comfortable for everyone whom we would like to see next to us in these processes. This is how we go about what President Putin called the idea of Great Eurasian Partnership.
Question: This is very interesting and, in many ways, convincing (including for the Americans). You know America well. At this point, they do not really want to listen to Russia’s analysis of the situation. Do they want to know what represents the threat for America? Has the real danger of confrontation between Russia and the United States increased or is it just difficult for us to work together?
Sergey Lavrov: If we take heated political passions and rhetoric which goes beyond what was recently considered diplomatic proprieties, then confrontation and tension are on the rise. The United States initiated NATO's advancement to our borders not just by admitting new countries from among our neighbours to the Alliance, but by deploying military infrastructure on our borders. The United States, Great Britain, Canada, Germany and France are deploying their battalions and tactical groups in the Baltics and other countries that border directly on the former Soviet Union. They are promoting initiatives to admit former Soviet republics, primarily Ukraine and Georgia, to NATO. In 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, it was loudly announced that Ukraine and Georgia will be NATO members. They were not issued a formal invitation, which is mandatory for starting talks on the practical accession to NATO, but the political message was clear − Ukraine and Georgia will join NATO eventually. A few months later, Mikhail Saakashvili thought that he can do anything and attacked his fellow citizens − peacekeepers in South Ossetia. You know what happened next.
The same can be said about Ukraine, because the never-ending NATO statements that Ukraine will join NATO have gone to the head of the war party in Kiev, including President Poroshenko. These people are now building up arms on the contact line in Donbass. More recently, we learned that the Americans are sending ammunition and weapons (not just light weapons) there. There are already quite a large number of instructors from the US, Canada and other Western countries. As you may recall, US instructors were working on the Georgian side of South Ossetia, the other side of the line of contact.
Such step-by-step actions increase the risk of a military confrontation, which will be absolutely unacceptable for Russia, which our American partners have been repeatedly warned about.
However, if we take Syria, the mechanism for preventing undesirable incidents is working. Our military remain in constant daily contact. When they need to clarify things, the Americans turn to us, and we provide clarifications. When we need to let them know about the riskiness of particular actions that they are undertaking on the territory where they are staying illegally, without the invitation of the Syrian Government, we go ahead and do so.
Speaking about diplomacy and unilateral actions, it makes sense to take a conceptual and applied look at the currently used terminology. Up until recently, we all urged each other to address matters in accordance with international law. Now, if you look at what our Western partners are saying, they are using this term less and less often. Still, they demand that Russia respects the rule-based world order. It may look like there’s no difference, but it is not accidental that this terminology is making it to the international diplomacy sphere. What is a rule-based order? I cited examples when the rules established by the UN Security Council, such as the approval of the Iranian nuclear deal, have been violated, because the United States has changed its rules.
For example, is the WTO a rule? Yes, it is. Did the United States put its signature under this rule? Yes, it did. However, they now have a different rule that the WTO is a harmful organisation. There are many other examples.
Or, say, Crimea where the referendum is at odds with the rule-based world order. There’s no need for a referendum in Kosovo, because there’s another rule: Kosovo is an exception as our American colleagues insist. Without any referendum, they declared themselves independent, and the Americans recognised them.
Question: Winston Churchill once said that diplomacy is the art of telling plain truths without giving offence. I have a feeling that diplomacy has gone through an inversion. They say that “fake news” is a lie in the most offensive form. Are there any rules at all in this “big game”?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already told you about the way the very concept of rules is interpreted by the United States and more. Great Britain also had a chance to shine in the field of rewriting international law and, along with the Americans, was the leader in very unseemly actions in the OPCW as it amended, by a minority of votes, the Convention which was adopted unanimously. This story continues to unfold, and we can talk about it in more detail some day.
The dollar is the most striking example. Is the international monetary and financial system a rule? The rule with which everyone agreed and has for decades lived with hoping that the United States will remain religiously committed to its duties as the issuer of the world's main reserve currency. What is happening with the dollar now? Washington is manipulating it at its will. If it wants to punish someone, it immediately stops servicing banking operations in dollars. By doing so, they are punishing not just one country, but all other countries that have relations with it in one way or another. What kind of rule is that?
Question: Speaking of possible dangers, it appears that Syria is the most acute source of danger today. As far as I understand, Washington analyses Syrian developments in line with two aspects. First, Russia has almost won. Second, the United States cannot allow this to happen out of geopolitical considerations and because it perceives Bashar al-Assad as a bloody dictator. According to Washington, if he wins, apart from being a victory for Russia, this will amount to a victory for Iran as well. The United States sees Iran’s victory as something unacceptable. You know the position of Saudi Arabia and other US allies better than I do. The United States believes that it must do everything possible within the framework of peace to prevent Russia from achieving victory, without going to war. Of course, this is all an exaggeration. I believe Russia would like to see the war come to an end with a victory for the Syrian Government and the international coalition supporting it. Is it possible to combine these positions? How can this be accomplished?
Sergey Lavrov: In principle, it is very easy to combine them. We have UN Security Council Resolution 2254. By the way, Russia and the United States drafted this resolution at the ministerial level, in cooperation with other ministers from five permanent UN Security Council members and from regional countries, including the Persian Gulf states. This resolution very clearly states the need to address Syria’s problems on the basis of eradicating the terrorist threat there, resolving humanitarian problems and restoring the country to a level that would allow it to live in peace and in line with the free expression of the Syrian people’s will. The resolution states the need for drafting a new constitution and holding a general election based on it that will involve all Syrians. The document also states that only the people of Syria can decide their own destiny. This is exactly what we want. Nothing else binds us. There are no secrets or covert agreements. I cannot speak for all others working in Syria. I am only speaking for the Russian Federation.
If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse. None of the countries that are now advocating efforts to save lives and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states did anything to prevent the terrorists from seizing Damascus, which would then have become the caliphate’s capital. That was precisely the goal pursued by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. When we helped the legitimate Government of Syria to stave off the terrorist threat, to liberate most of the country, including such important cities as Aleppo, Palmyra and Homs, then it became clear that the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic was winning the war while ISIS was reduced to a small number of separate units.
Today, Jabhat al-Nusra is the biggest threat in Syria. This organisation continues to change its appearance and name and to take over less aggressive and extremist groups. Nevertheless, this group is listed as a terrorist organisation in UN special decisions.
We are working in Syria just like Iran, the so-called Shia militias at the direct invitation of the legitimate Government of Syria, a legitimate UN member state.
Question: Aren’t you worried that they will use this approach to organise a “Pyrrhic victory” for Russia in Syria, and that they will try to turn this conflict into a war like the one waged by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan?
In his September 4 tweet, US President Donald Trump warned Russia against any resolute actions in Idlib where the main terrorist forces are deployed. Another apparently provocative report indicated that the Russian Aerospace Force was already bombing Idlib despite this “red line” drawn by the United States. Aren’t we approaching a further divide with dangerous implications?
Sergey Lavrov: I have only mentioned what we are doing in Syria. I would like to add that the other groups, except the Iranian units and pro-Iranian groups I mentioned, are there illegally. This violates Syria’s territorial integrity. At the same time, this is a reality; it is understandable. Considering what we talked about a few minutes ago, including the need to conduct a multilateral search for ways to resolve a specific conflict, rather than through unilateral actions, Russia, Iran and Turkey initiated the “Astana format.” As you know, these three countries do not always have identical goals. We were united by a desire to establish peace to Syria. We also established a channel for communicating with the US military with these considerations. This communications channel which is officially called “a channel to avoid dangerous incidents and unintended collisions” is still in use.
It was the Russian Federation that suggested the concept of de-escalation zones together with its “Astana format” partners. These zones stipulate a ceasefire with one exception: there should be no mercy for terrorists there. Our partners, including our US partners, assured us that they would help separate the so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists. This also happened in southern Syria where Russia, the United States and Jordan established a de-escalation zone near Deir ez-Zor with a multilateral, rather than a unilateral, approach. At this point, the de-escalation zones have basically been suspended because there are no longer any terrorists there and because the civilian population is resuming a normal life. Humanitarian relief aid is being delivered, and we are establishing basic utilities. The only de-escalation zone remains in Idlib where several dozen of thousands of extremists, primarily those headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, congregated. As I said, an obligation to remove the moderate opposition’s paramilitary units from terrorist-controlled territories, so the terrorists could receive well-deserved justice, was an inalienable element of the agreements to establish de-escalation zones.
In his tweet, US President Donald Trump is warning us that it is necessary to avoid humanitarian disasters and to think about the civilians. This is the right approach. When the Russian Aerospace Force resolved the problems in Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta (where a de-escalation zone was also located), we always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.
When the US-established coalition was storming the ISIS-held Raqqa, and earlier Mosul in Iraq, it did not establish any humanitarian corridors and did not try to sign a local ceasefire agreement with anyone to avoid unnecessary casualties. They simply leveled everything there. After that, it was impossible to bury the dead bodies, mostly civilians, in Raqqa, and no mines were defused for months on end. People are starting to return little by little only now, almost a year later. We should not repeat these mistakes, including those of the Obama administration whose representatives pledged to disengage the moderate opposition and Jabhat al-Nusra, signed an agreement to this effect but failed to do anything. We are now seeing the same covert desire, if I understand the situation correctly, to withdraw Jabhat al-Nusra from the line of fire.
We have seen enough of those “Pyrrhic victories.” We saw what the US and NATO “victory” meant in Iraq, and we have seen the NATO “victory” in Libya. This is mostly why we are confident that even these victories are absolutely counter-productive and destructive. We support the legitimate government of Syria in an effort to eradicate once and for all the terrorist hotbed that had flared up after the beginning of the adventurist Iraqi undertaking. The terrorist wave had reached an all-time high after the destruction of Libya whose people are so far unable to rebuild their country.
Question: What about Iran? As you know, for US President Donald Trump and his administration this is one of the few cases where they agree on an urgent foreign policy issue. Iran has become a priority both for the White House and the entire administration. A negative attitude towards Iran dominates. In the past, Washington had a view that I think has now weakened, that it was necessary to agree with Russia on Iran somehow. It was believed that if no additional sanctions were imposed on Russia and if opportunities for cooperation with Russia were revealed and announced in public, Russia could become at least America’s situation partner on Iran, if not an ally. Do you think this is theoretically possible? After all, this is a potential area for Washington-Moscow cooperation that could really produce an impression on US politicians.
Sergey Lavrov: Essentially, these are things that we do not trade in. As I said, the ultimate goals in Syria for Russia, Iran and Turkey don’t always coincide. Yet, all of us want to put an end to this war and create conditions that will allow the Syrians to decide their own destiny without outside interference, without any attempts to impose on them some government arrangement. The United States has an adamant stance on Iran: it accuses Tehran of many transgressions and demands that it withdraw from all countries except its own and renounces any attempts to exert political influence on its neighbours and other countries of the region. I consider this approach unprofessional and unrealistic. It cannot prevail. It is essential to realise that a state with a thousand years of tradition and over 75 million people cannot be locked within its borders. It will always have its own interests. The fact that these interests should be lawful is another matter. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have their own interests. Qatar, which occupies just a small dot on the map, has its interests as well and has serious influence on many processes, including those in Africa where it is acting as a mediator in settling many conflicts. The main point is to prevent all these interests, that we are bound to accept, from triggering conflict. They should be achieved through a search for a balance between the various concerns, motives and ambitions.
This is why we have long been suggesting, for a number of years, convening a conference on security in the Persian Gulf that would be attended by the region’s Arab countries, Iran, the Arab League, the Islamic Cooperation Organisation, the five permanent UN Security Council members, and the EU. So far this proposal has been rejected out of hand: “No, Iran is absolute evil, a breeding ground for terrorism!”
As for terrorism, about a year ago some veterans of US intelligence services and other secret services sent an open letter to the US administration on the dry statistics: I believe out of 14 organisations recognized as terrorist in the US only one was Shiite.
Question: Iran has been under tough US sanctions for many decades. Now Russia is being subjected to tougher sanctions: there have been 57 official rounds of sanctions in the past four years alone. Our position is clear: there is no doubt that Russia will endure them. Is Russia ready for a tough response? These sanctions are becoming increasingly far reaching and are affecting more sensitive areas of our life – the economy, finances and the energy sector. Can Russia take tough steps that can at least define, if not establish a limit to its tolerance?
Sergey Lavrov: I think President of Russia Vladimir Putin already determined the limit of Russia’s tolerance in diplomatic terms when he talked with our Western partners, primarily from the US, about the reckless policy that some of them are pursuing in the post-Soviet space. Our Western colleagues supported what could only be described as the anti-state coup in Ukraine in February 2014 and then quietly fell into the background although they guaranteed the agreement between the opposition and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which existed for just a day. When we asked the US, Germany, and France that were the guarantors what was going on and why they wouldn’t call to order the opposition that they nurtured and persuaded to sign the agreement with Yanukovych, they shamefully maintained a low profile.
In a couple of days the new “Maidan authorities,” in part, Dmitry Yarosh, the then militant leader of the Right Sector, declared officially that there was no room for Russians in Crimea because they would never respect Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, never speak Ukrainian or respect Ukrainian culture. Therefore, Russians must be eliminated from Crimea. This was in late February, a week after the new authorities again tried to eliminate the Russian language in Ukraine, at least as a language of communication in the areas with Russian speakers. Then what happened? The governors or heads of administrations in eastern Ukraine said: “Okay, you have your Maidan there, your coup, but leave us alone. We will now at least try to understand what is going on and decide what to do next.” And they were called terrorists. Who attacked Kiev and the rest of Ukraine? Was it Donetsk and Lugansk? No. They elected their own administrations because the old ones decided to join Maidan and left. They were attacked by those in Kiev who had seized power as a result of the illegal coup. Remember Yarosh? “Friendship trains,” an attempt to occupy the Crimean Supreme Council building, and you know the rest. When our Western partners blame us for this, I believe they are acting dishonestly because it is their fault. They had to work very hard to compel the opposition and persuade us to convince Ukraine’s former President Yanukovych to sign the agreement of February 21, 2014. They also signed it as guarantors and said the next morning: “Yanukovych ran off to Kharkov. We’re sorry.” This is not how business should be done. Taking it out on us and subjecting us to sanctions just because plans fell through or they planned this scenario in advance is not exactly decent. This behaviour is not acceptable in a civilised world.
As for the question about our response we are already responding, primarily targeting those that are engaged in Russophobic rhetoric and Russophobic actions. As for tougher actions, I understand the anger of a normal person who is anxious to express indignation against the injustice that is being perpetrated. Great Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once said: “Ten years of talks are better than one day of war.” He was right. At any rate, this is what I think. So, looking at what is happening or rather not happening, we continue to insist on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. We will demand that those who orchestrate Kiev’s actions should make them fulfill them. Regrettably, those who rule the current authorities in Ukraine were not signatories of the Minsk agreements. Nor was the US, whom we are talking about now.
Question: Mr Lavrov, the situation in Ukraine is getting worse. President Vladimir Putin released a very strong statement, and you also made a statement after the heinous terrorist attack in Donetsk that killed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko. You said that the Minsk process must continue, but is it active after what happened? Should we consider the process, that in fact has been stalled for several years and is not going anywhere, completely lacking in more options? Ukraine did not fulfil a single provision of the Minsk Agreements.
Russian politicians have been heard making very harsh statements. The Communist Party claims it is necessary to recognise the DPR and LPR. Are we entering a new stage of relations with Ukraine? And, again, is there a risk of clashing in a “big game”?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me start by saying where we are at, whether the process is dead or not quite, hopeless or showing signs of life. The process is based on the Minsk Agreements, a document that was approved within 17 hours in February 2015 by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, France and the Chancellor of Germany, and which was approved by a UN Security Council resolution word for word, without any omissions, in full. The document is very clear. To make progress in the obligations undertaken by the Ukrainian officials, on the one hand, and Donetsk and Lugansk people’s self-proclaimed republics, on the other hand, we used the Normandy format in which the four countries, Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine, were represented by experts, ministers, foreign policy leaders and their assistants. The logic of this format was mainly that France and Germany really wanted to please the Ukrainian leadership, who believed that it was beneath them to sit down at the same table with the self-defence forces. But it was the self-defence forces that signed the Minsk document while the former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma signed it on behalf of the Ukrainian leadership. The Minsk document established a Contact Group for the current leaders of Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk to meet directly in the presence of Russia and the OSCE.
This is the only format that can bring results because talking directly is the only way we can hope to find some steps, even if they require a compromise, but the steps that lead to the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements.
We are not abandoning the Normandy format, but right now it would be simply inappropriate and insulting to convene a meeting in this format, especially because neither Berlin nor Paris expressed their condemnation of this political murder in Donetsk. On a wider scale, in the circumstances when neither Berlin nor Paris can influence Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has been neglecting his responsibilities for yet another year. The only party that can influence Ukraine is the United States. The United Nations appointed a UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine, Neal Walker. We are maintaining contact with him through Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov. They met several times and spoke over the phone. The United States realised – at least, Neal Walker did – that all the issues can be resolved very easily by simply bringing in 30,000 to 40,000 troops under the UN flag and by taking control over the entire territory, including the border with Russia, and establishing a civilian administration (some 500 people) that will supervise the affairs in these territory, including preparations for the elections. Then it will supervise the elections and present the results to the Kiev officials on a silver platter. The Minsk Agreements also mention the elections as well as amnesty for everybody who participated in these events, the importance of restoring economic relations (Donbass has been subject to an economic blockade for several years), the importance of not only consulting but reaching agreement between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk on the format of the elections. It is also said that Donetsk and Lugansk must be granted a special status formalising the right of these people to speak Russian, the right to approve candidates for prosecutors and judges, to have a people’s militia, etc. But Neal Walker said that they will simply occupy the area and the occupation administration will then decide. No status or amnesty will be necessary. They will just put anyone they want in prison.
If Germany and France are committed to the Minsk Agreements, which they continue to claim, they should have demonstrated more independence and made sure that President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko honoured the terms that he had signed on to looking into the eyes of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and which were approved by the UN Security Council.
Question: If, as Vyacheslav said, the Minsk process does not work and there are no grounds to think it will and you believe that our Western partners are not ready to fulfil their responsibilities, which may be very wrong, but if it is so, I would like to hear what you would tell the US. Why should it make its priority to settle the situation in Ukraine, to pressure President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and to make a commitment not to admit Ukraine into NATO in the near future? It would not be easy for the United States, especially for this administration. What would you say so that the US makes this its priority?
Sergey Lavrov: Why should we convince the US? What interests does it have in Ukraine? It’s 10,000 kilometres away. For example, Great Britain has the Falkland Islands, also called Malvinas in the UN terms. I do not know what the US is trying to find in Ukraine except for a new long-term provocative agent directly at the Russian border.
I have mentioned the Falklands, or Malvinas. About two or three years ago, the UN General Assembly reviewed this dispute between Great Britain and Argentina once again. You know that subjects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II live there. In 2013, they held a referendum, and the results showed that the islands belong to Great Britain. Argentina does not agree with this and every two years submits a resolution to the UN General Assembly calling Argentina and Great Britain to sit down at the negotiation table.
A colleague of mine showed me a message sent from London on the eve of such voting. It mentioned a country that would send its delegation to the UN to review this resolution on the Falklands. It should fully comply with the right for self-determination written in the UN Charter that has priority; it should respect the results of the 2013 referendum where a majority spoke in favour of being with Great Britain; and it should declare its position that would respect all these principles. The fact that the Argentine government has introduced certain sanctions against people living on the Falkland Islands after the results of the referendum were announced raises the question of how strictly Buenos Aires complies with the principles of democracy. I think you can see what I mean: replace the Falklands with Crimea and we can continue speaking about self-determination and sanctions.
Question: I will ask you about the election. I apologise in advance, because, to be blunt, you are probably sick of it. In fact, your answer is obvious. I am trying to think if there is any way at all to bring the Russian and US positions closer. When I see what the US accuses Russia of and what Russian politicians, including President of Russia Vladimir Putin, say, I have a feeling that we may be arguing about some rhetorical notions. Maybe what Americans call interfering with the election is the legitimate or normal actions of the intelligence services or some individuals from Russia’s point of view. Do you have an understanding of what Russia has done – and not just the Russian government but also unofficial organisations – regarding the US election? Could there be a conversation with the US on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot speak about unofficial organisations. We have heard messages from the US that they saw hackers from China, North Korea and somewhere else, Iran, as well as from Russia, interfere. They say the same about us and about them. I believe that we should rely on the facts. We have talked about this many times. In response we see smiles and hear that we are pretending because we know everything. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told me this when he said they had undeniable facts proving our interference. During our meeting I asked him to show them if they are undeniable. He smiled and told me to ask my special services because I would get a better explanation from them. But it is not an adults’ talk, is it?
Question: Did you ask?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course I did.
Question: What did they tell you?
Sergey Lavrov: Tillerson?
Question: No, the special services.
Sergey Lavrov: Ours?
Sergey Lavrov: It is strange to say, but what does the US accuse us of? Is this the benefit of the doubt in US society?
Recently these two facts have become known to the public. The Democratic National Committee said that Russian hackers attacked the voter database. This was checked, and it turned out that just a group of Democrats, Democrat IT technicians, had tested the reliability of the voter registration system. Nobody apologised for this. The Democratic Committee remained unconvinced although its statements were put to shame. US Senator Bill Nelson has also said recently that Russian hackers attacked the electoral system in Florida. The FBI began investigating immediately and said there was nothing of the sort. This is a fact.
Now on to the facts that we have, in addition to the fact that a US ambassador to any country believes he or she has the right to say things directly related to the future of the electoral process in Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia or, moreover, Ukraine. Jon Huntsman – our colleague and the US Ambassador to Russia – said that the Washington administration does not have problems with Russian people but with the Kremlin. These words do not seem like words of a diplomat. It is a fact that two diplomats from the US Embassy took part in the opposition’s demonstrations back in 2012. Can you imagine our diplomat taking part in a rally to support racial minorities in the US? I think the situation would be completely different.
The same happened to Maria Butina, who was imprisoned and is still humiliated only because she wanted to cooperate with the US in promoting the right to bear arms. There is also the most interesting fact that, three years ago, when the US law on support for Ukraine was adopted, it said clearly that the US Secretary of State must promote democracy in Russia both directly and via Russian and other nongovernmental and international organisations. They decided to allocate $20 million for this each year. How would the US react if we did something like this? I agree with you that we should clarify this. Among other things, we offered the US to create a working group on cybersecurity. We offered this both to Barack Obama and the current administration. It seemed like President Donald Trump was interested; he said it was important to dispel some mutual suspicions, but, like in many other cases, political actors put obstacles in his way. However, our proposal to resume the activities of the counterterrorism group and to establish an economic and business council that would be headed by corporate leaders from both sides as well as a council of political experts and scientists from both sides is still on the table.
We have plenty of proposals that would help our relations out of this dive.
Question: Can we improve our relations now? Tell us honestly about the results of the US elections to Congress, given your ability to influence them?
Sergey Lavrov: As distinct from those who exploit Russophobic themes, we respect the American people and their elections.
Question: Nevertheless, Mr Lavrov, 90 percent of the US media and 78 percent of Democrats are confident that it was Russia and notably you that elected US President Donald Trump. I won’t ask you whether you regret your choice. But knowing the negotiating skills of your partners – US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, is there any chance to move Russian-US relations from this freeze they are currently caught in?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the elections, I will say again that those who spread this gossip and rumors have no respect for the American people at all.
Question: Mr Lavrov, it was a joke.
Sergey Lavrov: But I’m not joking. We truly respect the American people, but those who explain everything with Russian interference do not respect their own people or their voters.
As for our prospects, we always want to hope for the best. Our positions are honest and open. We are always willing to hold a dialogue. Incidentally, we suggested to the West, including the US, that we sign a document, or take a pledge without signing, on starting a dialogue on strategic stability, to counter terrorism and promote cyber security to remove mutual concerns with regards to critical social-support systems and domestic political processes, including elections. We offered this but we haven’t received a response so far. I am pegging my hopes on society. Of the small but positive events, I’d like to note the joint celebrations of the 80th anniversary of Valery Chkalov’s flight. It was a very emotional event and it created a lot of interest among the participants. It’s a pity little is written and said about this in the US. The Fort Ross Dialogue is also alive and doing well. It was named after a Russian settlement in California. Americans are visiting us, and our public organisations are travelling to San Francisco. They are getting on very well just as cosmonauts and astronauts on the International Space Station do.
So I think life will still take over, it will disperse calumny and retain the vital interests of our people, who will certainly benefit from cooperation and partnership.