Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with RT France, Paris Match and Le Figaro
Question: Western countries, the media and various organisations, including the World Anti-Doping Agency and the OPCW, have been constantly accusing Russia of meddling in elections and staging cyberattacks. Just recently, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands simultaneously voiced similar accusations and submitted six-month-old information to the media. What is this? Is this part of a planned campaign to put pressure on Russia and introduce new sanctions? What do you think about the evidence that has been presented?
Sergey Lavrov: It is hard for me to think about this seriously because all the evidence has been presented to us through the media. With all respect to the media and the profession of journalism, we, as serious people, cannot examine such cases where Russia is accused of all mortal sins while the legal norms created specifically for such situations are being disregarded.
You mentioned the anti-Russia accusations that were brough up six months ago. We were recently presented with accusations that date back four years. The British government has once again turned its attention to the death of former Aeroflot Vice President Nikolai Glushkov in London, where he had been granted political asylum. Speculations about Russia’s complicity in his death are already being circulated. Shortly before his death, Glushkov wanted to disclose information about his contacts with the security services and their plans in the United Kingdom and other Western countries. So, six months is not the limit. We are ready for even more massive provocations. Our response is very simple: if they communicate with us through the media, we will also reply very cordially via the media.
This means that we ask absolutely practical questions. Why doesn’t the OPCW activate its mechanism for investigating the incident you mentioned? The document states expressly that a country party to the Convention, if it has questions for another signatory country, should launch direct professional dialogue. This was not done. Moreover, the Investigative Committee of Russia sent an inquiry to the concerned British agencies, noting the need to activate provisions of an agreement for mutual assistance on criminal cases. The British side failed to reply to this inquiry for several months. We received a reply several days ago stating that, for security reasons, the UK is in no position to assist Russia on this criminal case linked with the fate of the Russian citizens. Sergey Skripal is both a Russian and British citizen, but Yulia Skripal is exclusively a Russian citizen. All international conventions require London to honour its obligations and to allow Russian representatives to meet with her. But this has not happened.
In addition, no answer has been provided to a very specific, question: where is Sergey Skripal? Where is Yulia Skripal? These are not questions in the “highly likely, no one else had a motive” style. Why aren’t their relatives allowed to meet with them? Why have their relatives been refused British visas? There are many other specific questions. If our Western colleagues are trying to wind us up and make us loose our temper, they surely have not studied history. If all this is superficial and this political rage is only a temporary thing and will go away on its own after they run out of steam, then we will be ready to conduct a serious, professional and propaganda-free conversation that remains within the bounds of the law.
Question (retranslated from French): French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking about Russia, unlike his predecessor François Hollande, has said that he intends to improve our relations. Is it a sign of a new era of greater openness in our relations?
Sergey Lavrov: It seems to me that the intentions declared by the current French leaders do deserve support where they concern interaction with Russia. We can also hear many accusatory invectives from Paris, including with respect to our media, such as Sputnik, RIA Novosti and RT France, which are actually isolated from the Elysee Palace and sometimes also from other official entities of the French Republic. We listen to the criticism against us for doing nothing in order to overcome this or that crisis, but at the same time we see that President Macron and his team are interested in developing a dialogue with us. However, it is going on in a rather ambiguous manner. We are completely open for cooperation but sometimes good intentions that are implemented at first, later stall.
You mentioned President Hollande. After a heinous terrorist attack in Nice in 2016 President Hollande displayed initiative and came to Russia to talk to President Putin. It seemed to me that a very serious and sincere understanding was reached on specific forms of engagement in combatting terrorism, including in the Mediterranean region, given the Syrian crisis. However, the heat of the moment subsided in several days. And we never had any practical interaction with France then. Now we are prepared for any forms of cooperation in antiterrorist matters and other spheres. I would like to mention Syria. We have established a rather trusted two-way foreign ministries’ channel for the foreign policy and diplomatic aides of the two presidents. We are maintaining this channel. It is useful enough: it makes it possible to exchange information and understand each other better. There was a cooperative initiative of President Putin and President Macron concerning joint humanitarian aid. French aid was delivered to East Ghouta by Russian transport and distributed among those who needed it. So far this is the only initiative. We are also ready for more active things.
We are closely cooperating with France in a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis in terms of strict observation of the Minsk Agreements (a result of joint work of the Russian, French, German and Ukrainian leaders). We are talking about another meeting in the Normandy format. We had two summit meetings –in Paris in 2015 and in Berlin in 2016. We are for holding a third summit. Naturally, it should be well prepared so that the leaders of the four states do not feel awkward because the decisions of the previous summits are yet to be implemented. Indeed, they are not even on paper yet (we want to put them down on paper), but in the air, including in terms of the forces disengagement in three populated centres within the conflict zone. This intention is blocked, and toughly blocked by Kiev authorities. And also with regard to putting on paper the Steinmeier formula that provides specific parameters of granting Ukrainian territory a special status, something, and I am saying this again, which was first agreed in Paris and later reconfirmed in Berlin. As soon as we fulfil what the leaders spoke about at least in respect of these two matters, we will be ready to hold the next summit.
Together with France we have many other forms of cooperation. Soon after his election President Macron invited Vladimir Putin to France and in June 2017 they met in Versailles. The meeting results include, in addition to the confirmation of interest in developing and normalizing our relations, an understanding on starting a Trianon Dialogue. This is a very important format that enables the public, civil society, NGOs, scholars and political scientists to communicate on a regular basis. It already works. Many events, which to my mind enjoy much success with the public in Russia and in France, are conducted. Regretfully, so far more formal intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary entities are not as active as the public of our countries. The Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation still cannot resume its work. It is managed by heads of the Russian and French governments. The Commission has not had a meeting for a long time, although an authority at the level of ministers of the economy, who are to prepare the meeting, has resumed its contacts. Of course, we also thought it to be right if a large parliamentary commission could resume its activities. President Macron has expressed his interest in it. We fully share this attitude and I hope that all the problems remaining on our bilateral and multilateral agendas (they do exist and they are complex ones) will be dealt with, given the goodwill of both presidents which is evident.
Question: I have a very simple question regarding Iran, Syria and Ukraine. Do you find French politics very similar to the politics of the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: I would not say so, because speaking of Iran, for instance, Russia and France together with Great Britain, Germany and China are countries committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Active efforts are now underway, including by the aforementioned countries that initiated the treaty, excluding the United States, which abandoned it. The three European countries together with Russia, China and Iran are working hard to keep the agreement without the United States. This required developing mechanisms that will allow us to secure everything that has been agreed upon, including economic benefits for Iran, which will fulfil its obligations in new circumstances. These efforts include many technical matters as well as financial and bank procedures, but we are working on it. I hope that the threats voiced by Washington, which abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and demands that others do so as well, despite it being one of the most important agreements in recent years, will fail to affect European business.
I heard that some European companies, including French ones, left Iran. Our colleagues in Berlin and Paris, affirming their respective governments' commitment to the deal, say they cannot force businesses to remain in Iran if they have greater interests in the United States. We are aware of it. However, the government can and must make every effort to provide an alternative option to businesses. This is what our colleagues from financial departments, central banks and other structures are working on. So I do not see France’s and the United States' stances as similar just as I do not see Paris’s and Washington's positions as coinciding on a whole array of other issues, including the Paris Agreement, which the United States withdrew from as well, just as they withdrew from UNESCO, a major respected organisation headquartered in Brussels. This is not a very good example of political accord between the United States and France; here their interests are clearly at odds.
As regards Syria, here you have more common ground in approaching the crisis not only between France and the United States but between Europe and the United States as well. Initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, the “small group” on Syria comprises France, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We do not share the stance of this group. Here you have rather similar views with Washington, seeking regime change at any cost and wanting the political process to ultimately conclude in regime change, regardless of the forms in which this stance is expressed at any stage. This contradicts UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which we want to respect and which sets forth a very simple principle - only the Syrian people themselves can choose their and their country's future. As you know, this resolution supports developing a new constitution and holding an election observed by the UN that all Syrians can take part in.
We cannot agree with the actions of this so-called "small group," particularly, the Western countries, as regards the use of force against the Syrian state and government facilities under the pretext of Damascus use of chemical weapons, which was never proven by evidence. What happened on April 14, when France, Great Britain and the United States conducted air strikes on facilities that they claimed were involved in producing chemical weapons in Syria, took place several hours prior to OPCW inspectors arriving at those facilities. Your officials were perfectly aware of this. Everyone was aware of this. If in this situation, when inspectors were about to arrive and conduct an independent investigation, three countries decided to bomb that territory, then I have no other explanation than they learned the accusations against Damascus were fake and this was an attempt by your official structures to cover their tracks. Since then, we have tried to build a dialogue. We support contacts, even with those who do not share our assessments and whose assessments we do not share either. Russia is in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government, while Western countries were not invited. A while ago, French President Emmanuel Macron came up with the idea that the "small group" should have contacts with the Astana group, which comprises Russia, Turkey and Iran. We are ready for such contacts. Before seriously discussing anything, we must agree on the basis of such talks. There can be only one basis – UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which gives top priority to Syrians' approaches and the processes they themselves must conduct. We cannot solve serious issues behind the back of Syria's government, opposition and civil society.
I have already spoken about Ukraine. There is a Contact Group, where the government and opposition with support from the OSCE and Russia must agree on concrete steps to fulfil the Minsk Agreements, and there is the Normandy format, which is represented by Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine and must accompany the work of the Contact Group. We cooperate rather closely in this format. Although a summit has not taken place for two years, experts and ministers - including those from Russia and France - communicate within this format. In my opinion, we now understand each other better.
Question: The Western mainstream media remain silent about the largest humanitarian crisis in Yemen. While some countries, such as France, supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, the media do not speak about victims such as those in Mosul or Raqqa, where vast numbers of civilians were killed. At the same time, the situation around the liberation of Eastern Aleppo, where Russia organised humanitarian corridors, was declared the main disaster in the region. How would you explain these double standards?
Sergey Lavrov: It is simple: in one word, this is propaganda, and unscrupulous propaganda at that. You have mentioned Yemen. Some time ago, representatives of the United Nations at the level of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Issues said the Yemen situation was the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. We participate in the efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and send them humanitarian aid from time to time. This is difficult given the ongoing military operations. We have managed to reach several agreements with the coalition, in particular, with Saudi Arabia that leads the coalition. Such humanitarian deliveries have taken place. We will continue with them. We know that the coalition, while continuing military operations, also provides substantial humanitarian aid for the Yemeni people. This is useful, but the war must end. I believe that Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, has very noble ideas and thoughts. We would like to help him. The key task right now is to cease hostilities, to reach an agreement on how Port Al Hudaydah, where the fiercest combat is taking place, should operate, and then move on to the political process, which was impeded by disputes on where to assemble and how to get there. This does not correspond to the tension of the moment, and we will do our utmost to show that it is necessary to set all secondary things aside and sit down at the negotiating table without any preliminary conditions.
As for other situations – you have mentioned Raqqa and Mosul – nobody was worried about any special additional measures to alleviate or minimise risks for civilians, like we did in Aleppo. We established humanitarian corridors in Aleppo and also in Eastern Ghouta. We took additional security measures along these corridors and spoke with the opposition. Residents who wanted to leave those districts had the opportunity to do so. Fighters who wanted to leave and to stop taking part in the military operations also had such an opportunity. This was widely discussed back then, including in the western media and the media in some of the countries in the region. It was said that it was ethnic cleansing and people were being exiled from where they lived. Let me remind you that since then hundreds of thousands of Aleppo residents have returned and continue to return. All the basic infrastructure and the conditions necessary for people’s vital needs have been completely restored there.
By the way, when battles took place to liberate Eastern Aleppo, among the complaints of our western colleagues was the issue of a lack of medicines. There were constant demands for the safeguarding of medical convoys, including surgical instruments. In fact, there were reasons to suspect that, in addition to sincere humanitarian concerns, these demands were also made in order to deliver medicines, materials and instruments necessary to treat militants.
When Eastern Aleppo was liberated, representatives of the World Health Organisation went there from Damascus and announced publicly that a vast number of large warehouses with all the necessary medicines had been found, so there was no shortage in Aleppo.
As for Raqqa and Mosul, nobody declared any humanitarian corridors there and nobody was concerned whether civilians could find a safe way out to return later. They have only begun returning now. Until recently, unburied corpses lay there for months and nobody cleared the mines like our soldiers did in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta.
Let me repeat once again: of course, we draw the UN’s attention to the situation facing civilians in Raqqa and other places. We have never acted in accordance with the principle “if your propaganda attacks us in Aleppo, we will respond to you with Raqqa.” We want an objective and complete picture of the situation in all Syrian districts to be shown to the international community.
Question: Let us discuss the 2015 situation in Aleppo and Ghouta once again. At each stage of the Syrian war, Russia was accused of conducting air strikes against the civilian population. As a diplomat, do you regret the fact that so many people have been killed in order to end this conflict? If we compare the 2011 situation when Bashar al-Assad was in power with the current developments, we will see that, in effect, little has changed.
Sergey Lavrov: Any normal person cannot treat lightheartedly a situation when civilians are being killed and when people, especially civilians, perish. All conventions dealing with international humanitarian law that have been signed by Russia, France and most other countries oblige the signatories to do everything possible to prevent risks for the civilian population. For example, these conventions expressly ban any attacks on civilian facilities, schools, hospitals, residential areas and dual-purpose facilities where civilians are supposed to be.
If you are sincerely interested how humankind, including Western and Russian civilisations, is fulfilling these requirements, then it would be appropriate to start discussing this matter from an earlier vantage point. In this connection, considering the fact that we are Europeans and members of the OSCE, I would like to begin with the year 1999 when NATO indiscriminately bombed Yugoslavia, without distinguishing between civilian and dual-purpose facilities. They hit the Defence Ministry, the General Staff and a railway bridge when a train was crossing it.
The following incident is linked with your profession: NATO aircraft bombed a television centre in Belgrade because it allegedly spread “mendacious propaganda.” This evokes some recollections when they, including Paris, are telling us that Russian media outlets are nothing but propaganda tools.
I agree with you completely. By the way, NATO bombed Libya under the guidance of France. President Nicolas Sarkozy was the main instigator of this operation, conducted in violation of a UN Security Council resolution that merely called for establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, so that Muammar Gaddafi’s aircraft would be unable to take off. By the way, his aircraft did not fly. Nevertheless, they started bombing Libya. In 2011, the French military noted openly that they were supplying weapons to Gaddafi’s opponents in violation of an arms embargo regarding the delivery of any weapons to Libya. Predictably, the current situation in Libya amounts to a tremendous humanitarian disaster, with refugees and immigrants flooding into Europe. At the same time, bandits and terrorists, including those with French weapons, are moving into Sub-Saharan Africa.
I remember an incident which is impossible to forget. Soon after NATO had bombed Libya, and after terrorists relocated down in the south, former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius phoned me and expressed French concerns about the deteriorating situation in Mali where a French military contingent was stationed by agreement with Bamako. Various bad people approached the country’s capital from northern Mali and Touareg territories with the intention of seizing it. France wanted the UN Security Council to allow its military contingent to combat this terrorist threat. Mr Fabius called me and asked us not to object. We supported this idea because this amounts to a really important job and a terrorist threat. I told him to keep in mind that they would thwart the actions of people whom they had armed in Libya. He laughed and said: “C’est la vie” (“Such is life.”) But, to be honest, “C’est la vie” is not about politics, it is about double standards.
Regarding Syria, I would like to note once again that I mentioned this while replying to the previous question. We did our best to protect the civilian population during the liberation of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. By the way, we also accomplished this while addressing the matter of the southern de-escalation zone that was established by Russia, the United States and Jordan during consultations with Israel, all the more so as the Golan Heights are located nearby. That operation did not cause any substantial humanitarian consequences. UN disengagement forces patrol the Golan Heights once again. The Alpha and Bravo lines, manned by Syrian and Israeli forces, have been reinstated under the 1974 agreements. Of course, it is necessary to act like this all the time.
We don’t know about the situation in some of the other Syrian regions. For example, US forces are digging in on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. They have unilaterally established a 55-km security zone around Al-Tanfa base housing the Rukban refugee camp which cannot be accessed. No one can guarantee that it is possible to safely enter this camp, without risking an attack by terrorists, including ISIS militants, who are feeling great in this US-controlled zone.
We are receiving additional evidence that the United States continues to relocate ISIS militants to Iraq and Afghanistan. These facts are alarming. We have sent inquiries to the relevant international agencies and the United States. We are alarmed in this connection because such actions reflect the suspicions of many analysts that there are plans to turn Afghanistan into a new ISIS bridgehead. Most ISIS militants are settling down in northern Afghanistan, that is, in direct proximity to our allies and strategic partners. This is an extremely serious matter. We will demand absolute clarity here.
Question: I would like to ask you about Russia-China military exercises held recently. It was an impressive event discussed by all the international media. We have several questions. Today many believe that Russia has turned towards China. Or is it still facing the West? What do you think?
Sergey Lavrov: We have an eagle with two heads in our coat of arms. By fate, history and our predecessors’ achievements Russia covers the area that it covers. Russia has never had the luxury of turning its back to Europe or to Asia. Of course, in the cultural sense Russia is part of the European civilisation. It has made an enormous contribution to the heritage that the European civilisation enjoys and is so proud of, such as composers, poets, writers, artists and others; by the way, many Russians lived and worked in France. We have a great deal in common: a mixture of cultures and ideals, among other things. In better times, Russia and the European Union held regular summits. One summit, back in 2007 or 2008, I believe, took place in Khabarovsk. The European Commission was chaired by Jose Manuel Barroso at the time. When the European delegation arrived in Khabarovsk, they took a walk along the embankment and were amazed to see that they flew 10 hours from Moscow and were still surrounded by a European atmosphere. Vladivostok and our other eastern cities make the same impression. As Russia asserted itself as an Asian or European power, it has always remained a country that is part of the European culture. Of course, there are many examples when Asian culture has also influenced our genetic code, such as the heritage of the Huns. Many Russian researchers studied the impact eastern tribes had on this geopolitical space. As a result, today Russia is a multiethnic and multiconfessional country, and our Muslims live in the areas where their ancestors lived for many centuries. It is not an imported nation.
To answer your question, let me say that our relations with China went through difficult times in the 1950s–1960s and in the early 1970s, but after that our two large and great countries realised, thanks to the wisdom of their leaders, that they should use their proximity to their advantage. Many parts of our economies are complementary, as are our approaches to regional and international problems. Our relations began improving then, and in 2000 we signed the first documents that characterise them as strategic cooperation and a comprehensive partnership. Russia and the People’s Republic of China have never enjoyed such a level of relations as they do now.
In the middle of the 2000s, we finally dealt with the territorial issues by signing an agreement following the talks that lasted for more than 40 years. It would be unwise and lacking foresight for Russia not to use these advantages in the West and in the East.
Perhaps I should note that due to objective factors the main population of Russia is located in its European part, where industry and agriculture are best developed. Overall, the Far East is less developed than the European part. So perhaps there are more business opportunities in the west of Russia because they are, if I may say so, more easily accessed – geographically, economically, infrastructurally (infrastructure is much better developed in this part of Europe and Russia). There were many old partners very close, the relations with whom have been developing for many decades, and even centuries in many cases.
At the same time, we realised well that we should create conditions that would interest people in the Far East, so they would want to move there, to work there and to settle down there, as Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said since he became President. In order to do this, the Far East must have the necessary economic, transport, social and cultural infrastructure. The government is working on this. This is difficult, because a lot of work must be done, the tasks are ambitious, but we can see the progress. A number of legislative initiatives have been adopted to give a boost to the development of these Russian regions. The free port of Vladivostok has been established there as well as a simplified e-visa procedure and benefits for those who want to move there, including free land among other things. Of course, we have been doing that for almost 20 years. But when relations with Europe started to decline due to the sanctions and other political processes, when trade decreased sharply (I believe it was $440 billion in 2013, while last year, although trade grew compared with 2016, it was only $217 billion, or half the volume of three years ago), we began looking for opportunities to compensate for the dwindling volume of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
Such opportunities were becoming more pronounced in cooperation with China, as well as with India and with Japan and Korea to some degree, because during that time these countries’ potential grew significantly and they showed an interest in our goods, not only in energy, but also in cooperation in space exploration, nuclear energy, aviation and car manufacturing. So there is no political blueprint or programme. This is just a response to the current conditions in order to develop economic ties as effectively as possible, nothing more.
As you know, we are rebuilding relations with European countries very successfully now. I cannot say the same about the European Commission. As I understand, the European Commission is still in thrall to what you call “solidarity” and “consensus”, when a small group of countries that does not want to have good relations with Russia forces all other countries to keep low profile. But I am sure that national interests, which are now increasingly mentioned in discussions of the European Union’s future, will lead to the fact that the reforms, which Emmanuel Macron speaks about among others, will reflect the consensus not in the sense that a minority can block the majority’s interests, but so that a middle ground can be found, and the European Union’s position on Russia will not always be based on the lowest and the most negative denominator. I do not think that the EU’s policy towards Russia will not always be largely and sometimes crucially determined by the states leaving the European Union.
Question: Europe is concerned about the upcoming elections. Headlines are full of the impending radicalisation of Europe and the right-wing forces potential coming to power. Russia, on the other hand, is often accused of sympathy for the far-right political movements in Europe, if not of direct support. Could you clarify Russia’s position on this matter?
Sergey Lavrov: I would say this is the wrong idea, because those who think such a thing, who express such thoughts, do not know the nature of our people. Russians are very responsive, hospitable and reluctant to take a grudge.
I do not want to cite historical examples here, but the fact of our reconciliation with Germany is widely known. Now our people have almost nothing to quarrel over with the Germans, except for some political games that ordinary people have little to do with.
Speaking bluntly, when we are offered an opportunity to build constructive relations, to consider matters of mutual interest, and the other person is ready for equal and mutually respectful cooperation, personally, that person’s political views will be the last thing I will care about. If that person represents a political force that operates in a legitimate legal field, if they do not violate the laws of their country or any international norms, why should they be “untouchable”? If the only reason is their approach that does not fit with the current European mainstream, then, probably, this is not quite democratic.
Who knows when the current “fringe groups,” as populists call them, will become mainstream? Maybe they will create a new mainstream after some time. Nobody knows that. But democracy is democracy. In 2000 I think, Jorg Haider’s party won the parliamentary elections in Austria. The whole of Europe considered it populist, preaching the values of the Austrian people’s democratic will unacceptable for liberal policies. But he was still forced to resign.
Speaking of the universal application of democracy, when in 2007 the Americans wanted to hold elections in the Gaza Strip in Palestine, many warned them that, before holding elections, they needed to make sure that all the political forces understood the process the same way, and advised them to postpone the vote. However, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted almost single-handedly on holding the elections immediately. This was done, and Hamas won. The Americans quickly said the elections were illegitimate, although all the international observers who were present during the voting said that everything was in order. So it is very important not to set artificial tasks.
We are trying to help resolve the situation in Libya with our French colleagues, as well as with our Italian and other European and regional partners. We highly appreciated what President Emmanuel Macron did back in May, when he invited four key players to Paris. They reached an understanding and agreed on December 10 as a tentative date for holding elections in Libya. Unfortunately, that understanding is not very accurately implemented and as a result, the main political forces still do not have a general agreement on how this political system will work. So according to many experts, it will be risky to hold elections in a situation like this. Therefore, under these circumstances, we, like in Yemen, support the UN special envoy - the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, Ghassan Salame, who is trying to find approaches that would really reflect the consensus of the political forces before they can go to the polls with a clear conscience and mutual commitments.
Question: Under President Donald Trump, the United States has withdrawn from many international treaties and agreements, including the Paris and Vienna agreements, as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme that we have discussed so much. It turns out that the United States is an unpredictable ally. Many people are now saying that Europe should become more independent. What do you think of such an emergent powerful and independent Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, this question should, first of all, be addressed to Europe itself. But we have always said that we are interested in a united, powerful and predictable Europe that would decide its own future, choose its own partners and chart its own actions with regard to other partners. In reality, this is our position, rather than mere words.
I cannot say that Europe looks independent today. Quite possibly, this perception motivates European leaders to discuss the situation and to understand the place of Europe in the modern world, all the more so as the centre of economic development has now shifted to the Asia-Pacific region. The competitiveness of Europe and the preservation of civilisational values are now at stake. We see the initiative of President of France Emmanuel Macron regarding the EU reform (an initial serious discussion of the EU reform, to be more exact), as a reflection of these thoughts.
We would also like to know how these discussions will develop. During our upcoming contacts in the near future, we would like to be briefed by our colleagues on how they see this matter. So far, we can hear ideas being set forth in the context of concentric circles with several membership categories, including a common monetary union, even a common ministry of finance and a central bank. The second circle is less integrated. The third circle will include partners who are so far unprepared for any serious moves.
Apart from economics and finance, the security issue is also being mentioned. European leaders, including President of France Emmanuel Macron and some others, are openly saying that Europe cannot rely solely on the United States for its security. I am noting this in an absolutely neutral manner and merely repeating statements from European capitals.
This is Europe’s right, and there is also NATO to consider. President Emmanuel Macron has said that NATO will remain, no matter what. But, in his opinion, Europe should also strive to enhance its independence in the area of defence and security. I don’t know exactly how this concept will be formulated, and how it will be harmonised with intra-NATO circumstances. I can see and hear that the United States now focuses on this issue inside NATO and proactively promotes the so-called “military Schengen” concept that aims to overhaul the European infrastructure in such a way, so as to more quickly deploy heavy weapons near Russian borders. In effect, this is what the “military Schengen” is all about.
All these processes are very interesting, including all NATO exercises, now being conducted in the three Baltic states, Poland, Romania and other countries, the deployment of German, Canadian, British and apparently French contingents in the three Baltic states and Poland, as well as the intention of our Polish colleagues to allow the United States to deploy one division on Polish territory. This would directly violate the Russia-NATO Founding Act that bans the deployment of substantial permanent military forces on the territories of NATO member-countries in Eastern and Central Europe. We will keep tabs on them because this also concerns our security.
There are many ideas. Regarding the initiatives of President of France Emmanuel Macron, he recently voiced the European intervention initiative, explaining it by the need to quickly send certain military contingents to hot spots from time to time, without waiting for any special UN Security Council resolutions and even those of NATO and the EU. Although he did not name these contingents, their description matches that of old-time expeditionary forces. To the best of my knowledge, this resembles some self-contained task force that would primarily accomplish certain objectives in Africa.
I don’t know how feasible this is, but the fact that such ideas are being voiced confirms that the issue of how the EU will address security issues is long overdue. I repeat, we will follow this closely. We want a powerful and independent European Union, and, of course, we don’t want the EU and NATO to discuss European security issues behind the scenes because this is our common continent, we have common borders, and they had promised us a lot when we were withdrawing our forces from Europe, and when NATO was expanding.
Question: I would like to go back to the military exercises in Eastern Europe you have mentioned. Are we on the threshold of World War III?
Sergey Lavrov: I think all parties will be reasonable enough not to take things as far as that, although, of course, we are quite concerned with there being no professional dialogue whatsoever between the Russian and NATO military.
The Russia-NATO Council, which has been frozen by our Western partners, met three times during the last couple of years, without any result to speak of. The initiative to resume those meetings came from NATO, but they said they wanted to meet in order to discuss Ukraine. I am trying to stay within the bounds of decency, but this means just one thing: they wanted to use the Russia-NATO Council as yet another tool to accuse us of all mortal sins and as yet another method to gratify the whims of our Ukrainian neighbours, who are dreaming of sanctions being tightened ad infinitum and Russia continuously getting the flak. We agreed to join the discussion with the understanding that we should also discuss Afghanistan, which we did, the fight against terrorism and other more real problems than the crisis in Ukraine which is artificially kept alive to please the radical nationalists and neo-Nazis.
However, apart from these “get-togethers” at the level of permanent representatives, practically all forms of Russia-NATO cooperation are frozen. I mean Afghanistan, where the “helicopter package” – a programme of personnel training to fight drug trafficking in Afghanistan – was being implemented with much success, and many other things.
Accordingly, the military dialogue has been frozen through and through. Periodically, Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov talks over the phone with Supreme Allied Commander Europe Curtis Scaparotti. But this is not what is needed in the current situation, where risks of an accident are growing significantly. Not so long ago, a Spanish fighter jet in Estonia fired an air-to-air missile by accident. Thank God, it did not kill anyone. But what if it had fallen on Russian rather than Estonian territory? It was just a short distance away.
Therefore, a professional and constant dialogue is absolutely necessary. But NATO has been evading it. As I understand, this is largely so because the US laws passed to enable imposing sanctions on the Russian Federation ban the Pentagon from cooperating with the Russian Defence Ministry, among other things. It is clear that NATO won’t do anything without the US. So, look at this situation. I think it is silly to remain hostage to US legislators’ whims. In the final analysis, they found an opportunity to start working with us in Syria and continue to do that in the context of so-called deconflicting, lest there are any clashes. But NATO takes no such steps towards our common European territory. So, look: The stockpiling of weapons on our borders, the intention to modernise the transport infrastructure in Europe so that it is easier for US heavy weapons and probably weapons of other NATO countries to pick up our borders, the openly provocative military exercises – not the Russian-Chinese exercises in the middle of Siberia – but those in Ukraine, Georgia and the Black Sea… Today Ukraine wants to invite NATO exercises to the Sea of Azov, but they will be unable to sail there because the existing Russian-Ukrainian agreement requires the two countries’ mutual consent to the passage of warships to the Sea of Azov. But they are willing to do that and are being actively encouraged. All of this is taking place against the background of the new US military doctrine that dramatically lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons. Nuclear warheads with a very low-yield are being developed with the clear intention to make them a possible means of warfare. This will conceptually erode all existing agreements, under which these are deterrents and reciprocal containment weapons, but not weapons for real warfare. But the low-yield warheads … the need for them is explained in this new military doctrine. Back in the Soviet times, if my memory serves me right, we and the Americans issued two serious joint statements saying that no one could win a nuclear war and therefore it should not be fought. It would not be a bad thing to confirm this statement under the present conditions.
Question: The Ukrainian Patriarchate decided to turn its back on Moscow and become independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. This is considered an important decision, politically. What do you think of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church?
On November 11, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in World War I. Many heads of European governments will attend. Do you think President Vladimir Putin will attend?
Sergey Lavrov: The Ukrainian Patriarchate has not turned its back on the Russian Orthodox Church because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate does not support the provocations that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has launched with direct public support from Washington.
This provocation is aimed at using two non-canonical schismatic churches in Ukraine (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church), which have never been recognized by a single Orthodox Church. However, Patriarch Bartholomew recently convened the Holy Synod in Constantinople and made them canonical and lifted the anathema from the two hierarchs leading these churches solely to facilitate this provocation. Most local Orthodox churches have expressed indignation. I would guess that this is not about a few days of repercussions, but a long term issue. The idea behind this is obvious – another step in tearing Ukraine from Russia, not just politically, but also spiritually.
Ukraine’s new laws that strip language minorities of the rights they had until recently are part of the same story. They recently passed an even more interesting law in the first reading, in addition to the one I just mentioned, “On the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language.” It limits education in schools and universities in Ukraine to the Ukrainian language only. Minority languages can be used in kindergarten and elementary school (Grades 1-4). Exceptions can be made for English and other EU languages. This means that the only target being attacked is the Russian language, which the majority of Ukrainian citizens speak, and many are native speakers. We have asked the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, and Council of Europe agencies, what they think about this and whether they are planning to make an effort to see that this bill never goes further than the first reading. Let us see what the answer will be. The Constitution of Ukraine explicitly says “it is necessary to protect the Russian language and other languages of national minorities.” So this is also the competence of the constitutional court.
As for church problems, intervention in the life of the church is legally prohibited in Ukraine, in Russia, and I hope, in any other adequate country. But, when the US special representative on church relations openly welcomes Patriarch Bartholomew's decision, when Kurt Volker, whose duty is to facilitate a settlement in Ukraine based on the Minsk Agreements on behalf of the US, says what he says on this matter, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. The people who cannot cite a single fact confirming their groundless accusations that we meddle in others' affairs behave as if this is normal! I am not even talking about the US ambassadors in countries like Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, let alone Ukraine, because the country is essentially under external control; everyone knows that.
So several issues are coming up, also for discussion at the Paris Peace Forum. I very much hope that the forum organisers will not turn a blind eye to these extremely negative trends of replacing the culture of dialogue, negotiation, the culture of diplomacy, with dictatorship through blatant blackmail. This is probably a discussion that has yet to be assessed. We have not yet received accurate information on how the platform will be structured or what its specific agenda will be, but we are certainly looking forward with interest to see how it will go and be accepted by the European public.
As for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended WWI, we have received invitations and will definitely be represented there.
Question: Will your country be represented by Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Sergey Lavrov: This will be announced by the Kremlin. What events the President of the Russian Federation attends and where, is usually announced by his press service.
Question: I would like to revisit the Idlib issue. President Assad said that the situation in Idlib is temporary. Do you think your Turkish partners under the Sochi agreement are capable of disarming the jihadists in Idlib? How can a solution be found to this final part of the Syrian war?
Sergey Lavrov: This is really a temporary agreement. This story will end only when the power of the Syrian people is restored in Syria, and all those who are now in Syria, especially those who were never invited there, leave its territory. Everyone understands this.
Now, with regard to the Sochi agreements. They are being acted upon. The demilitarized zone has been created around the perimeter of that area in Idlib, and heavy weapons are being withdrawn. Our Turkish partners are working with the opposition urging them to cooperate. This cooperation is underway. We will follow it closely.
I do not agree that Idlib is the only problem area in Syria. There are vast swathes of land to the east of the Euphrates River where absolutely unacceptable things are happening. The United States is trying to use this territory to create a quasi-state with its Syrian allies, particularly the Kurds.
The United States is trying, absolutely illegally, to create a quasi-state in this territory and to create proper living conditions there for their minions. They are creating alternative governing bodies to the legitimate Syrian government and are actively promoting the return and resettlement of the refugees. This is being done at a time where neither the United States, nor France, nor the other Western countries, want to create proper conditions for the return of the refugees in the territories controlled by the legitimate Syrian Government prior to, as the West keeps telling us, the beginning of a credible political process. The question is why no one has to wait for the beginning of a credible political process on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River controlled by the United States and their local supporters. There can be only one answer. They want to create a territory which will be a prototype for a new state, or start another dangerous game with Iraqi Kurdistan, the so-called idea of Greater Kurdistan. I have not ruled out the possibility that the United States wants to keep the situation so heated that it never calms down. It is much easier for them to catch the fish they want in muddy waters. This approach has never led to anything positive.
Question: ISIS still has control over these territories, correct?
Sergey Lavrov: ISIS is present in small numbers. As I have already said, ISIS militants are present in the region of At-Tanf, which was illegitimately created by the United States. They are there, in fact, illegitimately, and this area was created, in fact, unilaterally. According to our data (other countries have them as well), they are sending ISIS gunmen to Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is trying absolutely illegally to create a quasi-state in this territory and to create proper living conditions there for their minions. They are creating alternative governing bodies to the legitimate Syrian government and are actively promoting the return and resettlement of the refugees. This is being done at a time where neither the United States, nor France, or other Western countries, want to create proper conditions for the return of the refugees in the territories controlled by the legitimate Syrian Government prior to, as the West keeps telling us, the beginning of a credible political process. The question is why no one has to wait for the beginning of a credible political process on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River controlled by the United States and its local supporters. There can be only one answer. They want to create a territory which will be a prototype of a new state, or start another dangerous game with Iraqi Kurdistan, the so-called idea of Greater Kurdistan. I do not rule out the possibility that the United States wants to keep the situation so heated that it never calms down. It is much easier for them to catch the fish they want in muddy waters. This approach has never led to anything good. When we are told that someone is doing something not to the liking of the United States, let’s think back to Iraq and the “vial” produced by hapless Colin Powell. Importantly, in May 2013 George Bush Jr. announced victory of democracy in Iraq from an aircraft carrier. Where is Iraq now? In Libya, it was also announced that the dictator was over and done with, and Hillary Clinton was watching live as he was being killed and was very excited about it. Where is Libya now? They wanted to do the same thing with Syria. Perhaps, the American way that things are being done in this and other regions can hardly be referred to as exemplary.