Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's opening remarks and answers to media questions at the news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and International Cooperation of Spain Josep Borrell, Madrid, November 6, 2018
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be in Spain and continue our dialogue with our Spanish partners. By tradition, our bilateral relations are constructive and based on mutual respect. As we noted today, their roots go back ages.
Last year we marked the 350th anniversary of the first visit by a representative of our land to Spain, and in two years we will observe the 500th anniversary of the start of the correspondence between Charles I and the then Moscow Prince Vasily III.
No doubt, in the current difficult situation in Europe and the circumstances in which our relations with the European Union and NATO are developing, which was mentioned by the minister, our ties with Spain are fairly positive and are making headway in all areas The 2009 Declaration on Strategic Partnership remains a solid foundation of our contacts and relations.
We were pleased today to note the growth of trade for the second year running. Last year it exceeded five billion dollars and is likely to increase this year.
The Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation that held a meeting in Moscow last year is actively working. It will hold a meeting in Madrid this year or in the beginning of next year.
We conducted an overview of issues for the intergovernmental commission to discuss. Energy Minister Alexander Novak co-chairs it on Russia’s behalf. Today our colleagues informed us that the new government of Spain has also made its decision – it will be co-chaired on Spain’s behalf by Minister of Industry Reyes Maroto. We are all for that decision.
Both countries have positively assessed the performance of the Business Council that resumed its work several years ago. We consider it to be a very important mechanism for direct dialogue between entrepreneurs of both countries.
We are also pleased to mention that the bilateral Interdepartmental Group on Countering New Challenges and Threats with an emphasis on counter-terrorism has started its work. On July 3 it held a regular session in Madrid. Now we are preparing for its next meeting in Moscow. We hope that these contacts will lead to success of the joint efforts to conclude an intergovernmental agreement on counter-terrorism cooperation. Its draft is now being reviewed by our Spanish colleagues.
We have agreed to step up work on other aspects of the contractual basis of our relations. In particular, we are finishing up work on a document for mutual recognition of driving licenses and an agreement on mutual recognition of education documents. I think both documents will foster more comfortable conditions for contacts between our citizens.
Our cultural and humanitarian ties are making headway. The cross year of science and education will be next year, following cross years of language, literature and tourism. We have also decided to redouble preparatory work and step up the coordination of the events planned for the year.
We welcome regular intensive contacts between our foreign ministries. Today we have signed a plan of consultations for 2019−2020. Naturally, we discussed key international issues, paying attention to the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. The challenge of reaching settlements in Syria, Lebanon and Libya will require serious additional efforts.
We have also discussed opportunities for our cooperation at different venues, including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
We have also exchanged views, as my colleague has already said, on the current status of Russia-EU relations. Both sides are sincerely interested in normalising relations. However, we obviously cannot ignore such a serious destabilising factor in the Euro-Atlantic as expanded NATO activities in areas that are essentially on Russia’s borders.
We also have a common interest in cooperating in the Council of Europe. As you know, this organisation is undergoing a crisis caused by the flagrant violation of its Charter that requires equal representation of all its member states in the Parliamentary Assembly and all other bodies of this pan-European institution.
We have also spoken about Ukraine. Like Spain, Russia believes that there is no alternative to honoring the Minsk Agreements. Responding to the interest expressed by our partners, we described in detail, citing facts, the destructive line pursued by the Kiev authorities in their determination to subvert their own commitments.
In general, I consider such talks fairly useful. We will continue our foreign policy dialogue at all levels. I have invited the Foreign Minister of Spain to pay a reciprocal visit to the Russian Federation at his convenience.
Question: Brussels is working on a special mechanism for trade to circumvent the restrictions invoked by the US sanctions against Iran. Will this help promote independence from US financial institutions? If this mechanism goes into effect, will Moscow support it?
Sergey Lavrov: US actions against Iran are absolutely illegal. They flagrantly violate UN Security Council resolutions. The forms in which they were announced and are carried out are bound to cause great disappointment. We believe that nobody has cancelled the norms of international law and international communication. It is unacceptable to pursue a policy based on ultimatums and unilateral demands in our era.
Regarding the basics of what was announced and how it will affect trade and economic ties with Iran, I would like to note that we believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed in 2015 and unanimously approved by the UN Security Council will be valid for those who remain a part of this deal. After the US withdrawal from the plan, the Europeans, Russia, China and Iran itself have confirmed their participation. Now the JCPOA joint working group is developing mechanisms that will make it possible to continue implementing the provisions, primarily concerning economic ties with Iran, without US participation. This is not an easy task. You have seen what unacceptable methods have been used to exert pressure on SWIFT operators. However, experts are actively dealing with this issue. They understand that counter measures are possible and will be found.
Question: Several Western countries have accused Russia of the attempts to influence the elections in the US. Can you comment on this please? What do you think about NATO’s military activities on Russia’s borders?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not interesting at all and nor is it new. These accusations have been made against us since 2016. In this context, those who make these accusations mention not only the elections in the US, but the referendum in Catalonia, recent elections in Sweden and our alleged involvement in the Salisbury case. Not a single fact has been quoted to support these accusations although whenever we are suspected of anything we suggest discussing professionally the grounds for these accusations at the negotiating table. Thus, we have forwarded several official notes to our British colleagues with a request to fulfil their commitments under international agreements that can justify their accusations against us and a demand to present our citizen who has been held somewhere for half a year with her father who is also a Russian citizen. We received an official reply that we will not be told anything because this is a matter of UK national security. Not a single fact confirming our involvement in any elections, be it in the US, Catalonia, Macedonia or Montenegro has been cited.
I spoke with the minister about this today. He said that some Russian media go beyond their journalistic mission and are involved in unacceptable interference in domestic electoral processes in other countries. I told the minister, as I am telling you now, that we prefer to discuss such issues professionally rather than with a microphone, if there are questions for Russian citizens or the Russian media. We do not want our relations with Spain, our good friend, to go awry. We want these concerns not to be silenced but to be presented based on specific facts. I reminded my colleague that we have repeatedly suggested to our European and US partners establishing bilateral working mechanisms on cybersecurity issues. We will have to deal with this for the foreseeable future. Cyberspace is being used for very diverse purposes, including questionable purposes. We stand for discussing emerging issues through dialogue. It seemed to me that our Spanish partners are interested in the idea of establishing a working group on cooperation in ensuring cybersecurity.
As for NATO’s military activities on our borders, Russia is worried about this because it is creating a threat to our security. They crudely violate the Russia-NATO Founding Act that compels the parties to abstain from permanently deploying significant armed forces on the territory of new members. We are seeing brigades deployed in the Baltics and the US global missile defence system in Romania and Poland. Polish leaders have come up with an initiative to permanently deploy US divisions on a base on their territory.
The US has announced its intention to walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, something that is bound to evoke concern. It is clear that all steps undertaken by our NATO colleagues to build up their infrastructure and military presence on Russia’s borders are bound to cause reciprocal measures, primarily in the military technical area.
However, this does not mean that we are interested in escalating tension. Quite the contrary, we are suggesting that they back their interest in de-escalating tension by practical actions and, to begin with, resume full-fledged contacts between the militaries. Regrettably, our NATO colleagues are trying to avoid this subject but I believe that eventually reality will compel them to do this.
Question (addressed to Josep Borrell): Did you discuss the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty? What do you think of it? Do you know how to solve this problem?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Josep Borrell): I can only welcome what has been said just now. When the US declared its intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, US National Security Advisor John Bolton was on a visit to Moscow. We gleaned from contacts with him – during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin and talks at the Russian Security Council and the Russian Foreign Ministry – that the decision had been taken. What remains to be decided is when specifically to launch the procedure of US pullout from this Treaty.
The Treaty was signed by the USSR and the USA and it primarily concerns our two countries. But it is clear that at the time it was characterised – and this assessment was repeatedly confirmed – as a cornerstone of global security and stability. There are no indifferent people among serious politicians where the case in point is what is happening to this Treaty and its fate.
When the US intention was made public, we, given the Treaty’s truly global importance, suggested that the emerging situation should be discussed at a UN General Assembly session and submitted proposals on holding a discussion on this matter. Regrettably, the proposal was turned down. Many parties, particularly small countries, were simply reluctant to pick a quarrel with the Americans. But the surprising thing was that all the EU countries voted also against discussing this topic at the UN General Assembly session. I hope the European Union’s position is unrelated to the essence of its approach to the content of the Treaty.
Question: Russia-US relations are strongly dependent on the domestic political situation in the United States. Do you expect our relations to improve after the upcoming midterm elections?
Sergey Lavrov: As I said, all charges that we meddled in the past presidential elections or will interfere in the current elections have proved empty verbiage. No one has presented us with concrete facts, despite our numerous requests to that effect. This concerns the presidential election held two years ago. It is obviously for the same reason – the lack of any facts with regard to the midterm elections – that US officials have already stated that there is no evidence of any Russian interference in these elections.
Their outcome will be decided by the American voters. We are not just confident, we know for certain that domestic political perturbation has a direct bearing on relations between Washington and Moscow. Our ties, contacts and global security partnership, which is so eagerly awaited by many countries, have fallen hostage to domestic political squabbles in the United States. I will not engage in guesswork as to how the outcome of these elections will influence our relations in the future. We should first wait until the returns are announced. First of all, we would like the internal situation in the US to calm down for Washington to be able to focus on some positive international steps aimed at promoting equitable cooperation.
Question (addressed to both ministers): You have mentioned the territorial integrity of Spain and Ukraine. What is your position on Crimea? You have also said that the EU, Spain and Russia should conduct a constructive dialogue. Could Spain contribute to the revision of the sanctions or do something else to change the situation that has developed because of Crimea and the Skripal case?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Josep Borrell): This is getting a bit repetitive, but every time I am invited to speak on Ukraine and Crimea I have to yet again point out the root causes of the situation.
I would like to remind you that on February 21, 2014, President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the leaders of the opposition signed an agreement on the settlement of the internal Ukrainian crisis, which provided for an early election simultaneously with the creation of a national unity government. That document was signed by representatives of France, Germany and Poland on behalf of the European Union. Barely a day later the agreement was trampled underfoot by the opposition. Germany, France, Poland and the EU as a whole did not utter a word or made any gesture to demonstrate their disagreement or to indicate that anti-state and anti-constitutional coups are unacceptable. The EU simply accepted the fact that radical forces seized power in Ukraine.
The first thing the new authorities did was to abolish the law that guaranteed the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine. One of t the armed coup leaders, Dmitry Yarosh, the leader of the so-called Right Sector, a radical neo-Nazi organisation, announced that ethnic Russians do not belong in Crimea, because Russians would never think or speak like Ukrainians and would not honour Ukrainian heroes, who, to him, include Nazi collaborators Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevich. Dmitry Yarosh said this is why Russians in Crimea must be eradicated or deported. Next, he sent armed hoodlums to storm the Supreme Council of Crimea. This is when the Crimean authorities called for a referendum. The referendum was held, and everyone who wanted to get first-hand information had the opportunity to go there to monitor the process. Many Western NGO representatives and cultural figures were in Crimea and could see how the referendum was held. Russia could not but recognise its results and respond to Crimeans’ decision to reunite with Russia.
In the past few months, laws were adopted in Ukraine on education and on Ukrainian as the only state language (the latter law has so far been adopted in the first reading), which stipulate that Ukrainian shall be the only language of tuition at schools and also prohibit the use of any language other than Ukrainian at work, in everyday life, in shops, fitness clubs, cinemas and theatres. The only exceptions concern the EU languages. This is open discrimination of only one language, Russian, which is the language of the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian people. I have written personal letters on this subject, including to High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as senior officials of the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe. So far nobody, not even the EU leaders, has reacted to these letters in any manner. We still do not know what the EU thinks about Ukraine’s attitude towards a large share of its population or how this relates to the Ukrainian Constitution, which seals the authorities’ duty to protect the rights of national minorities, including Russian speakers. Not to mention the numerous European and international conventions to which Ukraine is a party and which oblige it to ensure the language, education and other rights of all national minorities. I repeat that we are still waiting for a reaction from the EU leadership, to which we communicated our concerns.
You also asked about the Skripal case. I have nothing more to add. I have said what we think on this score. If there are any concrete facts, we are ready to discuss them. As for now, our main requirement is that London give us access to the Russian citizen and her father. Sergey Skripal has dual citizenship, Russian and British, whereas his daughter only holds Russian citizenship. It is unacceptable that we have been denied access to her for over six months and our request for proof that she is alive have not been heeded. I believe there is nothing to discuss here until the UK revises its arrogant position.
As for the sanctions, I have said that Spain is one of the countries that are aware of the abnormal situation in Russia-EU relations. If the EU is ready to start acting to improve this situation, we will certainly reciprocate. But it was not us who started this. I would like to remind everyone that the sanctions were adopted for the free expression of Crimeans’ will in the face of extermination threats from terrorists. The sanctions were also imposed on Russia because Donbass refused to recognise the anti-constitutional armed coup. I do not accept these decisions by Brussels as justified.
In my opinion, those who want to normalise relations with us and who are aware of the counterproductive situation must take the first step within the EU and to coordinate their future relations with Russia.
We know that the EU takes consensus decisions, but consensus is usually a midpoint, a compromise between two extreme positions. So far, the EU consensus on Russia is based on the lowest common denominator, that is, the position of a Russophobic and very aggressive minority. As I said, we will reciprocate as soon as the EU takes the first step towards normalising relations with us. I am sure that this will benefit all EU member states and Russia.