Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s responses to media questions during a joint news conference following a meeting with Head of the Federal Department (Minister) of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland Ignazio Cassis, Geneva, November 28, 2018
First of all, I would like to once again thank Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland Ignazio Cassis and his staff for inviting me here for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Geneva International Conference on Afghanistan.
We discussed in detail our relations, which have always been constructive and pragmatic and based on mutual respect and consideration for each other’s interests.
We are enjoying steady growth in trade. We welcome the consistent build-up of Swiss investment in Russia and Russian investment in Switzerland. Today, we confirmed our course of encouraging the business community to continue increasing cooperation between Russian and Swiss businesspeople. New solutions in trade and economic cooperation are being drafted for the next meeting of the Mixed Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation to be held in Bern on December 4.
As my colleague Ignazio Cassis mentioned, we noted with satisfaction the resumption of contact between our special services in the form of a meeting which took place in Moscow in mid-November. We only welcome this, because we can consider each other’s concerns through professional channels based on concrete facts a much better way to discuss them than through public statements that occasionally lead to confusion and misunderstanding. We welcome Switzerland’s commitment to start a professional and businesslike discussion of any concerns that may arise.
We maintain an intensive and productive dialogue between our respective foreign ministries. Today, we reviewed the statistics of consultations between the foreign ministries on various issues on the international agenda. I believe, I’m afraid I might make a mistake here, but we do not have another partner country with which we hold consultations this often.
We reiterated our gratitude to our Swiss colleagues for the effective representation of the interests of Russia in Georgia and providing a venue for holding the Geneva discussions on stability and security in the South Caucasus.
We exchanged views on the unhealthy situation in the Council of Europe caused by the desire of a number of countries to ignore the basic and fundamental provisions of the statute of that organisation and on preparations for the next meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Milan in early December.
Our friends were interested in knowing more about the incident that occurred in the Black Sea, not the Sea of Azov, where Ukrainian naval ships attempted to enter the Kerch-Yenikale Canal in violation of existing security rules. We mentioned the documents that were made public following the inspection of the violating ships by the Russian border guards. They clearly indicate that this was a pre-planned provocation designed to provoke a scandal with an eye towards achieving geopolitical goals and resolving certain domestic problems that Kiev faces.
With regard to international issues, we talked in detail about Syria. We told our partners about the efforts undertaken by Russia as a nation and as part of the framework of the Astana process. Along with Turkey and Iran, Russia facilitated a dialogue between the Syrian government and the armed opposition groups. Another meeting began in Astana today and will run for two days. Based on the outcome, I hope we will obtain more reasons to move towards resolving issues in the area of military-political stabilisation, boosting humanitarian aid, providing assistance in upgrading the infrastructure that is necessary for the returning refugees, and of course, as part of the political process in our preparations for talks in Geneva sponsored by the UN.
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan. We provided a detailed report on the recently held regular meeting in the Moscow Format, which has become the first platform where representatives of Kabul and the Taliban sat at the same table.
We drew our Swiss colleagues’ attention to the alarming trend that is arising due to the actions of several Western states that want to replace the universally agreed international legal instruments with certain actions which lack consensus support and are aimed at undermining prerogatives, including those of the UN Security Council. As an example, we spoke about the abnormal situation in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and similar intentions regarding the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC), and several other cases.
We hope that Switzerland, a country known for its respect for international law, will carefully study these developments and draw conclusions for its practical foreign policy.
We will be glad to continue the preparations for the opening ceremony of the renovated Swiss Embassy buildings in Moscow. We will hold a reception and talks with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis on the occasion.
Question: The US Department of State recently called on its European allies, among others, to uphold the sanctions regime against Russian due to the situation in Ukraine. Does this basically encourage Kiev? Is this fraught with new provocations by Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it reflects Washington’s desire to encourage the actions of the Kiev regime and even to instigating provocative acts. This is sad. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about this recently.
There is a backlog of many facts which reveal that Washington and some European capitals are ready to indulge the whims of Kiev. I would very much like the US Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, to act as a real envoy to try to achieve, mainly, an agreement between the conflicting sides – Kiev on the one hand and Donetsk and Lugansk on the other. So far Kurt Volker has only acted as a fierce protector of the provocative acts by the Kiev regime.
Question (translated from French, addressed to Ignazio Cassis): You talked about some contentious issues, such as spying on Swiss territory. Earlier reports have indicated that up to a quarter of the diplomatic corps is engaged in this activity. Now you claim the situation has improved. How exactly? Which systems are you talking about? You already mentioned Director of Swiss Federal Intelligence Service NDB Jean-Philippe Gaudin’s visit to Moscow, but what will follow? Did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offer any guarantees?
Sergey Lavrov (follows up on Ignazio Cassis): Indeed, we learned from the Swiss media this summer that the Swiss government had some suspicions regarding Russia’s activities on the confederation’s territory. Let me reiterate that we learned about this through the media and felt some bewilderment in view of the well-defined, friendly and pragmatic relations we have always enjoyed with Switzerland. We are ready for a professional discussion on any concerns our Swiss colleague might have. But in this situation we were not approached through official channels, the information appeared in the media. This means that someone in the Swiss government who was overwhelmed with suspicions leaked it to the media.
We were very surprised by this. This indicates that someone was more interested in a media scandal than a detailed explication. When I met Ignazio Cassis in New York, he raised the issue. I told him straight out that we do not understand why such an approach had been used and recommended using existing and more efficient channels. We are happy that the Swiss side used this approach. In the middle of November a respective official came to Moscow and met with his us. As far as I know, the results of the meetings were acceptable to both parties. We need to continue communicating via these channels without the political hype.
Russia has been accused of many things in several different countries in recent years. But no solid facts have been presented in any of these cases. Everything is done in UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s style with her charge of “highly likely.” Out of all the established facts of espionage I am aware of at least one that has been admitted by everyone and yet it is not talked about. I mean the Americans spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel including tapping her telephone. This is an objectively established fact. However, those who are preoccupied with espionage activities are not inclined to talk about something that rests on a universally acknowledged truth.
Question (addressed to Ignazio Cassis): You have just mentioned that there are legal and illegal actions. Would you explain the difference?
Sergey Lavrov (adds after Ignazio Cassis): This is what I have said. When the German Chancellor’s phone was listened in on, the Americans did this without permission from German intelligence services and courts.
Question: Today President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani said that the road map was ready and a special group for talks with the Taliban was established. What is Russia’s position on this issue? How can this influence the Afghani settlement process?
Sergey Lavrov: If President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani is really creating a special group to hold talks with the Taliban, this means that the logic that Russia promotes within the Moscow Format consultations on Afghanistan is effective. We will support a direct dialogue between official Kabul and the Taliban. Of course, this dialogue cannot be sustained in a vacuum. It should have international support. I believe that the Moscow Format, which unites all Central Asian states, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia (by the way, the USA is also invited), is ideally suited to provide international support for a direct, inclusive intra-Afghanistan dialogue, in which, of course, the country’s prominent political forces should take part together with the government and the Taliban.
Question (via interpreter): You mentioned complaints against Russia. But Ukraine has provided facts – the coordinates and the precise location of its ships when the Russian side opened fire. According to these coordinates, the Ukrainian ships were in international waters. Will you contest these facts?
A high-ranking EU official has said today that the Kerch Strait must be open for navigation. Does Russia agree?
Sergey Lavrov: We will contest the so-called facts provided by Ukraine, because our Coast Guard has recorded its own facts and has published them online. According to these facts, even if we forget about what happened in Crimea in March 2014, the Ukrainian warships entered Russian territorial waters in an area that was officially recognised by all sides, including Ukraine, as the territorial waters of Russia even before 2014.
As for the Kerch Strait, Ukraine knows the rules for navigating this tricky route very well. Back in September, Ukrainian warships transited from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov via the Kerch-Yenikale Canal. They had sent a proper notification to our Coast Guard. The security authorities in the Kerch Strait provided the Ukrainian ships with a pilot, which is an obligatory condition for moving through the strait. Therefore, it would not be correct, putting it mildly, to say that Ukraine had not been informed about the required procedure.
Our Coast Guard officials and investigators have interrogated the officers of the Ukrainian Security Service who were on board these ships and who oversaw that provocation. We have also found the documents – they are available online – that clearly show that the commanders of these warships were instructed not to notify the Kerch port authorities of their intentions but to move stealthily into the Sea of Azov in violation of the accepted rules. Nobody who has read these documents will have any doubts that it was an outright provocation.
Its goal was to remind the West about Ukraine, because Europe has obviously grown tired of the Kiev regime and government. Maybe America is not yet tired of Ukraine; I wouldn’t know. Another goal was to resolve internal political problems. Poroshenko’s rating is disastrously low.
I have already explained the procedure for transiting via the Kerch Strait. The Ukrainians know the rules very well, because they have used them before and have not had any problems with moving into the Sea of Azov.
We respect international law. The Crimean referendum was held in full compliance with the principle of self-determination, the right of nations to self-determination. Foreign observers monitored the referendum. These observers, although they did not represent foreign governments, wanted to know what was happening. And they saw that the Crimeans expressed their will absolutely freely and that they voted for reunification with Russia. This made the Kerch Strait the internal waters of Russia.
I understand that some of our Western colleagues are disappointed since they had not been able to create a naval NATO base in Crimea. But this cannot be helped. Such is the course of history, and such is the will of the Crimean people. Mr Cassis has done today what the EU, NATO and Washington do, urging Russia and Ukraine to take measures to de-escalate the situation. I believe that these calls, in particular to Ukraine, are clear proof of Kiev’s guilt for this incident. If there were even the slightest opportunity to get Kiev off the hook, our Western colleagues would not have addressed their appeals to Ukraine. They would have only addressed them to Russia.