Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview and answers to questions for the programme “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, December 2, 2018
Question: It was a highly unusual G20 summit, with very many factors. I don’t remember Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel having to overcome so many obstacles just to get to a meeting. The death of President George H.W. Bush cast a pall over the event. And then there is this strange situation with presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the US president’s reaction to the incident in the Black Sea.
What are your feelings over this? Have these events spoiled the G20 meeting or prevented the participants from implementing the agenda?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that all these circumstances have had their effect on the events that are taking place in Buenos Aires. However, they have hardly had any serious effect on the agenda.
Just as it happened in 2008, when the G20 convened at the top level to discuss the root causes of a crisis that had spread to nearly all the countries, we are now amid a period of transformation in the global economy. There is, first of all, the digital transformation, an unprecedented rise in protectionist policies, up to trade wars, the sovereign debts of many countries and a shadow over the future of free multilateral trade, as well as many other factors. There is also the problem with the reliability of reserve currencies and the obligations of the countries that have them. It is these factors that influenced the preparations for the summit and discussions at it.
I have not mentioned the sanctions, the restrictive, prohibitive or punishing duties and tariffs, all of which created a serious and contradictory background for and influenced the essence of the discussions. It is good that a final declaration has been adopted. This is better than nothing. However, all the sharp angles which I mentioned have been smoothed over. But I don’t think this is connected to the circumstances we were talking about.
Anyway, the G20 has made rather useful decisions. We have outlined our position on the digital economy and the need to start adjusting the labour and education markets to it. We have also put forth our views on the situation when it comes to food security. Russia as a major grain producer is playing an increasing role in these matters.
There was also a thorough discussion on migration, refugees and approaches to this new problem. I would like to say in this connection that we have rejected the attempts to force the “concept of equal responsibility” on the G20 and the international community as a whole for the refugees who fled their homes, for various reasons, in the hope of finding a better future in foreign countries. We clearly pointed out to our colleagues that the root cause of this unprecedented wave of migration in Europe and other countries is the irresponsible policy of flagrant military interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. The most serious factor is, of course, the aggression against Libya, which has destroyed the country and has turned it into a black hole for the transfer of illegal weapons, drugs and organised crime to southern Africa. The northbound transit, above all via Libya, has brought migrants to Europe where they have become a major problem, including for the EU.
Another subject on which Russian delegates spoke actively here is the fight against terrorism. We drew the international attention to a new phenomenon of the so-called foreign terrorist fighters who return back to their home or other countries after completing criminal jobs in Libya, Syria, Iraq or some other places. It is vitally important to trace the movement of these dangerous people. Several years ago, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) created a database of foreign terrorist fighters. This database involves 42 security services from 35 countries, including G20 members, such as the BRICS countries, Turkey and South Korea. The UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), Interpol, the CIS Anti-Terrorism Centre, the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) and other international organisations have joined this database. We actively promoted this experience at the G20 summit where it aroused keen interest.
Question: Have you managed to bring across to our European partners the truth on what really happened in the Black Sea (and not in the Sea of Azov, as they usually write)? Have they finally heard our position?
Sergey Lavrov: I think they could not but hear it because President Vladimir Putin, while meeting with President of France Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, personally explained “in lay terms” how all this happened, how the provocation had been planned and how its execution was attempted, as well as how responsibly the Russian border guards performed their functions trying to prevent any undesirable incidents. Regrettably, the [Ukrainian] agents provocateurs (and the provocation, carried out by two craft and a tug, was controlled by two Ukrainian Security Service officers) did their best to fulfill the order, which was found after the Russian border guards stepped on board these fire-support craft. It said in no uncertain terms that they should secretly penetrate the neutral waters, perform a breakthrough under the Crimean Bridge without giving any previous notice or hiring a pilot, and sail through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov. President Putin personally told his interlocutors about this. I did not hear from them a response that would be based on different facts.
Question: It is important to note a totally different level of cooperation between Russia, India and China. One gets the impression that this time a unique mutual understanding took shape within the G20 between the three countries that together account for one-third of the world population. They have a totally different point of view than, for example, America and its partners, whom it is easier to call “satellites.”
Sergey Lavrov: It was the first Russia-India-China summit (RIC Group, as we call it) since 2006. The leaders of our three countries have agreed that this format should be maintained, including by holding regular summits in addition to ministerial and expert contacts that, basically, have not been discontinued during these years. What unites our countries was emphasised at the RIC meeting. This is primarily the striving not to allow the disintegration of multilateral universal organisations that are based on the UN Charter and the principles enshrined in it, such as equality, respect for sovereignty, and non-interference in internal affairs. Generally, an intention was voiced to defend the foundations of the multilateral, open economic and trade system. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi clearly spoke out against the sanctions that were increasingly often used in this sphere by the United States in the hope of enhancing its competitiveness and getting unfair competitive advantages.
As I said, the [three] leaders have agreed to continue holding summits, while instructing their foreign ministers to prepare for the RIC leaders proposals on how to make this cooperation more effective and promote it in new spheres.
Question: Is there any hope that these three countries – Russia, India and China – will have a common understanding and will vote unanimously in the UN Security Council?
Sergey Lavrov: India is not yet a full member of the UN Security Council, but it was elected several times as a non-permanent member for two years. We have identical views on the overwhelming majority of subjects. It is notable that our countries’ positions often overlap not only in the UN Security Council but also during voting on matters of fundamental importance at the UN.
Another example has to do with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and concerns a scandalous process which the West has launched in gross violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). When the Western countries proposed giving the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat the prerogatives that actually belong to the UN Security Council, India, Russia and other like-minded countries unanimously voted against this. The BRICS countries co-authored a statement in which they sharply criticised such inappropriate actions and demanded that all states respect the CWC and their obligations under it. I have mentioned BRICS for a reason, because President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of China Xi Jinping and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi have said that these three countries are the driving force behind such organisations as BRICS and the SCO, which India has recently joined. We are connected geographically and politically, share common views on the key aspects of the world order, want all disputes to be settled peacefully and would like to have a free, open and fair trade and economic system, which, taken together, makes us allies in these matters.
Question: Presidents Putin and Trump have held a short meeting after all. As for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was he evading you, or did he have to meet with you?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course, I did not pursue him, and he did not try to meet with me. To be quite frank, I do not even know if he is here, because I have not seen the full US delegation. US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a conversation with Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov, who deals with political matters, that they [the US administration] would like to resume and normalise our dialogue. We are ready to do this as soon as our colleagues are.
Question: As far as I know, there have been very interesting discussions on Syria. Has Russia managed to move the Western countries towards the realistic Russian view on the Syrian problem?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know how close we have managed to move them towards our position, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they don’t have any alternative strategy or tactic on this matter. Likewise, it is becoming clear that unacceptable things are taking place on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. The United States is trying to create quasi-public structures there, investing hundreds of millions of dollars so that the people could resume a normal peaceful way of life in these regions. At the same time, they refuse to rebuild the infrastructure in the regions that are controlled by the Syrian government. It is becoming obvious to everyone that the developments on the eastern bank of the Euphrates run contrary to the general commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity as sealed in a relevant UN Security Council resolution, although the United States has been trying to present its activities there as a temporary solution.
The US activities on the eastern bank of the Euphrates and in other Syrian regions where it has special forces and advisers include playing the Kurdish card. It is a very dangerous game, considering that the Kurdish question is very acute in several countries apart from Syria, such as Iraq, Iran and, obviously, Turkey. President Putin discussed this matter at a meeting with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the last day of the G20 session. They have confirmed their commitments regarding the Idlib de-escalation zone. We pointed out that not all extremists have heeded the demand to leave the 20-mile demilitarised zone, despite the active and consistent operations of our Turkish colleagues. We have coordinated further moves to ensure compliance with the agreement on the demilitarised zone and also to prevent the extremists from sabotaging this crucial agreement, which all sides welcomed.
The third aspect of the Syrian subject is the political process. The overwhelming majority of countries agree that the Constitution Committee, which is being created at the initiative of the three guarantor countries of the Astana process as per the decisions of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi, is the only viable method to start implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, under which all Syrian sides must hold negotiations to coordinate common and mutually acceptable views on life in their country and on its future development. This is exactly what is stipulated in the above-mentioned UN Security Council resolution. After they reach this understanding, they should adopt a new constitution and hold elections based on its provisions. However, as I have said before, no reasonable alternatives have been proposed over the past years to the initiatives advanced by the three Astana countries on combating terrorism, creating conditions for the return of the refugees and internally displaced persons back home, providing humanitarian aid and launching a political process.
Question: When the death of President George H.W. Bush was announced, President Putin expressed his condolences in a very emotional message. George Bush Sr. believed that one of the worst mistakes of his presidency was failure to prevent the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Did you meet with him? What are your impressions of him?
Sergey Lavrov: I did not meet with him often, but we did meet. I believe that George Bush Sr greatly contributed to the development of the United States and ensured that his country responsibly played its role in the world, considering its weight in international affairs.
I remember very well how President George H.W. Bush visited Moscow, I believe it was in 1991, and then he went to Ukraine where he encouraged the Soviet republics’ political forces to act responsibly and do their duty by preserving the country rather than create huge, tragic problems for millions of people who became citizens of different states the next morning after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Mr Bush was a great politician. I believe that every word that will be said about his achievements reflect the people’s true attitude to this man. However, one comment among the great number of condolence messages can be connected to your question about the link between President Bush and the demise of the Soviet Union. I watched CNN and Fox News on the day he died, and I heard a commentator say that George Bush Sr made history by helping Mikhail Gorbachev soft-land the Soviet Union. In fact, George Bush Sr never did that; he simply wanted to protect the millions of people who had lived in one country for decades or even centuries from political games. This is what we can say confidently about him.
Question: Do you think there is a connection between the provocation in the Kerch Strait and the US cancellation of the planned meeting between our presidents?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories. However, there have been too many coincidences, when a provocation that takes place ahead of a major event is used for fanning hysteria over sanctions. British Prime Minister Theresa May has demanded that Brussels further worsen its Russia policy, even though Britain has almost exited the EU.
We know our partners very well, and we have masses of questions about the adequacy of their approach to serious problems. There are very serious and very real threats. The fight against these challenges cannot be improved by making sacrifices to immediate geopolitical considerations.
Question: When will President Putin and President Trump hold a full-scale meeting after all?
Sergey Lavrov: I won’t even try to guess.