Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following the 25th OSCE Ministerial Council, Milan, December 7, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to once again express our satisfaction and gratitude to the Italy’s OSCE Chairmanship and personally Foreign Minister Moavero Milanesi and his team for making the annual Ministerial Council meeting, which was held yesterday and today, very productive and successful.
We had a very beneficial exchange of opinions on current regional and international issues. The Russian delegation provided concrete examples to explain our concerns about the unhealthy situation in the OSCE space, in particular because of the growing military and political tensions. We see that our colleagues from the NATO countries are pursuing a policy of containing Russia, increasing their military activity on our borders, creating a military infrastructure on the “eastern front”, as they say, and resorting to unsubstantiated accusations instead of diplomatic methods, something that cannot promote dialogue even though it is only through dialogue that we can understand and remove any mutual concerns.
It is also alarming that our Western colleagues use the term “international law” less and less often. Instead, they talk more about a rules-based order. I do not see the difference between a rules-based order and international law, but judging by the situations in which this new term is used, our Western colleagues believe that international law is something that calls for universal coordination, while a rules-based order is something they can invent themselves. This is very sad. We urge our colleagues to comply with the agreements reached within the framework of international law.
We are concerned about the disregard for the language, education and other rights of national minorities, including religious rights, as well as the rise of neo-Nazism in many European countries and discrimination against and the persecution of dissenting media outlets. I hope you have taken note of the initiatives that have been advanced in Europe to weed out those media outlets that do not reflect mainstream opinion. All of the above prevents us from working together on the key issues that must bring us together. I am referring above all to aligning the integration processes that are taking place in western and eastern Europe and fighting transnational threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking and cybercrime. Approaches based on ideological preferences and a desire to make use of political methods from the Cold War era are preventing us from working together on important problems to remove very real – not imagined – threats and risks.
For the Ministerial Council’s meeting, Russia prepared four draft resolutions on very important subjects: combating terrorism, enhancing the role of the OSCE in addressing the global drug problem, protecting the language and educational rights of ethnic minorities, which, more and more often, are not simply restricted but eliminated, as well as the need to reaffirm the agreements that were concluded within the OSCE framework since the 1990s. They stipulate that free access be ensured to information for media organisations, the public and the people. As I have already mentioned, attempts are being made to artificially regulate such access.
Unfortunately, none of these resolutions has been approved, although no one doubts their relevance, I am sure. Our initiatives have failed to win support because they were proposed by the Russian Federation.
Not a single document on military and political aspects of security has been coordinated. Nevertheless, Russia will continue participating in the “structured dialogue on security challenges” initiated by Germany last year, provided that they are businesslike discussions. We will look at concrete facts and not engage in politicised talk. The main thing is to restore – in various formats in Europe, including the OSCE, and, above all, the Russia-NATO Council – concrete professional contacts between the military. This is important in order to better understand each other’s intentions and reduce the risk of potential dangerous incidents.
The agreements on economic and environmental topics that are being reached at the OSCE are in line with Russia’s priorities. I mean, in particular, the development of human capital and the digital economy.
We have taken note – and credit Italy’s chairmanship for it – that the OSCE is becoming more focused on the problems of the Mediterranean. This was one of the topics included in the Helsinki Final Act (and, in fact, the fourth basket). The debates that were held on Mediterranean matters revealed common interest in deepening cooperation in combating illegal migration and human trafficking, particularly given the problem of migrant children who have found themselves in Europe without parents and without any support.
We were surprised at the failure, for the fourth consecutive year, to implement the decision, adopted at the OSCE Ministerial Council’s meeting in Basel in 2014, to work out two additional OSCE declarations – on combating Christianophobia and Islamophobia – following the declaration on anti-Semitism. For reasons that are not clear to us, our Western partners are shunning discussions of phenomena which directly affect the interests of Christians and Muslims and which, unfortunately, keep growing. We are convinced that the virtual collapse of all the projects that were considered within the framework of the OSCE humanitarian dimension is the result of a deep crisis in our Organisation that, as we have repeatedly stressed, needs drastic reform and to be cleansed of all manner of distortions and “double standards.”
Conflicts in the OSCE space were also considered. A statement on the Transnistrian settlement was adopted; this is not a breakthrough, but at least it marks the readiness of all participants of the 5+2 format to continue working together. The OSCE Minsk Group’s three co-chair countries for the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement (Russia, the United States and France) coordinated and, together with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, made a statement on our intentions and determination to continue seeking a settlement to the conflict.
There was much discussion on Ukraine. It has become a sort of ritual for our western partners. Whatever is discussed, they always mention the Ukrainian conflict. We are not averse to discussion, but we call on everyone, instead of unfounded demands addressed to Russia for some reason, to urge Kiev to perform its obligations under the Minsk Package of Measures, which was adopted in February 2015. We highly value the work being done by the OSCE on coordinating talks between Kiev and Donbass in the Contact Group with our support, as well as the activities of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which must operate on the country’s entire territory. Its functions, among others, include monitoring manifestations of nationalism and radicalism in all regions of Ukraine; such manifestations are increasing.
Of course, we made efforts to reflect support for the Minsk process in the final documents of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting. However, Kiev’s destructive stance, with its attempts to fill any document with totally unacceptable and far-fetched ideas, prevented adopting any document on the issue.
We regret that once again we all have failed to adopt a general political declaration, the main final document which is planned each year but was last adopted in 2002.
Overall, the discussion was useful. I believe that many are coming to realise that confrontational approaches are no good. I think that everyone is starting to understand – although not everyone is speaking about it yet – that it is necessary to go back to the conceptual framework proposed by the best minds in Europe dozens of years ago – the necessity to create a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, as well as a space where security would be common and indivisible. This idea was confirmed at the OSCE Summit in Astana in 2010, where participants coordinated an appeal for creating a community of equal, comprehensive and indivisible security based on cooperation. These words were voiced and put into the document. They have to be implemented, and Russia is ready to do this.
Question: There was talk about new sanctions yesterday. I would like to ask, do you think that these sanctions will really be a problem for Russia, will they have economic effects for Italy and can they help to find a solution?
Sergey Lavrov: Our Italian colleagues and many, if not a majority, of the OSCE countries emphasise in their conversations the counterproductive character of sanctions, their harm – for all, by the way, including for those who are imposing the sanctions. However, in this situation we can only continue our course, which boils down to protecting the development of the Russian Federation from any possible relapses of sanctions policy. And if that is really the case, as far as I know, if awareness of the sanctions’ toxicity is growing, then, perhaps, those who set this spiral in motion should stop it and take appropriate decisions. I will say it again: we will be ready for this and will respond with reciprocity. Yet at this stage, with the European Union held captive by a small but very aggressive Russophobic minority, we will do everything possible to reduce our dependence on any economic ties that may become a target for new sanctions from our Western partners.
Question: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., has said that Washington might withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because, in his opinion, Russia is not honouring its commitments. Considering the 60-day ultimatum presented by Washington, does Moscow plan to take any action to preserve this treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry have repeatedly commented on the INF Treaty. As a reminder, several years ago, the United States started accusing Russia of violating the INF Treaty, without providing any evidence. We basically had to pry the information from the US, information that would help us understand what it was all about and what they meant. The US eventually mentioned the 9M729 missile, claiming that it had been tested on certain days at a certain testing site, and that the range violated the treaty’s provisions. Our data concerning these tests showed the opposite. The missile’s range is allowed under the treaty.
NATO foreign ministers met several days ago to support the US position. According to media reports, they did this after Washington presented certain irrefutable documents confirming that the treaty was violated. If this is so, we have not received any such documents from the US side. This is what we have been asking the US to do for a long time. We are still ready for a serious and professional discussion. Instead, the Americans resort to unfounded accusations, and again and again, from high rostrums, make allegations for the entire international community to hear about things that should first be clarified with the other party to the treaty. This would be a more appropriate, polite and correct approach.
Regarding the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), President of Russia Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that we are interested in launching talks on extending it. The document is set to expire in 2021, and there is not much time left. This proposal remains in force.
Question: Vice-President of the European Commission Andrus Ansip called on European countries to close ranks against Russian propaganda, given the upcoming European elections. What is the reason for the new attacks on the Russian media and new insinuations of election interference by Russian “trolls”?
Sergey Lavrov: This is an eternal and inexhaustible topic. There is nothing to add here. This is part of the same story, when we are accused of violating the INF Treaty, of election interference, of an attempt to bend cyberspace and the whole media space in general to our own interests. But I have not seen a single fact so far.
Every time a problem occurs, we ask very specific questions. For example, the crash of the Malaysian Boeing in Ukrainian airspace in July 2014. Where is the data from the Ukrainian radars? We provided our data. Where are the records of what the Ukrainian dispatchers said? No answer. Where is the data from American satellites that surely exists? No answer again. The questions are very specific. So in the case of Salisbury, where are the Skripals? There is no room for “highly likely” here. There can only be two answers here: yes or no, alive or not. Therefore, it is very difficult for us – we talk with our so-called partners in different categories.
Question: A question on compatriots. Even at this Forum, we saw that almost everyone beat up on Russia, accusing us of all sorts of things. At the same time, our compatriots, working under the supervision of Rossotrudnichestvo, are engaged in soft power, which is really soft. This includes Maslenitsa festivals, exhibitions, and dance performances. At the same time, in the current conditions, with a cold war practically underway, it probably makes sense to pay attention to changing the concept underlying work with compatriots. To give them the opportunity to engage in historical and patriotic work, in fighting Russophobia and breaking through the information blockade. Are there any plans to change how work with our compatriots abroad is handled?
Sergey Lavrov: Any person belonging to a certain society or association, or just an ordinary individual has the right to engage with historical matters and promote patriotic ideas in the society in which he or she lives, and educate children and, in general, the youth in this spirit. We strongly support such initiatives and, if necessary, we will provide relevant materials and access to archival documents. We are engaged in this work.
Of course, we cannot command the communities of our compatriots who are citizens of the countries in which they live. This is not in our interests. Or goodness knows what we will be suspected of.
But the Congress of Compatriots is held regularly in Russia. The latest one took place quite recently, at the end of October, and President of Russia Vladimir Putin spoke there. All the questions you are raising were addressed there. We are ready, within the framework of international law and the laws of the countries where our compatriots live, to provide them with all kinds of support.
Question: The United States is making statements at different levels on the future of the START Treaty. Do you feel that the United States is trying to play it up in order to scrap the treaty eventually? Does Russia have Plan B for this scenario?
Sergey Lavrov: I saw a statement to the effect that if the INF Treaty is discarded, then START-3 will become questionable. It seems that the ground is being prepared to destroy this document eventually.
We have come up with proposals that we have repeatedly made available to the United States, including in Helsinki, when President Putin met with President Trump. I myself presented one such proposal to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. We re-submitted our proposals during a visit by US National Security Adviser John Bolton to Moscow in August and later in October, when he was in Moscow again. These proposals are about starting a serious, candid and professional dialogue on the INF Treaty, compliance with the START Treaty, and a number of other proposals regarding our approaches to strategic stability. We got nothing in response from the US partners. We occasionally remind them about it. They keep saying that we need to correct our mistakes and stop the violations. Adults don't talk like that.
Question: The creation of a mechanism to advance Russia-Japan talks on a peace treaty was announced earlier. Is there any progress? Have any meetings been scheduled?
Sergey Lavrov: As President Putin and Prime Minister Abe announced in Singapore, an agreement was reached to give additional impetus to talks on concluding a peace treaty based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration which says that a peace treaty must be concluded before any discussion on anything becomes possible. Concluding a peace treaty means nothing less that recognising the outcome of World War II. We keep telling our Japanese partners that this is an absolutely indispensable first step if we want to conclude a peace treaty. We hope this step will be taken, otherwise we won’t be able to discuss anything.
Question: Yesterday, we all heard, more than once, various foreign ministers urge Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships. Are you ready to do so now?
Sergey Lavrov: They are under investigation now, and our Commissioner for Human Rights does see them from time to time. Consular access to them has been provided. They are in good shape. Nothing is threatening their health. There will be a trial after the investigation. They violated international law and Russian laws, illegally entered Russia’s territorial waters and refused to leave or to respond to our requests for information. This is a crime by the standards of any country. On the Mexico-US border, an order was issued to shoot to kill anyone who crosses the border. We did not do that.
With regard to deadlines, several options are available under Russian law once the court proceedings are over. Then, we will be able to discuss concrete steps with regard to their future. However, this can only be done after trial.
Question: President of Russia Vladimir Putin said Russia would issue passports to Ukrainian citizens in connection with this situation. Does this mean that the “passportisation” of Donbass residents will begin? And, do you have the latest information on the exchange of POWs?
Sergey Lavrov: President Vladimir Putin said what is envisaged in our laws. We have an opportunity to facilitate the procedure for granting citizenship, including to Ukrainian citizens, considering that those who want Russian citizenship cannot, for objective reasons, provide a document confirming their withdrawal from Ukrainian citizenship. Basically, no one will give them such a document and if they apply for it, they risk being persecuted.
As regards issuing passports, the law does not prohibit people who live outside a certain country from obtaining citizenship in that country. The same is happening in Moldova, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Ukraine too, there are Hungarian citizens and Russians with Russian passports. I do not see any problem or any false bottom here.
As for the exchange of POWs, there was a somewhat successful experience last year. I say somewhat because an unexpected thing happened. The lists of people were coordinated by Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk. We assisted with that. In all, dozens and even hundreds of names were verified. They were verified and re-verified several times. When those people were brought to the exchange site, the Ukrainian side claimed that 23 people could not be released because they had been included on the lists by mistake. These dishonest tactics make further talks on POW exchanges difficult. Nonetheless, we bring these matters up. We were the initiators of the clause in the Minsk Agreements that calls for an “all for all” exchange. We stand by this policy as before. Simply, the Ukrainian side, when it comes to coordinating the lists, tries to include people who have nothing to do with the events in Donbass. And it is those individuals who were involved in the events in Donbass that are being referred to when we call for an “all for all” exchange as was agreed.
Question: Is it possible to grant visa-free entry to family members of Russians who live in Europe, Italy in particular?
In recent years, Italian husbands denied permission for children born by Russian wives to receive Italian citizenship. Is it possible to simplify Russian citizenship formalities for such children?
Is any work under way to authorise the use of Russian driving licences in Italy similar to education diplomas?
Sergey Lavrov: I support the idea of granting Russian citizenship to children of mixed marriages upon the request of one of the parents, the mother in this case. I know that is not the practice now. We have proposed the introduction of this practice into our regulations. I hope that they will become a reality.
As for the introduction of visa-free entry for relatives of Russian citizens, this needs to be done. We will absolutely address this matter, but the simplest way for them in this situation is to obtain Russian citizenship. The closest relative has the right to obtain citizenship through a simplified process. But we will look into the possibility of expanding visa-free entry for the closest relatives of a Russian citizen.
As regards driving licences, I think that in this case an intergovernmental agreement has to be reached. We are currently preparing a similar multilateral treaty within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. If our partners propose this, we will respond in a constructive way and be ready to consider it.
Question: High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said you had good talks yesterday during the bilateral meeting, but added that your invasion of Crimea was illegal. What are your thoughts on yesterday’s talks with Ms Mogherini?
Following the NATO summit in Brussels, statements were put out regarding the INF Treaty to the effect that new weapons have been developed that jeopardise the Euro-Atlantic security. What are your thoughts on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already commented on the INF Treaty. The people I met with yesterday, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, expressed concern about this situation. If they are concerned, they should talk to their ally, the United States, and have the US sit down and talk substantively, rather than accuse us without any grounds from across the ocean. We are ready for such a dialogue and suggested considering the INF Treaty at the Russia-NATO Council. In response, our NATO colleagues completely blocked all communication channels between the Russian and NATO military. It is very difficult to stick to that position if you want to get your message across.
With regard to Ukraine, Crimea, annexation, occupation, and so on, I don’t need to come up with any assessments, because there are hard facts. The facts are that the West supported the state coup in Ukraine in February 2014. A day before the coup, Germany, France and Poland used their signatures to guarantee the agreement between then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. They turned out to be not amenable to talks. This coup humiliated them. Instead of the “government of national unity” stipulated by the agreement, the putschists announced the creation of a “government of victors.” Our appeals to Berlin, Paris and Warsaw regarding their guarantee of an agreement which supposedly led to a creation of a government of national unity and the holding of early elections, with a provision on the need to rein in the putschists who spit on their guarantees, remained largely unanswered. The first thing the putschists did after they illegally seized power was to rescind the law providing benefits for the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. We knew who these new people in power were from day one. Two days after the coup, one of the leaders of the violent behaviour during rallies in the central square of Kiev and head of the neo-Nazi organisation Right Sector, now a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmitry Yarosh, said that there was no place for Russians in Crimea. He claimed that the Russians will never understand the Ukrainians or honour Ukrainian heroes, meaning those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. So, Yarosh went on, Russians must either be destroyed or be banished from Crimea. This is what kicked off the processes that led to the referendum in Crimea and the Crimeans’ decision to reunite with Russia. Do not forget about this.
When I remind our colleagues, including participants of those events who put their signatures as a guarantee of the implementation of the agreement on the settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine dated February 21, 2014, about this, they say that this has already happened and now we need to do something about it. They suggest that we take the first step. We do not need to take the first step. The Minsk agreements must be fulfilled -- this is what matters most.
In 2014, our Western colleagues “swallowed” the anti-constitutional armed coup in Ukraine, and since then they’ve been unable to hold that government accountable, although they have long since understood who they are dealing with. Having once branded them democrats and partners, they cannot publicly criticise them now. That's the problem.
President Poroshenko and his regime enjoy impunity and plan provocations like the one that occurred at the entrance to the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea.
Literally a day after this blatant provocation, the text of the order that these people received from their command was found on one of the boats, as you may be aware (President Putin spoke about this). It said that the boats should covertly, without requesting authorisation of the Russian authorities, pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. To emphasise: covertly. Although 45 days before that, similar military boats strictly complied with all the rules of passage through the Kerch Strait: anchored and requested the services of a marine pilot, which were provided to them. They were led through the strait, and then sailed to their port of destination across the Sea of Azov. Why didn’t they do the same this time? There may only be one answer: they wanted to provoke a scandal.
A day after that, President Poroshenko declared martial law, and three days later the US declared that they need to increase their military presence in the Black Sea. It went like clockwork: first, an incident was inflated into a scandal followed by martial law, which will be used to shore up the absolutely groundless hopes of the incumbent president of Ukraine in the run-up to the upcoming elections. Instantly, we see initiatives come out that are in line with the US plans to build up its military presence near our shores. If you follow the logic of “who stands to gain?” you can draw your own conclusions.
Question: German media are now reporting that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is proposing to expand the activities of the OSCE mission to the Sea of Azov, including because of the incident in the Kerch Strait. This idea will be discussed at the upcoming Normandy Four meeting on December 11. Did you discuss this matter yesterday at the bilateral meeting? What are your thoughts on the idea?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas raised this matter at our meeting yesterday and expressed a number of other ideas. I explained to him the futility of such initiatives.
Of course, no one will forbid discussing this on December 11 or on any other day, but the OSCE has a specific mandate that extends to the entire land area of Ukraine. It even lists areas in which there is a representative office of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. No monitoring or intermediaries are required either in the Sea of Azov or in the Kerch Strait. Safety rules must be strictly followed during passage through the Kerch Strait, as Ukrainian naval vessels did in September but decided not to do on November 26. Of course, it is necessary to strictly observe and respect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, not to violate our laws.
Question: How does Russia regard the detention of the daughter of the Chinese company Huawei’s founder?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that this is another example of a policy that has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of normal countries and people: a policy of extraterritorial application of national laws.
As I understand, she was detained in Canada at the request of the US due to the fact that this company does business in Iran. This is prohibited by US law. But what does China have to do with it? And what does Huawei have to do with it? This is very arrogant, great-power politics that no one supports. It is being rejected even by the closest allies of the United States. They should put an end to this.
Question: Turkmenistan persecutes people with dual citizenship and creates problems when they try to leave the country or get a national Turkmen passport. Are there ways to help them? There are many people who want to leave Turkmenistan and move to Russia. Can the procedure for receiving emigrant status be simplified?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the issue of dual citizenship, we have been working on this with our Turkmen colleagues on a regular basis since our agreement on dual citizenship was denounced. As I understand it, the matter concerns a relatively small group of people who failed to settle all the formalities before the denunciation of the agreement. Our Turkmen partners have assured us, at the highest levels, that they would address these issues.
We expect to get specific information on this soon.
Question: We have information that your colleague, former Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan Boris Shikhmuradov and several other people were accused of a “terrorist attack” and stripped of Turkmen citizenship. They have only Russian citizenship. Is there any way to influence the Turkmen authorities to find out if these people are alive or not?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard that Boris Shikhmuradov was stripped of his citizenship, but I will look into this.