Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on the results of Russian diplomacy in 2018 Moscow, January 16, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are delighted to welcome you to this traditional news conference on the results of our foreign policy performance last year.
We would like this meeting to take place, just as before, in the form of a direct dialogue. Therefore, I will try to keep my opening remarks as concise as possible, especially since President Vladimir Putin has already spoken about our approaches to the main current topics more than once, including at his annual news conference held on December 20, 2018, as well as during the interviews he gave to Serbian newspapers yesterday.
It is needless to say that the international situation remained complicated. The conflict potential increased last year, primarily because of the stubborn unwillingness of some Western countries led by the United States to accept the realities of the objectively developing multipolar world, as well as because of their desire to continue to force their will on others by means of pressure and economic and propaganda instruments. There have been attempts to steamroll multilateral institutions and erode their international mission and to replace the universal norms of international law with a “rules-based order.” This term was recently coined to camouflage a striving to invent rules depending on changes in the political situation so as to be able to put pressure on disagreeable states and often even on allies.
It is alarming that various non-consensual initiatives are advocated beyond the framework of international institutions, and that decisions taken behind closed doors by a narrow group of the select few are presented as the opinion of the international community.
We see no cause for optimism in Washington’s unilateral actions taken to undermine the crucial international legal instruments of strategic stability. We saw the latest example of this at the Russian-US consultations on the INF Treaty held in Geneva yesterday. Taken together, this is increasing mutual mistrust and militarising foreign policy mentality.
In this situation, we continued to pursue a multidirectional foreign policy focused on protecting Russia’s national interests. We worked to strengthen the positive trends on the international stage, to find collective solutions based on international law to the problems all countries are facing, and ultimately to promote a fairer and more democratic polycentric world order in keeping with objective modern realities. Towards this end, we closely cooperated with our allies and partners at the CSTO, the EAEU, the CIS, BRICS and the SCO, as well as working constructively in the key global governance bodies, primarily the UN and G20.
As part of our presidency of the EAEU, we worked to strengthen the organisation’s international standing. We did our best to align the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative and to promote the Russia-ASEAN strategic partnership, including in the context of President Putin’s initiative for creating a Greater Eurasian Partnership based on the logic of harmonising our integration processes and open for accession to all countries and associations both in Asia and in Europe.
International terrorism has been dealt a defeating blow in Syria. This allowed to preserve the Syrian state and to launch economic recovery and the return of refugees back home. In keeping with the decisions taken at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, the guarantor countries of the Astana Process – Russia, Turkey and Iran – worked hard to help form the Constitutional Committee by convincing the Syrian Government and the opposition to approve the list of its potential members. This has created conditions for a political process in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 in the interests of a lasting settlement of the Syrian crisis.
We supported the positive trends on the Korean Peninsula based on the logic of the Russian-Chinese roadmap for a settlement. Of course, this calls for reciprocating Pyongyang’s constructive moves.
Another major result of the past year was the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea at the fifth Caspian Summit. This convention seals the coastal states’ exclusive rights to this unique body of water and its mineral and other resources.
We made significant efforts to ensure international information security and to fight cybercrime. In December, the UN General Assembly approved two resolutions on this matter on our initiative.
We paid special attention to the further development of contacts with the multi-million Russian world. The 6th World Congress of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad on October 31 − November 1 held in Moscow.
We expanded humanitarian, research and educational ties, and supported various initiatives aimed at introducing the world community to the best achievements of national culture and art. We assisted foreign countries in the training of their national personnel.
The FIFA World Cup was a highlight last year – a real triumph of public diplomacy. Millions of foreign guests visited Russia and saw modern Russia together with its citizens with their very own eyes.
This year, we intend to step up efforts in all the key areas. Among our priorities is the promotion of creating a truly universal antiterrorist coalition under the auspices of the UN, mobilising the international community to more effectively combat drug trafficking and other types of organised crime. We will help consolidate positive trends in Syria and on the Korean Peninsula, resolve other crises and conflicts, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Ukraine, where there is no alternative to the full and consistent implementation of the Minsk Agreements. As before, we are interested in restoring normal relations with the US and the EU on the principles of equality and mutual consideration of interests. We will certainly continue to respond appropriately to the increased NATO military activity and its military infrastructure being moved closer to the Russian borders.
Our undoubted priority is to ensure the national security and other favourable external conditions for Russia’s dynamic development and improving Russians’ welfare. We are open for creative interaction with all those who do not make bilateral relations hostage of volatile political environment or use them as a tool to achieve geopolitical advantages, but are willing to cooperate honestly and find mutually acceptable compromises based on mutual benefit.
In conclusion, I would like to note that a few days ago, on January 13, Russia marked Russian Press Day. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I would like to greet everyone here, primarily the workers of the Russian media as representatives of the entire Russian journalistic community on your professional day. We highly appreciate your work, and efforts to promote high professional standards in the global information space, and your values of honest and unbiased journalism. We are ready to continue close and constructive interaction with the media in a variety of formats. I can assure you that we will certainly continue to pay heightened attention to ensuring free and unhindered work of journalists, and to work to maintain the effective observance of the existing international guarantees by all states.
Thank you. I am ready to answer your questions.
Question: What additional measures can Russia take considering that the term of detention has been extended for Kirill Vyshinsky several times? Is there a possibility of exchanging him or taking reply actions against our Ukrainian colleagues?
Sergey Lavrov: We have spoken more than once about the actions we have taken through various international organisations and journalist unions, as well as within the framework of our bilateral contacts with different countries, calling for influencing Kiev to stop persecuting a journalist for his professional activities under absurd charges of treason.
I don’t think that the idea of exchange, which some people may consider interesting, can help convince the Ukrainian authorities to strictly comply with their obligations regarding journalistic activities. Such ideas would only encourage those who are ready to use journalists as small change in the pursuit of their sinister goals. I can assure you that we will do our best to ensure the primacy of law so that Kirill Vyshinsky is released and takes up his profession again.
It is not the only problem with journalists in Ukraine. Nearly all the Russian media outlets represented here have been either prohibited from working in Ukraine or restricted in their activities.
Question: If the United States withdraws from the INF Treaty after all, will Moscow consider the extension of the Treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: As I already said, yesterday we provided our constructive proposals that allowed the US to make expert conclusions on the 9М729 missile, which they claim was created in violation of the Treaty parameters. However, the US delegation came to the talks with a pre-set position which was presented in the form of an ultimatum demand that we destroy the missile, its launchers and all the related equipment under the Americans’ supervision. They turned a blind eye to our request for analysing our proposals and the real specifications of this missile. Likewise, they refused to listen to our proposals regarding access to information on our concerns about the Americans’ non-compliance with that Treaty if we take action to allay the Americans’ suspicions. They rejected all our proposals. The logic of the American approach as expressed yesterday is as follows: Russia violates the Treaty, while the US does not. Therefore, Russia must do what the US demands, while the US does not have to do anything. This approach is not at all constructive. It obviously is part of the policy for destroying all the agreements in the sphere of strategic stability, starting with the ABM agreement. The INF Treaty is another victim. Many countries fear that the US administration also intends to pull out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as well. We hope this is not the case. We are ready to keep working in order to save the INF Treaty.
I hope that those European countries that should be interested in this more than others will do something constructive instead of docilely following in the US wake, adopting NATO decisions that only blame Russia, ignoring the facts we provide and are ready to provide. I hope that they will try to influence Washington so that it takes a more responsible position regarding all members of the international community, primarily the Europeans.
As for the START Treaty, we are doing a great deal, as you know, to remove all the possible hitches and to ensure its extension. But we do have logical questions about the US efforts to exclude a significant number of strategic offensive arms from the accountability by presenting them as conventional weapons. We have informed US and other Western experts about our concerns. We hope that professionalism and a responsible attitude to the international community will take priority in Washington’s approach to the dialogue on strategic stability.
Question: There were a lot of questions in the United States over the fact that President Donald Trump did not share the content of his conversations with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, including with his official representatives. Is the Kremlin influencing the transparency of these conversations?
Sergey Lavrov: It is difficult for me to comment on what is happening in the United States and President Trump accused of being a Russian agent. I would say this is a lowering of the standards of journalism for the American press and a thankless job. I cannot believe that journalists in the United States sincerely and professionally deal with these problems. There is such a thing as the culture of diplomacy, the culture of negotiations, the culture of communication at the interstate level. This implies following the decorum, approaches and norms accepted in each of the parties in interstate relations. As far as I know, the US Constitution authorises the President to set and carry out the country’s foreign policy. We know that this right is now being attacked by Congress. They write a lot about this, including your colleagues. But this does not make these attacks constitutional or legitimate. I will not comment on the actions taken by the US Administration in accordance with the President’s and his Administration’s powers.
Since you have raised this topic, I would like to make the following point. Maria Butina is charged with having certain subversive motives for her interactions with Americans. They could charge literally any Russian citizen, a public official or someone like Butina, who wants to receive an education and interact with American and other foreign colleagues. They get accused of espionage and promotion of certain goals that are illegitimate and contrary to the interests of the United States. But if you look at the circle of contacts of American diplomats in Moscow, the scope of their Russian acquaintances, you will see that the Russians, who are under illegal American sanctions, are primary targets for the attention of American diplomats. Yet, no one charges US diplomats for communicating with people they are prohibited to contact and who are barred from entering the United States as outcasts.
There is another example of the absurdity of what is happening. Prosecutor Robert Mueller has been working for almost two years now. He interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of people, but found no leaks that would confirm alleged collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian Federation. No facts and no leaks were presented, which is very strange for the American political system. Leaks usually happen instantly there. There have been some; several facts have been mentioned regarding Ukraine’s involvement in the US election campaign, but not Russia.
Here is one example. Michael Flynn served as President Trump’s national security adviser for several days. I read with interest what he was specifically accused of. Prosecutor Mueller accused him of two things: first, Flynn called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before President Trump’s inauguration and asked him not to reciprocate in response to the sanctions that Barack Obama imposed on Russia in the last days of his presidency, urged us not to take the path of escalation and confrontation. Was that so bad? Was it against the interests of the American people or the American government that a potential member of the administration urged us not to harm the American diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation, not to take away property or expel diplomats? This was one accusation against Flynn. The second charge against him was that he also asked Ambassador Kislyak to influence Moscow’s position on the resolution discussed in the UN Security Council, which required Israel to stop building new settlements in the occupied territories. Since the Obama administration decided not to block adoption of this resolution and, unlike in the previous cases, to abstain rather than vote it down, Flynn, according to Mueller, asked the Russian side to veto this anti-Israeli resolution.
I am not talking about the substance of the mater right now, whether it was necessary to adopt that resolution or not. But he essentially called on the Russian side to defend the position that the United States had been promoting in the UN for decades. Here are two accusations against this person. I do not know what sentence he will get. But the absurdity of the situation is obvious to me. This is just one example of the bacchanalia going on around the so-called Russian dossier.
Question: Recently, Russia and Japan began a new round of talks on a peace treaty, which should be aimed at taking bilateral relations to a new level. The treaty must be supported by both nations. Like, probably, the whole of Japan, I do not understand that you set a precondition for us. It lies in the fact that Japan, above all, must recognise all the results of World War II, including the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over the disputed islands. Is this not an ultimatum? You do normally criticise ultimatums in diplomacy. One gets an impression that Russia is again demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. I do not understand Russia’s logic. We are discussing the ownership of the islands. If Japan recognises Russia's sovereignty over the Kuril Islands, then the question will be closed and there will be no problems. Then what are we going to negotiate?
Sergey Lavrov: I already spoke on this subject immediately after the talks with my Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono. I reiterate, the recognition of the outcome of World War II is not an ultimatum, not a precondition. This is an unavoidable and inextricable factor in the modern international system.
With the support of the Soviet Union in 1956, Japan became a member of the UN, signed and ratified the UN Charter, in which there is Article 107. It states that all the results of World War II are unshakable. So, we do not require anything from Japan. We urge our Japanese neighbours toward practical actions in line with their obligations under the UN Charter, the San Francisco Declaration and a number of other documents, including those you mentioned.
What does our position regarding the need for Japan to align its approaches with the UN Charter mean? The term “northern territories” is included in your country’s legislation. It is included in a number of laws, including the one adopted in September 2018 which ties implementation of the joint initiative by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on joint economic activities on the islands to the need to return the northern territories. No one agreed on that. This is directly contrary to Japan’s obligations under the UN Charter.
So, this is not a preliminary requirement, but a desire to understand why Japan is the only country in the world that cannot fully recognise the outcome of World War II.
Of course, there is still a number of other passing details. I do not want, again, to go over the problem of the military-political alliance with the United States, the deployment of US bases in Japan. All this was covered in sufficient detail.
Our leaders also spoke about the need for qualitative improvement, as you rightly said, of our relations in the economy, trade, culture, science and international affairs. To resolve any complex issues, not only under a peace treaty – there is a number of other issues to be resolved with our Japanese colleagues. Of course, it is necessary for us to feel like we are partners in the international arena, not countries standing on the opposite side of the barricades. But Japan joined a series of sanctions imposed on Russia which hardly fits into the understanding of achieving a qualitatively new level of relations. Japan joined the anti-Russian statements adopted by the G7. On all UN resolutions that are of interest to Russia, Japan votes not with us, but against us.
Just before his visit to Russia, Taro Kono was in Paris where a meeting of the ministers of defence and foreign ministers of France and Japan was held. A declaration was adopted following the meeting. After you read it, of course, you will understand that we are still very far from not just being partners in international affairs, but even being cognizant of the need to look for constructive approaches that will bring our positions closer.
Taking this opportunity, I would like to note that this Japanese-French declaration at the end of the “2+2” meeting contains an obligation by Japan and France to coordinate their actions as part of Tokyo’s G20 presidency and the G7 presidency of Paris. This raised questions on our part, because the G7 is part of the G20. The chairman of the G20, which is Japan this year, should provide proper conditions that allow consensus to be developed by all 20 participating countries, rather than work only in the interest of one group within the G20. I hope this was just a misunderstanding when formulating the language of this declaration.
In our practical steps, we proceed from the fact that our Japanese colleagues with their inherent professionalism will contribute to developing consensus solutions that unite both developed and developing countries, in a word, all the G20 members, and will also take into account the interests of all other states since the decisions of the G20 touch upon matters that concern all members of the international community.
Question: What do you think about the further development of the Union State after fairly strong statements by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko? What further steps could be taken if one side is obviously against this?
Sergey Lavrov: I am simply surprised at the din in the media and elsewhere over this issue.
The Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State is an open document. It was possible to read it immediately after signing. It is also possible to refresh memories about it now. The document contains many ideas that united us and encouraged us to establish a union state at that time. The treaty provided for the adoption of the Constitutional Act, the formation of the Union Parliament, and the establishment of the Court of the Union State. At that time Moscow and Minsk agreed to all this of their own free will.
However, it became clear with the passage of time that the formation of a common constitution, common parliament and common court was not yet possible. But we do not insist on this, either.
During the recent contacts of our presidents in December (three December meetings) our team and our Belarusian colleagues discussed those provisions of the treaty that concern strictly practical economic and trade issues, as distinct from a common constitution, parliament and court. I am referring to the treaty’s provisions on creating a common monetary unit and common credit and tax policies. They are directly linked with economic and financial relations within the Union State.
We had no disagreements with our Belarusian colleagues on how to take these strictly practical steps. As you heard, a working group headed by the economy ministers of Russia and Belarus was set up at the decision of our presidents. The group has been authorised to deal directly with the issues I have just mentioned. We are not inventing anything. Considering that our Belarusian colleagues are interested in many matters related to setting economic, monetary, credit and tax policies, we are asking them to look for ways of bringing closer our positions on the issues that were supposed to be resolved by the treaty 20 years ago and that directly concern the problems that Belarus wants to see resolved, including the so-called “tax manoeuver.”
I hope that pragmatism will prevail over the attempts to look at this routine situation as reflecting some geopolitical plans inside or outside the Union State.
Question: German Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that is, Heiko Maas will soon visit Russia. What will you discuss with him?
Sergey Lavrov: Now I will also be accused of a plan to capture Germany.
As for Mr Maas’s visit, as he announced himself, we will primarily discuss the situation in Ukraine and Syria. There are decisions on both issues, which should be carried out. We are ready to discuss them.
Question: Several countries, including the United States, do not recognise Nicolas Maduro as the President of Venezuela. What is Russia’s stance on the matter?
Sergey Lavrov: Our stance is to avoid any interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Throughout the entire Venezuelan crisis we did our best to support efforts to establish a dialogue between the government and the opposition, including the efforts of the countries in the region. We know that this dialogue, which many Latin American countries counted on, eventually fell apart because the so-called irreconcilable part of the opposition was influenced from abroad, mainly by the United States. The said influence made that part of the opposition irreconcilable. It is deeply regrettable. We have heard statements that allow for a military intervention in Venezuela, and statements that the United States will recognise or may begin to recognise President of the National Assembly Juan Guaido as the legitimate President of Venezuela rather than Nicolas Maduro. All this is very disturbing and indicates that the United States continues to break down unfavourable governments as its priority strategy in Latin America and other regions. We can talk about this in more detail later.
Question: Jair Bolsonaro has taken office as the President of Brazil. He is dubbed the Trump of the Tropics. Are there any concerns that he could be a Trojan horse for BRICS?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro contacted our representatives, including State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who represented our country at his inauguration. He confirmed his intention to ensure continuity in relations with the Russian Federation and to participate in the further development of BRICS, in which Brazil took over the presidency this year. Literally the other day, our Brazilian colleagues made us aware of their presidency plans, the schedule of ministerial meetings and the summit, and the programme that they propose to other members of this group. I do not see any reason to assume that Brazil will play a destructive role in BRICS. On the contrary, the country affirms that the group is one of the priorities in Brazil’s foreign policy.
Question: Asked about Paul Whelan, who was officially charged with espionage, your American colleague demurred and said that he could not and would not go into detail. Can you update us on this case? Is it true that American diplomats are just about to visit him? Was there any talk about an exchange? Is this the reason for launching a new phase of diplomatic pressure on Russia? Have three other countries who stated that the man was also their citizen – Canada, the UK and Ireland – made new attempts to get in contact with Paul Whelan to influence the situation?
Sergey Lavrov: US Ambassador Jon Huntsman has already visited Paul Whelan. An Irish diplomat either has visited him or is going to see him. We have got a request from the American Embassy for another visit and we will satisfy it. Britons never mention the 1965 Consular Convention signed by Moscow and London, under which access must be granted to a national detained in the other country. They do not use two-way diplomatic channels to invoke this convention, probably, because previously they either did not answer or formally turned down our numerous requests to be granted, in compliance with this Convention, access to Julia and Sergei Skripal. They might realise that they themselves have rendered this convention void. Even so, if we receive such a request, I can assure you that we will act in a more civilised manner.
Regarding the detention itself, our competent bodies informed us about the circumstances of Paul Whelan’s arrest. His family was informed about the situation and his detention conditions. We have received no complaints about these conditions. However, it is pitiful that the countries whose citizenship Whelan holds, including Canada, are strongly demanding that he be freed without delay while some of them have even started threatening to impose sanctions. I will not speak now about the Russians who are languishing in US prisons, as no action is taken on their case nor is any human concern even shown for them, although in the majority of cases the charges against them are absolutely fictitious or unsubstantiated.
Paul Whelan was detained while committing an unlawful act at a hotel. This was also reported. Incidentally, about 20 US nationals are held in Russian penitentiary institutions and detention centres, over half of whom do not hold dual citizenship. At the request of the US Embassy, American diplomats are regularly granted access to them. We did not hear any high-profile statements in connection with their detention like those that are being made on Paul Whelan. It might be worthwhile to think why this is happening.
The investigation is underway. If your question implies that Whelan’s arrest might be motivated by the desire to exchange him for a Russian national, it is absolutely untrue. We never get involved in things like this. He was caught red-handed.
Question: Last year Russian diplomacy achieved impressive successes in Syria. What actions in the spirit of unity and the struggle of opposites will be taken in the east of the Euphrates after the departure of US troops?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a very important issue. On the whole, the Syrian settlement process is making headway, although slower than desired and with problems that were hard to predict before. Nonetheless, progress is obvious. We are convinced that the fight against terrorism should be completed. Now the main hotbed is the Idlib zone where almost all of the militants have been taken over by Jabhat al-Nusra, a banned organization that the UN Security Council qualified as terrorists. We are highly interested in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreements on the Idlib zone. But they do not give carte blanche to terrorists that continue shooting at Syrian troop positions and civilian facilities from the Idlib zone, including the demilitarised area, and who are trying to attack the Russian Khmeimim air base.
We hope that President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in contact soon. A meeting has already been scheduled, and this will be the central issue of the talks.
As for the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the US has indeed announced its intention to withdraw from there. It is common knowledge that it has established about two dozen military facilities there, including fairly big and strong military bases. It is no secret either, that the US supplied arms to the Kurdish self-defence units that collaborated with it. This gives rise to the following question that is of interest, in part, to our Turkish colleagues: what will happen with these arms and military facilities? We are convinced that the most rational and the only correct solution to this issue would be to put these territories under the control of the Syrian Government, Syrian armed forces and Syrian administrative structures with the understanding that the Kurds should be provided with all the necessary conditions in the places of their traditional residence.
We welcome and support the contacts that have been established between Kurdish representatives and the Syrian authorities with a view to coming to terms on ways to restore life in a unified state without outside interference.
There is a problem with the American plans. First it was announced that the withdrawal would take place in two months, then in six rather than two months and later on that the withdrawal may be delayed. That brings to mind a quote by Mark Twain “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.” This is also an American tradition.
There is still another big problem – the Al-Tanf zone with a radius of 55 km, which was illegally set up by the US. It contains Rukban refugee camp access to which is practically closed. A humanitarian convoy that was organised with our support and the consent of the Syrian Government entered this zone several weeks ago. Contrary to US assurances, representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent and the convoy were not allowed to meet with the refugees directly. Control over this was given to militants, including terrorists that live, conduct training sessions undisturbed and receive material and other support in Al-Tanf.
Nobody knows for sure what happened with these humanitarian goods – whether they were received by the refugees to whom they were sent or if militants used them in their own interests. Now our UN colleagues are calling for a second convoy to this place. The situation is indeed hopelessly bad – there are between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees there without access. Supporting the position of the Syrian Government, we insist that this time complete safety and transparency be ensured and measures taken to make sure that the goods are delivered to the refugees rather than illegal armed units.
In addition, as a power that occupies that part of Syria, the US is fully responsible for the destiny and living conditions of the civilians there. After all, the US service personnel in Al-Tanf are supplied with all they need from Iraq. If food and other essentials are delivered to US troops, it is easy to do the same for the refugees, using the same routes.
Question: As is known, the Kurdish people live in countries of the Middle East. They complain that their political issues have not yet been discussed, and that no attempts to solve their problems have been made. What is your position regarding the future of the Kurdish people in Syria and Iraq?
Sergey Lavrov: Our stance is very simple. The issues concerning the Kurdish people in Syria, Iraq or anywhere else in the world (these are not the only two countries where these people live) should be addressed in accordance with the national legislation of the respective countries.
The rights of national minorities, such as the Kurdish people living in Iraq and Syria, must, of course, be ensured with the help of dialogue between these minorities, their representatives, and central governments. We firmly advocate preserving and respecting the territorial integrity of every state in this region. In recent years, these countries have been subject and remain subject to severe trials relating the aggression organised against Iraq, then Libya, and now, Syria. It is vital for us to avoid the redrawing of borders here. I believe that the Kurdish people in both Syria and Iraq understand the necessity of reaching mutually acceptable agreements with the central government, which would take into account their interests without undermining the territorial integrity of the respective states.
Question: Foreign Ministry representatives, including Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko yesterday, have on many occasions criticised the idea of changing the name of our neighbouring state, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. You have repeatedly mentioned the UN Security Council resolution on this matter. I would like to clarify what Russian diplomats mean when they refer to this UNSC resolution? Do you want to somehow thwart the Prespa agreement? Are you dissatisfied with it?
In this connection, I would like to get a clearer picture of the situation in the Balkans. You criticise the United States and NATO for expanding their positions in the Balkans and not just there. The United States and NATO respond that they are only trying to stop your aggressive actions in the region. What is happening in reality?
Sergey Lavrov: Good question. I have never heard anyone say that the implementation of a UN Security Council resolutions can be viewed as an attempt to get in the way of resolving the issue of the resolution - I mean the resolutions that launched the UN mediation process between Skopje and Athens on agreeing on the name of Macedonia. We have always been supportive of this dialogue and have advocated that a solution be found in a manner that is acceptable to the public, the people and, of course, the governments of Greece and Macedonia.
We are not against this name, and our position was articulated and announced. We ask questions about the legitimacy of this process and to what extent it is based on the desire to find a consensus between Athens and Skopje, or on what you just said - the desire of the United States to “drive” all Balkan countries into NATO as soon as possible and to put an end to any Russian influence in the region. That’s what we talk about.
Of course, we cannot agree with those who say that Russia has no place in the Balkans, as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said not long ago. She said that the EU is already working in the Balkans and anyone else has no business doing anything there. However, when we met on the sidelines of the OSCE meetings in Milan in December, she said that she was misunderstood. Perhaps, it was a misunderstanding, because not just the EU, but also NATO is playing the main role there now. Where there is the EU, there is a place for NATO, and, perhaps, its place will be more important.
We always wanted the UNSC position - which was that the resolution should be legal - to be respected. When a name is confirmed by a document signed at a level that is not consistent with what the constitution, for example, of Macedonia, requires, we have questions about how legitimate this process is. When the Parliament of Macedonia adopts a law on amendments to the constitution and also a law on languages which President of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov refuses to sign, as required by the constitution, this also raises questions with us. When we are accused of mortal sins and troubles that somehow manifest or may manifest themselves in the Balkans, we have a question: what do our Western colleagues think about the shameless campaign waged by the West in the run-up of the referendum in Macedonia? At that time, the heads of government of the EU countries, the NATO Secretary General, the leaders of the European Commission and the EU in general, went to Skopje and urged everyone to vote for membership in NATO and the EU by way of changing the name of Macedonia. That’s what they were calling for. Not a name change that would reconcile Macedonia and Greece, but voting for membership in Euro-Atlantic bodies by changing the name. I think the impropriety of such an approach is clear.
I mentioned in my opening remarks the trend, which can now be seen in the approaches of the United States and its closest allies, to replace the term and the concept of international law with some rules-based order. Regarding the name of Macedonia, there is a UN Security Council resolution, which is part of international law, that requires respecting the constitutions of Greece and Macedonia and looking for a solution within this framework. But instead of a law-based approach involving the adoption of a law that would be signed by the president of Macedonia, a rules-based approach is being used. A rule was made up according to which, contrary to the Macedonian constitution, a decision may be signed at the level of minister rather than the presidential level, and the results of a referendum can be ignored, etc. The rules that are now being advanced in the Balkans, and not only there, are fairly dangerous and reflect obsession and the desire to “drive” all the Balkan countries to NATO as soon as possible.
I read the other day that the United States has been having quite a long critical discussion with respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina to the effect that the Serbs are playing a destructive role in Bosnia. Recently, a think tank in the United States said that it is time to abandon the Dayton Accords, because the Serbs will slow down the entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO. That is, the goal is set, this time again, and it is not about the well-being of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its three constituent nations, but Bosnia and Herzegovina joining NATO. This is something we cannot agree with, because it represents the mentality of the past century, if not the century before it. In a situation where we all declared a desire to build a common economic and cultural space and to ensure indivisible and equal security in the Euro-Atlantic area, this is nothing short of replacing international law with NATO-centric, rather than universal, rules. Examples of this abound.
Question: The UK Foreign Office has confirmed to me that they have requested consular access to Paul Whelan. I just wanted to clarify: you are saying that they will only be allowed that if Russia is allowed consular access to Sergey and Yulia Skripal, and also why is there so little information surrounding the actual charges laid against him?
Sergey Lavrov: I said something different. I said that the United Kingdom is refusing to respect its obligations under the 1965 Consular Convention. And I said that at the moment I am not aware of a request from the British Embassy under the aforementioned Convention for consular access to Paul Whelan. But I immediately added that if there is such a request, we will not act in the same way as our British colleagues. We will act based on our obligations under this Convention and on diplomatic propriety.
As for the details on charges brought against Paul Whelan, this is open information. He was passing certain materials he should not have. Or actually, as I understand it, he was receiving certain materials. But I can assure you that there is immeasurably more information available about what is going on with Paul Whelan than there is about where Sergey and Yulia Skripal are now. This is totally ridiculous, forgive my unparliamentary expression, but it has been almost a year, and not only we don’t have any access to these people in response to our numerous requests based on the same Consular Convention, but we are not even told where they are and have not even seen them. So there is more than enough reason for us to question the actions of the British legal system, but we are committed to resolving all problems through dialogue, naturally, and based on respect for each other’s interests. It is unacceptable to treat the Russian Federation like a country to which no one owes anything while it has all the obligations to everyone (as we sometimes observed in the behaviour of some of our Western colleagues). Let's cooperate, let's work on the basis of equality.
Question: Last year trade between Russia and China set a historical record by exceeding $100 billion. China is Russia’s largest trade partner. How do you regard the prospects of trade and economic relations between Russia and China?
Sergey Lavrov: It is true, last year we really reached a record level in trade and there is more to come. We and our Chinese friends share quite ambitious plans that were discussed during the meeting between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of China Xi Jinping, during Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last summer and Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia during the Eastern Economic Forum and other contacts our leaders had on the sidelines of international events held by BRICS, G20 and other organisations. Our economic representatives that prepare meetings between heads of state also meet regularly. The latest meeting summed up the results of activities carried out by about 60 organisations operating in various areas of our cooperation. We are developing and already granted support to about 70 projects worth over $100 billion in various spheres such as energy, including nuclear energy, agriculture, transport and cooperation in space. As you know, our space agencies coordinate global navigation systems, GLONASS and Beidou. I believe that our prospects in trade, the economy and investment are very significant.
Let me also comment on our close cooperation and common approaches in international affairs, such as cooperation within BRICS and the SCO as well as in the context of developing ties and harmonising processes with the Eurasian Economic Space and the Belt and Road Initiative. In the United Nations, including the Security Council, we share common approaches to settling conflicts based on international law and dialogue strictly by political means, whether it is the conflict in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, or the Korean Peninsula. Our relations are developing steadily and progressively in all areas.
Question: Next month Poland will host a US-organised summit on the Middle East that will be primarily devoted to Iran. Will it be attended by a Russian representative? What do you think about the idea of holding this summit, considering that it is organised by the US but in Poland? Some media call it anti-Iranian.
Sergey Lavrov: I was just going to ask who organised this summit because the Polish Foreign Ministry announced it as a joint US-Polish initiative whereas during his tour of the Middle East US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the US will hold a summit in Poland. Indeed, we received an invitation and the agenda that is primarily devoted to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, problems with now the Iranian missile programme, and Iran’s actions in the region.
If the forum is focused on the Middle East, the key issue – an Arab-Israeli including Palestine-Israeli settlement – is not part of it. As you said yourself, it seems that the entire agenda is aimed at promoting US approaches on deterring Iran in that region. This is the official US position. Obviously, the summit in Warsaw is aimed at achieving this goal.
It is also confusing that the invitation reads that ministers of the participating countries should not worry about the final document of the summit because its co-chairs US and Poland will write it themselves and present it as a joint summary without any possibility for other invitees to contribute to its wording. Frankly speaking, this is not routinely accepted. It appears that about fifty ministers have been invited to bless the document that the US will write itself, with all due respect to Poland. These are the reasons why we have huge doubts that the forthcoming summit will help to find constructive solutions to the problems of the Middle East.
As for the Iranian aspect and possible influence on relations with Poland, these are your bilateral affairs.
Question: I would like to ask you about the fate of a specific individual. Today you spoke several times about Russian citizens whose interests are consistently protected by Moscow if their rights are violated in different countries. There is a young man by the name of Marat Yeldanov-Galustyan who has been kept in prison in neighbouring Azerbaijan on false charges. Azerbaijan is cynically ignoring all of Russia’s requests for his extradition. What measures are being taken to help Galystyan?
Sergey Lavrov: During our bilateral contacts we regularly discuss issues related to our citizens who find themselves in a difficult position in a CIS or any other foreign country. Let me assure you that we discussed this particular issue during recent talks with our colleagues from Azerbaijan. I hope that, relying on dialogue and solutions based on legal norms, we will be able to find a way out that will suit everyone and return this person to Russia.
Question: In an interview with RIA Novsti at the end of last year you said that you expect “adequate politicians” with a responsible perception of reality to emerge in Ukraine. What are the criteria for being “adequate”?
Sergey Lavrov: I think that people in any country want to see adequate politicians. As for what is taking place in Ukraine now, I am far from being the only person who would like to see adequate policy there. It is enough to simply read the Ukrainian media and some websites.
As for the criteria for being adequate, these are respect for one’s own commitments, the Constitution and other laws. Everything else is inadequate, starting from the anti-constitutional coup d’etat when nationalists came to power and began to openly demand, like Dmytro Yarosh, the extermination or expulsion of Russians from Crimea. President Poroshenko’s policy seemed adequate to us during his election campaign, promising he would be “the president of peace.” But when he became the head of state, he no longer uttered such words. He is instead making bellicose statements and promises to liberate the so-called “occupied territories” and is categorically refusing to fulfil what he signed himself – the Minsk agreements. Subsequent decisions adopted by the leaders of the Normandy format are also being subverted, including those on the disengagement of forces and weapons in Stanitsa Luganskaya, Petrovskoye and Zolotoye and the Steinmeier formula on linking the special status of some districts of Donbass to the holding of elections there.
I can speak at length on this subject. We have more than enough facts. Speaking about adequacy, one of the criteria is an ability to abide by one’s own Constitution and commitments signed onto when joining international conventions. The Ukrainian law on education and the draft law on the status of Ukrainian as an official language directly violate Ukraine’s Constitution. You know this very well. They also violate Ukraine’s international obligations. Literally in December the Verkhovna Rada rejected the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, in part, on repealing Article 7 of the Law on Education. Commitments show that people are willing and able to negotiate.
Question: Why is Russia rejecting the possibility of the return of its citizens from Ukraine back to the country? Didn’t Ukraine propose to exchange Kirill Vyshinsky for Roman Sushchenko? Everybody seems to know about this offer, but there is a whole list containing a dozen names. Ukraine offers an exchange; however, you refuse it.
Sergey Lavrov: As you know, just over a year ago, back in December 2017, with the participation of Viktor Medvedchuk we reached an exchange agreement. We agreed upon the lists of people to be exchanged, and repeatedly verified them. Everything was agreed upon. On the day of the exchange, when the people were brought to the location in order to be transported back to their homeland, the Ukrainian side said that it will not hand over 23 people agreed upon for transfer back to Russia; it said that literally at the point of transfer for the detainees and arrested persons. I refuse to even go through the reasons for this right now; it has nothing to do with the subject matter. It was said that these people had nothing to do with events taking place in Donbass, but the fact is, these lists were verified several times, the names were agreed upon, and Ukraine failed to keep another promise.
We still maintain the processes responsible for continuation of the Donbass prisoner exchange held within the framework of the “all for all” prisoner exchange stipulated by the Minsk agreements. These issues are currently being discussed in the Contact Group, but we are not seeing any particular constructiveness on the part of the Ukrainian government representatives.
As for the people detained in the Russian Federation without any relation to the events in the Donbass - we have a Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukraine also has a Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmila Denisova. As I understand, she is now in Russia; they are currently discussing these issues. I hope this dialogue will be effective, too. If it proves possible to reach any agreements, we will fulfil them.
Question: This question is about our nearest partners not only geographically. Kazakhstan is switching to the Latin alphabet. What is planned in relations with Astana for Moscow to remain a key partner for Kazakhstan.
Sergey Lavrov: As for our partners in the CSTO, the CIS and the EAEU, we have very good relations with them all, including Kazakhstan. As you know, it is one of the most frequent venues for talks. Our presidents meet several times a year and regularly talk on the phone. We have a shared position on promoting the Eurasian Economic Union as members of this union.
It is true that Kazakhstan is making decisions that involve moving the Kazakh language to the Latin alphabet. This was our Kazakh friends’ decision. At the same time, we cannot see any steps to restrict the Russian language and Russian-speaking people’s rights in Kazakhstan. At any rate, we constantly monitor these issues. Wherever our fellow citizens live, we always give priority to their rights and interests and the need to uphold these rights and interests in the countries of their residence. These issues are top priority on the agenda of talks with Kazakhstan and all other countries, where our compatriots live, including the CIS, Europe, the US and other regions.
Question: We are still witnessing unfriendly actions by our partners from Eastern Europe. It is next to impossible to receive an education in Russian in the Baltic states. Monuments continue to be pulled down, while those who assisted the enemy are declared heroes today. What is being done in this area? Can efforts to increase public awareness of those events put an end to this?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the revival of neo-Nazi, revanchist and nationalist sentiments in Eastern Europe – primarily, unfortunately, in the Baltic states and Poland – we strongly condemn any attempt to rewrite the history of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War. Generally, rewriting history is not what politicians should do, leave this to historians. Even in these uneasy times, historians in the commissions we set up jointly with Poland and Lithuania meet in various formats and develop common approaches. This is very useful work.
You mentioned Kazakhstan and other CIS countries. We talked with our colleagues from the Institute of General History who are overseeing teams of Russian and foreign historians. I would support similar efforts within the CIS. We had a single common state like nobody had and it is very important to us to understand what foundation and principles underpinned that country and how we lived before we became one country and how we continued to be allies and partners after 1991.
We adopted many resolutions at the UN that say that glorifying Nazism is unacceptable. The most recent resolution was approved last month by the overwhelming majority – only the US and Ukraine voted against it – which speaks for itself. Packages of documents condemning, among other things, the war against monuments were adopted in the CSTO and were later distributed at the OSCE and the UN. A recurrence of this war can be seen in other European countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary and Germany. We note that the authorities mostly respond quickly and efficiently, in keeping with their commitments. But we have failed to reach an understanding on this issue with our Polish colleagues. The statements to the effect that monuments that are not erected at the graves are not covered by our bilateral agreement are based on a misinterpretation of this document. Any legal expert familiar with the document will confirm this. We would like to reach an understanding on this issue, given that in the Russian Federation there are many monuments to foreigners, including those from Eastern Europe, who died on our land. We cooperate closely on the majority of cases. I would like to quote the example of Slovenia where not only monuments of the past are maintained in perfect order but also new monuments dedicated to our wartime brotherhood are put up. Now we in Russia plan to have a monument dedicated to Slovenes who perished in our country during the war. That is why what you called “increasing public awareness” is important and it is important to engage in this work so that youth in Russia, the CIS countries and other European countries know their history lest they degenerate into people without kith or kin. This would be damaging for European civilisation and culture. Of course, in addition to educational work and, in a good sense of the word, explanatory work and propaganda, it is important to work to ensure that the European countries deliver on the legal obligations they assumed with respect to the World War II monuments.
Question: Parliamentary elections will take place in Estonia on March 3. The Estonia 200 party is suggesting the creation of joined schools where Russian and Estonian children will study together in the official, that is, Estonian language. In the opinion of that party, this will help overcome the split in society and the feeling of segregation as if Russians are in some ghetto. In this way, everything will be united; everyone will be united. What do you think about this?
Estonian Minister of the Interior Katri Raik saw a foreign ministry statement on this issue and commented on so-called “grey” passport holders – stateless people. There are about 70,000−78,000 of them. In her opinion, during a limited period they could simply apply for citizenship and receive it. By way of criticism, she received a reply that stateless people in Estonia may not wish to do this because they have the right to go to Russia visa-free. If they do they will create problems for themselves and lose the opportunity to come to Russia and keep in touch.
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly, I have not heard about the idea of joint schools, but judging by your description, this is simply unacceptable. It suppresses the interests of the Russian minority and is aimed at incorporating this minority by force into the Estonian-language space, thereby depriving it of an opportunity to receive an education in their native tongue as is required by numerous international conventions, including the Council of Europe convention on regional and minority languages.
In principle, I believe that what is happening with the Russian language in Estonia and Latvia is very serious and gives no credibility to these countries, the EU, and NATO, which, by the way, positions itself not only as a military alliance but also as a community of democracy.
I have repeatedly written letters to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, EU high commissioners and leaders of the UN, Council of Europe and OSCE, drawing their attention to the unacceptable practice of discriminating against Russian speakers, not to mention the shameful phenomenon of “statelessness.”
As for Interior Minister Katri Raik’s idea to grant citizenship to all those who have lived in Estonia since 1991, I will leave this decision to an individual person. If someone believes that this is not what we call “a wolf’s ticket,” that the passport of a non-citizen provides some benefits, this is a choice for every individual. But I heard that after this initiative was voiced, Foreign Minister Sven Mikser announced that the idea of granting citizenship to those who have lived in Estonia since 1991 was the personal opinion of Estonian Minister of the Interior Katri Raik.
This is not correct, this is not true. This is not the personal opinion of the Estonian Minister of the Interior but is one of the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, which has long been addressed to the Estonian authorities. Therefore, I am hoping that the solution to the problem of non-citizens will be found in this or another form. In this respect, international agencies, primarily the EU and NATO as I have said, as well as the OSCE and the Council of Europe should play a much more active role.
Question: Yesterday the Financial Times wrote about the elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Would you call them fraudulent? Do these results lack credibility?
Sergey Lavrov: The official results have been published. I have nothing to add to this. I heard that once announced, the results of these elections were put into doubt. My French colleague Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and other representatives demanded that these results be revised and the votes recounted, as I understand it. We do not interfere in the internal affairs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or any other state and are confident that people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are able to find solutions to any arising questions, including the results of the elections themselves. It is very important to respect their rights and abstain from imposing agreements on them, which happens often in your country and France in Africa, in the former colonies with which it is of course necessary to continue some relations and we welcome this. They are interested in this. It just happens that very often these old ties turn into fairly obtrusive advice from the outside. We still suggest and are trying to do this ourselves, to conduct affairs with African and all other states in a more respectful manner.
Question: US President Donald Trump has recently called for a 20-mile safe zone in the north of Syria. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke in support of this plan. How would you assess it?
Sergey Lavrov: We will assess it in the context of the general evolution of the situation in Syria. I have already spoken about President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. The idea of a 20-mile safe zone was floated in this context. We should take a long view of all this, including the restoration of the central authorities’ control over the entire territory of Syria as soon as possible. This issue will be discussed, among others, when the Turkish President comes [to Russia] for the next round of talks with President Vladimir Putin. I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal is to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as has been agreed by Russia, the United States, Turkey and all other UN member states. At the same time, we will keep working to ensure full respect for the interests of all the parties involved and of Syria’s neighbours. Of course, the security interests of all countries in the region, including Turkey, will be included in the agreements which we will try to coordinate.
Question: Iceland has joined the sanctions against Russia, thereby losing a fish market that was very important for it. [Russia] was one of the largest markets for Icelandic fish and sea foods. Many fish companies have gone out of business. What should the Republic of Iceland do to re-enter the Russian market?
There is a monument to Soviet soldiers in Iceland. There have not been any cases of desecration in Iceland, unlike in some other countries.
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the sanctions, the situation should be clear to everyone, I think. When sanctions were introduced against Russia, we had to respond in kind on the agricultural and food markets. The EU sanctions, which were adopted several years ago and which Iceland has supported, stipulate restrictions and limitations against Russian banks, including those that issue agricultural loans. This amounts to discrimination against our agricultural producers because they cannot take out the loans they need for their operations. This is why we took retaliatory measures against food and other agricultural imports.
There is a simple solution to this problem: stop using these methods in international affairs, although they are becoming increasingly popular in the West, in particular, in the US. There is only one way out: stop using diktat and unfair methods of competition, such as sanctions. Those who were the first to use these methods must be the first to act. It is often said that they have taken the first step but we must help them, because they want to lift the sanctions but Russia must also do something. This has been said about many problems which we did not create, such as sanctions or the crisis in the Council of Europe over the situation in PACE. They understand that they are wrong and we are right. They should act on this understanding to solve the problem, but they are asking us to provide a pretext for this, which they would present as our compliance and agreement to do something positive for the West. I don’t think it is a constructive approach. It is much better to act openly. If you did something which the majority of people consider to be wrong, you must put it right. Be assured that we will reciprocate. And we will do so very quickly.
Question: Last year a fairly representative delegation of the Foreign Ministry (about 20 Russian ambassadors) visited Yamal to study the investment potential of the area. I would like to hear your assessment of how productive the cooperation with the Russian regions is today? Will this practice continue?
Are we satisfied with the state of cooperation in the Arctic?
Sergey Lavrov: I would like to convey my gratitude to the leadership of the region for inviting our ambassadors. We have used this practice for a long time. Every two years, there is a meeting of Russian ambassadors in Moscow, at which the President of Russia speaks, and numerous sessions are held where various aspects of our overseas agencies’ work are considered. It is of fundamental importance for us that ambassadors, especially in today's conditions, when diplomacy becomes all-embracing and discusses not only purely political matters, but also considers initiatives that allow us to promote the country’s economic interests, our economic operators, see firsthand how the Russian regions, the constituent entities of the federation, live today. Every time ambassadors come to this meeting, we ask various regional heads to host us, usually alternating them. Last year, there were two regions (the Tula Region and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area) where our ambassadors went, including Yamal. It was very beneficial for them. I talked with some of them. It is very important to see how the region lives – one of the driving forces of economic growth not only of Siberia, but also of the Russian Federation as a whole. The projects that are being implemented there are world class; I will not even talk about them now.
The role of the regions in the implementation of our foreign policy is also very important – firstly because the regions, along with the federal centre, are really the Russian Federation, and secondly, because the regions are increasingly acquiring a taste for external relations. A presidential executive order regulates the regions’ external relations and stipulates the Russian Foreign Ministry as the coordinator of these activities to ensure a coordinated foreign policy. We are not engaged in any micromanagement. All the economic agreements that the regions enter into with their neighbours or other parties are signed independently in most cases, or they receive support through federal ministries responsible for economic affairs. We make sure that it all fits into our common foreign policy line.
The Foreign Ministry's Council of the Heads of Constituent Entities of the Russian Federation includes seven regional leaders (they are rotated), representatives of the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Federal Customs Service and other services that are involved in dealing with the issues of interest to the regions in their foreign economic relations.
The Arctic Council is a very useful organisation. We strongly support what’s going on in this agency. This is probably one of the few bodies that are not affected by geopolitical squabbles. Its work is extremely specific and depoliticised. We think this is a role model. Finland is presiding there now. Events are planned, which our Finnish neighbours will most likely announce later. Substantive work is being done on the development of the resources of the North while preserving the environment and ensuring the interests of the indigenous peoples and minorities of the North. There is a special group that works on this and monitors the situation. All this is very important. Along with the development of the transport infrastructure, we are making our contribution by ensuring increasingly safe and efficient use of the Northern Sea Route.
Question: Russia’s foreign policy – constructive, tough and serious – has become an important factor of international security. Russia returned to the Middle East, it is being respected and reckoned with. Due to Russia’s policy, many global challenges have been toned down.
It is absolutely obvious that the European Union does not have the potential to solve the problems related to the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. It has been eight months since the EU promised to develop a financial mechanism to continue the dialogue with Iran and provide compensation to European companies if they suffer from the sanctions.
At the dawn of the Soviet Union, a Soviet-Persian bank was created with a capital of $5 million, while the total capital of the Iran Central Bank was $500,000. This bank was a powerful stimulus for the development of trade, agriculture and industry of both countries, as well as for the strengthening of the Soviet Union’s position in Iran.
There are no banks currently operating in Iran. We are waiting for the EU’s decision, but Brussels seems to be unable to develop this financial mechanism. You lead Russia’s foreign policy and could become the driving force for such ministries as the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Ministry of Economic Development and assist them in creating a Russia-Iran bank which would work in national currencies to protect it from the sanctions of the US and other Western countries.
Sergey Lavrov: As you know, in accordance with the Constitution, Russian foreign policy is defined by the President. We are doing our best to implement it. Thank you for your kind words.
As for the concrete situation with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, its participants minus the US met in July 2018 in Vienna, and then in September 2018 – at foreign minister level – on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. We have brought up this subject repeatedly with the European Union. Brussels has long promised to create a so-called special purpose vehicle, a special payment mechanism that will not be dependent on the US and the SWIFT system, which is controlled by the US through the artificially high position of the dollar. The European Union keeps promising that the work will be finished soon. My deputy and representatives of the European foreign policy service have met recently and we see that the job is being done slowly and time is flying by.
You have probably read news about this subject causing conflicting commentaries in the political circles in Iran. This does not help either. This is not the only situation when the EU cannot reach a result. I do not know what the reason for this is. We mentioned the Balkans and Kosovo where the EU played a very positive role. We thought that the EU assisted the agreements between Pristina and Belgrade in a series of important issues: several years ago, the creation of the Community of Serb Municipalities of Kosovo was announced in order to help defend the rights of the Serbs living in the region. It still has not been established. Pristina adamantly refuses to do anything, while the EU shrugs its shoulders and is unable to call it to order.
I heard about the successful experience of the Soviet-Persian bank. It is not important whether it’s a bank or some other mechanism. The goal is crystal clear: to make sure that trade between Iran and other countries, including the Russian Federation, doesn’t depend on the unilateral actions of the US. I can assure you that the Russian Ministry of Economic Development as well as other agencies are taking relevant measures. Our Iranian partners know about them. Tehran’s other trade partners are doing the same. So we are speaking now about a much faster transition to national currencies in mutual trade than it was planned earlier. There are other ideas as well that are being discussed by the economic ministries.
Question: The whole of Europe is anxiously watching the situation around Brexit. Tension in relations between Russia and Britain is at its highest, particularly after the Skripal case. What Brexit scenario would be especially interesting to Russia, given its interests in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a matter for Britain and its subjects, and for the country’s Parliament. Certainly, it is not all the same to us in what way this might affect the European Union since the EU is our top trade partner as an organisation (while China is the top one at a national level), even despite the fact that our combined goods turnover fell from its record high of 400 billion euros to around 270 billion euros due to the sanctions.
There are many processes going on in connection with Brexit, and not just Brexit alone, which will influence the functioning of the European Union. It is very important for us to understand how this might affect our relations, above all, trade and economic relations. As for talk about what option is “more interesting” – this psychology is characteristic of countries and politicians seeking to interfere in and trying to “orchestrate” processes in other states. We do nothing of the sort. I cited examples how preparations for the Prespa Agreement in Macedonia were openly “orchestrated” without any scruples. Attempts are now being made in Germany, through the US ambassador, to orchestrate the positions of German companies with regard to Nord Stream 2. We do not use such approaches.
We say nothing about Brexit, but someone writes that Russia is “rubbing its hands” and “gloating”. Nothing of the kind. We always said, long before Brexit shaped up, that we are interested in a single, strong and, most importantly, independent European Union. It remains to be seen what will happen. Of course, we are ready to cooperate both with the EU and Britain, in case the latter eventually pulls out of the EU. As for what are the best forms in which this could be carried out, we will consider that after we understand what has really happened.
Question: Serbia is trying to avoid choosing between Russia and the EU, nevertheless, voices are being heard inside the country that the choice has to be made. Last year, you paid a fruitful visit to Belgrade. And now, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is preparing to go there. What are the goals of the Russian foreign policy in Serbia?
Sergey Lavrov: You were right to observe that in Europe they think that Serbia will eventually have to make a choice between Russia and the EU. This too is a mentality that has long outlived its usefulness. It reflects the old colonial ways. I have repeatedly cited an example of the EU embarking on unilateral demands in the zero-result game logic. During the first “maidan” in Ukraine in 2003, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, who later became a European Commissioner, openly called on the Ukrainians to decide who they are with – with Russia or Europe. Such provocative approaches reflect great-power moods and contradict the decisions that we adopted all together, including in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and within the framework of the Russia-EU relations.
Pre-accession talks on various chapters are currently under way in Serbia. The EU is not shy as to say that, first, Serbia must recognise the independence of Kosovo in order to access the EU and, second, it must join the EU policy towards Russia, including the sanctions. Taking such positions is utterly inappropriate. I said more than once that that the EU keeps priding itself on its unity, but lately, however, it is being achieved on the basis of the lowest denominator, when the fairly aggressive minority presses the other EU member states to take positions with regard to Russia that are obviously biased and discriminating.
I would advise dropping the “either with Russia or the EU” logic. Anyway, let us return to those times when great Europeans, including Charles de Gaulle and other politicians, were putting forward their vision of a common space from the Atlantic to the Urals and then to the Pacific Ocean. This is all confirmed in the OSCE, Russia-EU and Russia-NATO documents (on equal and indivisible security), but in reality the negotiability somehow does not manifest itself.
We stand for the return to the philosophy of joint cooperation based on the balance of interests, rather than attempts to impose on anyone the views that are worked out by a fairly small group of states, no matter how influential they are.
Question: Some time ago, they actively discussed a peacekeeping mission in Donbass. Has everything calmed down now? Or is something cooking behind the scenes?
Sergey Lavrov: This is part of what I have discussed today: This implies a correlation between international law and various regulations being conceived and presented as incontestable truths.
Speaking of international law, we have the Minsk Agreements that have been approved by the UN Security Council. Under these agreements, all issues should be resolved through direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk, with OSCE mediation. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has been deployed in Donbass and Ukraine as a whole, including other regions where its members should monitor compliance with Ukraine’s human rights obligations and with other aspects of European life. Security problems began to arise for members of this Mission, and some incidents have been recorded. For example, one of the Mission’s officials, an American citizen, was killed by a landmine. The Mission’s officials investigated the incident and established that the landmine had not been planted by self-defence fighters; immediately after that, the issue was shelved, and no one has actively discussed it since.
In this connection, I would like to recall that we have repeatedly urged our OSCE colleagues and top officials of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to issue more transparent reports because, most often, they write about a certain number of attacks on various communities during one day or one week, and they also provide casualty estimates; but it is unclear who fired at whom. In September 2017, the Mission members at long last prepared a report (under our influence) showing casualties among self-defence fighters and targets on their territory, as well as a similar breakdown for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It is clear enough that in most of the cases the Ukrainian service personnel usually attack communities first, with self-defence fighters retaliating. The number of attacks on settlements by the Armed Forces of Ukraine is several times higher than the corresponding statistics for the self-defence fighters. The same can be said about civilian casualties.
Today, we are meeting with journalists, and you work for media outlets. Therefore I will mention what I have told my Western colleagues many times (when they tried to convince me that Donetsk and Lugansk are to blame for all the troubles along the demarcation line, and that it is precisely the self-defence fighters who start all the firefights and combat operations): Representatives of Russian media outlets work on the eastern side of the demarcation line virtually in real-time mode. Your colleagues regularly make onsite reports showing real-life developments in areas controlled by self-defence fighters. I have repeatedly advised my Western colleagues who doubt real facts that they should tell Western journalists to launch the same work in areas controlled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I don’t remember that anybody had ever worked there permanently or at least showed up there at regular intervals. Eighteen months ago, a BBC film crew visited the region and prepared what I can call an objective report; but no one has been there since then.
If journalists from the BBC, Euronews or any other media outlet are interested in spreading the truth, if your governments are not persuading you to work in one of the most problem-ridden geopolitical hotspots, then I would like to ask you to start working on the western side of the demarcation line in Donbass. In any event, you will learn much more than you do now, while watching reports that, for some reason, have offsite status.
Speaking of the Mission once again, when they faced security problems, we responded to concerns voiced by representatives of Germany and France and suggested issuing small arms to OSCE representatives. The OSCE refused. By the way, the Germans and the French also said this was no good because the OSCE lacked any experience of such armed peacekeeping operations. President of Russia Vladimir Putin then suggested establishing a UN mission that would help protect OSCE representatives, and we submitted the relevant resolution to the UN Security Council. The extremely simple resolution hinged on an international law document, namely, the OSCE-UN mandate in support of the Minsk Agreements. The resolution noted that UN security guards should escort OSCE observers wherever they go within Donbass.
This was an international law approach. In response, our Western colleagues, primarily US colleagues, once again suggested a “regulation” conceived by US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker. These regulations did not aim to facilitate direct dialogue between Kiev and the self-defence fighters under the Minsk Agreements and to help resolve all issues during this dialogue with OSCE mediation. On the contrary, they called for deploying a 30,000-strong UN military contingent with heavy weapons in Donbass, including every conceivable armed service, and to establish control over the entire perimeter of Donbass territory that we are now talking about. After that, local self-defence fighters, police forces and local administrations would be disbanded in Donetsk and Lugansk, and UN police officers and administrators would be deployed there, deciding everything.
This US-backed “regulation” would rule out any elections there. It would impose a unilateral solution instead of consensus and compromises between Donbass and Kiev. We explained the reasons why we were unable to renounce the logic of UN Security Council decisions and to replace international law with this regulation conceived by Mr Volker. I believe all of us understand this but pretend that it is the only way to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, that is, to follow in the wake of the incumbent government and to force Donbass to surrender. It is absolutely unrealistic to hope for this. It would be better if our German and French colleagues who supported the Minsk Agreements in the Normandy format, as well as other members of the international community, including the United States, would, nevertheless, help launch direct talks to implement the Minsk Package of Measures.
Question: At the end of last week, the US media announced the country’s intention to strengthen its position in the Arctic in response to Russia and China’s excessive claims in the region. In particular, a report, citing Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, indicated that Washington plans to send warships to the Arctic this summer, in the first US Navy operation to ensure freedom of navigation in the region.
Earlier, at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Alaska in May 2017, you said there was no potential for any conflict in the Arctic. How do you assess the US intention to increase its military presence in the Arctic? Could this step serve as another reason for the heightening tension between Russia and the United States? Will Russia take any retaliatory action if the United States sends warships to the Arctic?
Sergey Lavrov: The United States is an Arctic power. In accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States is entitled to use the sea routes in this region, like all other Arctic and non-Arctic powers.
If we are talking about warships of any country planning to use the Northern Sea Route, then there are rules for this. Last autumn, a French warship passed along the Northern Sea Route. My French colleagues and I discussed all the details, no questions arose.
We presume that everyone will respect these rules, because it cannot be otherwise. The Russian Federation is responsible for ensuring the effective functioning and security of the Northern Sea Route.
Regarding the reasons why the United States wants to pay more attention to this region, I repeat, it is an Arctic power. I see no problem here if they respect the law, including the Russian laws on the use of the Northern Sea Route. Whether they want to create additional potential for conflict through this, I do not know. I do not want to jump the gun. In a number of other regions, the United States is doing this, including the South China Sea, where they are trying to intervene in territorial disputes between China and the countries of South-East Asia. I really hope this will not happen in the Arctic, this way of creating factors that aggravate relations between countries in the relevant parts of the world. This will not facilitate cooperation within the Arctic Council.
Question: This year, the US started a trade war against China. Russia is also facing a more complicated global situation. Some experts believe that this situation is only strengthening our solidarity. Do you agree with this? How will our foreign relations develop?
Sergey Lavrov: There is a lot of speculation about how relations are developing in the Russia-China-US triangle. Many people want to go back to the time of President Richard Nixon when the US decided to normalise its relations with China to contain the Soviet Union. Many people want that.
Recently, some members of Japan’s governing party have voiced the idea of signing a peace treaty with Russia, above all, to contain China.
When everything that happens in the relations between our countries is regarded as an attempt to “drive a wedge” into them and divide our positions, it only causes deep regret, because it reflects the “either with us or against us” mentality.
Russia and China have not made friends to oppose anyone. We are friends because we are neighbours and strategic partners in international affairs; we share many common interests and see the same need to make the world more stable, secure and democratic. This is the foundation of our strategic partnership and comprehensive cooperation. We also have a shared interest in trying to preserve the global trade system and making it easier to understand and govern, as well as less dependent on the unilateral whims of any state. I believe we have to work in this area for many years to come, but we intend to deliver results.
Question: How would you rate Russia-Azerbaijan relations in 2018? Do you believe it was a breakthrough year? Why didn’t the Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran summit take place in Moscow last year? What are the prospects for holding it any time soon? What are the prospects for creating a Russia-Azerbaijan-Turkey format?
Sergey Lavrov: With regard to our relations with Azerbaijan, I wouldn’t use the term “breakthrough,” because our relations are developing not by leaps and bounds, but rather in a steady and progressive manner. Last year, there were fairly productive presidential level meetings, and I met with my colleague Elmar Mammadyarov in Baku and Moscow as well. Our economic departments also cooperated closely. The Baku International Humanitarian Forum met again under the joint patronage of President Putin and President Aliyev. And the list goes on.
We are connected by numerous formal, official and unofficial functions, including the International Music Festival Zhara (Heat), which is widely popular both in Russia and Azerbaijan.
I would assess the past year fairly positively. We cooperated well within the CIS, the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe which is rather prejudiced with regard to Azerbaijan. PACE is also trying to discriminate against the Azerbaijani parliamentarians’ rights.
The government in Armenia changed last year, so our contribution to the work of the co-chairs in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has so far been limited to introductory meetings. This month, the co-chairs from Russia, France and the United States will meet with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. I think we will be able to contribute to the settlement of the conflict, which has already become long standing, but can still be resolved provided the goodwill of Yerevan and Baku and the support of the international community, including the co-chairs. I think the statements about willingness to search for solutions, including from Baku, deserve to be thoroughly supported. We hope that our Armenian friends will reciprocate.
As for the second part of your question − the Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran format − there was no agreement to convene such a format on a yearly basis. So, it is not entirely correct to say that it was not possible to convene a meeting of the three presidents. Indeed, it's our turn to host the next Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan summit. We are preparing it, and I assure you that it will effectively take place.
Regarding other possible formats with the participation of Azerbaijan, the discussions have yet to be put into practice. We need to look at how much “added value” these formats will have. A format for the sake of the format is, probably, not something that is in the interests of Azerbaijan, Russia and other possible participants. To reiterate, if any particular form of our interaction has “added value,” then, of course, we will gladly consider such an option.