Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during the Valdai International Discussion Club’s panel on Russia’s policy in the Middle East, Sochi, October 2, 2019
Mr Kortunov, colleagues,
Thank you for inviting me to the Valdai Forum and this discussion panel.
I am grateful to the hosts for choosing the situation in the Near and Middle East as a discussion topic. It is the cradle of many civilisations and world religions. Now that it has turned into a platform for, to put it bluntly, reckless experiments that lead to tragic consequences, this topic has become very acute. The root of what is happening there probably lies in a quote that I saw in the Valdai Club’s annual report: “Non-interference in internal affairs are just words, not a standard for behavior.” Another quote: "The sovereignty of states no longer limits others in their actions." This appears to be a straightforward and obvious statement, but, as they say, "it looks beneath the surface."
Reckless ventures with regime changes in Iraq and Libya have led to, in fact, the destruction of these countries’ statehood. Iraq has more or less succeeded in bringing its state back to normal. We are actively helping our Iraqi colleagues, including by increasing the combat effectiveness of their security forces and the army in fighting the remaining terrorist groups.
In Libya, the situation is much worse, although the international community is making efforts to establish some kind of an inclusive dialogue. But there are too many external players there, and it has so far been impossible to start a sustainable process.
Take a look at the history of this region from the late 1970s and early 1980s. When the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen organised resistance, and they were strongly supported by our US colleagues, who supplied them with weapons and everything they needed for an armed opposition. This gave rise to al-Qaeda which feels strong to this day, and which attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. It would seem that back then it was already necessary to conclude that it was criminal to count on the ability to control terrorists and to use them for geopolitical purposes, assuming that things could be arranged in a way that they would not harm us and would not get out of our control. This is an illusion.
Another example of falling into the same trap is the invasion of Iraq, which eventually led to the emergence of the Islamic State.
Invading Syria and stimulating unrest in that country in order to destabilise this Middle Eastern state as well, has led Al-Qaeda to take on new guises, the most known of which is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which has become Idlib’s main problem.
After what happened in Libya, when it was bombed in flagrant violation of a UN Security Council resolution, ISIS became closely intertwined with terrorist groups in Africa, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. Now, this terrorist international is already terrorising, probably, half of Africa, especially in the Sahara-Sahel region. This is the reality that was created after the winners in the Cold War felt they could get away with anything and decided to act on the principle “I do as I please.”
In Syria, at the request of the legitimate Government, certain countries stood up for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a result, they managed to help prevent the Libyan scenario there, which, unfortunately, caused a nervous reaction from our Western partners. They were looking at what was happening not from the point of view of the need to suppress terrorists and extremists, but from the point of view of geopolitical struggle. Why does Russia allow itself to do the same that they and only they can do? What is permissible for Jove is not always permissible for the ox.
These were the reasons for the nervous, even hysterical, responses to what was happening in Aleppo and other Syrian regions, where the Syrian army, with our support, was liberating the corresponding areas from terrorists. Remember the lamentations about the atrocities in Aleppo, the fact that the people were starved and did not have access to necessary medicines? As soon as eastern Aleppo was liberated, a representative of the World Health Organisation in Syria, a sincere woman, went there and said that there were plenty of warehouses with medicines and all the necessary medical equipment which had been under the control of the militants. Nobody mentioned this. They wrote only that the Syrian regime and the Russians were "destroying the civilians."
In Aleppo, peaceful life was restored quickly, demining was completed in record time and local people were provided with the essentials and began to return to their homes. Nothing like this was happening in Raqqa, where the US-led coalition was fighting terrorism by carpet bombing. Even the bodies had not been buried 18-24 months later, not to mention mine clearance. Double standards are evident here. This is sad, because our common task, as I understand it, is not to allow this region to become a "reserve" for terrorists. The trend for this is on the surface in Libya, for example, as I mentioned earlier. This is a very serious situation.
Instead of joining forces in the fight against terrorism without dual standards and attempts to use criminals for their own geopolitical goals and instead of giving up the friend-or-foe approach, our colleagues try to accuse the Syrian authorities of all deadly sins in any way they can.
I will not dwell in detail on the situation that developed in the OPCW. This is simply a striking example of the attempts by the West to privatise the Secretariat of this universal international organisation. By twisting the arms of the countries that cannot voice their position it is trying to replace the current convention with something that will allow it to go rogue with the help of the secretariat’s obedient employees. Nevertheless, we are realists and want to work with all those who can realistically help resolve problems. There are glimpses of common sense in our contacts with our American and other Western colleagues.
They welcomed, albeit through clenched teeth, the agreements that the Syrian government and the opposition reached with the help of the Astana format on forming the Constitutional Committee and coordinating its procedures. A small detail: it is common knowledge that this process became possible after the holding of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in January 2018. It is common knowledge that at this forum the delegates from the government, parliament, the public and the opposition decided to establish the Constitutional Committee. It is common knowledge what efforts the Syrian Three made for this to take place. It could have taken place a year earlier if it had not been for our Western colleagues. In effect, they prohibited UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to give consent to Staffan de Mistura on the list of the members of the Constitutional Committee, which was approved by the government and the opposition with the assistance of the Astana Three. But we are not holding a grudge and are continuing to work at this. Characteristically, when an EU representative welcomed the establishment of the committee, he did not say a word about the Astana Three, as distinct from the United States that recognised the role of Russia, Iran and Turkey in a public statement.
So, we have very difficult work ahead, much more difficult than it has been. Representatives of the government and the opposition, with the participation of civil society delegations, will now sit at one negotiating table and come to terms on Constitutional reform. It is this reform that must become the foundation for future elections. This is the case when all the cards are on the table. I hope the UN will impartially facilitate this process. The Astana Three will not sit idle either. We will do everything we can to let the Syrians come to terms without external interference. There are signs of attempts to interfere in this process. We will counter them deftly but firmly.
Regarding other issues in the Middle East, I am very concerned about the revisionism that is now manifest in US policy on a settlement in the Middle East, the settlement between Palestine and Israel. The two-state solution is actually being brushed aside and the efforts of the Quartet of international mediators have actually been blocked. We are being told that the proverbial “deal of the century” that was promised to all of us two years ago is about to come into being. But there is still no deal up to this day. We can guess that now the issue of renouncing the two-state solution will be raised. At this point we, the entire Arab world, and all other UN members will firmly adhere to the resolutions that were adopted by the UN Security Council and that must be implemented. Of course, this region requires inclusive architecture. Regrettably, the United States is going all-out to demonise, and isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran and compel it to give up. I do not think this is a far-sighted policy. The accusations that are hurled at Iran under the most diverse pretexts are not based on convincing evidence.
Of course, the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, was a typical example of a total disregard for international law and UN Security Council decisions. Not only did the United States refuse to deliver on these decisions, it forbids other countries from observing the Iran nuclear deal and the relevant UN Security Council resolution, threatening to impose sanctions on them [should they fail to obey].
Other initiatives by our American colleagues in this region, including the so-called Arab NATO and the international coalition to protect navigation in the Persian Gulf are about drawing delimitation lines against the Islamic Republic of Iran. No doubt, it is important to ensure security in the Persian Gulf but Iran also has proposals which differ from others in that they are not targeting anyone, or excluding everything else, rather, Iran suggests that all countries join forces and patrol the world’s major waterway, ensuring safe navigation there. We suggest starting talks about drafting a collective security concept for the Persian Gulf and the area around it. In mid-September, this idea was discussed by experts at the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences. It attendance were over 30 experts from Russia, the Arab countries, Britain, France, India and China. I believe this discussion is very useful.
The hard situation in Yemen, which, according to the UN, is facing a major humanitarian catastrophe, can only be resolved through all-inclusive talks. We have been encouraged by the proposal put forward recently by the Houthi movement for a ceasefire and the beginning of talks. Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman responded positively to it. I believe UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, who is sincerely seeking to secure progress in the negotiating process, can rely on these latest moves, which are cause for cautious optimism.
Question: Regarding the principles of Russia’s policy in the Middle East, they comprise both universal foreign policy moves and steps that are specifically Russian. What are the basic steps that are specifically part of Russia’s foreign policy, in particular with regard to the Middle East? My colleagues often talk about the principle of equidistance, which is really a major achievement of Russia and Russian diplomacy and a foreign policy instrument that allows the country not simply to maintain smooth relations but also to encourage their progressive development. At this particular period of time, we are developing relations with partners who are at odds with each other. Even though Russia’s ties with Israel are developing rapidly, we continue to clearly and firmly uphold the principles of international law and respect for UN Security Council resolutions, including the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem based on the creation of the Palestinian state. When we talked about the fight against terrorism and religious extremism yesterday, it was noted that the unsettled Palestinian problem is being used for the radical indoctrination of young people.
What can you say on this score?
You have mentioned the JCPOA and US President Donald Trump’s unilateral negative decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. There was much talk about Europe’s special position. We see that it is changing and shaping up. Speaking about prospects, we know what the United States wants, and we see a conflict between irreconcilable positions on the US-Iranian dialogue. Is there any chance that the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme and the return to the JCPOA will be settled? How might Russia help in this respect, given its experience when it comes to conflict mediation?
Sergey Lavrov: These are long and inclusive questions. I would like to say a few words about the volume and duration of our influence in the region. We have never tried to become involved anywhere without an invitation but only to project our influence. If you look at the acts of US interference, you will see that they are actually designed to force the country in question to do what Washington wants. Washington believes that turbulence is a useful thing, because the United States is located far away but it has its bases here and can use them to see which side to support, where oil will flow, where gas will come from, and to whom to sell US weapons. The longer a conflict, the higher the demand for US weapons, or any other weapons, but the Americans usually find a solution. They are smart salespeople: either buy [US weapons] or find yourself squeezed out in some other sphere.
We do not want to project influence only to force others to do Moscow’s bidding. Vitaly Naumkin has said right now that we are trying to maintain relations with all sides without exception. This is true. We want to use our influence, for example in Syria, to bring about peace and security, so that this region, which is a unique ethnic and religious mosaic, is not destroyed or becomes yet another haven for terrorists and other evil people. We want security and coexistence of cultures, civilisations and religions. None of Russia’s actions in the Middle East which we undertake for some reason or other have brought about disunity or the division of ethnic, religious or civilisational groups.
Take Iraq and Libya, which I have cited before and from where Christians have been fleeing by the thousand. Libya is a black hole through which people from the other African countries, from the Sahel-Saharan region, are fleeing to Europe, simply because the country that existed [as a sovereign state] for decades has been destroyed. Its regime was probably not very democratic, but this did not affect anyone, including the Libyans themselves. They could receive education abroad and did not have to pay for it. They lived prosperously, and nobody was poor in the country.
We only try to project our influence to develop an inclusive dialogue with all the conflicting parties in order to restore peace and security in the given region. We would like to maintain our presence in Syria, notably the naval supply base at Tartus and the Hmeymim airbase. First, we are there with the permission of the legitimate government of a UN member state. Second, we will use our presence there exclusively for the purposes I have already mentioned above. You will see no attempts on our part to force our will or formulas on anyone. In August 2015, when the terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS approached Damascus, the Syrian government indicated its readiness for dialogue with support from Russia and other countries. But the armed opposition, if it can be called that, said it would seize [Damascus] and that this would settle the problem. Robert Malley may tell us about his impressions of that situation. I remember that the Americans and other Western colleagues did not even attempt to keep up the idea of dialogue and talks. But they called for dialogue after we helped [the Syrian government] to stop the terrorists and stabilise the situation, virtually since the very first day of our presence there, including when the tide of the war on terrorism in Syria was turned and the Syrian government resumed control over the bulk of the national territory. It did not seem eager to discuss any concessions with the opposition. But we continued to work consistently, outside any time-serving considerations, to influence our Syrian friends to start a national dialogue. As we see it, the situation will not be stable otherwise.
As for the Palestinian problem, I believe, and I have spoken about this to our Israeli friends many times, that the unsettled Palestinian problem is the only serious factor influencing the proliferation of the extremist ideology, which allows the terrorists to recruit youngsters in the Middle East starting at a very early age. Small children in Palestine and other Arab countries are told that 70 years ago they were promised two states on the same legal foundations, but one of these states has long been established and feels itself confident, while the other state is nowhere to be seen. My Israeli partners often take offense, saying that terrorism is evil per se. Yes, terrorism is evil per se and we must eradicate it. But we will never succeed if we forget about the root cause of the extremist ideology and its proliferation as well as the seduction of young people to these evil ways. We will only continue to fight the manifestations rather than the root cause.
We need to wait until the formation of the new Israeli government is completed. Interesting processes are underway there. As far as I know, contacts have been developed between the Blue and White (Benny Gantz) and the United Arab List, and that this format also permits cooperation with religious Jewish parties. This is interesting. As I see it, if the United Arab List joins the coalition, this will be a positive sign for the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli talks. This will create conditions for dealing with the problem on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions, but only with due regard for the changes that have taken place in the region after all the parties accepted these resolutions. Of course, there is always a place for fine tuning.
The last question concerned Iran. While in New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sharply criticised the European partners who took about a year to create INSTEX, a mechanism for circumventing US sanctions and for replacing SWIFT. And then they could not start using it for about a year after they created it. It was announced the other day that eight more EU countries, in addition to the initial three (Britain, France and Germany), have expressed readiness to use this channel for trade with Iran. However, not a single transaction has been implemented yet, if I am not mistaken. Even transactions involving purely humanitarian products, which do not fall under any US sanctions, have not succeeded. These are dirt-cheap deals compared to what Iran has been promised and what Iran-EU trade can offer.
Mohammad Javad Zarif quoted one of his European partners from a state party to the JCPOA, who had told him very emotionally that the Europeans cannot do anything without the Americans’ permission. He said this during a news conference. I can understand Iran’s disappointment. I can understand Tehran, which is responding to its European colleagues’ impotence by gradually suspending its voluntary commitments under the JCPOA. We are not happy about this. We have pointed out that Iran has not violated any of its obligations under the legally binding Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA Safeguards Agreement, or its voluntary commitments under the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement. Everything Iran is doing it is doing under IAEA supervision. This is a crucial factor.
We have also noted that Iran can resume its voluntary commitments under the JCPOA any day as soon as the other countries act likewise. We are doing our best. We maintain dialogue with Iran, China and the three European countries. To tell you the truth, I do not rule out the possibility of a US-Iranian meeting, including a summit meeting, at some point. US President Donald Trump mentioned this possibility. President of Iran Hassan Rouhani said he was ready for this but only after the sanctions are lifted. Anything is possible in this world. The style of the current US administration allows for any solutions and contacts. We will welcome this. We will be glad if the problems with the JCPOA are addressed honestly and openly.
Anything else in addition to the JCPOA can be discussed, of course, provided this is not interpreted as a condition for the concerned countries’ compliance with their obligations under the JCPOA and is not an attempt to change the JCPOA in any way. The JCPOA must be preserved and implemented in full. Anything else can be discussed at the talks held concurrently, but only if all the parties involved agree to this.
Question: I have carefully read the annual Valdai Club report. I think that in the new conditions that the report describes the religious factor obviously plays an increasing role. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that is highly sensitive, just as the national factor. Do you think the growing influence of this factor conceals any dangers? And if so, what are these dangers?
Sergey Lavrov: In principle, the persecution of the Christians as well as other minorities in the Middle East and North Africa has been discussed at our initiative for many years, virtually since the start of the Arab Spring. Obviously, Christians were among the most affected groups. In 2014, the OSCE discussed the Declaration on Enhancing Efforts to Combat Anti-Semitism, and the document received unanimous support. At that time, Russia, as well as the Vatican, Hungary, Armenia and other countries drew attention to the fact that it was probably equally important to speak out in defence of Christians and Muslims. Islamophobia was picking up momentum in Europe at that time. Christians were suffering as a result of the Arab Spring throughout 2014. In December 2014, participants in the OSCE ministerial meeting stated in their resolution that two separate declarations denouncing Christianophobia and Islamophobia would be passed at the next OSCE ministerial meeting. Five years have passed. Every time we reminded our partners about this circumstance, some leading Western European countries evaded discussing the matter under various pretexts, citing its politically incorrect nature and the need to be tolerant and multicultural. I believe that this is a disgrace. By the way, one of the countries I am talking about is ashamed of having crosses on school buildings and they are taken down. We will continue to press forward on this matter and keeping this subject alive so that it is not forgotten. Each year, when the concerned parties fail to adopt such decisions, we hold events in defence of Christians and other national minorities (we always underscore this fact) on the sidelines of the OSCE and the UN Human Rights Council, and we will continue to do this.
As for the religious factor, it is amalgamated into modern politics, it is very closely intertwined, and, unfortunately, this process is very destructive. When suffering and hardship increase all over the world, it is absolutely natural that people start to long for some king of spiritual release and hope. And religion provides an outlet, repose and gives people hope for a better future for themselves and their loved ones. I believe that the Russian Orthodox Church, along with other Orthodox churches, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, is striving to actively play this role. As you have said, we cooperate closely in order to use religious sentiments to promote accord and resolve conflicts.
Unfortunately, I must draw attention to the attitude of our US colleagues to this matter. Sam Brownback, the US State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, openly demands that all Orthodox churches recognise the non-canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine. He publicly demands that the matter in favour of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine be resolved in Ukraine. Instead of addressing freedom of religion, he imposes politically motivated decisions on religious communities. So far, not a single Orthodox church has followed in the footsteps of a decision by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to grant autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. So far, no Orthodox churches have taken note of the decision of the Phanar that was motivated by well-known political reasons and did not recognise the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. But we know for a fact that the US side has been putting pressure on these Orthodox Churches in the Middle East and North Africa, and when they do not see voluntary readiness to obey, they threaten them and even try to cause a split in these regional Orthodox churches.
I believe that the dialogue between the Holy Patriarch and the Holy Pontiff could continue in order to shield religion from any political games, especially from those unfolding in the regions affected by conflicts and crises. The UN conducts inter-civilisational dialogue, a very interesting and so far little used venue. UNESCO conducts interfaith dialogue; this aspect is working at our initiative, and it could be used more actively. I hope that together with the Russian Orthodox Church, our other religious denominations and our foreign partners we will be able to more actively shield religious sentiments from any kind of politicisation.
Question: To what extent are we ready to actively expand military cooperation with a wider range of Middle Eastern countries in order to consolidate our results and success?
Sergey Lavrov: We perceive military-technical cooperation as a mutually beneficial sphere of cooperation with our partners. These proposals were made to virtually all Middle Eastern countries in response to the interest displayed by them. This includes the Persian Gulf countries, Turkey as well as ASEAN countries, if we speak of the Middle East and the Far East. Obviously, India and China also fit in here. If it were not for the absolutely unfair competition on the part of the United States, which simply demands that countries do not buy Russia’s cheap and reliable weapons but buy far more expensive and maybe also reliable US weapons, I guarantee that we would have scored much more impressive results. Despite all this pressure, we maintain highly promising relations with ASEAN countries, India and Middle Eastern countries, including the Persian Gulf. We are drafting and executing contracts. As I see it, these plans are very encouraging.
Initially, we contemplated whether it was possible to extrapolate our achievements to other regions. In my opinion, Russia’s Eastern policy (meaning Russia’s Far East, rather than the Middle East) has been very successful. Politics do not boil down to the Foreign Ministry alone. There are also economic aspects, namely, the initiative to pool the efforts of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and ASEAN, which was proposed in May 2016 here in Sochi by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. It raised great interest. The number of ASEAN countries wishing to partner with the EAEU in establishing free trade zones continues to increase, and, by the way, the waiting list is quite long. This process will continue to gain momentum.
There is also the matter of aligning Eurasian integration processes with the Belt and Road initiative. The issue of logistics and transport corridors is also being introduced here. There are plans to establish corridors south of Russia, but Russia actively promotes its own routes, both ground and sea routes, including the Northern Sea Route and everything linked with liquefied natural gas (LNG). This is huge sphere and it greatly strengthens our positions in this fast-growing region which, most importantly, is quickly expanding its influence.
Apart from what has been said about this region’s military development, I would like to note that the Russian government and President are paying close attention to its economic development. This includes the free port of Vladivostok and priority development areas. Unfortunately, there has been no demographic effect so far. This matter was recently discussed, and additional measures will be implemented. It is necessary to motivate people to relocate and live there. I believe that we should spare neither money, nor other incentives for this purpose.
Even such a loyal US ally as Japan is beginning to voice its own opinion regarding developments in the Middle East. It was with good reason that Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe visited Tehran and spoke out just now in New York calling for a meeting between US President Donald Trump and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. This highlights Japan’s substantial dependence on the Middle East, primarily in the hydrocarbons sector.
Question: Yesterday, Ukraine signed the Steinmeier Formula. Is this, in fact, an important step towards solving the Ukrainian problem, the most difficult problem we are facing?
Sergey Lavrov: There are some problems as regards the Steinmeier Formula. In Minsk yesterday, all Contact Group members, including Donetsk and Lugansk, signed the Steinmeier Formula, but did so on separate sheets of paper. It looks like someone thinks it below himself to put his signature next to those of other members, although all signatures put under the Minsk Agreements are on one sheet of paper. Yesterday, I hoped this problem had something to do with protocol and decorum and that it would soon be removed. But the reaction [that the event] produced in Kiev got me worried. I am referring to the demands to explain why “they are selling the Ukrainian people?” put forward by Petro Poroshenko and the Tymoshenko party, let alone Svyatoslav Vakarchuk and other radical political forces.
This formula has been on record since October 2015. It was created in Paris and reaffirmed each time by the Normandy formats, both at the top level and at the ministerial and expert levels. They just could not put it on paper. This is why the forces opposing the Zelensky government hit the roof. Perhaps they are reluctant to lose the argument hooked on defending their nationalist identity. They must be thinking that Kiev’s rapprochement with Donbass and a settlement based on terms enshrined in the Minsk Agreements will lead to a capitulation. But it was personally Petr Poroshenko who signed the Minsk Agreements. Yes, they are telling us that there will be no special status [for Donbass], despite the Steinmeier Formula. Spokespersons for the Zelensky administration claim that they will be decentralising [Ukraine] and that Donbass will benefit from the decentralisation to a greater extent than from the Minsk Agreements.
I would like you to focus in particular on a clause in the Minsk Agreements, which is quoted only on rare occasions. It says that the Ukrainian side will decentralise the whole country and that it will coordinate the parametres of this decentralisation for the individual areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. What is meant here is that no matter what kind of decentralisation they are planning – I do not know anything about other regions of Ukraine – this part of Ukraine must be heard and its position should be taken into account.
We are hearing now from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadim Pristaiko, and now from someone else that there would be no amnesty or special status [for Donbass]. Today we were talking about the Palestinian-Israeli problems, the two-state solution and the attempt to implement the resolutions that endorsed the two-state solutions. Although we are branded as a revisionist power, it is our Western colleagues who are revising the whole of the international law. I attempted to dwell upon this while addressing the UN General Assembly.
Yet another case in point is Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is a Dayton organisation of this state, one approved by the UN Security, under which the Republika Srpska has a special status of this sort. (This part was used in the Minsk Agreements.) The US and a number of leading West European states are urging the Bosnian and some Croatian parties they control to steer towards creating a unitary state in Bosnia. The aim is simple: they want to drag Bosnia into NATO. All sorts of gimmickry is being used to this end, including attempts to revise the relevant UN Security Council resolution. UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo implies a number of specific things, including special rights for the Serbs living in Kosovo, with Kosovo being a part of Serbia. It was no easy task but the EU,, helped Pristina and Belgrade to coordinate certain intermediate steps towards general agreements and agreements on how they should continue living together. They coordinated the creation of the Kosovo Community of Serb Municipalities, which guarantees the Serbs’ language, cultural, and religious rights. This community is not territorially uniform. There are northern regions, where the territories are compact, but there are also enclaves and they are part of the Kosovo Community of Serb Municipalities under this agreement. In keeping with the document that was signed by Pristina, this Community has a flag, a coat-of-arms, and an anthem. This agreement has been on paper for four years. Currently US-assisted attempts are being made to revise it and create a situation where Kosovo, with its Bondsteel base, the biggest US military base in Europe, could have the right to be dragged into NATO. These acts seem to be contagious; there are forces in Ukraine that are utterly and completely using the example of the US. The Minsk Agreements, which were also approved by the UN Security Council, are being put to a test. I see clearly the attempts to revise them. But I really do hope that Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s words about his commitment to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements represent the position of a man who defines Ukraine’s foreign policy and is its commander-in-chief.
Question: You rightly said that your good manners do not allow you to read someone else's correspondence, but there are people who are not so well-bred, they have already read this correspondence and found some evidence of a Russian connection there. So there is a danger that Russia may be involved in a new drama, which might lead to more complications in our relations with Ukraine and the United States. Do you see any risks here?
Sergey Lavrov: I agree that there is continued fixation with searching for Russian connections. The idea was first planted by Nancy Pelosi, if I remember correctly, and reflects that those in the US Democratic Party leadership who still can’t live with their failure to overthrow President Donald Trump or shatter public opinion in the United States, and even less so to prove Russia’s influence on internal political processes, they no longer even bother to find at least some decent arguments and facts. They just plant it – there is a Russian connection, and that’s it. There is something else – it is an attempt to take the heat off the Kiev players who had a hand in helping to put a democratic president in the White House in the 2016 and actually used the same methods that the Democratic Party now condemns the Russian Federation for using.
Question: There are many initiatives for Gulf security. Now with this new initiative coming from Russia, what is new that this initiative is bringing to Gulf security? What makes it unique, comparing to other initiatives?
Sergey Lavrov: As regards our Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf, well, there is nothing new in it. It was proposed in 2004; we specifically introduced this concept at ministerial meetings with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and said that if our Arab colleagues were interested in it, we could also talk with Iran to finally begin to move towards a constructive dialogue, transparency and confidence-building. Three of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council showed a positive attitude towards that proposal, but the other half remained neutrally negative. They asked us to wait, and literally said they might come back to it sometime, but not at that point. The situation around the Iranian nuclear program was quite tense then, and the negotiations had not yet begun in the format that eventually led to the signing of the JCPOA. We regularly brought it up at our meetings with our Arab colleagues from the Gulf, but got the same response. After we saw a dangerous aggravation of the situation this summer, also following the Strait of Hormuz incident and the accusations against Iran for being responsible for everything that happens in the region – in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere, we decided it’s time to refresh this concept, to draw attention to it. And then an expert dialogue opened, which showed us that there is interest in it, and that everyone has realised that they have no other choice but to coexist, not constantly fight each other.
Question: How could the Russian model compete with the US and China internationally? There are no angels in politics, where everyone has their own interests. What can Russia bring to this region? You talked about the American invasion of Iraq and their destructive role in the region. China has the Belt and Road initiative. What can Russia offer?
Sergey Lavrov: About what Russia can bring to this region as compared with the US and China, we do not bring any negative factors to this region – we do not bring in any geopolitical schemes involving setting one country against another. On the contrary, we always promote dialogue. Any wars and conflicts end in a dialogue. We can see how this works in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and other places. The sooner this happens, the better. Our economic relations with the countries of the Gulf, with the Arab monarchies are developing. We are expanding trade and investment with each of these countries. The Russian Direct Investment Fund creates joint platforms with most of the Gulf countries; there are many cultural and humanitarian programmes. We can offer this region friendship to enjoy and benefit from it. This answer is perhaps not extensive or comprehensive enough, but it is exactly what we want from our relations with any other country – not to impose any concepts, but to seek a balance of interests.
Question (via interpreter): You mentioned more intensive cooperation between Russia and Turkey. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned the possibility of Turkish intervention in the Kurdish regions of Syria, regardless of whether its allies support it or not. What is Russia’s position on that, considering that this can take place in coordination with a larger operation supported by Russia in Idlib?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a separate case. It concerns the de-escalation zone. Under the Russian-Turkish memorandum signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018, the reasonable armed opposition with which Turkey is collaborating, plus the Syrian Government pledge not to resume hostilities but to comply with the ceasefire. It also said that the ceasefire arrangements would not include the terrorist groups in the Idlib zone. We have been acting in strict compliance with this arrangement and the memorandum, just as the Syrian Government is doing even though it has the right to fight terrorists in the national territory, especially those who do not sit back in the Idlib zone but conduct raids and sweep the Syrian Army positions and civilian facilities with fire. Since the start of this year, some 60 combat drones have been launched from that area against our Hmeymim airbase. They have been shot down and destroyed. The issue of Idlib should be discussed separately.
As for the eastern bank of the Euphrates, I would like to remind you that we have long called the attention of our American partners and the international community as a whole to the fact that the United States and the US-led coalition are playing an extremely dangerous game in that region, where they are trying to use the Kurdish factor for their own geopolitical goals. The goal is to separate the eastern bank of the Euphrates from the rest of Syria. This is obvious despite Washington’s statements to the effect that it respects and will continue to respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the same time, the Americans are relying on the Kurds to create a quasi-state east of the Euphrates because Washington views them as the most loyal part of the Syrian community in that area. To strengthen the Kurds’ positions, the Americans are giving them the lands that have traditionally belonged to the Arab tribes. There have been several conflicts recently between the Arabs and the Kurds east of the Euphrates because of the US policy of resettling Kurds in these Arab territories. Everyone knew that nothing good would come of that. When Turkey said it was concerned over its security, we expressed our understanding of its concerns.
In 1998, Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Agreement, in which Damascus and Ankara accepted the legitimacy of each other’s security concerns in the border regions. The sides have coordinated a procedure under which the Turkish armed forces can penetrate Syria’s territory up to 5 kilometres to combat the extremists and terrorists. When the issue was raised again, we decided that it would be possible to use the available international legal framework I mentioned, that is, the Adana Agreement. The United States did not like Turkey’s direct cooperation with Syria. Washington wanted to take charge of the situation and control the border, saying during the talks that Turkey could send its military police and observers to the group of forces formed by the US-led coalition. This did not suit Turkey. I can understand its sentiments when a non-regional country that has no connection to the problem of border security tries to force its own scenario on the countries involved. It is necessary to come to an agreement, but only if it is based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. Washington’s initial position did not stipulate that or respect Turkey’s legitimate concerns. Eventually, President Erdogan said that he had warned he would not wait forever and that the problem is still here. As he said at the beginning of last month, he reserves the right to address the problem without the Americans if no agreement is reached with them on the basis of the above principles within two or three weeks. We believe this problem should be dealt with through the concerted efforts of Turkey and Syria. I think they can come to an agreement regarding this. We will do our utmost to facilitate this.
Question: How high, in your view, is the risk of a military conflict with Iran in the Persian Gulf and in general – the risk of military conflicts reigniting in the region as a whole such as in places like Nagorno-Karabakh?
Sergey Lavrov: You can never vouch for anything. But I think that neither the US, nor Iran, nor the majority of countries in the region want to go to war. Someone would like perhaps to situationally play on the current differences, aggravate the situation to a certain extent, and stoke tension in the information space to get some immediate advantages, but strategically, I am confident, no one wants war.
There is an initiative that I have already mentioned: the US is creating an international navigation safety coalition that currently includes Australia, Bahrain, the UK, and another couple of countries. There is an Iranian initiative that calls on all countries in the region, countries that are willing and ready, to waive divides and unite in order to jointly ensure security there, while engaging in confidence-building. The Russian initiative follows the same pattern. I am referring to the Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf. It may well embrace joint patrolling of the maritime spaces that are causing so much contention.
Russia, Iran and China are preparing for naval antiterrorist and anti-pirate exercises in this part of the Indian Ocean. Incidentally, our US colleagues are promoting a term different from the Asia Pacific Region: they prefer to call it the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR). Asked about the difference between the two, they say their aim is just to highlight the role of India. If “Indo” stands for the Indian Ocean, then this conceptual vision should include all of East Africa and the whole of the Persian Gulf. This sufficiently dubious concept is fraught with a divisionary charge attempting to base relations in that region on the bloc principle. As for us, we are used to and will always support ASEAN’s central role. We speak a lot about this.
As for Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation on the line of contact has been rather calm recently. There are few incidents and they are not large in scale. The bodies of those killed in action were exchanged and an exchange of detainees is being prepared. The numbers are small but the process is edging ahead.
The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh – Russia, France and the US – are working closely and in concert with each other. There were three ministerial meetings earlier this year, including one in Moscow in April with my participation. We held a meeting with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which was attended by the co-chairs.
As for the situation on the ground, it is much calmer today than a year ago. But the political process is being held back and we are unable to cope with the hindering factors. The sides have been making rather serious statements, including to the effect that Karabakh is Armenia, just as Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania says that Kosovo is Albania. Of course, this is not helping to create an atmosphere favourable for the resumption of the political process. But as co-chairs, we, the Americans and the French are working in unison. Here there is one of the few situations where we have a common vision. We have basic documents, which we are unwilling to revise. We want to seek a settlement based on the basic principles that have been repeatedly discussed. But it should be found through direct dialogue. Contacts are there, but a dialogue on a settlement is not resumed for the time being. I can’t see here any evidence or implicit danger of resumed large-scale hostilities. We will do our best to prevent this from happening.
Question: A historical event will take place in Sochi three weeks from now: Russia will host the Russia-Africa Summit for the first time. Relations and cooperation between Russia and the African continent have historical roots. Russia has never left Africa, maintaining diplomatic relations, training specialists for our countries, and building various facilities.
The African continent comprises 55 countries that have different-level economies and different cultures. Sceptics say that today, instead of maintaining bilateral relations, Russia is trying to cooperate with whole regions. There are different players in the African market right now. There used to be the Americans, then the Europeans; then came China, Turkey and Brazil. So, many people ask, what will Russia bring to Africa? Africans are aware that Russia’s presence on the continent is a guarantee of security not only in the region, but around the world. Russia has never been against other players in Africa, and wanted equal conditions for cooperation where all players complement each other, and their interaction is for the benefit of the peoples of Africa. Could you comment on the upcoming summit?
Sergey Lavrov: You have already said everything! You mentioned that Russia is a guarantee of security. But, in the classical sense, security guarantees imply something different. We do not have a single military alliance treaty with African countries, but we have very warm, historically developed relations since their decolonisation. Yes, we did not seek to make a profit. It was economically and financially inefficient for the Soviet Union. But we acted on the Communist Party’s directive, or sometimes at the call of the heart, if you will. It was indeed the most important achievement of the Soviet foreign policy – justice finally triumphed on the African continent. By the way, now that our Western colleagues are trying to review the history of World War II, we begin to remind them of the period of colonialism, of the damage that the colonialists did to the African continent. Moreover, the African countries were decolonised almost twenty years later than World War II ended. Therefore, if someone wants to have a historical debate, we will talk about decolonisation, especially given that it is still incomplete: there is the island of Mayotte in the Comoros archipelago, and the islands of Madagascar, and the Chagos Archipelago, which the International Court of Justice recently resolved to give to Mauritius. The UN General Assembly adopted a relevant resolution.
You said correctly that we are ready to work in any country without ousting anyone if we have equal competitive conditions. Not everyone does this. I have cited examples today. For Africans, Russia as another fairly large trading partner is probably a stabilising and balancing factor. Our trade is growing at a rapid pace and has reached $20 billion. Of course, this is nothing compared to China’s share, but it is now several times bigger than, say, ten years ago. As in any situation, if you have one stronger partner, you depend on it, but if there are several partners, you have more stability.
Question (via interpreter): You mentioned the United States’ impotence regarding the nuclear deal and also said that the deal does not work. When former President of France Jacques Chirac opposed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that France would be punished for that. Can Russia use the new modalities of European politics in the light of what President of France Emmanuel Macron said in late August about European strategic autonomy and the rise of the so-called post-Atlantic West, which has pushed us to the brink? Can the real pan-continental union be recreated?
Sergey Lavrov: In 2003, Russia, France and Germany protested against the Iraqi campaign, which Britons and Americans had initiated in stark violation of international law and which has destroyed Iraq. By the way, Director of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq Paul Bremer dissolved all the Ba’ath Party structures and the army where party members formed the core, as well as the Iraqi security service. It is generally admitted today that the most effective ISIS fighters were former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army who had been fired and had nothing to live on. I am not trying to justify their decision, but they joined ISIS not because in their hearts they wanted to but because they needed money.
As for President Macron’s speech at the Conference of Ambassadors, we have taken note of it as well as the initiatives he subsequently voiced. Despite our differences, which will never disappear entirely, these initiatives provide for reviving the idea of the common European dialogue in order to ensure national and international security and global stability.
Regrettably, the OSCE has remained a venue for debates where decisions are taken by consensus but there are no legal or juridical instruments for implementing them. It could have become an alternative to NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation when the latter ceased to exist. Unfortunately, they opted for a different path.
Mr Macron has put forth many initiatives on improving Europe. One of the initiatives proposed a reform of the European Union, so that the Eurozone countries would form the core, with all the other EU countries (Eastern Partnership and the like) as concentric circles. But now, after two years as president of France, Mr Macron is looking at Europe not only from the EU angle but also within a much broader framework of common European security. Yes, he spoke about the need for Europe’s strategic autonomy in the field of security. German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a similar view, including recently in New York, where she spoke about transatlantic relations in connection with Brexit and the US position on the EU and NATO. Washington’s only idea for NATO is to promote US presence [in Europe], advance the bloc eastward and sell more weapons while demanding that the member states increase their defence spending to 2 percent. I am sure that nobody in the United States wants a war in Europe, but why not use the situation to strengthen US presence or force the host country to pay for American bases and to allocate more funds for buying US weapons and later American LNG? Europeans probably understand that this is a somewhat egotistical position and no longer see NATO as the united North Atlantic defence alliance. It is not surprising that when disillusionment set in, this encouraged discussions on turning the bloc from a defence alliance into a global structure responsible for global security. This is an ageless theme. It can be used eternally to preserve the bloc, which is looking for a reason for its existence. The Soviet Union has collapsed just as the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, and the situation in Afghanistan is perfectly clear: the bloc would like to withdraw from it and forget about it, leaving only a few bases behind.
We support President Macron’s initiative, as we have said. He has sent a long letter to President of Russia Vladimir Putin, who wrote in reply that we agree on the need to launch a dialogue. We cannot set the landmarks we must achieve, but the previous position of the majority of Europeans according to which Russia must fulfil the Minsk Agreements before a dialogue can begin is no longer the dominant position. Evidence of this is the speech by Mr Macron, who has seen sooner than others that this is a dead-end position.
France has advanced many initiatives, some of which are questionable, such as the initiatives regarding media and the information space. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), working together with the French Government, has proposed creating a white list of media outlets, including online resources, that can be trusted. Needless to say, this is not a correct approach, especially for a country where RT and Sputnik have no accreditation for events organised by the Elysee Palace.
France has also proposed the European Intervention Initiative. While the Russian and French presidents held their talks at Fort de Brégançon, I met with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the foreign policy adviser to President Macron. We asked about that initiative, because it was said during its presentation that, among other things, it was needed to avoid the red tape of the UN Security Council, NATO and the EU at times when emergency assistance needed to be approved to save human lives. The logical question is how we can act without the UN Security Council when the use of force is on the agenda. In September, the foreign and defence ministers of Russia and France met in the 2+2 format. We discussed the initiative in detail, yet we still lack a comprehensive picture. We need to understand whether this initiative is in keeping with President Macron’s proposal for a common European dialogue or whether it is a collateral idea. We have many questions. But the main thing is that we are all for sitting down and negotiating the matter based on mutual respect and without any preconditions or claims to unilateral exclusive rights and privileges in this dialogue.
Question: I think one of the main strategic successes of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and as regards non-Western world as a whole is that it has turned into a value of its own and ceased to be a derivative of Russia’s relations with the West. But many of our opponents try to criticise us and deny this, saying that Russia is interested in weakening the West in the Middle East and that it is not a reliable long-term centre of force in the Middle East. It is enough for the West to improve its relations with Russia for it to leave the region immediately. Many politicians stupidly said that Syria was a bargaining chip for Russia that it would exchange for Ukraine. Trying to prove this point, our opponents appeal to Russian rhetoric that, we must admit, is largely unbalanced. It contains justified criticism of the West, but for now it lacks what you mentioned: we are offering to be friends to the states of the region and derive pleasure from this. Do you think it is possible to balance Russian rhetoric as regards the Middle East? Can we continue to curse the West and at the same time explain what neutral and positive ideas Russia brings to the region and what does not depend on its relations with the West?
Sergey Lavrov: I agree that Russian foreign policy has become self-sufficient. Probably, the illusions that emerged after the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the 1990s had an effect on how the West sees Russia. You remember all this – the end of history and so on. But we finally realised that we can only count on ourselves – naturally, in line with international law – in 2014, when some Western countries supported the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev. Some of them actively provoked and helped organise it. But in any event, the Western response to bringing the rebels to power in Kiev in 2014 – all these sanctions, demands and condemnation – convinced us of only one thing: in this world we can only rely on ourselves as Alexander III advised us, and on a broader plain as well.
The Ukraine crisis in February 2014. Talks. Germans, French and Poles signed an agreement with then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and the opposition, which reads that a government of national accord will be formed on the following morning, that it will prepare early elections and that the authorities will use the army and security service only for the protection of administrative buildings. However, the very next day, all this collapsed. We asked the French and German representatives to answer our questions. We also asked the Americans that asked us to support this agreement (Barrack Obama made a special phone call to Vladimir Putin) how this could happen since they put their honour, dignity and authority at stake. They replied: it just happened that way.
It is no accident that when the reasons for the current crisis in relations between Russia and the West are discussed, we are reproached for being in Crimea and Donbass. But the basis of all this was laid by the coup organisers that declared on the following morning that they were going to set up, not a government of national accord as the document signed in 2014 read, but the government of the winners.
On February 22, they already divided the country into winners and losers. Two days later, there were statements to the effect that Russians had nothing to do in Crimea and must either be eliminated or expelled from there. When the Crimean Parliament objected to all this, “friendship trains” with criminals were sent there. Likewise, Donbass did not attack anyone. They said: “You people are doing something anti-constitutional. We do not want to be part of it, so leave us alone. We want to look into this and understand what is going on.” They were denounced as terrorists and attacked.
I have repeatedly told this to our Western colleagues but they keep avoiding the main reason for this situation. This is shameful and unworthy of reputable countries. However, we did feel self-sufficient and self-reliant only after this bitter lesson from our relations with the West. This does not mean that we will pout and take offense. No. As I mentioned, we are willing to respond to initiatives like those made by President of France Emmanuel Macron. We are always open to dialogue, to a conversation.
Naturally, when the sanctions were introduced we had to respond. We always emphasise that the sanctions are your invention. It is up to you to decide what to do with them, we will rise to the call. But, first, we already realise that we can only rely on ourselves in the economy, technology and the provision of vital necessities for our people because we can be cheated at any time, like with these sanctions. Second, we always emphasise that this does not mean that we are closing the door. When you are ready to talk, you are welcome, and we will talk to the extent and on the issues which you are comfortable with. We have emphasised this at all stages. Therefore our independence, self-reliance and the self-sufficiency of our foreign policy does not at all mean that we want to isolate ourselves. It is our Western partners that are isolating themselves. However, all this is changing now and there are many examples of this. Thus, individual EU countries are actively developing relations with the Russian Federation to the displeasure of bureaucratic Brussels that does not want to lose control over these processes. But this is already backfiring – as you know, many countries are upset about this at the domestic level.
The West says we aim to weaken it, but probably it is weakening itself by what it is doing. Afghanistan is one example. Complete failure after almost 20 years of attempts to put things in order there. Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai knows this very well. He takes the destiny of his country very close to heart. We do appreciate his position but there is no settlement in the country although there have been many opportunities to reach one.
Now I will say a few words about attempts to present us as an unreliable partner that should not be viewed in a long-term perspective – it is alleged that Russia will walk out on them and leave. Well, we are told exactly the opposite by African and Middle Eastern countries. They quote the examples of two or three of their leaders, for instance, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who maintained stability in the region for at least 20 years. Yes, he had good relations with us but he maintained stability in the region. The Americans called him their strategic ally. The Arab Spring came but he didn’t run away. He gave up his power and went to Sharm El Sheikh. He quit his post with dignity and said: “I want my country to live in peace and tranquility. If I am in the way, I will leave.” He was brought to court in a cage and was trampled upon and humiliated. Maybe, I will not reveal a secret, but we asked the Americans to influence the authorities that came to power in Cairo to stop this derision but there was no response from the United States.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was close enough to many European leaders, including those in France. But he was simply bombed, brutally murdered, destroyed.
It is up to the people in these countries and their leaders to decide on whom they can or cannot rely. Let me repeat that many countries tell us at their own initiative that they appreciate very much that we do not give up on our associates and friends.
As for well-balanced rhetoric, I try to keep a balance. We curse the West – if this can be called cursing – not because we find pleasure in this. We simply want to quote specific facts to show that this has taken place more than once. To foment confrontation once again in an attempt to resolve one’s own problems and to split countries, societies and regions apart is probably not the best approach.
Question: Speaking of sanctions, you once noted that Russia was not supposed to lift the sanctions because it did not introduce them. US Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin have called on your counterpart Mike Pompeo to declare sanctions against Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov who, just like you, are members of the Russian Government. In this connection, I would like to ask: Is your sanctions-response strategy remaining the same or will it change?
Sergey Lavrov: I have heard that Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin are two famous anti-Russia-minded members of the US Congress. I don’t think that this implies that they have any foresight. Those with a more or less politically mature opinion of the situation should have realised long ago that the sanctions don’t work in the direction they wanted them to work. I believe that they will never work. We have a territory and its riches that were bestowed on us by God and our ancestors, we have a feeling of personal dignity, and we also have the armed forces. This combination makes us very confident. I hope that economic development and all the investment that has been made and continues to be made will also pay off in the near future.
Question: In your speech, you dwelled on the consequences of the US policy and military interventions in the Middle and Near East. Russia consistently and clearly opposes such interventions. At the same time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also had an impact on the United States and led to major reputational and financial losses as well as human casualties. As you have said, Western partners view Russian actions in the geopolitical context. At the same time, the United States openly lists Russia among its enemies. Possibly, this is a cynical approach but, perhaps, Russia might profit from the fact that the United States is getting bogged down in the Middle East quagmire, wasting its political and military capital and becoming involved in conflicts (quite possibly, one such conflict might now involve Iran), rather than using these resources to contain Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are urging the West to analyse all mistakes. The great Sir Winston Churchill once observed that the Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. This is what he said. I hope that he will prove right once again.