Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov’s interview with the TASS News Agency, September 30, 2016
Question: Has NATO responded to Russia’s proposal to strengthen confidence, including in light of the so-called Niinisto Plan for air safety over the Baltic? The proposal was made public at a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on July 13. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting that the allies welcome Russia’s readiness to discuss ways to reduce risks and will carefully analyse Russian proposals on air safety over the Baltic.
Alexey Meshkov: Last July the Russian military submitted a list of practical steps that can be taken to strengthen confidence. Two months later NATO officials issued oral comments, but only on some aspects of our proposal. These explanations indicate that some of our initiatives have been rejected, such as holding a meeting of military experts in Moscow to discuss European security in light of the Warsaw summit’s decisions; exchanging military opinions on the terrorist threat, primarily with a view to preventing the proliferation of ISIS (ISIS or the Islamic State is a terrorist group that has been prohibited in Russia) and other terrorist organisations; resuming cooperation within the Russia-NATO anti-terrorist project – the Cooperative Airspace Initiative; and conducting an un-politicised analysis of previous military programmes within the Russia-NATO Council framework.
This reaction to our Baltic risk reduction proposal that you mentioned is indicative. We invited NATO’s technical experts and also representatives from Sweden and Finland to come to Russia for consultations on all aspects of the use of transponders in the region. Why can’t they do this? Instead, they have indicated that we should provide proof of the importance of transponders for preventing air accidents, despite the fact that for the past two years NATO officials have been speaking about the risks posed by our aircraft flying with their transponders switched off, which they described as the biggest military security problem. It looks like an attempt to avoid a practical discussion of our initiative.
NATO has not made any reciprocal proposal but expects us to hold more transparent briefings on Russia’s military capabilities on the western border. They also want to receive information on spot checks during telephone conversations with the Chief of the Russian General Staff. This attitude is also indicative of their idea of modernising the 2011 Vienna document on military confidence- and security-building measures.
We agree that these are important issues that must not be disregarded. But it must not be a one-way street as now.
I believe that NATO’s reaction to our proposal can be explained by its obsession with ideology. The allied countries should have long shown a responsible attitude to developing systemic cooperation with Russia and found the courage to break out of the framework of politicised bloc thinking.
Anyway, we expect a detailed response in an official letter from NATO. Only after we receive it will we be ready to resume a meaningful dialogue. However, as I have said, the bloc’s continued attempts to force a one-sided relationship on us will not help us reach any confidence-building agreements.
Question: When will the next meeting of the Russia-NATO Council take place?
Alexey Meshkov: We are still open to continuing a serious and equal dialogue with the alliance on the current issues on the European and international agenda that affect the interests of Russia and NATO.
The Russia-NATO Council format has repeatedly proved its relevance and will play the key role here. However, such meetings should have some real “added value.” So far, we have to acknowledge that the alliance keeps trying to use the council mostly as a channel to promote internal bloc interests.
I can’t rule out the possibility that there will be discussion points for a continued dialogue in the council format after we receive and analyse the alliance’s official letter to proposals we made during the July meeting. Therefore, we should not hurry. In any case, council meetings are usually preceded by relevant consultations on their agenda.
I’m glad to see that after almost a two-year break, NATO members openly and more often recognise the need for such meetings. It seems that they are coming to understand the abnormality of the current situation that developed after Brussels began curtailing the systemic dialogue, including the dialogue on military issues, and after the bloc’s unilateral decision to suspend practical cooperation. Let’s hope that this “insight” will have a sobering effect on those NATO countries that keep trying to discredit the council format.
Question: Will the Russian delegation resume its work in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) before the end of the year?
Alexey Meshkov: Due to the constitutional separation of powers in the Russian Federation, this question should be first addressed to the Federal Assembly members. Still, the Ministry is also concerned about the crisis in PACE, which, as you know, was not caused by the Russian party. We are concerned that since our delegation’s powers were suspended, PACE has no longer been a pan-European parliamentary forum. All branches of power in Russia are interested in returning this status to the assembly.
As you know, heads of both chambers of the Russian parliament are taking resolute measures to find a mutually acceptable solution to this problem. On September 7, in Moscow, former Speaker of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin, and on September 14, in Strasbourg, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, exchanged opinions with PACE President Pedro Agramunt and members of the Assembly’s Presidential Committee about steps which should be taken to restore in full the Russian delegation’s rights in the Assembly. When this happens ‒ before the end of this year or in early 2017 ‒ will depend on when the Russian delegation to the Assembly is formed with regard to the recent State Duma election, and also on how fast PACE makes its decision.
In any case, we are ready to help solve the crisis in the Assembly as soon as possible.
Question: Russia has repeatedly claimed that it refuses to conduct “business as usual” with the EU. On what terms would Russia resume cooperation with the European Union? In particular, what would they be: the lifting of sanctions, the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia?
Alexey Meshkov: First of all, I’d like to say that we did not completely cut off our cooperation with the EU, no matter how much someone wanted that. Our cooperation on certain issues, mostly on the expert level, has not stopped. However, there are no systemic exchanges on the top and high level, and political contacts are being artificially slowed down by the EU. We think it is absurd that Brussels connects the restoration of bilateral dialogue with total compliance with the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine, which have been openly sabotaged by Kiev.
As for the future of Russia-EU relations, there will no “business as usual” as the EU sees it. I think that in the current situation, we should take a fresh look at the entire structure of our cooperation with the union.
Last year, we agreed that both we and the EU will separately review our bilateral relations to find common interests. We did our part. The results and our proposals were handed to the EU, which is still working on theirs.
We are not calling for a total restoration of cooperation as part of sectoral dialogues. But it is necessary to resume and expand contacts on issues of mutual interest and practical importance (such as trade regulations, customs, veterinary and phytosanitary cooperation, fisheries, combating climate change, etc).
We hope that the upcoming EU summit on October 20-21, where relations with Russia and the sanctions policy will be discussed, will allow Brussels to develop more realistic approaches to bilateral relations.
I’d like to emphasise that we don’t make the development of Russia-EU relations dependent on the fulfilment of some sort of requirements. We are ready to build pragmatic cooperation with the EU on the basis of equality and real consideration of mutual interests.
In this connection, I’d also like to say that the extension of sanctions against Russia is pointless and only leads to a further degradation of trade and economic cooperation. We regularly tell the EU that we are not going to discuss any conditions for lifting sanctions. We also emphasise that if and when the EU abandons the sanctions policy that undermines its own economic interests, we will be happy to respond.
As for Crimea, we are not going to discuss its status with the EU. This issue is over and done with.
Question: How would you comment on Angela Merkel’s statement that the EU is on the verge of collapse? Do you agree?
Alexey Meshkov: We are definitely witnessing the growth of negative trends in the EU. It is facing several serious challenges at once, including an unprecedented migration crisis, an increase in terrorist activity, continuous financial and economic problems, a rise in Eurosceptical sentiments, the most striking example of which was the result of the referendum in Britain on EU membership, as well as differences inside the EU on the North-South and East-West directions.
Actually, not only Ms Merkel spoke about the gravity of the situation, but also representatives of other EU states and heads of EU institutions who said that the EU “is facing an existential crisis.”
We count on the EU’s ability to overcome these difficulties, as we are interested in a stable and predictable EU, which, despite a significant decline in mutual trade, has remained Russia’s key trade and economic partner over recent years.
Question: Can you tell us about Russian-Turkish cooperation? Are you discussing a visa-free travel to Russia for Turkish citizens?
Alexey Meshkov: As you know, we recently went through a very difficult period in relations with Turkey. The apologies made by the Turkish President for the November 24, 2015 tragedy have created conditions for unfreezing our official contacts. Our presidents have resumed and stepped up dialogue, and our foreign and economic ministers and experts from various ministries and agencies conduct consultations.
Charter flights to Turkey resumed in early September. We are again discussing the implementation of strategic projects, such as the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and Turkey’s first nuclear power station at Akkuyu. The concerned economic agencies on both sides are discussing the possibility of modifying the special economic measures that are currently in place against Turkey.
We believe that this work will proceed in stages, as and when objective conditions for this arise, with due regard for our national interests and based on healthy pragmatism. There are objective reasons for normalising relations with Turkey, which is a close neighbour and a major trade and economic partner for Russia. At the same time, we should bear in mind the interests of Russian producers when considering lifting restrictions against Turkey. As for cooperation in tourism, I can tell you that the safety of Russian citizens has always been our main priority in the difficult situation in Turkey. Concerned Russian agencies are working together with their Turkish partners to monitor the additional measures taken by the Turkish authorities in the resort areas to ensure the safety of Russian tourists.
Regarding the revival of visa facilitation, we consider this to be untimely because of the high risk of terrorist attacks and the activity of various terrorist groups in Turkey, in particular those that can pose a threat to Russia and Russians.
Of major importance in this connection is the level of cooperation between Russian and Turkish law enforcement and security services. We have resumed dialogue in this area, yet the situation cannot be described as satisfactory. We will be able to discuss simplifying the visa process in more detail only when our law enforcement agencies resume active and, most importantly, effective cooperation and the risk of terrorism declines in Turkey.
Question: The Turkish authorities have issued the first permits to Gazprom within the Turkish Stream project, which means that the construction of the pipeline can begin. When do you expect to coordinate and sign a draft intergovernmental agreement on this issue?
Alexey Meshkov: It is good that our Turkish partners, acting within the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey at their meeting in St Petersburg on August 9, 2016, have issued the first permits for the construction of Turkish Stream.
As for the intergovernmental agreement, we are actively working on its draft. We hope to complete this stage soon and subsequently to sign the agreement.