Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Moscow, December 22, 2017
We have held talks with Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson and his delegation and discussed a wide range of bilateral, as well as international and regional matters.
We agree that the current state of Russian-British relations is hardly satisfactory. Problems have been piling up to form a deadweight that is pulling us backwards, although it seems to me that both sides are willing to find ways to overcome these issues. Furthermore, we believe that putting the relations between our countries back on constructive track meets the interests of both Russia and Great Britain, including in terms of better cooperation on the international stage.
Today, we discussed a number of specific steps designed to normalise bilateral cooperation. Russia reaffirmed its readiness to promote dialogue on a broad range of matters based on the principles of equality, taking into consideration and respecting each other’s interests. We cannot accept a selective approach or any conditions for resolving any matters on our agenda.
We discussed trade and economic cooperation, and noted with satisfaction that mutual trade resumed growth this year. According to Russia’s statistics, trade increased by more than a quarter in the first nine months of 2017. We believe that this is indicative of the readiness by the Russian and British business communities to continue beneficial hands-on cooperation. On Russia’s behalf, we noted that the revival without delay of the Intergovernmental Steering Committee on Trade and Investment would benefit businesses and reinforce the positive trends in this area.
We agreed to resolve a number of issues with a view to improving working conditions for our respective diplomatic missions.
We noted the need to review the consequences of Great Britain leaving the European Union, primarily in terms of the possible effect of the final deal between London and Brussels on Great Britain’s trade and investment ties with Russia and the countries that remain within the EU. We hope that these discussions will pave the way to agreements enabling Russian companies and investors to continue to operate in the United Kingdom. On a broader scale, we have certainly a lot of work ahead of us to decide bilaterally on a series of matters resulting from this situation.
We praised the positive momentum in the long-standing and solid cultural and humanitarian ties between our countries, and welcomed the success of the cross-year of science and education in 2017, especially in terms of promoting cooperation between higher education institutions of our two countries. We agreed to prepare an initiative to hold the cross-year of music in 2019.
Of course, we discussed key global and regional issues, including the need to fight international terrorism as it flourishes in the Middle East and North Africa. We agreed on the urgency to settle regional conflicts, including the situation in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, through political and diplomatic means.
We informed our British partners of Russia’s efforts to facilitate the political process in Syria, including through the Astana process and the initiative to convene the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in order to support the UN-led Geneva talks and make them even more effective.
We discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including in the context of discussions on this issue within the UN Security Council. We generally agreed that Russia and Great Britain as permanent members of the UN Security Council should be more proactive and better coordinate their positions on all matters within the authority of the UN Security Council, i.e. questions of international peace and security.
We also touched upon the situation in Ukraine. Once again, we clearly articulated Russia’s position, emphasising the need to fully and unconditionally implement UN Security Council resolution 2202 approving the Minsk Package of Measures, signed in February 2015.
I believe that today’s talks were quite timely. I hope that they will help put our relations back on track in all these and other areas. I would like to thank the UK Foreign Secretary for this meeting.
Question: Is it true there are still areas where Russia has never been more hostile towards the UK since the end of the Cold War? Do you trust each other?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Boris Johnson): Frankly, I do not recall any Russian actions that were aggressive towards the United Kingdom. We have never accused London of anything. On the contrary, we have heard accusations, some of which were quite insulting, that we support the “criminal” Syrian regime, that we are the aggressor and occupier, and we annex foreign territories. We have heard all of this, although we have regularly provided information on our position and the reasons for it, in relation to all the regional issues and on many other questions. We never resorted to aggression in replying to these more than aggressive statements made in London by media outlets and television channels, and by UK officials. We have always called for a consideration of the facts. I think that today we have come to an agreement on a number of issues on which we hold different positions, but these divergences will not prevent us from exchanging factual data on vital political and international issues.
As for trust, I trust Boris. I trust him so much that I am prepared to Russify his name and to call him Borees.
Question (addressed to both ministers): We have recently seen an example of how cooperation between Russian and US special services prevented a terrorist attack in St Petersburg and saved many lives. The UK often comes across the problem of terrorism. Is there potential for Russia-UK cooperation on counterterrorism despite the parties’ political differences? Are our countries ready for practical action in this sphere?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Boris Johnson): I agree that this is an extremely important issue, on which there should not be any artificial restriction on global cooperation between all countries without exception. As President Vladimir Putin has said, we are in favour of creating a universal counterterrorism front. There should be no attempts to attach conditions to such cooperation. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has mentioned a practical aspect related to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. First of all, we congratulate Britain on winning the right to take part in this sports festival. Second, the Russian and British agencies concerned are in constant contact with one another to ensure security during the FIFA championships. I know that meetings have been held at the level of interior ministries. The FSB will definitely be involved in this. But truly effective cooperation in counterterrorism has been hindered so far by the decision of the British government to suspend all contacts with the FSB following the so-called Litvinenko case.
The FSB is the main counterterrorism agency in Russia. The National Anti-Terrorism Committee is operating at the FSB and under its guidance. We can hardly expect counterterrorism operations to be as successful as we want and deserve without full-scale contact with the FSB, which London has precluded, as I have said.
We are concerned about British law enforcement agencies’ unwillingness to provide information on the so-called Litvinenko case despite our numerous appeals. A large part of this information has been classified without good reason and it remains classified to this day. I hope that this artificial link between a very controversial case and the obvious need for counterterrorism cooperation will not continue.
Question (for Boris Johnson): Foreign Secretary, you described Russia this week as akin to the ancient Greek state of Sparta, calling it “closed, nasty, militaristic and antidemocratic”. Can you explain why you used those words? And, Mr Lavrov, do you agree with that explanation?
Sergey Lavrov (speaks after Boris Johnson): Frankly, I don’t remember the Soviet Union glorifying Sparta and the Spartans as a model that the Soviet Union should emulate. Although, for example, in the United States, Hollywood was praising the Spartans as a paragon of courage, determination and strength. However, this is history, and everyone has their own opinion about it.
Question: And may I also ask, every time you’ve denied Russia’s involvement in election hacking and democratic interference, the world hasn’t believed a word you said. Why is that?
Sergey Lavrov: Today, I discussed with Boris the issue of our interference in all kinds of elections. The United States has been looking into it for a year now as part of the Senate hearings, a process led by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, and other formats. Dozens of people have been questioned and have given their testimony under oath. Knowing the American system, when so many people are involved in any specific discussion about Russia’s intervention, it is difficult to imagine that there hasn’t been a single leak in almost a year. This looks nothing like the American political system. Until we are presented with concrete facts, we cannot discuss this topic seriously with anyone.
I already said that we were also suspected of interfering in elections in France and Germany. With regard to Germany, there’s an established fact: several years ago it was confirmed that the US National Security Agency was eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel’s conversations from its headquarters in Germany. Everyone seems to think of it as a given and no one expresses any concern about it.
With regard to your assertion that we are trying to convince everyone that we did not interfere, and the world does not believe us, by the “world” you probably mean the community of Western nations. But there are many people even in the Western community who have common sense and who have their eyes wide open. For example, the person sitting next to me, Boris Johnson, recently stated that he has no evidence that Russia meddled in the referendum over UK's withdrawal from the European Union.
Boris Johnson: “Not successfully”, I think is the word that you need to use here.
Sergey Lavrov: He’s afraid that if he doesn’t contradict me now, his reputation with his media back home will be tarnished.
Boris Johnson: Sergey, it’s your reputation that I’m worried about. I think it very important that you should recognise that Russian attempts to interfere in our elections, in our referendum, whatever they may have been, they have not been successful. So you can reassure yourself on that point, and that’s an important consideration. Because I think had it been successful, that would be an entirely different matter.
Sergey Lavrov: Lack of action can never lead to a result, I agree with you. However, we would still like to be presented with the evidence of our intervention, even if unsuccessful. It is very difficult to talk without facts. I think you have made it up, your whole Western fraternity. Unfortunately, you’ve become hostages to this topic. It is difficult to get off the fence, once you get on it.
Question: Recently, we have heard a lot of negative things about Russia from your British colleague, including talk of hostility, interference in the referendum in the UK, criticism of his colleagues who were in touch with the Russian media, specifically Russia Today. Did such rhetoric continue today, or was it left behind for the UK audiences?
Sergey Lavrov: You heard us discussing our talks and the subject of interference. We have yet to see a single piece of evidence. If there are a lot of them, then something would have leaked, but we haven’t heard anything of substance so far other than groundless allegations to the effect that someone had posted some cheap ads in some social media.
Of course, we are concerned that in this “cradle of democracy”, the United Kingdom, people are taking heat only for the fact of speaking with Russian reporters. This, indeed, should concern the current government, since it does not do much to uphold its good reputation.
I want to note that Boris said that for the first time since 1945, in connection with the so-called “annexation of Crimea”, some rules were violated in Europe. Let me remind you that there was a referendum in Crimea. Those who really want to make sure that Crimeans have made their choice of their own accord, just go to Crimea, see things with their own eyes, and do not believe the propaganda supplied at every corner by our Ukrainian neighbours and the patrons of the current Kiev regime.
What really cannot be disputed is that for the first time since 1945 in Europe, one OSCE country was attacked by other OSCE member countries. I am referring to the former Yugoslavia, which was completely unlawfully subjected to an aggression, dismembered and, without any referendums, the territory going by the name of Kosovo was declared independent. This is also a situation which came under review in the context of comparisons with the Crimean referendum, where, to reiterate, the situation was quite different and based on a declaration of will by the people and international law.
At today's meeting, we did not shy away from acute topics, and you heard about it at today’s news conference. However, I like the way we discussed it. At least, I do not feel any animosity and do not have any hard feelings myself. I think that this form of dialogue is very useful and will eventually allow us to move towards normalising our relations for the benefit of our peoples and international cooperation.
Question: Mr Johnson, just a few days ahead of your visit a British parliamentarian warned you to be careful in Russia: not to use the phone to prevent wiretapping, not to drink vodka, to be careful with what you eat (risk of poisoning), not to take the lift alone. Has this advice proven useful? Did you really get an impression that it is so dangerous here?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Boris Johnson, who said that he gave his coat to Sergey Lavrov when he arrived): I can tell you that there was nothing in the pockets of Boris’ coat.