Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Head of the Federal Department (Minister) of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis, Moscow, June 19, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
We had an excellent conversation.
Ties between Russia and Switzerland have a long history and a foundation rooted in the principles of equality, mutual respect and mutual interests. Today we have reaffirmed our shared intention to continue dynamically developing relations in all areas.
We enjoy a good political dialogue at all levels as well as stable trade growth. Last year trade reached $7.5 billion, which was a 20 per cent increase. The first quarter of this year also saw 18 per cent growth.
We also welcome the existing high level of investment activity. Direct Swiss investment in Russia totals almost $12 billion, while Russian investment in Switzerland stands at $18 billion. We have agreed to encourage the business communities’ interest in strengthening direct contacts, including as part of existing mechanisms to promote economic cooperation. I mean the Joint Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation as well as its working groups, including the ones established specially to dispel business people’s concerns in both countries.
We can see that there is mutual interest in engaging more Russian regions in cooperation and developing interregional cooperation in general. The recent establishment of the offices of the Swiss Honorary Consul in Samara and Novosibirsk will also help this process. In addition to the honorary consuls in Zurich and Lausanne, Russia proposed and received approval to name an honorary consul in Lugano.We are satisfied with the dialogue between our foreign ministries. It is part of the plan for foreign ministry consultations that was endorsed at our meeting in Geneva in November 2018, and both sides feel it has been practical.
We again thanked our Swiss partners for their consistent and sincere performance in representing the interests of Russia in Georgia and their assistance in the implementation of the Russian-Georgian intergovernmental agreement on the main principles of customs administration and the monitoring of trade, which was signed on November 9, 2011, with Swiss mediation. Naturally, we are grateful to our colleagues for their contribution to holding the Geneva discussions on stability and security in the South Caucasus.
We had a fairly detailed discussion of international and regional issues. We paid much attention to the situation in the Council of Europe (CoE). We emphasised the need to return to the principles of its charter, which were reaffirmed at the May CoE Committee of Ministers session. These principles provide for the need to ensure equal rights for all CoE participants in all CoE agencies. We appreciate the position of principle held by Switzerland on this issue.
We also discussed the situation regarding a settlement in Ukraine. We share the position on the need for complete and consistent implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures in the interests of overcoming the domestic crisis in Ukraine as soon as possible. We also reviewed the insinuations made by some of our Western partners who link the progress of full implementation exclusively with Russia’s actions. We explained in detail to our Swiss colleagues how matters stand in reality. We quoted specific examples of subverting this highly important document by the Ukrainian authorities under Petr Poroshenko. We hope the situation will change after the new Ukrainian government is formed, to better deal with this issue. At any rate, we hope that the Western countries that patronise Kiev will do what is necessary to promote compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2202 that approved the Minsk agreements.
We regularly discuss with Switzerland developments in the Middle East and North Africa. We abide by the UN’s decisions on the Middle East settlement process. We informed our Swiss colleagues about Russia and other countries’ efforts to stabilise the situation in Syria, above all as part of the Astana format, in order to fulfil UN Security Council Resolution 2254. In addition, at this stage we believe it important to eliminate double standards regarding the provision of humanitarian aid to the Syrian population on a non-discriminatory basis, as well as to support the same approach to rebuilding infrastructure in order to return refugees and internally displaced people.
We also touched on the situation in and around Venezuela. Russia and Switzerland are in favour of a settlement achieved solely by peaceful and political means. We welcome the efforts made in this area in various formats.
We also have similar positions regarding the need to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions on the Iran nuclear programme. We exchanged our assessments of developments related to strategic stability, including the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
We have discussed the activities of the OSCE now led by Secretary-General Thomas Greminger (a Swiss citizen). We have regular contacts with representatives of the Secretariat, including Mr Greminger. We can see our Swiss colleagues’ interest in promoting approaches based on the principles approved by the OSCE, starting from the Helsinki Final Act. These principles require that all member countries seek to balance interests and develop compromise and consensus approaches. Very soon, in a couple of weeks, an informal ministry meeting between OSCE member countries will be held in Slovakia, which is chairing the OSCE. I believe that Russia and Switzerland will try to achieve a constructive dialogue and look for approaches that would suit everyone.
I would like to thank my colleague for the work we have done together.
Question: Judging by Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s visits to Berlin and Paris, it is obvious that Ukraine is not motivated to resolve the crisis in the country’s southeast. At the same time, they continue to accuse Russia of not doing what they should and for the lack of will for a settlement in Donbass. Considering these things, what is the likelihood of further meetings in the Normandy format, including summits?
Sergey Lavrov: I have commented on this issue several times. We believe that in order to meet, it is necessary to ensure the negotiability of meetings like this. I heard that, in commenting on this issue, President Emmanuel Macron expressed hope for an agreement to reconvene a Normandy summit soon. Of course, it is also necessary to ensure compliance with any of these agreements. Let me recall that the agreements reached in the Normandy summits in the past three and a half years provide for the full disengagement of forces and weapons in three areas on the contact line and the legalisation of the so-called Steinmeier formula. It says that the special status of the territories in question enters into force on the day of local elections, on a temporary basis, and will become permanent after the OSCE confirms that the elections took place and were fair. This agreement was reached at the summit level in 2015 and later on reaffirmed at the meetings in Paris and Berlin in 2016. However, Ukraine did not fulfil anything. At any rate, the Poroshenko regime did everything it could to not translate these agreements into reality. Preparations for new meetings will be a test of the Normandy format. They will show the extent of the negotiability of the authorities, notably, not only whether or not we will be able to meet but also to ensure before each new meeting the practical implementation of what was agreed upon at the previous one.
Let’s not forget either that apart from the Normandy format there is the Contact Group, the only venue for a direct dialogue between Kiev and Donetsk and Lugansk. Direct dialogue is the main instrument for implementing the Minsk agreements under the provisions that were unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. One of Mr Zelensky’s associates is Mr Razumkov who heads the Servant of the People party. I read some statements that he is said to have made. He said the territories in Donbass will be returned by information rather than armed force. He said they will enthusiastically explain to the residents of these territories that they love them, that they are their compatriots and that they have a common flag and country. Great! But until recently the Poroshenko regime called these people separatists and terrorists. He launched an anti-terrorist operation (ATO) against them and declared that he would never offer to shake hands.
If this attitude changes now, we will be happy to see a tangible outline. For the time being, we are, of course, upset that replying on the go to the question of a journalist on whether he will conduct a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, President Vladimir Zelensky answered in the negative. In this context, we are willing to understand what specifically was discussed and agreed upon in Berlin and Paris. We hope our French and German partners in the Normandy format will tell us how they pursued the line towards the need for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements during the talks with President Zelensky in their capitals.
Question: Switzerland has traditionally pursued a policy of neutrality and not infrequently acts as intermediary in solving international issues. Is there a prospect of Switzerland acting as intermediary in settling the crises in Ukraine and the Gulf of Oman? What is Russia’s position in this respect?
Sergey Lavrov: We greatly appreciate the role of Switzerland as a neutral country in mediating the settlement of various crises. Switzerland represents Russia’s interests in Georgia, the US interests in Venezuela and represents many other countries in states with which those countries may have problems. Switzerland has delegated its citizen to the post of the OSCE Secretary General, which I have already mentioned. Mr Greminger’s unanimous election once again emphasised Switzerland’s high standing and reputation in international circles as a neutral and unbiased country which is not prone to employing any double standards.
As for its practical inclusion in the Ukrainian settlement process, first and foremost, Switzerland participates in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OSCE SMM). As the Minister just mentioned, Switzerland believes it is essential to follow the Minsk Agreements in full, including their humanitarian provisions. Switzerland, like the Russian Federation, renders assistance to Ukrainian people who find themselves in the grips of the trade and economic blockade instituted by the Poroshenko regime. This blockade has a significant, negative effect on the humanitarian situation in the east of Ukraine. To elaborate on something the Minister said, if Switzerland would join the efforts to end this blockade, which violates the Minsk Agreements, and convince the Ukrainian authorities to do this, I believe that everyone would welcome this kind of mediation. At least, everyone who is interested in the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis on the basis of existing agreements.
As for the Gulf of Oman, unfortunately, there are many conflict situations in the world and it would take a long time to enumerate them. If our Swiss friends were to put forward an initiative to advance a settlement in any place in the world, it would be their decision which they would make proceeding from a balanced assessment of the situation and their resources. In that event, we would certainly welcome it.
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Ignazio Cassis): My colleague said that he is grateful to Russia for providing access to prisoners in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. It is not Russia but the authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk who provide access. We support this process, taking advantage of our relations with Donetsk and Lugansk. This is an important point and I would like everyone to take note.
Question: Last autumn, the Swiss government was a bit indignant about the activity of Russian intelligence with regard to the Swiss authorities. This created certain problems in relations between our countries. Based on your statements, this now appears to be behind us. Did you talk about this today? Did you provide a guarantee that Russian intelligence would be more careful in its activities on Swiss territory in the future?
Sergey Lavrov: You said that you thought this issue was behind us, and yet you asked the question. Your understanding is correct. I regret that the Swiss press does not follow my contacts with Ignazio Cassis very closely. We commented on this issue and closed it in November when I visited Switzerland and we talked about it at the news conference following the talks.
It is strange to hear a question about guarantees from a Swiss citizen. Usually we hear things like this from the Brits or Americans: give us a guarantee that you will not interfere in our affairs. We ask for facts or evidence of our interference. But apart from “highly likely,” “almost certainly” or “most likely” we do not receive anything. We talked about this today. This is a very alarming situation: groundless accusations are made when there is any excuse to hurt Russia. As for our requests for evidence, there is no answer except general statements that it is “highly likely.”
Incidentally, this also applies to other areas of world politics where our Western colleagues try to establish their order and rules. Take the situation on chemical arms in Syria. For more than a year the West has blocked full disclosure of the real picture of what happened in Eastern Ghouta in the spring of 2018, where manipulation and a staged provocation were used to try and accuse the Syrian government of using chemical agents. Those responsible were completely exposed.
We demanded that the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conduct an investigation into its secretariat but obstacles to this are being created. References are again made to the White Helmets that have completely discredited themselves with their support for extremists and terrorists, or anonymous phone calls or informants on social media. So, the issue of demanding guarantees is much broader.
Guarantees require approval. For example, today we discussed Ukraine. France, Germany and Poland guaranteed the implementation of the agreement signed in Kiev on February 21, 2014. The following morning, the opposition trampled it underfoot. France, Germany, Poland and the entire EU simply kept quiet and did not respond to this outright humiliation in any way. These are the roots of the problems that beset Ukraine now.
Of course, we want to fulfil the guarantees that are fixed in the Minsk agreements and that were approved by the UN Security Council. Guarantees work when they reflect a balance of interests. I don’t think that justifying myself for what I haven’t done and what I am suspected of doing without evidence is worthy of our relations with Switzerland.
Let me stress that we sincerely discuss any problem that arises in our relations and that may cause concern among the other side. This is only natural. No bilateral relations are completely problem-free. Some issues always arise, especially when cooperation is strong enough. We have a busy agenda in dealing with all of our neighbours and there are always issues that have to be settled. We settle them based on mutual consent, and we work towards mutual satisfaction.
Let me emphasise, it is too bad that you did not follow our talks in Geneva last November.
Question: The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) is investigating the case of three Russian citizens accused of political espionage. This investigation was approved by the Swiss government last year. Did you talk about this today?
Sergey Lavrov: With all respect, the following analogy came to my mind. Our friends photo correspondents are targeting me and my colleague, waiting for us to scratch or sneeze. Then these photos will be front-page news in their newspapers. However, our relations are more comprehensive than one episode taken out of context.