Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Kuwait News Agency (Kuna), Moscow, March 3, 2019
Question: In March you are going on a business trip to the Arab countries of the Gulf. What states do you plan to visit and what are the goals of your trip?
Sergey Lavrov: On March 3-7, I will be paying working visits to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The Middle East has a special place in Russia's foreign policy. We have long-standing and strong bonds of friendship and fruitful cooperation with the region’s countries. We are firmly committed to building a fairer and democratic polycentric world order, in which all peoples can independently determine models for their socio-economic development while preserving their cultural and civilisational identity.
It is on these principles, those of respect and consideration of each other’s interests, that Russia is building relations with the Gulf states. We believe that the strengthening of mutually beneficial relations meets our long-term interests and serves the cause of ensuring peace and stability in the Middle East.
During the planned meetings, we plan to substantively discuss the state and prospects of bilateral cooperation, primarily the agreements reached at the top level. We expect to thoroughly consider ways of increasing mutual trade, and developing an inventory of promising joint projects in various areas. We will certainly talk about intensifying humanitarian ties, including cultural exchanges and tourism.
We attach great importance to further strengthening our foreign policy coordination and plan to compare notes on the developments in Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli settlement and other hotspots in the region, emphasing the prospects for resolving the remaining conflicts there through political and diplomatic means based on international law and through the establishment of a truly inclusive interethnic dialogue.
Question: How do you plan to expand relations with the Gulf countries?
Sergey Lavrov: We regularly conduct the relevant comprehensive systemic work with all the above-mentioned countries. In this connection, it is hard to overestimate the significance of productive and trust-based top-level dialogue. Not only do our leaders maintain intensive contacts, but they personally oversee the most important matters on the bilateral agenda.
Intergovernmental commissions on trade, economic, scientific and technological cooperation, involving all the above-mentioned Gulf states, remain an effective mechanism for coordinating efforts to expand business-like collaboration. They are scheduled to hold regular sessions throughout 2019. The sixth session of the Russian-Kuwaiti intergovernmental commission will take place in El Kuwait on the same day as my talks with your country’s leaders.
Various business missions, as well as direct contacts between representatives of business circles, play an important role. For example, on April 8-10, Moscow will host the 4th International Exhibition Arabia-EXPO 2019 and the 12th session of the Russian-Arab Business Council. This is a unique opportunity for conducting informed debate on various matters related to expanded practical trade and economic cooperation between Russia and regional countries in the bilateral and collective formats.
We are looking closely at how to facilitate transport links between Russia and members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and simplify procedures for issuing visas. We believe that this will help further intensify business exchanges and expand tourist, cultural and humanitarian ties.
Question: What is your opinion of Russian-Kuwaiti relations, and what can you say about their development prospects?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia and Kuwait are linked by traditionally friendly relations, we celebrated the 55th anniversary of our diplomatic ties last year. These relations hinge on principles of equality, mutual respect and constructive cooperation. At the same time, we do not rest on our laurels, and we try to move ahead together, so as to make our ties more dynamic and to elevate them to an entirely new level.
In November 2015, Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah was on a working visit in Sochi and held talks with President of Russia Vladimir Putin; this highlighted the impressive potential of our cooperation. It is important to exert joint efforts towards a rise in bilateral trade volumes and a broader product range, the further expansion of investment cooperation and the implementation of long-term joint projects in other areas. We hope that the results of this work, carried out by both countries’ concerned agencies and organisations, will soon become apparent.
Question: What is Russia’s strategy in Syria after the defeat of ISIS, and how will the problem in Idlib be solved? Do you think the Astana format has exhausted its potential, and is there a need to create a wider format to further advance the political process in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: The situation on the ground has noticeably stabilised after a series of successful operations by Syria’s government forces with the support of the Russian aerospace force. ISIS, an organisation claiming some quasi-statehood, has been defeated. However, it is premature to talk about the total elimination of the terrorist threat in Syria. Much remains to be done to neutralise the sleeper cells of radical groups, as individual pockets remain where terrorists are present. First of all, we are talking about the Idlib de-escalation zone, most of which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants carrying out raids against civilians, as well as Russian and Syrian military forces, that are intended to provoke.
Under these conditions, it is necessary to continue to fight terrorism effectively. We are encouraging our Turkish partners to fulfill their obligations under the Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib of September 17, 2018. It is important that observing the cessation of hostilities agreed with Turkey not be used as a pretext for further strengthening of the terrorist presence. So far, this document stipulating, in particular, the creation of a demilitarised zone and withdrawal of all radical forces and heavy weapons from it, is not being fully observed.
As for the Astana format, it has proved effective in practice. As a reminder –the decisions taken at the International Meetings on Syria in Astana have led to the creation of de-escalation zones, a significant reduction in the level of violence, and conditions for the return of internally displaced persons and refugees. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, also initiated by the Astana format three members, gave a start to the intra-Syrian political process.
We are now energetically working with our Iranian and Turkish partners on the implementation of the results of the Congress. Issues related to the further stabilisation of Syria, the promotion of a political settlement, including the formation of the Constitutional Committee, were discussed during the summit of Astana guarantors held in Sochi on February 14.
Question: Can Russia influence the sides to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to put an end to this drawn-out problem? Can this conflict be settled given the imbalance of forces in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: The settlement of the Palestinian problem is an integral element of stabilisation in the Middle East and North Africa. Consolidation in the region is hardly possible without a settlement of this chronic crisis, which is generating instability and extremism.
It is therefore regrettable that the Palestinian-Israeli settlement is taking so long. The sides are not holding talks, and international efforts in this sphere have not been consolidated. The situation on the ground is rapidly worsening in this context.
Russia has been working consistently, including at the UN Security Council and within the framework of the Middle East Quartet of international intermediaries, to create conditions for the resumption of contacts between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
We are also closely working with the sides to the conflict. I would like to remind you that back in the autumn of 2016 President Vladimir Putin proposed holding a Palestinian-Israeli summit in Moscow without any preliminary conditions. Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, in principle, to hold such a meeting. However, the meeting has not yet been held. We are still ready to hold a meeting of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. We are convinced that such direct contacts can help find a way out of the current dead-end.
We are doing our best to help the sides overcome the intra-Palestinian split. On February 11-13, the third meeting of the leaders of the 12 basic Palestinian parties and movements was held in Moscow. For the first time in 10 months, we have brought together representatives from the main political forces of Palestine to resume dialogue on reuniting Palestinian forces based on a common platform. A joint statement, known as the Moscow Declaration, was adopted following that meeting, confirming the sides’ resolve to overcome the split and to unite around the national idea of an independent and viable Palestinian state based on UN decisions and the Arab Peace Initiative, a state that will live at peace with its neighbours in the region.
The United States’ unilateral moves are having a grave negative influence on the Middle East settlement. At some point, US President Donald Trump promised to do his best to help settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We welcomed that noble intention and encouraged our partners to work together constructively, primarily within the framework of the Quartet. We succeeded in holding several meetings at the level of special envoys. But then Washington openly opted for implementing unilateral schemes with the US as the only intermediary.
It has been said for the past two years that a new Middle East initiative was in the making, the so-called deal of the century that would restore peace between the Arabs and Israel. Its announcement has been postponed yet again, until the formation of a new Israeli government. However, it is rumoured that this initiative provides for a questionable trade-off contrary to the internationally approved basis of the Middle East settlement. The Palestinians are unlikely to accept such a trade-off.
We believe that the international community should take collective efforts to launch direct talks between the conflicting sides in order to defuse tension in the region and relaunch the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process on the internationally accepted legal basis. We still believe that the Middle East Quartet is a useful format.