Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Bonn, July 18, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you personally, and thanks to your team for the hospitality, and of course, to the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet with whom I have had a very useful meeting today.
We had a good talk. As you said, we do not agree on everything. I recalled that there cannot be two countries in the world that agree with each other completely on everything even when they are close allies. The key is that both of us and our countries realise that in the context of today’s very complicated international situation such a substantive dialogue between Russia and Germany means a lot. Maintaining a dialogue benefits not only our bilateral relations but also has a very positive impact on the overall political situation both in and outside of Europe. We are interested in stepping up cooperation as much as our partners are ready for it.
We spoke today about the forthcoming St Petersburg Dialogue Public Forum, which operates under the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as a successful example. Today Heiko and I will attend the opening ceremony of the 18th plenary session of the forum, which will proceed under the slogan, Cooperation as Key for a Peaceful Europe: Russian and German Civil Societies’ Contribution. We share the opinion that the forum plays a leading role in the dialogue of the public representatives of our nations.
We have reaffirmed our mutual commitment to enhancing cooperation in the economy, science, education, culture and the humanitarian area. We are satisfied with the progress of the 2018-2020 Russian-German Year of scientific and educational partnerships which was launched last December under our joint patronage with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
We praised the efforts of the bilateral interagency High-Level Working Group on Security Matters. This dialogue mechanism enables us to engage in a professional discussion on a broad range of questions. We noted that another mechanism, the Working Group for Strategic Economic and Financial Cooperation, has resumed operations. It held a meeting last month in Moscow.
We appreciate Berlin’s support in resolving energy security matters in Europe, including its support for the construction of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This project of a strictly business nature is designed to strengthen Europe’s energy security by diversifying delivery routes and minimising transit risks. As we reaffirmed during today’s meeting, Russia is ready to maintain deliveries along the Ukrainian route and is open to reaching agreements, as long as the terms of the deal are economically justified and viable.
We had a serious exchange of views on strategic stability matters. Russia is increasingly concerned with the course being adopted by the United States to dismantle the entire nuclear arms control framework. As you understand, it all started with the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and continues today with the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles that will cease to have effect on August 2 by virtue of a decision that was taken in Washington. Russia has done everything in order to preserve the Treaty. Over the past several years we have been seeking to promote professional and concrete dialogue to address our mutual concerns. However, not only did the United States avoid this dialogue, but it went as far as de facto prohibit its NATO allies to contribute to it in any way. The fact that the dismantlement of the entire nuclear arms control framework can have far-reaching negative implications in terms of international security is a matter of grave concern for Russia. In this context, of course, the future of the New Start Treaty is at stake. We have reaffirmed the position President of Russia Vladimir Putin has set forth on a number of occasions, including during his meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, whereby Russia is ready and interested in extending the treaty for another five-year term once its main term expires in February 2021, as is provided for in the treaty.
We value Germany’s interest in preventing the strategic stability dialogue from falling apart. Germany has put forward initiatives to this effect within the OSCE and also recently in the UN, together with Sweden and the Netherlands. We will do everything, including taking into consideration these initiatives, in order to promote mutually respectful and professional exchanges in order to save the situation in terms of strategic stability and prevent it from going down a slippery slope, as the saying goes.
As Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said, we discussed Ukraine, stressing the need to fulfil the Minsk Package of Measures. We pointed out that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine resulted from an anti-constitutional government coup in February 2014, during which the radical opposition pulled out of the agreement signed between the then-president and the opposition, even though this agreement was supported by European Union countries, including Germany, France and Poland. Still, we would like all the provisions of the Minsk Agreements to be strictly implemented. We noted that the new Kiev authorities, after quite a few contradictory statements, affirmed their commitment to the Minsk Package of Measures and are ready to implement it. In this connection I can say that during the last Normandy Format expert meeting in Paris, as well as during the July 17 Contact Group meeting in Minsk we saw positive signs that give us reason to believe that we can make progress on these matters. As far as Russia is concerned, we will do everything to sustain this momentum and will do what we can to facilitate practical steps in this direction, including when it comes to our contacts with Donetsk and Lugansk.
We compared our approaches to the issues related to resolving the crises in the Middle East and North Africa. As concerns Syria, we spoke about the efforts we are taking within the Astana format along with Iran and Turkey in order to make progress in all the aspects of fulfilling UNSC Resolution 2254, including the unrelenting fight against terrorism, resolving humanitarian issues and forging an inclusive political process. In this context, forming a Constitutional Committee is of fundamental importance and we are working hard on this with our Astana format partners and UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen in order to arrive at decisions that would satisfy both the government and the opposition. All indications show that soon we will be able to inform you about some positive results.
We discussed the situation around Iran. Our common understanding is that it is necessary to step up efforts of all the participants of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remaining after the withdrawal of the United States, including the European three, to maintain the agreements and, I would like to stress it again, guarantee their complete fulfillment. The key principle here is the principle of reciprocity that is the basis for the JCPOA. Actions of the United States that withdrew from the JCPOA in violation of the UNSC resolution and are prohibiting other participants from performing their obligations are downright contrary to the norms of civilised communication, to say nothing about international law. Our opinion is that our European partners could take a stronger and more determined stand on this matter.
We spoke about the state of affairs in the Persian Gulf. We are interested in promoting a unifying agenda in this important region of the world and overcoming any disagreements through an inclusive dialogue. In this context we reminded our partners about Russia’s initiative to ensure collective security in the region in partnership with the Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Iran and with the support of the international community.
Overall, I think the talks confirmed the strategic nature of our relations and our commitment to resolving any matters where we have common views. Of course, we realise that there are still issues where we are divided but in any case we will continue an engaged dialogue on these matters, including within the frameworks that were created for economic cooperation, collaboration in security and humanitarian affairs. I think it is a very effective practice, to continue functioning at all levels. Our leaders meet on a regular basis. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel took place in Osaka on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Heiko and I meet several times a year. Our deputies and experts communicate regularly. This helps to improve mutual understanding and better understand each other’s viewpoints. The most important thing is not only to understand but to come up with ways of solving multiple problems, primarily concerning the regional and international agendas.
Question: Today, the court in Strasbourg released the decision about Rustavi 2, a Georgian television channel, about the transfer of our television company to its former owner. Mr Lavrov, in your interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, you spoke about Georgia and our television company. Are you satisfied with the decision of the court in Strasbourg?
Sergey Lavrov: What do I have to do with this? If I mentioned Rustavi 2, it does not mean that I have anything to do with Georgia.
When you ask my colleague what he thinks about “independent pro-Western media,” do you think pro-Western media can be independent?
I thought you were pro-Georgian, but anyway… Look, I have no idea what the decision of the Strasbourg court was regarding the change of ownership. I do not think that this matter falls within the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg court, but anyway I have not heard about it, and I think that this is Georgia’s internal affair. You have your own law, and any situation concerning Georgia’s internal affairs must be handled on the basis of this law.
As for our position regarding the recent developments in Georgia, in terms of their relation to Russian-Georgian ties, it has been stated repeatedly by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry. I have nothing to add.
We want to be friends with the people of Georgia, and we do not like the attempts to use various types of media, including “independent pro-Western” media, to destroy the potential for Russian-Georgian cooperation.
Question: Have you discussed today a specific date for reviving the Normandy format? Could the next meeting take place in August after the parliamentary election in Ukraine? What do you think about Ukraine’s proposal to invite the United States and the United Kingdom to join this format?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the possible Normandy format meeting, I think that we share the view that if we are talking about top-level meetings, they must be carefully prepared. In order for these top-level contacts to remain relevant, we must make sure ahead of every meeting that the decisions adopted during the preceding summits are fulfilled. The last time the Normandy format summit met was in October 2016 in Berlin. Specific measures were adopted at the event: first, to disengage forces and weapons in three locations along the line of contact, including Stanitsa Luganskaya, and second to address the question of the status of Donbass through the so-called Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s formula. This provides for enacting the special status law on a provisional basis on day one of the election in these Donbass territories, and permanently on the day the OSCE releases its final report confirming that the election was free and fair. This agreement was very clear, and it was adopted at the level of the most senior dignitaries.
Over the past three years, Russia, together with Donetsk and Lugansk, sought to bring about tangible progress and practical steps on these two matters at the meetings of the Contact Group and Normandy format expert meetings.
Kiev bluntly blocked the disengagement of forces and weapons in Stanitsa Luganskaya. There is documentary evidence to this effect from the OSCE mission clearly stating who within Petr Poroshenko’s regime was to blame for the lack of progress on these agreements. Our Ukrainian colleagues in the Contact Group and the Normandy format were also dead set against creating a legal framework for implementing Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s formula.
Now that Vladimir Zelensky has been elected President of Ukraine, the Contact Group has stepped up its efforts. Several meetings were held, including the July 17 event in Minsk. According to our representatives in the Contact Group, it was the most fruitful meeting ever since it was established. There are agreements on the disengagement of forces and weapons, including in Stanitsa Luganskaya, where the disengagement is already underway. Representatives of the new Ukrainian leadership spoke out in favour of disengaging forces along the entire line of contact, which is another positive signal. Specifically, the parties agreed to prepare lists for exchanging the detained persons. These are steps in the right direction. We will try and help them become a reality.
As soon as it becomes clear that the decisions of the October 2016 summit in Berlin are fulfilled, I think that all the conditions will be in place for preparing the next Normandy format summit, to be prepared by experts and ministers. Experts met in Paris on July 12. A representative of the new Ukrainian leadership attended the meeting for the first time. In our view, while there were no breakthroughs, the overall atmosphere was constructive, and there are reasons to believe that unlike Petr Poroshenko’s regime, the new team will seek to honestly fulfil the Minsk Agreements. We actively welcome the statements coming out o Kiev on the intention to make good on everything agreed in Minsk in February 2015. We will see how this translates into practical steps and we will do everything to facilitate this process.
Question: President of Russia Vladimir Putin signed an executive order entitling the residents of all districts and populated areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions to obtain Russian citizenship under a fast-track procedure. Do you think that this is slowing down the efforts to resume the peace process? If the ceasefire in Ukraine becomes stable and is respected for several months, will the German government consider the possibility of easing the anti-Russian sanctions?
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly speaking, I am surprised at the lopsided and biased approach to the situation, which involves people hit by the trade and economic blockade declared by Petr Poroshenko. They are unable to receive either necessary medical care or other basic services, which any normal government provides for its citizens. However, in addition to the purely earthly problems of the people living there, it will be recalled that there is international law, which we have been talking about for so long and insisting on the necessity for it to be observed. There is the European Convention on Nationality in which it is written in black and white that every state itself determines who can be its citizen. This provision alone would be sufficient to silence the hype and rhetorical debates over questions like the one you have just asked me. In addition to the Convention, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one shall be deprived of his or her nationality nor denied the right to change nationality. The last comment does not refer to international law or to the humanitarian domain but to practice: for many years European Union countries such as Hungary, Romania and Poland have been granting citizenship to Ukrainian residents. You know this very well. Tell me, please, are you interested in finding out the reasons behind the positions of these countries? And why have you not yet paid any attention to the issuance of foreign countries’ passports to Ukrainian residents?
As for the initiative announced off the cuff, as I understand it, by President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky, on involving the United States and the UK in the Normandy Format, representatives of the US Administration have already said that they see no need for that. As far as I understand it, France and Germany are of the same opinion. We proceed from the fact that the format has been agreed, has a chance of advancing under the new conditions and it is important not to lose focus.
Question: Ursula von der Leyen, known for her tough position with respect to Russia, has become the first female President of the European Commission. Do you fear a deterioration or complication in Russian-EU relations?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not even know how to respond. It is a sovereign affair of the European Union. Procedures for appointing or electing EU institutions are worked out inside the EU and we treat them as such.
As for someone being not exactly known for expressions of goodwill towards Russia, then tell me please who is known for expressions of goodwill towards Russia of late. We are pragmatic and want to be guided not by certain public statements but by deeds. Speaking of Russian-German relations (just what we are doing today), we have the impression that despite some rather serious differences on a number of issues, we have an understanding that this should not be an obstacle to a normal dialogue for the benefit of our countries and peoples.
For five or six years, we have had no meetings with the European Union in the formats agreed under the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. We have had neither summits, nor meetings at the level of Russian Foreign Minister and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Neither had we any sectoral dialogues, and there were more than 20 of these, including on energy, visa liberalisation, humanitarian issues and human rights. All of this has been frozen at the initiative of Brussels. Hopefully, the new membership of the European Commission will perform an inventory of its relations with the Russian Federation. Once they outline their position on the development of their relations with us we will certainly respond. As I emphasised in my opening remarks, we will be ready to move forward to the extent that our partners are ready to do so.
Question (for both ministers): You are holding this event together, which is evidence of rapprochement. When might intergovernmental consultations be resumed? Are the conditions in place for this?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Heiko Maas): Interstate consultations were a rather effective mechanism. I hope we will resume them at some point. These consultations were an opportunity to discuss the entire range of interconnected Russian-German relations at meetings with the Russian President, the Federal Chancellor and the relevant ministers. We are gradually relaunching the structures that used to function. I have mentioned the working groups on security and on strategic economic issues. The Russian-German joint commission on scientific, technological and innovation cooperation has been working efficiently. We are also promoting civil society dialogues, such as the St Petersburg Dialogue, the German-Russian Forum and the Potsdam Meetings. I believe that conditions are developing for restoring the whole fabric of our cooperation. When – and if – our German colleagues express readiness to resume interstate consultations, we will be delighted to reciprocate.
Question: What practical measures can Russia propose to save the JCPOA? Is there any joint Russian-European initiative on this issue? Are you discussing a joint trip to save the nuclear deal?
Sergey Lavrov: We talked about this at length today. In brief, we had an arrangement that took over 15 years to prepare. Everyone hailed it as a breakthrough not only in dealing with a concrete problem in this region, but also as a big step toward strengthening the non-proliferation regime. That arrangement was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council and was based on a package of mutual commitments and respect as formulated in the JCPOA and as approved by the UN Security Council. When the United States pulled out of the JCPOA, it destroyed many international legal instruments on security, climate and in other spheres and violated a binding UNSC resolution. Moreover, Washington has taken steps – I will not enumerate them here because everyone is aware of them – to prohibit all the other UN members from honouring UNSC Resolution 2231.
In this context, Iran has taken the action that is stipulated in the JCPOA if one of the signatories, in this case the United States, violated the arrangement. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday that Iran did not want to pull out of the JCPOA but that it would use the opportunities stipulated in the document to respond to gross violations of the resolution, in this case by the United States. We are working with Iran alongside Germany, France, Britain and the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, urging restraint and common efforts to preserve the deal. Today we highlighted the importance of ensuring the unity of action and position among all the remaining signatories – the European trio, Russia and China. We are unlikely to succeed if we keep saying that the future of the deal depends solely on Iran. Therefore, in addition to the measures you have mentioned such as a joint trip to Tehran and efforts to convince Iran [to honour all of its commitments], we should also urge everyone to show restraint. At the same time, it would be unacceptable to shy away from the fundamental reason for the current conundrum, that is, the steps taken by a permanent UNSC member to destroy a resolution of the supreme UN body and to prohibit all others from honouring this resolution. We must assess this situation from positions of principle. We hope that this is what our European partners will do.