22 December 201915:45

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to questions in The Great Game show on Channel One, Moscow, December 22, 2019

2653-22-12-2019

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Marina Kim: Welcome to The Great Game. Today we will talk about the outgoing year 2019. What was it like for Russia on the international stage? Sergey Lavrov, the man who has been at the helm of Russian diplomacy for the past 15 years, is our special guest tonight. Good evening.

Sergey Lavrov: Good evening.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Mr Lavrov, your recent meeting with US President Donald Trump has created quite a stir, especially in the United States. President Trump deliberately held the meeting on the day when the House Judiciary Committee announced articles of impeachment against Trump. I see this as political trolling of the highest level. You noted, however, that there are no good days for meeting with anyone in the US because of sanctions, impeachment or other hearings. Anyway, what do you think about Donald Trump?

Sergey Lavrov: I have met with US President Donald Trump before. He received me at the White House in May 2017, when Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State. After that, the US opposition tried to stir up a spy scandal, claiming that secret information was passed to us at the meeting. This is a crazy and silly allegation plucked from the air. Of course, I also talked with President Trump during his meetings with President Vladimir Putin. The last such meeting was held in June of this year on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka. So, we know each other rather well. I like the way President Trump talks about international affairs and bilateral relations. He avoids ambiguities and tries to speak his mind. It is not often that top-level politicians do this, but I think that it is a very constructive approach that allows the sides to see the potential, difficulties and prospects of relations, which is what we are concerned about.

Dimitri Simes: Mr Minister, I believe that it is a tell-tale fact that Donald Trump has received you, especially considering the pressure he has been put under regarding Russia. As I learned at the White House – I believe the Department of State made an official statement – there was a preliminary agreement that, since President Putin had met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Trump would receive you during your meeting with Mr Pompeo. Donald Trump could do as some people recommended, that is, he could have told Pompeo to meet with you outside Washington, and any normal person would have understood that he needed to avoid such contacts in the current political situation. I was told that Trump’s decision to meet with you was based first of all on the respect he feels for you, because he meets with foreign ministers only rarely. Second, he wanted to tell his opponents, “Surrender!? Not on your life!” Or as Pyotr Stolypin said, “You will not intimidate me.” Was your meeting, which was held under very difficult conditions for Trump, successful or rather formal?

Sergey Lavrov: First of all, I believe that it was a coincidence that our meeting was held on the day when the House Committee launched the impeachment procedure. We coordinated the date a month before my trip to Washington. It is a tradition of Russian-US relations that when the chief diplomat visits the capital city of the partner he is received by the head of state. It is a long-standing tradition.

Dimitri Simes: Is it only true for Russian-US relations? It doesn’t seem to be a norm for relations with other countries, does it?

Sergey Lavrov: Quite so, but it is a matter of principle in Russian-US relations. Both sides always respect this rule. When we meet in Europe on the sidelines of international events, a reception given by the president is not on the agenda. This rule applies when we visit each other’s capitals. My meeting with President Trump was not formal or purely official. It was constructive; we discussed about a dozen essential matters, including bilateral relations, strategic stability, arms control and regional conflicts, including in the Middle East, Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula. We had a direct and open discussion on all these topics, without any attempts to smooth things over. We sometimes differ dramatically, for example on Iran’s nuclear programme and several other matters. But we are set for dialogue, as President Trump has reaffirmed. I see this as a matter of fundamental significance. He has sent a clear signal to his establishment and the staff of the White House and State Department: The US should continue to talk with Russia. We believe that this is the only correct option.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: The New START treaty is pivotal when it comes to strategic stability. Vladimir Putin noted this when answering Dimitri Simes’ question during the annual news conference held on Thursday. Mr Lavrov, do you think that, based on your Washington talks with Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, the chances of an extension of the New START are increasing or falling?

Sergey Lavrov: Difficult to say really. I believe that this matter remains in limbo, just as was the case before. In addition to what President Putin said at the December 19 news conference, I would like to remind you about what he said at a regular meeting with the senior officials of the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces. At the start of that event, which was traditionally held in Sochi, he said concerning the New START that we are ready to extend it immediately and without any preliminary conditions. This addition is very important, because until recently the US seemed to allege at the talks that our questions regarding US compliance with the treaty were designed to hinder its seamless extension. This ambiguity has been settled, and our American colleagues have no more pretexts at their disposal. We hope that they will respond constructively, because as President Putin said, if the treaty is no more, the last instrument for arms control and the last instrument in the field of strategic stability will be lost. This subject was discussed at length in Osaka. President Trump said that China should be involved in the negotiations. President Putin replied that we had asked the Chinese about this, and our Chinese colleagues publicly commented on this US initiative. They said that the Chinese strategic nuclear forces were a far cry from the Russian and US nuclear forces when it comes to scale and structure. And therefore they see no reason for joining the talks and would not take part in them. We told our American partners in Osaka that since the Chinese had officially stated their position we respect it. If Washington believes that China must take part in the talks by all means, they should discuss this with Beijing.

In principle, we are ready to discuss multilateral approaches, but in this case we should also consider inviting France and Britain, if we have in mind the legally recognised nuclear states. There are also states that have declared possession of nuclear weapons and those that do not admit or deny having them. This process should begin someday in the future, but we will not force our Chinese strategic partners to sit down at the negotiating table when they don’t see themselves there.  President Putin suggested in Osaka that we should at least negotiate the extension of the New START, which should remain the load beam in arms control and confidence building structure, and that its extension should be complemented with talks on the involvement of other states.

This time in Washington, when China’s position was discussed, we pointed out what the Chinese had said about the incompatibility of  arsenals. The Americans said an interesting thing there; they said they did not insist on arms control or reduction but would rather like to discuss a set of mutually acceptable conditions, transparency and rules of behaviour. I believe that it is an interesting approach. However, to decide on its acceptability to us and the other potential partners the Americans would like to invite, we need to see the US concept on paper.

We are committed to the extension of the New START in the bilateral context. We are also ready to discuss it in the multilateral format if – and I repeat, if – the other countries consider this possible, but we will not force anyone to join this format. We believe that the Americans, if they are convinced that a new format is a must, should clearly formulate their conviction and put it down on paper.

Dimitri Simes: I talked with members of the US administration after your visit. The White House had very positive views regarding it. The State Department was more wary. The US military said a few very interesting things: Russia is correct to emphasise the importance of strategic stability, but the US military I had talked with believe that the New START, in its current form, does not ensure it.

First, there is the Chinese factor. And second, both Russia and the United States have created new technology that is not covered by the treaty. Does the New START provide a basis for moving forward? Or can the sides reach informal agreements on the rules of the game you have mentioned and also exercise what the Pentagon describes as reasonable restraint on the deployment of new weapons, which the Americans see as a better guarantee of strategic stability than this treaty?

Sergey Lavrov: Otto von Bismarck once said that in military affairs, you have to judge not the intentions, whether reasonable or unreasonable, but the potential. This rule still stands. A treaty cannot cover all the existing problems in the field of strategic stability and those that will accumulate with the development of new technology.

We have told the Americans within the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the New START that we had presented our new systems, including hypersonic ones. We believe that the Avangard and Sarmat systems are covered by the treaty. We are ready to incorporate these systems into the New START, of course when it is extended. We have shown the Avangard system to the Americans and we will also be ready to demonstrate the Sarmat in due time. The other systems President Putin has presented in the Address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018 are not covered by the treaty. We said that we were ready to hold separate talks on these Russian systems and the new US technology. These talks can only be held as part of broader discussions on the entire range of matters related to strategic stability.

We have formulated the New START Treaty. One of the decisive factors was the Americans’ agreement to include in the preamble the phrase on the sides’ recognition of the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, which means above all missile defence systems. We never refused to discuss the entire range of matters related to strategic stability with due regard for all the aspects that can affect strategic stability, including strategic offensive nuclear arms, the conventional strategic arms the Americans are creating within the framework of the Prompt Global Strike programme, as well as missile defence. Of course, now that we see that the BMD system has no connection to defence against Iran but is a truly global system, we insist on discussing the plans to deploy weapons in space, which not only the United States but also France has announced. The US refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is not strengthening stability and confidence either. Therefore, we should not only extend the New START but also launch talks between all the key players on the entire range of these matters.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Earlier this week, this earned a tough commentary from Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov: “The situation in the world remains unstable and the developments are increasingly more dynamic. This is largely due to certain states’ desire to impose their own principles on sovereign states, including with the use of force. The political, economic and information pressure brought to bear on states attempting to pursue independent policies, including on Russia, is without a precedent. Under these circumstances, one cannot rule out the emergence of crises that may slip out of control and grow into a large-scale military conflict.”

This is a “large-scale conflict” that NATO countries are preparing for. How close is the danger arrow to the critical line on the diplomatic measuring instruments?

Sergey Lavrov: Diplomacy is primarily presenting ideas and arguments in an attempt to convince a partner. Therefore, if we take the rhetoric that we hear from the NATO circles, both from the member countries and the General Secretariat, their Russophobia is off the scale. One of the most striking impressions for me was the debate on French President Emmanuel Macron’ initiative to start reforming NATO and to discuss what is to be done with the North Atlantic Alliance (his famous remarks on “brain-dead” NATO and the need to find a cure and lead it out of this state). Germany was among those who took issue with him by default. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas led the way, followed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that this approach to NATO was wrong; the alliance should remain what it is in effect, because, for example, it is only NATO that can defend Germany. To be honest, I was amazed by these statements – statements that come from Germany, the EU and European leader, rather than from some tiny country with a Russophobic mentality and historical phobias. Therefore, these ideas, this paranoia have sunk very deep. I think that it is of fundamental importance for diplomacy to change the narrative, as they say today. President Macron is trying to do this as are a number of other NATO and EU leaders. We believe that the new composition of the European Commission and decision-making bodies of the EU, including the European External Action Service, will have to formulate their attitude to dialogue on military and political security on the European continent and to the same dialogue with Russia and other non-EU and non-NATO countries.

Dimitri Simes: You may remember that Henry Kissinger was once asked about Europe’s position and he replied: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” I think that even today it would be hard to say with much certainty what the European telephone code number is. Don’t you think that this code has shifted from West to East over the past 20 years? If you speak about NATO and the EU, you are increasingly aware of their Polish-Baltic accent. Or is it an exaggeration?

Sergey Lavrov: No. I agree with you. I have repeatedly said that, to my great regret, the NATO and EU position towards Russia is determined by a rather aggressive and noisy Russophobic minority. This is really so. When countries that are aware of the abnormality of the current relations between Moscow and the West explain to us during bilateral contacts that the current stage is what it is because there is the consensus rule, that they are against sanctions but have to join the consensus, I usually remind them in a comradely kind of manner that consensus is the lack of objections and that a single objection will be enough for consensus to fail, if both organisations, NATO and the EU, do operate on the basis of consensus (which is really the case). Complicated processes are in progress over there and it is clear to many people that they cannot go on in the old way any longer.

I think that it will be a priority for the new EU leaders to formulate this position. They have the five principles that were invented several years ago, which still underlie relations with Russia. These are about a well-known thing: Russia must implement the Minsk Agreements and then the sanctions will be lifted. In the meantime, the EU will work with our civil society and with our neighbours based on the Eastern Partnership programme and will extend it to Central Asia. So, it is stressed that they will work with them in a special way in spite of their relations with us. These five principles will clearly lead no one anywhere.            

Vyacheslav Nikonov: While meeting with you, Donald Trump said the United States was interested in expanding trade and economic relations with the Russian Federation, and that $27 billion in trade was not enough. At your meeting with Mike Pompeo, you discussed the Russia-US Business Council on which Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump had agreed in Helsinki. But this agreement was not implemented. Almost at the same time the US defence budget was approved which stipulated separate sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project. The bill on the much-discussed “Sanctions from Hell” was drafted, too. The US Congress is also drafting a bill that declares Russia a sponsor of terrorism. Under these circumstances, one would like to ask the following question: What’s the use of talking if the United States is saying one thing and doing something completely different?

You have said in connection with sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project that nothing threatens it. Why are you so confident?

Sergey Lavrov: They are threatening it. I said it will be built, no matter what, despite all these threats. First, I am convinced that the Europeans understand their commercial interest. Second, this implies an interest in the context of maintaining long-term energy security. Third, they were, of course, humiliated. The statements were, nevertheless, made, including those from Berlin which shows that our European partners still retain a sense of dignity.

I am confident that, just like the TurkStream project, Nord Stream 2 will be implemented, and TurkStream will start operating some two or three weeks from now.

US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo want to expand trade, but the US Congress continues to bombard our relations with sanctions. A situation that has now shaped up in the United States shows that, in their striving to revise election results and the will of the American people, these Congressmen are ready to do anything, including absolutely reckless things that, I would say, are not worthy of serious politicians.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Will Russia respond to the sanctions?

Sergey Lavrov: We will respond to the sanctions in a way that will not inflict losses on ourselves. But we will certainly respond. And, of course, we will take this into account while building upon our relations. I consider this situation hard to understand because I knew most of these Congressmen, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, primarily members of the Democratic Party, either personally or indirectly. I never believed that politicians could make such decisions that do not befit serious political figures.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Mr Lavrov, you spent many years in New York and Washington. What can you say about the current atmosphere in the United States, as compared to previous years?

Sergey Lavrov: To be frank, this atmosphere reeks of McCarthyism. I was not in the United States during that period, but, judging by textbooks, I can imagine that similar things did happen. Dimitri Simes can also speak his mind on this matter, including the “witch hunt,” for example. But US President Donald Trump and journalists who are trying to figure out what is happening there have already made such statements. It is sad when these endless election cycles are starting to make virtually everything else a hostage to the domestic US political struggle. Elections take place every two years, and it is necessary to do something during them, so that the enemy will feel defeated. But this is democracy, what can we do about it?

Dimitri Simes: McCarthyism is a complicated and interesting matter. As you may guess, I was thinking a lot about it while in Washington. When CNN were commenting on President Putin’s reply to my question, they said I was the head of a Washington think tank that was under investigation and mentioned in Robert Mueller’s report, because they had consulted Donald Trump’s campaign on Russia. Just imagine: having no ties with Russia but consulting the winning candidate’s campaign. This seems to them so reprehensible and speaks for itself.

On the other hand, I must say honestly that I know very few cases where, unlike McCarthyism, someone was fired or destroyed. What I see is rather an atmosphere of fear, when people preventively start practicing self-censorship. If someone in Congress raises his or her voice and calls into question the new orthodoxy on Russia, they face a crackdown and their accusers state they reiterate “Putin’s line.” In this way, even leading members of Congress get insulted.

I have a different question for you. All three of us visited Nur-Sultan a month ago to attend a conference sponsored by the former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom you know well, was also present at the event. In both his public remarks and private conversations he said one simple thing about sanctions: They will not make us cringe, we will follow our line, we are a sovereign and proud state. When I hear European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers, it is not clear what reply we can expect from them to US sanctions if they follow. Do you think they will challenge the sanctions or that they will simply make a noise for a little while and then toe the line?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know. I cannot judge for them.

I would like to go back to McCarthyism for a second. The lack of imprisonments can possibly be explained by the fact that McCarthyism was unleashed by a party in power, while today’s neo-McCarthyism is being unleashed by a party in opposition. If this party will later come to power, we will likely see what you have just said. We would not like this to happen at all. America is our partner, we are trading with America, and we would like and must cooperate for the benefit of universal peace. We would like America to be stable, like any other partner of ours. The same refers to the European Union. We are eager to focus on a positive agenda – trade, investment, earnings, higher living standards for our citizens…

As for Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and his statements, we have repeatedly urged the Americans and other colleagues to keep this in mind, while discussing the Iranian nuclear problem. Iran cannot be treated the way Washington is trying to do it. Not only do Americans grossly violate the UN Charter by refusing to comply with the UN Security Council’s binding resolution but they also rather rudely address the demands to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country with a one-thousand-year-old civilization, traditions, and an immense sense of dignity. In effect, the Americans said that they would not fulfil this resolution but that Iran was certainly due to continue doing whatever it should under the resolution. As for the rest of those who got the right to trade freely with Iran in exchange for what it had done to restrict its nuclear programme, they are also banned from trading with it. This means no one can take any steps that were approved by the resolution with regard to opening economic ties with Iran. Iran, for its part, must continue doing what it has subscribed to. This is nonsense. I know it is not always that the US has enough experts on the Middle East. But this is an obvious matter. You don’t have to be a Harvard alumnus with years of history studies behind you.                   

Marina Kim: Let’s talk about the outcome of the Normandy format meeting in Paris and the prospects for Ukraine’s implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Yes, but first let’s conclude our discussions on global security. The United States has destroyed the INF Treaty, the support pillar of the international security system. Washington has announced its deployment plans for intermediate- and shorter-range missiles. This means that the United States has always had such missiles. Is the matter of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, which worries both the East and the West, on the agenda of Russian-US talks?

Sergey Lavrov: It was discussed. I mentioned it at the talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and at the meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House.

The situation is alarming, because the United States, which made a point of withdrawing from the INF Treaty, made no secret of the fact that it had long been creating missiles prohibited under the treaty. The point that it has tested a cruise missile so soon after the withdrawal and had recently launched a strike cruise missile from a launcher that was designed, they claimed, for missile defence is fresh proof of what we said long ago – that it is a dual-purpose launcher, just as this is written on the site of its producer, Lockheed Martin, which offered a system that can accommodate both air defence and strike missiles. This has become a fact now. The Americans say that they cannot sit on their hands while China (they keep mentioning it) is building up these systems whereas the United States has nothing of the kind. They have mentioned the importance of deploying such systems in the Asia-Pacific region, directly indicating Japan and South Korea. Just a few days ago, I spoke about this with my Japanese colleague, Toshimitsu Motegi. He continues to say that Japan will have full control of the Aegis Ashore systems it is buying from the United States within the BMD framework. But the above facts make us wonder if intermediate- and shorter-range missiles would soon appear near our border, in particular, in Japan and South Korea. Whatever the reason for the US intention to deploy these missiles there (they continue to openly cite China), this would not mean much to us because of who the official target of these missiles will be. First of all, we would not like China to be this target. China is our strategic partner. Anyway, this would destabilise the situation. As for us, these missiles, if they are deployed in Japan or South Korea, will be able to reach targets all the way to the Urals. Of course, we will insist that new rules are adopted in this sphere after the destruction of the INF Treaty.

In October of this year, President Putin sent a long letter to over 50 heads of state and government to present our views on the situation following the collapse of the INF Treaty and suggest ways to prevent the arms control situation from going into a tailspin. The President reminded the international leaders about our moratorium on the creation and deployment of such missiles and invited them to join our moratorium. He recalled that the offer we made to NATO last summer remained unanswered and invited them once again to discuss a mutual moratorium.

We did not make the letter public, because we wanted to heed diplomatic rules while we waited for an answer. But the essence of that letter was leaked in the West, and therefore I am not breaking any diplomatic rules and customs talking about it here.

The letter said openly that we are ready to discuss a moratorium that will include verification measures, something the West claims we never wanted to have. The West claims that we offer them a moratorium because we have already created and deployed such missiles and are okay. And now, being in possession of these missiles, we allegedly want to force the West to accept the moratorium when the West has no such missiles. We have answered to these allegations in the letter by openly declaring readiness to discuss verification measures.

The only leader to have replied to that letter was President of France Emmanuel Macron, who wrote that he was ready for dialogue even though he could see some faults with our side as well. None of the other NATO leaders have replied. US President Donald Trump sent a brief note saying that they would continue looking for ways to overcome the hitches in our bilateral relations.

What I mean is we have offered yet another constructive solution to the current situation: to extend the New START without any preliminary conditions and to consider verification measures within the framework of a moratorium on the missiles prohibited under the INF Treaty. But all we got was dead silence in response. The only exception was President Macron.

Dimitri Simes: You mentioned China. Of course, it is impossible to understand current global politics, as well as, I believe, Russia’s foreign policy, without talking about relations with China. Recent discussions on relations with Russia held in the US often included relations with Beijing. It is said that it is not in US interests to push Russia towards China. This is an argument against deliberately fanning the conflict with Russia. I myself have said so and have written about this more than once. Many people in the US establishment have the following answer to this argument. The traditions and political cultures of Russia and China, as well as the economic situation in these countries are so widely different that a Moscow-Beijing rapprochement will not go too far, either in China or Russia. Russia and China only want to create the impression of a growing rapprochement between them, while in fact they have major differences and mismatched interests. Moscow is coming to see that China as a superpower would be a big problem not only for the US but also for Russia. What can you say to that?

Sergey Lavrov: China behaves completely differently on the international stage. It is not trying to humiliate anyone with ultimatums. It is true that China is using its economic might in strict compliance with the rules established by the Bretton Woods system, including the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. The founding fathers of globalisation may feel offended that they are being outplayed by the rules they themselves established. This is life, competition; the free market and the rules established at Bretton Woods are still in effect today. They have tried to modernise them, for example, at the WTO.

As President Putin has said more than once, Russia and China have no plans for a military union. But we are allies when it comes to politics, the protection of international law and polycentric international relations. Our economies have different potentials, but our international cooperation, including with China and within the EAEU and the SCO, is based on mutual respect. We are trying to harmonise these processes, through mutual agreement with China, with projects within China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The ASEAN countries have shown interest as well.

We believe that all countries on the huge Eurasian continent – the member states of the SCO, the EAEU and ASEAN – should combine their efforts while leaving the door open for the EU so as to align all the integration processes. Otherwise we will be unable to use the common natural competitive advantage of the countries on this huge continent.

As for the United States and attempts to play on Russia and China, it’s an old story. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger delved into this when they were young people. Of course, we monitor the Western analysis of this issue. By the way, we touched on this during our talks in Washington. I cannot talk about the details, for understandable reasons.

Dimitri Simes: But you did touch on this, right?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we did. When it was proposed that Russia be readmitted to the G7 and that the G8 be relaunched, the majority of analysts explained this in terms of what you said, a desire to put a distance between Russia and China. The G7 is an unrepresentative group. It cannot decide anything. This was admitted when the G20, which includes the G7, BRICS and other major economies, was created. As for the latest comment regarding Russia, China and the United States, Henry Kissinger talked about it when we met in New York this autumn. He wrote a book about China several years ago. It provides valuable insights. He said that it would be ideal for the United States if its relations with Russia and China are better than relations between Russia and China.

Dimitri Simes: This seems logical from the US viewpoint, doesn’t it?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, but this is unrealistic. We will not undermine our relations with China to please the Americans. But the idea of attaining one’s goals through positive means, by promoting cooperation rather than sanctions and ultimatums, deserves consideration at the very least.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: The current situation in the relations between Russia, the United States and China is quite the opposite of what Henry Kissinger talked about because the United States is conducting a policy of double deterrence against both China and Russia. This is why the United States has bad relations both with Russia and, no doubt, with China. I think the US will never again manage to reach parity in its relations between Russia and China.

You were in Paris and took part in the talks. A Ukrainian source even said that at some point your nerves couldn't take it anymore. Frankly, I can hardly imagine this because I have known you for a long time and I cannot imagine that you could be unrestrained in your communication even with a Ukrainian delegation.

In Paris, did you have a feeling that Kiev still intends to live up to Minsk agreements? Was there any difference in the approach of Vladimir Zelensky’s team and that of Petr Poroshenko, with which you haven’t had a dialogue for quite a time? Is there any hope that Zelensky’s team will be able to move the Minsk process forward?

Sergey Lavrov: A lot of questions. First, as for the Minsk agreements, the main achievement of the Paris meeting was the adoption of a document, which in its initial lines proclaimed that all the participants are committed to carrying out the Minsk agreements in full. Then it set forth the specific measures that the Normandy format is asking the Contact Group to consider and adopt, including the disengagement of troops and hardware, mine clearing, an exchange of “all identified for all identified” (POWs), work at the advisor and minister levels to specify the legal aspects of Donbass special status, including the Steinmeier formula into Ukrainian law, etc. All these are specific steps for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, President Putin said that after returning to Kiev members of the Ukrainian delegation, starting with President Zelensky and Foreign Minister Vadim Prystaiko, as well as Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov, who was present but behind the scenes, started making statements, which in essence strike out everything written in that document. By the way, this began even in Paris. It was very demonstrative when the Ukrainians started to “disclose” an earlier agreed document and Vladimir Zelensky said firmly that he would not be able to support the disengagement of forces along the entire line of contact.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Does this mean he is unable to support the disengagement of forces as required by the Minsk agreements?

Sergey Lavrov: The Minsk agreements include this as a goal and we should proceed towards this goal. In Paris, there was a phrase that the Normandy leaders urged the Contact Group to coordinate the disengagement of forces and hardware along the entire line of contact. This phrase was integrated into this document a month ago.

President Vladimir Zelensky said he was unable to support this because it was a very remote goal and that the disengagement that had already occurred in three locations – Stanitsa Luganskaya, Petrovskoye and Zolotoye – had taken him more than five months to accomplish. So, projected forward, disengagement at this rate will take seven or even ten years. So he could agree only to the Normandy format calling on the Contact Group to coordinate disengagement in another three locations. Vladimir Putin replied, “Let’s write this down so, but in parallel to the call to disengage in three locations, let’s say that we are basically in favour of forces and hardware being disengaged along the entire line of contact”. This was roundly rejected. It is a serious indication that President Zelensky’s hands are tied even on key issues of his election campaign, where he was saying that his priority was to stop the war and prevent further deaths. He either has certain commitments to those who want no end to the conflict, or he is just aware that he may have problems at home.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: How did Chancellor Merkel and President Macron react to the “disclosing” of this document? After all, this is a clear sign of disrespect for the parties who coordinated this position.

Sergey Lavrov: They were surprised. Unfortunately, they were unable to “raise their voice” at least on this topic and confirm the disengagement of forces and hardware along the entire line of contact.

Dimitri Simes: Were they unable or unwilling?

Sergey Lavrov: Probably unable, because…

Dimitry Simes: Because they did not want to?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, probably because of this.

Dimitry Simes: I would like to understand your opinion. Perhaps I am asking for an undiplomatic answer, which is inappropriate and impossible, but I will try…

Sergey Lavrov: We will sort it out.

Dimitri Simes: What you and Vyacheslav Nikonov said shows that the Ukrainian delegation and the President of Ukraine were not well-versed in diplomatic protocol. This is understandable. This can change with experience and over time. Another train of thought suggests that Ukraine is unable to reach consensus with Russia because Ukraine’s new identity hinges on confrontation with Russia, rather than just because of Donbass and Crimea. This is how they present themselves to the West, they request subsidies for this, and they want to consolidate their nation with this approach. To what extent is this possible? What do you think?

Sergey Lavrov: I believe that this is largely so. This began long before the events of February 2014 and subsequent developments. The so-called first Maidan protests took place in late 2004 and early 2005. At that time, the Ukrainian Constitutional Court stipulated a third round in the presidential election, although the Constitution says nothing about this. In turn, Russia could not be associated with these developments in any way, but European politicians, including the governments of European countries, NATO and European Union members noted openly that Ukraine needed to choose between Europe and Russia.

This Russophobia has been deliberately and consistently imposed for a while now. It is possible that an entire generation of people affected by this propaganda has now matured. So this variable, is of course, present in our relations, and we have repeatedly urged our European colleagues to change their mind, not to build new walls, not to dig new demarcation lines but to work together. We suggested jointly promoting their Eastern Partnership concept covering six CIS countries. We suggested doing the same with their new concept for Central Asia. They don’t even want to note in their documents that the concerned countries are located in the European region of the CIS and the South Caucasus, as well as the five Central Asian countries, and that all of them are either members of the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. They simply ignore all conceptual European doctrines with regard to them. This is too bad. But I do believe this mistake will eventually be understood, and that it will happen sooner rather than later.

Regarding Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and his team’s experience, his team does include career diplomats who have repeatedly worked for the government of Ukraine. So I don’t think the situation with these experienced negotiators is really bad. Recent talks on natural gas and other cooperation show that, despite the difficulties, Ukraine realises the need to search for mutually acceptable solutions. Still it is hard for me to say to what extent our Ukrainian colleagues are capable of coming to terms.

Two examples of what was agreed on in Paris. I already talked about the disengagement of troops and hardware. But even when the Contact Group met this week to discuss these three new areas of disengagement, the Ukrainian party, according to my information, specified three unpopulated areas  where the disengagement would not have any effect on the security of people and civilian infrastructure. However, they flatly refused to designate these three new areas for separation and disengagement of forces in locations where it is important to alleviate the threat to civilians.

Another example is also very important: in Paris, the Contact Group was urged to coordinate the lists of all prisoners who had been identified, so they can be exchanged. The objective is to exchange all for all, but despite these years of comparing lists, it turned out that not all of them had been confirmed by both sides. There are lists that both parties recognise as lists of people who do exist and everyone knows where these people are and how they have to be freed and exchanged. This was explicitly recorded, and this is what the leaders discussed: Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelensky agreed in the presence of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron that these people had been identified and the relevant lists had been made up, so they would be exchanged. Now the Contact Group has introduced a new criterion; indeed, there are people whose identity has been established but not all of them have been legally cleared. This means a new obstacle that will prevent people from returning home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: This is not a question that should be put to a diplomat. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky is an enigma for many. You met with him, looked him in the eye and heard his arguments. Is he capable of showing political will and control over his country’s elite in order to secure any positive and important change in relations between our countries?

Sergey Lavrov: I do not doubt that he as a person, politician and president wants this. At the same time we see those people in Ukraine who are doing whatever they can to prevent him from doing this and also to preserve Russophobic sentiment in the country’s foreign policy and the conflict in Donbass, which suits many. This is deplorable but we will be prepared to the extent possible to try to help him, in particular, we will urge Donetsk and Lugansk to take as constructive approach as possible to implementing the decisions that will be agreed on in the Contact Group at the suggestion of the Normandy format.

Dimitri Simes: I remember having a lunch with you in New York many years ago. You weren’t a minister yet. You were Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Even before I met you, I was attracted by your remarks and speeches at the UN, which remarkably differed in tone and robust sarcasm from a slightly submissive and timid tone of Russian diplomacy that was prevalent at the time. When we had our first lunch, you said something like that: “Dimitri, it is a gross mistake to predict Russia’s behaviour based on what is happening today. It is not the behaviour Russia is likely to display over a lengthy period of time.” You were right. If we look at the coming year, we see that it is full of challenges, which you have eloquently and convincingly portrayed. Speaking of opportunities, you said, if I understood what you meant, that US President Donald Trump takes a different approach to relations with Russia than the majority in Congress and he will not be ousted any time soon – rather he stands a chance of being re-elected. His foreign policy will probably reflect his personal preferences to a greater extent after that. This may have an impact on Ukraine because, if President Vladimir Zelensky also wants to deliver on the promises given to the voters and seek peace with Russia, a change of position in Washington may give him more room for manoeuvre.   

You just talked about French President Emmanuel Macron, who started seeing the flaws of NATO. To what extent do you think next year could become a year of progress or even a breakthrough in the efforts to ensure global security?

Sergey Lavrov: To the extent to which we will be able to convince our partners of the need that we must all cherish the emerging signs of the understanding that the current situation is abnormal and take care of them, because they will bring us to the negotiating table and allow us to begin talking without ultimatums and without unfounded accusations and also allow us to judge any event by the same standards, that is, by the standards of international law.  

We just talked about Ukraine. Today, any talks on Ukraine with our Western partners begin with them saying:  “if not for your annexation of Crimea” or “if you had not occupied Donbass.” We say: why don’t we begin with February 2014, when the anti-constitutional coup happened, rather than with March 2014? The putschists trampled on the signatures of Germany, France and Poland on that agreement with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which they broke, thereby spitting in the face of these European countries. There was nobody who even urged them to observe the agreement, which they had violated – nobody. This was swallowed, this was accepted as if giving to understand that it would be like flogging a dead horse.

A bit later, in 2014, there was a coup in Yemen and Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he still remains. The entire international community shares the opinion that to settle the conflict, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has to return to Yemen and bring members of the opposition to the negotiating table. Are these not double standards? The answer is obvious. I do not know why Yemen is a better country than Ukraine or what the difference between the two is. So, when they tell us we must do something, we reply that they must realise that their connivance led to what happened in Ukraine and their silence after the first law passed by these new authorities, the putschists, revoked the law that had safeguarded the rights of the Russian-speaking ethnic minority – true, it was not adopted but this was a show of the new authorities’ political instincts – their silence allowed those who used force on Maidan to threaten publicly that they would drive Russians out of Crimea and to send “trains of friendship” to the area, that is, militants to seize the building of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as it was called at the time. While all this was happening, the West and NATO member countries called on the new authorities to use force proportionally, that is, they were not even opposed to the use of force by the putschists against the rest of the people.

Neither Crimea, nor Donbass attacked anyone. They were labelled terrorists only because they said: the authorities are not legitimate, please do not harass us, we want to understand what is happening. They did not attack the rest of Ukraine. The putschists attacked them, declaring them terrorists.

Of course, a serious blow was delivered to the reputation of the European Union. It is pertinent to say that this was not the first one. If we take the successful performance of the European Union in Kosovo – they volunteered to be a mediator between Pristina and Belgrade, we will remember the agreement on creating a community of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, which was signed in 2013. The agreement was signed and coordinated, while the Serbian municipalities were vested with rights, including the right to have symbols of a semi-state, along with the rights concerning the people’s daily lives, like the right to speak their native language and others. Pristina is refusing to comply. The European Union is helpless. So, of course, we would like to see that the understanding of their proactive and fair role in the world affairs prevails in the European Union. The other day, I heard the Queen’s Speech to Parliament by Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and she said that after we exit the European Union, we will, among other things, be much more active in foreign policy affairs. You see, it is a strange sequence: while we are members of the European Union, we do not appear to be very active and now that we are on our own, we will do something in this area. Of course, I would also like to wish the European Union as a potentially very strong foreign policy player to be more self-reliant.

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Mr Lavrov, we are meeting ahead of the New Year.2020 is a symbolic year. It is the time to sum up the results: the first twenty years of the 21st century, twenty years of the Putin presidency, and fifteen-odd years that you have headed the Foreign Ministry. How would you draw the grand balance of the year and the first fifth of the 21st century?

Sergey Lavrov: Vladimir Putin drew the grand balance at his annual news conference. Yes, this number is symbolic: one-fifth of the century, 2020; all of this makes one tempted to make generalisations. But right now, we are in the middle of a major historical period. We are midway. This way should lead to fundamentally new international relations, primarily between the leading world powers. Everyone is increasingly conscious of the growing urgency of this goal. But we are yet to reach it. Our aim is to change the attitude towards each other on the international arena and to seek to start a conversation based on mutual respect, regard for each other’s concerns and a search for a fair balance of interests within the framework of the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

Dimitri Simes: You know, Mr Minister, history is written by winners, as they say. You have just demonstrated that each country has a chronology and logic of its own, and, of course, this is perhaps impossible to overcome. But one would like to believe that the gap could somehow be bridged.

Sergey Lavrov: I can’t hold back a comment in connection with what you just said about history being written by winners. If this is so, the Minsk Agreements should be implemented from A to Z, to the last comma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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