Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Italian magazine Limes, published on February 4, 2016
Question: Who has provoked the Ukrainian crisis? Was Moscow aware of the geopolitical, economic and reputational price it would have to pay for Crimea’s reunification with Russia? Do you think it was too high in the context of Russian-Ukrainian relations? Is there a lasting solution to the Ukrainian crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: The Ukrainian crisis was not incidental, but rather the result of systemic problems that have been accumulating in European affairs and international relations over the past two decades.
An unprecedented opportunity to create a Europe without dividing lines after the end of the Cold War, based on the principles of indivisibility, security and broad cooperation, has been lost. Despite Russia’s insistent urging and the commitments to create a community of nations based on security, which were undertaken at a high level in the framework of the OSCE and the Russia-NATO Council, the policy of unrestrained eastward geopolitical expansion controlled by Euro-Atlantic organisations has gained the upper hand in the West. The policy of interfering in the internal affairs of others and enforcing certain reform formulas, including militarily, has been widely used in Europe and the rest of the world. All these problems also influenced the situation in Ukraine.
We repeatedly warned our partners about the negative aspects of attempts to force Kiev to make an unnatural choice between “them” and “us” and between developing cooperation in the East or in the West. Unfortunately, these calls were left unheeded. The state coup that was staged in Ukraine in February last year led to the collapse of state power, with the ultra-nationalists who seized power in the country unleashing a bloody civil war and pushing the country to the brink of a split.
It’s obvious that the free expression of will by Crimeans, who voted in a referendum for declaring independence from Ukraine and for reuniting with Russia, was only a reaction to the events described above. Therefore, any attempts to question the Crimeans’ choice, which was made in full compliance with international law, were absolutely absurd. I’d like to remind you in this connection that many European countries considered it possible to recognise the independence of Kosovo even though no referendum on secession from Serbia was held. Developments in Donbass have clearly shown what fate would have befallen Crimeans had they not voted for reunification with Russia. No price is too high in this situation.
As for the possibility of resolving the Ukrainian crisis, our ties with our foreign partners show that even though we hold different opinions on the situation in that country, we agree that this crisis can only be settled peacefully, through the unconditional implementation of the February 12 Minsk Agreements. Success in this issue depends on finding a solution to the main problems under the framework of a direct dialogue between Kiev and Donbass. Ukrainians themselves must start searching, based on the Minsk Agreements, for mutually acceptable solutions to their problems and differences.
They can do this if they muster political will, which appears to be in short supply in Kiev. It is the unwillingness of the Kiev authorities to talk with the southeastern regions that is largely hindering the settlement process. This attitude also undermines the general efforts undertaken in the framework of the Normandy format. We hope that our German and French partners will work more consistently to encourage strict compliance with the Minsk commitments in Kiev.
Question: Where can the next colour revolution happen? Can it be Belarus?
Sergey Lavrov: I think you should direct this question to those who plan, finance and organise such geopolitical engineering projects. We are convinced that any export of communist, democratic or any other revolutions greatly damages the people of the countries where such experiments are staged. This practice is a major violation of international law, one that seriously undermines global and regional stability.
We believe it vital to reaffirm the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries as was laid down in the UN Charter and the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, including the unacceptability of subversive actions and support for the unconstitutional change of government in other countries. We believe that the Helsinki+40 process in the OSCE has paved the way for continuing serious discussions on this issue and on an entire range of issues pertaining to European security.
As for Belarus, any attempts to destabilise the internal political situation there are unlikely to be supported by the majority of Belarusian citizens. Evidence of this are the results of the presidential elections held last October, during which Belarusians spoke for internal political stability and for stronger ties with Russia, including in the framework of the Union State and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Question: Who are Russia’s friends and who are its foes in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia, while pursuing an independent foreign policy, is open to the development of broad cooperation with everyone who is willing to reciprocate. President Vladimir Putin has said more than once that we will never take the path of looking for enemies. It’s obvious that the United States and several other Western countries’ need to divide countries and nations into “us” and “them” not only doesn’t help resolve problems, but also aggravates international tensions, as evidenced by the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Unfortunately, there are forces in Europe who are bent on settling historical accounts with Russia and who are doing their utmost to heighten the conflict intensity on the continent. At the same time, it is gratifying that in this challenging situation many European countries, including our Italian partners, have shown a sincere interest in maintaining a constructive dialogue with Russia and in improving the atmosphere in Europe. We highly appreciate these sentiments.
We said repeatedly that the gradual development of equitable and mutually beneficial relations between Russia and the EU would meet the interests of both parties and is a major factor in the bid to strengthen international security, especially considering that the many current challenges and threats, including the unprecedented outbreak of terrorism and extremism, call for a collective response. For our part, we don’t see any reasonable alternative to ultimately creating a zone of economic and cultural cooperation from the Atlantic to the Pacific based on the architecture of equal and indivisible security.
Question: How did you manage to sign a new major energy agreement with Germany under the conditions of sanctions (Nord Stream II)? Have Moscow and Berlin maintained their privileged relations?
Sergey Lavrov: In September 2015, shareholders of the joint project company signed an agreement in Vladivostok on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum to build two additional Nord Stream lines with a total annual capacity of 55 billion cubic metres of gas. The company’s shareholders include Gazprom and large European energy concerns, notably Germany’s Wintershall and E.ON, Austria’s OMU, Anglo-Dutch Shell and France’s ENGIE.
It is a commercial agreement based on expert forecasts of growing gas consumption in Europe. We believe that its implementation will further strengthen the stability of gas supplies on the European market and, in general, energy security on our continent. This agreement has been made possible by the sides’ awareness of its importance.
As for bilateral relations with Germany, our multifaceted dialogue, including at the top level, has never stopped. Despite a certain decline in the level of our cooperation, Germany remains one of Russia’s main trade and economic partners. The volume of accrued German investment has reached more than $11.6 billion. There are about 6,000 companies with German capital in Russia, and their aggregate turnover exceeds $50 billion.
Another priority is the further development of cultural and humanitarian ties aimed at maintaining trust and mutual understanding between our people. A public forum called The Petersburg Dialogue resumed operation in October 2015. We are actively preparing for the cross-year of Russian-German youth exchanges in 2016-2017, which will take over from the recent cross-years of Russian and German languages and literature.
We believe that the preservation and strengthening of the positive potential that has been accumulating for the past decades would meet the long-term interests of both nations.
Question: Are Moscow’s relations with Washington today better or worse than during the Cold War days? Will the United States and Russia be able to establish a true partnership in the future? US President Barack Obama likes saying that Russia is a regional power. Do you share this view?
Sergey Lavrov: It’s incorrect to compare the present relations between Russia and the United States to the Cold War years. At that time, the situation was fundamentally different: Tension between the two superpowers originated from the irreconcilable confrontation of ideologies and socioeconomic models, that was projected on the entire system of international relations.
Over the last quarter of the century, the world has become a different place. Today, there is every reason to say that attempts to create a unipolar model of the world have failed. Stable world development can only be ensured and current threats can be effectively fought only through collective efforts based on the sound foundation of international law. These are precisely the approaches that we consistently promote on the international arena, including in our dialogue with the United States.
The impression is that Washington has not yet appreciated the fact that there is no alternative to this line of conduct in international affairs. It prefers US “exclusiveness” to the objective trend toward the evolution of multipolarity, seeking to preserve the remnants of its hegemony in the world no matter what. Hence its proclivity toward unilateral action and the desire to punish countries that disagree with its policies.
For our part, we have always believed in developing bilateral ties on the honest basis of partnership, without dictate or coercion. When the United States decided to scale down cooperation – what’s more, it took this path long before the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis that it is so fond of citing as a pretext for such action – we warned that this line will lead to an impasse. It seems that Washington has finally realised that it’s impossible to “isolate” Russia or limit its influence to a regional level. Not surprisingly, alongside its aggressive rhetoric against us, the Obama administration has maintained dialogue with us on a broad range of key issues. Importantly, it has often been the initiator of this dialogue, repeatedly seeking our support on many issues.
We hope that US approaches to relations with Russia will evolve towards greater pragmatism and balance. Historical experience shows that our countries can effectively collaborate and achieve results when they seek to maintain a balance of interests and are not guided by considerations of political expediency. Today, we are facing a lot of shared problems, including the fight against international terrorism. Being the largest nuclear powers, we continue to bear a special responsibility for the maintenance of strategic stability. There is a great potential for bilateral ties in trade, investment, innovation, technology, culture, humanitarian, science and other areas.
As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stressed, we do not seek confrontation and are open to cooperation with the United States. This is not to say, of course, that Russia is trying to impose its friendship or that it will trade in its priorities or turn a blind eye to aggressive attacks. Interstate relations are a two-way street. Normal relations with Washington can only be ensured if the latter demonstrates constructive behaviour to meet us halfway and the willingness to work on the basis of genuine equality, consideration for Russian interests and noninterference in our internal affairs.
Question: Is your rapprochement with China, a country that has never been friendly to either the Soviet Union or Russia, merely a tactical response to the Ukrainian crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy. Its goal is to expand equitable cooperation with our partners in every region.
In this context, expanded political dialogue and practical cooperation with China is a strategic policy without any time-serving considerations. Our two very large nations are located in close proximity to one another. Over the past decades, we have completed substantial joint work, and one can now safely say that our ties have reached an all-time high.
This amounts to genuine mutually beneficial cooperation without any senior or junior partners, leaders and those led by them. The course of Russian-Chinese relations has been charted with due account for the basic interests of both countries’ peoples, and neither we, nor our Chinese friends are planning to change it.
Since 2010, the People’s Republic of China has been Russia’s No 1 trade partner. We are implementing strategic long-term energy projects, and we are expanding our cooperation in high-tech sectors, including the aerospace industry, the nuclear power industry and military-technical cooperation. We are focusing on both investment and financial aspects of our partnership. We have reached principled agreement on combining integration processes for the Eurasian Economic Union with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.
The coordination of our countries’ efforts on the international scene has become an important factor for maintaining international and regional stability. Russia and China voice similar or close approaches towards key modern issues. They advocate more substantial collectivist concepts in global affairs, based on international law, respect for the unique essence of nations and their right to independently choose their own road of development. We resolutely oppose pressure on sovereign states, including through unilateral sanctions or by force. We effectively cooperate at various multilateral venues, including the UN, the G20, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and we invariably support each other.
I’m confident that the whole world would benefit if relations between all other countries resembled Russian-Chinese relations. In that case, a stable and equitable polycentric system of global governance would be established.
Question: ISIS now controls half of Syria and half of Iraq, and we are left with the impression that nobody has sufficient resources or the wish to eliminate it. Do you allow for the possibility that one day the so-called Islamic State will become a UN member? Why did Russia start bombing Syrian territory? Could Moscow’s wish to prevent Damascus from becoming an Iranian protectorate be one reason for this?
Sergey Lavrov: Recent events, including the barbarous terrorist attacks against the Russian airliner, as well as civilians in France, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, confirm that the Islamic State, or ISIS, which is a terrorist group, has issued a serious challenge to human civilisation and made a bid to establish a quasi-state.
Standing up to this all-out threat requires the collective effort of the international community on the universal basis of international law. Every state should contribute to defeating terrorists and confirm its solidarity by concrete action.
It may be recalled that President Vladimir Putin has put forward the initiative of forming a united antiterrorist front under the auspices of the UN with the participation of all those who are really fighting terrorists, as well as other interested countries, both in and outside the Middle East.
To eradicate the seat of terrorism on Syrian soil, the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces, with the approval of the Syrian government, are continuing their operation to clear the country’s territory of Islamic State militants and other terrorist groups. Our efforts to coordinate actions with a number of our Western partners, in particular France, are designed to make the fight against ISIS more effective. New countries, for example, the UK and Germany, are joining the fight against ISIS. So what we should think about is not the prospect of ISIS gaining UN membership but the time when this and other terrorist groups will be finally destroyed.
At the same time, antiterrorist efforts should be comprehensive and involve the facilitation of political stabilisation and socioeconomic reconstruction in the Middle East and North Africa, based on respect for the sovereignty of regional states, as well as measures to prevent the radicalisation of public sentiments there.
There is a need for an inclusive intra-Syrian political process in keeping with the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012. We are providing active international support for it, including through the International Syrian Support Group with Russia’s active participation.
Iran is Russia’s long-standing partner. Our relations develop in the spirit of friendship and good-neighbourliness. We are confident that Tehran’s full participation in regional affairs will contribute to regional security and cooperation.
An international information centre, which includes representatives from Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, started working in Baghdad several months ago. We are open to cooperation in this format with other interested parties, including the Kurdish resistance and the patriotic part of the Syrian opposition. We continue to closely collaborate with Jordan and Egypt in the fight against terrorism.
Question: How do you think Russian-Turkish relations and the negotiating process on Syria will develop after Turkey downed the Russian Su-24 aircraft?
Sergey Lavrov: Ankara’s action was an unprecedented challenge to the Russian Federation. Obviously, it was bound to affect Russian-Turkish relations – trust in Turkey as a partner has been seriously undermined. As a result, our cooperation that took many efforts to develop over the past few years is being suspended in many areas. This was not our choice.
Up to now we have not heard from the leaders of Turkey either apologies, or the expression of readiness to somehow compensate us for what was done or the intention to duly punish those who are guilty. On the contrary, Ankara is asserting that the Turkish side was right because it protected its ostensibly violated sovereignty. Against this background, some vague statements by Turkish politicians about their “grief and regret” do not match the serious character of this action.
Russia has repeatedly emphasised its concern over the growth of terrorist threats in Turkey and the lack of readiness on behalf of the Turkish authorities to cooperate in the struggle against terrorism. Thus, despite our repeated requests Ankara – with rare exceptions – has dodged any effort to cooperate in detaining and transferring to Russian law-enforcement bodies Russian citizens that were going to join terrorist and extremist groups operating in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
We will not forget Turkey’s aiding and abetting terrorists. At the same time we do not put an equal sign between a part of its ruling upper crust that is directly to blame for the death of our military servicemen in Syria and our long-time and reliable friends among the Turkish people.
For Russia the anti-terrorist struggle and settlement in Syria are fundamental issues. This is why the attack of the Turkish Air Force on our bomber cannot change our approaches. If the Turkish provocation pursued this goal, its authors had obviously miscalculated.
Nonetheless, after this episode, the moment of truth is coming for all external players that have influence on the events in Syria. It is necessary for all to clearly sort out their positions – either we are against terror and counter this evil together or the statements made at the two meetings of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna are merely non-committal declarations that cover up mercenary geopolitical goals and secret contacts with terrorists, including supplies of stolen oil and historical values.
We would like to emphasise in this context that UN Security Council Resolutions 2170, 2177, 2199 and 2249, adopted in conformity with Chapter VII of the UN Charter should be carried out in full measure.
This also applies to the implementation of the tasks set forth by the ISSG participants. First, they should come to terms, with the coordinating role played by Jordan, on who the terrorists are in Syria. A relevant list should be submitted to the UN Security Council as a draft resolution at a regular ministerial meeting of the ISSG. Second, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and other participants should provide help to the broadest possible range of the Syrian opposition forces to elaborate a common negotiating platform and form a delegation for subsequent talks with the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
It is impossible to move further towards the launching of the inter-Syrian political process without resolving these two tasks. The prospects of coordination in the struggle against terrorism in Syria are decreasing, while the ISSG format recently created in Vienna is facing the threat of turning from a working body on international assistance toward a settlement in Syria and its support into a discussion club.