Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Moscow, April 24, 2017
We have held very productive talks. We had detailed discussions of the key aspects of the current Russia-EU relations, which cannot be described as positive. I can tell you that there was no unnecessary lecturing, and that we tried to listen to each other’s arguments. I believe that this is the only possible attitude.
Russia continues to view the European Union as a neighbour and its largest trade and economic partner, which is a fact. We are convinced that the further development of bilateral ties based on equality and mutual respect meets the long-term interests of our people and will help strengthen global and regional security and stability.
We have reaffirmed our mutual desire to build up political dialogue, which, we believe, should become regular. We have talked about cooperation between our industries and sectors, including in energy, transport, academic, cultural and humanitarian exchanges, as well as environmental protection. Many problems that need joint solutions have accumulated in many of these spheres. In this context, we drew our partners’ attention to the importance of cooperation through sectoral dialogue formats, which have been suspended by Brussels.
We also spoke about the ongoing campaign in the media. I believe that we heard what the other had to say about unacceptable attempts to restrict media freedom or use the media for internal political purposes.
We have told our partners about the development of Eurasian integration and its importance for Russia-EU dialogue. We have proposed developing direct contact between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the EU. We are ready to hold practical discussions of these ideas, especially considering that they can help strengthen the competitiveness and integration of Greater Eurasia, including the EU as part of the Eurasian continent. We have never abandoned the long-term strategic goal of creating a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific coast based on the principle of equal and indivisible security.
We also talked about positive changes that have taken place over the past 18 months in the efforts to build up our cooperation on terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration. As I have said, it is gratifying to note the resumption of our dialogue on counterterrorism after a long pause.
We discussed the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily in Syria. The developments in Libya, Iraq and Yemen are of course a matter of concern for Russia and the European Union. We have shared with our partners what Russia is doing to promote a settlement in Syria through inclusive national dialogue and by actively relying on the Astana process. Russia expressed support for the intra-Syrian consultations in Geneva under UN auspices. These talks should be conducted in strict compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
As you know, Russia has been working and continues to work with the European Union as part of efforts to implement the agreements on the Iranian nuclear programme.
We discussed Ukraine. Both sides confirmed that there is no alternative to fully implementing the Minsk Package of Measures. I laid out Russia’s fact-based perspective on the obstacles that still hamper the implementation of the Minsk agreements, primarily, Kiev’s refusal to affirm the very concept of the document adopted in February 2015 in Minsk. Our Ukrainian neighbours are trying to change the agreements, drastically rewrite them and bend them to their interests, which of course would lead to a deadlock. Let me reiterate that Russia has provided evidence. I hope that our EU colleagues in their work with the Ukrainian Government will push for strict compliance with the Minsk agreements. As a guarantor of these agreements, Russia is ready to do its part of the job in full. We will work with Lugansk and Donetsk to make this a reciprocal process when Kiev finally begins fulfilling its commitments.
Overall, the talks demonstrated that there are many issues on which our positions differ. It is clear that this is to a large extent attributable to the general context of our relations that resulted from the EU’s reaction to actions by the Russian Federation ahead of the anti-constitutional government coup in Ukraine and the events that followed, dictated by the need to prevent the abuse of rights of Ukraine’s Russian speaking population.
Nevertheless, let me reiterate that while there is this system-wide issue, and we are not turning a blind eye to it, we want to keep the conversation alive, which is a good thing in itself. Let us hope that in the end of the day a reasonable and fact-based perspective on what happened and is happening there prevails. In any case, we are neighbours and have to live side by side. Problems should be discussed in order for them not to become artificial obstacles to dialogue.
I am grateful to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini for our joint work.
Question (for Sergey Lavrov and Federica Mogherini): Have you discussed reciprocal sanctions and prospects for a system-wide revision of relations between Russia and the EU? Russia advanced such a proposal a year ago. Ukrainian officials do not hide the fact that the current Verkhovna Rada will not consider the laws that are necessary for full compliance with the Minsk agreements. Has Federica Mogherini discussed this issue with Kiev? Is it possible to partially lift the sanctions before the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, in case there is progress in their implementation?
Sergey Lavrov: First, as Federica Mogherini mentioned, we both agree that yesterday's incident outside the contact line in Donbass should be thoroughly and quickly investigated in a completely transparent manner. Whoever the culprit is, this person or people should be held accountable. Once again, we express our condolences to our American colleagues who lost one of their citizens and wish a speedy recovery to those who were wounded in this incident. I reiterate, we share the view that it is important to gather all the facts and prevent this tragedy from triggering political speculation.
With regard to the sanctions, this topic surfaced in our conversation. As you may be aware, we ourselves never initiate this discussion, but it surfaced predictably, because, as you rightly noted, it is part of those artificial issues that accumulate in our relations with the European Union. Federica Mogherini said an interesting thing to the effect that the EU wants everyone to comply with the Minsk agreements. Understandably, this includes the Kiev government, the self-defence forces in Donetsk and Lugansk, and the European Union, because Germany and France have, by and large, acted on behalf of the EU, all the more so since all these agreements were approved by the UN Security Council. If these agreements are to be implemented by everyone, then probably Russia should convince Lugansk and Donetsk, who put their signatures under the Minsk agreements, to constructively and fully fulfil their part of their obligations, whereas Germany and France must ensure that the Ukrainian government does the same. We strive to do our part of the deal well, but, unfortunately, Kiev is avoiding a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, although it is mentioned in black and white in the Minsk documents.
In turn, we discussed how our European colleagues work with Kiev. If Federica Mogherini wishes to do so, she will tell you what Brussels is doing in order to have Kiev fulfil its commitments. If the EU's position is that everyone should fulfil their share of the obligations, then why are the sanctions imposed on Russia alone? The obvious sabotage by Kiev of everything that is written in the Minsk document should have some response on behalf of those who have taken this government under their wing.
Since Federica Mogherini said the word "Crimea," I will mention, in parentheses, that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation in full accordance with the will of the people of Crimea. I have not heard EU challenging statements made by numerous British prime ministers when it came to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). At all times, whenever the UN General Assembly issued a resolution to Great Britain to the effect that Argentina and Britain need to sit down and talk, London invariably said that no one can challenge the right of the people of the Falkland Islands to self-determination. We are asking for at least the same attitude towards the people of Crimea who are much closer to Russia.
With regard to auditing relations between Russia and the EU, we proposed not just auditing them, but taking stock of them. Audit in Russian means a slightly different thing than the English term "review." A little less than a year ago a paper came up, and today we saw that it is part of a dossier that the delegation brought to Moscow. We expect that this paper will continue to be scrutinised and that the answer will come and be based on the practical interests of our partners rather than the ideological biases of individual EU members.
Federica Mogherini now said that we share many common interests with regard to cooperation in solving international problems, and gave a list of them, which includes the Middle East, North Africa, the Palestinian problem, Afghanistan, the Korean peninsula, the climate, and much more. We also agree that these are common problems and it is important to join our efforts in finding a solution to all these international issues.
Why don’t we let our imagination run free and imagine that we have resolved all these issues, the situation around Russia and the EU calms down, and find ourselves stuck in an interesting situation where we are neighbours, and the advantages of our interaction are clear to everyone, especially in today’s highly competitive era. So, everything will be settled, but we won’t be partners. I’m not even sure what to call such relations. We also discussed this.
The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation states that we reiterate our interest in a strategic partnership with the EU. We failed to find the word "partnership" in EU’s new document on foreign policy, which was adopted last year just like our concept. It used to be there before. Now it says that the development of relations with Russia is a "challenge" for the EU. I'm trying to ponder this subject. The Brussels policy to "freeze" relations between us and to keep them that way (in an attempt to "punish" us for the people of Crimea exercising their free will) and at the same time to cooperate with us in order to resolve international issues looks half-hearted and ambiguous. The issue is not about what we are going to do in a particular region of the world. It is important, but, in the interests of our respective peoples, it is imperative to answer the questions of how we are going to live side by side, and whether we will seek compromises or try to impose our point of view on our partners?
The ideological dispute has taken on a new dimension in Europe. The values are being interpreted differently. We do not want Russia to be drawn into that dispute. We wish the European Union could reach a consensus within individual countries and in Brussels so that the EU is united and strong, and no domestic games divert the European Union from maintaining partnerships, including with the Russian Federation.
Our relations are still not systemic, but we very much want all these artificial barriers to be removed and give way to a normal, honest and mutually respectful dialogue based on facts, rather than fleeting interests driven by ideology.
Question: You had talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently. Reportedly, the possibility of restarting the investigation into the incidents in Khan Shaykhun and at the Shayrat air base was mentioned during these talks. Is it possible to resume the investigation given that the majority of the OPCW members voted against the Russian-Iranian proposal?
Sergey Lavrov: First, the special session of the OPCW Executive Board ended up essentially split with only a two-vote difference between those who blocked our proposal and those who supported it. Nevertheless, according to the procedural rules, it was not approved. This is strange, because this resolution was about nothing more than the opportunity to conduct an independent, impartial and transparent investigation with inspectors on site, including the site of incident in Khan Shaykhun. According to the White Helmets (at least, no other detailed account was provided), chemical weapons were allegedly used by the Syrian government there. The airfield allegedly used by the Syrian war planes carrying chemical munitions was supposed to be inspected. I reminded the Secretary of State that on the day of the incident, on April 4, our American colleagues, including himself, asked us to urgently help them send inspectors to the airport to check for munitions loaded with chemical substances. When our initiative in The Hague was brought up, neither our Western colleagues nor the OPCW Secretariat agreed to send inspectors to that airfield, claiming that the OPCW only investigates the sites where chemical agents had been actually used. I drew the attention of Mr Tillerson to this disconnect and asked him to return to his original position about the need to inspect the airfield.
Second, I also explained to him that in order to ensure transparency, it is necessary for us to be provided with information. Reportedly, the samples had already been taken and were being analysed. Where were they taken? By whom? In what laboratory are they being analysed? Was the rule that no one should tamper with them on their way to the laboratory complied with? There are a number of requirements that have long been applied in all such instances. We wanted to get information about how these requirements were met in the course of taking samples which, according to our partners, has already taken place.
The Americans also claim that they are willing to support the OPCW and the body it created, the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), to look into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and no one should question its integrity and professionalism. We were told that we voted, including in the UN, for creating such a fact-finding body, so how can we question its actions now? We are not questioning the fact that we adopted such a resolution, but, among other things, it says that the membership of this body should be based on the broadest possible geographical representation. I already had the opportunity to mention that the FFM consists of two segments, one of which is dealing with complaints coming from the Syrian government, and the other complaints about the Syrian government. Both these segments are headed by British nationals.
Four months ago, after eastern Aleppo had been liberated, we, in conjunction with our Syrian colleagues, gathered samples in Aleppo which, in our opinion, indicate that chemical agents were used by the opposition. Four months later no results have been reported to us. In response to our inquiries, they keep telling us that they need more time. However, the segment of this body dealing with complaints about the Syrian government, in a matter of a few short days following the incident in Khan Shaykhun, already managed to come up with the statements which confirm the accusations made immediately after the incident by the White Helmets and other NGOs about the use of sarin. On the one hand, we have four months and nothing happens. On the other hand, without any information about the provenance of the samples, or the lab they were taken to, four short days later they claim that this was a case of using chemical weapons. I reiterate that this is done by two segments of the same body, both of which are headed by British nationals. Perhaps, they should trade places, and this will help make things more constructive. Seriously, this is not a laughing matter. This is an attempt to create a distorted reality, and then exploit it in an attempt to move away from implementing the Security Council resolution on Syrian settlement based on a Syria-wide dialogue and to embark on the path seeking to overthrow another government in this region. We will look forward to the OPCW, based on its mandate which requires the widest possible geographical representation, sending experts to Khan Shaykhun and the airfield, and making sure that all of this is done in a transparent manner rather than shrouded in secrecy from the member countries which pay for this body to continue its work.
Question: Serious statements have been made about alleged violence in Chechnya against LGBT people, including murder, torture and the like. Is the EU concerned about this? Over 30 members of the LGBT community have gone into hiding in Russia, waiting for a chance to leave the country. Should the EU or the individual EU countries propose a plan for saving these people, so that it’s easier for them to emigrate?
Sergey Lavrov: Federica Mogherini has said that the EU would like to resume human rights dialogue with Russia. But it was not Russia who blocked almost all other channels of sectoral dialogue. We are willing to talk, but this should be done comprehensively rather than by choosing what one partner wants to discuss and leaving all other issues for later. Our dialogue on human rights will resume as soon as we relaunch all sectoral dialogues. This is what we discussed when we touched upon human rights.
Today we did not discuss the alleged disappearance or torture of LGBT people in Chechnya. We have seen the EU statement made several days ago regarding the alleged disappearance, torture and even killings of LGBT people. However, this statement also contained the phrase, “If confirmed.” We would prefer that the EU wait until these allegations are confirmed before making such harsh statements, if our partners really want to establish the truth.
I would like to repeat what President Vladimir Putin has said more than once, which is that we are concerned about reported violations of the rights of anyone and everyone in Russia, and it does not matter who these people are. We are against any discrimination. We have a law protecting children from adverse influences, which is extremely important now considering the goings-on in social media. But even this law does not prohibit anyone from doing what they please with their own lives.
As for the specific concerns about the alleged violations of the rights of LGBT people in Chechnya or any other region of Russia, we will investigate facts but not act on suspicion or rumour. The Russian authorities have pointed this out many times. So far, we have no information at our disposal to confirm these allegations, but we are really concerned about any violation of human rights. However, accusations must be backed with facts and not used for political purposes, even though it has become fashionable in the EU countries to use the Russian factor for domestic political purposes.