Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, Moscow, June 20, 2017
We have had very productive talks with French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian. They were held in accordance with the agreements reached between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of France Emmanuel Macron during their recent meeting in Versailles. This allowed us to hold substantive and in-depth discussions of a wide range of issues and to outline the priorities of our cooperation, including that of a schedule of meetings at various levels.
This year we will mark a major event in our bilateral relations: the 300th anniversary of Emperor Peter the Great’s visit to France, which provided a symbolic backdrop for the presidents’ meeting in Versailles. Our current dialogue is taking place in a difficult European situation. It proceeds from what my French colleague has said that both sides are willing to do their best to preserve and maintain the partner relations that we developed over a period of many years. Here in Russia, we are ready to re-launch the mechanisms of interstate cooperation that have been suspended for the past four years.
We held a short discussion which concerned our trade and economic cooperation. Following a period of decline, our mutual trade resumed growth last year, and this continued in the first few months of this year. We have agreed to promote our efforts in this area, especially since our business communities have indicated their strong interest for cooperation. All French companies that are working in Russia are not going to leave and have shown interest in strengthening ties with their Russian colleagues. Eighty leading French companies were represented at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, during which a roundtable discussion on Russian-French interaction was held for the first time in the forum’s history. As you know, our presidents discussed President Macron’s initiative on the Trianon Dialogue, a Franco-Russian civil society forum. Today we discussed ways to implement this initiative. I hope that we will be able to forward our practical ideas on this matter to President Putin and President Macron very soon.
Our discussions on international issues focused on Syria. We share the opinion that this crisis must be settled through an inclusive national dialogue with active support from the international community, as per the UN Security Council decisions. It must be complemented with an uncompromising struggle against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other organisations that have been designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations.
We talked about the work within the Astana format, including efforts to coordinate the parameters of de-escalation zones with a view to consolidating the ceasefire regime, ensuing humanitarian access and creating conditions for a political process. We are paying much attention to preparations for the resumption of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will start the next round of these talks on July 10. But before this, a regular intra-Syrian meeting will be held in Astana on July 4-5.
We also talked about Ukraine. We agree on the importance of the strict implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures. We believe that there is no alternative to this compromise solution. Russia holds that the implementation of the Minsk Agreements depends on the good will of the Kiev authorities. Of course, we are willing to continue our interaction within the Normandy Format, as we said today, which provides vital external support to the Contact Group, which provides conditions for direct interaction between representatives of the Kiev authorities and the Donbass regions controlled by the self-proclaimed republics.
On a broader plane, I would like to say that the Franco-Russian agenda also includes other regional crises where we can join forces for the sake of common good, including in Libya, Yemen and several other countries as well. We have agreed to launch sustainable consultations between our ministries.
Regarding our relations with the European Union, Russia is interested in returning them to a track of normal development. We confirm our commitment to the initiatives and assessments which were submitted to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker a year ago, during his meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. We are still waiting for a reply to these proposals. We hope that the European Commission will respond to our proposal on developing working contacts with the Eurasian Economic Commission.
I believe that we had very useful talks. My colleague, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, has invited me to visit Paris at my convenience so as to keep up with the pace in the implementation of the agreements reached between President Putin and President Macron during their meeting in Versailles. I am convinced that our personnel will work on the agreements we reach very thoroughly.
Question: The US leads an international coalition in Syria, and this was not the first time that Syrian armed forces have been attacked by US aircraft. Today, they downed a Syrian drone, and recently a Syrian fighter jet was shot down, which prompted Russia to suspend the memorandum of understanding with the US on flight safety. Against the backdrop of growing tension, Iran carried out strikes against terrorists in Syria for the first time in a long while. What could be the consequences of this new wave of tension? How will Russia respond to these developments?
Sergey Lavrov: It is true that a plethora of forces operates in Syria both on and above ground: the Syrian army, the so-called pro-government forces, including Iran-backed Hezbollah, the armed opposition, terrorists, the Turkish military, as you know, as well as special forces from a number of western and regional countries. Air forces are also operating in Syria, including the Russian Aerospace Forces and the US-led coalition. Some of these forces were invited by the Syrian Government, while others operate there without any invitation and invited themselves with the noble purpose of fighting terrorism. This is what currently unites all these forces. Moreover, efforts undertaken by Russia, Turkey and Iran, should they succeed, could accomplish the essential task of bringing about a complete cessation of hostilities between the Syrian Government and the armed opposition, separated from terrorists. If the current initiatives regarding de-escalation zones are implemented, we will finally succeed in separating those who join the ceasefire, on the one hand, from the terrorists and those who support them and are not willing to join the ceasefire, on the other hand, which will be for the first time in all the years of the Syrian crisis. This is a very fragile balance, but if we are all honest, and committed to fighting terrorism, we have all it takes to prevent the situation from sliding into chaos and resulting in unpredictable incidents.
As I have said, there is the Russia-Turkey-Iran mechanism that operates with the approval and consent of the Syrian Government. The decisions taken as part of this mechanism are subject to approval by Damascus. There is also an interaction mechanism for the Russian and US military. It was operational and proved to be quite effective, but was suspended after the US downed an aircraft. As you know, the Russian Defence Ministry has requested detailed clarification on this incident. We are waiting for these clarifications. Within this mechanism, the US represented the entire coalition. As a party to the Astana process, Turkey has influence over some armed groups on the ground, and Iran, as another party to the same process, can influence a number of other groups.
If we look at the situation as it is right now, especially since the Astana process gained a stable footing, we have everything it takes to focus on combatting terrorism. It is not my intention to insinuate that strikes against the Syrian army could be aimed at undermining counter-terrorist efforts. However, we have to recall that throughout the crisis, starting with the process John Kerry and I had launched with Russian and US military and special forces, one could not fail to get this lingering and unalterable feeling that, unlike the situation with ISIS, our US partners were seeking to take the heat off Jabhat al-Nusra, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This is what we tell the US in all honesty, and I will not fail to raise this issue with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I hope that I will have an opportunity to do so in the near future. There should be complete clarity in this respect. What matters the most is that judging by the available information, the coalition is actually targeting ISIS, but we have not seen it take the same kind of action against Jabhat al-Nusra or whatever it is now called. It constantly evolves and changes names, while remaining the same at its core.
There is another point I want to make. If we are really committed to fighting terrorism, this should be the main objective for all actors in their military planning on the ground. Analysing the movement of various military units and looking at their objectives, one cannot fail to have the feeling that their efforts are to some extent driven by the confessional factor. We believe, and we are actually confident that the noxious trends within Islam we are witnessing in Syria, among others, should be neutralised. All the countries, including all Muslim countries, must unite their efforts and focus on the single most important objective of fighting terrorism.
The recent tension between Muslim countries is of course a matter of concern for us. Russia always stands for compromise, and will welcome initiatives that can help the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council stand united and commit all their forces and resources to fighting this common evil.
Question: Do you think that relations between France and Russia will improve after the Versailles meeting of their presidents?
Sergey Lavrov: I suggest that you yourself, being a journalist, say whether the current period in Franco-Russian relations can be described as a thaw. Analysing and assessing events is your responsibility. So, this is for you to decide.
Question: The United States has adopted new sanctions against Russia because of Ukraine. What sort of a background could this create for the upcoming Russian-US summit meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: This will certainly not improve the situation. Sanctions have yet again been adopted without any good reason. As I see it, serious observers view references to the situation in Ukraine sceptically.
Regrettably, our EU colleagues have devised a devious formula, according to which all sanctions will be lifted when Russia implements the Minsk Agreements. We invite our European colleagues to read the text of the Minsk Agreements again. They set out the sequence of actions clearly and name those who must take them. The only thing I can say now is that I regret the anti-Russia obsession of our American colleagues that is overstepping the limits.
When Ukrainian President Poroshenko fails to implement his obligations under the Minsk Agreements, sanctions are slapped on Russia. When there are problems in Syria, the blame is laid on Russia and the government of Bashar al-Assad as well. I can provide many more examples when Russia was blamed for developments around the world just because US Congress was unhappy about something. Even the falling out between Qatar and several Arab countries has been blamed on Russian hackers. Of course, this information was deleted several hours later, when it became clear that this is absolute nonsense. But nobody has apologised for this.
This is nothing new to us, it’s a tradition in Russia: we are used to seeing Russian grannies sitting on benches near their porches and swapping fairy tales.
Question (addressed to both ministers): You said that the possible Franco-Russian civil society forum would be called the Trianon Dialogue. What agenda will it have? Will it be connected with human rights, freedom of speech and LGBT demonstrations?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Jean-Yves Le Drian): By and large, everything in life is connected with human rights, including solutions to economic problems and the creation of jobs. Two human rights documents were adopted in the mid-1960s – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. They were adopted as a package, because people’s social and economic rights must be safely protected. I hold this view, which is shared by many other people too, who are grappling with what is going on in many countries in Europe and the rest of the world. I fully agree with Jean-Yves Le Drian that civil dialogue must embrace all areas. And all civil society components must be represented in this dialogue, including human rights advocates, those who are promoting cultural rapprochement and business people who want to strengthen the foundation of relations between our nations.
As I said, we are working on the framework of this forum. It should reflect the comprehensive nature of our relations and should follow on what we did in the past. We used to have a Franco-Russian forum before, but it focused on economic aspects of our relationship. We want this forum to be broader. I would like to say that the Russian-French Cross-Year of Cultural Tourism will end this year. We are discussing the parameters for a new bilateral project for the next year, the Cross-Year of Russian and French Languages and Literature.
Question: What’s your reaction to the decision made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has ruled that the Russian law banning gay propaganda is discriminatory?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t remember reading or hearing about this decision. There have been many other such decisions. Many people have complained. I will say again what we have said more than once. We have no laws stipulating persecution for sexual or any other identity. Enticing minors into a homosexual lifestyle is what we want to prevent and what this law bans. Even though you have raised this question, I will not go into any details right now. But since you appear to be so concerned, you should also spread this concern to other countries. You should compare what happens there.
Question (addressed to Jean-Yves Le Drian): There are many foreign journalists here. Why can they attend such events as this one in Russia, whereas in France we are accused of what we don’t do, that is, of slander? You can easily check if we post slanderous information by going to our site. Why are we denied accreditation for working properly? Isn’t this censorship?
Jean-Yves Le Drian: President of France Emmanuel Macron has expressed his views on this matter. He said what we wanted to say. Don’t expect me to contradict my president now, while I’m in Moscow.
Sergey Lavrov: I won’t contradict my president either.