6 December 201920:23

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at the 5th international conference Rome MED 2019 - Mediterranean Dialogues, Rome, December 6, 2019

2548-06-12-2019

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First of all, thank you for inviting me again to this authoritative forum.

The Mediterranean is a unique region at the juncture of Europe and Asia, a crossroads of critical logistics and energy routes, an intersection of civilisations and cultures, and the cradle of the world’s major religions. Its countries have everything they need for dynamic sustainable development and prosperity.

The situation in the Middle East, the southern part of the region, which has become a victim to aggressive unilateral approaches and geopolitical engineering, cannot be considered satisfactory. A number of nations are experiencing socio-political crises. The terrorist threat persists. The unique ethnic and religious mosaic keeps eroding; the Christian presence, in particular, has dwindled considerably.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people perish each year as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

It is clear that blackmail, pressure and threats will not allow for a lasting stabilisation in the Middle East. The multiple regional knots can only be untangled using the principles of international law and mutually respectful cooperation based on universal diplomatic tools.

And some things have already been achieved. I would call the situation around Syria an example of multilateral diplomacy’s efficiency. The efforts of the Astana Format nations – Russia, Iran and Turkey – made it possible to launch a political process and to set up the Constitutional Committee, albeit with some problems and delays. The situation in Syria is generally returning to peaceful normality except for a number of northern regions of the country outside the legitimate government’s control. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2019, the Syrian settlement can become a model for resolving regional crises.

Libya remains a dangerous hotbed of instability and has become a breeding ground of a motley crew of terrorists. Its statehood has been severely undermined by NATO’s reckless venture. The country remains deeply split, internecine strife is ongoing while the economy and social sphere are crumbling.

Undoubtedly, the conflict can only be settled politically via an inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue. It is necessary to revive the efforts of the international community on this track. In this context we note German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initiative to hold an international conference in Berlin on Libyan settlement. It is certainly important to take into account the experience of the previous conferences on Libya that were held in Paris in July 2017 and in Palermo in November 2018. We should not forget the results of the meeting of the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj and Supreme Commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Abu Dhabi in February of this year. The key is to fully honour the resolutions and prerogatives of the UN Security Council, to ensure full-fledged participation of Libya’s major political forces and external actors involved, including all of Libya’s neighbours, the African Union and the Arab League.

The threat of destabilisation in Iraq is looming. The international community must render comprehensive support to the Iraqi authorities in their fight against the remaining ISIS terrorists and other terrorist groups. Coordination within the Baghdad Information Centre, which was set up by Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria, is acquiring growing importance, as is interaction between Baghdad and Damascus in clearing the Syrian-Iraqi border from terrorists.

Russia has invariably advocated the preservation of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon, which is undergoing another political crisis. Urgent issues of the national agenda must be resolved by the Lebanese people themselves. It is crucial to retain the balance of interests between major political forces and ethnic and religious groups as stated in Lebanon’s constitution.

We call for overcoming tensions in the Persian Gulf through dialogue. This is provided for in Russia’s Concept of collective security in the Gulf, which was drafted some time ago. Consistent implementation of this idea will make it possible to a lay a foundation for the architecture of mutual trust in the entire Middle East region.

It is clear that it will be impossible to reliably secure stabilisation in the entire Mediterranean space without the formation of an independent and viable Palestinian State. Only a two-state solution can satisfy the aspirations of the Palestinian people and to reliably ensure the security of Israel and the entire region, yet we are witnessing attempts to replace it with some “deal of the century”. Prompt resumption of talks between the Palestinians and Israelis is needed in order to achieve a comprehensive, long-term, just settlement based on commonly recognised international law. Russia will continue efforts to overcome the intra-Palestinian split on the basis of the political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Developments on another shore of the Mediterranean – in the Balkans – are also cause for concern. The region’s countries are being insistently dragged into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation disregarding the will of their people. The number of NATO military drills and manoeuvres, as well as NATO ships in eastern Mediterranean is constantly increasing. The outcome of such actions is clearly predictable: the emergence of new division lines and a degradation of mutual trust. I have already mentioned the stream of refugees who have flooded Europe and who Europe has to deal with.

Generally speaking, we firmly believe that the interests of both the North and the South of the Mediterranean are met not by zero sum games, but by joint efforts to neutralise common challenges and threats. To this end, I would consider it useful to actively engage OSCE’s potential, including using its venues to promote positive widely accepted approaches to Balkans issues. We actively root for the Organisation’s interaction with its Mediterranean partners.

I think the region can be turned into an area of peace, stability, security and creative partnership only on the solid basis of international law, primarily, the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, whereas archaic containment instruments and bloc philosophy should be resolutely abandoned. 

Question: I would like to go back to Libya. Do you think that the Berlin conference you mentioned before is going to be a means to raise hope, in the sense that at least agreeing on a ceasefire would already be enormous progress? And the second question is that, as you certainly know, American sources have been recently – and more than once – saying that there are Russian mercenaries in Libya fighting on the side of General Haftar. Can you answer this?

Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the Berlin conference, I said that we need to build on the experience of the conferences held two years ago in Paris, a year ago in Palermo and the agreements reached between Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar in February of this year. As you know, they envision a reform of the Presidential Council, a formation of a new government of national accord, an agreement on oil revenues, and drafting a new constitution. Without an understanding on such key issues it is very hard to expect that convening in a certain place – Berlin, Palermo, wherever – will be enough for the crisis to begin to resolve itself.

We took part in the preparations for the Berlin conference. We were a little surprised that not all Libyan sides or Libya’s neighbours were invited to the conference. We consider it to be a drawback. I hope steps will be taken in the remaining time to make the conference really inclusive. I would especially highlight the African Union (AU) among the participants. In 2011, before NATO embarked on its venture, the AU was trying to settle the Libyan crisis through dialogue between Muammar Gaddafi and the opposition. However, a different point of view prevailed back then, and a course was selected to overthrow the regime. We are still facing the consequences, primarily the Middle East and North Africa nations, as well as Europe, especially the Mediterranean states.

Of course, who can object to a ceasefire? After the Abu Dhabi agreements were forgotten, a military campaign was declared. Clearly, the parties cannot achieve a military victory considering the armaments they have. This alone should make them sit down at a negotiating table and come back to the understandings reached in Abu Dhabi. UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salame held a briefing a couple of months ago at the UNSC. He has his own approaches, which we share and support. I hope all the external actors without exception will push their allies in Libya in the same direction – towards a negotiating table. We are one of the few countries that maintain relations with all Libyan actors without exception – Fayez al-Sarraj, Aquila Saleh, Khalifa Haftar, Khalifa al-Ghweil and other characters in the political landscape of that country, which was, in fact, destroyed. We are encouraging them to take steps in this direction.

As to the rumours spread by our US colleagues, for some reason no questions are asked when NATO countries’ servicemen, who had never been invited, officially appear all over the world (if we speak about the Mediterranean, take Syria, for instance). They seem to be present there as a fact and have the right to be there. But as soon as something occurs somewhere, some Bellingcat and other NGOs will plant materials about Russia doing something wrong somewhere again. I read that a spy ring has been discovered in Haute-Savoie. Then it was written, actually, that no spying activities had been recorded but it is a spy ring anyway. We have already been seen in Chile, as you are aware. We also mastermind riots and take part in the domestic political struggle there. I think we should just be honest. There is no secret – there are knowledgeable people here – everybody knows who is really backing the warring parties in Libya. Let us not forget about it. It is better to stick to business rather than chase sensations. To do that, the parties must return to the Abu Dhabi agreements and implement them.  

Question: Just to get back to another subject that you raised in your introductory remarks – the situation in Syria. A lot of things have happened since you came here last year, and particularly the Turkish operation in the north of Syria, the comeback of the Syrian and Russian troops to the north of the country. This morning we heard from Minister Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, that they feel they have the duty and the right to pursue military actions against what they call a terrorist group in northern Syria. The Russian Commander in Syria, General Chaiko, made a deal with this group – that is, the Syrian Democratic Forces – just a few days ago to bring Russian troops to three more cities in the north of Syria.  So how do you think that situation on the border can be solved?

And another question, if I may. You talked about the Astana process and the Constitutional Committee, but this diplomatic process is still going very slowly if it is gaining any ground at all. There is a sensation that since, as you mentioned, rebel provinces are just little pockets in the country now, the Syrian government can rightly think that it has the opportunity to win the war, and one usually doesn’t have an incentive to negotiate if he thinks he can win. Why do you think there can still be a political solution in Syria?  

Sergey Lavrov: When we are facilitating the Syrian settlement, achieving real results in this direction, we always think about the security in the region and the need to first of all eliminate the terrorist and other threats to the security of the region’s countries. 

If we speak about the Palestine-Israel conflict and Israel’s overall position on the issues of the countries around it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently stressed that we take Israel’s security concerns very seriously. We take equally seriously the security concerns of any other country in the region, in particular, our good partner the Republic of Turkey. One can argue if specialists agree or disagree with the explanations presented here by my friend Mevlut Cavusoglu. The fact remains that Turkey had been drawing attention to this issue for a number of years, saying that it would have to resolve it, including, among other things, the 1998 Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria. It seems that when the United States realised the seriousness of Turkey’s position, it began talking about how these concerns could be alleviated. You know how this ended. No common ground was found, and the United States declared its withdrawal from Syria. Later they remembered that they had forgotten about the oil, which of course they do not own. But that is a separate matter.

When Turkey launched the operation, and let me stress this, it had warned about its inevitability for a long time (everyone knew perfectly well that Ankara has grave concerns in this area), we immediately got in touch with our Turkish colleagues. The Peace Spring operation was frozen, suspended. Instead of the entire 444 kilometres of the border, the operation area was established along 100 kilometres, whereas an agreement between President Putin and President Erdogan took effect in the remaining border area: Kurdish armed groups and weapons withdraw 30 kilometres to the south of the border while the Russian military police and Turkish servicemen jointly patrol a ten-kilometre zone in this area, and the Syrian border guards also advanced there, of course.

These agreements were welcomed both by the Kurds and Damascus. Although later, when the United States declared it had forgotten oil there and it must go back to “safeguard” it and to do whatever it fancies with it, the Kurds began to “vibrate.” Even though before that I thought they understood our arguments that only a direct agreement with Syria’s official authorities can reliably solve all the problems the Kurds are facing there. I hope our Kurdish friends will learn from experience. The latest zigzags of US policy should convince them that there is no other way but to come to an agreement within a united Syrian state and not to bet on those who want to dismember Syria and light the fuse under the bomb that the Kurdish issue has been for many countries in the region. I think the agreements you asked me about are being implemented now. I think it has significantly stabilised the situation. At least it allowed the legitimate Syrian government to substantially expand its control over the territory of its own country. 

Your second question was about the Astana format. It was set up when nothing else was working. Staffan de Mistura, my good friend who is present here, remembers how hard we were trying to launch the Geneva process in 2016, Obama’s last year in office. First we meant to hold a meeting in April, then in May, then after the holy month of Ramadan, then in September, then in October and so on. Nothing came out of that. 

The Astana process is based on a very simple logic. Before it was launched, there was no forum where the people representing the warring parties would sit facing each other. Basically, there were contacts between the government and émigrés, whereas those who were fighting the government on the ground – the armed opposition – did not talk to each other. The Astana format filled this gap and launched a process that brought together delegations from the government, the armed opposition, three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran) and observer states. Initially the observer state was Jordan. We also invited the United States to take part – they came a couple of times and then gave up. That is their business; we are not talking about the US policy here. Iraq and Lebanon joined Jordan as observers. 

The 14th Astana format meeting will be held in the capital of Kazakhstan next week. It will review the implementation of agreements on de-escalation and finishing fighting the remaining terrorist groups. Also, humanitarian issues will be considered, including humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population, creating conditions for the return of refugees, POW swap and exchange of detained persons. Of course, the political process will also be discussed.

I am not going to say after only two sessions how successfully the Constitutional Committee is advancing or how slow it is. The process has just started. I have already mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How long has it been going on?  When was the six-month settlement roadmap adopted? In 2003? How many years have elapsed? For some reason nobody is worried that the implementation of the UNSC decision on the Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement is progressing so slowly? 

The Constitutional Committee could have been established and working for one year already if our Western colleagues hadn’t prevented its convocation last year. When in December 2018 your humble servant together with foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey Mohammad Javad Zarif and Mevlut Cavusoglu flew to Geneva to meet with Staffan de Mistura and his colleagues, we brought a list approved by the Syrian government and the opposition, while the Western countries did everything for the list not be approved at that time. As a result, we wasted a whole year.

As to whether the situation on the ground offers Bashar al-Assad incentives for negotiations, Bashar al-Assad called for a start to a political process in the summer of 2015, when the terrorist fighters were camped outside a Damascus suburb. The entire Western camp, which supported those fighters, was categorically opposed to it. Now that we launched the Astana process, the situation has turned around. Thanks to the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian army has radically changed the situation on the ground to its advantage. Nevertheless, we used our influence on the Syrian government and our good relationship to persuade it first to agree to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which convened in Sochi in January 2018, and subsequently to support the decisions of the Congress. Staffan de Mistura knows that there were problems with that – the parties did not initially accept what our UN friends were pushing for. We persuaded our colleagues in Damascus that starting a political process would be the best way out. Now the terrorist presence in the Syrian territory has shrunk as a result of using the de-escalation zone concept – it remains in the northwest in Idlib and in the northeast, where the Americans are engaged in very murky relations with their protégés, in particular, in the Al-Tanf area.  Anyhow, the Syrian government is not refusing to take part in negotiations. I met with UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen today. We talked about his impressions of the second session of the Constitutional Committee.  He has no panicky sentiments and he is convinced that the sides are getting used to each other and learning to talk to each other. So I can assure you that we are not going to stop our efforts. We do not act in an opportunistic way following the principle that we will not hold negotiations once we can get a military victory there. That is not our approach. I know some Western colleagues who are guided by this logic. But we are not.

Question: I would like to go back to Libya. Do you think that the Berlin conference you mentioned before is going to be a means to raise hope, in the sense that at least agreeing on a ceasefire would already be enormous progress? And the second question is that, as you certainly know, American sources have been recently – and more than once – saying that there are Russian mercenaries in Libya fighting on the side of General Haftar. Can you answer this?

Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the Berlin conference, I said that we need to build on the experience of the conferences held two years ago in Paris, a year ago in Palermo and the agreements reached between Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar in February of this year. As you know, they envision a reform of the Presidential Council, a formation of a new government of national accord, an agreement on oil revenues, and drafting a new constitution. Without an understanding on such key issues it is very hard to expect that convening in a certain place – Berlin, Palermo, wherever – will be enough for the crisis to begin to resolve itself.

We took part in the preparations for the Berlin conference. We were a little surprised that not all Libyan sides or Libya’s neighbours were invited to the conference. We consider it to be a drawback. I hope steps will be taken in the remaining time to make the conference really inclusive. I would especially highlight the African Union (AU) among the participants. In 2011, before NATO embarked on its venture, the AU was trying to settle the Libyan crisis through dialogue between Muammar Gaddafi and the opposition. However, a different point of view prevailed back then, and a course was selected to overthrow the regime. We are still facing the consequences, primarily the Middle East and North Africa nations, as well as Europe, especially the Mediterranean states.

Of course, who can object to a ceasefire? After the Abu Dhabi agreements were forgotten, a military campaign was declared. Clearly, the parties cannot achieve a military victory considering the armaments they have. This alone should make them sit down at a negotiating table and come back to the understandings reached in Abu Dhabi. UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salame held a briefing a couple of months ago at the UNSC. He has his own approaches, which we share and support. I hope all the external actors without exception will push their allies in Libya in the same direction – towards a negotiating table. We are one of the few countries that maintain relations with all Libyan actors without exception – Fayez al-Sarraj, Aquila Saleh, Khalifa Haftar, Khalifa al-Ghweil and other characters in the political landscape of that country, which was, in fact, destroyed. We are encouraging them to take steps in this direction.

As to the rumours spread by our US colleagues, for some reason no questions are asked when NATO countries’ servicemen, who had never been invited, officially appear all over the world (if we speak about the Mediterranean, take Syria, for instance). They seem to be present there as a fact and have the right to be there. But as soon as something occurs somewhere, some Bellingcat and other NGOs will plant materials about Russia doing something wrong somewhere again. I read that a spy ring has been discovered in Haute-Savoie. Then it was written, actually, that no spying activities had been recorded but it is a spy ring anyway. We have already been seen in Chile, as you are aware. We also mastermind riots and take part in the domestic political struggle there. I think we should just be honest. There is no secret – there are knowledgeable people here – everybody knows who is really backing the warring parties in Libya. Let us not forget about it. It is better to stick to business rather than chase sensations. To do that, the parties must return to the Abu Dhabi agreements and implement them.  

Question: Just to get back to another subject that you raised in your introductory remarks – the situation in Syria. A lot of things have happened since you came here last year, and particularly the Turkish operation in the north of Syria, the comeback of the Syrian and Russian troops to the north of the country. This morning we heard from Minister Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, that they feel they have the duty and the right to pursue military actions against what they call a terrorist group in northern Syria. The Russian Commander in Syria, General Chaiko, made a deal with this group – that is, the Syrian Democratic Forces – just a few days ago to bring Russian troops to three more cities in the north of Syria.  So how do you think that situation on the border can be solved?

And another question, if I may. You talked about the Astana process and the Constitutional Committee, but this diplomatic process is still going very slowly if it is gaining any ground at all. There is a sensation that since, as you mentioned, rebel provinces are just little pockets in the country now, the Syrian government can rightly think that it has the opportunity to win the war, and one usually doesn’t have an incentive to negotiate if he thinks he can win. Why do you think there can still be a political solution in Syria?  

Sergey Lavrov: When we are facilitating the Syrian settlement, achieving real results in this direction, we always think about the security in the region and the need to first of all eliminate the terrorist and other threats to the security of the region’s countries. 

If we speak about the Palestine-Israel conflict and Israel’s overall position on the issues of the countries around it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently stressed that we take Israel’s security concerns very seriously. We take equally seriously the security concerns of any other country in the region, in particular, our good partner the Republic of Turkey. One can argue if specialists agree or disagree with the explanations presented here by my friend Mevlut Cavusoglu. The fact remains that Turkey had been drawing attention to this issue for a number of years, saying that it would have to resolve it, including, among other things, the 1998 Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria. It seems that when the United States realised the seriousness of Turkey’s position, it began talking about how these concerns could be alleviated. You know how this ended. No common ground was found, and the United States declared its withdrawal from Syria. Later they remembered that they had forgotten about the oil, which of course they do not own. But that is a separate matter.

When Turkey launched the operation, and let me stress this, it had warned about its inevitability for a long time (everyone knew perfectly well that Ankara has grave concerns in this area), we immediately got in touch with our Turkish colleagues. The Peace Spring operation was frozen, suspended. Instead of the entire 444 kilometres of the border, the operation area was established along 100 kilometres, whereas an agreement between President Putin and President Erdogan took effect in the remaining border area: Kurdish armed groups and weapons withdraw 30 kilometres to the south of the border while the Russian military police and Turkish servicemen jointly patrol a ten-kilometre zone in this area, and the Syrian border guards also advanced there, of course.

These agreements were welcomed both by the Kurds and Damascus. Although later, when the United States declared it had forgotten oil there and it must go back to “safeguard” it and to do whatever it fancies with it, the Kurds began to “vibrate.” Even though before that I thought they understood our arguments that only a direct agreement with Syria’s official authorities can reliably solve all the problems the Kurds are facing there. I hope our Kurdish friends will learn from experience. The latest zigzags of US policy should convince them that there is no other way but to come to an agreement within a united Syrian state and not to bet on those who want to dismember Syria and light the fuse under the bomb that the Kurdish issue has been for many countries in the region. I think the agreements you asked me about are being implemented now. I think it has significantly stabilised the situation. At least it allowed the legitimate Syrian government to substantially expand its control over the territory of its own country. 

Your second question was about the Astana format. It was set up when nothing else was working. Staffan de Mistura, my good friend who is present here, remembers how hard we were trying to launch the Geneva process in 2016, Obama’s last year in office. First we meant to hold a meeting in April, then in May, then after the holy month of Ramadan, then in September, then in October and so on. Nothing came out of that. 

The Astana process is based on a very simple logic. Before it was launched, there was no forum where the people representing the warring parties would sit facing each other. Basically, there were contacts between the government and émigrés, whereas those who were fighting the government on the ground – the armed opposition – did not talk to each other. The Astana format filled this gap and launched a process that brought together delegations from the government, the armed opposition, three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran) and observer states. Initially the observer state was Jordan. We also invited the United States to take part – they came a couple of times and then gave up. That is their business; we are not talking about the US policy here. Iraq and Lebanon joined Jordan as observers. 

The 14th Astana format meeting will be held in the capital of Kazakhstan next week. It will review the implementation of agreements on de-escalation and finishing fighting the remaining terrorist groups. Also, humanitarian issues will be considered, including humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population, creating conditions for the return of refugees, POW swap and exchange of detained persons. Of course, the political process will also be discussed.

I am not going to say after only two sessions how successfully the Constitutional Committee is advancing or how slow it is. The process has just started. I have already mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How long has it been going on?  When was the six-month settlement roadmap adopted? In 2003? How many years have elapsed? For some reason nobody is worried that the implementation of the UNSC decision on the Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement is progressing so slowly? 

The Constitutional Committee could have been established and working for one year already if our Western colleagues hadn’t prevented its convocation last year. When in December 2018 your humble servant together with foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey Mohammad Javad Zarif and Mevlut Cavusoglu flew to Geneva to meet with Staffan de Mistura and his colleagues, we brought a list approved by the Syrian government and the opposition, while the Western countries did everything for the list not be approved at that time. As a result, we wasted a whole year.

As to whether the situation on the ground offers Bashar al-Assad incentives for negotiations, Bashar al-Assad called for a start to a political process in the summer of 2015, when the terrorist fighters were camped outside a Damascus suburb. The entire Western camp, which supported those fighters, was categorically opposed to it. Now that we launched the Astana process, the situation has turned around. Thanks to the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian army has radically changed the situation on the ground to its advantage. Nevertheless, we used our influence on the Syrian government and our good relationship to persuade it first to agree to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which convened in Sochi in January 2018, and subsequently to support the decisions of the Congress. Staffan de Mistura knows that there were problems with that – the parties did not initially accept what our UN friends were pushing for. We persuaded our colleagues in Damascus that starting a political process would be the best way out. Now the terrorist presence in the Syrian territory has shrunk as a result of using the de-escalation zone concept – it remains in the northwest in Idlib and in the northeast, where the Americans are engaged in very murky relations with their protégés, in particular, in the Al-Tanf area.  Anyhow, the Syrian government is not refusing to take part in negotiations. I met with UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen today. We talked about his impressions of the second session of the Constitutional Committee.  He has no panicky sentiments and he is convinced that the sides are getting used to each other and learning to talk to each other. So I can assure you that we are not going to stop our efforts. We do not act in an opportunistic way following the principle that we will not hold negotiations once we can get a military victory there. That is not our approach. I know some Western colleagues who are guided by this logic. But we are not.

Question: You are not going to answer to me if I ask you what is your position about the next American presidential election. But I have another observation that has come out during the NATO meeting very recently. Withdrawing its few troops out of border between Turkey and Syria, it seems that President Trump has made a favour to Russia in the sense that Russia has been able to reinforce its power already considerable in Syria. And at the same time, there was a crisis inside NATO because the allies were not consulted, Turkey wanted certain thins, and so on. Do you have any comment on this strange idea that Trump, with his policy, is a good ally of Russian interests?   

Sergey Lavrov: We want to be partners with both the United States and the European Union. We had regular, working and pragmatic relations with NATO, and we are not the ones who cut off these relations. NATO shut off all communication channels, including regular contacts between military officials as well as several dozens of annual events, which were aimed at increasing efficiency in our efforts to battle terrorism. Let this remain on their conscience. If the alliance has adopted this stance, we are not going to be beholden to them or to persuade them. During recent years, we have understood that we can rely only on ourselves because our western colleagues are unreliable partners.

I am not even going to comment on the United States' reasons for taking certain decisions. We are taking this as a given and are not seeking any logic in it. There is a fact, and this fact must be assessed, as it deserves.

Question:  In the Middle East and the Mediterranean we have been seeing in last weeks and months a wave of popular movements in different countries from Lebanon to Iraq, against the governments. This is different from what was called the Arab Spring in 2011. It has some points in common, it has some differences. In some cases Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East seems for a lot of these people to blame for some of the problems their countries are facing. Do you think that this can have an effect on the balance, on the geopolitical situation in that area? And how do you view those popular movements that have been raging, with 400 people dying in Iraq recently, for example.

Sergey Lavrov: This era of political awakening of the masses was predicted by Zbigniew Brzezinski about 20 years ago when everyone realised that the end of history forecast by Francis Fukuyama had not come and would not come. Brzezinski wrote in one of his books that the key issue now is not how to arrange a concert between all key actors but how to prevent revolutions from becoming the norm around the world. We should probably pay tribute again to the visionary analyst and politician.

And now regarding specific events. The entire international community should be aware of what we want. If we want the type of democracy that was brought to Libya, let us say this. However, it is a different matter that we still think no matter how authoritarian Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was, that it was stable was never doubted, and Europe did not see any problems coming from Libya. There was a Lockerby aircraft bombing in 1988 but this was singular case, a tragedy. The same is true of Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. My colleague US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while commenting on the situation in Iran, several times declared vociferously that no one has the right to rid the Iranian people of the possibility to protest. At the same time, it is no secret that the United States would like to see regime change in Iran the way it did it in Libya and Iraq. The outcome is the same and well known – dissolution of the state, a surge in terror, and waves of refugees. The same thing happened in Ukraine even though it is somewhat far from the Mediterranean Sea. When the coup d’etat was arranged, it was promptly given support. Our US colleagues are still trying to manage all the processes there by exerting external control over the country.

When a coup was attempted in Gambia the same year, the US State Department deputy spokesperson Jeff Rathke declared just as vociferously that the US would never support government change anywhere through unconstitutional means. I think you know better than I do how this reconciles with the actions the US actually takes.

So, of course, the roots of all these developments are the socioeconomic conditions of the population, dissatisfaction with the state of affairs and the will and desire for a better life. Governments should respond to that. I think any attempts to pursue geopolitics by riding the wave of these natural manifestations of discontent are simply irresponsible and counterproductive, because instead of stability we get real chaos and the collapse of states under the label of “democracy.” I spoke about Lebanon in my opening remarks. The system that was created there should be dealt with very carefully and it should not be substituted with something that would not work in that country. 

The same with Iran. Yes, they are fraught with problems there, including due to the absolutely illegal imposing of sanctions against that country by America, which also withdrew from the JCPOA while forcing all others, including Iran, to observe it. I don’t even know what to call that. It is some kind of absurdity, an absolutely surreal approach. They forbid everyone from observing the UNSC resolution, which they themselves have claimed null and void. If the US design is to strangle Iran economically and foster people’s discontent, we are witnessing the same design towards Venezuela. We see an emerging pattern, so to say. The line of action is the same: accusing the regime, as they call it, of anything whatsoever and at the same time arranging an economic blockade, arresting accounts, and in fact stealing gold reserves.

We still stand for solving any problems through an inclusive dialogue, be it Venezuela or Lebanon. I hope the traditional Lebanese wisdom and their capacity for negotiating will prevail, for that matter with any other country, too.

Question: Mr Lavrov, you have mentioned Ukraine, and in fact, Ukraine interests all Mediterranean and MENA areas because there is a conflict. In three days on December 9 you are going to have a Normandy format meeting in Paris. President Vladimir Putin is going there. Which are the possible reasonable expectations for that meeting? A ceasefire or perhaps something more?

Sergey Lavrov: We want the Normandy format to facilitate the full implementation of its own 'product' - the Minsk Agreements, which are the result of hours-long talks between the four Normandy format leaders in Minsk, signed by all parties to the conflict – namely, representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk, with UNSC Resolution 2202 adopted in support of it. During all previous years under Petr Poroshenko's regime, we were told Russia should implement the Minsk Agreements and we explained that the agreements should be fulfilled by those who signed them, that is, Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. We are ready to provide assistance through various efforts – political methods, our participation in the OSCE mission and many other ways. Now, when President Vladimir Zelensky has indeed shown the political will to pursue peace despite all hindrances, primarily from ultra-radicals and neo-Nazis, our European colleagues are welcoming the progress achieved during implementation of the previous Normandy format decisions, which implied separation of forces and facilities in three pilot areas and the documenting of the so-called Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula. The corresponding agreement was reached over three years ago. However, Petr Poroshenko's regime adamantly refused to implement that which the four countries' leaders had agreed. It is being said now that progress has been achieved, and this is true. But this fact has another side to it: it proves that the lack of the progress until recently was solely on the conscience of the previous Ukrainian regime.

We expect the Normandy format to achieve additional agreements that would allow the conflict to be resolved and to ensure stable security for people in Donbass and their rights that are enshrined in the Minsk Agreements (the so-called special status for Donbass). This is probably impossible to achieve in just one day, but we have to make consistent efforts. The faster we do this, the better it will be for all of Ukraine. Of course, at this meeting we would like to learn about President Zelensky's own idea of progress, because as those surrounding him – officials, ministers and members of parliament representing his Servant of the People party – come up with very contradictory statements. For instance, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadim Pristayko has recently said that they would see how the things will proceed on December 9 and after this make a decision on whether they will remain part of the Minsk Agreements. This a simple but rather interesting statement. There are statements claiming there will be no amnesty as implied in the agreements, and also those saying that the law on the special status of Donbass, which expires in late December, possibly should not be extended, although it has to be permanently enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine by the end of the year. We have been told they will consider it and will possibly draft a new special status law. What does this mean and how does it fit into the obligations to fulfill the Minsk Agreements? We do not know. And when Ukrainian officials claim that there can be no direct dialogue between Kiev and Donetsk and Lugansk, this shows blatant disregard of everything and everyone. The Minsk Agreements are based on direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. It will be very highly important for us to understand President Zelensky's idea of achieving the goal he announced during his election campaign: securing peace in Eastern Ukraine.

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