Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to questions from Rossiyskaya Gazeta editorial office and its regional partners during a business breakfast, Moscow, February 10, 2020
Question: There are numerous reports in the media about preparations for the upcoming Defender-Europe 20 military exercise, due to take place this May in a number of Eastern European countries. This will be the largest US military exercise in the past 25 years. Given the considerable cooling in relations between Russia and NATO, are we witnessing the birth of a new Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: During the Cold War, there were large-scale operations aimed at expanding the armed forces in Europe, including a more substantial US presence. This included Operation Return of Forces Germany (REFORGER), when the Americans made themselves at home in Germany and now they have dozens of military installations there. Germany now has a tremendous foreign military presence, but that is NATO affairs.
Regarding the Defender-Europe 20 exercise, we would like to ask who it is that they want to defend themselves from. They say it is not intended to defend themselves from Russia but from an enemy that has a comparable military potential. In that case, it is difficult to find a target for these efforts that would have a comparable scale. If we look at the official data (not Russia’s but foreign) on defence spending and military equipment, including all types of weapons without exception, such as tanks, warplanes, attack helicopters, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, warships and submarines, then we will see that NATO’s European members alone, without the US potential, surpass the Russian Armed Forces by over 100 percent. I don’t know where they have found a comparable enemy.
Of course, Russia is not a dominant military force in Europe. NATO has this status. Although the region is already filled to overflowing with military installations, and although NATO’s eastward expansion has already created serious problems in the area of strategic stability in Europe, NATO continues to merge with the European Union. NATO is trying to hold joint exercises and to involve in them neutral states, such as Finland and Sweden, under the pretext of EU membership. They have invented the term Military Schengen in the context of NATO-EU military cooperation. It provides for the modernisation of all transport arteries all the way to the Alliance’s eastern border in such a way that the largest military equipment would be able to move eastwards unhindered. I believe that this alone is enough to understand the danger of these games.
Preparations for the Defender-Europe 20 exercise, due to take place in April-May 2020, were launched a long time ago. In addition to the already deployed military contingents in the region, there are plans to redeploy many thousands of units of US equipment, as well as over 20,000 US service personnel. This is formally a US military exercise, but other NATO members and partners are also invited to take part. This is an interesting aspect. I don’t know the reasons for this, but it can probably be explained by the fact that the Americans find it much easier to organise and implement everything under their own plans, without abiding by any symbolic NATO discipline, although the Commander in Chief of United States Army Europe also serves as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. This exercise is to involve over 40,000 officers and soldiers. Naturally, we will respond. We cannot ignore processes that cause grave concern, but we will respond in such a way as not to create any unnecessary risks.
This is inevitable, and I hope that any reasonable military commander and politician realises this. Those who provoke such absolutely unwarranted exercises want to see retaliatory measures that would aggravate tensions still further. But an important point to bear in mind is that all our efforts in response to the creation of security threats with regard to Russia by NATO are take place exclusively on Russian territory. Equally, Russia keeps its nuclear weapons on its own territory, unlike the United States.
Question: Strategic stability matters have long been one of the pillars of Russia-US relations, and to some extent guaranteed stability around the world. However, over the past years the US administration has taken steps that reversed these achievements, at least in part. In particular, the US is openly hampering the renewal of the New START. Do you believe that the situation may change after the US presidential election? Back in the days when Rex Tillerson was US Secretary of State, you had an agreement to establish a working group for resolving disputed matters. Is it working on renewing the New START?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me begin with your last question. The group is working, albeit without much success. There were 12 or 13 meetings over the past years. I cannot recall the exact number. Even before Rex Tillerson, meetings of this kind consisted of a Russian representative merely listing to his US counterpart the concerns, unacceptable actions by the US administration, citing examples and handing over memos to this effect. These documents contained all the possible grievances, from the seizure of Russian diplomatic property and voluntarist cuts in the personnel of the Russian diplomatic missions, to the kidnapping of Russian nationals Viktor But, Konstantin Yaroshenko, Roman Seleznyov and to name just a few. There were also problems related to how Russians were treated in US prisons, whether they enjoyed normal conditions, etc. The American side would promise us that they would look into these matters, at the same time advising Russia to stop interfering in US domestic affairs, arguing that everything is related, and that there is no crime without punishment. The same old story over and over again, as the saying goes.
During my trip to Washington last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and I agreed to give a new impetus to the Russia-US dialogue in order to achieve at least some progress. US President Donald Trump has also said that we needed to get along.
The new US Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, arrived in Moscow. He assured us that he wants to facilitate progress at least on some specific matters, although before that we need to put our bilateral relations back on track. The prospects for making specific steps have been quite hazy so far. We somehow managed to revive counterterrorism dialogue. This is one of the fields that should be free from any artificial barriers. Over the past years there were a couple of instances when the US passed on intelligence enabling us to prevent terrorist attacks in Russia. We have also been doing it since the Boston Marathon attack. It could seem that we have resumed contacts along these lines. When in October 2019 Washington proposed continuing consultations, we agreed on adopting a joint statement on counterterrorism as part of my visit in order to send a positive signal, showing that Russia and the US can share the same positions and subscribe to them. But when I arrived there it turned out that they were not able to get the necessary approvals on time, or something like this. Today, working with our US partners on specific matters is a challenge.
But let us go back to strategic stability. This is a matter of concern for Russia and the US, and also for the rest of the world. The very framework of the international architecture is falling apart. The INF Treaty followed in its demise that of the ABM Treaty. They rejected our proposal to introduce a moratorium on building and deploying missiles of this kind. They accuse us of deception regarding the INF Treaty, arguing that the moratorium we propose boils down to the following: we already have Iskander systems that can deliver missiles that are banned under the treaty, while the US lacks intermediate-range means of delivery. They argue that we want to maintain our intermediate-range missiles, while denying the US the possibility of building them.
We have a clear and specific answer to these allegations. In the fall of 2019, after the US withdrew from the INF Treaty, President of Russia Vladimir Putin sent a message to more than 50 heads of state and government, including the US, all NATO members, as well as other non-NATO neutral European countries, and Asia-Pacific countries (since the US also intends to deploy intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles in this part of the world as well). We have not made this message public, but I can tell you that it sets out the background of this question, stressing that there is not a single fact to back the claim made by the United States that we tested the 9М729 missile on a range prohibited by the INF Treaty. Since the US has satellite imagery, they could at least show us a single image confirming their allegations and contradicting Russia’s arguments. They have no evidence of Russia violating the treaty. The US refused to attend a demonstration of a new cruise missile organised by the Russian Defence Ministry together with the Foreign Ministry in January 2019, and advised other NATO countries against attending. They called it just a show and a sham. This is not a proper way for transacting serious business. If you want to prove that it was a sham, just come here and prove it. During the event, participants could ask questions and provide comments. Russian representatives answered questions for two hours during the briefing. However, out of all the NATO members only Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey were represented. But they lack the kind of expertise the US has on these matters. The presence of US experts at the demonstration would have helped them better understand what they are dealing with.
President Vladimir Putin’s message said: we suggest that the US and its allies join our moratorium on the deployment of medium and smaller-range missiles, including the creation of a possible verification mechanism. They are attempting to disregard this altogether, avoiding any mention of it as a matter of principle. They tell us: no, you are cheating, you do have missiles of this sort, they are on alert duty, they were developed long ago and deployed in violation of the treaty that was in force at that time. As for the moratorium-cum-verification proposal, they are attempting to drown it in verbiage. Only President of France Emmanuel Macron said in public that he still had problems with regard to how Russia had implemented the treaty, but he was ready to respond to President Putin’s message. All other NATO members (obviously, on orders from Washington) are keeping mum.
The Americans have plans to deploy medium and shorter-range missiles in the Asia Pacific Region. In this context, Japan and South Korea are mentioned. Both countries have declared that they have no intention of allowing the deployment of these missiles. But if the Americans are keen to deploy the missiles there, I do not think that this is impossible. Some exotic mid-Pacific islands are also mentioned. As is clear – and they are not concealing it – these measures are aimed at containing China. But the geographic distances are such that, if the US medium and shorter-range missiles are deployed at those points, much of Russia’s territory will be exposed to an attack, while in case of Japan or [South] Korea, the entire Russian territory all the way to the Urals will be covered. Of course, we will have to respond. This is why we have been explaining in very concrete terms to the ASEAN and APR countries, including Japan and South Korea, what risks these “games” are fraught with.
As for the New START Treaty, we have repeatedly proposed its extension. President Vladimir Putin told his US counterpart at the G20 summit in Osaka last June how important it was to extend the Treaty and do this as soon as possible. Last May, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Sochi, President Putin drew his attention to this fact as well.
The Americans are constantly trying to impose on us an option involving China’s accession to the debate on the medium and shorter-range missiles as well as the New START Treaty. But China has repeatedly stated in public that it will not join these talks because the structure of its nuclear forces is radically different from that of Russia and the United States. In terms of numbers, these forces are also a far cry from the level where China would be ready to talk of some balance. If China suddenly changes its mind, we will be pleased to participate in multilateral talks. But we will not try to convince China. If the Americans are quite sure that it makes no sense to take any further steps on the New START Treaty without China, let them get down to business on this all on their own. We, for our part, believe that it does make sense to extend the New START that will expire in one year’s time. If we fail to do this, there will be no such agreement after February 5, 2021.
Even if a multilateral process gets under way, it will be utterly protracted. There are no talks on such a serious theme that could be concluded in just a few months. Therefore, we ought to have a safety net in an extended New START Treaty even from the reputational and political point of view: no one should accuse Russia and the United States of letting a legally binding instrument in the area of strategic stability collapse. We have told the Americans as much. They are still silent. Are they worried that we might put forward some preconditions to the extension of the treaty? Nothing of the kind! President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made public statements to the effect that we suggest extending the New START Treaty without preconditions. But the Americans would respond with media plants to the effect that China should join the agreement.
To reiterate: If it comes to multilateral talks on the New START Treaty and everyone agrees to participate, Russia will certainly be part of this process. But what the multilateral arrangement implies is not just conversations with three parties. There are another two official nuclear powers – the UK and France. There are India and Pakistan, the de-facto nuclear powers, although they are not parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are also a couple of countries possessing nuclear weapons. We are prepared to participate in talks on further nuclear weapon cuts or restrictions in any configuration. We think that the extension of the New START Treaty is an absolute must because we should have a basis for subsequent talks and practical actions.
The Americans are keen to know more about our new weapons. We have already mentioned the fact that the Russian military are prepared to consider some of these new weapons, at least Avangard and Sarmat, in the context of the Treaty’s criteria. The rest is not subject to limitations under the 2010 treaty, but we are ready to discuss this topic as well. True, this will be in the context of circumstances that, properly speaking, were the original cause of the efforts to develop these arms. And these circumstances were linked to the collapse of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Today, two decades after the ABM Treaty ceased to exist, any matters related to new types of weapons must be discussed solely in the context of all factors influencing strategic stability. Apart from antimissile defences, one such factor is the US Prompt Global Strike concept that has picked up steam and also the use of non-nuclear strategic weapons. The aim is to reach any point on the globe within an hour at the least. Of course, this is a new destabilising factor. Add to this the official US refusal to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and plans to deploy weapons in outer space. Incidentally, these plans have been announced not only by the Americans but also by the French. The latter used vague and general wording and we are trying to understand, through our dialogue, what the new French space doctrine is all about. On top of this, NATO has publicly declared that space and cyber are now their official employment environments, involving, as I understand, the recourse to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
There are a lot of things going on over there. Of course, we are ready to discuss our new weapons, as for that matter the new weapons of other countries, and do this with account taken of the totality of factors that influence strategic stability. And if they suggest that we place our weapons under restrictions, while developing without restraint what I have just referred to, this conversation will lead us nowhere, of course.
Speaking about Defender-Europe 20, I have mentioned Germany. We know that there is a small group of countries within NATO and the EU, which are stoking historical phobias with regard to Russia. They are constantly urging others to contain Russia and refrain from relaxing the sanctions pressure that is preserved under an absolutely ungrounded pretext that we are not complying with the Minsk Agreements, which is a separate theme. But all of a sudden, FRG officials, of all people, have joined in a public discussion of the said phobias and a likely attack on Europe. Some time ago, President of France Emmanuel Macron said that NATO needed a radical reform. He also claimed that the alliance was brain dead and something had to be done about it. Do you recall that Berlin publicly disagreed with this conclusion? My German counterpart, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, said they did not agree with Paris. So, it turned out they needed NATO, Germany did, because no one but NATO would protect the Federal Republic. We immediately asked Berlin against whom they wanted NATO to defend them? There was no reply. Somewhat later, a similar statement came from Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. And again, our German colleagues have been so far unable to explain who Germany was so afraid of.
Question: Is it safe to say that the era of a united Europe is ending, now that the United Kingdom has left the European Union? Will the European Union ever be able to acquire a united voice?
Sergey Lavrov: People, including journalists and political analysts, now unequivocally perceive the term United Europe or Greater Europe as a synonym for the European Union. Nevertheless, Russia would prefer to perceive Greater Europe and United Europe as a common space between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural region, just as Charles de Gaulle predicted.
It is already possible to talk about a common Eurasian space between Lisbon and Jakarta in the context of current integration processes in Eurasia and in the context of establishing the Eurasian Economic Union and its contacts with ASEAN and the SCO. I don’t see why not. In 2016, President of Russia Vladimir Putin put forward the Greater Eurasian Partnership initiative at the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi. He noted that we want to base our concepts on life, to recognise the existence of integration processes and to establish ties between them by determining and singling out common feasible projects within the EAEU, ASEAN and SCO framework, rather than through some artificial agreements being imposed from above.
Therefore we perceive a Greater Europe and a United Europe as our common space. By the way, the European Union subscribed to this concept at the OSCE summit in Astana in December 2010. There, for the first time in many years, a political declaration was adopted. To do justice to that summit’s Kazakhstani hosts, no political declarations have been passed at OSCE summits since then. The approved declaration proclaimed the need for building and consolidating a common security and cooperation space in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian region, and this really amounts to OSCE space. Of course, Eurasia is broader than the territory occupied by the OSCE’s Eurasian members, but nevertheless. This concept implies that we have a common space that should cover the entire territory where our predecessor, in the first place, had spread European civilisation. That process was not bloodless, but this is a fact.
When we held a Russia-EU summit in Khabarovsk, the then European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso felt completely bewildered. He walked along the local embankment and around the city and noted that it had taken them 12 hours to fly from Brussels to Khabarovsk, but they were still in a European environment. They thought this was amazing. I believe that the incumbent younger EU politicians could also try and comprehend the significance of this civilisational achievement and civilisational process. At the same time, European civilisational norms asserted themselves here without undermining the rights of indigenous nations whose prosperity we always underscored, including within the framework of international organisations.
Now, about the European Union’s unity, I have already noted that the organisation has a small but very aggressive group of countries that induce everyone to confront Russia and to continue sanctions until Moscow fulfils the Minsk Agreements. Former Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko took advantage of this, and the new Ukrainian authorities are also. They will do nothing because the Minsk Agreements will not be fulfilled without their efforts, and the European Union will retain sanctions against Moscow in line with its logic. For its part, Ukraine will obtain certain subsidies in the form of Western assistance. This amounts to some obsession with sanctions, rather than practical politics. However, it is common knowledge that the European business community is sustaining tens, if not hundreds, of billions of euros in losses as a result of these sanctions. Therefore the European Union’s Russophobic minority is obviously speculating on the consensus principle. Many representatives of EU member countries are telling us, off the record, that they oppose sanctions, and that sanctions are harmful. But they abide by the solidarity and consensus principle. In my opinion, consensus denotes a situation where everyone agrees. And there should not be any consensus if anyone opposes sanctions, as they tell us they do during bilateral contacts; and there are many such countries. So far, it turns out that this Russo-phobic minority actively and rudely misuses the consensus principle, so as to persuade everyone else to link the regime of sanctions with the fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements, and this linkage is absolutely artificial and absurd.
Regarding Brexit, democracy has worked, as the British themselves say. In all, 51% of UK residents called for leaving the EU. This was followed by doubts, remorse and vacillations. The Conservative Party experienced changes as a result, and the people who gained power brushed these vacillations aside. The UK always kept to itself in the European Union and always tried to play its own game; this, too, is a fact. They obtained economic and trade privileges but kept their distance in the political context and tried to promote their own interests and those of Washington in the European Union. It is pointless to hush this up. It is therefore hardly surprising that they were involved in many intra-EU processes. This special path was obvious even when the UK was an EU member. Therefore I don’t think that the EU will suffer greatly as a result of Brexit. If this helps it to be a more integral association, to strengthen its independence and autonomy without Russophobia, then we would only welcome this trend. And London played an important part in promoting this Russophobia.
Question: Some relations with Ukraine have been restored since Vladimir Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine, at least those between presidents and their assistants. However, observations of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry suggest that it still holds back from contacting Russia directly. Perhaps it is trying to shake off the grave legacy of Pavel Klimkin and Petr Poroshenko. Is there any chance of resuming not quasi, but solid diplomatic relations with Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: You are right. I met my Ukrainian counterpart Vadim Pristaiko once, at the Normandy format summit in Paris last December. It was during some a break; we said hello to each other. In fact, we have had no reason for further contact, because clearly we cannot talk about bilateral meetings or visits. This is not because of Russia: Ukraine withdrew its ambassador and threatened to cut off diplomatic relations. Now, however, someone has mentioned it is possible that Vladimir Zelensky will decide to return the ambassadors. We would not object. Even in today’s conditions, Russia and Ukraine are closely connected in the economy, transport, cultural affairs and family ties. And, of course, it makes no sense to constantly create new barriers: either for air travel, or for railway transport, or just for communication. A person goes to Crimea, and that’s it: the Ukrainians cannot shake hands or even meet with them. This is barbaric; ultra-radical national radicalism.
We met with Pavel Klimkin, but on the sidelines of several events: in Minsk, where the Minsk Agreements were adopted; in Paris, where a Normandy format summit took place; and later, in the same connection, in Berlin. Meanwhile we both attended the ministerial meetings in the Normandy format and the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers. We met and talked every time at these forums: sometimes with our assistants or just face to face. I can’t say these conversations were aggressive. A lot of our Ukrainian partners have a pragmatic attitude to the existing problems that are detrimental to the Ukrainians and Ukraine, among others. However, in public almost all of them speak differently. Perhaps there is such a request now, which cannot be dealt with because of the enormous influence of various nationalists, including those who march around the streets carrying SS flags and torches. Normal politicians have to keep this in mind.
However, we are interested in contacts. Vladimir Putin communicated with Vladimir Zelensky in Paris, which, as you know, resulted in an agreement on gas that is important for both countries and Europe as well, and also for creating a more constructive atmosphere.
A prisoner exchange took place. Vladimir Zelensky has announced that, in addition to the December Russian-Ukrainian exchange there will be a Ukrainian-Ukrainian exchange, which means Kiev and Donbass will exchange people arrested in the context of the Donbass conflict. Of course, it is a positive fact that Vladimir Zelensky has shown his political will despite the very difficult domestic political situation in Ukraine, and implemented the decision of the two previous Normandy summits: the 2015 Paris summit and the 2016 Berlin one. There is progress regarding prisoner exchange, as well as regarding the disengagement of forces and equipment. It is very important that a final document was adopted at the 2019 December summit in Paris, which, in addition to the need to continue disengaging forces and equipment as well as to comply with and prevent all violations of the ceasefire, envisages the importance of a political process according to the Minsk Agreements, including the Steinmeier Formula, and the need to permanently include the special status of Donbass, which the Steinmeier Formula is connected to, in Ukrainian law, just as we agreed in Minsk in the context of the constitutional decentralisation reform.
However, we were sad that this document, prepared in advance and agreed by assistants to the Normandy format leaders and foreign ministers, was “opened” by the Ukrainian delegation and personally by President Zelensky right at the beginning of the meetings, first of all regarding the disengagement of forces and equipment. Those who prepared the summit reached an agreement (the Ukrainians signed this) to disengage forces and equipment along the entire line of contact. However, Vladimir Zelensky said decisively that he was not ready to do this, and the disengagement was only possible at three areas in addition to Petrovskoye, Zolotoye and Stanitsa Luganskaya. According to Zelensky, the disengagement in Stanitsa Luganskaya, Petrovskoye and Zolotoye took more than five months, and if this speed was expanded to the entire line of contact and the villages along it, it would take 10 to 15 years. This logic is quite strange, because if we applied the time taken to every area, the disengagement would take half a century. So Vladimir Putin suggested that the parties begin with the three areas, but work towards the goal of making the contact line military-free. A flat refusal was the answer.
I will not reveal a great secret by saying that we know that it was at Washington’s insistence that the Ukrainian delegation held this position at the Normandy summit in Paris, because the US doesn’t want to see the Minsk Agreement implemented and the contact line safe for both sides. It seems that maintaining this conflict in a certain controlled phase complies with the US’s interests, regarding their geopolitical views of the post-Soviet space. But let me repeat that we all believe that the further work of the Contact Group (and this is where all the issues regarding both exchanges and disengagement must be addressed) will still be aimed at the full implementation of all the agreements and also the humanitarian and economic issues that are ignored by Kiev in the form they must be addressed according to the Minsk Agreements.
And, of course, there is the political process. We are concerned with Vadim Pristaiko’s recent statements that if Russia doesn’t take some positive steps soon, Kiev may begin to think about an alternative to the Minsk Agreements. And what are the alternatives? The ones our American colleagues, and the Kiev authorities with them, are actively promoting. They say, give us the border first, and everything will be okay. President of Russia Vladimir Putin, responding to these statements, repeatedly drew attention to the kind of people who were assembling under the neo-Nazi flags in Ukraine and how they were threatening to use force. Even the members of the new government, the new Verkhovna Rada deputies, say that a power scenario cannot be ruled out. Can we give these people full control over the border? This would mean forgetting about the special status, elections and everything else. The locals there would simply be suppressed. And even if the Ukrainian leaders have every intention of preventing outbreaks of violence against people living in Donbass, I cannot see the volunteer battalions, which still have a lot of power there, being ready to execute the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. Everyone saw how Vladimir Zelensky took a trip to the frontline to talk them into disengaging the forces in the areas agreed back in 2015.
Question: Unprecedented measures to support the Far East are being taken. But the region sees another resource – providing visa-free travel opportunities for its nearest neighbours, such as China, Japan and Korea. Do you think this is possible, all the more so as people from western Russia seldom fly to Sakhalin Island and the Far East because they consider it too expensive and remote. Can the Far East become visa-free for tourists?
Sergey Lavrov: The Far East has already become visa-free, to a certain extent, on an experimental basis, so far. A system of free e-visas has been operating for 18 months now. They will not always be free, but dozens of countries now use them. A special list of states is appended to the Government’s resolution for introducing e-visas in the Far East. China, Japan and South Korea are included in this list. The Government of the Russian Federation has approved mid-term plans to introduce a system of e-visas for all Russian regions, so as to accommodate all foreigners wishing to visit this country. But, considering the substantial cost of the relevant equipment and technologies, we will issue these visas on a paid basis.
An extremely convenient e-visa application form is available. To the best of my knowledge, about 110,000 people from all countries, not only those from the three mentioned countries, requested e-visas to visit the Far East throughout 2019. At the same time, about 40 percent of e-visa holders did not use them. Therefore, we also need to analyse the experience of using e-visas. But the President and the Government have made a principled decision to start issuing e-visas for visits to all regions of the Russian Federation.
Question: Today is Diplomats’ Day. Russian diplomacy boasts an immensely rich history dating back to the 1549 Ambassadorial Department or the Posolsky Prikaz. Could you name three distinguishing features of the Russian diplomatic school?
Sergey Lavrov: Three?
Question: You can name four or even more. Would it be fair to say that the Sergey Lavrov School has emerged in modern diplomacy? I have heard this concept from various people, including our opponents.
Sergey Lavrov: Speaking of Russian diplomacy’s distinguishing features, this, first of all, would be professional work that requires an ideal knowledge of foreign languages, to say the least. Today, people wishing to apply for a job at the Foreign Ministry must be fluent in at least two foreign languages. This work also calls for deep study of the history of diplomacy, as well as a specialisation in a region or a global issue of a functional, rather than geographical nature. It is also necessary to know the facts, down to the smallest detail. Given current opportunities, including artificial intelligence and gaining access to online data, a person who has no basic knowledge can click on websites and read various materials, but this knowledge would evade him or her.
It is necessary to take advantage of these opportunities. Machines, artificial intelligence, etc. can access large data volumes and conduct initial assessments. But humans have to make specific decisions, no matter what. I cannot imagine a situation when robots would address matters regarding Syria, Libya, Palestine, etc.
Since the days of the Russian Empire, the national diplomatic service prioritised specialisation. In an overwhelming majority of cases, the Americans and the Europeans prefer a different approach. They consider it necessary to rotate personnel from Africa to Europe, from Europe to Latin America and from Latin America to Asia. Diplomats work for two or three years in every region. Judging by our experience, this is not enough for two reasons. These assignments are not long enough. In practice, a person who has arrived in a new country becomes acquainted with the situation in the first 12 months. He or she starts producing results during the second year. And if he or she is transferred to another country during the third year, then this person will have many reasons to get distracted from their main work. Therefore, our diplomats spend four to six years on an assignment abroad. Trainees and young diplomats spend less time abroad, and we stipulate longer assignments for senior colleagues and ambassadors. Russian diplomacy also differs in terms of organising the rotation process. Western diplomats are not supposed to have any in-depth knowledge of the countries where they work. Since the days of the Russian Empire, we had the so-called dragomans, who specialised in just one country or even one of its regions or any specific matter. These people proved invaluable when any specific matter became a subject of major politics. Although this is no longer in high demand, knowledge of a topic, the geography of any specific region that a person deals with or knowledge of a major issue being discussed at the UN, the OSCE and other multilateral organisations is a highly important quality.
Speaking of the Lavrov School, I would prefer not to personify modern diplomacy. First of all, the national foreign policy is charted by the President. Indeed, the course set by the head of state determines the direction of our foreign policy and its goals. This course, formalised in all versions of the National Foreign Policy Concept that have been passed since 2000, allowed us to acquire entirely new qualities on the international scene and to restore our status as a great power. I will call things by their proper name: This includes the status of a key player on all major international matters and the status of a country without which it is hard, if not impossible, to address global matters. All our partners, including Western countries that have declared sanctions and which note the need to continue a tough line with regard to Moscow, confirm this. Everyone advocates for dialogue with Russia.
This calls for following the traditions established by Alexander Gorchakov, Andrey Gromyko and Yevgeny Primakov. The greatest achievement of modern diplomats is that we were able to work in such a way, so as not to undermine this tradition but to strengthen it in every way, under the President’s instruction.
Question: Which of your business trips was the most difficult and why? Having come home from a business trip and taking a little rest did you ever think, “Good Lord, all is well. Good for you, Sergey.”
Sergey Lavrov: Just as Pushkin said, “Good for you, you son of a bitch.” If you start talks without planning for a final result, it’s best not to bother with it at all. This doesn’t mean that you always get what you want. Nobody can ever hope for that. But if you want to reach a goal you must clearly define it. Needless to say, every goal must be realistic and allow for compromise because diplomacy implies an agreement with someone. This is not something you invent and are trying to reach on your own. It is always a dialogue and an orientation towards a consensus that can only be reached through compromise.
As for business trips that stand out in my mind, we talked about Syria today. At the beginning of autumn 2013, when the Americans were seriously planning to strike Syria, the delegates arrived at the G20 summit in St Petersburg. No meetings between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were planned. And, Obama had taken offense because of Snowden who received refuge in Russia, and he cancelled his visit to Moscow for a previously scheduled summit. But why feel offended? Snowden asked for refuge because he was threatened with the electric chair. Furthermore, his passport was cancelled while he was flying from Hong Kong to Moscow to make a change. So, the US President cancelled the planned meeting even though a very interesting document on strategic stability was being drafted. He is prone to putting personal things above government goals. The same happened when he slammed the door when leaving his position in December 2016. He took Russia’s diplomatic property and expelled the diplomats, leaving Donald Trump an abominable legacy in Russian-US relations that is still being felt in some degree.
However, Obama still came to the G20 summit in St Petersburg. There were no plans for a bilateral meeting even “on the go.” During one break there was a pause and Obama requested a conversation with Putin. He said it was impossible to tolerate the situation in Syria. This was when the first reports on the use of chemical weapons against civilians were published. During this conversation our President proposed an initiative to persuade Bashar al-Assad to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In principle, the initiative was supported by both presidents, and US Secretary of State John Kerry and I were instructed to get it all lined up. We worked on it in Geneva and later on in New York in September of the same year. We prepared a UN Security Council resolution that was unanimously adopted and fulfilled 100 percent. Military and other specialists on chemical arms from Russia, the US and China took part in carrying it out. This was an international operation followed by the OPCW experts confirming the complete absence of chemical arms in Syria. After that, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. All of us were fully satisfied with the work done. It is sometimes difficult to reach an agreement even on paper, and in this case, besides seeking approval of all words and sentences, the sides carried out everything in practice.
US attempts to question the judgement on the fulfilment of the commitments by Damascus is a different story. This judgement was universal and signed by all parties.
I also felt deep satisfaction after the work on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. It took several years to come to terms on it at many meetings in Lausanne, Geneva and Vienna where many issues were resolved in the Iran and P5+1 format, the US-Iran format, and during my bilateral talks with John Kerry. This was really productive partly because we agreed on everything on paper and also because it was approved by the UN Security Council and got off the ground. At any rate, Iran was fulfilling its binding and voluntary commitments.
At first, there were no attempts to stop lawful trade with Iran. Tehran made unprecedented commitments in addition to the mandatory obligations under the NPT, the agreement with the IAEA with an additional protocol. Iran agreed to take 5-7 additional steps that were described in the JCPOA as optional.
When the United States made an about face and said in 2018 it would not fulfil the commitments and banned trade with Iran for all countries, Tehran showed patience for a long time but eventually started reducing its voluntary commitments. Let me emphasise once again that Iran took unprecedented voluntary commitments in addition to the universal ones. It did not receive any unprecedented gains under the universally agreed plan – in response, its participants resumed ordinary, non-preferential trade with Iran. When Washington banned normal trade with Iran for all countries, Tehran stopped carrying out its voluntary commitments under the plan. The United States demanded that it resume its commitments, in exchange for which it promised to simply trade with Iran, no more than that. But this is nonsense, an instance of unacceptable arrogance!
One more example is the OPCW-confirmed agreement on Syria’s chemical demilitarisation that is now being revised by the US administration. The JCPOA was also verified by every participant and approved by the UN Security Council. Now it is being torn down by the United States, which calls into doubt Washington’s ability to implement unanimously endorsed decisions that were made binding by UN Security Council resolutions.
Of course, I will mention again the Minsk agreements. They were also unanimously approved by the UN Security Council and are now put to the test by the US, among others. Washington wants to persuade everyone that at first the Ukrainian government and occupying troops in the guise of UN peacemakers must establish complete control over Donbass. Deal-making skills are again a problem at this point. However, we are still hoping to work with all of our partners, seeking the implementation of everything we agreed on and reaching new agreements that will reduce tensions and help settle the many conflicts that, regrettably, persist in the world.