Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to media questions following the 56th Munich Security Conference, Munich, February 17, 2020
The Munich Security Conference is over. You have seen all the speeches. Our media have already made assessments. I will be glad to answer your questions.
Question: Did you discuss with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo President Donald Trump’s participation in the meeting of the UN Security Council permanent members proposed by Russia? Is the US position now clear? Did you discuss extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)? Did you manage to reach any agreement?
Sergey Lavrov: We discussed an entire range of issues. You can find this in the materials circulated by the press services of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department. We touched upon all the problems on the agenda of our strategic dialogue, including those in the competence of the UN Security Council permanent members and arms control issues. We agreed to continue an in-depth, professional conversation on them.
I had a feeling that there was certain movement towards a more constructive approach from our US partners.
Question: President of France Emmanuel Macron has said many times that it is necessary to involve Russia in European security and to change the strategy towards Russia. Are there any real proposals in the area of European security for Russia, including from France?
Sergey Lavrov: In fact, there are proposals from France. I would say that France demonstrates true political and geopolitical vision, pragmatism and readiness for a dialogue, given all the reservations made by President of France Emmanuel Macron regarding his view on the sanctions and Russia. He called on everyone to accept reality. Russia exists and influences a lot of processes in the world. Moreover, Russia is right next to Europe. This sounded off key, considering that most of the European and American speakers spoke about a decline in the West’s influence, some with concern, some with regret. But the conference’s motto, Westlessness, was reflected in several facts: first, our Western partners started to look for culprits inside the Western camp and pointed at Washington, accusing it of forgetting about Europe’s interests, carrying out its own policy and ignoring the Europeans’ problems and its responsibilities to them; on the other hand, fingers were also pointed at Russia and China. At China, above all. Perhaps this was something new for such large discussions: that China has firmly taken the top place in the list of main threats our Western colleagues voiced.
In fact, it turns out that 99 percent of the conference was about who is to blame and who will be the best at presenting their accusations to everyone else, be it Europe, China or Russia. Of course, in a situation like this President Macron’s speech was absolutely sensible and aimed at searching for solutions instead of culprits, or making excuses for idleness and inactivity.
You have mentioned his proposal to launch a dialogue on security architecture with Russia. Yes, there are concrete proposals. By the way, after the US destroyed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and it ceased to exist, President of Russia Vladimir Putin sent detailed messages to all the leaders of Western and other major countries with Russia’s view of the situation and called on them to save the last agreements on this type of nuclear arms from disappearing. He noted that Russia had introduced a moratorium until US-produced missiles of the corresponding class were operational and deployed anywhere in the world – and then reciprocal measures would follow. However, until then Vladimir Putin has announced a moratorium.
In his message to the leaders of the Western world, he called for the same moratorium, which most Western colleagues either ignored or replied that Russia had deployed prohibited missiles in the Kaliningrad Region and now called for joining the moratorium when others do not have anything deployed. So nobody except Mr Macron noticed that in his message Vladimir Putin expressed his readiness to discuss possible measures to verify such a mutual moratorium. Mr Macron noticed this and said he was interested in such a dialogue. France and Russia will discuss these topics, but to make concrete decisions we need multilateral talks, as well as consultations involving the US, which, after destroying the INF Treaty, is now laying the groundwork to deploy these once prohibited armaments both in Europe and Asia. The US does not hide this. Japan, Korea and islands in the Pacific Ocean are mentioned.
Since Mr Macron proposed a multilateral dialogue – between NATO and Russia – it was interesting to read the interview that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg granted to the French newspaper Le Figaro. Asked about his attitude to President Macron’s call to start a dialogue with Russia, Mr Stoltenberg said that there was a dialogue, an institutional one, and that all the issues, including arms control and transparency, were being discussed. In all evidence, he meant the Russia-NATO Council by the institutional dialogue. It exists formally and met several times over the past years, but each time the proceedings were reduced to a dialogue made up of monologues. At least, Russia made proposals to begin a detailed discussion on issues that might promote and strengthen trust as well as transparency. All that NATO replied were slogans like “Ukraine,” or “Let’s consolidate the Vienna Document 2011,” which was adopted in a completely different military and political situation, when there was not so much NATO infrastructure near the Russian borders, and so on. Over these years, they have advanced in our direction and pumped their “military muscle.” They organise military exercises involving over 40,000 personnel and 35,000 units of equipment, with half of them being American, which has been unprecedented for decades.
Today, when the 2010 balance has been dramatically disrupted, they suggest that we start talks on how to calm the situation. This will not do. What is more important is that our NATO colleagues and Mr Stoltenberg are being sly when saying that they are open to a dialogue with Russia. They are open, but to a dialogue that they understand as an opportunity for airing their grievances against Russia, primarily over Ukraine. Despite their current propaganda for the NATO-Russia Council, there was not a single NATO-Russia Council meeting that took place without an attempt, in the form of an ultimatum, to impose on us a discussion of the Ukrainian problems in this format. We always answer (and I said so to Mr Stoltenberg during our meeting here in Munich) that NATO has nothing to do with Ukraine. We have dialogue with those Western countries that are engaged in Ukrainian settlement, first of all the participants in the Normandy format, France and Germany. We also stay in touch with the Americans, because they would also periodically join the Ukraine conversations over the last couple of years. But NATO as such has no relation to the Ukrainian problems. NATO can only aggravate these by its constant incantations to the effect that they are expecting Ukraine, with their arms open, to join the alliance. This can only aggravate the crisis and undermine efforts aimed at implementing the Minsk Agreements.
Speaking about other things, let us not forget (I also reminded Mr Stoltenberg about this) that it was NATO that discontinued all practical forms of our collaboration, including in what it concerns the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, equipment supplies to the Afghan security forces, counterterrorism on a more general, global scale, as well as other practical areas of our erstwhile cooperation.
Perhaps it is no longer professional to pretend that NATO still maintains a constructive approach for the sole reason that they occasionally condescend to suggest convening the Russia-NATO Council for yet another round of discussions. By and large, there is emptiness behind all their talk that NATO has conducted with us a dialogue on arms control, transparency measures or trust building.
Several days ago, when I reminded NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg here in Munich that Russia was still expecting replies to our detailed proposals, he only got away with some awkward remarks that all of these would be considered later. The proposals were made by the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces about a year ago, and they are utterly specific. First, to come to terms on pushing both Russian and NATO exercises back from the line of contact to an agreed specific depth. Let us sit down and arrange it. Silence!
Second, ensuring security over the Baltic Sea and in the Baltic region as a whole has been neglected for quite long. The Russian military have suggested that we negotiate for military aircraft using transponders in the Baltic airspace, like civilian planes do now. And the second most important measure is to coordinate the minimum admissible approach distance for both Russian and NATO warships and military aircraft. Silence again! Of course, the circumstances being what they are, we would look forward to the ideas reiterated by President Emmanuel Macron more than once getting into NATO’s head, so that we can understand, if it is sick or otherwise.
Question: When will the next Normandy format summit be held? And is there a reason to meet?
Sergey Lavrov: There can be only one reason to meet – if the decisions of the previous summit, in December 2019 in Paris, are implemented. So far, we have not seen any progress in any of the areas. Kiev is stalling the disengagement of forces and equipment. Allow me to remind you that disengagement along the entire contact line was agreed upon even before the Paris summit. Yet, during the actual meeting, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky categorically refused to sign this obligation and insisted that disengagement should be agreed on in three specific locations only. The three locations are still being discussed, and the Ukrainian side does not seem too eager to agree on this matter at all.
Neither has there been much progress in cooperation on demining, which is another important agreement from the Paris summit. In this case, movement keeps stumbling on the pathological unwillingness of the Ukrainian authorities – formerly led by President Petr Poroshenko and now President Vladimir Zelensky – to comply with the requirements of the Minsk Agreements on establishing a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. It is clearly impossible to disengage forces and equipment on the ground without a direct dialogue, and equally impossible to agree on demining. And yet, according to statements by officials in the Ukrainian administration, they are ready to negotiate with the residents of Donbass, but not with the people elected by the residents to ensure a normal life in these territories, which continue to be the target of an unlawful and unacceptable trade and economic blockade by Kiev.
Furthermore, we have not seen any advancement on the political track, namely with regard to Ukraine’s commitment, also made in Paris, to include the Steinmeier Formula in Ukrainian legislation and to stipulate all aspects of the legal status of Donbass in Ukrainian law permanently. This is almost a direct quote from the decisions made in Paris. So we are waiting for all these decisions to be fulfilled. Before convening a new summit, we need not only to accomplish what we have agreed on earlier, but also to understand what draft decisions we are taking to the new summit. And that will only begin when the process of implementing the previous decisions is completed. So when our colleagues cite April as the tentative date for the next Normandy format summit, it should be taken as wishful thinking, just some idea they have. Again, the Normandy summits are held to approve lists of agreements and recommendations that cannot be implemented without substantive and constructive work in the Contact Group, where Kiev, Donetsk, and Lugansk are also represented.
We can see that both our Ukrainian colleagues and their European partners are trying to play with this, and trying to shift the entire settlement process from the Contact Group to the Normandy format because, according to their logic, Russia is a party to the conflict. But that logic is flawed, and not mentioned in either the Minsk Agreements or UNSC Resolution 2202, which unanimously made these agreements a part of international law. Therefore, this work has to be done in the Contact Group. Otherwise, our Western colleagues will have to admit defeat in their role as guarantors of the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Question: Turkey claims it is complying with its obligations in Idlib. At the same time, a source reports that Syrian militants are getting weapons from Turkey, including man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems. You said Turkey has not fulfilled its key duty of separating the moderate opposition militants who are willing to negotiate with the Government from the terrorists. What steps are being taken to avoid aggravation of the situation in Idlib? Who is responsible for the escalation? Will new agreements be discussed at the talks today during the Turkish delegation’s visit to Moscow?
Sergey Lavrov: You correctly noted that the key agreement on Idlib, which was documented in Sochi in 2018 as a Memorandum approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, concerns separating moderate opposition militants that are willing to negotiate with the Government from terrorists labelled as such by the UN Security Council. This primarily refers to Jabhat al-Nusra and all its variants (the most recent, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). This differentiation is the key to everything else. Because of the lack of progress on this track another agreement was necessary – to create, until the separation is achieved, a demilitarised strip inside the Idlib de-escalation zone, so that all those who were and continue to shell Syrian troop positions, Syrian civilian infrastructure and our air force base, should leave. So far, this agreement is also being implemented with some difficulty, although our Turkish colleagues have deployed observation posts there. Admittedly, their presence made the situation worse and the terrorists continued to attack the Syrian positions and our air base – something that could not be left unanswered, of course. These attacks have been suppressed by the Syrian armed forces with our support.
As for possible ways to resolve the situation in Idlib, you were correct that another round of negotiations between the interdepartmental delegations of the Russian Federation and the Turkish Republic is taking place in Moscow today. All the facts are on the table; the military representatives of the two countries that are on the ground in the Idlib region in Syria are considering changes in the situation and are in constant contact with each other. They have a complete understanding among themselves, as we heard from both the Russian and Turkish militaries. I hope that they will be able to propose ideas on de-escalating this situation based on the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey.