Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers during a video lecture at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), Moscow, April 27, 2020
MGIMO University is rapidly making the switch to new technologies in the face of the real restrictions the coronavirus has placed on in-person interactions. I was told that you had managed to organise the switch very quickly without somehow losing the materials you have to impart, in addition to the knowledge. I am confident that MGIMO University will do a good job of holding its exam period, the defence of graduation theses and the state final certification. I hope that you will find a creative way to enroll new students. I don’t know how the campaign will be organised, but please ask if we can do anything to help you. We will try to be useful.
I do not regard this as a lecture, more like a seminar, perhaps, because I believe it important to focus mainly on the interactive part.
I won’t speak long about how the coronavirus fits into the dramatic changes that have swept across what we call the global geopolitical landscape or how it has affected numerous aspects of interstate relations and international affairs. The global economy has suffered a strong blow. According to most expert forecasts, the road to recovery will be long. Of course, all contacts between people, including humanitarian, educational, scientific and tourist exchanges, have been cancelled for the most part. Unfortunately, diplomatic opportunities have also narrowed. I have already had a chance to talk about how much online communication can really replace person-to-person interactions. This way of communicating can’t really compare with an in-person conversation, face to face. I think that all of my colleagues miss it, too; at least I regularly talk with many of them on the phone and get the sense that their views and feelings on this mirror my own.
At some point we will have to thoroughly assess and understand the ultimate impact of the pandemic on international affairs and develop comprehensive joint approaches to working in the post-pandemic period. I believe that at this stage and in subsequent ones we will have the support and contribution of MGIMO University’s academic and expert resources. We are interested in it.
We still do not fully understand the impact, but perhaps we can draw some conclusions at this stage already. I think that the main conclusion is that the crisis has clearly shown (if anyone still needed proof) how interconnected and interdependent all countries and all areas of life are in today’s world, without exception.
We have long warned of the danger of underestimating the cross-border nature of numerous threats, including new challenges like international terrorism, the risk of the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and cybercrime. To these we can add not only the climate processes that have worried many countries for a long time, but also pandemics like the one the world is dealing with now. I think that one of the main conclusions at this stage is that even the most stubborn sceptics must realise now that nobody can wall off such threats. Trying to act only for yourself, to wait out the storm in your quiet port, so to speak, won’t work. Everyone can see this now. Countries that chose to isolate from the rest of the world and countries that decided to take a more philosophical approach, like Sweden, for example, have suffered to almost the same degree. No one was or will be able to guard against it. Long before the current events, we were calling on all countries to unite to address cross-border threats that spare no one. It was timely then and is even more so now, because there is clearly a growing demand for the entire world to act together in solidarity.
I hope that the crisis (as the saying goes “every cloud has a silver lining”) will motivate all global political actors, primarily the leading states, to put aside their fleeting differences and work together in a professional manner for the sake of securing a peaceful and prosperous future for all people. President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of the United States Donald Trump have given a sign that there is cause for optimism. Yesterday they released a Joint Statement on the 75th anniversary of meeting on the Elbe, which was the focus. The Soviet Union and the United States managed to rise above their differences and join forces in a decisive war against a common enemy. Essentially, the challenge is the same now.
Naturally, we hate to see attempts, which are unfortunately being made, to use the present crisis to advance narrow, selfish and momentary interests, to squabble and settle scores with inconvenient governments or geopolitical rivals.
Again, we do see such attempts. Naturally, it’s paradoxical when the countries presenting themselves as defenders of human rights and the champions of democracy continue to use an illegitimate tool, the so-called sanctions, in circumvention of the UN Security Council, and are now trying to politicise humanitarian aid during the pandemic which hits especially hard the more vulnerable members of the population that need better access to food, medicine and medical assistance in general. We reject in principle the illegitimate methods that I am referring to, and moreover, such actions are unacceptable during a worldwide disaster.
As you know, at the G20 Summit, which was also held online, President of Russia Vladimir Putin put forward the initiative to create "green corridors" that would be free of trade wars and sanctions in order to freely supply all those in need the medicines, food, equipment and technology necessary to protect against the coronavirus and overcome this pandemic. We welcomed the relevant statements by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who, inter alia, when commenting on the current developments in the world, advocated the lifting or easing of restrictions imposed on certain countries. First of all, we are talking about countries that are under unilateral sanctions, in addition to UN Security Council sanctions. I mean Syria, Venezuela and North Korea. A number of other countries also need such relief. Our Mission to the UN is actively forming a group of like-minded people to make this approach a reality.
We consider it extremely dangerous to try to use the current situation to undermine the UN basic principles and system as a whole, whose specialised agencies remain the only mechanisms of multilateral cooperation in relevant areas. This fully applies to the WHO activities. We consider the attacks on this Organisation, the attempts to blame it for everything that is happening absolutely counterproductive and unfair. According to our assessment and that of the overwhelming majority of states, the Organisation acted professionally at all stages of the crisis, taking proactive steps and distributing information and its recommendations to all states.
Let us hope that, when learning the lessons of the ongoing crisis, we will manage to strengthen the UN-centred nature of global architecture following the crisis. It is clear that there are other agencies, but they all rely on the principles set out in the UN Charter and do very useful work. I will give special mention to the G20, which includes the G7, BRICS and other large world economies. The creation and functioning of the G20, in fact, confirms that the Western countries associated with the G7 are simply no longer able to single-handedly address key global problems and reach any meaningful solutions.
This year we are marking the 75th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, in World War II. All the nations of the Soviet Union played an essential role in defeating Nazism. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this event for all humankind. Today it is very important for us to not let this heroic deed be forgotten, to prevent young people from forgetting what national egotism, disunity and complicity in any manifestations of chauvinism and xenophobia can lead to.
Unfortunately, we continue to see attempts to rewrite history. The Foreign Ministry together with other Russian agencies, based on our archives, is doing everything necessary to counter these destructive ideas and to prevent the revision of the international legal results of World War II, including the rulings of the Nuremberg trials. An absolute majority of the international community shares our positions, which is reaffirmed annually by the UN General Assembly resolution on combating glorification of Nazism that is adopted by an overall majority.
The leaders of the CIS member states adopted a corresponding statement at the highest level, which was circulated at the UN. Work in this area is also underway at the CSTO.
I hope that MGIMO University, which has long and fruitfully taken part in our common efforts, will continue to make a contribution to our joint work to protect the historical truth and the good name of those who gave their lives to save the world.
The 75th anniversary of the Victory coincides with the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. It was possible to establish the organisation thanks to our common Victory and the spirit of cooperation and alliance between the members of the anti-Hitler coalition. Of course, today the great powers that made the key contribution to the defeat Nazism and the establishment of the UN have special responsibility, as reflected in the UN Charter. We are convinced that the contribution of the five [UNSC permanent members] at this crucial stage of world development is relevant to forming the direction for the further progress of interstate relations in the post-crisis era.
In general, in a situation when the world is going through tectonic changes, when the bipolar model, and especially unipolar models, are becoming obsolete, a polycentric international order is forming with several powerful centres of economic growth and financial power, and, of course, political influence comes with economic growth and financial capacities. This is a long historical era. This won’t happen over a month or two, or a year. This is an era when the world is changing, the world that has been developing according to Western models for more than five hundred years whereas now a wider cultural and civilisational diversity must be relied on and taken into account in the global policy. Considering the role of the five UN permanent members envisaged in its Charter, earlier this year President of Russia Vladimir Putin put forward an initiative to hold a summit of the heads of state and government of the UN Security Council permanent members in order to discuss the entire range of tasks that must be addressed at the highest level in the context of implementing the UN Charter’s principles and goals in today’s circumstances, first of all, to ensure the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in their domestic affairs, as well as a peaceful settlement to conflicts and disputes. All the other countries’ leaders supported the initiative: first China, then France, the US and finally the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now we, for obvious reasons, are waiting for a time when it will be possible to begin the practical work to organise such a meeting, because it must be face-to-face. Everyone agrees on this. At the same time, the five states are thinking about their contribution to countering the coronavirus. It has been agreed to hold a videoconference in order to do this. We are deciding on the date now.
When working on establishing a new international order, we continue to rely on the potential of such organisations as the SCO and BRICS. Of course, we discuss ways to increase the effectiveness of joint efforts in all areas, including regarding the coronavirus, at the EAEU and within the CIS.
In conclusion, I would like to once again thank the MGIMO University management and the teaching staff for their contribution to taking practical steps in implementing Russia’s foreign policy course, as well as to the events to mark the Victory in the Great Patriotic War. I have listened to the beautiful song recorded by the MGIMO choir. It really evokes sincere respect and gratitude.
I am ready to answer your questions.
Question: Although the Internet has been with us for a long time, it used to basically duplicate the offline media, whereas now it has become a door, not a window, and we need to build a fully developed interaction space and a new social architecture. How effectively do you think the Foreign Ministry is capable of responding within a short time? What changes will remain and take place in its structure or in your personal working procedure?
Sergey Lavrov: It is very difficult to predict now what will happen to various organisations and how they will endure the crisis. NATO and the EU were mentioned earlier. Any organisation is facing the question how it should organise its work in the future. This is not only about the methods, which are sure to change due to a greater number of online meetings in our programme of events. And although meetings in person will certainly remain, there will be a great temptation, given the fairly successful online work, to hold many not too confidential discussions using the new technologies. But let me reiterate that the key importance of talks conducted in person will remain.
The way in which organisations work and the essence of their efforts will definitely change. There are disputes on what portion of responsibilities in this or that multilateral organisation should be delegated to supranational bodies and what portion should remain the duty of national governments. In addition, it is being debated if some responsibilities should be taken from the supranational bodies out of the ones that were delegated to them earlier. The argument is that not everything is as clear at the supranational level as it can be from the countries’ capitals. The pandemic (as publicly stated by many EU members) has clearly shown the need for greater reliance on national opinions and decisions. Countries understand better what is going in their territory and can take specific actions much quicker and more efficiently, and if need be, which is also very important, to adjust promptly some steps that prove to be ineffective in reality.
So, there will be a lot of debates but the main thing is for us to understand what I said in my opening remarks, namely that from now and until the end of time, the threats that are facing humanity will have absolutely no limits. Many people did not want to accept this, but now they will have to. They don’t know these limits; they don’t respect or observe them. This applies to terrorism, piracy and any other form of organised crime, including drug trafficking. It also has to do with the rapidly growing possibility that non-governmental entities will be able to get access to weapons of mass destruction. It has to do with natural disasters, industrial accidents, and, of course, infectious diseases. The BRICS heads of state adopted a decision a couple of years ago to expand cooperation in the fight against infections and the joint production and use of vaccines. This week we will have a video conference of the BRICS foreign ministers; among other things we will talk about accelerating the implementation of the mechanism created by the heads of state’ decision.
I will say it again, the most important thing is that these inevitable changes should be considered and agreed based on the logic of our shared destiny and the logic of the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, which implies collective security in all the dimensions of the international environment.
Question: We have got used to the word 'self-isolation,' and use it while addressing people. Can we say that countries around the globe have self-isolated and that the virus is the sole reason for this? How can deglobalisation ideas advance in future global politics?
Sergey Lavrov: As a term, the word 'self-isolation' was first used many years ago, even decades ago, when referring to a form of the US foreign policy. Normally, when the Democratic Party rules the US administration, its members always seek a global reach in their foreign policy actions, while members of the Republican Party often choose to tune out and not to spend funds, time or effort promoting different political priorities in remote regions.
The Donald Trump administration used this particular approach when it started its activities. During the election campaign, Trump claimed there was nothing to do for the United States in remote countries and regions, and useless wars should be stopped. Europeans quickly became aware that the US would not take much responsibility for what was taking place in Europe. The United States seeks tangible and pragmatic goals, such as selling its goods, services and arms. Donald Trump and his administration insist that all NATO member states should pay at least two percent of their GDP for purchasing armaments, primarily US-made ones. Currently, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Germany has been obliged to buy US bombers, which will have to be replaced as their lifespan has expired, instead of European aircraft. But this time, they will be replaced not by European but by US-made aircraft, although the European industry, particularly the Airbus corporation and other companies, could benefit from such an order and receive dozens of billions of dollars. But Berlin is purchasing US bombers. This is probably the result of the policy that I have already mentioned. Germany will buy these bombers to install US nuclear weapons on them, which are currently stored in Europe (in four countries apart from Germany) and which we believe should be withdrawn from there. This could be a matter for discussion at the upcoming talks when our US colleagues are ready. We very much hope that statements on their interest in these talks are not just empty words.
Apart from this, the EU and NATO member states are making statements, and even somewhat annoyingly, saying that the US is increasingly speaking and doing things that prove Washington is not going to provide assistance to Europe in case anything happens. It is unclear what they mean but Russia is definitely not going to do any of the things we are accused of. Yet, with the US sending additional troops to the European territory and boosting NATO's presence in the eastern flank close to the Russian border, with efforts to increase the scope and quality of military drills, the Europeans still feel that the Americans isolate themselves from them and avoid taking too much responsibility for Europe's security. As soon as the physical and personal self-isolation is over, other countries will probably have an increasing trend for self-reliance and standing on their own.
Just look how the dialogue is proceeding between Hungary and the EU leading institutions. A number of other countries have also adopted laws that allow national governments to respond to crisis situations without looking back at EU central structures.
The discussion regarding an optimal balance of the authority delegated at the supranational level and a country's own authority is still ahead. We have repeatedly said - and this is our honest and sincere stance - that we are interested in a strong and united European Union, which will avoid living with past phobias and new imagined fears but which will be committed to fundamental agreements between Russia and the EU. The agreement on strategic partnership and cooperation between Russia and the EU is still in effect. Our European colleagues are not observing it at the moment as they have blocked all communication channels that were built under this document, and chose to act as if they were offended by the fact that we did not support the anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine, while they supported it. This was the main reason behind it. This is why we will see a dialectic development of events, with possibly stronger trends for self-isolation and self-reliance in many countries. At the same time, many will become increasingly aware that relying on their own resources is insufficient for tackling trans-border and transnational threats, as we have mentioned. Efforts should be made to seek a balance between strong nations - and it is these nations which are more successful in fighting the coronavirus in the current conditions - and serious, long-term and substantial international obligations that imply collective work. Specific boundaries and configurations of the post-coronavirus world will be obvious to us later.
Question: In early April, Russia sent assistance to the US to help it fight the spread of the coronavirus. The personal contacts between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have become more frequent. The US President also mentioned their readiness to send aid to Russia, if it should be required. In addition to this, Russia and the US are working together to stabilise the oil market by agreeing on the development of joint measures. Can we now speak about the possible normalisation of Russia-US relations against the backdrop of the pandemic?
Sergey Lavrov: Relations between the presidents have always been normal. They have been completely normal. Both telephone conversations and personal contacts between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and then in Helsinki and at another G20 summit in Asia, they have always been mutually respectful and aimed at continuous cooperation. These contacts have developed such agreements as the creation of the Business Council consisting of the heads of the largest Russian and American private companies, and the creation of the expert council, where current politicians and political scientists could brainstorm to deal with the issues of strategic stability, global security and develop recommendations for the leadership of the two countries in this regard in all aspects. These contacts also recreated interaction on the most pressing issue of cybersecurity, so that any fears and concerns that someone could use the cyber space to interfere in the domestic affairs of the other country were professionally and substantially reviewed by experts.
At the same level, during recent talks the readiness was confirmed and the need expressed to promptly reestablish complex dialogue on strategic stability in direct relation to strategic offensive weapons, given that the New START treaty expires in less than a year and that new kinds of weapons are appearing. We are ready to discuss them outside the New START. All this was agreed upon at the level of presidents. Unfortunately, almost nothing has been implemented yet; another round of strategic stability dialogue took place this January, but we have not seen any desire to begin searching for constructive solutions from the American delegation yet.
I mentioned Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump’s statement on the 75th anniversary of the Meeting on the Elbe made yesterday. It takes less than one page and commemorates those who fought and then shook each other’s hands on the Elbe. It commemorates those who, while working on the homefront, provided the front with the necessary weapons and did everything to win. It also contains a crucial political message that then, the USSR and the US could rise above their discrepancies and unite to win the decisive battle against the common enemy. The American press has attacked Donald Trump for that last phrase, accusing him of playing up to Vladimir Putin and trying to cover up the Russian President. So they had such a reaction to an obvious fact that should be welcomed and that normal people would greet with enthusiasm.
I hope that today we will rise above these discrepancies too, and will not waste any time on counteracting fakes, but will deal with the real threats. By the way, speaking of the WWII and the Great Patriotic War, in May 1943, at the initiative of the Soviet Union, the Communist International decided to self-dissolute. Josef Stalin said later in an interview to the Western media that it was necessary to do this in order to eliminate all ideological obstacles on the way to unite the efforts of the great powers in counteracting Nazism. It is one of the examples that came into my head. It is quite illustrative and helps us understand the spirit of cooperation that prevailed during the years when we fought the common enemy. I think to a large extent the contemporary threats require the same unity.
Question: Your colleague, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, recently had the following to say about the future: “My fear is that the world afterwards will be very much like the world before, only worse.” Mr Lavrov, can the pandemic affect cooperation between the main international players not only in a negative way, but in a good way as well?
Sergey Lavrov: I think the pandemic will certainly affect cooperation between the main international players. I hope the crisis will improve relations between the leading countries. I didn’t see this remark by Jean-Yves Le Drian, but I’m aware that he has been giving a lot of interviews lately, including about the new concept of multilateralism.
Some are saying the world after the pandemic will be a worse place to live in than it is now. We can already see some of these predictions come true. I’m talking about the relationship between the supranational and the national, and the temptation to shut oneself off from the world. This is an illusion; it can’t be done. Everyone understands this. But some politicians will definitely come up with such proposals in the run-up for elections in some countries.
Nevertheless, I believe we should rely on basic principles that no one questions, such as the UN Charter, sovereign equality of states, respect for territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in domestic affairs, peaceful settlement of disputes and much more that was included in the Charter by the founding fathers of the UN. It was signed by 193 countries. It represents a unique legitimacy and a unique organisation in terms of its mandate and agenda ranging from peace and security to environmental protection, food, non-proliferation and much more.
If the pessimism that you mentioned and the prediction of poor interaction in the international system are coming from a country with a strong spirit, such as France, this is probably not very good news.
I mentioned that France and Germany have been promoting the concept of multilateralism for the second straight year now. They have advocated creating an alliance of its supporters. I asked questions, but have so far received no answer as to why Paris and Berlin, as well as those who have joined them on this path, believe that multilateralism lies elsewhere than the UN? Perhaps, for the purposes of clarity it then makes more sense to talk about comprehensiveness and to state clearly that all the countries should join the effort. Perhaps, some will be more active, some less. By definition, larger countries have more clout. Smaller countries traditionally follow larger states’ opinions, but this does not change the essence of the matter. You can be a leader, but you cannot leave anyone out. Even more so, this cannot be done for ideological reasons. If the European Union represented by France and Germany is responsibly declaring that multilateralism is the domain of the EU, and the EU is an example of multilateral behaviour and multilateral responsibility, then should everyone be looking up to Brussels? This is a little arrogant and not very polite, because the UN is the embodiment of genuine multilateralism.
The General Assembly is guided by the principle of democracy where one country is represented by one vote. The Security Council sticks to the principle of nuclear powers’ special responsibility, hence, their obligation in the form of a veto. The UN Charter is balanced and combines the need to reflect the roles of large countries and to give all counties their fair share of respect. To reiterate, the General Assembly operates on the basis of one country - one vote principle. So, building all sorts of alliances outside the framework of this unique and absolutely legitimate multilateral organisation invariably raises questions. We can see the attempts to take the topics that are uncomfortable for our Western colleagues outside the UN and resolve them in a restricted group, and then present their decisions as collective decisions. We can see this behaviour in the sphere of the proliferation of chemical weapons, the dissemination of information, the protection of cyberspace and a number of other areas. I hope we will do our best to explain the harmful nature of the scenarios based on any construct other than the UN Charter.
Question: Good afternoon, Mr Lavrov. If I may, before asking my question, I would like on behalf of the students to express my gratitude to the MGIMO authorities for taking all the necessary measures at such a difficult and, what is more important, hardly predictable time, for distance learning. They listen to the students during such distance learning, and everything has been done to make such remote learning convenient yet still effective. Here is my question. It is about the prospects of formalising cooperation between the EU and the EAEU. It is known that such attempts were made on many occasions in 2016 and later on. It is also known that contacts are being maintained at the level of two commissions: the European and the Eurasian economic commissions. Successful cooperation continues at the level of the EEC and some EU member countries. Can you see any real progress in formalising the relations between the two integration associations and are there any signs of any change in their position regarding this matter under the new EU leadership? Indeed, new leaders were elected at the European Parliament as well as the European Commission last year.
Sergey Lavrov: So far there is no special progress in addition to what you have already mentioned. The contacts between the two commissions were established, moreover on the initiative of the Eurasian Economic Commission. The relevant proposal was dispatched a fairly long time ago – five years. We did not get an answer for a long time. Then there was a response on the issues that could not remain unresolved and that could not be left unregulated. I mean technical regulation, phytosanitary standards. It was what had to be agreed upon to conduct trade in a normal manner and, both in our case and in case of the European Union those issues were delegated to the supranational level. Our European colleagues took a purely utilitarian approach. But we think that it was also beneficial. At least it was a recognition of the realities. It was a recognition that to continue trade – and everybody wants to trade – it was necessary to contact the organisations that were established by five countries in the post-Soviet area and that keep on developing.
No doubt, we would like to get what you have just mentioned, namely signing an agreement creating a political framework and thereby making trade and economic contacts more convenient and comfortable as well as the solution of some other matters related to the existence of a common market in the EU and the establishment of a common market in the EAEU.
So far the main obstacle is the political bias and stubborn adherence to the infamously known “five principles” formulated way back by Federica Mogherini when she was High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy actually making further development, improvement and normalisation of relations between Russia and the EU dependent on implementing the Minsk agreements on the Ukrainian crisis.
The trouble is that the Minsk agreements are to be implemented by Ukraine in direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. The position chosen by the European Union is wicked. They simply sent then to President Poroshenko and now to President Zelensky a very clear signal: do not do anything of what you should do under the Minsk agreements and the sanctions against Russia will be in place forever. If these “five principles” were translated into the language of normal people, it will be just what Brussels told Kiev. This message remains intact. Although the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell declared many times his intention to begin a revision of the EU policy with respect to Russia, we have not seen anything yet. However, we are always open for dialogue with any EU bodies.
We used to hold summits twice a year. The Permanent Partnership Council at the level of High Representative and Russia’s Foreign Minister met yearly, and its participants reviewed the progress of all the joint projects, without exception, including the implementation of over 20 Sectoral Dialogues between Russia and the EU. All of that was frozen, though, and reduced to simply sporadic discussions related to international matters even prior to the unconstitutional coup in Ukraine committed in spite of the EU guarantees regarding the need to reach a compromise between the opposition and the then government. All of that was trampled upon. The EU guarantees were ignored, and the putschists in Kiev didn’t pay any attention to them. You are well aware of the state of relations between us since that moment in time.
To reiterate, we do not have any hurt feelings that we would base our relations with the EU on. Many EU countries are interested in expanding bilateral relations with Russia. Of course, we accommodate them. We have a simple answer for the conspiracy theorists in Brussels and elsewhere who accuse these countries and Russia of destroying European solidarity and the EU itself by promoting bilateral contacts with individual EU members. Our answer is fairly straightforward: how can we make you communicate with us if you are not willing to comply with the existing Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. But there are countries which, in full compliance with the powers reserved for them by the EU at the national level, are expanding cooperation with Russia, and are doing so rather successfully. These are not just some small countries, but France, Italy, Hungary and some others as well. This is an attempt to accuse us of breaking something up or driving in wedges. This is not an appropriate thing to do. Things are just the other way round. It was like the same situation when we were accused of turning away from Europe and looking to the East. First of all, we are not in a position where we can afford not to look to the East, or to the West, for that matter. Our geopolitical position dictates this. Failure to derive comparative advantages from this situation would be simply stupid and inefficient. We are promoting our relations with the West and the East with the same level of commitment to cooperation and partnership. Many joint projects are falling through when the West imposes sanctions on us thus proving its status of an unreliable partner, or when, due to resentment caused by our rejection of the coup in Ukraine (which the Western countries swallowed, and some of them even orchestrated), illegitimate restrictions are imposed on us. And then the West wants us to scale down our relations with the East. It’s just naive.
We have realised that we do not want to depend on the partners who have contributed to developing a number of our industries, but turned out to be unreliable partners, including in the EU. Hence, import substitutions. Accusing us of making a pivot to the East at a time when the West imposed sanctions, and we began to objectively expand our cooperation with China, India and other Asia-Pacific countries in relative terms, is also disingenuous.
Again, our position is not dictated by any hurt feelings. Speaking at the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi in May 2016, President Putin put forward an initiative to form a Greater Eurasian Partnership with the participation of the EAEU, the SCO, ASEAN and other states of our common vast Eurasian continent, including, of course, the EU countries. We have never sought to create something that is off-limits to other countries that are interested in joining us and share the statutory principles of a particular organisation. Let me assure you, the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which covers what I mentioned above and perfectly correlates with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, will increasingly determine the future of our continent.
So far, the EU has been anywhere from neutral to negative (saying “moderate” means not saying anything at all) with regard to these concepts and demonstrated suspicion, which we, unfortunately, observe our European colleagues do with regard to many other issues. But Great Britain left the EU. They are now facing major difficulties in negotiating an agreement between Brussels and London. It appears that a new agreement between the United States and the EU will be the next thing. Knowing the Trump Administration, these talks will be difficult. Not seeing the advantages provided by our common continent and not using them in these circumstances means depriving oneself, I mean the EU, of extra chances for competing in this highly competitive world. I can talk at length about this, but my point was to identify the main trends. All this will need to be discussed in detail. I am convinced these discussions should begin soon.
Question: After the collapse of the prices of energy commodities because of the abortive attempt to extend the OPEC deal and some other factors, major oil producing countries, including the United States, were convinced of the necessity to set up a more comprehensive arrangement, along the lines of OPEC++. How realistic is this scenario? Are you considering the prospect of expanding the GECF format within the gas production industry, when there is also the possibility of an overproduction crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: I would not say that the United States was certain that there was a need to establish a new organisation. They are strongly bound by antitrust laws. When they discussed, with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members, the sharp drop in the demand for oil and as a result, the unprecedented fall in prices, in every possible sense, they took account of the need to honour the anti-monopoly standards. Strictly speaking, the United States will not be able to join any organisation or set up any organisation dealing with the oil, gas or any other commodity markets, because of its domestic legislation.
It’s another matter that they are actually working towards the same goal as OPEC, proceeding from the market situation. If the market is oversupplied, then limiting production is a normal market decision. In some form, perhaps, the exchange of information (not coordination, let alone a cartel agreement) is on its own a serious enough, new and reasonable step. I think that the exchange of information, the possibility of hearing each other and taking this into account in decision-making (be it within OPEC+ or in decision-making in view of the market conditions) – this mutual information process will continue.
As yet, we have not received any report indicating that the Gas Exporting Countries Forum is considering holding its next meeting or an extraordinary meeting. However, its member countries are in contact with one other via the leadership of its Secretariat. An exchange of information of this sort is underway. For understandable reasons I will not go into details, but I think that everybody understands that no one is interested in the collapse of this market.
Question: I would like to ask a question about the intra-Libyan conflict.
Despite the fact that the fight against the coronavirus is now the most discussed issue and tops the agenda of both separate states and various international organisations, the clashes between Khalifa Haftar’s troops and the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, are still going on. Probably, the efforts of the international community aimed at settling the conflict will not be as intensive given the current developments. And taking into account that even with active mediation by various countries, first of all, Italy, France, Russia, Germany and Turkey, the parties to the conflict were unable to reach a consensus, the question arises: are there any prospects for settling this conflict in the near future? Or could it turn into a lingering problem, the search for a solution to which will torment yet another country of this long-suffering region?
Sergey Lavrov: You absolutely correctly named the countries that came up with initiatives to assist at least the launch of negotiations to settle the Libyan crisis. Also, you were absolutely right about the need for the main protagonists of the conflicting parties to reach a consensus. They are represented by the head of the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army and is supported by the Parliament, which operates in Tobruk in the east of the country.
In 2015, the Skhirat agreement was signed, but it remained on paper for a long time. France, Italy and the UAE made attempts to revive the direct dialogue and make the two protagonists return to the negotiations table. Always, when relevant conferences convened in Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi, the recent one in Berlin, at all stages, including the stage of announcing these initiatives and preparing them, we urged the participants to proceed from the most important thing: the parties themselves must develop solutions, and our role is to help them. Our main objective is to bring them to the negotiating table and make them reach agreement. Unfortunately, in most cases, such as the International Conference on Libya in Berlin, nobody was going to invite Fayez al-Sarraj or Khalifa Haftar. We insisted that the organisers took our recommendation into account, and so they did, eventually.
So they came; they were in rooms next to each other, but it was possible to talk to them via the conference chair, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But our call to not accept and approve the Berlin documents without the express consent of Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar was not heeded. Therefore, it all ended with the adoption of another nicely worded document that calls for very good things and even outlines concrete steps, but it was not agreed upon by the parties. Another document, probably not stillborn, but definitely not healthy.
Now it is very important to return to the logic we called for, the logic of developing approaches that will be agreed upon by the conflicting parties themselves. This is the responsibility of, first of all, the UN Secretary-General special representative. Unfortunately, Ghassan Salame, who was in charge of this complex dossier until recently, resigned after the failure of the Berlin conference. His deputy, American Stephanie Williams, is currently the acting UN envoy to Libya. We believe that it is necessary to find a replacement for Ghassan Salame as soon as possible, and this should be a representative of a country of the region from the African Union, of which Libya is a member.
We will try to search for a settlement of this deep crisis that hit the country after NATO blatantly violated the UN Security Council resolution and bombed Libya in 2011, thus, in fact, breaking the Libyan state to serve their self-centered, mercenary objective of changing the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, Libya has been left behind. This country serves as a road to the south for terrorists, weapons, drug trafficking and other nasty things, and illegal migrants cross the country going north, to Europe. We are all now facing the consequences of the reckless scheme that NATO launched in 2011 in violation of the UN Security Council resolution. Nevertheless, we will keep trying. Libya needs assistance.
Question: MGIMO University has opened a new programme – World Agrarian Markets - to train agricultural attaches. It unites agriculture and diplomacy.
The republican form of rule exists in the majority of independent African countries that inherited it from colonial powers. The elite educated in Europe were familiar with this system. However, the real influence of governments and parties is not strong. Not infrequently, even civilian governments are controlled by the military that often take the power in their own hands under the pretext of the need for stabilisation. Who is one is supposed to hold talks with in these countries in this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: You want to get gratuitous advice that costs a lot. In reality, there is no universal answer. Talks must be conducted with those that have the relevant authority and opportunities to sell different kinds of goods. Generally speaking, every country has its own structures and personalities that are involved in foreign trade and economic development.
Agriculture in Africa has an interesting geopolitical aspect. We have just spoken about Libya to which migrants flee illegally. Probably, the number of those who want to escape the burdens of war is smaller than the number of economic migrants who wish to improve their living standards and arrive in Europe with mobile telephones and bank cards. These are not the refugees that we are used to perceive as victims of conflicts. During all these past years European countries have discussed, accepted or rejected different ideas that are being voiced on the influx of illegal migrants. They are even considering coercive measures when it is offered to compel all EU members to accept a certain quota but then they start discussing how to determine this quota. Some countries are saying that they do not want any migrants, they want to live as they used to and preserve their national traditions and their cultural code.
As far as I remember, during these discussions on how to reduce the influx of migrants nobody has offered to introduce zero duties on African agricultural imports to the EU. If you are involved in the economy, you understand that this will restrain the flows of migrants looking for a better life and better employment conditions. If agricultural goods from Africa arrive in the EU duty-free, their employment in the countries concerned will increase. They will improve their living standards and will be less tempted to “seek happiness” abroad. However, the EU countries are not doing this because a policy of agricultural subsidies for their industries is a “sacred cow” and nobody is going to change it. This is a very interesting point and it is not just commercial but also geopolitical and systemic.
Question: Last week, it was announced that the Normandy Four foreign ministers were preparing for a meeting via videoconference. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he hopes for an opportunity to give new impetus to fulfilling the agreements reached in Paris in December 2019. What are Russia’s expectations for the upcoming meeting? What would be a way to fast-track resolution of the conflict? Is the pandemic affecting progress?
Sergey Lavrov: Right now, we are exchanging suggestions on the agenda for this videoconference. Unfortunately, Mr Maas’s hopes to give impetus to the decisions of the Normandy Four summit in Paris on December 9, 2019, are not reflected in the agenda proposals Germany has submitted for this ministerial meeting. These proposals are entirely focused on another exchange of detainees, mine-clearing and ensuring the security of and access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) to the territory of the self-proclaimed republics, DPR and LPR. The proposals do not contain a single word about the agreements concerning political reform or the Steinmeier Formula that links granting Donbass a special status to holding elections. They do not contain a single word about the fact that Donbass’s special status must be incorporated into Ukrainian legislation on a permanent basis. And these things basically summarise the decision of the Normandy Four summit in Paris, almost word for word. The decision which, according to the Normandy format leaders, would have to be implemented literally within the next few weeks, as the deadline has already passed.
All the parties presumed that if the Paris decisions were fulfilled, including the political reform that I mentioned, the next summit would take place in Berlin in April, or around this time. But the next summit is out of question because everything that was achieved in Paris is being blocked by the Contact Group and the Ukrainian parliament and government thanks to Kiev’s position. Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Andrey Yermak, in contact with Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office Dmitry Kozak, attempted to get matters off the ground in terms of the key political agreements and to calm people down on both sides of the contact line. His attempts have been derailed and Andrey Yermak himself has been accused of treason for daring to discuss the actual implementation of the Minsk Agreements that were signed by then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and which were approved by the UN Security Council. It is sad to watch.
Right now, our German and French colleagues want to discuss only those issues that concern security, demining, shelling and the SMM’s access to the territories outside of Kiev’s control, and they decidedly refuse to discuss political reforms where the actual problems lie.
As for security issues, the easiest way to ensure a ceasefire was rejected by Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky at the same Paris summit last December. Before the meeting in Paris, an agreement was pre-approved (and put down in writing) that reflected both the political aspects and security issues. As the core agreement, the Normandy format heads of state agreed to take actual steps within the framework of the Contact Group to withdraw forces and arms along the entire contact line. If there is no contact there is no ceasefire violation. Vladimir Zelensky expressly refused to sign the withdrawal of forces and arms along the entire line. He proposed selecting three or so points where the withdrawal could be discussed. They are still discussing it. Since December 9, 2019 through now, they still have been unable to agree on a single area to withdraw personnel and arms. Our Ukrainian colleagues’ whims can be blamed for this.
Something similar is happening with regard to mine clearing. Ukraine is behaving in a very unconstructive manner. And I mentioned the deadlocked political issues. There have been statements saying that the Contact Group is no longer necessary. There have been attempts to portray Russia as a party to this conflict and to completely remove the representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk from the talks. Alexey Reznikov, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and minister for the so-called “temporarily occupied territories,” declared that the Contact Group consists of three members: Ukraine as the “victim,” Russia as the “aggressor” and the OSCE as “mediator” while Donetsk and Lugansk are either observers or not represented at all. For us the Contact Group does consist of three parties: Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. This is based on the Minsk Agreements. The overwhelming majority of the issues agreed upon in the Minsk documents have to be addressed through a direct dialogue between Kiev on one side and Donetsk and Lugansk on the other. So, the Contact Group has three members, Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia and the OSCE are acting as mediators who are helping them negotiate and who, on a larger scale, are supposed to be encouraging Kiev to deliver on its obligations.
So, frankly, I am not expecting any breakthrough from this meeting, unfortunately. There is still a major battle ahead to force Kiev, Berlin and Paris to talk about how the political clauses of the French summit decisions are being implemented – or rather, why they are not.
Question: Emergency services have been under more pressure with the spread of the coronavirus. This includes the Crisis Management Centre (Department) that helps Russian citizens abroad. Do you need more volunteers, for example in the call centre or technical support on consular issues? If you do need more people where can they apply as volunteers?
Sergey Lavrov: From my position I cannot say whether the centre needs help. They have contact numbers, so ask them. I assume security issues could arise in this case, that is, access to information, but it is possible that there are certain levels of work that the centre could consider assigning to volunteers. The centre and the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department have contact numbers. Contact them, and I will ask them to consider this opportunity, if there is a need.
Question: There are many well-known historical quotes that are ascribed to Russian tsars to the effect that Russia has few or no friends or allies. Alexander III said Montenegrin Prince Nikola was Russia’s only friend. From a historical perspective, I would like to ask the following question: how did the two countries allow a cooling in bilateral relations and the development of a conflict linked with the return of Russian citizens home last March? What relations will the two countries have after the pandemic?
Sergey Lavrov: I regret this very much because I am fond of Montenegro. It is very unfortunate that its current leader Milo Dukanovic, who has ruled that country for almost 20 years, has occupied an overtly Russophobic position, contrary to common sense and everything he has said about relations with the Russian Federation.
He had problems with justice in the West. Some European countries accused him of smuggling and some other transgressions. I cannot rule out that this could be behind the sharp change in policy. But if politicians are so vulnerable, it is easy to manipulate them. I say this with a very heavy heart. I met with him several times and even remember how he read verses by Vladimir Vysotsky. There is a wonderful monument to him in Podgorica. Vysotsky composed one of his best verses in one breath, and I think he did it with absolute sincerity as he opened his soul to the Montenegrin people. The verse ended in the following quatrain:
“One birth is not enough for me,
I wish I had two roots…
It’s a pity Montenegro
Has not become my second homeland.”
These words are inscribed on the monument. When I meet with my Montenegrin friends, they always talk enthusiastically about our spiritual affinity, the closeness of our people.
When someone is betrayed, not just an individual but a nation that was always close, it is sad. But I’m convinced that the feelings expressed by Vysotsky in his verse, which are shared by the overwhelming majority of Montenegrins, will eventually prevail and those who are serving time will eventually leave.
Question: As a professional athlete who has defended the nation’s honour in hockey more than once, I root for Russian sports. As a sports diplomat I understand that today Russia’s sports integration into international sports associations must be achieved mostly through diplomatic means, so my question is very specific and important for us. Is the Russian Foreign Ministry considering offering practical training for those in our programmes so that as future sports diplomats we can gain experience in developing a strategy for Russian sports in the world arena?
Sergey Lavrov: This issue has not been raised in our meetings with the Ministry of Sport, the Olympic Committee or in other sports federations, but the idea is a good one. We will try to do this. I think this would be very useful because what you said is correct: there is less sports and more diplomacy in sports diplomacy today, which is not very scrupulous at times. So, I think this is a good idea. We will try to do this.
Question: Today, you said that a bipolar global structure would not meet the moment. During your meeting with the students from the Tashkent MGIMO branch on January 16, you also said that the era of Western countries dominating the global stage is becoming a thing of the past, and new significant actors are entering the global arena. In what way, do you think, has the coronavirus pandemic affected this process? How will the alignment of forces on the global stage change after the battle with the pandemic is over?
Sergey Lavrov: I think the answers to these questions are now being discussed by political analysts. There are several lessons to be learned. I mentioned some of them. If we talk about the West and the non-West, we can see that the success of measures to combat coronavirus is not a function of being or not being part of the “civilised Western world.” The effectiveness of these measures depends, primarily, on how well the state machinery is organised. We know from practice that countries which, notwithstanding all their democratic traditions, try to maintain a strong top-down chain of command in government, are more effective in responding to unforeseen challenges when medicines, pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, and other equipment must be made, purchased or distributed quickly. They are also more efficient in promptly alerting the population of the rules to be followed and, most importantly, enforce these rules. This is not to say that the Western healthcare system is ineffective. Not at all. It simply means that there are far more effective states than the list of countries that make up the “historical West”.
The era of Western dominance in global affairs is vanishing not because it has become weak or for other reasons that depend only on it. It’s just the objective laws of economic development and, ultimately, the globalisation that the West has been energetically spreading throughout the globe that ultimately brought to the leading positions the economies, which were previously lagging, but now have learned to take full advantage of globalisation.
Now, the issue is about bringing manufacturing back to Western countries, including the United States. It’s time to engage, as you said, in deglobalisation. Although I don’t think it’s possible. After all, everything has become so interconnected and interdependent that it is unrealistic to change anything. They are also talking about denationalising and renationalising many industries that are essential to survival of the state. Major discussions are coming. As I said, I hope that MGIMO and the Diplomatic Academy (another research and education institution at our Ministry) will contribute to these discussions. Preventing the attempts to take advantage of the current situation and to advance unfounded accusations is coming to the fore. This will step up the confrontation, raise rates and increase the threat of new conflicts, this time between great powers.
One of the goals of the summit of the five UN Security Council permanent members initiated by President Putin, is precisely to prevent such a turn of events, regardless of what this may be connected with - coronavirus, fierce competition for the title of Number One global economy, or something else.
Preserving peace and the UN Charter principles is coming to the fore. To reiterate, the sovereign equality of states, free choice of their future, respect for the cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world, the need to combine efforts and to rise above the things of secondary importance, which include almost all differences, and to put together our efforts to overcome global challenges, including challenges like coronavirus infection.
To be continued…