Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following the Normandy format videoconference meeting of foreign ministers, Moscow, April 30, 2020
We have just completed a meeting of foreign ministers from the Normandy format countries, specifically Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, held via videoconference. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas initiated the meeting and acted as the nominal host. We are grateful to our German colleagues for organising this important conversation.
According to the agenda, we reviewed the implementation, item by item, of the agreements reached by Normandy format leaders at their December 9, 2019 summit in Paris, whereby the Contact Group was expected to step up its efforts on a number of specific tracks related to security, humanitarian matters and the need to make progress on the political aspects of the settlement under the February 2015 Minsk Agreements.
We noted that only one of nine points set forth in the outcome document of the Normandy format Paris summit was fulfilled, and even this one point was only partially carried out: that is, the exchange of detainees. Two exchanges took place, one in December and one in April, during which Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk exchanged a total of 230 people. Today, we pointed to the need to continue efforts aimed at agreeing on criteria and coordinating lists with the ultimate objective to free and exchange detained persons following the “all for all” principle, as set forth in the Package of Measures. I noted the importance for Kiev to resolve the amnesty issue in strictly keeping with the Minsk Agreements without trying to change any terms in this regard.
As for the other items discussed today, we pointed out that granting Donbass special status within the Ukrainian state was definitely the key provision of the Minsk Agreements. This is the ultimate goal that could also serve as the foundation for settling the conflict. We strongly believe that moving in this direction would create conditions for achieving progress along the other tracks, including security, socioeconomic as well as humanitarian matters. Unfortunately, there has been little to report so far. The authorities in Kiev have been avoiding direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, while it is direct dialogue of this kind that must provide a framework for agreeing on the legal aspects regarding this special status in order for it to become permanent. There has been no progress in agreeing with Donetsk and Lugansk on specific aspects of implementing the Steinmeier Formula in Ukrainian law. Let me remind you that the Steinmeier Formula links the granting of special status to Donbass with holding an election there.
In this context, once again we called on our colleagues to influence the efforts undertaken by the Contract Group so that it fulfils the provisions set forth in the outcome documents of the Paris summit.
In Paris, our leaders also expressed a commitment to achieving a comprehensive ceasefire. Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve any meaningful progress on this front so far. An indefinite truce was proclaimed in July 2019, but it has not been observed. There have been civilian casualties. We cited statistics provided by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) whereby Ukrainian Armed Forces shelled communities within territories controlled by the self-proclaimed republics 20 times between December 2019 when the Paris summit took place and April 28, 2020. However, there were no shelling incidents reported during the same period for communities within territories controlled by Ukrainian Armed Forces. I believe that these statistics speak for themselves.
Today, we called on Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk to take additional steps within the Contact Group to support the truce. We shared facts showing that the OSCE SMM had proposed measures to this effect some time ago. These included issuing orders prohibiting firing incidents, offensive, reconnaissance and sabotage operations, or the deployment of heavy weapons near civilian structures. The republics agreed to most of these proposals, while Kiev has so far been reluctant to subscribe to these OSCE proposals.
We also discussed the need to step up efforts in order to agree on new disengagement areas along the line of contact. Let me remind you that ahead of the Paris summit aides to the heads of state and foreign ministries agreed on a draft statement in which the Normandy Four leaders called on the parties to launch the disengagement of forces and weapons along the entire line of contact. For some reason, probably under pressure, the president of Ukraine flatly refused to commit to the call for a total and comprehensive disengagement of forces along the entire line of contact, and insisted that only three new locations for the disengagement of forces and weapons be included in the Paris agreements. Unfortunately, the Contact Group has so far been unable to agree on any of these three areas. We see that the Kiev authorities object to any proposal from the republics, while the republics refuse to support those made by Kiev. Each side probably can make its own case.
It is sad that the Paris summit did not result in an agreement on the complete disengagement of forces and weapons along the entire line of contact. Had this been the case, the outcome we have today would have been somewhat different.
We hope that Kiev will lift the blockade it imposed on Donbass as soon as possible. We also hope that disrupted socioeconomic, financial and transport ties will be restored. Today, we discussed humanitarian matters. At the proposal of our German and French colleagues, we called on the Contact Group to be more proactive and effective in reviewing matters related to resuming pension payments in Donbass, as well as dealing with other humanitarian issues in these territories.
We also pointed out that problems related to the enactment of Ukrainian laws on language, education, as well as the draft law governing mass media that was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada, were among the humanitarian concerns, primarily regarding Donbass, since we were discussing these territories, but also for all people in Ukraine. This law restricts the use of minority languages, specifically the Russian language, which explicitly contradicts the Minsk Agreements and makes it impossible to fulfil the provisions in the Minsk Agreements that set forth in detail the special status for specific territories within the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
During the videoconference, we also heard a report on the operations of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, as well as a report by Swiss Ambassador Heidi Grau, who coordinates the work of the Contact Group. We called on OSCE representatives within the Contact Group, as well as the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to do everything they could to perform their mandate in good faith, acting in the spirit of impartiality and objectiveness. This is all essential for enabling Ukraine to settle its internal conflict. Of course, we stressed once again the need to strictly abide by all the provisions set forth in the Minsk Agreements, to respect the sequence of the required steps, and primarily to ensure direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.
We hope that today’s talks were useful, and that the Contact Group heeds the calls we made and responds to them in a constructive manner.
Question: With the quarantine in place, does Russia see any prospects for political progress in the Normandy format talks? Can a meeting at the highest level be expected, and could the pandemic facilitate the settlement of the conflict in Donbass or bring about changes in the Minsk format?
Sergey Lavrov: In order to factor the coronavirus into the political processes, we need to understand how the pandemic is affecting developments around the world on a global scale, including various crises and conflict situations.
Today, in our discussion we touched on the fact that the coronavirus is affecting the developments on the ground in terms of the threats people are facing in this region and in Ukraine in general, as well as in terms of the international presence in Ukraine, including the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UNICEF and other international organisations. Of course, the pandemic’s effect on all the people I mentioned is a matter of concern for us. At the same time, we also pointed out that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reports strongly criticise the decision by Donetsk and Lugansk to introduce a special procedure for OSCE SMM staff crossing the contact line. Today, we were asked to influence this situation. The rules are quite straightforward. They require monitors to undergo a basic test in order to prove that they are crossing the line of contact in good health, as well as stay in quarantine for a brief period after crossing the line of contact before starting to fulfil their duties in DPR and LPR. The Ukrainian authorities have introduced similar requirements for those crossing the line of contact from Donbass into the rest of Ukrainian territory. The measures imposed by European countries to control crossings at their borders have been much stricter. Moreover, the OSCE has virtually suspended its field operations in the vast majority of regions where it is present, including Kosovo, Skopje, Nagorno-Karabakh and Central Asia. It suspended its presence and trips on the ground. However, for some reason someone probably insisted that SMM executives focus on this access issue.
I believe that making a political issue out of coronavirus-related developments is unacceptable. Furthermore, today I asked our friends whether the reports alleging that Germany and Denmark had recalled their monitors from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine were true, and that many other EU countries were actively considering this option. If so, attempts to present access to DPR and LPR territory for the OSCE SMM as the main obstacle to achieving a settlement at this stage seem ignominious.
Most importantly, there is no need to sit there and wait for a global disaster to occur. People have to understand that they need to reach agreements and abide by the Minsk Agreements in good faith. We see problems on both sides, but the main problem, as I said at the meeting today, is the lack of a clear answer to the question of whether Kiev is ready to engage in direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk in good faith, as required under the Minsk Agreements. In this connection, I asked my French and German colleagues, whether Paris and Berlin were ready to use their responsibility as parties to the Minsk Agreements and as the co-authors to influence Kiev and encourage it to stop avoiding requests to establish direct dialogue for resolving all the issues it has with Donetsk and Lugansk.
Question: Today’s Normandy format meeting at the level of foreign ministers was held after a long pause. In fact, several months have passed since the meeting in Paris. Since then President of Russia Vladimir Putin has said that countries sympathising with the “occupation administrations” were sending tanks and artillery to Donbass. Did you discuss this matter today from a security standpoint? Under the Minsk Agreements, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine must enjoy access to all parts of Donbass, including the border between Ukraine and Russia. Why are you using the pandemic to block this access?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that you heard my answer to the previous question. I said that the OSCE SMM is not prevented in any way from accessing Donbass. These allegations were conjured out of thin air and politicised.
Let me reiterate that confirmation that these missions do not face any restrictions in their operation can be found in the OSCE rules for its field missions and the decisions by countries that delegated their nationals to the SMM and are now recalling them. The SMM enjoyed and continues to enjoy access to any territory in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, subject to abiding by sanitary norms and requirements, just like anywhere else in the world, as well as subject to approval from the leadership of these republics, as set forth in the Minsk Agreements.
If you are referring to a section of the Russia-Ukraine border in this part of Ukraine, they regularly travel there with the agreement of the DPR and LPR, in full compliance with the Special Monitoring Mission’s mandate. There is the resolution of the OSCE Permanent Council, as well as a UN Security Council resolution approving the Minsk Agreements. All the provisions from all these documents are observed in an extremely scrupulous manner.
As for tanks and artillery, we have been saying this for a long time, and regarding any conflict. Whenever there is a conflict, there is arms trafficking.
Question: Who engages in arms trafficking, apart from Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: Who told you that Russia supplies weapons?
Question: This is what Vladimir Putin said.
Sergey Lavrov: Russian weapons can be found around the world. A number of countries, including in Eastern Europe, make AK-47s and artillery systems. You can easily buy these weapons anywhere in the world.
Question: What are the prospects for a new prisoner exchange between Kiev, on the one hand, and Donetsk and Lugansk on the other? Ukraine claims that the fact that the ICRC is unable to access prisoners in the DPR and LPR complicates this process. Is a compromise possible?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia supports the principle whereby the International Committee of the Red Cross is granted access to prisoners. I had a telephone conversation with ICRC President Peter Maurer just a few days ago, and we discussed this topic. He has a clear understanding that access is subject to approval by the corresponding authorities. We call for this access to be granted. However, let me repeat that in practical terms these matters have to be discussed directly with the corresponding authorities.
Today, we discussed preparations for the next exchange of detainees. A sequence of steps towards this is about to be worked out, since the Minsk Agreements provide for an all-for-all exchange. In practical terms, it turns out that before exchanging detainees they need to be identified. After that it has to be determined whether those who were identified want to take part in the exchange. There are cases where people prefer to stay where they are. This is a technical matter, but of course there is a political side to it. Still, we do hope that the sides represented in the Contact Group make progress on this exclusively humanitarian issue. There are reasons to believe that this progress will materialise.
Question: I have a question on a topic that you mentioned two days ago. You talked about a publication by Czech journalists alleging that Czech politicians who initiated the removal of the Marshal Ivan Konev monument could be targeted in an assignation attempt. Do you believe it is a mere coincidence that this scandal has erupted just as the world is preparing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory? What do you expect in terms of Prague’s official response? Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that if the Czech authorities follow in the footsteps of these journalists, this could affect Moscow’s relations with Prague. What is this all about, specifically?
Sergey Lavrov: You already know how these events unfolded. I cannot affirm that the removal of the Marshal Ivan Konev monument was intentionally timed to coincide with the anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. We have already made statements regarding the person who heads the corresponding municipality (Prague 6), so I will not waste your time, as well as mine, and avoid giving this person too much publicity.
It is true that the “ricin story” is quite puzzling. I am amazed how some Russian media outlets are publishing articles hoping that opinions copied from the Czech press or a number of other Western publications will have an effect on public opinion. Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that it would be unacceptable if another country were to carry out an operation against Czech nationals on Czech territory, adding “if this is the case.” But you are prime minister, after all! If you do not know whether this is true, why even mention it?
This raises the following question: if they are so sure that someone brought ricin, the first thing you need to know is that no embassy employee was involved, contrary to what they claim. There were no embassy employees arriving. If you found a deadly toxic agent in a passenger’s suitcase, why did you let this person into the country? And why would you allow this person to remain on your territory? It is simply unthinkable.
Your colleague from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty claims that the ricin was detected as a result of new strict control measures introduced as part of the coronavirus response. Very well, you found it. And then what? You just let this deadly substance into the country? Would anyone in their right mind believe these far-fetched allegations?
As for the outcome of this campaign, I do not know. I noticed that when the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova commented on these allegations on ricin for the Czech press, including on the statements by politicians and local residents, the spokesperson for the Czech Foreign Ministry Zuzana Stichova said that they would not tolerate this kind of interference in the domestic sovereign affairs of the Czech Republic, and that the country had its own laws. In saying so she referred to the 1993 Treaty on the Principles of Friendly Relations. This is the very treaty whereby the Czech Republic undertakes to safeguard and provide access to monuments, including the Marshal Ivan Konev monument. If our Czech colleagues reaffirm that this treaty and all its provisions remain binding, we expect them to respond to our recurrent proposals to start a meaningful conversation on what caused the flagrant violation of its clause and how this can be remedied. We made a proposal to this effect, and are waiting for a reply.