Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at the Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma National Education Youth Forum, Moscow Region, Solnechnogorsk, August 23, 2020
I would like to say thank you for inviting me. I always try to attend the events organised by the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs (Rosmolodezh). Each time, I realise that this, hopefully, is useful both for you and simultaneously for me, because the questions, assessments and just comments that are offered here are a good tip regarding how to further shape our foreign policy activities. You are the generation that will in the not too distant future continue to make our Russia a better, safer and more advanced place. For us, it is important to understand what heritage we will leave behind to you. In this context, it is of much use to hear your questions. They show what you are thinking about.
That said, I would like to stress that we generally set a high value on our cooperation with NGO’s, including those representing the youth movement. Let me note our productive collaboration with the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), with young people from the ONF. We have cooperated with them rather intensively, when we had to evacuate Russian citizens from abroad on account of COVID-19, who, for various reasons, found themselves over there and in a quandary. The collaboration was very beneficial. Of course, it was not without problems, but generally we managed to cope with this job. Currently, there remain a number of people, who have decided to return to Russia quite recently. We are also working on dealing with this matter.
I am aware that there is the International Cooperation Leaders initiative put forward by Rosmolodezh. If the projects to be promoted by the contest’s winners and prizewinners have components, for which the Foreign Ministry of Russia might be of use, we will try to have our Information and Press Department support them in every way. So, don’t be shy. We will coordinate the organisational matters with Rosmolodezh.
This meeting is dedicated to “Service to the Homeland.” I saw a report on yesterday’s meeting. I think that this is a very important and all-embracing topic because foreign policy, like our domestic affairs, is aimed at the topmost goal of creating some maximally favourable conditions for this country’s development, for its economy, the social sphere, and higher prosperity for our citizens, as well as that of Russians and Russian businesses abroad. These are the key tenets of the new version of the Foreign Policy Concept that was approved by President of Russia Vladimir Putin in 2016. And this is the invariable main component of what we are doing.
In order to create maximally favourable conditions for domestic development, it is, of course, necessary to develop relations with all countries based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, non-interference in the internal affairs, and peaceful settlement of all disputes. I have enumerated the key principles of the UN Charter, which Russia has always been guided by in its approaches to relations with foreign partners. A great number of countries in Eurasia, Latin America and Africa share this frame of mind with us. And, of course, our allies and partners at the CSTO, the CIS, the EAEU, the SCO, and BRICS are of the same view that any problems should be addressed through a mutually respectful and equal dialogue.
Regrettably, today not everyone is ready to comply with the principles of the UN Charter, even though absolutely all countries have signed it. These principles constitute the basis of international law. Our Western partners, primarily the United States and its closest allies, have been acting increasingly unscrupulously and refuse to be bound by international law when their goals clash with its noble, equal and universally approved principles. They tend not to mention international law and universal conventions in their public statements. Instead, they are introducing new terms, which are focused on “rules-based order.” These rules are invented depending on our Western colleagues’ goals in different spheres of international affairs. This is being done behind tightly closed doors. A formula they need at any particular time (we can talk about this in more detail during the Q&A session) is invented by a narrow circle of like-mined people, planted in the media space and declared to be a universally binding principle, which everyone must comply with. Those who refuse to do so are punished, condemned and sanctioned. The EU followed in the footsteps of the United States, which was the first country to adopt unilateral restrictive measures against “undesirable” governments. During the past few years, the European Union has introduced its own series of generic sanctions, which are being applied for “misconduct” in cyberspace or alleged human rights violations. The list of the culprits is determined in their own narrow circle. In other words, they pose as the lawmakers approving sanctions, the judges determining the violators and the executors implementing these sanctions against the designated countries. This is regrettable.
We are talking in great detail with our partners in the EU and with the United States about the importance of reviving the principles, which were formulated by the victor powers after World War II, when they established the United Nations, a unique organisation with universal legitimacy. Unfortunately, we have not succeeded so far in convincing all countries to honour their obligations. The countries we describe as “the historical West” share an overriding desire to prevent the rise of the new, multipolar and polycentric world order, as well as the reforms in the international system that will recognise the tectonic shifts which have taken place after WWII, primarily the appearance of new influential centres of power in terms of economic growth and financial might. Of course, economic and financial might also include political influence. The West has called the tune in international affairs for some 500 years, including during the colonial era and the period of industrial revolutions, which began in the West. But things have changed. The centre of global development has moved to the Asia Pacific Region (APR). China and India are rising powerfully. Other emerging economies have claimed a befitting place in the international division of labour and the international system of cooperation. At the same time, they want to preserve their traditions, culture and civilisational code.
The main line of our Western partners is to obstruct the objective course of history and to cut short the objective onset of the multipolar world. They are using a variety of unscrupulous measures and instruments, including open military interventions to unseat governments and economic sanctions, which have become commonplace. The United States, for example, no longer holds talks in the classical meaning of the word. Instead, it presents its requirements. Those who refuse to comply with them face ultimatums. If they disregard them, sanctions are adopted against them. The worst part is that the US sanctions against those who dare to contradict it are being applied extraterritorially. In other words, Washington demands that other countries do not trade with a certain state because it does not like it and has introduced sanctions against it. Those who refuse to comply with these demands face restrictions against their companies, which will deprive them of their part of the American market and will have other problems in the system of settlements that is dominated by the US dollar.
Of course, part of this policy is a desire to prevent the countries that have become new global powers from growing stronger and gaining more influence. As you know, this policy is being applied against China. It has been declared the number one enemy of the United States. This also concerns the Russian Federation, which was presented as the United States’ greatest enemy until recently. We have been officially declared an adversary under US law. One of US methods of dealing with this issue is to sow discord between Russia and its neighbours. We are aware of this. We have been well-nigh accused of wanting to recreate the Soviet Union, although we are only trying to take advantage of the remaining historical benefits in our common space such as the common economic system, the tremendous interconnected economic ties, the geographical and geopolitical positions of the post-Soviet countries, and the huge number of cultural, family, civilisational and historical connections.
The programmes offered to the post-Soviet European and South Caucasus countries under the EU’s Eastern Partnership, the EU plans for Central Asia and certain US projects underway in the post-Soviet space are designed to tear these countries away from the Russian Federation. Artificial obstacles are being created to prevent the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) from obtaining an international legal capacity and competence. In particular, attempts have been made to hinder cooperation between the EAEU and the UN, and much else.
This policy culminated in the developments in Ukraine, starting in 2004 when the country was forced to hold a third, unconstitutional round of voting so as to ensure the victory of the candidate the West wanted to see in power. You know what happened in 2014 – these events are still fresh in our memory. An agreement was reached to overcome the crisis. The West actively mediated and signed it. But next morning the opposition trampled that agreement underfoot, and the West did nothing to prevent this, believing, in our opinion, that this would be of more benefit to itself. In other words, the inability of our Western partners to honour agreements is a serious fact, which we, and not only we, have to take into account. They are now trying to apply this method in Belarus, and they are offering their mediation. Of course, we will accept any formula adopted by the Belarusian leadership in its dialogue with the people. When the West says that the only effective solution is mediation involving Western countries, this makes all of us think back to what happened in Ukraine, where Western mediation translated into the complete inability of our partners to honour agreements. The Belarusian people must find a solution to this problem independently. I believe that the signs of normalisation apparent in Belarus are very important. I also know that this is not to everyone’s liking. Some forces would like to make the peaceful course of events in Belarus more violent, to provoke bloodshed and shift the events towards a Ukrainian scenario.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin has always answered calls from his EU colleagues, who are concerned about the developments in Belarus. My colleagues and the EU foreign policy chief called me. We believe that no recipes should be forced on Belarus. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has recently spoken up in favour of dialogue during his meetings with workers, including – this is extremely important – a dialogue on reforming the constitution. We believe that this is a highly promising path.
Despite our differences with our Western colleagues, we have never held a grudge against them and never refuse to talk with them because of what they have done or said. Reality is much harsher than any scheme. We in Russia say that a grudge is a heavy burden to carry, which is absolutely unacceptable in foreign policy. Diplomats must show and exercise restraint. Our role model is the President. We are acting in this way even in relations with the United States, which has tried to pin everything on us, including interference in its elections, and of violating all disarmament treaties, from which the United States itself has withdrawn under this pretext. Despite all this, we never shuffle off when we see that our collaboration with the United States, the EU or other countries that may take an unfriendly stance towards Russia can help settle a problem or a conflict. We always agree to talk. This is demonstrated by the regular visits by Western representatives and our trips to other countries. There are very many conflicts in the world which can only be settled through concerted efforts, because all problems have acquired global and cross-border characteristics. These include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drug trafficking and all other forms of organised crime, global warming, climate change, food security and water scarcity. Nearly every subject that is of concern to people is becoming a global problem in this interdependent world. This is why when we extend a hand we do not ask for anything but sincerely offer cooperation to all those who are ready to collaborate with us exclusively on the basis of equality, respect for each other’s interests and desire to look for solutions based on a balance of these interests. This is always possible if you respect the noble goals that constitute the essence of the UN Charter.
I strongly hope that our meeting today will promote the development of new ideas in this spirit.
Thank you. I am ready for your questions now.
Question: What does serving your Fatherland mean to you?
Sergey Lavrov: Having worked for so long, this is not the question that comes to mind. All you do is just try to honestly do the work that you have been assigned, especially when it comes to the work I have been assigned over the past years by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. This is how I would answer this question. One of the great minds said “Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.” This is probably where the key to this question lies. Do not love yourself in the sphere of activity you choose, but the goals you face in this activity. You have to love them in yourself. In other words, do not love yourself in your Fatherland, but your Fatherland within you. Neoliberal philosophers will probably categorically disagree with the way this question was framed. As you know, in neoliberal thinking the human person is centre stage in everything, which is understandable. However, when this becomes the sole priority detached from everything else, including the way a human person treats others, there are intelligent ideas to counter this narrative. One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. For this reason, nothing good can come out of crass individualism preached by neoliberals. By the way, countries guided by neoliberal thinking rather than collective approaches to problem solving during the coronavirus pandemic tended to suffer more than others. For this reason, my advice would be to view the profession you choose as an opportunity for doing your best to achieve the goals pursued by researchers, diplomats, business leaders and government officials. Overall, love your Fatherland in yourself, and not yourself in your Fatherland.
Question: Could you share the best piece of advice you ever got in your life and your life creed?
Sergey Lavrov: In essence, I am a religious person, but I have never been to confession, and your question invites me to do just that. You know, I cannot recall any specific advice, like somebody telling me: “Sergey, remember my advice for the rest of your life.” But I had worthy teachers. Of course, I can name Yevgeny Primakov, and before him Yevgeny Makeyev who headed the department where I worked after returning from Sri Lanka. Before him there was Alexey Nesterenko, another great diplomat. In Sri Lanka, I reported to Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Soviet Union Rafik Nishanov. He is still alive and well, and I wish him a healthy, long life. I do not remember anyone telling me: “Here is my piece of advice for you.” By the way, I never give advice to other people either. Everything that helps me in this life (apart from what I got from my parents) I got from my own experience, what I observed during talks and during conversations with those great people and legions of our top-notch diplomats.
As for my life creed, what matters the most for me in people is their decency. I hope that I, my family and friends will never be betrayed. Sorry if the answer to your question was not as spectacular as you may have expected.
Question: The United States, China and many other countries have already launched and are successfully operating 5G networks that offer huge opportunities. How can you explain the lack of decisions to build 5G in Russia after the launch of a test network?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not exactly my sort of question, but of course we are following these developments. The international community has been actively discussing 5G networks from a geopolitical rather than technological perspective. As far as I am aware, it is not true that there was no decision. The Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media is actively working on these matters. There is a question on allocating specific frequencies for 5G networks, since the military have been using these frequencies for a long time. We need a solution so that the military retain the possibility to use these frequencies alongside 5G networks, or find another way of doing it. That said, 5G is a major topic for us, just as for the entire world. President of Russia Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions that we cannot allow our country to fall behind when it comes to new technology, be it 5G or artificial intelligence. Let me reiterate that I am not directly involved, but I know that my colleagues in the Government are proactive in carrying out the President’s instructions. I strongly believe that we will soon hear about a solution to this matter. There is no doubt that we will not follow the example set by the Americans who demand that no one works with China on 5G, in particular with Huawei. This is not something we would do. On the contrary, we are interested in working with other countries on developing and introducing state-of-the-art technology.
Question: You mentioned that many issues today concern the entire world and that Russia is making a great effort to help other countries, not only the ones with major problems but also locally, by writing off debts and assisting with the renovation of certain facilities. At the same time, when somebody helps or wants to help us, we often reject their offer. Don’t you think (perhaps it is the state’s position) that in this case, pride should become secondary? We have plenty of problems in Russia that need to be addressed.
Sergey Lavrov: Could you give me an example? When did somebody offer us help that we rejected?
Question: For example, Norilsk. As far as I recall, the United States offered its technology for dealing with the light fractions of oil that sink into water in order to remove them. I read that they have the technology for this. They offered help but Russia politely declined.
Sergey Lavrov: Once again, I am not an expert in this matter. I am not familiar with this technology. It is the same as choosing where to treat a sick person, in Omsk or abroad. The accident was, of course, very serious. You know that President Vladimir Putin and the Prime Minister were directly involved in the cleanup efforts. The President recently requested reports from those who were in charge of eliminating the damage. If the decision was made to decline the offer it means that our technology was found good enough for the job. I do not want to suspect anybody of impure intentions but, when in this kind of circumstances somebody offers us something, it may be better to rely on one’s own resources unless the situation is critical. Speaking about the Americans’ proposal concerning the accident in Norilsk, we have also offered our help to the Americans in the past, including with the forest fires in California. We offered our very efficient Beriev Be-200 utility aircraft. The United States also politely declined. I do not want to cast doubt on the professionalism of either our or American specialists and say that they were wrong to reject our help and we were wrong to decline their offer. The situation requires a solely professional approach. And I have no reasons to suspect either our experts or the American ones.
Question: The developments in Belarus have had a negative effect on relations between our countries. What is the outlook for the military-political situation and what measures can the Russian leadership take to stabilise it?
Sergey Lavrov: Our leaders have spoken up on this subject more than once. President Putin has discussed it with the German Chancellor, the French President and President of the European Council Charles Michel. The Kremlin has issued detailed comments on these conversations, and the Foreign Ministry has posted comments on my conversations with the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, the Foreign Minister of Sweden and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. Our approach is very simple: this is the internal affair of the Republic of Belarus. Belarusians are wise people and can deal with this situation independently. The main thing is not to use external methods to provoke unrest there. The situation is normalising there now, but we know for sure that this is not to everyone’s liking. The representatives of the opposition, who have established a Coordination Council, and some Western countries, above all the United States, who have attempted to present the council as a legitimate negotiating partner of the Belarusian Government, are dissatisfied with the fact that protests are declining in number or at least that the rallies are not becoming more massive and violent. And they are also dissatisfied with the fact that these protests are peaceful. After the initial outbreaks of violence reported in the first days of the protests, there is no evidence of violence during these rallies now. But some members of the Belarusian opposition who are living in the West and have tried to influence the developments in their home country would like the protests to be different – they need bloodshed so as to provoke a desired response from the Belarusian law enforcement services, which are not hurting anyone and are not interfering with peaceful rallies. As I said in my opening remarks, they would like to enact a Ukrainian scenario. We consider this to be criminal and, speaking objectively about the Coordination Council, we have some questions about the manner in which it was established. Moreover, some council members learned about being included in it from the press and social media. Some of them have said that they do not want to be members of the Coordination Council. We have looked at the council’s composition. Many of its members have a negative attitude to the development of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in Lithuania, where she moved after announcing that she wanted to take care of family affairs and her children. It appears that she has not been allowed to calm down, and she is now making harsh political statements, demanding the continuation of strikes and protest rallies. It is notable that she is making such statements increasingly often in English rather than in Russian or Belarusian. In other words, her target audience, and probably the main audience, is in the West and although I cannot say this with certainty, the objective of this method is perhaps to prevent the Western countries from calming down and to convince them to continue to fiddle with this situation. I also know that far from everyone in the West accept this approach. We are aware of the public statements made by officials in Lithuania and Poland, who have openly demanded a change of government in Belarus and are helping collect money for those workers who have yielded to pressure and gone on strike. This is regrettable. Of course, we have given attention to this matter because Belarus is a fraternal country and we would like very much to be useful to it in this situation. When Tikhanovskaya took part in the presidential race, she said that her only programme was to win the election and to call for a new election so that the people would be able to make their choice. She has a programme now. It was posted on Tikhanovskaya’s website, but it was deleted soon afterwards. However, it is still available in the web archive. It has many interesting details, such as withdrawal from the EAEU, the CSTO and the Union State. Her long-term objective is to join not only the EU but also NATO and to promote the Belarusisation of all aspects of life in the country through the enforced use of the Belarusian language in all spheres, ousting the Russian language from them. Her programme also includes a number of other unconstructive slogans, which are not designed to promote national accord in Belarusian society, which has never been strongly anti-Russian or shown any desire to remove the Russian language from cultural, public and official life in Belarus. As I said, this document was removed from her website very quickly, and the section of the document that called for renouncing interaction with Russia and withdrawing from the organisations where Russia is a member was in Belarusian only. It was not included in the Russian-language version of the document, which shows that its authors knew that this would be unacceptable to those in Belarus who think and speak in Russian.
The entire document disappeared from the website very quickly, which also shows that they understand how provocative these approaches are. Some started speculating that the authorities opened an investigation into the Constitutional Council in connection with an attempt to seize power. They are openly proclaiming that they want to seize power and then to hold elections, and are ready to talk with the current authorities only to discuss the terms of President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko’s withdrawal from power, and to agree on how to further promote their agenda. This has much in common with Venezuela where a legitimate president was declared an outcast, while a different person who failed to garner any meaningful recognition was proclaimed president. This has been going on for more than a year now, inflicting immense damage on the people of Venezuela who are suffering from sanctions; a sea blockade is about to be imposed.
There was also a report that the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition called on the law enforcement officers to “take the people’s side,” as they put it, and promised them extra pay, apartments and additional financing. In terms of the legitimacy of what the Coordination Council is doing, as far as I can tell (even though I am not a lawyer, but there are many law professionals here, as far as I know) this was a call to betray the oath, or I do not understand anything.
Let me reiterate that the people who are pulling the strings have probably understood that these are very serious things, so it all quickly moved into the shadow. But a spoken word takes its flight, as the saying goes. Having said all this, I would like to emphasise once again that the OSCE has offered to act as a mediator. This organisation follows the consensus rule. We created it back in the Soviet era, and still believe that this was a step forward in our shared history with the European countries, the US and Canada (who are also OSCE members) that made a major contribution to the policy of détente, normalising the situation and laying the groundwork for cooperation. This year will be the 30th anniversary of the document called the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the resolutions adopted at the OSCE’s summit in Istanbul in 1999, which included proclaiming the indivisibility of security and the idea that OSCE members will not seek to ensure their security to the detriment of others, that everyone is equal and consensus provides the only way forward within the OSCE.
When we drew the attention of our Western partners to the fact that NATO’s activities and its failure to keep its promise not to expand eastward closer to the Russian borders were inconsistent with the principle of indivisible security, they ignored us. By the same token, they ignored the principles set forth in the Paris Charter for a New Europe, and the resolutions of other summits. There are many sub-regional organisations across this space, including NATO and the European Union (EU). However, there are also the CIS, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and now the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). There were resolutions stipulating that the multitude of these structures within the OSCE space should foster initiatives to promote cooperation among them. They forgot about this as well. These catchy slogans mostly date back to 1990 or immediately after it when our Western partners thought that everything was “locked and loaded.” They proclaimed the end of history. All other systems apart from liberal capitalism seemed to have perished. Today, when we try to appeal to the conscience of our colleagues and call on them to respect the principles of sovereign equality, non-interference in domestic affairs and refraining from strengthening one’s security to the detriment of others (the same principles actively promoted by the West in the last years of the Soviet Union and approved by consensus), they adopt an evasive stance and refuse to set out these principles in legally binding documents.
Let’s now turn to OSCE mediation. There is much talk on this subject among many Western leaders in Europe and the United States who are calling on us to influence President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko so that he agrees to OSCE mediation. First, we know what came out of the Western mediation efforts in Ukraine in 2014 when an agreement was reached and signed by the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France. The next morning, the opposition said that it decided otherwise and seized a government building. When we said: “You signed this, so you could at least call your opposition protégés to order”– there was no response. They washed their hands of it, as if everything was happening as planned. The memory of these events remains fresh among us and the Belarusians. We saw this with our own eyes.
Second, the OSCE has an Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a structure that monitors elections. Belarusians invited the organisation to send its observers to the presidential election. When this invitation arrived, the organisation said that it would not send its observers because the invitation “came too late.” I have already told the media that OSCE members, including Belarus, are under no obligation to respect any specific deadlines when inviting observers. There is only one obligation: each of the OSCE members must invite international observers to monitor domestic elections, and this was done. As for the deadlines and the criteria applying to the time of arrival, and how many people must arrive first, and how many later for the vote itself, there are no specific regulations to this effect. Together with our colleagues within the CIS, we have been calling for the reform of this office since 2007. We made concrete proposals to launch discussions so as to avoid any ambiguity about how to receive observers, and to have the same rules for everyone. Our Western partners adamantly oppose this. We tell them that this organisation lacks cohesion, but they tell us that this is its advantage, a golden standard. The less cohesion it has, the easier it can be manipulated, especially when led by countries represented by the West. Not a single representative from the CIS ever had an even remotely important office within the OSCE. I felt that I had to provide a detailed answer to this question because it is very important and causes universal concern. Belarusians are our true brothers. I love this country where I have many colleagues and personal friends.
I think that it would be a huge mistake to ignore the proposal by the President of Belarus to launch a constitutional reform process and to ignore his invitation to all the healthy forces interested in the country developing normally to participate in this constitutional reform.
Question: What is the reason for the current developments in Belarus?
Sergey Lavrov: He who makes no mistakes makes nothing. This is true for any society and state. A wise leader corrects mistakes and draws lessons from them, trying to make fewer mistakes in the future.
In a democratic society it is impossible to control everything and everyone, no matter what people may say about a strong vertical of power. You have to learn to live with the fact and try to draw lessons from your experiences, which can be positive or negative. It is a fact as well that radical opposition closely monitored the election in Belarus, including those who are directly connected with our Western partners. This was obvious. The OSCE has taken a stand, claiming superciliously that it had not been invited [to monitor the election] at the right time, although the timeframe had never been discussed. They had been invited, and they were supposed to come. There were no limitations regarding the number of observers. They could send one or two observers to every polling station. But they refused to do so. They are trying now to dictate conditions. Had they respected the principle according to which the host country must invite observers, which Belarus did, and had their observers reported violations as independent observers, they would have had more right to put forth their assessments. But they superciliously rejected the invitation of a sovereign state and an OSCE member. Our assessments have been made by CIS observers from the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly and individual CIS countries. They have not reported any major violations that could influence the outcome of the election. But the opposition claims that the score was not 80-10 [in favour of Lukashenko] but 80-10 in favour of Tikhanovskaya.
Since the observers whom the West considers to be independent were not monitoring the presidential election, it is very difficult to convince anyone that the outcome was diametrically opposite to the announced result. I am not referring to the figures now but to the specific candidates. The figures could be different, but it is impossible to prove that President Lukashenko has not won the election without accepting his invitation to monitor the process. They did not take advantage of his invitation. I believe that they were wrong. It was a big mistake. At this point the main thing is not to focus our thoughts and efforts on trying to understand the reason for what has happened. Let us allow the situation to calm down and launch a normal national dialogue. The idea of a constitutional reform is an excellent way of doing this.
Question: What new trends have recently developed in Russia’s foreign policy?
Sergey Lavrov: As for trends, directions, philosophy and long-term prospects, our approaches developed back in 2000, when Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept was adopted under President Putin. It has been updated twice, the last time being in 2016. The key components of this concept say that the main goal of our foreign policy is to create favourable external conditions for internal development and to ensure the external security of the country and favourable conditions for economic cooperation in the interests of Russia’s development. This implies equal non-discriminatory conditions for our citizens who travel or work abroad, as well as for our business people. To attain this goal, we have adopted a policy of cooperation with all countries on all continents without exception that are ready to deal with us on the basis of equality, mutual respect for each other and for each other’s interests, as well as for achieving a balance of interests. Those who are ready for this, and they constitute the majority, have proved in reality that this concept is quite effective. We are aware of this trend and believe that it is forward-looking.
The current attempts to undermine international law, erode the structure of international organisations, withdraw from or close down anything, or even privatise the secretariats of international organisations, which we have seen happening, it’s all only temporary. In a manner of speaking, it is the agony of those who called the tune in international affairs for over 500 years and who see now that the world has changed dramatically, and that they have to respect the interests of the new centres of power. This does not mean that the UN Charter should be overhauled. But the interests of developing countries, which are underrepresented in the UN Security Council, especially considering their current influence, must be taken into account. The UN Security Council was established during the colonial period, when India, for example, was not an independent state.
Today we stand firmly for adding an Asian, a Latin American and, most importantly, an African state to the UN Security Council. The proposal made by some of our colleagues to add more Western states to the Security Council are not courteous, since six of the 15 UNSC members represent Western countries. It is a clear disproportion in terms of GDP, the number of population and geography. The increased role of developing countries can be taken into account, in particular, through a reform of the UNSC, which does not cancel the key provisions of the UN Charter – equality, non-interference, non-use of force or the threat of force, as well as a peaceful settlement of any disputes. In other words, the underlying principles of our foreign policy are more durable than the attempts made by some Western countries to wreck the organisation that was created after WWII.
Question: Last February, I suggested to Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev the initiative to carry out youth projects on preserving historical memory directly in the CSTO zone of responsibility. In other words, I proposed working with young people in the CSTO format. Such work is not being conducted right now. I prepared the required initiatives and proposals, and have already got them approved by the CSTO Secretariat. They emphasised that this is a sound idea, and I received approval for it with the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, notably, with its international department. Now I have to take the last step in this chain. I need to coordinate it with the CIS First Department. I would like to ask you to support this project. Eventually, it will create the CSTO Youth Union.
Sergey Lavrov: You are guaranteed such support. Your papers probably are still in the department. But if you send this package to me personally, things will move faster.
Question: What was the most interesting moment in your professional career? Could you describe it?
Sergey Lavrov: I am often asked this question, but I really don’t know the answer. It is in my character to remember only the outcome of talks once they are over. I don’t keep any records for future memoirs. I get rid of all the papers straight away.
One of the memorable moments was probably the agreement on eliminating chemical weapons in Syria. This was done in record time – two weeks. President Vladimir Putin met with US President Barack Obama. The then Secretary of State John Kerry and I were charged with this task. We had, first, to receive the approval of the Syrian Government, and second, to ensure Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was also necessary to ensure the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution that would set out the commitments of Syria and the international community on eliminating, removing and disposing of chemical weapons. This entire process took two weeks, and this was a source of real professional satisfaction.
Second. When we worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on settling Iran’s nuclear programme (this certainly took a lot more time), we also worked with US Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers of European countries and China. Regrettably, the Americans simply walked out of this agreement, slamming the door. Now this has created a crisis in the UN Security Council. We will overcome this crisis. The attempts to make illegal use of the resolution that the Americans themselves violated will fall through.
Question: Volunteers of the National Student Rescue Corps undergo special training on dealing with emergencies. Over the past years they have taken part in a number of relief operations all over Russia. Do you think it makes sense to involve rescue volunteers in emergency response efforts in other countries that are supported by Russia? Would you support this?
Sergey Lavrov: The answer is very simple. Political support is guaranteed. In practical terms, you should make an agreement with their parent organisation – the Emergencies Ministry (EMERCOM). Since it was established from scratch by my good friend Sergey Shoigu and his associates, it has quickly won a wonderful reputation in the world. It is known in all countries. Help in Lebanon after the terrible accident is the most recent example. They saved and provided medical aid to people and cleared the rubble. If in planning their foreign operations, the EMERCOM professionals consider it possible to involve you (as I see it, these operations are not safe and qualifications are a must), on our part we will politically provide active support for the younger generation, for the rescue corps. It will only improve our international image because we will involve civil society in addressing very important cross-border tasks.
Question: How will this COVID-19 period and closed borders affect the relations between Asian countries and especially China? Last year Russia’s trade with China exceeded $100 billion. What further development prospects do you see for these relations?
Sergey Lavrov: It is true, there are still mutually agreed restrictions on passenger traffic and crossing the border with China, for obvious reasons. Thank God, the border and the traffic were shut down before it was too late. I think it was the first decision on a global scale to close a border between two countries. To a great extent, that helped China to stop the epidemic and prevent a broader spread of the coronavirus here in Russia. However, cargo traffic has never been suspended. You mentioned trade, which amounted to over $107 billion last year. According to the data I have, the trade is going quite well.
Question: As a resident of a border city (Blagoveshchensk), I am concerned about the further strengthening of the Russian borders. There has been a significant reduction of staff across various agencies lately.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think there are any plans to cut down the number of border patrol personnel and border crossing checkpoint staff. We are moving towards relaxing the visa requirements and travel restrictions with our neighbours. But it all comes down to taking necessary measures to maintain a proper level of security. I have not heard about cutbacks in this area.
Question: You said there was no reduction in the activity of border troops. I can give you a telling example. The 2013 flood in the Far East resulted in the closure of the border crossing checkpoints in the region. There used to be three villages and a district centre; now there is only one main village. The checkpoints within 15 km to 20 km of this village were simply closed. There is some security in place; however, the checkpoints are simply closed, with no border patrol.
Sergey Lavrov: At the time there was no discussion about the fact that the border agency’s decision, which is usually agreed upon with its colleagues across the border, had any foreign political dimension. I don’t know about this fact but I assume that the professionals who are assigned there to ensure border security maintain constant contact with their Chinese colleagues at their checkpoints. A bridge will be opened in the region, which should also have a certain effect on border security. I am certain that those who simply want to do cross-border trade and exchanges with China will not be affected.
Question: What is the outlook for Russian-US relations in light of the upcoming elections and the expiry of the New START?
Sergey Lavrov: The answer to this question can either be short or endlessly long. We are talking about special relations between the world’s largest nuclear powers. Speaking in terms of the period when detente was launched – we started talking with each other back in the Soviet era, Russia and the United States are the only countries that can exterminate each other. This logic is absolutely horrible, but it served as the basis for launching arms control. The very term, mutual assured destruction, was used as the logical explanation that something must be done to move back from the edge of that precipice.
We signed several treaties on strategic offensive weapons. The only surviving one is the New START, which will expire on February 5, 2021. We signed a vital Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which greatly eased tensions in Europe and was hailed by European countries. We also had the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). According to it, if either Russia or the United States created a ballistic missile defence system protecting the entire national territory, that country’s analysts and military planners could think that it would safely protect the country from adversary’s missiles, and this idea could encourage a desire to deliver a strike at the adversary, believing that the ABM system would intercept the missiles sent in response to the strike. At that time, Soviet and American negotiators concluded that this logic was extremely dangerous and that this solution must be ruled out in their military plans.
It was decided that each country would have only one limited ABM system. We decided that ours would protect Moscow, while the Americans decided to build its system around its land-based ICBM base. In 2002, President George W. Bush announced America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. He informed President Putin that the move would not threaten Russia but was designed to protect the country from Iran and North Korea. President Putin replied that if the move would not threaten Russia, we would take reciprocal measures that would not threaten the United States. When President Putin presented our hypersonic and other new weapons several years ago, he said clearly that our scientists started working on them when the United States announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, because it was clear that the US missile defence shield would protect it against any existing weapons systems. Therefore, Russia needed other weapons against which missile defence systems would be useless, at least in the foreseeable future.
It all began with the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and then it pulled out of the INF Treaty. It is now holding difficult negotiations with us on the preservation of the New START. We proposed extending it for five years, as stipulated in the treaty, without any preconditions. During the talks held between Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea held in Vienna on August 17-18, 2020, the Americans put forth conditions that are, frankly speaking, absolutely unrealistic, including the demand that China join the New START or some other similar treaty that will be signed in the future. Beijing has said more than once that it would not do this because its nuclear arsenal is incomparable to that of Russia and the United States.
The Americans are obsessed with criticising the New START and the Iranian nuclear programme for being imperfect. Everything that was signed during the Barack Obama presidency is described as “imperfect.” So, I don’t know that the final result will be but we honestly told the Americans that we need the New START, which expires in February 2021. We would support its extension without any preconditions. However, we need it no more than the Americans. If they come up with some unrealistic demands, for instance, that we must “persuade” China, we won’t do it because we respect China’s position. So, let the treaty expire and we will lose the last instrument that regulated the nuclear arms situation at least in some way.
This doesn’t mean that everything will collapse. We are fully confident of our ability to defend ourselves. So, there is no reason for concern. We will be ready to resume the conversation from scratch. However, this will be a huge mistake on behalf of our American colleagues to destroy the last agreement. This comes on top of the Open Skies Treaty, from which the US is also withdrawing, blaming Russia for violating it once again. This is not true. Participants in the treaty have grievances against the Western countries as well. The treaty has a mechanism for discussing grievances. But now that the sides have approached mutually acceptable solutions on settling issues of flights over Kaliningrad, the US has declared its withdrawal from the treaty. This showed again that the US decision to withdraw from the treaty is not linked with Russia’s actions. The Americans simply wanted to get rid of any instruments that limit their freedom of “manoeuvre.”
The same happened with the INF Treaty. When we suggested at least introducing a bilateral moratorium, our proposal was rejected. Only President of France Emmanuel Macron heard that we proposed discussing the possibilities of verifying the moratorium, which means not just taking everything on trust but monitoring its observance. Now we are launching global consultations with France on many issues concerning various aspects of European security, including those linked with medium and shorter-range missiles.
In conclusion of this subject I would like to say that the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty made it clear that the Americans tried to mislead the public by making numerous statements in the past that they needed missile defence exclusively for curbing threats from Iran and North Korea. The US said it must deploy anti-missile weapons in European countries (Romania and Poland) to parry threats from North Korea and Iran. But these weapons are perfectly suitable for launching attack missiles. Now they are being deployed outside Europe as well. Pressure on Japan and South Korea is bound to increase. If such missiles appear, their range will allow them to reach the Urals (up to 5,500 km), which is more than half of Russian territory. Of course, we will have to take counter measures. All these actions escalate tensions and create a military-technical potential on our borders.
Let me assure you that the new arms that have already been announced and on which our design bureaus are working will guarantee the invulnerability of our territory against any threats. Regrettably, there are many plans to create such threats. We will reliably ensure our security. That said, we are ready to sit at the negotiating table and discuss a new strategic stability situation, and new arms that we presented. We are ready to discuss the arms that the Americans are developing on the basis of reciprocity. However, right now there is little optimism about reaching any agreements.