Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview for the documentary “Sergey Shoigu. In a Hurry to Live,” Moscow, November 6, 2020
Question: You often work with Sergey Shoigu in parallel or together at international talks. What kind of negotiator is he? How does he behave in talks?
Sergey Lavrov: He is both tough and flexible at the same time. I have known him personally and as a negotiator for a long time. The Russian Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief was created from scratch in the late 1980s. The ministry was just starting when the Soviet Union was disappearing. Enormous work was done. Much has been written and said about this. In that period – from 1992 to 1994 – I was Deputy Foreign Minister and dealt, in part, with what was happening in the CIS space. It was at that time that critical events were taking place in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sergey Shoigu was actively involved in what we call “humanitarian diplomacy” – the delivery of humanitarian supplies to people in conflict areas. At the same time, from his very first days as the leader of humanitarian missions, he saw the potential for diplomacy in them. He did his best to reconcile the conflicting parties. This was the case in Abkhazia.
I remember that one of the results of our joint efforts was the signing of an agreement in Moscow between Chairman of the State Council of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze and President of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba.
Question: Was it one of the most difficult documents?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, it was one of the most difficult documents. Unfortunately, Georgia did not abide by it.
Later we worked in different places. I went to New York. He worked in Moscow but travelled overseas several times because humanitarian diplomacy had proved to be in demand not only in the CIS but also globally. The Balkan crisis broke out after NATO’s illegal operation against Yugoslavia. That was followed by the Iraq crisis. In both cases the Emergencies Ministry took an active part in international missions on the delivery of humanitarian aid, using its neutral status for conciliating the warring parties. This work was rather productive. In Iraq, our Emergencies Ministry, headed by Sergey Shoigu, participated in the oil-for-food operation. Iraq was allowed to sell oil in exchange for goods, primarily from the Russian Federation.
In the past few years that Mr Shoigu has worked in the Defence Ministry, I mostly think about Syria, but not just Syria. Our military, in cooperation with our diplomats, is actively promoting dialogue with our foreign partners. They work in a two-plus-two format. The Russian and Japanese foreign and defence ministers have met several times. Recently, we met in the same format with our French colleagues. We have this format with Italy as well. At one time we had it with the Americans as well, but it has long since been given up, although we would be willing to restore the dialogue in this format with them.
Question: Is he capable of striking a compromise? Or, only within certain boundaries?
Sergey Lavrov: I said that he is a tough and flexible negotiator. He realises when we have reached a dead-end in talks, our partner shows his hand, and that at that moment both parties can agree on something which will be suitable for both of them and which it is important to put on paper. I believe this style is not only absolutely appropriate, but it is also the only possible one, because it would be counterproductive to put too much pressure on a partner or to make concessions before the partner is on the verge of striking a compromise. Mr Shoigu knows where to stop in order to not exert too much pressure. By the way, we use this approach in diplomacy as well.
Question: What connects you outside of work? You are often together, not only during talks.
Sergey Lavrov: We became friends back when I worked in New York. He came there with a large delegation and told me how people in Siberia eat meat. An interesting story; they do it differently. When I returned from the post of Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN in New York, I joined the team that Mr Shoigu had created a few years earlier that was involved in sports, primarily, football. This is how our informal club was born. Later, it took on a hockey dimension as well. Mr Shoigu now plays mostly hockey. With his direct and energetic participation, the Night Hockey League was created, which is popular not only with our retired athletes and amateur players, but politicians as well. We now have the People’s Football League, with a Board of Trustees which I head, that holds very popular national championships each year. So, in fact, every weekend we get together in an informal setting and unofficially discuss a variety of issues. It helps.
Question: What is he like on the field? Is he into a game of giveaway?
Sergey Lavrov: No, he is not into a game of giveaway on the field. He plays by the rules and doesn’t cut anyone slack. In general, he doesn’t get any in return.
Question: Are you sparing yourself? After all, you can get a body check.
Sergey Lavrov: Well, there’s no way around it. Sometimes, I get so excited that I forget about my age and health restrictions. But I do not see myself without this. It keeps me in such good working shape that I can’t really compare it with anything else. It’s about regular outdoor activity, moreover, a team sport. I don’t like monotonous sports, but in a team sport, especially football, people reveal themselves very quickly and tellingly.
Question: In what way has he revealed himself?
Sergey Lavrov: He’s an attacking player by nature, even though he’s the Defence Minister. But, offence is the best defence. Everyone knows this from military science. It works about the same in sports. He is quite venturesome and doesn’t like to lose. However, no one who has achieved something in life likes to lose. So, in fact, this is an important part of his life.
Question: He loves to spend vacations in his native region, and he loves nature – everyone knows that. Did you ever go on vacation together? Have you managed to spend at least a few days with him outdoors?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we went to Khakassia and Tyva several times. It is interesting that the first time I went to both these places was in the 1960s, as a member of a student construction team when I studied at MGIMO University. So, it was very interesting for me to return there, especially with Sergey Shoigu, an animal tracker who knows the taiga inside and out.
Question: Does he, really?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, he knows the taiga and animal habits. It is extremely interesting to watch animals with him.
Question: How does he change when he goes there? He is always very official here. And there he wears high boots and overalls.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, of course. He is an absolutely open person. You can see that he enjoys the smell of the taiga, as we used to sing back then. He sometimes gets a strong desire to recharge, as he says, to take a few days off. I can understand that. Nature is fantastic there, with incredible rivers that we have paddled down. Fishing and animals in general, the ones you see, are breath taking.
Question: Have you caught anything?
Sergey Lavrov: We always catch some fish, enough for us to eat.
Question: And what did you cook?
Sergey Lavrov: We fried fish and made fish soup. Cooking is simple there, but the quality of Siberian fish is unique.
Question: I think that in many respects he is a self-made man. He comes from a remote place. It occurred to me once that he couldn’t have actually been a Soviet citizen since Tyva only joined the USSR in 1944. Are folk traditions and endemic folkways important to him or has he forgotten that and become a “man of the world”?
Sergey Lavrov: No, not in the least. He appreciates his background very much, as well as his people and their traditions. He likes the famous Tyva throat singing and actually promotes it. In fact, he does a lot for his republic’s development. He actively encourages the development of needed infrastructure there, mainly transport. I think this is the right approach.
He does not forget his home, but he is a man of the world in that he has understood the importance of external factors for achieving results for as long as I’ve known him in both positions – starting with the Emergencies Ministry and in his current post as Defence Minister. He realises the importance of international cooperation and the need to use all the influence Russia has – whether it’s humanitarian diplomacy or the military area – to enhance its international status. He felt this intuitively from the very start. I’ve already mentioned the international missions the Emergencies Ministry took part in under his guidance as well as those that have been carried out in Syria when he became the Defence Minister. The geography is enormous – the South Caucasus, the Balkans, Iraq, Syria and Transnistria.
Question: I understand that we are talking in a language of diplomacy but maybe you can remember a situation, a small story about his preparing for talks? I am referring to emerging hot spots or even clashes like those during the fierce disputes at talks with representatives from the Georgian Mkhedrioni paramilitary organisation. One time, I accidentally got a quick look at the talks with the people from these aggressive groups. They did not always use diplomatic language during the talks, at least in the 1990s. The talks were tough and some statements were unflattering. Maybe, you can remember a story like this?
Sergey Lavrov: I probably won’t be able to remember something like that on the spot. But as I mentioned, Mr Shoigu combines a tough attitude with an understanding for the need for compromise. I believe the balance he uses is just right.
Question: Does he sing?
Sergey Lavrov: He does, and he likes singing.
Question: Do you ever sing with him or does he perform solo?
Sergey Lavrov: Sometimes we sing together, but it depends on the mood and the company.
Question: What are your favourite songs? What do you sing?
Sergey Lavrov: Soviets songs: “Hope,” “This is our concern” and others. We love songs by Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava.