Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Republic of Finland Pekka Haavisto, St Petersburg, February 15, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
My Finnish colleague Pekka Haavisto and I held meaningful and detailed talks. We have reviewed the key matters of Russian-Finnish relations and international matters.
Both sides were satisfied with the resumption of personal contact, even though we did not interrupt it during the pandemic restrictions. Since my visit to Helsinki in March 2020, our respective presidents have talked by telephone five times. Interaction continues at the ministry, parliament and defence ministry levels.
The co-chairs of the Russian-Finnish Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation maintain contact and are planning an in-person meeting sometime in the middle of the year.
We have held a number of online technology-assisted events, including the 21st Russian-Finnish Cultural Forum and a Russian-Finnish video conference in connection with the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway connecting St Petersburg and Helsinki.
In December 2020, we marked the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries. On this occasion, Minister Haavisto and I exchanged messages. A number of functions dedicated to this anniversary took place.
We reiterated our support for expanding direct contacts between our countries’ business communities. We discussed ways to advance a strategic project - the construction of the Hanhikivi 1 Nuclear Power Plant in Finland - with the participation of Rosatom. We touched on building up the Fortum concern’s lucrative investment activity in Russia.
We exchanged views on the prospects for resuming tourism and our respective citizens’ travel to Russia and Finland. The number of trips has dropped significantly during the pandemic. We hope that the situation will improve.
We covered international affairs as well, and discussed various conflicts, including the internal Ukraine crisis, as well as a number of other areas in the international arena, in which Russia and Finland interact. We have overlapping approaches and priorities when it comes to working in multilateral regional formats in northern Europe. This year, Russia is assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and Finland chairmanship of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. Since we will be holding these important and responsible positions for the next two years, we agreed to coordinate our actions.
We reviewed our cooperation in the UN and the OSCE and the steps that would be required if we want to improve security in Europe and to de-escalate tensions in this common region. In this regard, we stressed the importance of the well-known initiative by President of Finland Sauli Niinisto on flight security over the Baltic region. It has been largely implemented, but since the NATO countries refuse to agree on military aircraft flying with transponders turned on, we have been unable to follow through on it.
We expressed our satisfaction with the fact that the well-known discussions in the Finnish parliament on how to build relations with NATO ended with adopting a governmental report on security, which confirmed Finland's status as a non-aligned country. We regard this as an important factor that contributes to stability and security in Europe.
We pointed out our well-known proposals that we put forward in our dialogue with NATO about a year ago. The proposals offered a solution to the issue transponders on military aircraft and provided for efforts to reach an agreement so that NATO and the Russian Federation hold military exercises farther from the line of contact, and approve a minimum safe distance for Russian and NATO aircraft, as well as navy vessels, to approach one another.
We believe it to be of basic importance that all countries in the Euro-Atlantic region and all OSCE member countries are guided in their activities by the fundamental provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and the key principle of indivisible security. A commitment to this principle has been reaffirmed repeatedly at the top level; however, so far, it has not been put into practice. This is the main reason for the situation in Europe becoming tense.
Mr Minister also touched on the situation with Alexey Navalny and the decision to expel the three diplomats from the Western European countries who took part in the unauthorised rallies that were held in Moscow and other cities in late January. We explained to him in detail what considerations underlie our stance on these issues.
We reaffirmed our willingness to openly talk about human rights and any other topics that are of interest to our partners. We are ready to engage in a frank and friendly discussion with our Finnish neighbours the way we usually do.
In general, we are quite satisfied with the outcome of the talks. We will continue the talks during the working lunch to discuss international affairs in more detail.
Question: Your recent interview generated a lot of controversy. You implied that Russia admits the possibility of breaking off with the EU. How do you see this break and what conditions would have to happen for it to occur, that is, where does Moscow draw the red line?
Sergey Lavrov: This interview took place on February 12, and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell was here on February 5. Upon his return, he made a number of statements to the effect that Russia had failed to live up to expectations and to become a modern democracy and is rapidly moving away from Europe. That is, it sounded as if Russia was a hopeless case. This happened several days before the interview. Hence, the question as to whether we were ready to break off with the EU during the interview with Vladimir Solovyov based on those remarks about Russia. As a matter of fact, anyone who is even slightly interested in the situation in Europe has long known that a break-off has been underway for many years now. The EU has been consistently tearing down our relations.
2014 was a turning point. A coup took place in Ukraine, and the EU showed it was helpless and unable to comply with the agreement that was reached between the government and the opposition right before the coup. Importantly, Germany, France and Poland put their signatures under it. The opposition spat on these signatures and on the EU, which thought it was important to comply with this agreement. It was then that the EU was really humiliated. Everyone knows what happened next. By and large, the EU turned a blind eye to the attacks against the residents of Crimea and eastern Ukraine on the part of the ultras and neo-Nazis who came to power, and decided to put all the blame on the Russian Federation.
The EU has consistently destroyed all the mechanisms without exception that were based on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, including the biannual summits and annual meetings between the Russian Government and the European commissioners and presidents of the European Commission, projects to form four common spaces, over 20 sector-specific dialogues and almost every other more or less important contact, as well as the Partnership and Cooperation Council’s annual meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These meetings were supposed to be used to conduct a full review of all areas of cooperation between Russia and the EU. To reiterate, all of that has been destroyed. Not by us, mind you.
Our contacts with the EU as an organisation have become sporadic. We discuss isolated issues without systematic analysis; issues such as hydrocarbon distribution, and the fact is that the EU is interested in holding these meetings only to cover up for Ukraine’s irresponsible leaders. We also discuss certain foreign policy issues. For many years, my contacts with the EU High Representatives for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and his predecessor Federica Mogherini focused mainly on “situation-specific” discussions like Syria, or the Iranian nuclear programme or some other international situation rather than overviews of our relations with the EU (because there are almost no relations left).
We meet occasionally to discuss various interests, primarily, the ones coming from Brussels. We are not imposing ourselves and are ready to consider any issue, but occasional meetings do not necessarily mean we have relations. We are willing to discuss these matters in cases where they are in Russia’s interests, as well. We interact on the topic of climate and the environment. I discussed this with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. We reiterated that if there’s interest in cooperating on these matters in multilateral formats (because they are all discussed under UN auspices, which includes the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and the like), then, of course, we are willing to participate. But this is not part of relations between Russia and the EU as such, because the framework of these relations was deliberately destroyed at the initiative of Brussels.
It is impossible not to take into account the EU’s connivance in relation to gross violations of the rights of Russian-speakers, ethnic Russians, the Russian language and culture and the attacks on the Russian language and Russian culture, which we see in the Baltic states, Ukraine and a number of other countries. The Russian-language TV channels are being shut down, criminal cases are opened against Russian-speaking journalists just because they do their job, and the shameful practice of statelessness persists in the EU, which just looks at it indifferently, not planning to do anything about it. I don’t think Russia is distancing from the EU, but rather, the EU is distancing itself from everything that is Russian, including the language, culture and, hence, Russia itself.
We must be prepared for any turn of events. It’s up to the EU what to do next. If it decides that, after all, relations must be restored and it reverses its actions designed to break them off, we will be ready for this, too. Importantly, we do not have any problems in our relations with individual European countries, I would even say, most European countries. Russia's relations with Finland are a very good example of how they are being built systematically and based on general principles, primarily, equality and mutual benefit, and how they are translated into the language of specific economic, cultural and other projects that are of interest to both sides.
The EU should not be confused with Europe. We are not leaving Europe, we have many friends and like-minded people in Europe, and we will continue to expand mutually beneficial relations with them.
What I am saying is that there are no relations, but trade and economic ties are nevertheless expanding, albeit not as quickly as we would like, primarily, because of the EU’s sanctions. This goes to show that life goes on, and the deliberate undermining and destruction of the system of relations does not affect the mutual attraction of people and businesses. Our relations with the EU do not really matter in this respect. To reiterate, if the EU is willing to restore what we call relations, we will be ready to do so as well.
Question: Do the events around Alexei Navalny and the suppression of protests affect the relations between the European Union and Russia? Brussels and Moscow find it difficult to come to a common opinion on this. Does this also affect relations between Finland and Russia since Finland is an EU member?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the illegal actions that took place in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities in Russia, which were attended by some diplomats from EU countries, we have explained our approach to this issue several times. The Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations of 1961 and 1963 and bilateral consultations with EU countries imply that diplomats enjoy privileges and immunity with the exception of cases where they interfere in the domestic affairs of the country of their stay. The UN’s International Law Commission explained in its comments that participation in public political actions in the country of stay is the most graphic example of interference in internal affairs, something that is incompatible with diplomatic immunity.
The organisers of these actions openly state online and from television screens that they know about the requirement to acquire permits for such actions, but they deliberately refuse to do so, and urge people simply to come out into the streets. When diplomats come out into the streets in this situation, especially now that the Moscow Mayor has issued an order banning such public actions during the coronavirus pandemic, they know very well that they are failing to fulfil their functions under the Vienna conventions and that they are interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs. Diplomats from the overwhelming majority of EU countries did not go into the streets despite the opposition’s appeals, which shows that they understand all this.
As for whether this situation affects our relations with Finland (if at all), I will say that we don’t feel any negative influence on our close bilateral cooperation or in cooperation within the regional associations of the north.
In evaluating the questions expressed by Mr Haavisto, we heard that our colleagues from Finland and other EU countries always bring them. We know that they are edited and written by the EU, in Brussels, and are a subject of consensus. We hear this regularly enough, and these statements are practically the same, word for word. If the organisation called the European Union has made this decision, we take it as a certainty. We reply to problematic issues, and the main point we express is how the EU consistently, diligently and deviously avoids specific discussions that are fact-based rather than accusations often made against us for some reason or without any evidence. This has no impact on trade, mutual investment, cultural events or cooperation in science, education or tourism. This is exactly what our citizens need rather than assessment of various situations, most of which refer to geopolitics rather than daily life.
Question: The Sixth Belarusian People’s Assembly took place in Minsk on February 11-12. What do you think of its outcome?
Sergey Lavrov: What is happening in Belarus is the domestic affair of the country and the Belarusian people. I assume the Belarusian People’s Assembly was convened to develop the initiative made by President Alexander Lukashenko before the presidential election in August 2020. The organisers invited Russian representatives as observers. They expressed their assessments in public. In their words, the assembly took place with keen interest and in a lively atmosphere. Different views were expressed. I think we need to see how the process goes. A venue for a broad dialogue with different political forces was established in a difficult time for Belarusians. This is a positive fact. We sincerely hope our friends and allies carry this process forward in the way it was outlined.
Question: What consequences could a potential break in Brussels-Moscow relations have for Russia’s ties with individual EU members?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already said that I don’t see any consequences for relations between Russia and Finland as a result of the policy pursued by the EU over the past seven years. I’ve shown through specific examples how this policy has actually destroyed the entire structure of what we understand under “relations between Russia and the EU.” For seven years we have lived without the mechanisms that were meticulously created over a long time, and then were destroyed overnight in 2014. And nothing happened. This was not our choice but we have had to consider this in our daily affairs, in relations with individual European countries, including Finland.
With the exception of the unlawful sanctions adopted collectively without any grounds, I don’t see any other impact on our relations with the individual countries. Of course, the sanctions dealt a blow to trade and business interests on both sides. This was the decision. Let me recall that when these sanctions were introduced, business, including in Germany, urged against hurting the economy and against making it a victim of politics. At this point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel specially took the floor to say in public that Russia must be punished and that in this situation politics must prevail over the economy. This was very unconventional for a representative of Germany.
We realise that the EU must have bloc discipline. Certain manifestations of this, like the sanctions, influence our relations with our neighbours and other European countries. This is life. Once again, the absence of normal relations with the EU does not affect in any way our underlying cooperation, for instance, with Finland, or the principles that support such cooperation (equality, mutual respect, benefit and non-interference in internal affairs).