Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s replies to media questions following participation in the international conference Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities, Tashkent, July 16, 2021
Question: Now, watching the developments in Afghanistan, many experts believe that the hasty withdrawal of US troops from the country was a planned action aimed at escalating tensions in the zone of Russia’s geopolitical interests. Do you agree with this statement?
Do you think that some time later you will have to deal directly with the Taliban as the Afghan administration?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not believe in conspiracy theories. I heard that perhaps this hasty withdrawal was in pursuit of some kind of geopolitical goals. We should not speculate about it. The Americans left, as US President Joe Biden confirmed, because they considered their mission complete. He tried to present the matter in the best possible light but everyone understands that the mission failed. This is admitted in the open, in the US as well.
Terrorism has not disappeared anywhere. ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates have strengthened their positions in Afghanistan. Drug production has reached a record high: Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of the world’s drug production. Practically nothing is being done to counter it.
The creation of the Afghan National Security Forces – the country’s armed forces – can only be considered as such conditionally. According to statistics, the Afghan Government has 300,000 military personnel. The strength of the Taliban is three to four times less than this. Nevertheless, you can see the outcome.
We are not interested in chaos in that country and not only because we do not want it to spill over into neighbouring, allied states but also because we wish well for the Afghan people. We want these friendly people to live in peace, in a steadily developing society without any threats of terrorism or drug trafficking in their country.
We will continue working with the Americans in the extended Troika format (Russia, US, China plus Pakistan), as well as with all other countries that can influence the situation in Afghanistan, including our partners from Central Asia, India, Iran and the US. We have a Moscow format that includes all the main players.
We are not working to help one party in Afghanistan prevail over another because this would be an unstable, fragile and temporary solution. We have already been through this. Our main message in contacts with the sides, all our efforts are aimed at making this dialogue inclusive. It must lead to a political settlement and be conducted with the participation of all political, ethnic and other groups in Afghanistan without any exception. This applies to the Taliban as part of the Pashtun ethnic group, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks – all those who live in Afghanistan. This is the goal of our efforts as members of the Moscow format and the extended Troika.
The current conference is largely aimed at creating favourable external conditions for reconciliation in Afghanistan. In turn, this is very important for the main goal of this conference, notably, the development of future cooperation projects that will connect Central and South Asia.
Hardly anyone will seriously consider investing in Afghanistan as long as the current deterioration continues there. But if it becomes peaceful and reliable for the advent of business, capital and infrastructure projects, this will greatly help to ensure that the common transport, logistics and other systems in this enormous area function effectively.
Question: Russia plans to work with any country that can influence the situation in Afghanistan. Recently, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry stated that it was about to convene a conference, and issued invitations. Will the Russian Foreign Ministry attend this, and if so, at what level?
What can you tell us about the situation in South Africa whose President Cyril Ramaphosa said protests and provocations, including slogans calling for ethnic confrontation, were willfully provoked? What do you think about this situation? Are Russian interests affected in any way given the BRICS partnership?
Sergey Lavrov: We have nothing to do with these processes in the first place, especially the violent protests in the South African Republic and/or any other country in the world for that matter.
With regard to forthcoming events on Afghanistan, there will be many of them. An Abdullah Abdullah-led group of Afghan politicians that does not include government representatives is planning a trip. Abdullah is Chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation. As far as I know, a delegation including other ethnic Afghan groups – Tajiks, Uzbeks and others – is expected to accompany him. They will go to Doha to meet with the Taliban. After that, they planned to travel to Islamabad. That’s what Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told me about it. They wanted to do this as soon as possible, but will now have to postpone it until July 25.
The participants are discussing other formats on the sidelines of the conference. There could be many of them at this point. Everyone wants to boost the political process that has long been treading water (most do so with the best intentions). We think there’s no need to come up with any new agreements to do this. We just need to implement what has already been approved by, above all, the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Question: Following the talks in Dushanbe and Tashkent, do you think the Central Asian countries will heed Moscow’s advice to not allow US military bases on their territories? Which countries can complement the extended Troika format? Did Moscow promise any assistance to Kabul during your meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t have any obligations towards the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Like the Taliban, President Ghani is obliged to start a serious political process. Having reminded them of this, we expressed hope that all the parties to this situation will be acting upon the agreements, which, among other things, have been reached with the participation of the international community.
As for the plans of the United States, they are not hiding them, but expressing them instead. First, they are trying to persuade the Central Asian countries and Pakistan to accommodate part of the military infrastructure that the Americans are withdrawing from Afghanistan. Pakistan and Uzbekistan have officially stated that this is out of the question. They will not place this kind of infrastructure on their territories. We have also discussed this in our bilateral contacts. None of our allies indicated plans to expose their territories and people to this risk during a ministerial meeting of the five Central Asian countries and Russia. We have also discussed another US initiative where they will try to take the Afghans who collaborated with them out of Afghanistan and place them temporarily or permanently in the Central Asian countries. Initially, they were talking about 10,000 people. Recently, and I know this from discussions at various US think tanks, that figure could go up to 100,000 by the end of the year. That came up in today’s conversation with my Central Asian counterparts as well. They are well aware of the risks that these plans entail. They will probably make the right decision based on their own interests.
We mean that the Troika discussed, in particular, the candidacies of India and Iran. I believe this would boost this format’s capabilities. We’ll see how it goes from here.
Question: Today, you met with leader of Uzbekistan Shavkat Miziyoyev. Which issues did you discuss and what did you agree on? Did this conference live up to your “macro expectations”?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know about any expectations. We came here for an interesting discussion and a substantive talk on how this broadly representative gathering could help promote cooperation and projects connecting Central and South Asia.
We have close relations with almost all countries in these two regions and we are carrying out major infrastructure, energy and other projects with the majority of them. We are interested in our partners’ visions for cooperation in these areas in the future.
Several correct, in our opinion, initiatives were proposed that can help promote practicable projects more effectively. I want to specially mention the significant speech by President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Miziyoyev, who identified ten areas in which this connectivity can be implemented in specific projects with maximum effectiveness, based on centuries-old history, the experience that has accumulated over the past centuries and the use of modern technology. This is a good combination, which can help achieve the best results.