Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during a meeting with the WWII veteran community, fallen war hero search unit, volunteers, students form Volgograd universities and representatives of the people’s diplomacy centre, Volgograd, August 30, 2021
Thank you very much, Mr Bocharov, Mr Shestel, friends,
Thank you very much for the invitation. My visit is timed to coincide with the ceremony for transferring 11 battle flags from the Defence Ministry to this memorial for eternal safekeeping. The banners under which Stalingrad residents and the Red Army fought the invaders and saved civilians are now here and rightfully belong to this memorial. Meetings like this are necessary for us to be able to work effectively in the international arena.
Our foreign policy, as defined by President Vladimir Putin in the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, seeks to maximise the use of external circumstances to help the country move forward, to improve its security and its socioeconomic growth and to improve our citizens’ standard of living and quality of life. This is its main objective. The second condition, which is closely related to this, includes our traditions, our history that goes back a thousand years, our spiritual and moral values and a loyalty to our ancestors’ behests and achievements. We must pass our country’s wealth to the next generation.
We gathered here today after a meeting at the office of the Volgograd Region Governor where we had an engaging conversation with our veterans. To reiterate, I bow to everyone who carries on the living memory of those events, who, like all our people, withstood the most bloody and fierce war in the history of humankind and are now passing on their knowledge and, most importantly, their love for our country to our young people. This is solid support for our work abroad. When we see the faces of the people whose well-being should be the goal of our efforts, then, I assure you, we can act much more convincingly and effectively in international platforms.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was in Rostov-on-Don, where I visited the Sambek Heights National Military History Museum Complex of the Great Patriotic War. There, as well as here, the fallen war hero search movement is quite actively looking for the remains of Soviet soldiers killed during the Great Patriotic War and are trying to identify them. The burial sites are very impressive. They have an alley of memory there. I’m aware that the remains of nearly 1,000 soldiers were recently buried here at the Rossoshinskoye Cemetery. This movement guarantees and symbolises the continuity of eras. Many thanks go to the volunteers, the search unit members and those who engage in memorial and archival work. Recently (speaking before United Russia), President Vladimir Putin underscored the need to encourage these efforts in every possible way. Additional grants will be allocated for these activities. In the course of this conversation, an idea came up to establish a Search Unit Member Day. This has become a nationwide movement. We would be doing the right thing if we wish to emphasise our deep respect for all those who, following their hearts, engage in this work that is absolutely necessary for our country.
I would also like to note in my opening remarks that when we strive to create favourable conditions for our development in the international arena, not everyone likes it. At some point (in the 1990s) we were approached as an obedient country that opened up to the West, opened up in an unprecedented manner in many regards which was seen as weakness. The realisation that Russia should not be confined to a subordinate place of tertiary importance on a global scale did not come to us overnight. Over the past 20 years, we have gained independence and regained our dignity. Without it, nothing worthwhile will come of a person in ordinary human life, and even less can be done in the international arena. We have created an excellent army and, backed by it, we are upholding our interests and the interests of our citizens much more effectively, we are carrying out deep economic reforms (admittedly, not without some mistakes or setbacks. The pandemic has taken its toll during the last 18 months, but we are moving forward nonetheless). This is not to everyone’s liking because our Western colleagues have become accustomed to leading the world over the past 500 years. And then a new trend emerged promoting a multipolar, rather than a unipolar world, as new economic development and financial power centres have come to the fore and have been growing fast, which gave them political influence. Suffice it to mention our truly strategic partners such as the People's Republic of China and India. We are building good and mutually beneficial relations with the overwhelming majority of countries around the world.
Our Western colleagues are trying to slow our progress. They look for any pretext to impose illegal unilateral sanctions. Long before what happened in Ukraine and before the referendum, after which Crimea reunited with Russia, the West had already been trying to build constraints into its relations with us, hoping to slow us down. So, we have no illusions. After a wave of restrictions that were imposed on us in 2014, we concluded that we would be better off relying on ourselves in strategic sectors concerning the defence industry and developing our civilian economy. We will remain open to mutually beneficial cooperation ties and investment cooperation, but we will always have our own resources to back us up. Our Western colleagues have shown their unreliability and ability to grossly violate international law and the prerogatives of the UN Security Council for the sake of geopolitical gain. Meanwhile, only the Security Council is entitled to impose certain measures of economic coercion.
This is the context we are working in.
We have many partners: China, India. A couple of years ago, representatives of the highest level from most of the African countries came to Sochi for the first Russia-Africa summit. We have also far-reaching and diverse relations with Latin America. Our closest circle incudes countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS (Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa). This includes about three quarters of the world’s population. We maintain stable, friendly, mutually beneficial and equitable relations with these partners. Russia never imposes a “heavy stick” in the organisations it is a member of. The CSTO, CIS, SCO and EAEU work under consensus. Compared with NATO and the European Union, we have freedom of expression and a direct right to participate in the decision making.
West-centric organisations look completely different. The European Union, for example, includes an aggressive anti-Russia minority, mainly the Baltic countries, Poland, and some others. They impose a solidarity on everyone else that constantly focuses on an anti-Russia approach. There is a similar “heavy stick” at NATO. This is sad. We will never surrender to ultimatums or threats and will always act based on our nation’s vital interests.
This also goes for the upcoming election to the Russian State Duma, the results of which our Western colleagues want to influence by trying to raise doubts about their fairness, and questioning the results already. We have gone through this in previous elections, but now it can be seen more clearly. We have the same answer to all these attempts: we are only guided by the will of our people. Our citizens are mature enough to evaluate the work of our leadership, to determine who they want to see in a future Russian State Duma and how they see the further development of the country. At the same time, we never stoop to self-isolation or to confrontation in our international affairs. We are ready to develop relations with our Western colleagues – the US, the European Union, and NATO – but based solely on the principles of equality and mutual respect. Representatives of these countries and organisations say they are willing to normalise relations with Russia but that Russia must first change its behaviour: this is not the way to talk to us. In fact, this is not the way to talk to anyone, that is, if you’re raised right by your parents, at school and university (if you attended one). It is simply not smart to try to talk to the Russian Federation like this. Our good will is well-known. If you want to talk on equal terms, you are welcome; our door is open.
In conclusion, I would like to stress the importance of people-to-people diplomacy (the volunteer movement, and the war grave search movement). I met today with students of the School of International Relations and Diplomacy. I invited the students to come to Moscow and visit the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation. We are willing to support their interest in international affairs and diplomacy. It would be useful in any case; it broadens their outlook. Following this visit, some might choose a career as a diplomat. I think this would be good for our foreign policy activities because we will always encourage our young people who are beginning to think about the world we are living in and about how capable our country is of stopping new wars – as our great veterans did.
There are diverse movements in terms of people-to-people diplomacy: there is academic diplomacy, youth diplomacy, and the volunteer search movement. Governor Andrei Bocharov and I discussed the need to promote the search volunteer movement, especially the organisations related to perpetuating the memory of Great Patriotic War heroes, the preservation of history, and passing on historical facts to the next generation. It is also important from an international perspective. As agreed, we will use our channels to try and find your partners abroad who share your views and pursue the same work. I have met young people interested in this in a number of European countries. We can achieve a lot together, particularly when people-to-people diplomacy, which covers the interests of very different corners of our nation, is consonant to official state diplomacy.
Today we visited another element of our joint collective power – the restored Alexander Nevsky cathedral, which is to be consecrated shortly. We have been cooperating closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) abroad. The Russian Church has parishes in many countries. It has been suffering from very strong pressure from a number of Western nations, primarily the US, which are set to ruin the unity of world Orthodox Christian churches. Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew played a vicious role in the attempt to break off the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which he has so far not succeeded in doing. Similar attempts are currently underway in Belarus and some Mediterranean countries, in particular Syria and Lebanon, and in the Balkans where the Serbian Orthodox Church is being fiercely attacked. When the Russian Orthodox Church “takes” its values abroad, it contributes to achieving our foreign policy objectives, standing up for traditional spiritual and moral values which are currently being attacked by the neo-liberal elite in some Western countries. This is an effort to defend our historical memory, roots and our genetic code.
As you can see from this brief overview, traditional diplomacy cannot resolve issues in this world as effectively as when we unite our efforts through people-to-people diplomacy. I hope we will be able to look for more ways to promote cooperation during today’s discussion.
Question: One significant aspect of the struggle for peace is the tradition of establishing twin-city ties. I would like to ask you that the year 2024 – the centenary of the twin-city relations between Volgograd and Coventry – be declared the Year of Twin Cities in Russia. A peace congress could also be held. You walked past the Peace Bell, which is an exact copy of the Peace Bell in Hiroshima. In the year of twin cities, this bell will be taken to the central square, where peace activists will gather together for a congress, and this bell will toll and people around the world will hear it.
We will be electing new legislative authorities later in September. We are all proud that you are at the top of the list of United Russia leaders [taking part in the elections]. This list makes us confident that you – we – will win.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you very much. Governor of the Volgograd Region Andrei Bocharov and I already talked about this 2024 initiative and strongly support it.
Question: Last spring, a team of French researchers visited the Volgograd Region as part of the Memory Watch project. Over 15 anthropologists, historians and university students were engaged in the work on the battlefields of the Battle of Stalingrad. They excavated the remains of over 200 defenders of Stalingrad within two weeks. The volunteers also took part in the ceremony at Mamayev Kurgan to bury 37 defenders of Stalingrad, whose remains had been found earlier. These events were also attended by veterans of the anti-Hitler coalition from the United States and France and defender of Stalingrad A. Kuropatkin.
Do we need projects like this that involve our colleagues – volunteers – from abroad? Are they effective? Do we need to continue these efforts, including cooperation with our colleagues abroad?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe you should certainly continue to do this work. We talked about this with Volgograd Region Governor Andrei Bocharov. Volgograd, as a search movement centre, can surely come up with this initiative. There is no doubt that the Government will support it. We will help you look for partners. You have already established contacts with your colleagues in countries of the former anti-Hitler coalition. We will, no doubt, help you, should you find it difficult to do anything on your own. This movement should be promoted in every way possible. It is about historical memory, which is now facing various challenges.
Question: Thanks to your helping hand, the Hero City of Volgograd obtained the status of a public diplomacy centre and is known as such around the world. Many events and gatherings are held as part of the twin city movement, their status is gaining weight, and various projects that are articulated at the annual International Public Diplomacy Forum “Dialogue on the Volga: Peace and Mutual Understanding in the 21st Century” are being implemented.
The Embassy of the Future project to teach children the basics of cross-culture communication and diplomacy is being carried out in the region at the federal level with Presidential Grant Fund support. The international project, “Volgograd-Coventry Digital Tablecloth: 80 Years of Mutual Support” has also been launched. Our goal is to involve as many residents of Coventry and Volgograd as possible in a dialogue. We want to use drawings, paintings and music to share with each other and the world at large the story of our cities and how we have been cooperating for the past 77 years.
The Volgograd Region administration and the City of Volgograd have always provided serious support in organising and implementing our projects. Programmes with Israel and Great Britain have been put together, and a project with Hiroshima to commemorate the 50th anniversary of twin city ties is in the works. We look forward to getting the results of the Fashion for Peace project which we are doing in conjunction with Italy and Great Britain. Projects abound, and they are unparalleled and were spearheaded during various international forums.
In what areas can public diplomacy be used to help traditional government-to-government diplomacy, and achieve the greatest synergy?
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you for what you are doing and your interest in international relations. It turns out that we simultaneously reached the conclusion that the search activities must necessarily have an international dimension. The projects you mentioned also involve preservation of historical memory and are following the same track. I will ask our search unit members and your movement to provide us with the facts. We will see how we can help if you have difficulties (you should list them, if you do).
Public diplomacy can help official diplomacy by the very fact of its existence. It is always good when people working in government positions, including in foreign policy, have a sense of what makes their country tick. It would be wrong not to use the deep desire of people like you to promote contacts with friendly people abroad. In the current circumstances, the importance of this work has increased many times over. Our Western colleagues decided to get upset with Russia over Ukraine, or Crimea. Then, someone poisoned someone (but no one has provided any evidence), and then other reasons for getting upset invariably come around. There’s always something. Our relations have been frozen.
We had the most ramified architecture of structured state relations with the EU. Two summits were held annually. The entire Russian Government met with the European Commission; there were plans for four common spaces, each of which had an approved roadmap, and we were moving towards creating these common spaces; 20 sector dialogues ranging from energy to human rights; and separate contacts on easing visa regulations leading to visa-free travel. All of that was scrapped in a heartbeat. For example, the dialogue on visa-free travel ended in 2013. Nothing was happening in Ukraine or Crimea at that point, which the West later decided to blame on Russia. I have already noted that they want to contain us by hook or by crook, fomenting a Russophobic sentiment in the Baltic countries and a number of other former Soviet Union republics. Ukraine is an example of how our Western colleagues want to take advantage of our neighbours to make us feel uncomfortable. In a situation where relations between states are frozen (if not buried), public diplomacy, people-to-people contacts, cultural, education and scientific ties acquire particular importance. Great Britain, with which we had many common cultural events, annual cultural gatherings, festivals and tours, is another case in point.
The friendlier relations you have with your like-minded international partners and the more projects you jointly implement, the better Russia will be positioned in the international arena, the more voters in the corresponding countries (when the government will once again come up with a Russophobic agenda) will have their own perspective on ideas like that.
I will look forward to receiving information on the search units and your international contacts.
Question: You are a role model for many people, including myself. Thanks to you, I come to understand what kind of a person I would like to become. Diplomacy is a very interesting profession, and difficult at the same time. Are you going to write an autobiography, which could help would-be diplomats?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I’m not. If you don’t write everything, it won’t be interesting enough. As for the books and publications that can help understand the profession better, I try to structure my presentations at international and other fora in such a way that they reveal my vision of the world. In such publications, you can draw on what can be taken from the experience I have gained in this post. But if this information is not enough for you, we can supply you with more materials. I’m not going to write an autobiography or memoirs, but my articles are published. They do not present a 100-percent picture of my experience but they will help you understand a great deal.
Question: In your interviews you said on many occasions that you’re a football fan, and that you enjoy rafting and write poems. A book of your best poems, The Last Compromise with God, was released recently; moreover, you wrote the lyrics for the hymn of MGIMO university, which I’m looking forward to singing as one of its students. I’ve always wanted to find out (because I write poems myself) where you draw your inspiration, considering that you’re so deeply involved in the affairs of the state? Do you remember your first poem? At what age did you write it? Could you recite it for us?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I can’t recite it now, I don’t remember it and feel a bit shy. I wrote it when I was 16. As for the MGIMO hymn – are you going to enrol there or what?
Question: I’m about to start 9th year, so not now; but that’ the school I’m going to apply to.
Sergey Lavrov: You can start learning the lyrics. As for where to find inspiration, Andrei Voznesensky, Lord bless his soul, wrote the following: “Poems are not written, they happen, like feelings or sunset. The soul is a blind accomplice. I didn’t write it – it just happened so.” Something like that.
Question (musical form): I would like to phrase my question as a verse from a song (Viktoria Shchlyanova sings the song “Cancel the war”, with music by Tatiana Vetrova and lyrics by Alexander Maiyer).
Sergey Lavrov: Your performance has moved me to tears. Not only does Viktoria have great talent as a singer and actress, but there is also so much genuine emotion when she sings that you can really see that this is how she actually feels and is honest in what she says.
The question, when will we cancel war, is not an easy one. If it depended entirely on us, this would be a done deal.
Today, we talked about the heroism of the veterans and the Great Victory in the Great Patriotic War, World War II.
The purpose of the United Nations, for which it was created, is stated in the very beginning of its Charter: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” This, by definition, implied a world war. And we have to acknowledge that the countries that formed the coalition to defeat Hitler have mostly managed to avoid destructive wars. A global, world war that the UN was designed to avert has not happened. However, multiple regional and internal conflicts bring the affected populations as much hardship and suffering as world wars.
Our colleagues from Western countries are now seeking to spread democracy the way they see it around the world, which is the most dangerous trend of our time. It is for this reason that Iraq was devastated. In May 2003, then-President of the United States, George W. Bush, standing aboard an air carrier in the Persian Gulf, proclaimed the “victory” of democracy in Iraq. However, Iraq still scrambles to restore its territorial integrity, while the number of those who fell in the process of bringing democracy to the country runs in the hundreds of thousands. New terrorist groups emerged after the Americans invaded Iraq, in particular, the Islamic State (ISIS).
Al-Qaeda appeared in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, when the Taliban took power there for the first time. The war in Iraq paved the way for the creation of the Islamic State. After the bombing of Libya, terrorists spilled over into Sub-Saharan Africa, producing ISIS offshoots in various regions. Before the bombing of Libya by the Americans, people there benefited from a generous safety net. That country had vast oil reserves, and the oil is still there, but everything lies in ruins now. There was free education, medicine, petrol and many other things. The US enabled the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, and showed this atrocity live. Perhaps, he was a dictator, to a certain extent. Yes, there was repression under Gaddafi, and some people were held in prisons. But this pales in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who died for the democratisation of their country launched by our Western colleagues.
The same goes for Iraq. There was a fierce, authoritarian and somewhat despotic regime there. However, if we view human life as the ultimate value, considering that all the universal declarations on human rights put the main emphasis on the right to life, the comparison of what was before, and what came after is clearly not to the advantage of those who sought to bring “democracy” to this country.
What we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, they have been acting along the same lines for twenty years, persisting in imposing their own ways, and the efforts they spent could have been put to better use elsewhere. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as the saying goes. There is also a saying about not trying to punch above one’s weight. This does not serve any good. Today, this is the main threat that can lead to new armed conflicts.
We have never done anything like this. Every time President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin decided to use armed forces abroad in recent years, he did so in accordance with the international law.
In 2008, when a somewhat erratic Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered his troops to start shelling South Ossetia, where Russian peacekeepers were stationed, he got what he was asking for, since an attack against peacekeepers is tantamount to an attack against a country. It took a tremendous effort for the Russian Armed Forces at the time to enter South Ossetia through the Roksky Tunnel, since there were plans to blow it up.
Syria was next in line after Iraq and Libya. Terrorists from ISIS and its offshoots were literally at the gate of the Syrian capital. It was a matter of just weeks before terrorists would have seized power in the country. The West was watching quite calmly. They had their own logic. For them, President Bashar Assad was not a democrat, while the Syrian Arab Republic “needed democracy.” In order to overthrow an unwanted president, they decided to rely on outright terrorists. There is much more to this. The legitimate government asked us to prevent Syria from falling apart, and we went there, interfered in the conflict and defended the country’s statehood, as well as Christianity. After all, Syria is the cradle of Christianity. All followers of the Christian faith were at risk in this country. We set the conditions in place for the ongoing efforts to achieve a political settlement, and it is not our fault that it has not been as straightforward as it could have been.
We never have any aggressive intentions. Not so long ago, planned military exercises were held on the border with Ukraine. While planning them, we had to take into account the fact that the DefenderEurope war games, the largest in NATO’s history, had been organised by that time right across the Russia‒NATO line of contact. Do you remember the commotion that broke out? Russia was said to be getting ready to conquer Ukraine. We explained that we were conducting those exercises on our own territory. But what were the Americans, Canadians, Brits and other countries that have no common border with us doing on our neighbours’ territory, where tens of thousands of units of military equipment, troops and personnel had flocked together on our borders and were clearly rehearsing combat operations against the Russian Federation? We will certainly be accused ofbringing about a situation where NATO is forced to regroup, rearm and move its infrastructure to the Baltic states and other countries located on our borders. All of this is being done under the slogan of defending Ukraine from Russian aggression.
But in February 2014, when a coup d’etat took place in Ukraine contrary to the agreements guaranteed by [certain] Western countries and the EU, those guarantors just shrugged their shoulders in reply to our demands that they should force Kiev and those responsible for the coup who had come to power there, to abide by the agreements, and again began talking about democracy. They were not too concerned about the fact that from its first days, the regime proclaimed that its goal was to oust Russians, ban the Russian language and culture, as well as the Russian-speaking population. When we responded to the decision, to the free [referendum] vote taken by the residents of Crimea, who did not want to remain part of a state where Russians were being eliminated in every sense, the West again started accusing us of every sin.
Conniving at the current Ukrainian authorities and attempting to create an impression that all of Ukraine’s woes were the result of Russia’s “failure” to comply with the Minsk agreements (although these documents do not mention Russia even once, but they do mention Kiev on ten occasions, making it incumbent on Ukraine to talk directly to Donetsk and Lugansk) have gone nowhere. Just like the leaders of the Right Sector who were publicly urging the ouster of Russians from Crimea in February 2014, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky said directly in one of his interviews a few weeks ago that he would advise Russians to draw their own conclusions and make up their minds. If they think that they are Russians and cannot do without all things Russian, they should beat it to the Russian Federation. How can this be allowed in today’s world, in the liberal societies on whose doors he is knocking in an attempt to make it into the EU?
Unfortunately, there are many of those wishing to disregard the song you have sung and the questions it asks. We will do our best for these rhetorical questions to stop being rhetorical. So far, they sound approximately in this way: “Oh, when will you do what you will never do?” I think this must be changed. This song may usher in an international youth movement. I was looking at you and I believe that you are well qualified to become a symbol of this movement. You will be much more convincing in your fight for peace than Greta Thunberg in her climate crusade.
Sergey Lavrov: Mr Bocharov,
Thank you for this meeting. It was important for me to absorb your sentiments, ideas and aspirations. I am confident that we will not just continue to talk about many things that have been discussed today but will make them focal points in our work.