Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during his visit to the St Petersburg Сadet Сorps Boarding School of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, St Petersburg, September 6, 2021
Thank you for such a hospitable reception. I am pleased that you have invited me here. I have heard much about your educational institution, but seeing is believing. I am impressed. This is an incredible building and fantastic infrastructure. I hear you have wonderful teachers and a state-of-the-art academic programme. So all that’s left is to learn, learn and learn.
Russia has a centuries-long history of cadet corps. There were many glorious cadets who loved their Motherland and defended its interests inside the country and in the international arena. Keeping up this tradition, including in this boarding school, is of great importance for preserving the continuity of generations, receiving knowledge and upholding our history and the truth inside the state and in foreign affairs.
This is exactly the goal of your cadet corps. As I can see, you feel comfortable here. I wish you all the best.
As for my own life, I don’t want to tell you a long story. It isn’t very short. I chose my profession because I was fond of English at school. I was interested in how people lived in other countries.
My school is in Maryina Roshcha in Moscow. It is a very interesting historical district. It so happened that our school had a partner gymnasium in the Budapest district of Ferencvaros. Every summer, students that graduated year nine went from Moscow to Hungary, and students from Budapest visited us for three weeks. We removed the desks and put beds in our school, and they did the same in their gymnasium. These were mutual exchanges. Both they and we spent about two weeks abroad, went sightseeing in the capitals, and toured each other’s countries. I found this interesting. It was new to us to see how people lived in Hungary and meet our peers.
I was interested in physics and wanted to apply to the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute. However, the exams for it started on August 1, just like at any other institute. At MGIMO exams began on July 1. My mother said: “What do you have to lose? Just try it. If you fail, you can still have another go on August 1.” So I tried. I had a silver medal and had to take only two exams rather than five. I got excellent marks on these two exams and then thought: “Why should I get ready for another institute?” This is how it happened – partly owing to my interest and partly by fate.
As for what I did next, becoming an adult and making a career, I don’t want to read a long lecture. Just ask me your questions, and I will answer.
Question: Could you say a few words about your studies at MGIMO University? Was it easy? Did you think at that time that you would achieve such success?
Sergey Lavrov: A soldier who doesn’t want to be a general is a bad soldier. I will tell you frankly, I didn’t think about working as a minister. All diplomats want to be ambassadors. This was my wish too. I studied with ease and had fun. The university is good, and it has always been famous for the fact that, in addition to studying, there is a colourful, interesting cultural life. We wrote skits for amateur student parties and staged them. There were not only annual parties for the students of each year, but also from time to time friendship parties with the Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages. At MGIMO University 90 percent of the students were boys and at the Institute of Foreign Languages the same percentage were girls, and so it was always fun to socialise. One day we visited them, another day they came to see us and sing, dance and perform amateur shows.
Studying held an important place in everyday life. I had to learn the Sinhala language, which is spoken on the island of Sri Lanka. That country was previously called Ceylon. When I entered the university, it changed its name. Not the whole island speaks this language, but only 16 million people, which is 74 percent of the population, and this language is not spoken anywhere else. I learned it, and my second language was English and my third was French. It was interesting to study. First of all, history and political and economic geography. There were also military science lessons at the military department. Our specialty was military translation. We had fun lessons. There is a section in the curriculum on interrogating a prisoner of war. Our teacher, Captain Nalyotov (a self-explanatory name, “nalyot” means “raid” in Russian) was a sympathetic person, he understood our young souls. We took a test on interrogating a prisoner of war. It was like a stage production: one of us was an interrogator and another one was an interpreter. This kind of fun game helped us to study. The main thing was serious studying and mastering the material. Teachers play a huge role both for us and for you here. I have heard very high praise for your teachers, so you should value and respect them. I guarantee that many of you will remember them for the rest of your lives. Stay friends with them even when you graduate, leave this university and enter adult life.
Question: Are there any countries that you haven’t yet visited? Which country would you like to return to the most?
Sergey Lavrov: There are countries that I haven’t been to and there are many of them. The UN alone has 193 member states. I’ve been to about 150 countries but there are still places I would like to explore. Strange as it may seem, but I have never been to Canada.
Which country do I like most and where would I like to go back to? Of course, our own country, the Russian Federation. No matter what country you visit and how beautiful you find it, home is always the best place. This is true not only of our citizens. Everyone, or at least the majority of people, want to be closer to home. Although there are countries that people left in search of jobs and stayed abroad. Such movements are frequent in the European Union. For me, Russia is the place where I work, live and rest. Every year, I spend my holiday somewhere in Siberia and this revitalises me considerably.
Question: How do you relax and restore your energy after a hard day’s work when you had numerous meetings?
Sergey Lavrov: After a busy day, I usually go to sleep. Our working days are of an unfixed duration and there are many extra events every day. We do not work in the Russian time zones. Our work depends on where things are happening because we need to respond to them. We have to prepare a report for the President if these are serious events. As for my holidays, I am fond of rafting on alpine rivers. Recently, our group fell in love with Altai. Rafting does not always work out but this is my favourite pastime.
Question: Has Russia’s role changed in international affairs over a period of the past century and what in particular?
Sergey Lavrov: On the one hand, Russia’s role has changed and, on the other, it hasn’t. If we take our millennium-long history, both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were leading players on the international arena. Far from all countries liked this. This attitude was largely behind intrigues around our country in the 18th and 19th centuries and when it came to the Soviet Union’s relations with the global West.
During the last years of the USSR, our opinion was considered less and less. Such an attitude has lasted from the 1990s to the 2000s. There is an American philosopher of Japanese descent, Francis Fukuyama, who wrote a big article “The End of History.” He announced that from now on there will be no other ideology but liberal and neo-liberal capitalism, that communism has been buried. He claimed that all other rivals of this liberal democratic order were gone. From now on, everything will be the way the West, primarily, the US, wants. However, we quickly revived the awareness of our own identity and our role in world history. We returned to the roots of our genetic code, our memory. We started saying what we thought rather than what others expected us to say. President of Russia Vladimir Putin played a tremendous role in Russia’s return to its identity and self-respect. In foreign policy, his name is linked with the restoration of our role on the international arena. The President is associated with the domestic development of the country.
The President himself, guests and participants of the Eastern Economic Forum 2021 spoke about this in detail. This important, historical forum provided an impetus for the powerful acceleration of the development of the Far East and, in general, Eastern Siberia. Russia rightly deserves the place in the world that it occupies right now. We do not hanker after foreign lands but we do not want to give up ours. We will not do this. We only want one thing on the international arena and that is to be friends with all countries. It is always better to be friends than to be enemies. But we will be friends and will talk to our partners only along the lines of equality, mutual respect and consideration of mutual interests. It is necessary to search for compromises rather than impose your interests on others. We are always ready for this. Practically, the entire “collective West” is saying that it is ready to return Russia to a “circle of its partners” but Russia must first “change its conduct.” It is impolite to talk like this to any country, especially the Russian Federation.
Our place in the world is absolutely legal. We have a tremendous amount of allies, associates and strategic partners with the exception of the historical “collective West.” I am referring to all other countries in Eurasia, Africa, Latin America, our allies in the CSTO, the EAEU, the CIS, the SCO and BRICS, as well as our numerous colleagues on other continents. They treat us with respect and are ready to build relations with us proceeding from mutual benefits and without diktat or ultimatums to which our Western colleagues are prone.
Question: Can we say that the meeting in Switzerland between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden is a step towards an improvement in relations between our two countries?
Sergey Lavrov: There were controversial assessments regarding the Geneva summit on June 16, this year. It was virtually five days after he “took up residence” in the White House, President Joe Biden gave a positive response to our longtime proposal to extend the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) for five years without any preconditions. This was a positive signal. The previous administration flatly refused to do this, and they were stubbornly rejecting the proposal to reaffirm what the USSR and the US had proclaimed in their time: there can be no winners in a nuclear war and therefore it should never be unleashed.
For the past three years we had been suggesting this to our US colleagues. But they left without even starting to talk. Our aim was to send at least some positive signal to the world community. By that time, the US had withdrawn not only from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), thereby tipping the balance this treaty created in the strategic stability and nuclear parity sphere, but also from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and the Treaty on Open Skies (TOS). What was left was the New START, which the Trump administration was unwilling to extend. We were suggesting publicly that the two parties make an official statement on the impossibility and inadmissibility of a nuclear war. That they succeeded in doing this in Geneva was in itself an important signal. Reaffirming the position on the inadmissibility of a nuclear war, the Russian and US presidents instructed their respective governments and administrations to start a detailed dialogue on the further arms limitation and control. The first round of consultations was held in July of this year. The next one is scheduled for the autumn. So far, our positions are far apart, but meeting and talking is always better than doing nothing of the kind. In this sense, the Geneva summit was a positive development.
The meeting has brought no radical breakthroughs or changes in our relations. The United States still believes that it has the right to impose a domestic agenda on us and is baselessly accusing us of meddling in their internal affairs without providing any concrete facts. President Joe Biden broached the problem of foreign hackers (allegedly hailing from Russia) interfering with the operations of US industrial and infrastructure facilities. President of Russia Vladimir Putin reminded him that we had been proposing to Washington for a number of years to establish stable channels for dialogue on cyber security between the law enforcement agencies and the secret services of both countries, so that they engage in a systemic work. They respond by saying that Russia should first “punish” those who supposedly attack the US cyber space and it is only after this that they will talk to us. But this is not serious.
Currently, Washington is increasingly aware of the necessity to create systemic channels and mechanisms that will make it possible to enounce and consider each other’s concerns. We also have grievances against the Americans. Unlike them, we provide facts, when our online resources sustain attacks from the US territory. The most important thing is a mutually respectful dialogue with facts on hand. They claim we have poisoned the Skripals, but furnish no facts to prove it. Neither are we allowed to visit Sergey Skripal’s daughter, a Russian citizen.
The MH-17 trial is currently in progress. In July 2014, a Malaysian Boeing was shot down over Donbass in Ukraine. The Americans immediately claimed that this had been “done by the Russians:” allegedly there were space photographs that irrefutably proved it. Seven years have passed since then, but no photographs have been submitted to any court of justice. They told the Dutch court that the photographs did exist but were classified, and the court accepted this. No one has proved anything to us. They say we should not worry. Allegedly we know everything ourselves. They will not supply anything. There are many cases of this sort. The notorious blogger, Alexey Navalny, is allegedly poisoned. The Germans say they cannot provide proof of his poisoning, because this information is classified. How should we seriously talk to people in a situation like this?
Each of these accusations was followed by sanctions that were imposed on our country. This is indecent on the part of the collective Western partner. All of this is based on the desire to contain Russia and its development and to reduce its natural competitive advantages in the global world. A case in point is Nord Stream 2. The Biden Administration has not changed its position. They are still against this project, even though they understand that it cannot be stopped. But if you are obsessed with an impracticable task, then commonsense should prompt you that a better option is to leave it alone and take up something realistic. Talks are in order. In this sense, the summit was a plus point.
Question: What do you see as Russia’s mission in modern international politics?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s mission is not subordinated to an end in itself, that is, to sounding as loudly as possible on the international scene. The main element of our Foreign Policy Concept, approved by President Vladimir Putin, is to try to create maximum favourable external conditions for the country’s domestic development, to ensure its security and steady economic growth, to resolve social problems and to improve the wellbeing of our citizens. We do not address foreign policy projects for the sake of making ourselves heard on the international scene.
It goes without saying that part of this task is to defend the interests of Russian citizens and compatriots abroad. The amendments to the Russian Constitution, passed at a nationwide referendum a year ago, already stipulate this. This work is also reflected in current Ukrainian developments. Our position was evident in the fact that we moved to defend Crimean residents when neo-Nazis virtually gained power following a bloody unconstitutional coup in February 2014 and immediately started demanding that the rights of the Russian-speaking population, including linguistic and cultural rights, be abolished. They announced that they would expel the Russians from Crimea when armed bandits started attacking the Crimean population, and when the building of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Crimea came under attack. All Western countries accused Russia of interfering in Ukraine’s affairs after we moved to defend them, and after we responded to the results of a republican referendum favouring reunification with Russia. This is all the more cynical, considering the fact that the European Union, in the person of France and Germany, acted as guarantor of an agreement signed between the then president of Ukraine and the opposition in February 2014. That agreement did not last even 24 hours. The opposition trampled upon it, and the West put up with this. The West still continues to pander to these nationalist and neo-Nazi habits and manners of the incumbent Ukrainian authorities. President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky is saying that anyone with a Russian mentality in terms of culture and language living in Ukraine had better leave and relocate to Russia. This is said by a person largely elected by Russian-speaking voters, because he promised to establish inter-ethnic peace in the country, but he is doing the very opposite. When people in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, also revolted against the unconstitutional coup and against the neo-Nazis and ultra-radicals who had gained power and started ousting everything linked with the Russian language and culture, they were branded as terrorists. But these people did not attack anyone.
We have done a lot to convince these Ukrainian regions not to insist on independence, as they had initially decided, and to conclude an agreement with Kiev. This agreement was signed in February 2015 within the framework of the so-called Normandy Four format comprising the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and France and the Chancellor of Germany. In effect, France and Germany also put their signatures to this agreement, which was intended to end the conflict, just like they did in February 2014. At that time, France and Germany made a helpless gesture and did not demand that those involved in the Kiev putsch fulfil their obligations, guaranteed by Berlin and Paris. Today, these two countries are also reluctant to insist that Kiev fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreements. First of all, this implies efforts to guarantee the special status of Donbass, including the right to the Russian language, special ties with the Russian Federation and holding elections in this part of Ukraine under principles, coordinated with Donetsk and Lugansk and under OSCE oversight, pardoning everyone involved in developments in this Ukrainian region and lots more. President of Ukraine Zelensky also openly and officially rejects all this. Laws being passed by the Verkhovna Rada also oppose this. Berlin and Paris are also merely losing heart, looking aside bashfully and suggesting holding a Normandy Four summit because President of Ukraine Zelensky wants this to happen. This is all they are telling us. We are presenting them with facts that cannot be ignored. These facts show that, instead of merely declining to fulfil the Minsk agreements, efforts are being made to undermine them. Ukrainian officials responsible for the settlement process are saying that the Minsk agreements are dead, and that it is necessary to involve new mediators. Berlin and Paris are looking aside in silence and can say nothing in response. Ukraine, in the person of its leaders and Government members, is saying that it is necessary to appoint the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland as mediators. This is a direct insult to Berlin and Paris. Do they not understand this?!
Nevertheless, they continue to admonish us and to say that we should meet. We do not want to meet just for the sake of meeting. We need a meeting that would confirm the fulfilment of decisions of the latest December 2019 Normandy format summit in Paris, to say the least. Ukraine refuses to fulfil everything stipulated by it, and everyone knows this.
Question: Can environmentalism become a unifying factor against the background of great power disunity? What potential does green diplomacy have?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that it not only can and must become a unifying factor but is actually emerging as one. The most important thing is that international discussions on this theme, there are many of them and they will be increasingly intense, should be based on a search for a balance of interests on the universal scale. I have already mentioned this balance which alone can be a reliable result of talks. Any imposed solutions will not be lasting for the simple reason that they are contrary to the interests of some or other countries, on which these solutions were imposed.
The important thing in this sense is to avoid what is now called “green protectionism.” President of Russia Vladimir Putin referred to this, including at the Eastern Economic Forum and in his other addresses. The European Union has invented a new carbon footprint tax. An additional tax will be levied on the goods that the EU will regard as exceeding a certain level established by the selfsame European Union. Our lawyers have analysed this idea. It does not fit in with the norms of the World Trade Organisation, to say the least. Actually, it directly contradicts them. We have put this question to the EU, asking for explanations. We are waiting for their response, but things of this kind must be avoided at any cost.
Lasting solutions can only result from voluntary and coordinated decisions to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse substances. It is not for nothing that the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in December 2015. The document does not impose any universal levels but urges each country to voluntarily assume commitments to cut emissions. We ratified it only upon becoming convinced that it was really voluntariness based on responsibility, with each country undertaking its own obligations. All told, the effect will be positive.
It is quite clear that the advanced countries that used their industries for 200 or 300 years, thus ensuring their economic growth, and then transferred their pollution-intensive production works to developing countries, creating at home the so-called postindustrial economy, are interested in polluters from other countries assuming higher commitments. Countries that lagged behind the historical West in their industrial development say that the Western countries have obtained their results owing to industry-based growth and industrial advancement, and so therefore the others should also be given an opportunity to catch up with them. There are many issues. Everyone is right in their own way.
We can reach the right path only through compromises. Ecology, protecting the climate and the environment should be unifying factors as one of the trans-border problems that no one will be able to hide from.
Question: Do you think that spectacles are a sign of intellect?
Sergey Lavrov: Those we are wearing?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I don’t. Don’t be offended, please. If you want to get rid of myopia and have surgery, your intellect will not dwindle, but you will no longer need to wear spectacles.