Council of Europe (CoE)
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko’s interview with Interfax news agency, July 16, 2020
Question: The EU’s senior officials were replaced six months ago. Back then, many in Moscow were cautiously optimistic and hoped that Russia-EU relations would improve. Did these expectations come true?
Alexander Grushko: Nothing has changed so far. As the classic famously put it, “you cannot hitch a trembling doe and a horse up to a single carriage.” Let’s wait and see which way the thinking process in the EU goes. So far, this European carriage is stalling, because, clearly, there’s a conflict of interests between various countries, including with regard to Russia. There are some politicians, including in the Baltic countries and Poland, who are fighting tooth and nail as they stick to their geopolitical position where Russia is seen as an adversary. They are convinced that Moscow must feel the sanctions pressure in all areas. There are countries out there, though, which frankly admit that, first, the sanctions have not produced the desired effect, that is, in EU parlance, have not changed Russia’s behaviour and, second, these sanctions run counter to the EU’s basic interests.
Brussels has driven itself into a trap by linking these sanctions to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Kiev says it is not going to act on the Minsk agreements and comes up with its own interpretations. In particular, it refers to the agreements as some kind of “recommendations,” although the Minsk Package of Measures was approved by UN Security Council Resolution 2202 in 2015 and thus became part of international law. However, the proponents of the sanctions are not interested in legal details.
Question: Clearly, the sanctions will not be lifted any time soon. But since there are business interests at stake, can intermediate measures be taken prior to implementing the Minsk agreements? Can the sanctions be relaxed a bit?
Alexander Grushko: We try to be realistic when assessing the prospects. I think, sooner or later, Europe’s strategic interests should prevail. If Europe wants to be part of a new polycentric world, to be not only an economic, but also a political and military centre, it should be interested in normal and healthy relations with Russia, just as Russia is interested in normal and healthy relations with the EU based on equality and respect for each other’s legitimate interests.
The sanctions have had a multiplication effect on a number of sectors in our economy. They have created a tougher competitive environment that forced businesses and investors to be more efficient and competitive both in terms of organising production processes and improving product quality. We see that businesses continue to operate as usual despite the restrictions. If you look at the number of foreign companies currently operating in Russia – I’m talking about our main investors, such as from Italy, France and other countries – it has remained unchanged. There has been no such thing as a sharp decline in numbers. Yes, there were some fluctuations, but overall European businesses remain present in Russia at about the same level as before.
True, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic and general negative developments in global trade, the economic situation has worsened. It is no secret that, according to analysts, only 30 percent of the global economy is currently in the green area, where clear standards and rules apply; about 30 percent are in the red area where certain restrictions apply; and 30 percent remain in an area of uncertainty. Of course, uncertainty is bad for business, since predictability and clarity of the rules are of key importance for full-fledged economic cooperation.
By the way, Kiev’s ambiguous position on the Minsk agreements boils down to its desire to extend the sanctions against Russia for as long as possible. This is how they see their country’s interests. Western countries are not only turning a blind eye to this, but doing their best to embolden Kiev. Most of the EU countries are NATO members, and the alliance has recently decided to upgrade Ukraine to the level of partner with “enhanced capabilities.” This is nothing short of the direct encouragement of nationalist forces and the party of war in Kiev.
So, the ball is in the EU’s court now, but I think that in the long run, if we think about Europe’s real interests, sooner or later they will have to discard their disastrous policy towards Russia. By the way, there has been certain progress in this area. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced the beginning of a strategic review of relations with Russia. Let’s wait and see how this plays out.
Question: As early as 2016 Russia put forth an initiative on taking stock of its relations with the EU. In response, the EU set forth five principles of developing relations with Russia, linking them with the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Moscow called this position short-sighted. Will Russia offer new initiatives in its relations with the EU under its new leadership?
Alexander Grushko: These five principles were part of the sanctions package. They cannot be called a strategy. Thus, it was mentioned that the EU would discuss only those issues that are of interest to the EU with Russia. We took note of this and discuss only those issues that are of interest to Russia with the EU.
There have been no new initiatives so far. Nevertheless, despite the announced restrictions, we continue our dialogue in many areas. This primarily applies to the range of issues linked with the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Ukraine because the leading EU countries – France and Germany – are part of the Normandy format. We conduct regular consultations on the Balkans and cooperate on economic issues.
Incidentally, Russia and the EU have acquired a new sphere of interest – experience in countering the coronavirus and taking post-pandemic measures. The pandemic revealed shortcomings in international cooperation. We made a proposal on pooling efforts in healthcare. This concerned the development of a vaccine, an exchange of experience and best practices, and supplies of equipment and medications. This is important. If the right conclusions are reached, notably, that it is necessary not to alienate oneself but to pool efforts, the general climate of Russia-EU relations will improve. I believe digitisation and greenspace economic expansion are promising areas for dialogue and even cooperation. This is fresh ground in international cooperation and it is better to develop it jointly rather than separately. It is better to avoid unnecessary dividing lines in this respect.
At the same time, we must recall how we were perplexed by the campaign launched by the West when we started helping Italy, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other countries to counter the coronavirus. We were reproached for the attempts to use setbacks in EU-NATO cooperation for deriving some geopolitical advantages and setting European countries at loggerheads. This was a very unfair and brazen campaign. In reality, we did not publicise our efforts too much and helped those who asked for assistance. We gave them what we could afford to give with due account of our own, often very urgent requirements in lung ventilators, test kits, protective masks and medications.
By force of duty, I had to deal with issues linked with the humanitarian mission of the Russian military in Italy. I was truly stunned by what I had to read in the European press. This assistance was presented as Russia’s secret operation aimed at the military penetration of Italy with a view to consolidating its position there. This is dreadful. As if you can get into Italy, one of the world’s most open countries, only as a military medic dressed in a chemical protection suit, and wearing a mask and glasses. It is no secret that the Italians were blackballed by the EU and NATO for accepting Russian aid. Meanwhile, this case is fairly simple: the Prime Minister of Italy appealed to our President for help. It was rendered in full cooperation with the recipient side. When the tasks were fulfilled by consent, we left within two days.
Question: Politicians in Europe say more and more often that the EU needs its own army with its own troops outside NATO, which would enhance European independence and reduce Europe’s dependence on the US. How realistic these plans are? In general, does Moscow see an anti-Russia trend in EU military policy?
Alexander Grushko: We understand Europe’s desire to be autonomous and independent in terms of security. The bipolar system of international relations is a thing of the past. The situation was different when Europe was part of the trans-Atlantic bipolar standoff. However, today it is clear that if Europe wants to be a political and economic powerhouse, the EU needs to look towards its own potential for military security. We have repeatedly stated that we see the objective reasons that prompt Europeans to move towards a defence “identity” and independence in this area. What matters is that this process should not follow Cold War patterns and create new dividing lines. Meanwhile, such a risk is real. NATO is trying to rein in this process and subjugate it to the goals of defence against the “threat from the East,” which means Russia.
Question: Many Western politicians accuse Russia of attempting to drive a wedge between the EU and the US...
Alexander Grushko: Any wedges in Transatlantic unity are being driven in by the US administration which views Europe as its colony and prescribes which trading partners Europe should and shouldn’t have, whose gas it should and shouldn’t buy, which gas pipelines it should and shouldn’t build. The US administration not only threatens but also imposes sanctions on its own allies. It withdraws from or undermines arms control agreements which are of fundamental significance to its closest partners. The Europeans are publicly complaining that the Trump administration has monetised Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which has “sacral significance” to them. It is not Russia that is forcing European nations to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military and purchase US weapons. This is why those who speculate on Russia allegedly driving wedges should look in the mirror.
Question: Nevertheless, in geopolitical terms, controversies between Europe and the US benefit Russia, don’t they?
Alexander Grushko: What does it mean, “benefit Russia?” Russia has a number of reasons to have normal relations with both the US and the EU. Let me remind you that in the best years trade between Russia and the EU totalled $417 billion while our economic share in the global GDP was much less. The EU’s trade with China and the US was around $500-600 billion. These numbers are comparable. This means that from an economic perspective, relations with Russia, as a resource, had strategic importance for the EU comparable to what they had with China and the US. We are not going to give this up. Yes, it is true that in recent years we have been investing heavily in EAEU development, expediting the eastern vector in our foreign economic relations. However, this is an objective reality and a requirement because the drivers of economic growth are shifting to the east, this is a general trend. Nevertheless, this does not mean we are giving up the traditional European direction, and not only because we are tied by railways, gas and oil pipelines, but – what is most important – by common history, culture, and ultimately, geography. We hold the view that the EU’s real interests cannot lie in fostering hostile relations with Russia.
Question: Many are concerned that after the constitutional amendment concerning the primacy of national law over international law, Russia will cease to comply with the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Venice Commission has expressed this concern.
Alexander Grushko: We are not talking about compliance or non-compliance here. Of course, the ECHR will continue to work and take complaints from Russian citizens. But we will act upon the rulings inasmuch as they correspond to our Constitution. There’s nothing unusual about this. Many countries, specifically Finland, Georgia, Albania, Serbia, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Austria, have these provisions in their respective laws.
Here’s a recent case in point. On May 20, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court declared the inability to enforce an EU court ruling on the legality of the European Central Bank’s public sector procurement programme and pointed to the “significant excess of authority” conferred on the EU court. This situation is not related to the ECHR, but still highlights the relationship between domestic and international law.
We should keep in mind the fact that a problem has come up lately where Western countries take advantage of their majority and try to assign functions to certain international organisations that go beyond these organisations’ statutory mandates. In particular, a kind of attributive mechanism was created at the OPCW Technical Secretariat. Legally, this mechanism can be created, but only by way of amending the CWC and having it ratified by all the states parties, if they agree to do so. However, in this case, it was approved by simple vote. And then you have attributive mechanisms that are devoid of any legal basis whatsoever, contradict the very nature of these international instruments and replace national competencies in assessing compliance or non-compliance with conventions or treaties, and replace UN resolution prerogatives. That is, some illegally created bodies, some experts can point fingers at countries and allege that they have failed to comply with something. Meanwhile, corresponding illegal sanctions tools are being established within Western associations, which can be put to instant use on cue from these very mechanisms that are controlled by the West. How can anyone agree with that?
Question: Going back to the ECHR, let’s say a Russian citizen, having served his time in prison, sues Russia at the ECHR and is awarded compensation. Will this still be possible now that the constitutional amendments have been adopted?
Alexander Grushko: Since we have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), its provisions are part of our domestic legislation.
Question: That is, no changes?
Alexander Grushko: There will be changes in the sense that there will be no conflicts between ECHR rulings and the Constitution when it comes to law enforcement. There are a vast number of cases where the states parties say they are unable to act upon a court ruling, in whole or in part, because it contradicts a particular clause in their constitution.
By the way, regarding the ECHR, the non-participation of the EU in the convention as a supranational association is the most significant gap. Talks have been ongoing for several years now, but to no avail. However, joining other conventions as part of the Council of Europe, the EU insists on “disconnection clauses” providing for the implementation of the conventions only when they are in line with EU legislation, including its potential amendments. In fact, this results in fragmentation of the Council of Europe’s convention array, while the EU bodies remain outside the ECHR’s legal framework.
Question: The Netherlands recently filed a lawsuit with the ECHR against Russia over the MH17 plane crash, but at the same time expressed a willingness to hold talks with Russia on the issue. Can you please comment on that? Is Moscow holding consultations on this issue with the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium? Is Russia ready to pay damages to the victims? And what do you generally think of the court’s deliberations on this case?
Alexander Grushko: We are keeping an eye on the court proceedings. Regretfully, the proceedings, and now the announced intention to file a suit with the ECHR, show that The Hague continues to stick with the initial version when Russia was designated as the guilty party before “evidence” was collected.
Regarding consultations with the Netherlands and Australia, we met with them on certain legal questions but this was unrelated to the court process.
Question: Discussions have resumed fairly recently between Russia’s and NATO’s chiefs of staff. Is there a chance of resuming political contact at other levels of the Russia-NATO Council (RNC)?
Alexander Grushko: We never made a decision to cut our relations with NATO. The political dialogue is ongoing, like before, even if outside formal RNC meetings. For example, contact is maintained between Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Chairman of the Military Council of NATO. They had a telephone conversation just recently. Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Supreme Allied Commander Europe who is also Commander of US European Command have regular meetings about twice a year. But the point is that so far there are no issues to be discussed. The RNC was set up to monitor the security horizon and proactively identify common threats and challenges. It reviewed alternatives and ways to cooperate in neutralising those threats with consideration for the other organisations so as not to overlap into their activities. The council was looking for niches where all RNC members had a common vision of what could be done.
Question: Is there a lack of such vision now?
Alexander Grushko: The vision is absent but the common threats are still there, and they have even escalated. Take Afghanistan, for instance. We had good cooperation on stabilising the situation in that country. Very significant projects had been implemented. One of the biggest was fighting drugs. Over 3,000 officers had been trained under the RNC for anti-drug services of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. But all cooperation in combating piracy and fighting terrorism is stalled now. The last thing we were doing – the launch of the first ever operation in the history of the Russia-NATO Council on ensuring security in Syrian chemical weapons destruction. Nevertheless, NATO decided that Russia must be “punished” and gave up any cooperation thus shooting itself in the foot.
Question: But NATO and Russia have a lot of questions for each other that cause concern. Are these questions being discussed within the RNC?
Alexander Grushko: The main challenge today in Russia-NATO relations in practical terms is the prevention of dangerous incidents, avoiding misreading each other’s intents, that is, de-escalation. The NATO countries’ leaders talk about that. No one would object to that. We are ready for substantive dialogue but this is impossible without the military. Meanwhile, NATO decided to curb all relations along the military line except at the chiefs of staff level. With all respect for ambassadors, they are not to discuss the safe distance between a ship and an airplane or the frequencies to be used by pilots when their aircraft are on a collision course.
In addition, NATO insists on an obligatory discussion of the Ukraine issue which makes no sense given the OSCE’s role and the Normandy format which includes two NATO countries. So we are ready for specific substantive work but…
By the way, we had two RNC meetings last year where we discussed the state of military security and a very serious problem – the INF Treaty since it concerned the security of all RNC members. We presume that such a discussion will move us in the right direction otherwise the dialog will be a waste of time.
Question: Is it possible that nuclear weapons will be redeployed from Germany to Poland? What will Russia do if this takes place, considering that this will amount to a violation of the Russia-NATO Founding Act?
Alexander Grushko: We are closely monitoring the developments. The Russia-NATO Founding Act sets out the bloc countries’ firm obligation not to change the structure and geography of the deployment of nuclear weapons and related infrastructure. Of course, we would like to hope that this obligation will be honoured. However, the actions of the US administration are pushing back the limits, to put it mildly, so we are no longer sure that this commitment will be honoured.
If we notice any movement towards any new plans or related preparations, we will take all the necessary measures, including of a military nature, to ensure our security.
Question: Does this mean that Russia will withdraw from the Founding Act?
Alexander Grushko: I believe it will be the death sentence to this document.
Question: So, the CFE Treaty has been destroyed, the INF Treaty has followed suit, the United States has pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty, and now the New START and the Russia-NATO Founding Act seem to be at death’s door as well. This looks like chaos in the field of arms control. How can this be stopped?
Alexander Grushko: Yes, this is chaos. The United States is moving towards it. Regarding the pillars of the military security system in Europe, just take a look at the US policy over the past few years. It all began with the US failure to ratify the CFE Treaty, the cornerstone of European security, as it proceeds from its preamble. Next it withdrew from the INF Treaty, although it looked as if nobody would threaten it. Now it has pulled out of OST, for no visible reason. If the possibilities you have mentioned become a reality, I mean redeployment of nuclear weapons, it will be the insurance shot fired to kill off the security system.
So far, there have only been hints but no outright statements regarding this possibility. However, in light of the United States’ arrogant actions without any regard for others’ interests, this possibility cannot be ruled out.
Question: Can Russia redeploy its tactical nuclear weapons closer to the NATO border in this event?
Alexander Grushko: We will take all the necessary measures. We have already stated that if no US intermediate- and shorter-range missiles are deployed in Europe, we will not deploy them either. But as soon as such missiles appear in Europe, we will reciprocate. The countries that are actually fighting to host US military presence in any form, seeking to become “frontline” states – I am referring to Poland and the Baltic states, should be aware of the adverse sides of this choice when it comes to their own security and the security of their allies.
Question: Is Russia conducting any discussions with NATO or asking for explanations regarding the strengthening of the missile defence component in Poland?
Alexander Grushko: We held such discussions in the past, and we even talked about creating a common missile defence system. But what is there to discuss today? They are implementing their plans, and the establishment of a missile base with Mk41 launchers in Poland is to be completed in 2021. This will disrupt the balance even more and will create a direct threat to Russia’s interests, especially since the United States has tested its ground-launched cruise missiles barely two weeks after withdrawing from the INF Treaty.
The problem is getting worse. The system is ready for action in Romania, and it has the adaptable Mk41 systems, which can be used to launch various types of missiles. The launchers have been deployed on US warships that are equipped with Aegis Ashore missile defence systems. The Mk41 launcher can also be used to fire the intermediate-range Tomahawk missiles. We are taking all of this into account when planning our defence.
Question: How would you assess the progress on the initiative on the mutual use of transponders for military aircraft flights over the Baltic region?
Alexander Grushko: The Baltic Sea Project Team, established under the auspices of the Russia-NATO Council, was like a ray of sunshine in the gloomy darkness of NATO-Russia relations. The participants include representatives from Russia, NATO, Finland and Sweden, as well as the Baltic countries. As a result, an international off-the-airway route connecting St Petersburg and Kaliningrad was agreed on and certified by the countries it crosses in their areas of responsibility. It became an official flight route recognised by Eurocontrol. The use of this route by Russian state aviation, primarily warplanes, makes it possible to share flight plans in advance and fly with transponders engaged. Civilian air traffic controllers can use their radar to monitor aircraft that fly this route. This is a major improvement in civil aviation management that reduces risks to commercial aviation, because this region has a very high density of air traffic. It is also a good example of what can be achieved, albeit modestly, when experts are involved and the parties adhere to a depoliticised approach.
At the same time, we still have an issue with NATO. Even when our planes fly this route with their transponders on, NATO fighters continue to intercept them.
Question: Is the idea of sending a UN mission to ensure the security of the OSCE mission in Ukraine still relevant? What is your overall assessment of the mission's work?
Alexander Grushko: No, this idea is no longer being considered. It was proposed by former President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko. We agreed because the OSCE, unlike the UN, does not have armed personnel. Its missions are unarmed. They are missions of observation and assistance. At some point, Poroshenko pointed out the need to improve mission staff safety. But today they are not being threatened. We support the mission's activities, and we believe that it performs a very important function. But when it comes to the essence of the problem, it is not about the mission or how it works, but about Kiev's reluctance to move towards a settlement and the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in the political and security spheres.
Question: Can you confirm that French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Russia is being prepared? When might it take place?
Alexander Grushko: Indeed, there is a general agreement on Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Russia, but the timeframe has not been set yet. It can be assumed that the international agenda will include the entire range of issues related to strategic stability, arms control in the broadest sense, European security and, all the hotspots such as Libya and Syria. If anything, the relevance of these topics is increasing in connection with recent events. All these issues have become permanent fixtures in the Russian-French dialogue at the highest and other levels.
Question: One gets the impression that despite positive developments, relations between Russia and Turkey cannot be viewed as a strategic partnership, but rather as an alliance of convenience, especially if you consider differences over the Middle East. Do you think a situation could arise where, for example, Ankara's actions in Libya or Syria will hurt Russian-Turkish relations?
Alexander Grushko: I would rather not talk about Russian-Turkish relations separately from the general context of international relations, which are not in a very good shape. As collective principles get weaker, the politicians begin to build alliances of convenience.
Of course, Russia and Turkey have a well-known history of relations which have had their fair share of bad moments. However, the efforts of President Putin and President Erdogan have made it possible to achieve great strides in building a strategic partnership. If you look at bilateral relations including the economy, energy and personal contacts, it would be hard not to see that they rely on a solid foundation. Clearly, there are elements of constructive mutual dependence here. Projects such as the Turk Stream and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant have a serious impact on our relations.
Indeed, we recognise that Russia and Turkey may have different interests, including in the Middle East. But please keep in mind that Russia and Turkey, along with Iran, managed to create the Astana format, which is now formulating the basic principles underlying the Syrian settlement. With all the minor differences in our national positions, difficulties and different views of current developments, we enjoy a strategic unity with regard to Syria’s future, which, we believe, should be a single and indivisible state within its current borders and that the Syrians themselves should determine their future. This is critically important. We manage to agree on things despite some disagreements. Speaking of the fabric of the political dialogue, I would be hard pressed to give you the names of other countries with which we have such close, in fact, daily contact. This is not only about contact with unprecedented intensity between our leaders, but also contact on the ground. Our respective militaries are jointly patrolling Idlib and areas next to the Syrian-Turkish border. We have come a long way and have achieved great results. Even though we have disagreements, we are absolutely open to discussing them.
Question: How will Russia respond if the United States buys the Russian-made S-400 systems from Turkey?
Alexander Grushko: This is impossible. The standard contract contains an end-user clause. Systems like this are never sold if it’s understood that they may be resold.
Question: What can you say about the Turkish government’s decision to change Hagia Sophia’s status in Istanbul?
Alexander Grushko: We regret this. There are not so many modern world symbols with a history dating back centuries and the impact they had on the evolution of humanity. All of them need to be treated with great care and respect.
The cathedral is located in Turkey, but it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it is in the public domain. In 1985, Hagia Sophia was recognised as a World Heritage Site under the protection of UNESCO because of its historical, spiritual, inter-faith and cultural importance.
We hope that all obligations inherent to the status of this cathedral, managing it and ensuring its security and accessibility will be honoured in full.