Foreign Minister Lavrov’s remarks and responses to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Republic of Finland Timo Soini, Moscow, June 6, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
Relations between our countries are based on a solid foundation of neighbourliness and mutually beneficial partnership.
We are pleased with the political dialogue at the high and the highest levels, and with the way our agencies interact, including in order to overcome adverse trends in our trade and economic relations. We expect the downtrend in our trade to reverse soon. This issue was discussed by the co-chairmen of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, when they met in St Petersburg in March. I hope that the full-scale meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission slated for this autumn will adopt specific decisions that will help us remedy the situation.
The intensive work that is being performed to implement major bilateral investment projects instills optimism - in particular, the construction of a nuclear power plant in Finland with the participation of Rosatom, and Fortum, the Finnish energy concern, implementing a power capacity development project in Western Siberia. A shipyard in Helsinki, owned by United Shipbuilding Corporation, is operating effectively. In general, the majority of 650 Finnish companies represented in Russia have firm roots in our market and want to continue doing business here.
We praised interagency cooperation in the area of law enforcement, which is designed, among other things, to combat illegal migration. We focused particularly on securing the proper functioning of the Russian-Finnish border, which has for many years been an example of effective, neighbourly cooperation.
Region-to-region exchanges and contacts between individuals play an important role in our relations, as has traditionally been the case. Russian tourists, despite a decline in the past year, remain the largest group of foreign tourists in Finland. Last year, over 9 million Russians visited that country.
We considered the most important international issues. First and foremost, this includes fighting international terrorism and resolution of the conflicts we are witnessing in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily in Syria, but also Iraq and Yemen.
Russia is convinced that the fight against terrorism can only be effective if we join efforts under the aegis of the UN as part of a universal anti-terrorist coalition in which no one tries to derive geopolitical benefit from any given conflict. Russia and Finland believe it is important to get the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process going. Minister Soini recently visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, and we were interested in his opinion.
At the request of our guests, we have shared our assessments of the situation regarding the implementation of the Minsk accords to settle the Ukraine crisis.
We have focused on security issues in the Baltic Sea area. We are convinced that there are no threats in this region to justify its militarisation. We shared our concerns about increased NATO activities in the region, and NATO moving its infrastructure closer to our borders.
We are convinced that all issues of cooperation in the Baltic Sea and the North in general can and should be resolved within the framework of existing multilateral formats in the Baltic Sea region, the Barents/Euro-Arctic Region, and the Arctic.
We agreed to keep in touch on all issues of regional and international importance.
Question (addressed to Foreign Minister Timo Soini): Finland is not a NATO country, yet for the first time it’s allowing NATO war games, the Baltops exercise, to take place on its territory. You know better than most that Russia is very unhappy about this, that it considers it a provocation, considering how close all this is happening to the Russian border. Why has Helsinki chosen this apparent path of escalation? How is this going to help you better relations with Russia, which you call friendly?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Timo Soini): I can add that we have reaffirmed our belief that each country has a sovereign right to choose a security policy it considers appropriate. At the same time, we make no secret of our negative attitude to the NATO policy of moving its military infrastructure closer to our border and involving other states in its military activities. In this context, Russia has a sovereign right to use such methods to protect its security as appear to be adequate to the existing risks. I am convinced that our Finnish friends and neighbours are aware of this.
Question (addressed to both ministers): Finland is a member of the European Union, which takes the position that Russia is not implementing the Minsk Agreements, which are the main condition for moving forward. Did you discuss this issue?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Timo Soini): I hope the journalist who has asked this question read the Minsk Agreements. These agreements do not mention Russia but the Kiev government and certain areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. These agreements clearly say that all issues pertaining to a settlement, starting with military aspects such as ceasefire and ending with political reform and the economic rehabilitation of Donbass, are to be settled through direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian authorities are not willing to honour Kiev’s commitments regarding any of these areas and those provisions of the Minsk Package that clearly state that related actions are to be coordinated with Donbass. This unwillingness is becoming too obvious to be concealed from the public. This is obvious to members of the Normandy format talks and to our American partners, who have taken action alongside the Normandy format to urge the Ukrainian authorities to move forward, if only a little. Russia cannot settle this problem for the parties to the Minsk Agreements, but it can help the parties, as it has been trying to do.
All Ukrainian officials are now focused on the idea of maintaining a regime of silence and a complete ceasefire for an extended period before discussing any elections. All our proposals are hanging in the air, including to increase the number of OSCE observers and to keep them 24/7 in the security zone along the disengagement line and in the heavy weapons storage sites.
Regarding the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’ military provisions, none other than President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko asked President of Russia Vladimir Putin a year ago to dispatch Russian officers to this region where they would address jointly with Ukrainian General Staff officers any issues that might arise. This led to the creation of the joint centre. We suggested that Donbass and the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission send their representatives to this centre as we thought that this would have ensured the transparent and objective nature of actions taken in the region. However, Ukraine has only hindered the operation of this agency, which was created, as I have said, at the personal request of the President of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian authorities now demand that the Ukrainian and Russian officers working in this centre be dispatched to various towns. Our conclusion is that the Ukrainian authorities do not need this effective, transparent and objective system that was created to report and prevent ceasefire violations.
I was speaking about the security issue in detail because it has been highlighted more than any other issue. Needless to say, this is also true of all other political aspects [of the Minsk Package]. The Ukrainian authorities have refused to implement the provisions that have been set out in black and white. The biggest obstacle is Kiev’s refusal to launch direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, whose representatives, moreover, are looked down upon. Arseny Yatsenyuk, the former prime minister of Ukraine, even called them sub-human. Ukrainian officials now say they don’t have to listen to Donbass because its residents are not ethnic Ukrainians. In my opinion, this chauvinism is absolutely unacceptable anywhere, be it in Russia or Finland, especially considering the experience of Finland, where the Swedish minority’s rights are respected.. We would be happy if our Finnish colleagues and friends shared their experience regarding ethnic minorities with their Ukrainian partners.
Question: Militant attacks against civilians and Syrian army positions have become more frequent in Syria lately. How do you respond to the opinion that the timeframe set by Russia for the separation of the loyal opposition from the terrorists was in fact used by the terrorist forces to regroup, increase their numbers and replenish their supplies of armaments and munitions?
Sergey Lavrov: We are certainly worried by this because we can see what is happening on the ground. I believe I spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry three times this week, and I repeatedly drew his attention to the unacceptable actions of the opposition with Turkey’s direct support. A huge amount of military equipment and militants has crossed to Syria from Turkish territory over the last ten days. I also told my US colleague that for many months the United States has been neglecting the obligation that it assumed to ensure that opposition groups loyal to it vacated the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. The Americans, who have proved incapable of doing this, at the same time complain that the positions of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ opposition groups are interspersed, so they are asking us and the Syrian government to hold off on air strikes. We believe that since this February there has been more than enough time for the ‘normal’ opposition to leave the territories occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. We believe that everyone who has not left the terrorists’ areas have only themselves to blame now. I believe I very clearly explained this to John Kerry, just as I stressed the absolute need for Americans to fulfil another of their promises to take steps against the infiltration of militants and weapons from Turkish territory. We are told that Washington is doing this, but we will decide what our Aerospace Forces should do on the basis of our understanding of the situation. We share our view of the situation with the Americans at daily video conferences between the Khmeimim airbase and the US command in Amman, Jordan. There will be no surprises for the Americans here. As before, we are ready to coordinate real combat operations between the Russian and US air forces against terrorists in Syria, but we will not agree to drag out the development of a mechanism for this coordination, which gives the opposition a chance to recover and continue the offensive. We warned the Americans in advance about what is going on in and around Aleppo. The United States knows that we will actively support the Syrian army from the air so as to prevent terrorists from occupying territory. We rely on our partners to honestly cooperate with us, rather than try to use regular contacts with the aim of secretly, behind our backs, executing different plans – plan B, C, D or whatever.
Question (addressed to both ministers): Just three years ago Russia took part in the Baltops exercise and now it considers it a “threat” and “provocation.” Why has Russia changed its position on this exercise?
Sergey Lavrov: I did not use the terms “threat” or “provocation” in my response to the first question at today’s news conference. These terms were used by the correspondent. We haven’t changed our attitude to NATO, its enlargement or the expansion of its “partnership programme,” the deployment of its military infrastructure closer to our borders or the holding of exercises with a fairly interesting script. The Russian security doctrine clearly states that one of the major threats to our security emanates from NATO’s further eastward expansion, including the movement of its military infrastructure towards our borders, and its policy of using military force in violation of international law, as in the case, for instance, of Libya and Yugoslavia.
I’d like to emphasise that it is not the existence of NATO but its practical actions that we consider a threat. Serious analysts have no doubts that now NATO has seized the opportunity presented by the coup in Ukraine and our response to the attempts to discriminate against Russians in Ukraine to invent a new reason for its existence. Before this role was played by the Soviet threat, as it was seen at that time. However, the alliance did not dissolve with the disappearance of the USSR. It had to have a new pretext and some new mission. I’m convinced that the United States had no intention of letting the Europeans be free agents on security issues. Later Afghanistan played the role of a unifying threat, and NATO has fought terrorism there for over a decade, though, I think, it had the opposite effect. Now a Russian threat has been invented, although I’m sure that all serious and honest politicians know full well that Russia will never attack any NATO member. We don’t have any plans of this kind. I think NATO officials are fully aware of this but are simply using it as an excuse to deploy more equipment and battalions near Russian borders as a guarantee that the United States will continue looking after this entire area. We perceive this without hysteria, simply as a fact, as something that NATO is doing. I hope the things we will have to do to ensure our security in this context will be perceived accurately as well.
As for our participation in the exercise with NATO, this was indeed a fairly useful anti-terrorist and search-and-rescue programme. It’s one thing when this is done openly and transparently, with the invitation of all countries of the region in question. But it’s a somewhat different matter when the same pattern is followed against the backdrop of the fanning of anti-Russian hysteria.