Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to address the second Primakov Readings International Forum, which has been organised by the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO).
I welcome prominent researchers, statesmen, politicians and diplomats from Russia and other countries, who are attending this forum.
Combined intellectual efforts and an expert and depoliticised search for the best way to deal with the current problems in this complicated situation deserve our respect and support.
The Foreign Ministry appreciates the Primakov Readings’ focus on dealing with current issues based on the experience of our famous predecessors, including the diverse heritage of Yevgeny Primakov. An outstanding statesman, diplomat, researcher and thinker, Mr Primakov has made a major contribution to the formulation of key provisions of Russia’s foreign policy doctrine, provisions that have passed the test of time. He also contributed to a comprehensive review of the complex processes underway in the post-bipolar world, which, as it turned out, do not fit the simplistic “end of history” logic.
Russia did its homework diligently in clearing up the Cold War debris and worked hard to build up confidence and mutual understanding in the Euro-Atlantic region and the rest of the world. One of its biggest contributions was its decisive role in the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of its troops from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries. We did this with our cards on the table, without a hidden agenda or double standards. It was largely thanks to the policy we pursued for the past 25 years that European countries have saved huge funds by redirecting their defence spending towards socioeconomic development and national prosperity.
Regrettably, the world has not become more stable or predictable. We more than once pointed to the reasons for deterioration in the international situation, the frailty of the unipolar world concept, counterproductive unilateral actions and the risks entailed in undermining international law and the associated growth in the use of force in international affairs.
It has become obvious that the liberal model of globalisation, which was developed in the early 1990s, primarily its economic element that is designed to secure leadership for a small group of countries at the expense of the rest of the world, has exhausted its potential. Despite the seemingly noble goals, this model turned out to be vulnerable to various challenges and incapable of dealing with numerous problems.
Additional opportunities that opened up for mankind in connection with the transition to a new industrial and technological level have failed to narrow the development gap between the rich and the poor countries. It has in fact increased over the past several decades. The world economy and world finances remain volatile. Climate change is fraught with major risks. Poverty, social vulnerability and sharpening competition in virtually every area are promoting isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, extremism and uncontrolled migration.
The reverse side of the “West-centric” globalisation model, the persistent desire to measure others by one’s own pseudo-liberal values, impose changes from the outside with no consideration for local traditions and even use force to remove undesirable regimes, has been a surge in international terrorism. In turn, nonstop bloody terrorist attacks in various parts of the world and the migration crisis that has hit Europe prove that attempts to build “individual islets of security,” sit it out in a “safe harbour” or address one’s own problems without relying on broad international cooperation are illusive.
The massive growth of cyber crime and the more frequent use of information and communications technologies to influence the socio-political and socio-economic situation and manipulate public opinion for the sake of narrow mercenary goals arouse special concern. The propaganda of extremist ideas and recruitment of young people to international terrorist organisations in cyber space is no less dangerous. For years, Russia has persistently called for the adoption of universal rules for the responsible behaviour of states in cyber space under UN aegis. We are expecting a response to our proposals.
Evidently, in the foreseeable future, the world will continue facing a number of long-term problems of a truly pan-civilisational nature. President Vladimir Putin, addressing the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum not long ago, pointed out that we must not, have no right to, waste our efforts and time on squabbles, feuds and geopolitical games. What we need is wise and balanced approaches, without stakes on unilateral global domination and the vicious practice of “double standards.”
Today, we are all participants of an objective process of forming a polycentric world order, which Yevgeny Primakov spoke and wrote a lot about. His talent as a researcher and a genuinely systematic approach made it possible to focus on the most important thing and to grasp the meaning of tectonic shifts in the international arena. Hardly anyone can dispute that this is a natural trend which has taken shape in the wake of the realignment of the global balance of power and the strengthening of the factor of cultural and civilisational identity in the modern world. It is in our common interest not to restrain this process, but to ensure its stability and predictability, and to make sure that the renewed world order ‒ cleaned on the basis of the UN Charter principles ‒ is fair and democratic, and globalisation plays a unifying role taking into account the interests of all the participants of international communication without exception, contributing to a stable and secure future for all humankind.
The emergence of new confident centres of economic power and associated political influence implies a new higher level of mutual trust, which is impossible to achieve without observing such fundamental principles of international life as the sovereignty of states, non-interference in their internal affairs, and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means. It is necessary to agree on a uniform interpretation of the principles and norms of international law. In this connection, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the UN, which enjoys universal legitimacy. Recent practice has shown that joint actions backed by the authority of the UN in the form of relevant Security Council resolutions can lead to significant progress in resolving the most complex issues.
The attempts to adapt the institutions dating back to the era of bipolar confrontation to realities of the 21st century are doomed to failure. In particular, the North Atlantic Alliance has remained part of the Cold War paradigm as it tries to find a reason for existence. However, it was unable to provide a proper response to the growing main threat of modern times, which is terrorism. Furthermore, NATO has destablised and continues to destabilise the security structure in Europe. This, without doubt, is at odds with the aspirations of the peoples of Europe.
International relations have reached an important fork. Our choice will determine the way the world will look 15-20 years from now. Either we will continue to waste our time and resources, which is fraught with a new arms race, further expansion of the space of instability, chaos, and uncontrollability, or the leading centres of civilisation will manage to reach an agreement and unite their efforts based on broad international partnership with the central coordinating role of the UN. Russia is clearly in favour of the latter. We are invariably open to working with everyone who shows willingness to effectively address key issues of global development. This our approach – in favour of collective multilateral efforts to strengthen security and establish broad-based equitable mutually beneficial cooperation – is shared by most members of the international community.
Russia will continue to act in this vein and promote a peaceful, positive and forward-looking agenda in international affairs, and also act as a counterbalancing factor and a guarantor of global stability. We will continue to build up cooperation with our partners in new associations such as the G20, BRICS, the SCO, the EAEU, and other associations in the CIS where there are no “leaders” or “followers,” and where decisions are made on the basis of a well-considered consensus with account taken of the interests of all the participants without exception.
Relations between Russia and the United States have a special role in the world, because a great many international issues, from strategic stability to regional crises, cannot be settled without them. We are aware of many countries’ concern about the souring of relations between our countries, which have been made hostage to political infighting in the United States.
We hope that the upcoming meeting between President Putin and President Trump in Hamburg will clarify the matter concerning the future of Russian-US relations. Personally, I hope that pragmatism and the resolve to use realistic and effective methods to protect national interests will prevail. This is the approach that Henry Kissinger, an architect of the US foreign policy and a big friend of Yevgeny Primakov, has always used. He is attending our forum today.
The research and expert communities are meant to play a major role in the comprehensive analysis of the international situation. I would like to remind you that Mr Primakov always considered this work to be very important. It was at his initiative that the Department for Global Problems and International Relations and the Centre for Situation Analysis have been established at the Russian Academy of Sciences. I hope that the high potential of the Primakov Readings will be used in full measure to make an objective analysis and to find lasting solutions to numerous current problems, as well as to improve the overall situation in the world.
Question: President of Russia Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are expected to meet. We know that the atmosphere in Russian-US relations is fairly grave. What do you think Mr Putin can expect from this meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that in their activities both President Putin and President Trump are guided by the national interests of their countries, and, probably, understand these interests better than anyone else.
When I worked in New York a long time ago, I recall how Ehud Barak, Israeli defence minister at the time, visited New York. The Israeli ambassador arranged a dinner in his honour and on that occasion Henry Kissinger, Ehud Barak and I dined at the same table. This was several days after Yevgeny Primakov had been appointed foreign minister (January 1996). Someone at our table asked Mr Kissinger what he thought about Primakov’s appointment after a fairly long liberal period in Russia’s foreign policy. Mr Kissinger said he always found it easier to deal with those who understood his country’s national interests. I proceed from the premise that Mr Putin and Mr Trump understand their national interests.
I would prefer not to speak about expectations because the main point here is that we will overcome the abnormal period in our relations when the leaders of the two major powers communicated only by phone and did not meet personally one single time. Yes, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia, and I was received by President Trump in the White House, but still a personal contact between the presidents, in addition to their telephone conversations, is very important, all the more so since judging by their telephone conversations, both presidents want to overcome the current abnormality and start negotiating specific issues that affect bilateral relations, including business interests and the resolution of international problems.
When we discuss with our European and other partners or international agencies the Ukrainian crisis, settlement issues concerning Syria, and the recent accusations of the Syrian Government forces of launching a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun on April 4, when we start quoting our arguments to buttress our position, on many of these and other topics no matter which it is we are discussing (I hope I am not revealing a big secret), we are being told in whispers that the main thing is to come to terms with the Americans, and the rest will take care of itself. Incidentally, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had a very sluggish reaction to the alleged chemical attack. It refused to visit the site of the incident, did not submit any information and disseminated a report yesterday, which said they were not sure sarin that had ostensibly been discovered there had been dropped in bombs from aircraft; they said they did not know how sarin got there. Meanwhile tension has been escalating over the last few months.
I am not saying that coming to terms with the Americans is a bad thing. Life is such that Russia and the United States really need to come to terms on many things. Naturally, we cannot forget about other states that have their own particular interests in other regions of the world. This simply shows that preserving this abnormality in our relations would be a huge mistake because many countries have to suffer as a result.
I hope that pragmatism and realism will prevail at this meeting, as well as the realisation that each of our two countries will ensure its national interests better in an orchestral concert rather than as a solo recital.
Question: Mr Kissinger once said that Russia always preferred the risk of defeat to compromise. Do you think that we are playing in the wrong league on a number of international issues?
Sergey Lavrov: Everything depends on who looks at this or other situation. I don’t know whether the political community thinks that we are playing in the wrong league. I have read and heard much criticism that we should not have got involved into the conflicts in Donbass and in Syria. But you should probably look at each given nation comprehensively. Is bread and circuses all they want? Do they care how they portray themselves on the international arena – as serious, responsible, independent and worthy players, or as those who are ready to approve anything the dictator does provided he gives them bread and circuses? This is very important for me, and I would like you to know this.
I do not want to draw parallels, but some time ago, one of our television networks covered discussions on whether we should have surrendered Leningrad [now St Petersburg] to the Nazis, and have saved a lot of lives and lived happily ever after. This is not a question for me. Let those who analyse the situation make their decisions based on the criteria of political analysis.
Would it be acceptable for Russia, considering its international standing, to keep mum and recognise the coup in Ukraine, and to leave Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine in the lurch after the first order issued by the organisers of the anti-constitutional armed revolt, which was supported by their foreign sponsors, banned many things that were connected with the Russian language? Should we have kept silent when they discriminated against the Russian language and announced that Russians must be kicked out of Crimea because they would never think like Ukrainians? But it does not matter now. Had we not done what we did, we would have betrayed our civilisation which our forefathers developed over centuries and who then spread it over vast territories, as Henry has said.
The same is happening in Syria right now. Some leading members of the international community have opted for overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad at all costs, possibly going as far as they did in Libya, when they only joined forces with the terrorists to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, hoping to later bring these terrorists to their senses.
Is this our league or not? Should we leave it to those who are used to playing there when we have suffered from terrorism more than any other country in the post-Soviet period, and when such dirty bargains contradict every principle of international law? The rules in this league, where, as you said, we should probably not play, are undermining absolutely all foundations of international law and all principles of the UN Charter. I don’t know if this is our business or not, but I do believe that we must protect what we pledged to protect after the Great Victory of 1945. I have no other answer to this question. As I have said, this is a matter of taste, education and political views. I have put forth my views.
Question: Nowadays, regrettably, a meeting of presidents is not always enough to convince the people of a nation they are leader of. Thus, in the United States, Congress is playing a huge role in shaping foreign policy, among other things. Do you think it is enough for Russia to communicate with US congressmen each of which is acting on the basis of information presented by certain lobbyists and the media that are not always well-versed in Russian affairs? Do you plan a new round of communications with a view to bringing home the truth and your own opinion by using, in particular, public diplomacy channels?
Sergey Lavrov: As is envisaged in the US Constitution, US Congress has always played (not only now) a very important role in foreign policy and many other areas. As for communication channels, they are practically nonexistent now. I see here Alexei Pushkov, as well as other Russian MPs. For several years now – before the new elections were held in the United States – they made attempts to establish such contacts and even had productive short meetings on the sidelines of this or that international forum. However, we received a report from Washington that American legislators, including heads of international congressional committees, took a break. This is my attempt to explain very politely what we were told.
I consider this incorrect because judging by the experience of our relations with the overwhelming majority of states, inter-parliamentary ties are a critical channel because MPs represent their countries and have been elected there. It would be wrong to withdraw into one’s shell even considering the US tradition according to which the bulk of congressmen, senators and House members do not even travel abroad. However, there are active politicians among them and they devote much of their time to foreign policy. Many of them have made a major contribution to Soviet-US and Russian-US relations. There are people there who understand what is happening in the world and they are interested in keeping inter-parliamentary communication channels open.
But today the atmosphere in the United States is such, and the witch hunt is so serious that nobody wants to do what would be perfectly normal in a typical environment. Anyone who dares do this in the current atmosphere is bound to be stigmatised as a witch. People were intimidated in many respects but I think this will pass away. The situation in US political life is absolutely abnormal today – some politicians are trying to revise the results of the elections without submitting a single proved fact. This cannot last long. American society, as well as the American political system has an instinct of self-preservation. I hope this will pass away. As for contacts via public diplomacy channels, different NGOs and politological centres, I think they continue up to this day, although our colleagues in Russian think tanks feel certain restraint from their US partners for the same reason. Nobody wants to be seen having any contact with our country today.
Question: You rightly said that much in the world will depend on whether the Russians will manage to reach an agreement with the Americans. However, it looks like the Americans have already struck a deal with the Chinese. Does this simplify or complicate our task?
Sergey Lavrov: Again, this is a zero-sum game, the “big international conspiracy” theory, and “grand chessboard,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski used to refer to it, or things that Henry Kissinger wrote about in his book On China. These three cards have been shuffled by many in different configurations. Remember, there was Chimerica. It was predicted that it would take shape and rule the world. I believe this is unrealistic. First, it will not add stability to the international system, which, now that unipolarity has become a thing of the past, is in search of a new support. It is more or less clear and includes countries that are developing faster than others and complement the group of the world's development leaders. So far, all of this has remained in motion and will most likely remain in motion for a long time to come. It cannot be stopped, but it must be stabilised. Everyone is busy doing so. In this context, it is impossible to say that a model, where the United States and China unite against Russia, or Russia and China united against the United States, will be productive.
However, the three of us realising how our three countries, given their influence on international affairs and the global economy, can help resolve international issues, is quite a realistic prospect. Clearly, the politicians, especially in countries heavily dependent on electoral cycles, like the United States, are always tempted to play the game to their advantage, and to try to outwit their partners in order to score geopolitical points with their voters and allies, and behave in ways that are not quite straightforward. It happens, and I do not rule out the possibility that it can continue. I’m sure that there may be proponents of such games in other countries, when someone needs to join efforts with someone else against someone. This is life, and this often happens in everyday life, in families, or between friends. There’s nothing new in this. Probably, it will never go away.
Please understand me correctly. We need to strive to agree in an honest manner, no matter how unnatural it may be for human nature.
Remember the joke about Vassily Chapayev in Monte Carlo? After the cards were dealt, and the players started to call their bets, someone said that he had 21. Chapayev asked the man to show his hand, and he was told that people around the table should trust each other’s word. That’s when things started going great for Chapayev, and he started having one great hand after another. Something similar is now happening with accusations against us. Those who are accusing us of hacking attacks sanctioned by the state, interfering in the election campaign in the United States and many European countries, those who are accusing Assad of using chemical weapons and accusing us and others of many sins, are guided by this same maxim: decent people trust each other when they say something.
However, first, the international community comes in many colours and shapes. Second, the US President Ronald Reagan famously said: “Trust, but verify.” We will trust only the facts, and trust no one’s word.
Question: What do you think about the future of the European Union? I know that many people in Moscow think that the EU will fall apart soon, while others think that it is imperfect. What can we expect in Russia-EU relations? As far as I remember, you said at a Valdai Club meeting last autumn that Europe should play a more active role. What role should this be in the current situation?
Sergey Lavrov: You began your question by saying that many people in Moscow think that the EU will fall apart soon and that it is imperfect. I thought that this is what the leaders of many EU countries said. We in Moscow only look at what is happening in the EU, but this is indeed what is said in some European countries. I won’t name them now so that they can’t be accused of colluding with the Russians to undermine EU unity.
Once again, this is what EU members are saying, and some EU politicians have proposed following Britain and holding referendums to exit the EU. We are not gloating, and we are certainly not looking at this situation with any schadenfreude. But we also know that we cannot influence the current developments in the EU. These processes and this unrest will take time to settle.
We do want the EU to be strong, united and speaking with one voice. It is deeply regrettable that the EU’s voice is based on the opinion of the smallest community and its common denominator depends on the position of a Russia-hating minority. Those who have a constructive view on relations with Russia, who are aware of the counter-productive nature of the current situation and of the efforts to stoke Russia-EU confrontation, shrug their shoulders and say that they live by the principle of solidarity and consensus. But as I said, consensus implies meeting halfway between extreme positions. This is not the principle by which the EU has been acting in the past few years. Its consensus amounts to accepting the extremist and anti-Russia positions of a small group of countries. We all know what countries these are.
We want the EU to pursue a policy regarding Russia or any other of its partners on the basis of a balance of interests within the EU rather than on the minority dictating the rules to the majority.