Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with the RBC integrated newsdesk, June 6, 2019
Question: We are meeting in the run-up to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). Over the past years, Russian businessmen have had to operate under strong sanctions pressure. However, some of them, Oleg Deripaska, for instance, managed to withdraw some of their companies from under the sanctions. Can our companies and businessmen count on the Foreign Ministry’s assistance in opposing sanctions or would they be better off relying on themselves as did Deripaska by hiring foreign lobbyists?
Sergey Lavrov: You are right, the sanctions, which have become the hallmark of the US administration, a number of EU countries and other Western states – to which we were forced to respond and will continue to do so in such a way as not to do harm to ourselves – are clearly damaging everyone, including the US companies and companies from the European countries whose governments resort to these sanctions. But, despite the difficulties, companies are working and trying to find opportunities that are not blocked by illegal actions of their governments.
The SPIEF traditionally brings together thousands of business people from Western countries. By the way, the US delegation with more than 500 business people is the largest one for the second year in a row (government representatives chose not to participate this year). The entrepreneurs are using direct contacts to identify, most effectively and professionally, the opportunities that are available in the current difficult circumstances.
We strive to help our companies in ways in which they request assistance from the Russian authorities. Mr Deripaska opted for the legal solution and went to court as part of the US legal system. He is using lawyers. These are absolutely legal methods and approaches. I’m not sure about the outcome. The US judicial system is known for its specifics.
As for this particular entrepreneur, this is his decision, his company. A huge army of employees works at his enterprises in Russia and the West, primarily, Europe. He has to take into account all these circumstances and stick to the policy he chose for himself based on the corporate interests and interests of RUSAL and other companies’ employees.
There are Russian entrepreneurs who are interested in using legal methods at various judicial instances which will recognise the sanctions as illegal. There are those who are willing to strike a deal with the US justice system.
We are not alone here. This practice was used long before the relations between Russia and the United States deteriorated under President Obama. BNP Paribas was fined $12 billion for trading with Iran without violating any laws of its country or international rules. It’s just that the Americans deemed it wrong, since they had declared sanctions on Iran. They beat the price down from $12 billion to $9 billion. There are similar examples with regard to German businesses.
If we talk about this more comprehensively, it becomes clear that now that the US dollar is used in a vast share of global economic relations and financial settlements, the majority of non-US companies are forced to make compromises. They are not interested in losing a portion of their businesses overnight. The governments of their respective countries are forced to take this into account and try to negotiate with the Americans in order to create a political framework for resolving the current fleeting issues caused by the US economic aggression – let’s call things by their proper names.
In the long run, the thinking process has already started with regard to how to get rid of the US dollar and create a system that will not be dependent on the whims of a particular US administration, or its behaviour in international economic relations, or turn into a tool of domestic political strife in the United States.
I see this as a beginning of a vast historical period. There are sanctions that are motivated and explained by Crimea, but they forget the fact that the vote in Crimea was absolutely free. This is no big secret, but in April 2014, former US Secretary of State John Kerry told me: “Everything is clear. Everything happened as the Crimean people wanted. But hold another referendum just for the sake of appearances.” Why would anyone do that? If everything is clear to you, why make people vote again? I hope John won’t mind I told you this. In his memoirs, he talks about some confidential aspects of our conversations.
The main reason behind the sanctions is, first, to punish Russia for its independent foreign policy. As President Putin said more than once, the US ruling class now understands that the 1990s were an anomaly, and the traditions of Russian civilisation, history, self-sufficiency, its multi-ethnic and multi-layered structure prevailed. The genetic code of our nation didn’t go anywhere. Certain US politicians, including those who tied President Trump’s hands, not allowing him to deliver on his campaign promises to normalise and improve relations with Russia, are still unable to accept this fact.
The second reason is unfair competition and an attempt to gain competitive advantages by using sanction pressure methods.
The third, more global, reason is the realisation of the irreversible nature of the processes leading to a polycentric world order, where many more than one or two states have strong influence on the global economy and politics. This realisation is not expressed in the desire to establish new forms of functioning of the world order with many, not just two poles or one pole. It manifests itself in an effort to slow down these processes, part of which is the sanction pressure. After all, sanctions are applied to China as well. If we classify increased tariffs as sanctions, I won’t be able to name a single more or less important country on the planet that is not currently hit by the US sanctions.
Everyone understands this, but is trying to resolve immediate problems through some kind of compromise. I’m confident that the Americans are pursuing a policy that is at odds with their long-term interests.
Question: Let us go back to Russian business people. Did Oleg Deripaska consult you as to what he should do? Can other business people come to the Foreign Ministry and ask for help?
Sergey Lavrov: Why not ask them? I have said that we respond to any requests from Russian business people. Normally we extend this kind of support if we are in a position to offer the forms of assistance they ask for and if they are not at variance with Russian laws and the Foreign Ministry’s functions.
Question: You have mentioned the US delegation at the SPIEF. Michael Calvey also wanted to be a delegation member. How many times in recent months have foreign partners mentioned his name at talks with you?
Sergey Lavrov: Secretary of State Pompeo spoke about this when we met on the sidelines of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi on May 6, as he did in Sochi on May 14, when he had a meeting with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. He also touched upon this subject during our conversation. He received an answer to the effect that we were interested in preventing businesses being hit by unlawful actions. In this particular case, an investigation is under way and we hope that the investigators will establish the truth and a decision will be taken.
I have named the cases where this was mentioned. But I am not concealing the fact that our meetings with the Americans are extremely infrequent.
Question: You also had a meeting with a delegation of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Sergey Lavrov: I had no chance to meet with them. As far as I know, they did not even ask for it.
Question: You said that it was necessary to “de-dollarise.” Settlements in national currencies are one of the ways to evade sanctions. A Russian-Chinese agreement of this kind is being drafted. PRC President Xi Jinping will be the main guest at the SPIEF. What stood in the way of signing an agreement on settlements in national currencies? Was this linked to the position of China, which was more interested in promoting economic ties with the United States and fearing secondary sanctions?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard about any relevant intergovernmental agreement. There is not much need for it because the conversion to settlements in national currencies is well under way. The share of bilateral trade covered by the national currencies is around 18 per cent (about one-fifth). This is a lot, and this share is growing.
Just recently, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriyev said in an interview that cooperation was growing to establish investment platforms that would also be served by national currencies.
Apart from the fact that these processes help Russian-Chinese trade to be independent from situational factors introduced by the arbitrary behaviour of the United States, they are strengthening the yuan, which is already feeling at home in the world financial system. The rouble is being strengthened too.
While we are on the subject of national currencies, I must mention that these processes are underway in many areas other than the Russia-China bilateral channels. We are engaging in this with a number of other countries, particularly those from among our major partners, where mutual trade is more or less balanced and there is a demand for roubles and our partners’ currencies. These processes are also underway within BRICS. These are the components of the common effort, which eventually will reduce the dependence on the dollar.
Question: Russia is often reproached for putting political interests above economic ones. The developments in Venezuela and Ukraine are used as examples. We supported the authorities in these countries, were closely linked to them in the economy and completely ignored the opposition, which called into question the implementation of different economic programmes, loan payments, etc. Isn’t it time for Russia to give up the principle of ignoring domestic opposition so as to guarantee stability for itself in any outcome of political crises?
Sergey Lavrov: As for your statement that Russia puts politics above the economy, this is not quite accurate. We still remember the teaching of Karl Marx that is “omnipotent because it is true,” that “life determines consciousness” and the like. We have never denied the fact that the economy is the foundation of our entire policy, national development and foreign ties. Note that when President of Russia Vladimir Putin starts communicating with his foreign partners in public or speaks at news conferences, he always emphasises trade growth rates, the amount of accumulated investment and other parameters of economic cooperation with our partners. This is an indicator of the importance that our leaders attach to the material aspects of cooperation.
It was our Western colleagues that created problems in Ukraine and, in effect, brought to power national radicals and neo-Nazis, whose first move was an attempt to ban the Russian language. The attempt fell through at the time, but this was a sign to Donbass and Crimea. This is when the whole thing started. After that they took offense because we supported Crimean residents and protected them from Dmitry Yarosh and other national radicals like him that threatened to remove Russians from Crimea and put an end to them forever on this land, because we backed people in Donbass that asked the coupists to leave them alone, let them live as they want and get their bearings. Donbass did not attack the rest of Ukraine. It was attacked by national radicals that are still singing the tune in Ukraine.
But when the EU introduced sanctions, German and other Western companies started saying that politics should not be confused with economics and that the economy is the backbone of development. At that point German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that in this case politics should prevail over the economy.
This is a true observation, but sometimes it happens that our partners, who should pay primary attention to basic things, following the logic and principles of the market economy, act against their own interests under the impact of ideology or misinterpreted principles.
Let me emphasise once again that after the coup in Ukraine, and in violation of the agreement that was guaranteed by Germany, France and Poland literally the day before, we started knocking on European doors, asking the European leaders to bring the opposition to reason, those that were under their control. They only shrugged.
I could talk at length on this topic but what the new authorities said about the Russians, Russian speakers in Ukraine, was outrageous. Our Western colleagues simply kept silent. I still believe that the blame for what is happening now in that country, which is close and fraternal for us, wholly rests with the Western patrons of the opposition. The United States took a direct part in the preparations for the coup. Judging by everything we saw, the Europeans sincerely tried to find a compromise between Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition. They found it and signed the agreement, but when the coup took place they did not use their power, their influence on Kiev.
At any rate, neither the French nor the Germans demonstrated any activity. In contrast, now they are very active, trying to make Russia responsible for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. This is simply dishonest and indecent. Regrettably, sometimes it happens in diplomacy that a client bred by someone becomes a burden, but it is still unbecoming to criticise him because it could damage your prestige. I hope very much that lessons will be learned.
Being a co-author of the Minsk agreements, in practice Petr Poroshenko subverted every letter and the entire spirit of this major document throughout his five-year rule.
How can anyone even assume that we put political interests above economic interests in Ukraine? This is not at all true. We are interested in Ukraine being an established state with a strong national economy, as they used to say. We enjoy very close economic ties. Our economies are intertwined. Our businesses are interested in working with Ukrainian businesses. This interest is mutual. We want bilateral trade to expand, so that our people can benefit from it. This is obvious. However, the authorities in Kiev are saying that they will “strangle” the Russians. They are not just saying it, but passing laws on education, on Ukrainian as the only state language. They repeal legislative acts that ensured the rights of Russian speakers and other ethnic minorities. By the way, these rights are enshrined in the Constitution. The West kept silent about the laws adopted by Poroshenko during his last “convulsion” before he left office. Like Barack Obama before President Trump, he decided to hurt his successor to the maximum. It’s a set of laws, which, according to Poroshenko, are supposed to drive the new Kiev administration into a dead end and keep it there in anti-Russia captivity.
Someone may believe it’s good thinking. I believe doing so in politics is mean-spirited. If protecting Russian-speaking people, Russian culture and the Russian language is part of politics, then we cannot abandon this policy just as the Europeans and Americans are unlikely to stop protecting the rights of their compatriots in danger. Moreover, we are talking about millions of our compatriots. They are citizens of Ukraine, but many of them are citizens of Russia. There will be more of them in the wake of the decision sealed in the presidential executive order. There is simply no other way to ensure their legitimate rights now that they are in the blockade declared by Mr Poroshenko.
As you are aware, we are not breaking any laws. The international covenants and international conventions, including the European Convention on Nationality, directly stipulate that, first, any state itself shall determine who can be its citizen. The Ukrainian experts who criticise this step by Russia are forgetting this. Second, there’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one can be denied the right to change citizenship. By the way, our Hungarian colleagues recently said that President Zelensky, during the election campaign, called on all Ukrainians to return home from abroad and obtain Ukrainian citizenship. Budapest said they welcome this, because it means that Hungarians living in Ukraine can also obtain Hungarian citizenship. You see the analogy: both Romanians and Poles are issuing their passports. To reiterate, this is a policy designed to protect our compatriots, language, culture and a single economic and cultural space which has existed for centuries and which an aggressive minority is now trying to destroy.
The aggressive minority in Ukraine includes people who, in Kharkov, toppled a monument to Marshal Georgy Zhukov, a hero of the Great Patriotic War who liberated Ukraine. The Poroshenko regime tried to cater to the demands of this minority. This is an important point. At the same time, a monument to Roman Shukhevych was erected in Ivano-Frankovsk, which resulted in an official protest from the Israelis and the Poles.
What’s the upshot? Monuments to Nazi minions are being built in western Ukraine, which was not part of Ukraine for a long time. Monuments to heroes of the Great Patriotic War are honoured in eastern Ukraine, which was also not part of Ukraine for a long time. I hope that the courageous mayor of Kharkov, Gennady Kernes, will restore the monument, as he promised, and will do his best to hold the perpetrators accountable. In the post-Soviet history of Ukraine, there have always been processes underway which brought to power people who sought to find a balance between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. That was before President Poroshenko who chose to preserve the unity of the country not through balance and a comprehensive approach that takes into account the interests, traditions, views and philosophy of all strata of Ukrainian society, but to unify the country based on the Right Sector and other volunteer battalions that profess national radical, and in some cases, neo-Nazi ideology. These people constitute a clear minority in Ukraine. However, over the past five years, they have dictated all the main policies to Poroshenko and called the shots.
This is an interesting parallel, by the way. Russophobes constitute a minority in the EU as well. However, speculating on the principle of solidarity and consensus, they have, until recently, been determining the policy of the European Union and NATO towards Russia. Now, respectable European countries have realised that this policy is counterproductive. They no longer want to play to the whims of the Russophobic minority. This was reflected in the decisions recently adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and more recently by the Parliamentary Assembly’s working bodies. These decisions seek to end discrimination against Russian parliamentarians. If you think this is politics that can be sacrificed to economy, then I will disagree with you.
As for Venezuela, we have economic interests there as well. Not as big as China’s interests, but big enough. Our companies – energy and others – are operating there. We have contracts in defence, under which we maintain the equipment and weapons, which have been supplied there since the early 2000s. Of course, we are interested in retaining these economic ties and in the Venezuelan leadership honouring its commitments to us in full.
Question: Are we establishing contacts with Venezuela’s potential next leaders?
Sergey Lavrov: We respond positively to the requests for contacts that are made both by the opposition and the Americans. US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams met with my deputy, Sergey Ryabkov. Moreover, there are requests for contacts from the Lima Group and the International Contact Group on Venezuela (ICG). We liaise with the Montevideo Mechanism that includes Uruguay, Mexico, Bolivia, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Earlier this week, I met with Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, an activist of both the Lima Group and ICG. We inform the Venezuelan leaders of all these contacts. We have no hidden agenda. We desire just one thing: The opposition and the government should sit down to the negotiating table and look for a mutually acceptable solution.
According to some leaks, Norway is the country where contacts are taking place. We welcome this. We believe that this is a step in the right direction. We are not interfering with this confidential dialogue and hope that the Venezuelans themselves will display wisdom and themselves take care of their country.
As for your question about our work with the opposition, we are not evading it. As I said, we responded to several requests for contacts in Venezuela. The contacts did occur. During these conversations, we confirmed our position favouring inclusive national dialogue and expressed our disapproval of the fact that in response to the Montevideo Mechanism’s call for starting this dialogue, one accepted by President Nicolas Maduro, Juan Guaido haughtily rejected it. It is clear that he is being manipulated by the US that has taken the bit between its teeth and wants to change the regime there at any cost and is even threatening with a military scenario. I don’t think that this will happen because in this case they will torpedo their relations with plenty of Latin American countries, even those that are currently supporting their position on Venezuela. This will be the direct embodiment of what US National Security Advisor John Bolton said: The Monroe Doctrine is back and the Americans will abide by this doctrine.
Russia is working with the opposition, but only with the legal opposition. Venezuela’s National Assembly is currently in a suspended state because a Constituent Assembly has been established in parallel. But they are legitimately elected MPs. Direct dialogue is the way to address their internal differences. In the CIS counties, Russian ambassadors hold meetings with parliamentary parties, their representatives, and various political movements, but we will never do this behind the back of the legitimate authorities. Never!
Question: You have dwelled on Venezuela at length. US President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday that Russia had notified him that it was withdrawing its people from Venezuela. Could you specify whom we have notified and who we are withdrawing?
Sergey Lavrov: It was a surprise for me to read this. We have notified no one. He seems to have read the Wall Street Journal article that was already commented on by both the Rostec State Corporation and our ministry. It mentioned some thousands of Russian specialists who had been pulled out of there.
We have never concealed that Russian experts are servicing the equipment that was supplied there under legitimate contracts many years ago. We named the figure – 95 experts – who visited Venezuela last time to perform scheduled maintenance required in line with our obligations under these contracts.
I cannot even imagine the origin of the information that we have “reported” to the Americans about the withdrawal of our specialists. But this makes me question the quality of advisors, who put reports on the US President’s desk.
Question: Do you mean this was a fake?
Sergey Lavrov: It’s obvious to me.
Question: Is there any new information about a possible meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka?
Sergey Lavrov: Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov and Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov have already commented on this.
Several days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Russia, President Trump publicly said that he would go to Osaka and meet with President Putin there. In Sochi, Secretary Pompeo confirmed President Trump’s interest in holding such a meeting, to which we said that we are always willing to sit down and talk. We have repeatedly said that resuming a normal dialogue is in our interest. If the United States is making such a proposal, we will be willing to consider it, just tell us how, what, when and where. Having said that, we parted. So far, we haven’t received any specific proposals. There’s less and less time remaining, but, I think, if the United States officially confirms interest, we will not leave the favour unanswered.
Once again, we are willing to develop a dialogue with the United States on a mutually respectful and equal basis. We have a lot of subjects that we can discuss productively and work on together. First of all, there is strategic stability with a backlog of problems resulting from the rapid development of the global missile defence system by the United States, which covers the perimeter of our and Chinese borders. This is the demise of the INF Treaty in the wake of the US decision. These are the questions that arise in connection with the New START Treaty, which expires in February 2021. President Putin has said many times, including when Secretary Pompeo was in Sochi, that we need to decide on whether we are going to renew this treaty. If the United States is willing, we must deal with the details now, because we need to “clean it up”; if Washington does not want to renew it, then they should say so, as we cannot force them to do it.
Also, concerns are mounting with respect to deploying weapons in outer space. The Americans have already approved funding for building missile defence elements to be deployed in orbit. This is a qualitative leap in what is called the arms race.
This is also about the US decision to not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). By the way, ratification was part of Barack Obama’s campaign promises, as well as shutting down the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. None of that was done. But the fact that the Trump administration has revised the decision to move towards ratification and refused, in fact, to accede to this treaty, just heightens tensions in strategic stability and creates new problems for nuclear arms control.
We are willing to discuss these issues. We would like to discuss all of this with the United States. We will always respond to their suggestions to resume a dialogue. But we cannot force things on anyone. If they decide that it is not in their interest, it will be their decision. Then, the international community will know its heroes.
We clearly have a common interest when it comes to fighting terrorism. Our interests overlap here. Unless you use terrorists for political purposes, as was the case earlier. The US experiments in Afghanistan gave rise to al-Qaeda, and ISIS came from Iraq. Now, a version of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, has emerged in Syria, which continues to imitate its predecessors. We need to discuss this.
Despite our differences, we are talking about Venezuela and Ukraine. We are having a productive dialogue on some aspects of a Syrian settlement and the Korean Peninsula. There’s an informal trilateral Russian-Chinese-American group on Afghanistan. We are always ready.
Question: One more meeting occupies the minds of observers. Is it possible for President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky to meet, and on what conditions?
Sergey Lavrov: At this point we don’t even know what policy the new Ukrainian leaders will pursue as regards the Minsk agreements and Russia in general. We have seen only somewhat vague signals, for instance, on whether they should hold a referendum on resuming talks with Russia. I didn’t even understand what talks they were referring to. Talks on Donbass were held in the framework of the Contact Group and the Normandy format. These are not talks with Russia. President Vladimir Zelensky confirmed a willingness to take part in the Normandy format talks. This has already been noted but it is unclear from what position and on what basis the Normandy Four would continue; starting from scratch won’t work.
In the past four years, the four leaders have reached very specific agreements in the Normandy format on the disengagement of forces and weapons in the three specific pilot areas along the contact line and on the registration of the procedure for enforcing the law on the special status of Donbass, plus the holding of elections in this territory. Both were the subject of specific agreements by these leaders. They issued instructions on recording these agreements on paper. This has not been done up to now. So, before another meeting in the Normandy format can take place, it is necessary at least to show respect for this forum and complete the legal formalities on what was agreed to before.
In addition, we hear statements about new ideas for settling the crisis. Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma received an invitation to head the Ukrainian delegation in the Contact Group in order to continue the talks with Donetsk and Lugansk with the participation of Russia and the OSCE. He said at a news conference that it would be necessary to give new life to the negotiating process and that Ukraine must fulfil a number of provisions of the Minsk agreements on the legislative level. I welcome this because in the past the representatives of the former regime declared that they had already fulfilled everything. We will have to see how all this will develop.
Let me repeat that it is important for us to understand how these promises of new approaches and ideas will be embodied in specific proposals. President Vladimir Zelensky mentioned an exchange of detainees. I think this is a promising move. We have always favoured strict observance of the requirements set out in the Minsk agreements on an exchange of all for all. A large exchange took place in December 2017. It was prepared by Viktor Medvedchuk. Regrettably, when the people arrived at the exchange point based on the negotiated lists, the Ukrainian representatives had removed about 30 people from their lists without explanation. This was yet another manifestation of the former regime’s inability to negotiate. I hope the proper conclusions will be drawn from that episode. Of course, it is necessary to fulfil these agreements and the UN Security Council resolution that unanimously endorsed them.
Question: Suppose there is some roadmap – the first, second and third moves by the Zelensky team. What can we expect from it? An exchange of prisoners? A law on the special status of Donbass?
Sergey Lavrov: There are the Normandy Format agreements that I mentioned. Our German and French colleagues confirmed that these agreements are an indispensable condition for moving ahead. So let’s formalise them before new Normandy summits are prepared.
Question: Have you noticed any difference in style between Petr Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky?
Sergey Lavrov: I prefer not to comment on personal aspects like this. We are not stylists or make-up designers. We want to understand the specific approaches of our partners, whether they are Ukrainian or anyone else, with respect to relations with Russia.
Question: So there were no requests from the Zelensky team to talk with someone from the Foreign Ministry of Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I have talked about everything that is taking place.
Question: Russia and Belarus have been engaged in discussions since last year on deeper integration within the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State. However, no details have been available so far. Neither Russian nor Belarusian integration proposals have been made public. Which of the treaty’s provisions exactly does Moscow consider necessary to implement at the current stage?
Sergey Lavrov: The treaty states everything clearly, you can read it. In fact, the presidents of Russia and Belarus met in December. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko agreed to set up a task force to review the treaty in its entirety in order to see which provisions need to be addressed after 20 years. The task force has been set up and it is doing this work at present. They have not been working for too long. It is a complicated issue as it concerns the economy, finance, taxing, and many other matters.
We recently received information on subsequent contacts between the capital cities. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev commented on the situation after a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Sergey Rumas. He said that a more or less clear picture would emerge by late June. So this is what I expect. It is being handled by the agencies responsible for economic and financial policy.
Question: So you cannot tell us if they discussed the issue of unified taxation there?
Sergey Lavrov: The presidents instructed the task force at the level of deputy prime minister under the supervision of the two prime ministers to figure out how we will proceed with integration and which provisions of the Union Treaty need addressing. This is what they are doing now.
I hope that you as professionals realise that when negotiations are underway, negotiators do not appear in public every day to report on who proposed what. This never happens.
Sergey Lavrov: Luckily, not unfortunately. The experience of many countries and the UN shows that as soon as negotiations become a matter of public discussion, the negotiators become entrench in their positions, and nothing positive follows. It does not happen any other way.
Question: But it breeds a lot of rumours.
Sergey Lavrov: This is human nature.
Question: Many wrote that Vladimir Putin will head the Union State in 2024.
Sergey Lavrov: You and I read about that.
Question: What if the public were informed about some details, that in reality the issue of taxation is being discussed.
Sergey Lavrov: The Union Treaty includes nothing that implies a speculation that its goal is to propel someone to the “presidential throne.” Just read it. You are professionals. The treaty does not say this.
Question: Can I ask you about Ambassador Mikhail Babich? All the sides are satisfied with his work. Minsk says there are no complaints regarding the substantive aspects, and the Kremlin is satisfied. So, why was he recalled?
Sergey Lavrov: The decision on appointing ambassadors is made by the President proceeding from a number of factors concerning the promotion of our relations with a certain country, and from the situations involving the person who holds the post of ambassador. Anyone can have personal circumstances. I would not be so curious if I were a journalist. You should not be like the Nezygar telegram channel which published some nonsense regarding this. Apparently, somebody craved a scandal, but to no avail.
Question: They also wrote that Russia would cede ground to Minsk.
Sergey Lavrov: I was shown the Nezygar telegram channel a couple of times because it carried a reference to the Russian ambassador. I do not think the channel is worthy of that much attention, especially from such a respected company as RBC.
Question: Mr Lavrov, you have repeatedly said that Prince Alexander Gorchakov is one of your professional role models. He was one of the few Russian foreign ministers who was able to significantly influence state policy. Moreover, according to the memoirs of his contemporaries, he often argued with Emperor Alexander II. How would you assess your influence on Russia’s state policy? Do you often argue with President Vladimir Putin?
Sergey Lavrov: Trying to get me again, aren’t you?
Alexander Gorchakov was a great State Chancellor. He took office at a very difficult time after the Crimean War. It was then that he said his well-known phrase, “Russia is not angry, Russia is concentrating.” In the heyday of his career, without a single shot, as Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “moving not a cannon, not a rouble,” he fully restored Russia's foothold on the Black Sea. This was his greatest service to the state. His vast experience and length of service provided him free access to the Sovereign. I know that he often – maybe not argued exactly, but definitely made his own proposals, which were then discussed.
To be honest, our President shapes Russia’s foreign policy much in the same way as it was done in the Russian Empire, the way it was shaped by the Emperor. The government agency in charge of foreign relations (now called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is responsible for implementing the presidential foreign policy. The foreign policy is not built from scratch. We make our proposals for President Putin to consider just as our colleagues do, especially at the departments whose heads are permanent members of the Russian Security Council. The key tracks of our foreign policy are always discussed collectively at operational meetings of the permanent Security Council members. All opinions are heard, and in some cases –quite often, actually – there is no unanimity. We state our arguments, trying to convince each other. When the discussion ends, the final decision is made by the President. I consider this practice democratic for its collegiality and I think it helps achieve clarity and symmetry in determining our country’s foreign policy.
Question: Sometimes you venture to express your personal opinion. I understand your article for the International Affairs journal reflected a personal need to speak out and formulate your attitude towards Victory Day and the recent criticisms about the rationale and scale of the festivities.
Sergey Lavrov: You are quite right. That was my personal and civic position. I consider it very dangerous to encourage the “militarisation of consciousness” or “we should downplay Victory Day celebrations” rhetoric. “Look, a few soldiers just marched around with First World War muskets, and that was it.” First, that is not at all true. In the article, I cited facts about how it is celebrated, including in the United States, with aircraft and armoured vehicles. Secondly, it is the same philosophy that somehow made its way to one of our independent channels, which said about the Siege of Leningrad: “Why did we lose so many lives, why did people starve to death? We could have surrendered the city like Paris.” I will not even comment on this. This philosophy might be good enough for some other nation, but not for Russians.
Question: Perhaps the parades became hostage, to an extent, to the general atmosphere that is emerging in this country. I am referring to experts on TV talk shows, who discuss nuclear war prospects in a matter-of-fact tone and try to figure out who will be the winner.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know these experts, or anyone who speculates like that.
Question: There are such speculations. On Channel One, for example.
Sergey Lavrov: Who, for instance? If someone said that a nuclear war was possible, you must have memorised their names. I would memorise them.
Question: An episode in Dmitry Kiselev’s programme, where Russian missiles were heading for California. This is just one example.
Sergey Lavrov: The United States also models the use of its strategic weapons. I don’t want to say that a possibility of nuclear war must be discussed, but every head of state and the armed forces have a duty to maintain their strategic nuclear forces in a battle-ready state. The history of the last few decades has proven that otherwise you cannot ensure your sovereignty. And, regrettably, there is no other way to make others respect you either. It is not working out because the United States has decided that it alone can establish the rules and call the tune on this planet. This is not our choice. The whole thing began quite a while ago, when the Soviet Union disappeared and it became clear to us how the US would treat our country. The situation began to change with the coming to power of the people who took that understanding close to heart and the situation began to turn around. But this is antagonising our American partners.
We are coming full circle because this is what I began answering your question about sanctions with. One could talk at length about this.
Pacifism is a good thing, perhaps, but pacifism that amounts to defeatism in a certain situation is unacceptable. All experts have every opportunity (fortunately, information on practically every issue is within reach) to look at the US military doctrines, including who they identify as an adversary, who the entire nuclear policy should be directed against, etc. If you look at the doctrine, you will see that it was not us who lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The United States did it in its doctrine. I am all for peace. I don’t think that the “if you want peace, prepare for war” is the right phrase that we have inherited from our ancients. But it is certain that you must be ready to defend yourself.
Let me tell you another thing. Perhaps our American colleagues will hear me. In the latter half of the 20th century, the USSR and USA leaders approved statements on the inadmissibility and unacceptability of a nuclear war on two occasions. Almost nine months ago, we urged our US colleagues to do the same again under modern conditions. They are thinking about it.