Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn, Moscow, February 28, 2020
We have conducted meaningful talks which by tradition were held in an atmosphere of trust. This is Mr Asselborn’s seventh visit to Russia, given that he has headed the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry for many years.
Ties between our two countries have a long history. Later this year, we will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USSR and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. In 2021, it will be 130 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Luxembourg and the Russian Empire.
Our bilateral dialogue is very positive. We have discussed in detail the prospects for our relations, primarily with consideration for the agreements reached at the top level. We have focused on trade and economic cooperation. Luxembourg is a major investor in the Russian economy. We are implementing a number of joint industrial projects. There are good prospects for cooperation in innovations and finance, including what is now called “green finance.” We noted our shared interest in outer space collaboration.
Both sides have praised operations by the Joint Commission for Economic Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Belgian-Luxembourg Economic Union. We have agreed to prepare for the next meeting of the commission, which should take place in Luxembourg in the latter half of this year.
Interparliamentary ties are being promoted. Last year, the Russian and Luxembourg parliaments established “friendship groups.” The chairs of the chambers of the Russian Federal Assembly have sent President of the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies Fernand Etgen an invitation to visit Russia.
Russia’s regions are increasingly interested in contact with the Grand Duchy. We have agreed to facilitate an increase in interregional cooperation.
Cultural ties are developing dynamically. The implementation of a large international cultural project, Russian Seasons, is planned for this year in Luxembourg. It includes guest performances by popular Russian on-stage performance groups.
This year the international community is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory in World War II. Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Jean Asselborn of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg confirmed that Grand Duke Henri accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend the commemorative events in Red Square in Moscow on May 9.
We agreed to expedite the implementation of Luxembourg’s initiative to install a monument on its territory to Soviet citizens that were taken abroad for forced labour during World War II.
We exchanged views on outstanding international and regional issues, spoke at length about the current unhealthy situation in Russia-EU relations. We know that our Luxembourg partners favour their normalisation. We support this attitude because we are equally interested in the return of Russia-EU relations to constructive cooperation.
We expressed concern over the buildup of NATO’s military potential near our borders. The scale of preparations is far beyond the requirements of defence. This policy leads to an escalation of tension and a loss of trust. That said, we are convinced, and have many specific proposals on this issue, that Europe needs equal and indivisible security. Countries’ leaders have made repeated political statements to this effect at the OSCE and the Russia-NATO Council but for now the concept of equal and indivisible security has not been translated into practical steps in Europe. We described the actions we have offered to NATO to reduce tension and build trust. Now we are waiting for a response.
We have other issues on our agenda with Luxembourg that concern global politics, including the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Syria and Libya. In both conflicts Russia favours the development of an inclusive dialogue between all political forces in the given country, and respect by all external players for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these countries. We are against forging any compromise with the terrorists that raised their heads after the so-called Arab Spring that broke out in 2011.
Russia and Luxembourg, as well as the EU in general, are concerned about the stalemate in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. We reiterated that it is necessary to look for a solution to this long-standing conflict through a direct dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the decisions that have already been adopted in the UN and the Arab Peace Initiative that provides for the complete normalisation of relations between the Arabs and the Israelis.
We exchanged views on the developments in Ukraine in the context of the efforts to carry out the Minsk agreements with due consideration for the recommendations that are given to the Contact Group in the Normandy format. This is where the efforts to reduce tensions on the ground should be made with the participation of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. I would like to emphasise once again that direct dialogue, which was precisely the reason why the Contact Group was established, is an inalienable requirement of the Minsk Package of Measures and it is necessary to be fully motivated to carry it out.
On the whole, I believe that this regular round of our consultations was fairly useful. We will maintain close cooperation with our colleagues from Luxembourg. I would like to thank Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn for a very useful discussion.
Question (for Jean Asselborn, re-translated from French): Turkey announced that it is opening its borders to Syrian refugees passing through to Europe. Today the situation in Syria will be discussed at the NATO−Turkey summit. Can you comment on these remarkable statements by Turkey? Did Ankara’s decision come as a surprise to the European Union and is it ready for a potential escalation of the migration crisis?
Sergey Lavrov (adding after Jean Asselborn): I would like to support Jean Asselborn’s remarks on the importance of uniting efforts by all the external parties, cooperating for the purpose of de-escalating tensions – and, more to the point, for the purpose of preventing crises. This is exactly what we have been seeking in bilateral dialogues with our colleagues from the European Union, NATO and the United States. It is important that this understanding of the need to cooperate is evident at every stage and not just when lightning strikes.
In 2003, our American and British colleagues didn’t even think about cooperation when they bombed Iraq under the completely fabricated and contrived pretext that Iraq allegedly had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be completely false. Nobody consulted with anybody; they simply went in and bombed it. We are still paying for the consequences of this. Then there was Libya where NATO, without consulting anybody, flagrantly distorted a UN Security Council resolution and, instead of creating a no-fly zone, simply bombed the country. Libya has fallen apart and it is still impossible to put the pieces back together. We appreciate the efforts that our colleagues in Germany, France, Italy and other countries are taking; we value the efforts of the UN. But let’s be honest with each other: it is extremely difficult to put this country back together. And it will not happen in two or three sittings.
Therefore, I want to support Minister Asselborn’s call for cooperation, which is necessary throughout all the stages of addressing an issue like this. And ideally, we should be cooperating before the issue becomes a tragedy for the hundreds of thousands of people in countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria. According to schemes, Syria was destined to repeat the fate of Libya. Our Western partners must, of course, be guided by the interests of all the parties involved in a specific conflict rather than just their own geopolitical interests. Too often, these geopolitical interests can be reduced to the simplistic goal of containing Russia, China or Iran – and that is all the Western geopolitical “strategists” think about. They absolutely don’t care that these goals have nothing to do with relieving the suffering of the people in these countries. So, I confirm our willingness that our Western partners have known about all along: let’s agree on how we can help the countries in the region, how we can help each of these countries achieve peace and stability. Let’s put aside neocolonial or simply colonial approaches to operations in this region of the world.
Question: The situation in Idlib province in Syria has deteriorated a lot recently. The Turkish military is openly referring to the Syrian army as enemy targets. Thirty-three Turkish troops were killed. The Turkish media and even the public in some cases are overtly blaming Russia for this. Calls for urgent consultations with NATO are coming from Ankara. Is there any room for dialogue? What is the future of the Astana format?
Sergey Lavrov: We can confirm our full commitment to the agreements reached by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on actions in the Idlib de-escalation zone – to separate the normal opposition from the terrorists, to demilitarise the internal belt of the zone in order to prevent anyone from shelling Syrian military positions and the Russian military base, and to ensure the unhindered use of the roads in this zone. These are the common goals with our Turkish colleagues.
However, it is time to start working towards these goals because nothing has been achieved in the past 18 months. The Syrian army certainly has the right to respond to the continuous violations of the ceasefire in the Idlib zone and to suppress terrorists. We cannot stop it from meeting the requirements in UN Security Council resolutions on the merciless and uncompromising struggle against all forms and manifestations of terrorism.
An incident took place yesterday. Today, the Russian Defence Ministry published a detailed comment confirming that the Russian and Turkish militaries are maintaining continuous, daily real time contact on the ground, including through the 12 Turkish observation posts established in the Idlib de-escalation zone under the agreements. Every day (and sometimes several times a day) the Turkish military informs our centre for the reconciliation of the warring parties of the locations of Turkish soldiers in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Naturally, these coordinates are sent to the Syrian armed forces to enable them to ensure the safety of Turkish military personnel while responding to the terrorist attacks. As the Russian Defence Ministry reported today, the coordinates sent yesterday did not contain the locations of the Turkish soldiers that turned out to be among members of terrorist units that were killed. As soon as this incident was reported to the Russian Defence Ministry (as the ministry is explaining the situation), we asked our Syrian colleagues to suspend the hostilities and did everything we could for the safe evacuation of the wounded and delivery of the bodies to Turkey.
The problem is not that there is a certain plan that contradicts the initial agreement on the Idlib de-escalation zone. The problem is in the practical implementation of the agreements and the deconflicting that is broadly discussed in terms of developments in eastern Syria and the Idlib de-escalation zone.
Our militaries reached a number of agreements and if they were fully carried out, including the sending of precise location coordinates on Turkish soldiers, these kinds of tragedies could be avoided. We offer our sincere condolences. Let me repeat that we are doing everything we can to protect the Turkish soldiers that are enforcing the de-escalation regime in the Idlib zone, and our military is ready to continue this mission on the ground.
You mention Turkey’s request for consultations with NATO. This is the right of every member of the North Atlantic alliance. The Washington Treaty that regulates relations between NATO members provides for an opportunity to call for consultations if someone’s territorial integrity and political independence are threatened. Article 5 of the treaty is for a situation where a NATO member is attacked in Europe or North America. In this case, the mechanism of consultations and response actions comes into play. I don’t believe that the current situation in Syria falls under the articles of this treaty that fixes NATO as exclusively defensive in nature and that envisions measures in response to an attack on its members.
Now I’d like to say a few words about the future of the Astana format and room for dialogue. There is always room for dialogue. Today President of Russia Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the latter’s request. Their detailed conversation centered on the need to do everything possible to implement the initial agreements on the Idlib de-escalation zone. They also discussed the need to meet at this level or another level in the near future. Literally 90 minutes ago it was reported that the Russian and Turkish negotiators that worked through yesterday and the day before in Ankara, agreed to continue working today. So I don’t think there are any formidable obstacles in the way of the Astana format. I am convinced that if the military, the diplomats and the security services of our two countries focus on the basic agreements on the Idlib de-escalation zone, they will be able to translate them into reality.
I would like to draw your attention to one more thing that we mentioned in our public comments. This is an important consideration if we want to correctly understand what is happening in Idlib.
US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey has said more than once that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the current version of Jabhat al-Nusra), which is qualified as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council, is changing its image. It is expelling unnecessary members and extremists and is becoming part of the settlement process in Syria since it is turning into a force that can oppose the Bashar Assad government – or the regime as our Western colleagues like to call it.
This assessment was picked up by political scientists in the US and other Western countries, in part, by the so-called International Crisis Group (a Brussels-based NGO). Commenting on the developments in Syria recently, this group deemed it possible to interview Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani. He repeated the ideas promoted by Jeffrey. He said this unit was acquiring a new image (or has already acquired it) and its primary goal was to counter the Syrian regime, not to commit acts of terror. More and more Western comments are being made in the same vein.
I would like to seriously warn my Western colleagues against repeating this mistake for the umpteenth time – using terrorists for the geopolitical goal of replacing regimes in various countries, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria. They place their bets on an alliance with terrorists in the hope that after reaching their geopolitical goal they will be able to control them later. This has never happened in history. I urge all of our colleagues to remember that any deal with terrorists is impossible, especially in resolving Syrian settlement issues.
Question: A few days ago, US Vice President Mike Pence said: “It was freedom and not socialism that ended slavery, ended two world wars, [and] has made America a beacon of hope.” One can only guess what exactly Mr Pence had in mind. It sounds like he has virtually crossed the USSR off the list of victorious countries in World War II. Since Russia constantly talks about the inadmissibility of rewriting history, that we need to remember the leading role of the USSR in the victory in the Second World War, what do you make of this statement?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not the first time that Mike Pence has shown such a careless, if not insulting, attitude to history.
On January 23 this year in Jerusalem, at the events in memory of the Holocaust victims, when describing the atrocities that the Nazis committed against Jews and citing the Auschwitz camp as an example, he recounted everything that happened there and then said that “when soldiers opened the gates of Auschwitz, they were horrified by what they saw.” A whisper ran through the audience at the time, and the main question was – soldiers of which army? Especially since President of Israel Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, President of France Emmanuel Macron and a number of other speakers spoke before Mr Pence, and each of them emphasised the role of the Red Army in the liberation of Auschwitz and the role of the peoples of the USSR in the victory over Nazism. Mr Pence considered it necessary to avoid mentioning this.
As for his claim that it was freedom and not socialism that ended slavery – I agree with him. There was no slavery during socialism; slavery happened during a time of freedom and existed for several centuries, and it was abolished in the second half of the 19th century, in the 1860s.
The statement that freedom has turned America into a “beacon of hope” for all humankind – judging by how the United States behaves on the international stage, this beacon may well turn out to be the headlamp of a train that runs everyone else over. Let us leave these statements on the conscience of Mr Pence.
It seems to me that in the year of the 75th anniversary of the sacred Victory, our common Victory, to which our allies also made a huge contribution, and as a result of which the United Nations Organisation was formed, it is better not to comment arrogantly on history and what is happening in the world today, but to concentrate on the universality of mounting threats and the need for dialogue to search for a balance of interests in order to divert the world from the dangerous line. It is precisely such a dialogue that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiative is aimed at – to hold a summit of the heads of state of the UN Security Council permanent members.