Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks and answers to questions at a news conference following the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States via video conference, Moscow, May 12, 2020
We have just concluded a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It took place via video conference for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was chaired by Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov.
We noted, and this was the first item on our agenda, that this year is special. It is the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. In the CIS, it has been declared the Year of the Great Victory. We paid particular attention to this theme. All of our partners spoke about the importance of maintaining the memory of our fathers and grandfathers, and the need to resist attempts to falsify and rewrite history. After the Address by the CIS Heads of State on the Victory in the 1941 ̶ 1945 Great Patriotic War, which was adopted at the summit in Ashgabat last year, our permanent representatives to the CIS issued a statement on preserving the historical memory and historical legacy. In Vienna on May 7, a joint statement was released by a number of OSCE countries on the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War.
It is very important that the ceremony of awarding the anniversary medal “75 years of victory in the 1941 ̶ 1945 Great Patriotic War” was timed to Victory Day as a sign of gratitude and respect for our veterans. Despite the coronavirus related circumstances, awards ceremonies for veterans took place in all CIS countries in one form or another.
The spread of the coronavirus infection was another item on our agenda. The situation is seriously affecting many aspects of international relations and the activities of multilateral and regional organisations. By and large, in geopolitical terms, this situation is testing the ability of states and their associations to pool their efforts during a crisis. We noted that generally the CIS is responding promptly to changing realities and is developing coordinated steps to counter the pandemic. The Coordinating Council on the Sanitary Protection of Territories of the CIS Member States from the Import and Spread of Particularly Dangerous Infectious Diseases established by the CIS some time ago, before the coronavirus infection, is operating as designed. Two Coordinating Council meetings have been held in March and April of this year and another regular meeting is planned for this month. The Coordinating Council has set up a working group on monitoring the current situation.
Today, we agreed to continue upgrading these mechanisms and improving CIS rules and regulations on preventing and countering infectious diseases. In this context, we agreed to expedite the work on two draft agreements proposed by Rospotrebnadzor: on cooperation between the CIS member countries in sanitary protection of territories of the CIS member states and on preventing and responding to sanitary-epidemiological emergencies in public healthcare.
We supported the Republic of Uzbekistan’s proposal to submit our document on further steps to counter the spread of the coronavirus infection and overcoming the consequences of the pandemic to the CIS Heads of Government meeting scheduled for May 29.
We certainly need to assess the total effects of the pandemic on international life, but one conclusion is evident even now – the crisis has shown yet again that we are interconnected and interdependent.
An increasing number of transborder threats are spreading around the world regardless of any measures taken nationally. This is why it is necessary to join efforts and search for collective approaches to relationship building to be able to combat threats that defy borders, with this kind of a pandemic among them now. In this context we spoke in a fairly detailed manner of the role played by the UN system and its specialised agencies including the World Health Organisation (WHO). A proposal was put forward to hold a meeting sometime soon of CIS countries and respective WHO departments in order to analyse the latest experience gained in fighting this threat.
We once again pointed out – and our partners agreed – the need to arrange collaboration and to rise above fleeting opportunistic differences and above zero-sum geopolitical games. We talked about this with regard to the global threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime, and the threat of WMD proliferation. Now we also have the pandemic. By the way, climate change is also a transborder challenge. This is the reason all our CIS partners support the need to unite rather than to try using situations like the current disaster for furthering geopolitical goals. We will continue analysing the current situation and agree on approaches that will make it possible for us to tackle cross-border threats in the CIS space more effectively in future.
We reviewed the interaction of our foreign ministries in the last year and approved a schedule for meetings between the CIS foreign ministries in 2020. These meetings are likely to begin soon, initially via video conference. We approved a number of documents on enhancing integration relations in different areas: cultural and humanitarian, education, youth, tourism, defence and security, and cooperation between law enforcement agencies. They will be submitted for consideration by the CIS Heads of Government Council. As I mentioned, the council is to meet on May 29 of this year, also via video conference. Some of these documents will be submitted to the CIS Heads of State Council scheduled for October 16 in Tashkent. We will hold the next meeting of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers a day earlier, on October 15.
Question: You spoke about collective action and the importance of coordinating the CIS countries’ efforts against the coronavirus. At a glance, they seem to be all at sixes and sevens. Turkmenistan has not admitted having any coronavirus cases at all, and the Belarusian authorities refuse to take any serious measures against the infection. The EU has been criticised over its failure to effectively take even joint action. How would you describe the CIS countries’ actions? Have you coordinated any joint efforts to create a vaccine?
Sergey Lavrov: It is mostly the EU itself that claims it is being criticised without good reason. The EU has created the East StratCom Task Force, which is focused on finding external enemies, those who have tried to question the EU’s ability to respond to such challenges. The finger has been pointed, quite logically, at Russia, China and several other countries.
I cannot recall – and you probably cannot either – any Russian official saying that the EU has been inefficient in the fight against the pandemic. We stand together with the EU, as well as with all the other countries in this battle, and we are providing support to the EU countries that have demonstrated their interest in this. We have also accepted assistance from other countries, including EU members. You may be aware that we have also accepted assistance and support from the United States.
I believe it would be wrong at this time, when we are facing a common enemy and should help and support each other, to attempt to use the situation for settling any scores or to use unfair methods to secure better conditions for oneself in the post-virus period.
As for the CIS, I would not describe the situation as confusing and being at sixes and sevens. Yes, there are some specific features, which you mentioned. However, I would like to note that the CIS has the Coordinating Council on the Sanitary Protection of Territories from the Import and Spread of Particularly Dangerous Infectious Diseases. It has brought together all the CIS countries, which have access to its information. The council met twice in March and April to discuss the coronavirus infection. The next meeting has been scheduled for May, and special task groups have been established at the council.
I would like to point out that the council was set up several years ago now, because we traditionally pay considerable attention to preventing the spread and overcoming the consequences of infectious diseases. It was back during the Ebola outbreak. Russia is one the countries at the UN and WHO that proposed a proactive approach against infectious as well as non-infectious diseases. Acting at the initiative of Rospotrebnadzor, we have submitted two draft agreements, which we hope will be discussed at a meeting of the CIS Heads of Government Council on May 29: an agreement on cooperation in the sanitary protection of the CIS territories and an agreement on cooperation of the CIS member states to prevent and respond to sanitary and epidemiological emergencies.
I believe these are serious moves. Our colleagues in the related ministries and agencies could tell you more about their efforts, but in my opinion, it is not press coverage but the real efforts that matter.
Question: Will the borders, primarily with the CIS countries, be opened?
Sergey Lavrov: It is the purview of the sanitary authorities, not the Foreign Ministry.
Today we held in-depth discussions on the assistance we are providing to each other. Russia has supplied test kits and equipment for detecting the coronavirus, while our partners have made vital support proposals, including for the delivery of humanitarian aid which some Russian regions may need. We are working closely together on bringing our citizens back home. We are helping our partners, who are also helping us. For example, Belarusian air carriers have brought Russian citizens back to Russia. Russian air carriers are bringing Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens back to their home countries.
Yesterday we decided on the question of bringing a five-year old Russian citizen, who was in an awkward situation, back from Tashkent. Six hours before departure – the aircraft took off at 7 in the morning, Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov and I coordinated the matter with our aviation authorities and the Russian Embassy, so that this Russian citizen, who actually lives in the Tula Region, could return to his home country.
Maybe we should tell the public more about all this, but we are now focused on practical action so that fewer of our citizens endure any further inconvenience.
Question: Much has been said about the tweet by the White House that caused quite a stir by alleging that the United States and Great Britain won victory in WWII, while failing to mention the Soviet Union. How would you comment on this? The Foreign Ministry has already promised to have a serious talk with its US colleagues. What would this be like? What do you expect? Is there any end to this?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a sad story, especially considering the fact that just a few weeks ago, on April 25, President of Russia Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump issued a joint statement commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Meeting on the Elbe. It set forth their principled vision of Victory and the way it shaped today’s world. In the statement, the two presidents also recognised the need to maintain close ties (ideally allied relations) to confront the challenges that transcend borders and nations.
You have mentioned serious processes that have been unfolding in the international media space for some time now, if not years. When the ceremony to commemorate Holocaust victims took place in Jerusalem on January 27, 2020, all the speakers (President of Russia Vladimir Putin, as well as President of France Emmanuel Macron, President of Israel Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu) talked about the Soviet Union making a decisive contribution to Victory in WWII, and specifically to the liberation of Auschwitz. In fact, it was the day when the Red Army freed Auschwitz that became International Holocaust Remembrance Day. With several thousand people present at this touching and solemn ceremony, US Vice-President Mike Pence astonished everyone. He did not mention the Soviet Union even once in his emotional and pretentious remarks. Speaking about the liberation of Auschwitz, he said that when soldiers opened the gates of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they were horrified by what they saw. All he said was “soldiers,” without saying a single word where these soldiers came from, from what army.
I am not surprised by statements like this. It is not that we suspect anyone among US politicians of intentionally obscuring history. As it turns out, this results from brainwashing that did not spare politicians. They did not develop immunity from propaganda that seeks to equate Nazis with those who liberated Europe from fascism, and claims that the Soviet Union bears as much responsibility for unleashing WWII as Nazi Germany.
I will mention only what has been heard or seen in the public space. Not so long ago, our French partners initiated a new project within the Council of Europe, tentatively calling it the “Observatory of history teaching in Europe.” They said (both President of France Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have raised this topic) that the purpose of this project was not to develop a single vision of history but rather to create a common European memory or develop a common European sense of history. If we look at France’s position as the country that initiated this project, we can point to quite a few official statements made by the French Foreign Minister and President saying that the Nazi and Soviet occupation first coincided in some European countries, and then succeeded to one another.
In February 2020, President of France Emmanuel Macron attended a ceremony in Krakow commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp. In his remarks, he went through the tragic pages of Polish history, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This is a separate topic. I will not go into reaffirming our position on this matter. Later in his remarks, Emmanuel Macron talked about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. As he listed the sufferings of the people of Poland, he suddenly mentioned the April 2010 tragic plane crash near Smolensk. I will spare you my comments or analysis on this. This is what our European colleagues are saying without any qualms. What kind of a signal are the leaders of this great country, France, sending, considering France’s own ambiguous history during WWII? What signal does this send to the young generation in Poland, in France and other countries?
We are all for shaping a European sense of history. However, if this boils down to the EU setting norms and principles, while others are expected to take their cues from them, this will not work, just as in many other cases when our European partners proposed initiatives for developing pan-European approaches, be it in cyber security, countering the spread of chemical weapons, or freedom of the media .
We are interested in devising a genuinely pan-European approach. After all, the OSCE shaped the post-war borders. We can hear official statements coming from France and a number of other European countries that these European capitals have never recognised “the illegal occupation of the Baltic republics by the USSR.” But how could Valery Giscard d’Estaing and other European leaders sign the Helsinki Final Act proclaiming that there was no alternative to the post-war order and the inviolability of post-war frontiers in Europe, and recognised the immutable nature of the political and territorial outcomes of WWII?
We will work closely with our French colleagues and all other partners in order to ensure that the very useful project that they initiated within the Council of Europe becomes truly unifying instead of exploiting the historical past for achieving today’s geopolitical objectives.
Question: What will this MFA-announced “serious talk with its US colleagues” on this issue be like?
Sergey Lavrov: It will be approximately what I am talking about now, and approximately what President of Russia Vladimir Putin told our CIS partners in December. He said that it was necessary to protect and safeguard the historical truth and historical memory, as well as to rule out a situation where young people in countries that had gone through WWII would be brought up in a spirit of betrayal of the heroic feat of valour committed by our fathers and our grandfathers.
Of course, we will not avoid discussing these topics. We will hold this conversation with the Americans. Regrettably, we do not have a joint entity that would tackle historical issues, a structure like the one we have created with Germany, Poland and Lithuania.
At today’s meeting of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers, we said that it would be worthwhile to start encouraging contacts between historians not only on the bilateral basis (such contacts do exist) but also in the format of research institutes established in all the CIS countries. We will find a format [for conversing] with the Americans, where we will be able to pose these questions and listen to how they assess the current situation.
What we see is about very simple assertions, like [those intended] for CNN: just one liners that will easily sink into consciousness. As Mike Pence said in Jerusalem, “…Soldiers opened the gates of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945,” or as a White House tweet claimed, “On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis!” This is all, just one line! It lacks the text that would enable us to understand their train of thought. “Said this way, it should be this way.”
We will find a form [for talking to] our US colleagues. A few contacts with them are upcoming soon, including as regards strategic stability and global security. It will do us no harm to recall how these global problems and global security issues were addressed during WWII.
Question: We would like to ask you about some of the Western media reports that appeared over the last week. They claim that Russian military have come to Venezuela to participate in a drone-assisted operation and that they have been flown in by a Russian aircraft that has delivered cargo with medicine to Venezuela. Are these reports true to fact? Are we prepared to help Caracas investigate the recent invasion involving militants from Colombia and, in general, to assist them in preventing similar illegal incursions into the country?
Sergey Lavrov: All our contacts with Venezuela, with its legitimate government, are based on intergovernmental documents and agreements that have been ratified by the Venezuelan and Russian parliaments and have the force of law. This also refers to our military-technical cooperation (MTC) and the need to service the items that are delivered there as part of the MTC agreements. I am referring to our contractual obligations. Any other agreements between the related Russian and Venezuelan agencies are also sealed in an intergovernmental format and are also fully legitimate.
It goes without saying that we are helping Caracas, including by delivering humanitarian aid. There are cynical attempts to stifle Venezuela with sanctions; they are accusing President Nicolas Maduro’s government of being unable to feed their people. This is already beyond good and evil. Along with other countries, we are rendering humanitarian aid to Venezuela, including by supplying medicine. As far as other forms of collaboration are concerned, including the question you asked about conducting an investigation into the invasion of mercenaries in Venezuela, where they were supposed to stage acts of sabotage and terrorist attacks and to topple the legitimate president, Nicolas Maduro, our secret services are in contact regarding this matter. If a request for this sort of assistance, one based on relevant agreements, comes in, it will certainly be considered.
Question: The UN Security Council has been mentioned several times today. Therefore, my question is, what is the main problem with the preparations for the video summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council? Do you know when approximately the summit may take place?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia has been ready for this summit since late April. I have already commented on this topic. We supported French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative who suggested that the five leaders must urgently discuss mobilising efforts of the global community to fight the coronavirus and to fight it more efficiently.
It was clarified that the initiative is not in any way competing with or replacing President Vladimir Putin’s initiative announced in January on holding a full-fledged full-scale summit of the five UN Security Council permanent members to cover all the global security and strategic stability issues. This summit may only be held in person. Right now, the logistics, organisational matters and the essence of the summit agenda are being discussed. As soon as we have a better understanding of how long it will be until the coronavirus problem is resolved, we will start making more specific plans with our partners. The matter of immediate urgency right now is, of course, mobilising the global community to fight the coronavirus more efficiently. We agree with French President Emmanuel Macron that, considering the authority of its members and, particularly, the responsibility vested in it by the UN Charter when it comes to combating and preventing global threats, of course, the five could, to the benefit of solving this problem and to the benefit of all the states in the world, gather and give an extra impetus to the decisions that were previously made by the UN General Assembly, G20 and the World Health Organisation. We presumed that all the five members are ready for this and understand that, before this videoconference opens, experts will approve a draft final statement by the five world leaders. Once again, Russia is ready to join this meeting any time. It was not us who had an issue with specific dates for these contacts. We are ready to offer our partners from the five every possible assistance with reaching consensus if it is all about specific wording of the draft final document. So far nobody in particular has told us about any such issues. But everybody agrees that the document must be adopted. If tomorrow the dates are announced, I am certain that President Vladimir Putin will find an opportunity to participate in this video conference. So, I would like to repeat that there is no problem on our part.